Wheaton, Crossway, 2018

If you have come across the writings of Bart Ehrman, Peter Williams’ little book is the antidote you may need. Bart Ehrman mocks the notion that the New Testament descended from heaven a few years after Jesus died, but his speculations stretch credibility, even for sceptics, one would think. Ehrman dates Matthew about 80-85; Mark about 65-70, Luke about 80-85, and John about 95 (p.48). But Matthew and John were disciples in 30-33; Mark was assistant to Barnabas and Paul before A.D.50, and Luke is with Paul in Acts 16:10-28:16. That is, Ehrman assumes the traditional authors are not the true ones or that they lived unusually long lives.

Bart Ehrman likens the recounting of the Gospel stories to children playing the telephone game at a party, but Williams regards this as an ill-chosen analogy because:

  1. one must whisper once and only to one person;
  2. there is no emphasis on true authoritative teaching;
  3. there is no geographical spread;
  4. there is no personal cost to getting it right.

Such a cogent response demands something from Ehrman in reply.

Williams deals with geographical references, the knowledge of which could be gained by reading, hearing, or experience – the latter being by far the most likely source. Also, the New Testament fits in with what is known of the most popular names in first-century Palestine: Simon, Joseph, Eleazar (Lazarus), Judah, Yohanan (John) and Joshua. Simon, Judah, Matthew, James and Mary are disambiguated in the New Testament because of their popularity.

Occasionally, Williams seems too concessive, as when he states regarding A.D. 70, the date of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple: ‘I am not saying that all the Gospels were written before this date, or even that any were.’ In my view, this borders on the absurd, as it would entail that all of Paul’s epistles were written, but, forty years after the event, the Gospel accounts were still essentially in oral form.

In 1516 Erasmus had only two manuscripts of the Gospels to work from, both from the twelfth century. He knew about the doubts surrounding John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20. There are eleven verses missing in modern translations e.g. Matt.18:11, and three possible omissions: Matt.16:2b-3; Luke 22:43-44; 23:34a. This shows that there are no widely disparate versions of the New Testament to be discovered, and that there is every reason indeed to see our English translations as reliable transmissions of the Word of God. No doctrine is under question, as all that has been revealed to us is found in many places.

In the end, every claim about Christ and His gospel is inter-related. There are so many things for the unbeliever to explain away that the task becomes overwhelming, like trying to avoid an avalanche. This is a most worthwhile treatment of a vital subject, and carried out with admirable scholarship, while being simply written.

Can We Trust the Gospels?

Peter J. Williams | Crossway

Available at Reformers Bookshop