What’s In a Name?

2 Peter 1:16 – For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.

Skeptics will often charge that the gospels were not written by people with first-hand knowledge of the life and ministry of Jesus but were myths which were fabricated generations later by people who weren’t familiar with the area or time period they were describing. High-profile textual scholar Bart Ehrman, who has wrote many books trying to disprove the many beliefs in Christianity (see a list on Amazon.com here), believes that the authenticity of the Gospels are seriously in question and should not be trusted because they were written late, away from good sources, and derive mainly from legends that grew out of stories told in corruptible fashion around campfires for decades.

All of the gospel writers described a large number of people and described these individuals by their names. As it turns out, these names provide us with important clues to help us determine if the writers of the Gospels were actually familiar with first century Palestine.

In 2002 an Israeli scholar by the name of Tal Ilan did some seemingly boring work that has yielded important fruit for the authentication of the New Testament. She sorted through documents, engravings, scraps of papyrus, ossuaries and the like from the time period surrounding Jesus and the apostles in order to make a list of over 3,000 personal names It was as if she were compiling a phone book from ancient trash heaps.

Because of her work, it became possible for the first time to find out what personal names were the most popular during the time of Jesus and how those names were used. Why is this important you ask?  Well, if the Gospel writers really had no solid contact with the characters in the stories, if they were writing decades later and had never visited the lands about which they were writing, getting the names right would be unlikely to the point of impossible. It would be as if a person, who had never set foot out of Vermont, were attempting to write a story about people living in Sweden 60 years ago and the writer perfectly captured all the details of the personal names of the day without traveling, without the Internet, without encyclopedias or libraries. Clearly, guesses and intuitions about Swedish names from over a half-century earlier are exceedingly unlikely to match the real history.

But this new research shows that the Gospel writers were “spot on” in regard to the popularity, frequency, proportion and usage of personal names in the text of Scripture, indicating very deep familiarity with life in the exact area and time frame of Jesus and his earliest followers.

Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, examined all the names discovered by Ilan 1, and he found that the New Testament narratives reflect nearly the same percentages found in all the documents Ilan examined:

Popularity of Names Cited in Palestinian Literature of the Time

15.6% of the men had the name Simon or Joseph

41.5% of the men had one of the nine most popular names

7.9% of the men had a name no one else had

28.6% of the women had the name Mary or Salome

49.7% of the women had one of the nine most popular names

9.6% of the women had a name no one else had

Popularity of Names Cited by the New Testament Authors

18.2% of the men had the name Simon or Joseph

40.3% of the men had one of the nine most popular names

3.9% of the men had a name no one else had

38.9% of the women had the name Mary or Salome

61.1% of the women had one of the nine most popular names

2.5% of the women had a name no one else had

If the gospel writers were simply guessing about the names they were using in their accounts, they happened to guess with remarkable accuracy. Many of the popular Jewish names in Palestine were different from the popular names in Egypt, Syria, or Rome. The use of these names by the gospel writers is consistent with their claim that they’re writing on the basis of true eyewitness testimony.

When names are very common, people find themselves having to make a distinction by adding an extra piece of information. When you see the addition of a descriptor, you can be sure that the name being amended is probably common to the region or time in history. We see this throughout the gospel accounts. The gospel writers introduce us to Simon “Peter,” Simon “the Zealot,” Simon “the Tanner,” Simon “the leper,” and Simon “of Cyrene.” The name Simon was so common to the area of Palestine in the first century that the gospel writers had to add descriptions to differentiate one Simon from another. This is something we would expect to see if the gospel writers were truly present in Palestine in the first century and familiar with the common names of the region (and the need to better describe those who possessed these popular names). The same could be said of Jesus and how others in the Gospel narratives identify him versus how the narrator identifies him.

The approach the gospel writers took when they referred to people (using the names and descriptors we would expect in first-century Palestine) corroborate their testimonies internally. The gospel accounts appear authentic from the “inside out.” The words of the Gospels themselves are consistent with what we could expect from eyewitnesses reporting historical events. 2

  1.  For more information, refer to Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Palestine 330 BCE-200CE (Philadelphia: Coronet Books, 2002).
  2.  Another popular book that explores using names in the Gospels as eyewitness evidence, take a look at Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels by J. Warner Wallace.
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