Why Names in the New Testament Matter

Every year (or several times a year) we hear about what the most popular baby names are for newborns. One of the fun things to do is to compare lists from different decades. For instance, here is a list of baby names from 2012 and 1912:

Now this kind of popular social science commentary has an apologetic appeal. One of the growing areas of research in NT studies has been to cross-reference the names of individuals and towns with the growing number of ancient external documents to evaluate how the NT lines up with its first century environment.

The idea is this: that if the New Testament documents were written far beyond the time of the first century the pseudo-authors wouldn’t have accurately ascribed first century names to their subjects or towns.

Think of it like this: let’s say you were to write a novel based in the early 1800s in rural Kentucky. You are going to have to give names to characters and towns. It is unlikely that, without research, you’d naturally come up with common names and accurate towns for that period.

In Richard Bauckham’s recent text Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, he evaluates the use of names in the New Testament with their first century lists of common names. The New Testament does extremely well.

Drawing on data from Tal Ilan’s 2002 study Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Bauckham evaluates the New Testament’s use of names against the lists established by scholars working outside Christian research. As he compares the lists, Bauckham finds several key things:

1. That the NT, the most popular names of the era appear at similar rates of popularity. The most popular men’s name of the era is Simon which is also the most popular NT name for men. For women, the most popular name is Mary which, in correspondence with the NT, is the most popular name for women there as well.

2. Where the Gospel writers make an additional contribution is found in the specificity of the names used and identifications of individuals based on their family or area of origin. For instance: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Clopas, Mary of Bethany, Mary the Mother of Jesus, etc.

3. One of the strengths of the Gospel testimony is that it appears to have been written by individuals of the same era as the original historical acts they describe, and it is informed by eyewitnesses who were present and others who were later interviewed for the source data.

One of the strengths of Bauckham’s work is the detailed historical scholarship he brings together to  prove his case. Ultimately, what one is left with is a reinforced basis for holding to the early authorship of, at least, the Gospel texts and some other New Testament books. (You can still hold to traditional authorship and dating while allowing Bauckham’s work to bolster some claims.)

Some of this data has been covered in a great discussion from a recent Vertias Forum titled, The Story of Jesus: History or Hoax? which is worth your time to give a full listen and thoughtful consideration.

On the other hand, the so-called Gnostic Gospels (Gospel of: Thomas, Mary, Judas, etc) don’t fair well at all. Whereas the NT authors have an affinity to using correct names and specific differentiation of individuals, the Gnostic Gospels do neither. There is a generalizing trend in the Gnostics that is different from the Gospels in the NT. This pushes against a view that the Gnostic Gospels had a source that would have been close to the events of which they speak.

So, we are left with an additional confirmation that the New Testament is a set of documents written in close historical proximity to the events it describes. It was written by eyewitnesses and informed by their accounts.

When one considers the various non-biblical religious texts, and also the Gnostic Gospels, there is a lack of credibility in these documents. They seem to be written significantly after the events they describe and are often descriptions of events not supported by eyewitnesses. The New Testament fairs well when one compares it to other documents in these regards.

As scholarly consensus continues to grow support for historical, orthodox Christian claims about the foundational documents of our faith, how much better equipped are we to answer the scurrilous charges of the critics.