Can We Trust the Gospels? – Ch 1: Non-Christian Sources

This is a chapter summary of Peter J Williams, “Can We Trust the Gospels?”.  For the book overview and chapter summary links, click here.

Williams begins by arguing that it is only natural that those who are enthusiastic about any topic would logically write on that topic more. 

The Gospels, which were written by early Christians, would naturally be written to drive belief in Jesus. However this lack of impartiality per se does not necessarily make them untrustworthy. 

To examine this, the first chapter looks at three main non-Christian sources from that time period: 

  1. Cornelius Tacitus
  2. Pliny the Younger
  3. Flavius Josephus. 

Of the three, the first two were actually hostile towards Christianity. 

Regarding the reliability of the manuscripts of these non-Christian sources, Williams explains that all Greek and Latin literature that was passed down for generations was copied by Christian scribes and was very accurate. This accuracy of the Christian scribes, even for non-Christian content such as references to the pagan gods, is corroborated by the unearthing of older manuscripts in Egypt more recently. As such, the usage of these non-Christian sources, while passed down by Christian sources, still can be thought to be as accurate to verify the Gospel accounts.

Some of the key points Williams discusses on the three non-Christian sources are as follows. 

Cornelius Tacitus tells us that: 

  1. Christ died while Tiberius was emperor and Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, approximately between AD/CE 26 to AD/CE 36. 
  2. Christians were named after Christ; it was non-Christians who named them Christians. This corroborates with the Biblical account of this term (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16).  
  3. Christianity, which he called a ‘disease’ named after Christ, started in Judaea, corroborating the origins of Christianity according to Christian sources. This also reveals that the Jewish followers believed that Christ (the Messiah) had come. 
  4. Jesus was executed near Jerusalem. 
  5. By the time of the Great Fire in AD 64, there were a “vast multitude” of Christians in Rome. This suggests that Christianity had spread significantly a long way from Jerusalem to Rome by that time.
  6. Early Christians were widespread and persecuted for their beliefs. 


Pliny the Younger tells us that:

  1. Early Christians were widespread and persecuted for their beliefs.  
  2. In the early Church, many Jewish and non-Jewish people held to (otherwise Jewish) monotheism worshipped Christ as that very God. 

Williams argues that evidence from Tacitus and Pliny shows it was likely that the core beliefs of Christianity were established early on and before Christianity had spread (including that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah who was crucified for sins and rose from the dead). Otherwise, the core tenets of the Christian faith would not have been as homogenous as it was after its spread. 

Williams further argues that if the gospels’ explanations are not accepted, a very convincing alternative explanation is needed to explain how Jesus, who had been publicly executed by the Romans (and thus shown to be a loser) could so soon be viewed as one to be worshipped as God among large numbers of Jewish and non-Jewish people in the Roman empire when Jews were adverse to (indeed, would be deemed sinning by) worshipping mere humans and many non-Jews did not exactly admire Jews (which Jesus was). 


Flavius Josephus recorded that: 

  1. The man named Jesus, called Christ, had a brother named James. This corroborated the Gospels. 
  2. James was stoned for his faith (among other things, that his own brother Jesus is the Messiah). 

Williams argues that the presence of such people like Jesus’ biological family members in the leadership of the early church who would have personally witnessed Jesus’ life would have made it very difficult for blatant falsehoods or myths about Christ’s life to spread.

In sum, reliable non-Christian historical sources corroborate the key factual claims of Christianity about Jesus’ life, his death, the spread of Christianity early on, and that his followers were persecuted for believing he was the Messiah and God.

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