Scriptural statistics

July 26, 2011

A few months ago I was listening to a series of lectures on early Christianity. (Regrettably, I cannot remember where I got them from, or who was giving them.) In part, the lectures discussed the means by which biblical scholars determine the dates of composition of biblical texts, the cultural backgrounds of the authors, their theological purposes, the intended audiences, and so forth. These findings, it turns out, rest on a chain of reasoning involving the texts themselves, other historical records, archeological findings, and scholarly speculation. A problem with such reasoning is that though each link in the chain may be reasonable enough, or at least defensible, string enough of them together and, probabilities being what they are, the conclusion begins to look more and more dubious. It was apparent that, even with the best intentions, these scholarly ‘findings’ could be mistaken.

I was recently reminded of this while watching an engaging lecture exploring the historical reliability of the biblical Gospels. The lecturer, Dr. Peter Williams, describes a highly non-traditional approach to the biblical texts, an approach well-suited to our technological era, based on statistical analyses of the texts: incidence of proper names, incidence of place names, word counts, and so forth.

The outcome of this type of analysis, he argued, is a rousing, and perhaps surprising, defence of the historical reliability of the Gospels. In particular, his analysis challenges a theory which apparently has a following among contemporary biblical scholars. The theory claims that the four biblical Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, were probably written far away from the sites described, and by people who had never been there. The gist of the theory is that the Gospels are not very historically reliable, and that much of their specific content was either fabricated or based on unreliable sources.

The findings presented in the lecture directly challenge this view of things by presenting evidence that the authors of the Gospels either had detailed first-hand knowledge of the region and the culture of first-century Israel/Palestine, and of the events of the life of Jesus, or they had reliable testimony from those who had such knowledge. It is really quite a fascinating line of argumentation.

Also interesting is how certain key metrics discriminate between the biblical Gospels and the host of so-called ‘alternative Gospels’, strongly suggesting that the former are more historically reliable than the latter. (This conclusion had already been reached on other grounds, but it is nice to see it confirmed in this way.)

Toward the end of the lecture is a brief exploration of some surprising ways in which apparently incidental details woven into the narratives of the biblical Gospels can, when taken together, provide mutually reinforcing evidence that the descriptions are based on eyewitness accounts or on a strong and consistent oral tradition. This kind of argument, too, is new to me.

The lecture is nearly an hour in duration, but it is so interesting that the time flies by.

(Hat-tip: Joe Carter)

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