What do baby names tell us about the reliability of the Gospels?

What do baby names tell us about the reliability of the Gospels?
What do baby names tell us about the reliability of the Gospels? (photo: Register Files)

Suppose, one day, you're reading a historical account of life in Alaska in the 1920s and one of the main characters in the account is named Sting.

"That's surprising," you think.

Suppose that Sting is portrayed as married to a woman named Oprah.

"That's improbable," you recognize.

Then you read that Sting has a brother named Spock.

You say to yourself: "Okay. Something is wrong here."

What is it? And what does all this have to do with the gospels?

You might be surprised, but the names of the figures mentioned in the gospels actually provide evidence that they're true.

Here's the story . . .


The basic problem

Fundamentally, the problem in our starting example is that the names "Sting," "Oprah," and "Spock" do not sound like they come from Alaska in the 1920s.

They sound like the names of pop culture figures from the second half of the 20th century (the 1960s and after, certainly).

There is no way that these names would be plausible in an account of what life was like in Alaska between 1920 and 1929.

Your recognition of this fact shows that you know something about the names that were common at this time--and that you can spot false reports of them.


So what about the gospels?

Linguists have devoted a lot of study to the question of how parents choose the names of their babies.

It's a regular feature of textbooks on linguistics.

There are definite--but usually unnoticed--patterns to how babies are named.

But the actual ways they are named reveal what is on their parents' minds--or at least what's going on in their subconsciouses.

Now here's the thing: Recently scholars have been looking at the frequencies with which names occurred in ancient Jewish sources, both inside and outside of Palestine, in the centuries before and after Christ.

What did they find?


Most Popular Baby Names for Boys in Palestine

Here are the 6 most popular baby names for Jewish boys who lived in Palestine during our time frame:

  1. Simon/Simeon
  2. Joseph/Joses
  3. Eleazar/Lazarus
  4. Judah/Judas
  5. John
  6. Joshua/Jesus

The sources for this are the writings of the Palestinian Jewish historian Josephus, ossuaries (boxes used to bury people's bones), and various texts found in the Judean desert.

Something to note is that every single one of these names is held by one or more prominent figures in the New Testament.


Most Popular Baby Names for Boys in the New Testament

Here are the 6 most popular baby names for Jewish boys who lived in Palestine and are mentioned in the Gospels and Acts:

1. Simon/Simeon
2. Joseph/Joses
3. John (tie)
3. Jude/Judas (tie)
3. James (tie)
6. Herod 

The sources for these names are the Gospels and Acts (the epistles aren't included, since they are written to communities outside Palestine).

Something to note is that the only two names on this list that aren't on the previous one are James and Herod.

James, however, was a very popular name among the non-New Testament Palestinian Jews, just not in the top 6. (It was #16 in popularity.)

Herod, on the other hand, was the name of the ruling family in Palestine, and several Herods are mentioned by name because of the dealings they had with Jesus and the early Christian movement.

The omission of Jesus from this list is because there aren't that many different individuals named Jesus in the New Testament, though one of the individuals who is named Jesus is extremely important in the New Testament (to say the least!).


Most Popular Baby Names for Boys Outside Palestine

We don't have as comprehensive information about the names of Jews in every part of the Roman empire, but we do have information about the popularity of Jewish male names in the nearby Jewish communities in Greco-Roman Egypt.

Here are the 6 most popular baby names for Jewish boys who lived there:

  1. Eleazar/Lazarus
  2. Sabbatius
  3. Joseph
  4. Dositheus
  5. Pappus
  6. Ptolemaius

Notice the difference?

The only two names that this list has in common with the non-New Testament Palestinian list are Eleazar and Joseph, and the only one that appears on the New Testament list is Joseph.

The others are all different.


Similarity and Difference

The Gospels and Acts primarily record Jews who lived in Palestine, and the list of male names from the Gospels and Acts is unmistakably similar to the list of male names derived from Palestinian sources other than the New Testament.

It is also unmistakably different from the list of our best documented non-Palestinian Jewish community, in nearby Egypt.

These respective similiarity and difference strengthen if you dig further down into the last of popular male names (beyond the top 6).

The same thing happens if you look at female name popularity as well.

You can read more about this in Richard Bauckham's excellent book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.

(NOTE: For this post, I used Bauckham's figures but separated the New Testament data from the non-New Testament Palestinian data to offer a more direct comparison.)



What all this suggest is that the names of the figures in the Gospels are the names of real people.

This set of names has a Palestinian origin.

They weren't made up by people from elsewhere in the Roman Empire, with no substantial contact with Palestine.

If they had been, the New Testament list of Palestinian Jewish names would diverge more widely.


Here's Why

Even in today's highly-connected world, most authors have no idea what names are most popular in distant places.

Can a New Yorker name the most popular names (Jewish or not) in California? Or can a Californian the most popular names (Jewish or not) in New York?

Not unless he's done specialized research.

And that's precisely the kind of detailed research that a loosey-goosey Gospel author would not bother doing if he were making up characters for the Gospels.

In a world before modern studies of name frequency, who in their audience would even have noticed?

Indeed, in the disconnected, ancient world, an author of that period would not have the ability to do such research and pull it off successfully.



The conclusion that we're forced to, then, is that the Gospels contain accurate historical information regarding the names of the people they portray.

The names they contain reveal that the authors were either Palestinian Jews (as in the case of Matthew, Mark, and John) or they had accurate knowledge due to extensive contact with Palestinian Jews (as in the case of Luke).

They weren't writers just making stuff up about Palestine.


What Now?

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