What’s In a Name?

Posted by Clark Bates
March 6, 2018


I recently gave a talk on reasons why I believe the Gospels to be accurate historical accounts from 1st or 2nd hand sources.  In popular apologetics terms, you might say it was a list of reasons why I find them to be from eyewitnesses or friends of eyewitnesses.  What follows is a section of that talk that I’ve re-worked for the purpose of this week’s blog:

Famously, Dr. Bart Ehrman has claimed in his popular work that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, but by men far removed from both the time and place of the events of Jesus.  He writes,

“What do you suppose happened to the stories (about Jesus) over the years, as they were told and retold, not as disinterested news stories reported by eyewitnesses but as propaganda meant to convert people to faith, told by people who had themselves heard them fifth-or sixth-or nineteenth-hand?  Did you or your kids ever play the telephone game at a birthday party?”[1]

The purpose of comparing the Gospel records to the telephone game is to build the analogy that just as information is corrupted in the telephone game, it is that much more corrupted in the transmission of the gospel texts.  The fairness of this analogy ultimately doesn’t hold up, but it has served as the impetus for a great deal of debate on social media and various platforms.  In another place, Dr. Ehrman writes,

“What do you suppose happened to the stories (about Jesus) over the years, as they were told and retold, not as disinterested news stories reported by eyewitnesses but as propaganda meant to convert people to faith, told by people who had themselves heard them fifth-or sixth-or nineteenth-hand?  Did you or your kids ever play the telephone game at a birthday party?”[2]

Again, this is to build his case against the reliability of the Gospels and their ability to accurately inform the reader about the person and work of Jesus Christ.  What might surprise readers of this article is that I actually agree with Dr. Ehrman.

Where I Agree

Now, hopefully you didn’t close the article after that last sentence.  To clarify slightly, I agree with part of what Dr. Ehrman has said.  I agree that it is highly likely that the gospels were not written in Palestine, with the exception of maybe Matthew.  A simple breakdown would be:

Matthew – Judea
Mark – Rome
Luke – Antioch or Rome
John – Ephesus or Asia Minor

Which, if true, brings me to the same question as Dr. Ehrman, “Where did they get their information?”  the difference is where this question takes me, as far as conclusions are concerned.

What Should we Expect?

It’s safe to say that if we are reading firsthand reports of events, we should expect the data to match the reality of the time and place.  By way of analogy, imagine if you were asked to write a report on an event that occurred in 17th century France.  Thanks to modern technology you could simply bring up google maps and Wikipedia and numerous other internet-based resources and probably write a fairly informative article, but what if you didn’t have access to those?  What if you didn’t have access to any written information of the time and place?   How well would you do?  You might be able to rely on the word of someone who had been there, assuming it was within your lifetime, but certainly not if you were centuries removed, and even if you did have some diary from someone of the day, it would be limited to that person’s experience and not indicative of the whole period or region.

What this means is that the level of accuracy in what might seem to be circumstantial details to us, demonstrates a higher degree of accuracy for the other data.  Areas where we would want to see this accuracy would be social categories, religious views, weather, geography, topology, architecture, and the like.  For the purpose of this article, I’d like to discuss names.

The Name Game

While it might seem silly at first glance, accurate name usage in a text, especially one being presented as history, can be an excellent indicator of authenticity.[3]  Why is that?  For one, think about how many times you have seen a particular actor or actress on film and when you have a discussion about them you can remember everything EXCEPT THEIR NAME!  It becomes “That guy from that movie”.  You can remember numerous physical details as well as films they’ve appeared in and even memorable lines they’ve uttered but not the name.  The reason is that a name is demonstrably the hardest aspect of a person to remember, because it has no logical connection to the attributes of the person.  Therefore, if a name is communicated accurately it is a helpful piece of a larger historical puzzle.

So, how does the New Testament measure up to the name game?

A survey of popular names in 1st century Palestine reveals this:

Rank Name           Total NT Josephus Ossuaries Dead Sea Scrolls
1. Simon/Simeon 243 8 29 59 72
2. Joseph/Joses 218 6 21 45 78
3. Lazarus/Eleazer 166 1 20 29 52
4. Judas/Judah 164 5 14 44 35
5. John/Johanan 122 5 13 25 40
6. Jesus/Joshua 99 2 14 22 38
7. Ananias 82 2 10 18 13
8. Jonathan 71   14 14 21
9. Matthew/Matthias 62 2 12 17 15
10. Manaean/Menahem 42 1 2 4 23
11. James/Jacob 40 5 4 5 10   [4]


What the chart shows is that the most popular male Jewish name in the 1st century in non-biblical texts was Simon.  This is also true of the New Testament.  The same can be sad for most of the 11 most popular names contained in the chart.  It’s not just that the gospels get the name right, though.  It’s that they get the frequency right.  We must remember that we’re talking about four different authors writing at four different times, in four different regions.

Now, it could be suggested that the authors lived in Jewish communities in their own regions, however research has demonstrated that the names popular in other Jewish communities of the known world are not the same as those in 1st century Palestine.  An example is those names found in Egypt:

1. Eleazer 3
2. Sabbatius 68
3. Joseph 2
4. Doseitheus 16
5. Pappus 39
6. Ptolemaius 50
7. Samuel 23


In this example, the most popular name in Egypt, Eleazer, isn’t even in the top 11 names of Palestine.  In fact, the names themselves have almost no correlation to those in Palestine, so merely living among Jews in other regions would not be adequate to write accurately.

So What?

Have you ever been to a playground with your children, where other parents and children are playing, and heard a child call out “Mom!”?  The general response resembles the Meerkats from nature shows.  Multiple heads pop up all looking to find their child to see which mom is being called upon.  The reason for this is because they are all called “Mom”.  When there is a crowd in which multiple people possess the same name or title, we create a way to specify which person we mean.  In the contemporary West we use last names, or possibly nick names, we see a similar treatment in the Gospels; both of which are known as disambiguation.

If we recall the chart above, the most popular male Jewish name in 1st century Palestine was Simon.  This means that in any given crowd of Jewish males there was a likelihood of multiple “Simons”.  Therefore, it would be necessary for an author, if they knew this, to distinguish which Simon they meant.  In the Gospels, Jesus has two disciples named Simon, but they are distinguished from each other, Simon called Peter, and Simon the Zealot.  In addition, Jesus is recorded in Matthew 26:6 as eating with others at the house of Simon the Leper.  Cleary, he wasn’t a leper at the time they ate with him, or crowds of people would not be there, however he was, at some point, known as Simon the Leper, and the author of Matthew knew this.  You might also notice that the name Jesus falls on the list of popular names and is also consistently specified in the Gospel tradition.[5]  This can be said of the most popular female name of the time as well, which was Mary.

Additionally, the writings of later authors, cease to use the name Jesus in frequency when speaking of Jesus of Nazareth and prefer the term “Christ”.  The non-canonical gospels, when not relying on quotations form the New Testament text use other titles, such as Savior and Lord.  The closest parallel in “name” accuracy is the non-canonical Protoevangelium of James however, in all areas where it gets these names right it is clearly relying on the Gospel accounts.  If the Gospels were written later by non-Jews or those not in connection with the Jews of that region, it more likely that they would not use the name Jesus, but would opt for the title Christ, as was the convention of their day.  What we find is the exact opposite.


What this means is that, if we agree with Dr. Ehrman that the writers were not writing from the region, we must determine where they got their information.  This is especially the case if the information is correct, and as far names are concerned, it is.  It cannot be concluded that they received the information from Jewish communities in the regions they lived, for these names would not match, and neither would the frequency of use.  Neither can it be claimed that they would receive this information from other sources, for very few people of that day and age left the regions from which they were born.  Even if this were a source it would not be consistent enough to supply all the data.  What we are left with is the fact that these authors wrote apart from one another and apart from the region wherein the events occurred but possessed information that can best be explained by them having a personal, firsthand knowledge of the region and the events themselves.

Does this prove the reliability of the New Testament? No, certainly not, but neither was that my stated aim.  It is simply ONE reason, among many, that I find the gospels to be reliable.  This may be a minor detail, but if the authors of the gospels can be so accurate in the minor details, those details that may authors will err while focusing on the major themes, what does it say about their reliability on the major details?  I would say that it speaks volumes.  Four volumes to be exact.


[1] Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, 146-147.

[2] Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, 46.

[3] I will note here that this is not the ONLY indicator and cannot serve, on its own, as an indicator for accuracy but is merely a single piece of a larger puzzle of data that work toward a picture of authenticity.

[4] Data taken from Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses as well as Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity.

[5] Matt. 27:17, 22, 37; Mk. 1:24; 10:47; 14:67; Lk. 4:34; 8:28; 17:13; Jn. 1:45; 6:42; 9:11

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