Ross Harmon’s Review of CAN WE TRUST THE GOSPELS?, by Peter J. Williams

Published on March 27, 2023 by Eugene Ho

Crossway, 2018 | 160 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Ross Harmon


The aim of Can We Trust the Gospels? is to provide a short explanation of the trustworthiness of the Gospels to a broad audience (13). Moreover, the book seeks to discuss Christian faith in the Gospels, but a faith grounded in thought and trust (15). Williams’ argument arches across eight chapters and contains fifteen visual aids (almost exclusively tables). Before proceeding to chapter 1, the beginning of his line of reasoning, Williams encourages his audience to first read the New Testament Gospels to understand his argument better (16). From the onset, the author stresses that the book is not designed to persuade people that the Gospels are true but that “they can be rationally trusted” (120). 

The primary audience for Can We Trust the Gospels? appears to be a secular society although, as Williams states, “a general audience” (13). A secondary audience would likely include new believers or Christians seeking to bolster their understanding of the historical reliability of the Gospels and strengthen their apologetics. With the primary audience in mind, Williams begins the argument for the reliability of the Gospels by introducing secular sources that witness or attest to the life of Jesus and the existence of the Church in the first century (i.e., select works from Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Flavius Josephus). The chapter seeks to contribute to the overall case by showing the reader that Jesus’ biographies, i.e., the Gospels, are equally believable as other first-century biographies (35). 

Chapters two and three address preliminary information about the Gospels, equipping the reader to better understand Christ’s biographies as historically reliable. Chapter two provides clarity to the argument by discussing foundational facts about the history of the four New Testament Gospels, such as when they were written, authorship, and genre. Also, the chapter provides a glimpse into the Gospel’s reception within the church. Chapter three examines the gospel authors, seeking to show their trustworthiness as historians. Williams achieves this goal by providing evidence of the gospel authors’ accuracy in describing first-century details, like geographical locations, e.g., towns, regions, and botanical information. Further, Williams discusses the authors’ use of first-century names and the Evangelists’ understanding of first-century Judaism.

Chapter four covers “undesigned coincidences.” For readers not as familiar with apologetics, the phrase “undesigned coincidences” is used by opponents of the historicity of Scripture to describe harmonies or congruences between the Gospel writers that are “hard to imagine as deliberately contrived…to make the story look authentic” (87). Williams refutes the proposal that the Gospels contain undesigned coincidences. For example, he presents the records of Mary’s and Martha’s response to their brother’s death as evidence. Williams suggests the accounts across the Gospels disprove the idea of undesigned coincidences based on the fact that the Gospel of John is not part of the Synoptic Gospels, meaning Luke’s and John’s accounts of the story are unique enough to be different or not copied yet contain many similarities (88-89).

Chapters five and six address concerns about the accurate preservation of the gospel accounts. In chapter five, Williams addresses the concern over the historical accuracy of the Gospel’s accounts of Jesus’ spoken words. The author presents the Gospels as accurately capturing the words of Jesus, with the understanding that the gospel authors are not modern historians using verbatim quotations (110). Chapter six focuses on whether the Gospels have been correctly preserved. Williams recounts and considers the transmission of the original autographs to our modern-day Scriptures, determining the Gospels are well-kept (122).

Chapter seven examines perceived contradictions within the individual Gospels. Within the shortest in the book, Williams examines six potential contradictions found within the Gospel of John, but he does not see any proposed contradictions that degrade the trustworthiness of John’s Gospel (127).

The final chapter, “Who Would Make All This Up?,” addresses the historicity of miracles and the claim that Jesus is God. Williams takes up these difficult historical questions last to utilize the culmination of conclusions of the previous chapters. Finding the Gospels as historically accurate, Williams finds it simpler to accept that their miraculous claims about Jesus are factual as well, as opposed to finding everything outside such claims as truthful and identifying an alternative understanding of miracles. Williams writes, “It is a single and simple supposition, but I am not claiming that it is a small one” (140).

Williams makes a convincing argument for the historical reliability of the Gospels to both non-Christians and Christians (The reviewer’s perspective). Thus, the book may be recommended to a large audience: non-Christians and Christians. The book appears to be most fittingly written for non-Christians. Williams’ arguments, first, often begin with the non-Christian in mind, and second, Williams’ tone and focus are non-confrontational, i.e., Williams is not engaging in secret evangelism or, worse, manipulative techniques seeking to persuade the reader to accept Christ as the King of kings and Lord of lords. Still, Christian readers will find the arguments trustworthy and in keeping with the Christian faith.

First, Williams’ argument often engages the non-Christian by presenting non-biblical texts and beginning arguments by first addressing difficult passages. In chapter one, Williams orders the argument to cater to non-believers as he first discusses the trustworthiness of non-biblical historical texts before presenting the biblical texts as reliable (Ch. 1). Also tailoring a secular audience, in chapter four, Williams begins by contrasting the Gospel of John with Luke because the Gospels have two different narratives (88-89), which is a more difficult comparison, strengthening his argument to skeptics. Moreover, Williams’ final argument in chapter four compares the Synoptic Gospels to Josephus, i.e., a non-biblical book (94-96). Sandwiched between the two arguments is a case from the synoptic similarities, which may be most easily discounted by non-believers. 

Second, Williams’ tone throughout the book resonates with readers who doubt or have skepticism directed toward the historicity of the Gospels, e.g., Williams stresses only the desire to show the historical reliability of the Gospels (47), and he “tests” the Gospels in chapter 3 (52). Also, Williams presents alternative hypotheses and often refrains from claiming his conclusion as a slam dunk, presenting his ideas as “most likely” (56) or that the data he presents is not conclusive but presents a “perspective” that aligns the Gospels alongside other historical documents (42). His tone shows humility by respectfully addressing alternative ideas. In addition, Williams appeals to secular readers by using quotes and data from ex-Christians, but he often uses or shows how competing data points support the historical reliability of the Gospels (38, 48). The effect of addressing alternative arguments and using non-Christian sources with a tone that echoes skepticism allows Williams to build the case for the trustworthiness of the Gospels while not “triggering” non-Christian readers; that is, Williams argues for the reliability of the Gospels outside of faith and without a bait-and-switch tactic to persuade non-believers to accept Christ. However, Williams honors Scripture and the Christian faith.

As for the secondary audience, Christians, they will also benefit from Williams’ book, i.e., the book’s conclusions are equally beneficial to believers. Although the book remains singularly focused on establishing the reliability or trustworthiness of the Gospels absent of faith, Williams makes his convictions known, which will be appreciated by Christians. For example, Williams finds that Luke was an eyewitness and companion on some of Paul’s missions (48), and he understands the gospels were written early following the life of Jesus, pre-64 A.D. (48-9).


Ross Harmon
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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CAN WE TRUST THE GOSPELS?, by Peter J. Williams

Crossway, 2018 | 160 pages

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