Peter, James, John, and Fred?

by Ryan Leasure

Imagine for a moment that you live in seventeenth-century England. You are a writer by profession and are tasked with writing a biography on Samoset — the first Native American to make contact with the Pilgrims. Bear in mind, encyclopedias don’t exist yet — much less the internet. A few documents in England testify to his existence and his interactions with the Pilgrims, but you don’t know much else beyond that. No documents specify his birthdate, parents, hometown, friends, or major accomplishments.

So you write a biography on his life. The first person acquires a copy, turns to the opening chapter, and reads about his wonderful parents John and Sally. After reading those names, the reader will immediately toss your book in the trash because those names simply don’t fit. Even though your English friend has never visited America, he knows that John and Sally are English names — not Native American. In other words, the phony names in your biography undermine your entire work. Those names indicate to everyone that you haven’t been to the Americas, you haven’t interviewed Samoset or any of his friends, and you lack any understanding of the American culture.

PETER, JAMES, JOHN, AND FRED?

When you turn your attention to the gospels, you can’t help but notice they list a lot of names, e.g. James, John, Levi, Simon, Mary, Martha, Joseph, etc. Do these names represent a realistic sample of first-century Palestine? Or are they more like the John and Sally example — names that don’t fit the Palestinian culture?

It’s popular among skeptics to suggest that non-Jewish writers, with no connections to Palestine, penned the gospels. The implications of these claims are quite obvious — no eye-witness testimony stands behind the biographies. Rather, Greek authors all across the Roman Empire in places like Antioch, Asia Minor, and Rome itself wrote the gospels after they heard these stories passed down to them from others who heard the stories passed down to them — a lot like the children’s telephone game.

If the situation is as the skeptic describes, you would expect non-Palestinian names to creep into the gospel narratives. For example, you might expect Jesus’ disciples to be named Peter, James, John, and Fred — Fred, of course isn’t a Palestinian name. Or more realistically, if someone wrote from Rome without any first-hand experience of Palestine, he might have included Roman names like Maximus or Cassius…

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Peter, James, John, and Fred?