If They Got the Names Right…

by Craig A. Smith, Ph.D.

So here’s an interesting set of observations to mull over. According to Tal Ilan, who studied Jewish inscriptions from 330 BC to 200 AD, the most popular names for Jewish men in first century Palestine were as follows (with the number of individuals known to have had that name):

243 – Simon
218 – Joseph
166 – Eleazer
164 – Judah (Judas)
122 – Yohanan (John)
99 – Joshua (Jesus)

Big deal, right? Well, it is actually, because when we look at the most common names for Jewish men identified in the New Testament, this is what we find:

8 – Simon
6 – Joseph
1 – Eleazer
5 – Judah (Judas)
5 – Yohanan (John)
2 – Joshua (Jesus)

With the sole exception of Eleazar, a name we find only once in the N.T., the most popular names from 1st century Palestine match precisely with the most popular Jewish names we find in the New Testament. (this is also true for women’s names, by the way)

This kind of statistical precision suggests two things. First, it suggests that the information is historically accurate. Think about it: if the NT writings had been written centuries later (as many skeptics claim), then would they have been able to make up characters with names that so precisely matched the historical period they were writing about? No. And make no mistake about it, the research that yielded the above table of names also makes it clear that the popularity of names shifted over time so that even a few decades later, different names had come into vogue.

Second, in order to be this accurate, it suggests that this information came from first-hand accounts. In other words, the names are accurate because the information about them came from eyewitnesses who were simply recounting the people they knew were involved.

Beyond that, if you’re anything like me, you can meet someone and immediately forget their name, yet remember seemingly insignificant details of their life. As a pastor, I often meet a man and forget his name but remember where he’s from and what he does for a living. This is simply because we remember stories better than we remember names.

But if the New Testament got even the names right….how much more confident does that make us that they got the stories right, too?