Jewish Names in the Gospel Accounts, and Roman Historical Context

Anyone thrashing about over the origins of New Testament texts and how we read them ought to pick up a copy of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, by New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham. The book provides an analysis of oral tradition, first century personal names, and literary evidence relevant to the Gospel accounts. The analysis is used to support an argument that the accounts are directly anchored in the eyewitness testimony of close associates of Jesus.

The argument is a counter to the view that they are wholly the product of oral community traditions, and as such, changing over time to conform to how the community views itself. Proponents of this seem to want to decouple early Christianity from any connection to actual participants in historical events. I am part way through the book and am finding it very helpful in framing how I think about the Gospel texts.

Early in the book Bauckham cites a study of Palestinian Jewish names to support his thesis. The study is based on the work of Israeli scholar Tal Ilan. Ilan compiled Jewish names used in Palestine between 330 BCE and 200 CE. A large amount of the data comes from the first century and the beginning of the second century CE (to 135) reflecting the relative abundance of sources in this period compared to the full span of five centuries. The sources include the New Testament, as well as others such as ossuaries, inscriptions, the works of Josephus, and other Judean texts.

Bauckham describes a correspondence in the study between the relative frequencies of personal names in the Gospels and the relative frequencies of these names in the total study. For example, Simon and Joseph are identified as the two most popular male names and comprise similar percentages of the names counted in the Gospels and Acts, as compared to the rest of the data.

Bauckham argues that this is unlikely to have arisen from the later addition of names in oral traditions. Bauckham observes that, “… that the pattern of Jewish names in the Diaspora was not at all the same as in Palestine…the fact that the practices of naming were very different…”[1] He further comments that the name correspondence, “…would be difficult to explain as the result of random invention of names within Palestinian Jewish Christianity and impossible to explain as the result of such invention outside Jewish Palestine.”[2]

But what Bauckham says would seem to rest within a broader point. The name correspondence provides an independent anchor in time for possible dates of authorship of the written Gospel accounts, as well as an anchor in geography for possible sources.

Bauckham notes, “…that a large proportion of the data actually comes from the first century CE and early second century (to 135 CE), just because the sources for this shorter period are much more plentiful than for other parts of the whole period.”[3] But he doesn’t flesh out the significance of the identified date.

135 CE was the year Roman legions suppressed the Bar Kokhba revolt. After the revolt the Romans depopulated Judean Jewish communities and Jews became a minority in Palestine. The Romans also suppressed Jewish religious expression; this eased only with the death of the emperor Hadrian in 138. The center of the religion subsequently shifted east to the Babylonian Jewish community.

The incidence of Palestinian Jewish names is lower after 135 because the Romans had removed (most of) the Palestinian Jews. What this means is that the writers of the Gospel accounts either 1) lived in Jewish Palestine before the revolt or 2) were relaying material directly from pre-revolt residents.  The combination of Roman military activity and the subsequent deportations likely eliminated any further avenue for oral transmission from Palestinian Jewish communities.

Which means the name correspondence firmly anchors the Gospel accounts within the living memories of pre-revolt residents of Jewish Palestine.  This does not definitively say when, where, and by whom the Gospel accounts were written — but the Bar Kokhba revolt imposes absolute bounds on the range of possible answers. These bounds backstop existing scholarship answering those questions, and apply whether or not Bauckham’s thesis is correct.


[1] Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Grand Rapid, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006, ISBN: 0802863906. 2013 Kindle Edition p. 73.
[2] Baukham, p. 84.
[3] Bauckham, p. 68.