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Jewish Names in the First Century: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

What can the occurrence of Jewish Names in the New Testament tell us about its authenticity? Names in any language change over time and from place to place in accordance with their popularity in the given culture. This is not surprising. Below is a list of popular boy names showing such a difference. First in 1950 in the United Kingdom. Then in the United States at the same time, and finally in the United Kingdon 100 years earlier in 1850. Although a few names appear in more than one list, the differences are more notable than the similarities. Only one name, John, is present in all three lists. And six names from the first list don’t appear in either of the second two lists.

Such rankings, or probabilities of occurrence in a population, can be used to determine if that description of that situation is genuine, or if it is fraudulent. One good example is in the population of numbers that occur in a tax return, for example. It has been found that if one counts the first integers that occur in every multi-digit number, those integers (one through nine) do not have the same probability of occurring. This is known as Benford’s Law (see graph below). The integer “1” has the highest likelihood, and nine, the least likely. If the IRS believes that a tax return has a lot of manufactured numbers in it, this test can be run to see if the numbers follow this pattern. Substantial deviance from this pattern is an indicator of fraud. This is because people are not aware of the pattern and tend to choose numbers with beginning integers more evenly—with a different bias than would occur naturally.

This graph—known as Benford’s Law--shows the percentage of time the nine integers appear in the first place in a number in any set of calculations such as the stock market or a tax return.

The natural distribution of names at any given time and place in history can also be used to tell if the writing was from that time and place, or if it was written, for example, later at a different location, with names of the characters being fictional. The author would not necessarily know which names to choose to represent which were the most popular somewhere else centuries earlier. Two requirements would be needed in order to undertake such a test. First, the writings in question would have to have a substantial number of given names in it. Second, there must be an even larger sample of given names from that time and place from different independent sources that were known, or believed to be, genuine. This would give the “true” distribution.

Such a test has been made on the gospels in the New Testament. The four gospels and the book of Acts were claimed to have been written about events in Judea in the first century. If this is true, the given names in the accounts should roughly match the popularity of such name at that time in place. If the accounts were written a century later from somewhere else, the frequency of names would not reflect those found from other reliable sources. This test was reported in a book by Richard Bauckham entitled Jesus and the Eyewitnesses—The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.

Below is a table of the ten most common male names found in Palestine between the years 330 BC and 200 CE, (the highest percentage are from the first century AD). These names are from Tal Ilan in A Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, and are compared with names in the Gospels and the book of Acts in Bauckham.

One can see that the most common Jewish names from other sources are consistent with the most popular names in the New Testament accounts. They are very dissimilar to those in Egypt from the same time, where the influence of that culture shows up in the names. A similar influence could be found in Greece or Rome.

In Benford’s Law of numbers the first digits of numbers have only nine possibilities when checking against a much larger sample size in a tax return or other accounting document. But with the first century names there are many dozens of different names and a sample size in the New Testament of less than that. Therefore, with names one might expect a similar, but not exact fit. And as the table shows, there is a strong presence of the most popular names. Using such a large number of possible names that existed, other tests have been performed as a check (see table below). These include a check against women’s names, even though the sample size of women in the New Testament is smaller.

These statistics give strong support to the contention that the stories in the gospels and book of Acts were of real people in or from Judea in the first century, when they were purported to have taken place. Many legal scholars believe such circumstantial evidence in court is stronger than a direct eyewitness testimony. For an eyewitness can be wrong or lie. Circumstantial evidence, on the other hand, cannot be invented. It reminds me the phrase I have heard people say when they hear a story that has a ring of truth to it—“You can’t make this stuff up!”

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