What follows is based on this lecture by Dr Peter J. Williams.
Recent studies into the use of Jewish names inside and outside the canonical Gospels have provided remarkable evidence that these accounts were based on eyewitness testimony.
Tradition and modern scholarship agree that most or all of the Gospels/Acts were written outside Palestine. So how familiar were they with the agriculture, architecture, botany, culture, economics, geography, language, law, personal names, politics, religion, social stratification, topography, and weather of the land they are talking about? (Remember that travel and communication was so much more limited than today)
Both the New Testament and sources outside the New Testament have close agreement about the nine most popular names for men (beginning with Simon and Joseph) and also the most popular names for women (beginning with Mary and Salome). This provides strong evidence that the New Testament accounts record the actual lives of real people living in Israel at the time.
Personal names change according to time and place, and would therefore be difficult to get right. A study in 2002 by Tal Ilan identified 300 Jewish names in use in NT times. Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2006) has shown that the names used within the Gospels/Acts correlate very closely with those used in Josephus, Ossuaries, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The most popular male names in all these sources were Simon/Simeon, Joseph/Joses, Lazarus/Eleazar, Judas/Judah, and John/Johanan. Similarly, for women’s names, the incidences of Mary and Salome inside and outside the NT correlate closely. There were many Jews living in Egypt at the time, but many of the names popular there, such as Sabbataius, Dositheus, Pappus and Ptolemaius, occur much more rarely in Palestine and in the NT. It is not plausible to suppose that even if the writers of the Gospels/Acts lived within Palestine they could have ended up using the right names in the right proportions if they had simply made up the accounts. Still less if, as the consensus suggests, most of them lived outside Palestine.
Now, people’s names are notoriously difficult to remember. Stories, on the other hand, are relatively easy to recall. Therefore, if the names recorded in the New Testament can be shown to be accurately recalled, then we can have confidence that the stories have been at least as accurately recalled. If the stories recorded in the New Testament were made-up in a time and place remote from the situation from which they purport to come, then we would expect many errors with regard to their use of names.
It is noteworthy that for the most popular names, additional descriptors are added. So, for example, Jesus had two disciples named ‘Simon’: one was called ‘Simon Peter’ and the other ‘Simon the Zealot’. We also read of ‘Simon of Cyrene’, ‘Simon the Leper’, and ‘Simon the Tanner’. It’s the same with ‘Mary’: ‘Mary Magdalene’, ‘Mary the mother of James and Joseph’. The less-popular names do not need these further descriptors. If the writers of the Gospels and Acts were merely making up stories, it is implausible to think that they would have treated names in this realistic way.
There is a marked contrast in this regard between the canonical Gospels and the 2nd-century apocryphal Gospels (Thomas, Mary, Judas, etc.). In these latter documents there are far fewer personal names. In fact, in the Gospel of Judas there are just two ‘real’ names (Judas and Jesus), all the others being made-up names of heavenly figures (Barbelo, Nebro, Yaldbaoth, Saklas, and so on). This strongly indicates that the authors of these documents did not know the time and place of which they were writing nearly as well as the authors of the NT Gospels.
In Mt 10:2-4 we find a list of names of the disciples. This list correlates closely with the names found in the general popular of Palestine at the time. Additionally, the commonest names (Simon, James, Matthew, Judas) are given distinguishing qualifiers. Interestingly, the qualifiers tend to get dropped as Christianity becomes widespread, and the main ‘players’ become better known. This adds further weight to the argument that the Gospels are based on primitive as well as authentic sources.
In the canonical Gospels, the name ‘Jesus’ predominates over the title ‘Christ’, whereas in Paul’s writings the reverse is the case. ‘Christ’ is also more common in the later, non-canonical writings. The frequent use of the name ‘Jesus’ is, accordingly indicative of an early date for the sources of the Gospels: if they had been written later, or made up, they would have been likely to use ‘Christ’ rather than ‘Jesus’.
Given that ‘Jesus’ was a common name (rank 6) in Palestine, it is notable that the crowds in Mt 21:11 identify the Lord as ‘the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’ Compare Mt 21:12, where the narrator can refer to him simply as ‘Jesus’ knowing that his readers would require no disambiguation. Similarly, in Mt 26:64 and 75 the narrator can refer simply to ‘Jesus’, whereas the characters refer to him as ‘Jesus the Galilean’, v69, and ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, v71. See also Mk 1:24; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6; Lk 4:34; 8:28; 17:13; 18:37f; Jn 1:45; 6:42; 9:11; 18:5,7; 19:19. Again, all of this fits with the time and place in a way that would not have been possible a century later.
Jesus’ own speech, as recorded in the Gospels, if different from later Christians. He does not speak extensively about issues that pre-occupied the church, such as gentile inclusion or church order. On the other hand, he did teach in parables, which his later followers (such as Paul) did not do. His favourite self-designation is ‘Son of Man’, but this is rarely used by Paul and others.
Conclusion: ‘the Gospels have the pattern of names we would expect them to have if they are reporting what real people said and did. The pattern would be too complex for an ancient forger to produce.’