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The gospel according to Gary ... well, maybe not

Gary Cooper was a big name in the 1950s, but it’s been all downhill for his Christian name since then.

In 2015, the UK’s Independent newspaper broke the news that the name Gary would soon be extinct. Gary was popular for a while there. But you don’t hear of many Garys anymore. Gary is apparently on the way out.

In the 1950s baby boom, English-speaking parents frequently called their sons Gary (the Italian version of Gary is Gherado with a rolled R, which is much more glamorous).

In the 1980s, both the Queensland and NSW State of Origin rugby league fullbacks were named Gary. Even some girls were named Gary. For a time, you could find Gary on those nameplates they sell out the front of newsagents and gift shops. But at some point, naming your baby Gary became ridiculous. That’s the thing about names, they come and go.

This coming and going of names causes a real problem for authors trying to write believable fiction. To write a convincing story, you must use the names used in the time and place in which your story is set. If you, for instance, filled your story with Garys at a time when nobody was called Gary, your story would be unbelievable.

This isn’t hard to do if the author is writing about a time and place in which they have actually lived, but if the setting is in a distant place many years ago, it is fiendishly difficult. If I had to write a story set in Italy in, say, 1942, everyone would be called Mussolini or Gherado (with a rolled R), and I only know of Gherado with a rolled R because I looked it up for this article.

Take it as gospel

Some doubting souls have suggested that the Gospels are a work of historical fiction. That they were made up many years later by people who were not there. If this were true, the names would be an absolute mess. Especially when one considers that this is the ancient world, and the authors had no internet access or record books to do some research.

And the Gospel writers didn’t make it easy on themselves. If they were trying to convince people their fake story was real, they would keep names to a minimum, the more names you use, the greater your chance of error. But the Gospel writers name just about everyone.

When Jesus gets too tired to carry his cross, a man from the crowd is made to help. Three of the Gospel writers tell us his name was Simon and he was from Cyrene, and then they tell us he had two sons named Rufus and Alexander. There was no need to name Rufus and Alexander as neither were there. There wasn’t even a need to name Simon or tell us where he was from. But they named them anyway. The Gospel writers named everyone.

A depiction of Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry the cross.

In 2006, Cambridge scholar Richard Bauckham compiled a list of names used in first-century Palestine. He used every source possible – historical records, the Dead Sea Scrolls, even grave markings. He then ranked the popular names and compared his list to the Gospels. The correlation was exquisite.

Even more impressive were the disambiguations. When a name is popular, adding something to the name is helpful to specify who you are talking about. Simon was the most popular name in first-century Palestine. That is why we are told that the cross-carrying Simon was from Cyrene. Disambiguations don’t emerge unless they are needed. Bauckham’s list showed they would have been needed for first-century Palestinian Simons, and the Gospels use a heap of them (Simon Peter, Simon the Zealot, Simon the Leper, etc.)

This makes the argument that the Gospels were invented many years later by people who were not there implausible. People who were not there could never be so precise. It is much more reasonable to believe that the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony. The authors knew people’s actual names. They knew there were plenty of Simons and Marys and Josephs, and they knew there were absolutely no Garys.


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