Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts - Lesson 8

Historical Criticisms (Part 1)

The Gospels are historically reliable documents. Some of the main arguments and pieces of evidence pointing to the historical reliability of the Gospels are given in this lecture.

Craig Blomberg
Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts
Lesson 8
Watching Now
Historical Criticisms (Part 1)


Part 1

I. Historical Criticisms

A. Responding to the "KJV Only" Claims

1. Why the Majority Text became the majority

2. There is no single "Textus Receptus"

3. What about the Old Testament?

4. What about other languages?

5. Contrast Islam

B. Questions to Introduce Source Criticism

1. What is the Synoptic problem?

2. Why does it matter?

3. Why are the Gospels almost certainly literarily interrelated?

C. The Synoptic Problem

D. Formgeschichte

1. As an interpretive tool

2. As a historical tool

3. Essential

4. Two opposite uses

a. How tradition changed?

b. How tradition was guarded?

E. Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?

1. Were the first Christians interested in preserving reliable history?

a. The delay of the "parousia"

b. Early Christian Prophecy

2. Were Christians Able to Recover the Jesus of History?

a. Early Responses to Form Criticism

i. Short period of oral tradition

ii. Use of note-taking by rabbis

iii. Tendency to abbreviate

iv. Presence of hostile eye-witnesses

v. Existence of center of leadership

vi. Difficult sayings of Jesus

vii. Distinctions as in 1 Corinthians 7:10-12

b. Two More Recent Developments

i. The memorization hypothesis

ii. Flexible transmission within fixed limits

  • Overview of the influences of the Persian, Greek and Roman Empires on the Jewish nation. 

  • A summary of the Jewish political and religious rulers and movements, and the tensions that arose between the Jews and the occupying Roman authorities.

  • Ancient philosophies and religious movements had a significant influence on peoples' beliefs and behavior in the first century. The influence of Rome and Greece was evident throughout the world. 

  • Religious groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees, and teachings of contemporary Judaism about the Messiah affected Jesus' teaching and ministry.


  • One of the major influences in the social structure in Israel during the first century was the relationship and interaction between Jews and Gentiles. Various Jewish groups had differing views on how they should interact among themselves and with Gentiles. (Dr. Blomberg did not provide us with the PowerPoint slides for this lecture.)

  • One of the major influences in the social structure in Israel during the first century was the relationship and interaction between Jews and Gentiles. Various Jewish groups had differing views on how they should interact among themselves and with Gentiles. (Dr. Blomberg did not provide us with the PowerPoint slides for this lecture.)

  • The Gospels are historically reliable documents. Some of the main arguments and pieces of evidence pointing to the historical reliability of the Gospels are given in this lecture.

  • Form criticism, or form history examines how tradition has changed and how it has stayed the same. 

  • The gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke have so many similarities that they are referred to as the "Synoptic Gospels." There is also material in each of these Gospels that make it distinctive from the other two.

  • It can be helpful to examine, from a literary perspective, the passages that record the encounters that Jesus had with Nicodemus, and the Samaritan woman.

  • In order to understand the message of the Gospel of Mark, it is helpful to understand who the author is, the approximate date it was written, the audience to whom it was written, and the major themes of the book. The content of the book can be divided into the first 8 chapters that focus on the life and ministry of Jesus and the last 8 chapters that focus on His death and resurrection.

  • In order to understand the message of the Gospel of Matthew, it is helpful to understand who the author is, the approximate date it was written, the audience to whom it was written, and the possible sources on which Matthew relied when he was writing. Matthew begins by recording genealogy of Jesus and some of the events surrounding his infancy. Jesus' public ministry began with HIs baptism by John the Baptist, temptation in the wilderness and calling of the disciples. His preaching included the Sermon on the Mount and parables which Matthew grouped together in the Gospel.

  • Examining the outline and structure of the Gospel of Luke reveals the main points and the focus of Luke's Gospel and the book of Acts. Luke and Matthew have some similarities as well as some elements that are distinctive.

  • Much of the material of the Gospel of John is unique, compared to the other 3 Gospel accounts. Some of John's account alternates between recording a sign that Jesus performs with a discourse about a certain subject. Chapter 12 to the end of the Gospel covers the final days of Jesus' life on earth.

  • Some scholars belief that historical evidence supports the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, some think the historical evidence supports the inauthenticity of the Gospel accounts, and some think that the historical evidence is irrelevant. The different conclusions are due mainly to different presuppositions. It is possible to propose a probable time line of Jesus' life.

  • The Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth and early years of life show how He accurately fulfilled specific OT prophecies made hundreds of years earlier, and how His life was intertwined with that of John the Baptist. The beginning of John's Gospel is a testimony to Jesus' nature as being both fully God and fully human.

  • Locations in present day Israel that are related to Jesus' infancy and the beginning of His public ministry.

  • John the Baptist began his ministry before Jesus's public ministry. For a while their public ministries overlapped, then Jesus conducted the remainder of His public ministry without John the Baptist on the scene.

  • Turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana was one of the first miracles Jesus performed in His public ministry. He also had conversations with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, and healed the nobleman's son.

  • The Sermon on the Mount is one of the main passages showing how Jesus defines the "Kingdom of God." He also calls the disciples, redefines the family, performs healings and exorcisms, and uses parables and pronouncements to teach about who God is and how He relates to humans.

  • Images of locations in present day Israel related to Jesus' early Galilean ministry.

  • The Sermon on the Mount shows how the teachings of the Kingdom of God relate to the OT Law. It also includes additional NT teachings and a model prayer.

  • Pictures of places in present day Israel related to Jesus' early Galilean ministry.

  • Understanding parables as a literary form helps us interpret them accurately. Jesus performed miracles in various contexts for specific purposes.

  • Locations in present day Israel related to parables Jesus said and places He performed miracles.

  • Jesus' ministry in Galilee took place in locations like Nazareth, Cana, the Sea of Galilee and other nearby towns and areas. As Jesus was departing from Galilee, he performed miracles and taught at specific places along the way.

  • One of the themes in John chapters 5-11 is how Jesus fulfills the Jewish festivals. He also uses metaphors, saying that he is the, “bread of life,” “light of the world,” “gate for the sheep” and others.

  • In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus gives a sermon on forgiveness and humility. 

  • Locations in present day Israel related to Jesus' ministry.

  • Does the Bible teach that we are to marry or that we are not to marry?

  • Passion Week in the life of Jesus includes his anointing in Bethany, triumphal entry into Jerusalem, cleansing of the temple, celebrating Passover, prayer and arrest in Gethsemane, crucifixion and resurrection.

  • Chronological order of the events of the Passion week of the ministry of Jesus.

  • The death and resurrection of Jesus are significant both historically and theologically.

  • Narration describing slide photographs of locations of events that took place during Passion Week.

  • Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Jewish Messiah. He was both fully God and fully man. Jesus taught about the kingdom of God and showed compassion to the people who were outcasts in society.

  • Acts was written as a continuation of the Gospel of Luke to record what the Holy Spirit was doing through the lives of followers of Christ in the early church. The gospel spread ethnically from Jews to Gentiles, and geographically from Jerusalem to the rest of the world.

  • Stephen challenged the Jewish leaders to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. Paul's conversion was a key event in the history of the early church.

  • The discussion in the Jerusalem council in Acts chapter 15 was how Jews and gentiles could function together as the body of Christ.

  • Narrative describing pictures relating to places that were significant in the early church.

  • The book of Acts records events that happened during Paul's travels as he preached the gospel and established churches throughout Asia Minor and Europe.

This class studies issues of introduction for the four Gospels and Acts, and, using the English New Testament, provides a harmonistic study of the life of Christ with a focus on his essential teachings, the theology of evangelism, and the planting of the church as recorded in Acts.


Dr. Craig Blomberg

Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts


Historical Criticisms (Part 1)

Lesson Transcript


This is the eighth lecture in the online series of lectures for understanding the Gospels and Acts, in complement with the textbook by Craig Blomberg’s Jesus and The Gospels: an Introduction and Survey


We now turn to the theme of critical methods for interpreting and understanding the New Testament. Critical methods for studying any ancient works of literature are divided into two disproportionately sized categories. What is sometimes called lower criticism, concerns the discipline of textual analyses or text criticism. It is sometimes called whereby scholars attempt to establish the original text or the most likely reading of an original text when we actual lack the original manuscripts, also known as autographs. Until we have reasonable confidence that the text has been reconstructed in regards to what the original writers wrote, there is little point of moving on to the task of interpreting those writings. We need to know that we have what the authors meant for us to have. Hence, all of the remaining disciplines of analyses of ancient text and in modern literary criticisms as well, are grouped together into a category called higher criticisms in the sense of a more advanced synthetic tasks, once we have done all we could at the text critical level. However, it is not the purpose of this course to address in detail the discipline of textual criticism. 


The introduction of part two in the textbook does make some brief comments about one modern Christian phenomenon that most people in ministry will encounter sooner or later is in regards to the King James Version Bible only movement. They represent a very conservative Christian approach to the use of the Bible and believe the Authorized Version, as the English called it of 1611 commissioned by James V of England.  They believe that the King James Version is the most reliable translation, not merely because of its highly literal philosophy of translation which indeed it did have by the standards of today.  But the King James movement alleges that the particular Greek manuscripts, on which translators of the Kings James version of the English Bible relied on, were the best and most accurate and therefore most reliable manuscript. Even to this day after finding hundreds of additional manuscripts and documents, they allege the textual tradition of the King James Version is what should be preferred. 


They continue to say that all the modern English translations that rely on the whole range of manuscripts we now have after twenty one centuries of textual findings and analyses, is inferior and the rejection of modern translations in this movement ranges from somewhat mild as in why would a person prefer an inferior translation all the way to those who would argue that modern translations are a tool of the devil. In our textbook on page 75 and footnote three, the author cites two books, one which goes back to the late 1970’s by D. A. Carson and one which is more recent, mid-nineties, by James White. Each goes into the claims behind this movement and gives very detailed and a thorough refutation of it. 


There are four points worth noting here. The entire argument behind the King James movement depends on the claim that the Byzantine family of manuscripts, a group of identical manuscripts, can be identified as highly accurate down through the centuries. This view, which is hardly a new one, was held in the Latin speaking world in the middle Ages. Often, using the Latin expression, Textus Receptus, which means the received text, was a way of identifying these manuscripts within Byzantine tradition. Thus, there is a claim that this was predominately used by the King James translators or in some cases exclusively used. The most important point, therefore, to say in response to this, there is no such group of texts which exists. There are broad features of the Byzantine traditions that include thousands of manuscripts that one can find in common, at different points throughout the New Testament as against other typical older groups of manuscripts, families or traditions that modern textual critics typically rely on as more reliable. But even if the age of Byzantine tradition were old enough to be the preferred tradition for reading, what is important to stress, even those additions of the Greek New Testament as well as its translation into other languages, the early English writers used such early English translations as the Geneva Bible or the Wycliffe’s rendition. The King James Version itself did not use any one manuscript or any small group of manuscripts.  Those translators made choices which they believed were the most accurate readings and preferred manuscripts just as modern textual critics do. The difference now is that modern critics have a larger amount of data in documents now available than in they had in 1611. 


The second point, supposedly for the sake of argument, we could isolate a single recent text that was carefully preserved in the Byzantine tradition for New Testament documents, what then would we do for the Old Testament? In the Masoretic tradition, Hebrew documents that exist in copies which do not pre-date the ninth century; we also have the Dead Sea scrolls of the Old Testament texts which while in some instances, particularly the Book of Isaiah scroll show remarkable similarity to texts a thousand years later and collaborating with meticulous care which Hebrew scribes sought to copy these sacred texts. Nevertheless, there are minor differences and other places with significant differences. 


And then there is the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament which more often than not is the version that New Testament writers cite. It too varies from the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea scrolls. Again, apart from choosing a particular manuscript without any evidence to back up such a claim and use it unquestioningly, there would be no way to even hypothesize on it acceptance with respect to the Old Testament. A third issue is in regards to the many different languages such as European languages known throughout the world, there isn’t an equivalent to a King James Bible. There never was a translation created from the manuscript database that the King James translators accessed. Are we then going to say that these people have never truly had God’s Word? And that all of their renditions are so corrupt and inferior that to be worthy for the lack of acceptance that the King James people only made with respect to modern English translations. Surely, there is a high degree of ethnocentricity; one might even say Anglo centricity in the whole King James only movement. 


The fourth and final point is to contrast Christian literature with that of the Quran, the Muslim holy book. Muslims make the claim that the Bible is a Holy Book but it has become corrupt in major ways, especially where it disagrees with that of the Quran and the Hadith, a narrative record of the sayings or customs of Muhammad and his companions. For example, Jesus could not have been either God or the Son of God. On the other hand, Islam and the Quran made the claim that it is inerrant and infallible to such a degree that copies of the Quran from early centuries on have been checked and double checked by scribes that every existing copy is literally word for word and letter for letter matching the original. There are very early Islamic traditions that give a lie to this claim because there were variants just as there were among the Christian Scriptures but there was a point which all such known texts were destroyed so that this disparate textual evidence would not be there such as in Christian Scripture. One manuscript was chosen from which authorized copies of the Quran have been copied without the freedom by scribes to introduce even the minor kinds of changes Islam has made. Muslims, typically, are taught to believe that this combination of claims, the inferior copying of the Bible and the superior copying of the Quran proves that the Quran supersedes the Bible and is the only one inerrant perfect word of God for humanity. 


There are some interesting fall outs from this understanding. One is, main Qur’anic scholars will argue that while one can do the best to translate the Quran into other languages, but in a very real sense a translation of the Quran is not the word of God in the way as it is written in Arabic language which Mohammad supposedly dictated the revelation that God gave him. On the other hand, Christianity when it has been true to its roots and a point that the protestant reformers believed had been lost or least obscured in Medieval Catholicism has encouraged the translation of the Bible into as many indigenous languages possible so that everyone could have what has regularly been called the Word of God. They have this in their own native language so that they can relate to it best and understand it best and obey and apply it best. The Christian doctrine of the preservation of Scripture, therefore contra the King James only movement and thus has never been that God is under some compulsion to oversee and superintend the process of copying the Scripture to such a degree that there are no spelling errors, no questions about word divisions, no scribes whoever attempt to improve the grammar or meaning or correct what they believed to be a mistake, right or wrongly. 


Rather it is to Christianity’s credit that while the study of the original Greek has always been encouraged. The belief is that a reasonably, literal, thought for thought and word for word rendered in a second language is the very Word of God and the very instrument that God uses, precisely because he speaks in a first language to a new set of readers is the tool that God using to bring men and women to himself. The fact that one has to, in another religion, like Islam, actually learn a foreign language and memorize large portions of text and study under religious leaders, trained in the analyses of those texts, less one perhaps promotes serious heresy is in fact a kind of elitism that Christianity at its best moments has always eschewed. The reformers, when they spoke of the perspicuity of Scripture, never alleged that all texts were equally clear, particularly in a second language but certainly stressed that everything that was necessary for salvation, Godly living, and for growth in Christian discipleship, was clear enough in even a reasonably reliable translation into any language of the world so that a careful and thoughtful but otherwise uneducated young person could understand the Christian claims and respond appropriately to them. I believe that is a great strength of the Christian understanding of Scripture; one that Islam certainly misses and one that to a lesser degree the King James only people, even in Christian circles often miss. 


The remaining portions of this lecture turn to three critical tools, all of which can be grouped together under the broader aegis of historical analyses or criticism. These are source, form and redaction criticism. They are the three tools particularly in respect to the studying of the synoptic Gospels but to a certain degree, all four of the Gospels and the Book of Acts that dominated the century and a half of modern Gospel scholarship from the mid eighteen hundreds to the end of the nineteen hundreds. The lecture series is slightly different from the textbook as we begin with source criticism. From here we want to follow chronologically the development of these three broad methods where as in the textbook, we were following their logical application or the chronological order of the periods of first century compositions of the Gospels they studied. We begin therefore with source criticism and invite the students to review their notes from the textbook readings and be sure they are able to answer three rather basic questions about the sources that the synoptic Gospels rely on. 


The first question; what is the synoptic problem? There’s a problem? A successful graduate of this course, to say nothing of the theological seminary more generally, should be able to answer that question and a thumbnail sketch of such an answer is that it is the question of the literary inter-relationship of the first three Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke, called synoptic because one can put them together in a synopsis of parallel columns and see that a majority of the passages in any one of these Gospels is parallel in at least one if not the other two, often close enough in wording to suggest a literary inter-relationship. The question then becomes what literary relationship? Who wrote first? What sources were used? Who wrote next? If, in fact, we can determine answers to these questions; what sources were used? Who wrote last and did they include sources from the first two Gospels? A question that I like to ask students; so what, why does it matter? Who cares? The beginning theological student could be forgiven for thinking that little is at stake in such a conversation. But given our world today with people who range from questioning believers in terms of the trust and authority of the Bible, to total skeptics and people everywhere in between, so any question that involves the nature of composition of the Gospels becomes a significant one. 


And there is also for the evangelical Christian, clearly an apologetic reason for understanding the most probable solution to the synoptic problem. But there are also interpretive reasons for wanting to address this issue as well, namely if we are to make sense of why parallel accounts of the same event or teaching of Jesus differ in the way that they do, attempts at explaining those differences will be enhanced if we have a theory about the order of the composition of the Gospels and the kinds of sources, both written or oral, that may have been used. This can also have an apologetic value in helping in the process of explaining so called contradictions among the parallel texts. It also helps in the whole arena of interpretation. Does one particular Gospel differ from a parallel because it reads like an explanation of something that was ambiguous or potentially misleading in the other version? And if it turns out on independent grounds that text which reads like an explanation is the later text which likely knew of earlier version then such a theory to explain the differences gains in credibility. And if we want to understand the distinctive theology; and the particular themes that a given Gospel writer emphasizes as over against his sources, why was it that God inspired four separate Gospels rather than one giant harmony? 


When we get to redaction criticism, we will address that issue and see that at least one fundamental answer is because they were written for different groups of the Christian Community initially with different needs and different writers who felt that circumstances dictated difference emphasis on the life of the teachings of Christ. But then surely, it should be a major concern for Christians and the more evangelical Christians. The higher view of the Word of God the believer has, the more they should want to recognize the distinctive in the very shape and form that God inspired the four Gospels. And yet in paradox, it’s often in conservative Christian circles where people have the least clear idea of the actual inspired form of the text. It is simply a large amount of the data from the life of Jesus all jumbled up together with no clear idea of what is unique to Matthew or unique to Mark or Luke, etc. 


Finally, the third question is why God could not have inspired two, three, four or more Gospels with the precise combination of similarities and differences that we find, including all of the verbatim or repetition. But if I found even if a tiny fraction of that on two student term papers, I would fail them both for plagiarism clearly coping one from another or from some common source. But God could, if he so chose to inspire individuals to write with this combination of similarities and differences without there being any conclusion or knowledge of one another’s written document. If we believe in an omnipotent God, that objection certainly does reflect a true theological option. Had God so chosen, he could have inspired in precisely that way. 


But the most important reply to this question refers to the opening four verses of the Gospel of Luke, sometimes called Luke’s prologue, where the most straight forward reading of the text suggests that this is not the way Luke understood God to have inspired him in the production of his Gospel and given the similarities in genre of the other Gospels to Luke. It would be reasonable to conclude, though the other Gospels don’t have an equivalent prologue, that Matthew, Mark and Luke saw themselves as functioning similarly. Let’s remind ourselves of what Luke 1:1-4 states: In as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word. It seemed good for me also, having followed all things closely for sometimes past to write and orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. It’s significant that the inspired Biblical mandate appears in this prologue not only for source criticism but it also provides the inspired Biblical mandate for at least one brand of form criticism and redaction criticism as well. 


Verse one refers to Luke’s knowledge of a number of narratives. The terms in the Greek most commonly refers to a written sequential account of some kind about the things which have been accomplished among us. This could refer to Mark, Matthew or any other document that grouped together a handful or large number of the sayings and teachings of Jesus. Secondly, there is a period of oral tradition which is what the form critics study, when this information about the life of Christ circulated primarily or even at times exclusively by word of mouth.  Verse two, just as they were delivered to us and the term, deliver, is a technical one often used in the course of oral tradition for the transmission of information. To repeat, just as they were delivered to use by those who from the beginning, were eyewitnesses and ministers or servants of the Word. Luke was not a disciple of Jesus during his life time. He was not a Jew; he apparently did not grow up in Israel. He probably never saw the Lord during his life time or even during the time of his resurrection appearances. Though we can’t prove that with absolute assurance, Luke have spoken to those who had and others. Then finally, this opening prologue of Luke also provides the Biblical mandate for redaction criticism for the discipline that seeks to fine the theological or you might say ideological distinctive of each of the four Gospel writers. Luke goes on in verses 3-4; it seems good to him also to write an orderly account for you, that you may know the truth concerning the things that you have been informed. So Luke made a selection of those things he believed would best communicate the Christian message to Theophilus. 


With those three questions having been addressed, we are now ready to turn to the most common proposed solution to the Synoptic problem. As you will know from the reading, this is not the only approach. If anything, it is probably over simplistic. There may well have been other written notes and notebooks and small groupings of teachings or miracles or other events from the life of Christ associated either, according to form and content. But the schematic was one made famous in the 1920’s by the Englishman, B. H. Streeter, and continues in scholarship internationally to command a very sizable majority of scholarly support today. It is the view that of the synoptic Gospels, Mark is the oldest and written first in the form that we have it. And Matthew and Luke, each, borrowed from Mark and at times are close enough in the wording, particularly the teachings of Jesus in places where Mark has no parallel. It makes sense to suggest that they were borrowing from some other common source and the term ‘Q’ has been used to designate this common source. Then there are other portions of both Matthew and Luke wholly unparalleled which may in part or total have relied on one or more written sources which then are often conveniently designated, ‘M’ and ‘L’.