Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts - Lesson 9

Historical Criticisms (Part 2)

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

Craig Blomberg
Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts
Lesson 9
Watching Now
Historical Criticisms (Part 2)


Part 1


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.

In this class, Dr. Blomberg covers the 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 2)

Lesson Transcript


This is the ninth 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 look at form criticism or perhaps we should call it, form history or interpreted history. The word associated with this originated in Germany and had more to do with history. Form criticism can be divided into two different forms of analysis. At one level it’s an analytical interpretive tool doing much like the analysis of a literary genre of an entire book on the macro level. Form criticism on the micro level looks at constituent parts of an entire document and analyzes their literary form, thus, demonstrating that different interpretive principals may well attach to different genres. For example, one does not interpret a parable as if it was historical reporting. One does not interpret a proverb as if it was a lengthy sermon or extended discourse. One does not interpret a miracle story or an account of the supernatural in the same way as a scientific report, etc. In this sense, form criticism is an essential tool of all interpretations of works of literature both ancient and modern. More controversial, is the better known dimension of form criticism, particularly as it was developed and practiced in the middle decades of the 20th century and especially in its more radical forms coming out of Germany. 


The tendency here was to dress the way in which the oral tradition developed or embellished, changed or even distorted. A modern American scholar, a skeptic who had taken it upon himself, vehement to attack traditional Christian faith; Bart Erman used the analogy in his book on Jesus from Oxford University Press that Oral tradition was like a child’s game of telephone, whereas, a joke for fun at a party, a long complicated message whispered in the ear of the first child and that child repeats the message to the next child and on, it continues. Once the message finishes up, we all laugh at how different the message is with the finial child. At times, adults perform the same way in the game. So because of Erman, the question is ask was the Christian oral tradition like this and if so, how can we believe that over a period of two or three decades that such oral tradition could have been preserved. On the other hand, early on, there was a significant minority voice among form critics and then a development, sometimes referred to the guarded tradition hypothesis, stressed that Erman was not the appropriate model, but rather one should think as we see the image the women in the picture in slide ten of NT511 Week 3, entitled Formgeschichte. They seem to be sharing important information. There are reasons to think that there were all kinds of checks and balances for the traditions about Jesus to be passed on with great care and safe keeping. We will return to this question in just a moment. 


This introduces us to a somewhat broader debate which falls under the rubric of form criticism, particularly when it is also supplemented by redaction criticism. Just about all of the major questions involved in the debate over the historical reliability of the Gospels can be considered in one of three broad questions or issues. The first of these is, were the first Christians interested in preserving reliable history? Not all religions in the history of the world by any means have taken the same approach to the question of history. Perhaps the early Christian writers’ intentions were not exclusively or even primarily historical. Perhaps they did not think they were writing primarily historical or biographical documents. Or did they? Secondly, even if one were to hypothetically answer yes to that first question. Were they able to preserve a reliable history? Or was it a hopeless task? Thirdly, even if they potentially had the ability as well as the interest, did they, in fact accomplish that task? 


So let’s unpack these questions. First, were they interested in the Jesus of history? Well, why wouldn’t they be? One might ask, since when has the disciples of a revered teacher religious or otherwise, not be interested in all kinds of biographical details of the lives of the religion’s founders? But there are two counter arguments that must be taken seriously, one has to deal with the belief that Christ, Jesus as the Messiah, was coming back very soon, perhaps in the life time of many of those who had walked with Jesus on earth. There are plenty of places in the New Testament that suggest that early Christians shared this conviction to one degree or another. If that was so, then the argument goes, perhaps it was not until the first Christian generation was nearing its end when most of the eyewitnesses to the life of Christ were dying off that this Christian movement realized it would be around to stay for a while and historical information about its founding would be worth preserving. This hypothesis is sometimes referred to as the delay of the pryrozia, the Greek word that means ‘coming’ in the New Testament. 


It’s argued, for example, that three famous texts known as the pillar passages, the very pillars on which Jesus’ teachings could be established because nobody would have invented them later since they were apparently disproved. Namely, Mark 9:1 when Jesus says, truly I say to you, there are some who are standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God coming with power. In Mark 13:30, where Jesus says again, truly I say to you that this generation shall not pass away until all these things have taken place; this was Jesus talking about his return. And finally in Matthew 10:23, he sends the twelve out on their first missionary trip of preaching, teaching and healing and says to them, you will not have finished going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. We want to argue that each of these three texts should be interpreted in a different way other than the way Christ unambiguously predicted his return. One could certainly believe that some of those followers might have taken such text and claims as to be immediate. 


On the other hand, it has often been pointed out, if one surveys the full range of Jesus’ teachings, particularly about how his followers were to live. It runs the gamut from the sublime to mundane with many of the topics he addresses seemingly presupposed an extended period of time in which his followers will live as ordinary human beings caught up in all the good and bad of this life, such as the instructions about paying taxes to governments, is one example. There were topics about whether or not to marry, and if divorce were ever permissible and on then what grounds. What about remarriage? There were interpersonal conflict and hostility even among one’s own family members. There was information in regards to tribulation and persecution when people would long for the end to come but would seem to be delayed. This tension between potential eminence and delay of Christ’s return ushering in the fullness of the Kingdom, we should not be surprised because it is a tension inherent in Jewish thinking. In the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets from the eight century BC onward, in more than one context, pronounced the Day of the Lord was at hand. This make us look ahead to an eminent judgment not by a superpower from the North but the events that would usher in God’s final judgment day. This would be followed by the millennium with peace and prosperity along with God’s people and judgment against their enemies. Even as prophet after prophet warned their followers to watch for this day which could come at any moment, centuries continued to go by. There are also apocryphal and pseudo graphical text from the inter-testamental period that wrestle with this tension. The most common Jewish pre-Christian solution is to cite Psalm 90:4 where we read, ‘to the Lord, a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day.’ In other words, God’s timing is not human timing in what seems like something being very close at hand from God’s perspective but from the perspective of his spokes people may in fact be a prolonged period of time. It is interesting that 2nd Peter 3 quotes this same texts out of Psalms showing that early Christianity likewise appealed to it and therefore it’s not likely we should accept this scenario that Christianity believed in the immediate return of Jesus, and it is not likely that they would have had no interest in preserving historical information. 


But, what about a second counter argument, namely that early Christians believing that they had what Paul would call the gift of prophecy. They spoke words and messages they believed that the risen Lord, Jesus, now at the right hand of the Father was giving to them on how the community of God’s people should live and believe. They believed that these revelations were as much from the same Jesus who once walked on the Earth. It is hard to believe there was no concern in retelling the Gospel accounts to distinguish between what Jesus said while on Earth and what he later told his church from heaven. It is argued that Greco-Roman prophets regular spoke in this fashion, speaking in the name of a particular God or Goddess. Yet, it is interesting, there are three and only three places in the New Testament where we see someone whose name we know and whose ministry is described as Christian prophecy. There is no confusion what-so-ever of these individual words and the words of Jesus during his earthly ministry. One of those is a reference to John’s words in the Book of Revelation and two others has to do with the prophet Agabus in Acts 28 and 21:10-11. What is more, even if we were to grant for the sake of argument that such activity took place, the resulting picture of Jesus’ life and teaching should not have come out materially different because early Christians recognize from their Jewish forbearers the need to test any alleged prophecy. 1st Corinthians 14:29, one of the time honored criteria for testing prophecy or alleged prophecy was that it cohered with and in no way contradicted that which was previously believed to have been from God. Yet, the picture of the Jesus seminar in the 1990’s or other radical scholars over the past two hundred years of Gospel Scholarship have often been that this speaking or teaching, prophesying in the name of the Risen Lord, in fact, has led, in some cases, to some dramatically different theological and ethical teachings, unfortunately. 


Finally, it is worth pointing out what we might call the missing topics of Jesus from the Gospel tradition. For example, circumcision may not be among the most one hundred moral dilemmas, but for a 1st century adult Greek or Roman man who became attracted to the Christian message, it was a crucial issue since some Jewish Christians were going around saying (Acts 15:1), ‘you must be circumcised to be saved.’ Remember also that this was in a world without anesthesia. This was such a divisive issue that an entire council in Jerusalem had to be convened in order to debate and decide on it. The rest of Acts 15 covers this issue. But why just pronounce authoritatively what Jesus spoke or have one of the prophets declared in the name of Jesus what his view of the matter was? The first Christians did not feel free to speak in the name of the risen Lord to solve the matter. They simply hashed it out to normal debate and conversation. This list could be extended, what about the issue in regards to speaking in tongues that threatened to blow the church at Corinth apart. It doesn’t seem likely that the practice of early Christian prophecy is a threat either to the question of Christian interest. 


What about the second question? Were Christians able to recover the Jesus of history? Even early in the 20th century during its first sixty years or so as this discipline became more standard, there were important counter points that more conservative scholars made, even if their voices never attained a majority or consensus of opinion. It was pointed out that by ancient standards, a period of twenty or thirty years of exclusively oral tradition was in fact an astonishingly short period of time when information, for example, about the life of Alexander the Great circulated for more than half a millennium, the oldest sources that we have for compiling a biography of him are from Prutark and Aryan, late 1st century and early 2nd century Greek writers, even though Alexander died in 320 BC, yet from them and from subsequently lost written sources, those ancient historians were able to construct with great confidence and detail the main events of the life of Alexander. And Jesus was much greater in comparison. 


Secondly, it has been pointed out by Allen Malard in his book, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, that it was by no means un-known that rabbi’s and their disciplines in the process of facilitating memorization to take written notes usually after listening in public to a revered teacher to help them recall and commit to memory the most important things. Thirdly, it has been demonstrated that while one can certainly find examples of legendary embellishment of ancient stories from the Mediterranean world. The more common pattern of lengthy historical accounts in oral tradition is that of abridgement, a tendency to abbreviate. While details may be left out, new ones were not invented in order to be added. Fourthly, given that the oral tradition behind the Gospels took place within the first Christian generation, there would have still been eyewitnesses of the life of Christ, particularly in Israel. Many of them never accepted the Christian claims and some who were hostile and witnessed the persecution in the Book of Acts at numerous junctures. These eyewitnesses could have easily countered the testimony of first Christian preachers, had it been materially distorted. There was also a center of Christian leadership with the core apostles in Jerusalem. In the Book of Acts, we read on more than one occasion going out to listen to the Gospel message which had been proclaimed, particularly among unchurched peoples. It’s not like the child’s game of telephone; if anything, it’s like someone monitoring children and listening to what was said with each statement being said aloud instead of in whispers, checked for accuracy until the person got it right, then being allowed to pass it on. 


The sixth point from the list of points in the previous paragraph involves the many hard and difficult sayings of Jesus. Certainly there are ethically demanding sayings of Christ. What about Luke 14:26, ‘whoever who does not hate his parents or siblings cannot be my disciple.’ We are grateful that Matthew in Chapter 10 has something of a paraphrase or explanation of this text. Matthew explains that Jesus meant that if anyone does not love God far more than parents or siblings is not worthy of him. But why did Luke preserve the text the way he did? Why did he even bother to include it, as if Jesus was contradicting the commandment to honor your mother and father which he reaffirmed on other occasions? Unless there was a strong conservative force within the Gospel tradition at a number of points that did not leave Luke feeling free to omit a saying that perhaps was well known to his communities.  The same could be said of the puzzling text in Mark 13:32 and parallels where Jesus says that not even the Son will know the hour of his return, but only the heavenly Father knows. There are certainly ways to explain this but at a time when the first Christians were exalting Jesus and increasingly equating him with divinity, why not just leave out such a potentially misleading statement unless there were important constraints on the Gospels writers. 


Then finally, we may appeal to the kind of distinction that the Apostle Paul makes in 1st Corinthians 7 where he is teaching on the topic of marriage and divorce. In verse 10, Paul gives a teaching from the Lord. In verse 12, he says more on the topic and that this is ‘I’, not the Lord. This is not a lack of divine inspiration here, because as the chapter finishes in verse 40 which turns out to be an ironic aside against the false teachings in Corinth who thought they had a monopoly on the spirit. He goes on to say, ‘I think I too have the Spirit of God.’ And rather, the distinction is that most likely when Paul refers to basic prohibition against divorce which he does in 1st Corinthians 7:10; he is referring to what he knows of what Jesus taught during his earthly life. Perhaps of thinking of what Jesus taught recorded in the opening verses of Mark 10. But when he refers to the more specific question of what about an unbelieving partner when a spouse converts to Christ who no long wants to stay in the marriage but wants to divorce or at least separate or abandon his or her partner. Paul realizes that he has no word of the Lord to appeal to as one who was called a prophet in Acts 13 in the opening verses. 


In the last forty or fifty years two more developments have proved highly significant. As late as the 1950’s and early 1960’s, a group of Scandinavian scholars, led by B. Gerhardsson, who continues to write today well into his retirement years and pursued even in the 80’s and 90’s particularly by the writings of a German scholar, R. Riesner, has shown with considerable detail to what degree the ancient Hebrew, Greek and Roman cultures but particularly the Hebrew culture were those of memorization. Even school children from ages 5 to 12 when many boys in those cultures had access to schooling were able to commit large quantities of important texts to memory. One would expect the followers of Jesus to quickly come to honor him as a heavenly sent prophet if not God himself, would have taken as much care in creating a guarded tradition. Then in the last decades of the 20th century and continuing on into the 21st, there has been another school of the study of oral tradition, beginning particularly with the Harvard researcher, A.B. Lord studying in Eastern Europe and more recently Kenneth Bailey in traditional Arabic in Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian villages of the Middle East. Memorization could carry with it a fair amount of flexibility as those who recounted the formative stories of a given people would choose what to leave out or expand or abridge, explain or leave cryptic, but yet with 60 to 90 percent of the text that remained would be unaltered. Hence, what we called in the PowerPoint side # 14 entitled, Were Christians Able to Recover the Jesus of History, as flexible transmission with fixed limits. If the crowds listening to such tellers of stories, this is another reminder of a public check and balance on the tradition because an entire villages, tribe or clan would know these formative stories; and if the story tellers in any given performance would error in way or fail to include one of the necessary points it would be right to correct such. 


Finally then, we come to the third of our questions which provides the bridge from form criticism into redaction criticism and that is the question, did the first Christian in fact manage to preserve accurate history? The only way to answer this question fully is to read each of the Gospels from start to finish, particularly where there are parallels, to read them in the form of a synopsis or harmony shown in parallel columns so that students can see precisely in detail the kinds of similarities and differences that emerge. 


This brings up, therefore, the three sub-disciplines of historical criticisms that this lecture is surveying, namely redaction criticism. For our purposes here, to bring this lecture to a close, we may review a comparison chart of Matthew, Mark and Luke that is printed in the textbook: Redaktonsgeschichte, German for redaction history. Redaction is simply a lessor used English word that refers to editing, the final stage of the composition of the Gospels, as the Gospel writers also functioned as editors of all their written sources and oral traditions. They then choose what to include and how to include it in order to communicate their distinctive theological emphasis. How one determines these depends on adopting solutions to the synoptic problem. So we can read across the columns horizontally of the synopsis as described by D. Steward in his book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, call reading and thinking horizontally and look for unique emphasis, especially those that occur more than once. 


One could take the Gospel of Mark or any other text and read vertically as well and think vertically, imagining one holding a scrolls up and reading it down through the document and seeing what are the most emphasized scenes, accounts or issues the narrator wants to call attention to. Why is material arranged in a certain order, especially when it is not obviously chronological and particularly when it may be arranged in a different order in a different Gospel? Perhaps a topical or thematic arrangement is in view to some of that authors’ distinctive emphasis. Here then are the major historical critical disciplines for studying particularly the synoptic Gospels and as we mentioned in terms of redaction criticism, we will see repeated illustrations of this as we progress.