The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 2

Formation of the Canon

How did Christians arrive at the canon of 27 authoritative documents that were from God and therefore foundational for Christian belief and living? Blomberg looks at hints from the New Testament itself, the citations and writings of the Apostolic Fathers, third century discussions, and the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century. None of our four Gospels were ever questioned, and no other gospel was put forward as equally authoritative.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 2
Watching Now
Formation of the Canon


A. Upper Room Discourse and the future role of the Spirit

a. John 14:26

b. 15:26, 27

B. 1 Timothy 5:18 (Luke 10:7)

C. 2 Peter 3:15–16


A. Citations

B. Marcion’s list and Gnosticism

C. Persecution and the Muratorian Canon

a. 21 books

b. All four Gospels, and no other Gospels

D. Irenaeus


A. Tertullian

1. novum testamentum

2. 23 books (no debate over the four gospels)

B. Origen

1. 27 books

a. Only 7 disputed

b. Not the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, 1 John

2. Why were they disputed?

a. Hebrews — authorship

b. James — possible theological contradiction

c. 2 Peter — Greek style

d. 2 and 3 John — Short

e. Jude — Short, and quotes two non-canonical books

f. Revelation — not sure what to do with it

3. Gospels

a. Our four were never questioned

b. No other ”gospels” were suggested (even the orthodox ones)


A. Athanasius (367) — the 27 books are “universally accepted”

B. Ratified at Councils of Hippo and Carthage (390’s)


A. Apostolicity

B. Orthodox

C. Catholicity

D. Inspiration (subjective)


A. None of our four Gospels were ever questioned

B. No other gospels were serious suggested, even the gnostic gospels

  • An introduction to the common myths that challenged the historicity of the gospel message. Some of the myths have no connection to any historical evidence (e.g., the Da Vinci Code), recently discovered “evidence” is often distorted (Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic literature), and Blomberg concludes that we should be initially skeptical of new findings.

  • How did Christians arrive at the canon of 27 authoritative documents that were from God and therefore foundational for Christian belief and living? Blomberg looks at hints from the New Testament itself, the citations and writings of the Apostolic Fathers, third century discussions, and the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century. None of our four Gospels were ever questioned, and no other gospel was put forward as equally authoritative.

  • Looks at the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. They show an interest in the infancy and final days of Jesus, but are of no historical value. There are gnostic gospels (mostly fragmentary) that are more esoteric, philosophical speculation, and Blomberg reads sections from the Gospel of Thomas.

  • Are the copies of the Greek New Testament accurate? Are the variations among the manuscripts so significant that we can no longer trust them? What about the two paragraphs that some Bibles say are not authentic? This discussion is called “Textual Criticism.”

  • Are the translations of the Bible reliable? Do they faithfully convey the meaning of the Greek? Why are they different and do they disagree on the essentials of the Christian faith?

  • Nothing covered so far guarantees that what the Gospel writers said is true. How do historians make assessments about reliability of claims made in ancient works? How do we know who wrote a document, when did they write it, and were they in a context in which they could know what actually happened?

  • There was a 30 — 40 year gap between the events of the Gospels and the writing of the Gospels. Can we trust the accounts of Jesus’ life as they were told during this time period. Were the Gospel writers even interested in preserving history? Were they in a position to do so?

  • Three recent areas of study encourage us to accept the reliability of oral tradition. They are studies in the nature of an oral culture, how the Gospels follow an informal controlled tradition, and the effect of social memory.

  • Discussion of the literary dependence among the gospels, formally known as the “Synoptic Problem.” Argues that Mark was the first written source, and Matthew and Luke borrow from him, from a common document (“Q”) and used their own material.

  • What kind of books are we dealing with? Different kinds of literature will be analyzed differently in terms of reliability. If it is fiction, we will analyze it a certain way. How should we read the Gospels?

  • While archaeology can’t prove certain things, it can corroborate many of the details of the Gospels and should encourage us to look forward to even more discoveries. Blomberg looks at Jesus’ imagery, the sites he traveled, the results of recent discoveries, and the weight of artifacts encouraging us to trust the Bible.

  • There is a belief that any and all Christian evidence is tainted, and so only non-Christian evidence should be investigated. Not only is this falacious (“silly and nonsensical”), and there is non-Christian evidence that tells us a surprising lot about Jesus.

  • Now that we have seen some of the criteria that historians use to judge the reliability of an ancient document, we will use those same criteria on the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. Blomberg uses the twelve criteria of historical reliability.

  • What is the resulting picture that we find of Jesus? For those who find only a small portion of the Gospels reliable, their picture of Jesus that results from the  limited sections of the gospels will be somewhat different from those who find a large portion as reliable.

  • Why do so many different scholars have such different views of Jesus? There actually is more similarity than at first is expected, but the differences are due to things such as scholar’s presuppositions. What then are the criteria for accepting a historical document as authentic?

  • Given the criteria established for historical reliability, which portions of the Synoptics have the strongest claim to being authentic?

  • Considering all the questions raised about the quest for who Jesus is, what can we know for sure? What is the core of the gospel tradition that does not require faith?

  • We have been looking at topics pertaining to the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. Now it is time to look at specific issues that might question the reliability of the Synoptics. Does looking at a cross section of the “apparent contradictions” give us more confidence?

  • Continuing the purpose of the previous chapter, Blomberg looks at specific harmonization problems between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John.

  • Looks at the overall features of John, arguing that they show the gospel to be a reliable witness to Jesus.

  • Now that we have looked at the issues of John’s reliability in general, Blomberg starts working through individual passages that have raised questions for some people. The question is whether or not Jon’s teaching dovetails with teaching in the Synoptics. Much of the issue has to do with presuppositions and the burden of proof, and the evidence Blomberg cites is often when John’s teaching finds a connection with Synoptic teaching or with historical data.

  • This quest was due to a new emphasis on the historical reliability of John. Some events in John have a greater claim to authenticity by liberal critics. Blomberg then looks at a theme throughout John of Jesus as the Purifier, which parallels the Synoptics account of Jesus healing people, making the unclean clean. This too argues for a greater part of John's gospel being historically reliable.

  • Paul discloses quite a bit of information about the historical Jesus in his letters. His letters come from the 50’s and early 60’s, before the gospels were probably written, so he is an independent witness as to whom Jesus was based on a reliable oral tradition.

  • Blomberg summarizes the previous lecture and continues by pointing out the similarities of key themes between Jesus and Paul. Instead of seeing differences between Jesus and Paul, these themes actually show how similar they are. Blomberg concludes by explaining why Paul does not make more allusions to Jesus.

  • Miracles are natural and expected if in fact God exists. But does he exist? If a person begins with atheistic presuppositions, then miracles are impossible and those portions of the Bible unreliable. This is not a detailed discussion of the topic but a quick summary of the arguments.

  • Do miracles outside of the Bible that parallel biblical miracles call into question the veracity of the latter? The fact of the matter is that they were different and often later than Jesus’ miracles.

  • Can we believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? If not, then this part of the gospel story is not reliable. Blomberg covers general issues and specific problems, and then positive support for the virginal conception.

  • What led a band of defeated followers of a failed Messianic claimant begin to preach him as Lord and God? If the resurrection is fiction, then the belief of the early church still needs to be explained. Alternate explanations fail to impress; and there is evidence for a bodily resurrection.

  • Does a defense of biblical reliability lead to any new insights about Jesus himself? Or does it simply bring us back to the status quo of historical Christian orthodoxy? Have our churches been preaching a balanced picture of the Bible, or have they been selective?

  • Blomberg summarizes the main points he has been making.

An in-depth look at the charges against the historicity of the gospels, and the evangelical answers.

Dr. Craig Blomberg

Historical Reliability of the Gospels


Formation of the Canon

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is course on the historical reliability of the New Testament gospels. And in this segment we are discussing the formation of the canon and the choice of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In our first segment, we surveyed widely a handful of some of the most popular but false claims about sources for the history of the beginning of Christianity and the life of Jesus based on comparatively newly found evidence. Sometimes the claims were simply entirely bogus. More commonly, genuine historical finds are distorted, and their significance is blown up into something that it really can't sustain. The result of that survey is that if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Are not the right choice, the best choice for sources of information about Jesus. Then we really don't have any other good alternatives. And we will defend that claim further in coming episodes. But this segment is designed to ask the question, How did Christians arrive at the canon? The collection of 27 authoritative documents that they believed were inspired, God breathed. And therefore authoritative and foundational for Christian belief and Christian living. There are many ways to tell the story, but a straightforward one is to proceed chronologically. Beginning in the first century, beginning already within the New Testament period itself. It is easy to exaggerate. The evidence that we have in the New Testament, it is easy to take passages that talk about the Word of God out of context and assume that word of God always means Bible all the way through the Book of Revelation, even before it was written, and when in many cases, Word of God simply refers to the spoken gospel message. But there are some hints ill formed and somewhat amorphous as they are right. Within texts of the New Testament that suggest that something more, something authoritative, something from the Spirit of God worthy of being taken together with the Hebrew Scriptures, the books that already formed the authoritative Bible for Jesus, the Jew and the first Apostles, all of whom were Jewish.


[00:03:23] A couple of these come in Jesus farewell discourse in the upper room the Thursday night before his crucifixion, and are found in John's gospel, especially in chapters 14 through 16, He says. For example, in John 1425, all this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. It does not describe what context that will occur in. It does not describe what form that subsequent teaching will take place in or how the Spirit will remind them of everything that has been said to them. But in light of the Jewish context of the conviction that the Hebrew Scriptures were Spirit inspired, that when Moses was given the covenant, the two tablets of stone on Mount Sinai that created the the law, that created the foundation for the people of Israel. If the Spirit deemed it important to create a written in Scripture aided form of that covenant. It certainly would not be surprising for a believing Jew with 2020 hindsight. To imagine that these prophecies had something to do with the formation of a New Testament. We see a similar text in Chapter 15 of John's gospel, also involving a 26th verse When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the spirit of truth, who goes out from the father? He will testify about me. And then verse 27, And you also must testify for you have been with me from the beginning. There are only hints, but they are very suggestive hints when we come to one of Paul's latest and last letters. First Timothy. We get another hint that takes us perhaps to the next level.


[00:06:01] First, Timothy, Chapter five. And verse 18 in the context of an encouragement to give double honor to elders who direct the affairs of the church well. Paul writes for Scripture says, Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain. What does that have to do with elders? And he goes on to say, And the worker deserves his wages. Oh, do not muzzle an ox while it's treading out. The grain is a passage from Deuteronomy. But Paul is applying it by analogy, just as the Ox did the bulk of the work for a farmer in first century Israel. So. The Christian worker, the Christian leader, the worker deserves his wages, and many modern English translations put that second line in quotations as well. But it comes from the Gospel of Luke. Chapter ten, verse seven. Is Paul calling it scripture also. We can't be sure because. Reading the text again, it just says Scripture says do not muslin Oxfords trading out the grain. And. The worker deserves his wages. Maybe Paul only means to say that the first of those two quotations comes from Scripture. But a somewhat more natural interpretation without any change in grammar could lead us to believe that he is treating Luke's gospel written no earlier than about the year 62 A.D. And if Paul wrote First Timothy, it cannot be much later than about 65 or 66. That is a remarkably short period of time to acknowledge a colleague's document as Scripture. And this is one of the reasons that some people believe first Timothy could not have been written by Paul or written this early. But there are good reasons on other grounds for that belief. And so we. Puzzled over a very suggestive passage. We flipped to second Peter and we see an even more suggestive text at the end of second Peter.


[00:08:56] The third and final chapter. First 15. We read, Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear Brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom that God gave him, He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand. One of the passages that relieves Bible readers throughout history. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand which ignorant and unstable people distort as they do the other scriptures to their own destruction. Here is a fairly clear reference to at least some of Paul's letters. As Scripture. And not surprisingly, there are plenty of people who doubt Peter wrote Second Peter, and therefore that can be dated during his lifetime to the sixties. But if we accept that, we again have an acknowledgment of at least some documents that came to be part of what is now called the New Testament, recognized as on a par with what Christians call the Old Testament. At a very early date. We're past the second century. A group of largely orthodox Christian writers writing largely in the first half of the second century who have come to be known as the Apostolic Fathers, church fathers and leaders who stood in the tradition of the teachings of the apostles regularly quote. The books that came to be part of the New Testament. Not every last one of them equally early, but certainly they quote lines that clearly echo language from the four gospels, which is our focus in this particular class. By the middle of the second century. Christians have to face the challenges of an individual. A Christian bishop by the name of Marcion who was radically anti-Semitic. Very much deviating from apostolic doctrine in believing that the God of the Hebrews and of the Old Testament was an evil God of judgment, whereas the God of Jesus, the God who was Jesus of the New Testament, was a God of love and compassion.


[00:11:45] And as a result, Marcian is the first known person to talk about a list of authoritative documents. For Christianity, and it was much, much shorter than any that subsequently emerged. It was a good chunk of the Gospel of Luke. The one Gentile writer of a gospel and portions of the letters of Paul that were the most gentile in focus and nothing else. Scholars debate whether Marcion deserves to be called a full fledged Gnostic. We talked a little bit about Gnostics in the last lecture, but whether he was or not, the challenge of Gnosticism also was coming into full flower in the middle of the second century. Orthodox Christians began therefore to have conversations about which books could be trusted as representing genuine Christianity and which ones couldn't. The mid to late second century was also a period of persecution, not constantly. Each Roman emperor was different. Some allowed Christians largely to go their own ways as long as they did nothing that was perceived as treasonous against the Empire. But periodically an emperor would unleash fairly severe, even if short lived, persecution. At times this would include sending soldiers to non-Christian homes to gather up all scrolls, all documents that they had that were part of their holy books to be confiscated and perhaps destroyed. Which books would you die for? Which scrolls would you refuse to surrender to the authorities because you believe they were holy and that that was a blasphemous act? For the Roman authorities to undertake. Obviously, discussions began about which books fell into this category. And a late second century list. Known by the name of the moratorium canon for a much later scholar who discovered it. Begins to show that in orthodox circles, not just in heterodox circles like Gnosticism.


[00:14:30] People began to list authoritative documents. Which ones should be included? The moratorium canon refers to 21 of the 27 books that now comprise the New Testament. All four Gospels and no other gospels were included among them. Near the end of the second century. A famous Christian writer, the bishop of Leon in Gaul, what is now France Irenaeus. And a man who was a. Her geologist that is a student of Harris's and who wrote about them and refuted them, discussed in even more detail debates about the original canon. He had a list of 22 documents. But for our purposes, the most interesting thing is that he spoke about the four Gospels as being widely and without debate accepted by all major portions of the Christian world. And his justification for accepting the four gospels was not a theological one, he said. Just as there are four corners of the world, just as there are four winds from the north, south, east and west. It is proper that there would be four gospel. That's not an argument that would have convinced anybody in the ancient world, much less today, unless they already were accepted on other grounds. An irony is just making an analogy to other complete phenomena that represent a whole or an entirety. We moved in the third century. A man whose ministry and writing spanned the shift from the second to the third century. The Latin writer Tertullian spoke in Latin about a Novum testament, a new covenant. And testament him in Latin could mean covenant or testament. And in fact, even in English, the word testament can mean covenant as just as it can also mean a will. Somebody is the last will and testament. The two senses are closely related. And it is Tertullian who is the first person we know about to use this expression that gives rise to a New Testament.


[00:17:19] Now he lists 23 books. But again, no debate over the four gospels. Origin. Also writing early in the third century notes that there are 27 books that people talk about as potentially on a par with the Hebrew scriptures and that seven of them are disputed. What are those seven disputed books? None of the Gospels, not the Book of Acts, None of the letters attributed to Paul. Not first Peter. Not first, John. What are the seven remaining letters? Hebrews. James. Second, Peter. Second and third. John. Jude. And a book that is both a series of letters and an apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. Why were they disputed? Hebrews, in part because no one was quite sure who the author was. Some thought it was Paul, but there were several other suggestions as well. James, because there seem to be some things James said about faith without works being dead that could sound contradictory to the Apostle Paul, who talked about salvation by grace through faith alone. Second, Peter, because the style was dramatically different from the style of first Peter. Could Peter have written both second and third? Jon Because they were so short? Do they really contain timeless teaching for all of the church? Jude was short, too, and it also quoted a couple of non-canonical testimonial books. At least certain lines of which were treated as authoritative. Is that a problem? And the Book of Revelation, because as has been true in every century since. Nobody was ever quite sure what to do with it and how to interpret it. But this is a course on the Gospels. Notice what I didn't say. Never any dispute, never any suggestion that more than these four gospels should be included or that less than these four gospels should be included.


[00:20:11] There were other books that were occasionally proposed, almost all of which were largely orthodox and apostolic in their doctrine. Books like the Second Century. Did a K the teaching of the 12 Apostles, the Shepherd of Hermes. A letter attributed to the first century Christian leader Barnabas. And others with hints of. Teachings that moved beyond New Testament doctrine, but nothing gnostic, nothing like the apocryphal gospels that we talked about in our first lecture. It's only in the modern world that these have been suggested. In the fourth century. The three hundreds. We start to find. A crystallization, a coming together a clustering of Christian conviction about. What forms this Novum Testa mentum that Tertullian called it. In 367. The bishop of Alexandrian Egypt, a man by the name of Athanasius, published an Easter Time Festival encyclical letter. Much like Catholic bishops still publish an encyclical letters sent throughout the world today. And in it, he listed the 27 books that have come to form the New Testament and spoke of them as universally accepted. Maybe with a bit of hyperbole, but not in any sense that suggested he had to defend them against any competitors. And again, there was no debate about the gospels. Those 27 books were more formally ratified at two different ecumenical councils in North Africa, one at the town of Hippo. That's not a typo. It's a hippo. And at the town of Carthage. In the three nineties. By what criteria? By the criteria of Apostolic City. Written by apostles or close followers of apostles. In other words, de facto first century documents written when the apostles or their followers were still alive. Orthodox, that is to say, in keeping with the apostolic teaching of the oldest of those documents and. The conviction was in keeping with the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures.


[00:23:23] Not that Christians believed the Old Testament carried over into the Christian age with every law unchanged. Jesus came, he said, to fulfill the law. But he also said he came not to abolish it so that there was perceived continuity between the Old Testament and the new. Catholicity, not in the sense of later Roman church doctrine leading to what is called the Roman Catholic Church. Those distinctiveness would only start to emerge in any detail in the fourth and fifth centuries after. These decisions. But Catholic in the sense of universal. Of widely agreed upon. No discussion about authoritative Christian documents from the first three centuries of the Christian movement ever countenanced a document supported just by one sect or offshoot, or a small group or one geographical portion of the Christian world. One of the most fascinating and widely misunderstood features of ancient Gnosticism is that even in the Gnostic documents and the Gnostic gospels themselves, there is not a hint of anyone putting forward those documents. As on the same level of authoritative teaching as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Now it's possible that somebody did think they should be treated that way. Vast amounts of ancient evidence on any topic are lost and perhaps lost forever. But we know of no claims and we have quite a large body of Gnostic literature today. We know of no claims that suggest that even the authors and supporters of this literature themselves put it forward as worthy to be on a par with Scripture. Closely related to being universally accepted. Is the fourth and more subjective criterion. Probably the most subjective criterion. And that is a sense that these were divinely inspired texts. The spirit impressed on these early Christians, or at least that was their conviction.


[00:26:18] That when they read these texts, they proved relevant. They proved timelessly. True. They. Proved applicable and powerful and rang true to their hearts in a way that no other text did. That's the hardest one to evaluate, but notice that it is just one. Out of four. There's a lot more that could be said about the formation of the cannon. But I think the conclusion for this segment that is important to end with is. The Gospels, The Book of Acts. The Letters of Paul. As far as the existing evidence shows and admittedly, much is lost. But until there is some discovery that changes what we know now, we are not aware of any ancient debate. Suggestions that other gospels should be taken as inspired or even just historically reliable. Are entirely the product of. The last hundred years or so. And mostly. A shorter period of time than that. But we will say more about the Gnostic texts in our next lecture.