The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 3

Books Not Included in the Canon

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.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 3
Watching Now
Books Not Included in the Canon


A. Assume Christ’s deity means he was born as an “adult”

B. Infancy stories

1. Infancy Gospel of Thomas (childhood stories)

2. Protoevangelium of James (“real virgin birth”)

C. Passion supplements

1. Gospel of Peter

2. Gospel of Nicodemus (“Acts of Pilate” and descent into hell)

D. Why create these documents?

1. Curiosity

2. But Luke 2:52 says Jesus “grew”


“The Secret Gospel of Mark” (fraud by Smith)


A. No real historical value

B. Examples

1. Apocryphon of James (parables)

2. Gospel of Philip

3. Gospel of Mary (may suggest a romantic relationship with Jesus)

C. General comments

1. Fragmentary (not “gospel” in normal sense)

2. Tend to involve dialogues with Jesus about topics unrelated to the major themes of the canonical gospels

3. Esoteric speculation

D. Samples

1. Gospel of Truth (philosophical speculation)

2. Gospel of Thomas (114 sayings)

  • 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


Books Not Included in the Canon

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] We are in a series studying the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels, and this session is entitled Books Not Included. The contents of the apocryphal and Gnostic Gospels. In our first lecture, we alluded briefly to various ancient documents that postdated the four canonical gospels that included legendary information and that, quite frankly, most scholars, even fairly liberal scholars, would acknowledge, are reasonably worthless for understanding the first century Jesus of history. Though each gives insight into a sect or a group in later Christian history, out of which these gospels developed. It's one thing to make that statement. We really need to back it up with some discussion of the contents of these works. Reading some select quotations from them. And so what I want to do in this segment is to turn first to the so-called apocryphal gospels. Beginning with some that describe Jesus as a baby, as a young child. Today, we might say a toddler. The. Theme or unifying feature of these texts is that they assume that Christ Deity meant that he emerged from the womb. Almost as if he were an adult able to speak and discourse within weeks or months, revealing amazing wisdom, revealing miraculous gifts. Not all of these texts necessarily emerged in overtly Gnostic circles, circles that formerly denied Jesus full humanity and focused solely on his divinity. But they certainly glorify him to use a term from modern film culture. Jesus is definitely the boy wonder in these infancy supplements, not full fledged narratives, but just short texts that describe. A phenomenon. A prodigy teaching the alphabet and the meaning of letters to grown up people. When he is barely one or two years old and the like. Probably the best known of these is the infancy gospel of Thomas, and we use that adjective to distinguish it from the Gnostic or Coptic gospel of Thomas that we'll talk about at the end of this segment.


[00:03:23] The infancy Gospel of Thomas is the book that we referred to in our first talk in which Jesus fashions some birds out of the ancient equivalent of a sandbox, except this would have been a mud box and breathes the breath of life into them and they fly away. More ominously, this is the text from which a playmate who is taunting him receives his wrath as Jesus. In the great King James English of later Translation says to him, stretching out his hand, be thou withered up. And the kid shrivels up. Dad is so horrified, he begs Joseph, who in turn begs Jesus to undo the miracle, and he finally relents. Or in another case, when Joseph has unfortunately created a table with one leg shorter than the other, three, Jesus miraculously lengthens it so that the table balances properly. These are frivolous. These are playful. These are, at times horrifying childhood miracles. Simply trying to glorify the young Jesus. But they are without any historical value. A similar document has been given the daunting name of the proto evangelism of James. That is the first or early good news or gospel attributed to the Apostle James. And it is from this second century document that we read about the real virgin birth. When Christians talk about the virgin birth. What they normally mean is the virginal conception. That Mary had not had relationships with anyone, including her husband, when Jesus was conceived. But the proud evangelism of James goes one step further and describes the miracle that the midwives observed at the time of the birth of Jesus, that her hymen remained unbroken. It was truly a virgin birth, and it is from the one gallium of James that the subsequent Roman Catholic doctrine of the sinless illness of Mary.


[00:06:02] Is promoted. But again, nothing of value for first century history. There are also passion supplements. There are texts, again, not entire narratives of the whole life of Jesus, but that flesh out details surrounding his death. There is one by the name of the Gospel of Peter. If it is not Gnostic, it is at least ascetic. That is believing that Jesus only seemed to be human. It has an elaborate expansion of the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. And when he emerges from the tomb with two angels surrounding him, we read that the heads of the angels reached up to the clouds. But the head of Jesus, who was walking in between them, soared above the clouds. These are not normal. Five and a half foot tall first century Jewish men. In addition to the Gospel of Peter, we can speak about the Gospel of Nicodemus, complete with a section called The Acts of Pilot Pontius Pilot. More Information about Pilots Proceedings. But fictitious invented. An episode of Jesus descending into hell, according to one interpretation of first Peter 318 to 22 and everything that he did in the underworld and bringing out faithful people of God of previous generations. What? What led? Christians or pseudo Christians to create these documents. Most probably a curiosity about what they recognize to be the most significant periods, certainly from a supernatural perspective of Jesus life. His opening years and his closing days. They are not historically substantial, but they satisfied people's curiosity. About what a supernatural, divine Jesus. Might have been like as a baby, as a young person, or on his way to the cross and beyond. But unfortunately they don't adequately do justice to Luke Chapter two, verse 52 that says, Like every other child, Jesus grew.


[00:09:09] In his humanity, grew socially, grew spiritually, grew in favor with God, the text says. Which almost certainly means that he did not come out of the womb spouting divine truths, that he went to synagogue school like every other Jewish boy from ages 5 to 12, that he learned the Hebrew scriptures. He did not grow up knowing them supernaturally already. And so on. There are also very fragmentary works. We don't know how long they might have once been. But. Documents that contain a couple of miracles, a couple of dialogs between Jesus and disciples or opponents. Reasonably orthodox, similar to what we find in the New Testament. Because they are fragmentary. It's hard to know their their significance. There is one very famous work that has often been referred to as the secret gospel of Mark. That a scholar by the market by the name of Martin Smith. Claimed to have discovered in the 1950s at a monastery in Egypt by the name of Marsala. And photographed. It was not allowed, he said, by the monastic community to take it away. But then when people came back and tried to replicate the experiment, later, the document had mysteriously disappeared. It was supposedly a letter from a second century Christian writer by the name of Clement describing a version. Of the passion account. Similar to Mark's unique detail about a man wearing only a linen garment fleeing from Gethsemani in March 1452. Only in the version Clement supposedly saw. He was a young man wearing only a linen garment who came to learn from Jesus all night long and discourse with him about secrets and mysteries in a way that is suggestive of maybe even some homosexual relationship. And Martin Smith himself was one with homosexual leanings in recent times.


[00:12:15] After several decades of many scholars listing the secret gospel of Mark as another genuine ancient document, even if it was historically worthless. There have been a series of studies that make it almost certain that this is a fraud, a hoax that Smith himself created, which is why he alone was able to see it and it later mysteriously disappeared. But let's turn to. What attracts public interest in the 21st century? The Gnostic Gospels. So much is said often in the popular press. Some of it true, some of it misleading and some of it just false. Most of the Gnostic texts are of absolutely no value for understanding the Jesus of history. And virtually all scholars, not just Christian ones, agree. Unfortunately, the media don't always report it that way. There is a text that is called the Apocrypha, one of James. That contains several parables similar to the parables of Jesus, but otherwise unknown. And which refers in other places simply by name to the parable of the Sower, making it clear that this is a post New Testament document that can refer back to various teachings or sayings of Jesus just by a title or by a one line expression. Thanks to Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, many people have become aware of the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary. Which Browne assumes refers to Mary Magdalene. Though scholars aren't entirely sure about this. It could be Mary, the mother of Jesus, The Gospels of Philip and the Gospel of Mary have texts which, if interpreted out of context and translated in somewhat unnatural ways. Could suggest a love affair between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But in context and translated in the most reliable ways. They don't suggest that at all. These are, again, very fragmentary documents.


[00:15:09] Don't let the term gospel mislead you. They last only for a few pages of text in modern translations. They tend to involve dialogs between Jesus and various followers of his, primarily about topics unrelated to the major themes of the canonical Gospels, the Kingdom of God. Ethical living. Jesus relationship to God, his Ministry of dying on the Cross. Instead, they involve esoteric speculation about the creation of the universe, about angels and archangels and demons and hierarchies of people and activities in the unseen world. They. They breathe an entirely different atmosphere. But don't take my word for it. Let me quote to you from some of these documents. Let me go, for example, to a document which has simply been called the Gospel of Truth because of the way it begins. Originally written in the Egyptian language of Coptic translated into English. We don't know if this is how it originally began, but this is how what survives begins. The gospel of truth is a joy for those who have received from the father of truth the gift of knowing him through the power of the word that came forth from the play Roma, a word meaning the fullness, the one who is in the thought and the mind of the father, that is the one who is addressed as the Savior. That being the name of the work he is to perform for the redemption of those who are ignorant of the Father. While the name of the Gospel is the proclamation of hope being discovery for those who search for him. Does this sound like the Jesus of the New Testament? This is philosophical language of later speculation. It continues indeed. The all a term for the Godhead went about searching for the one from whom it had come forth.


[00:17:56] There was a God before God and the all was inside of him, the incomprehensible, inconceivable one who is superior to every thought. Ignorance of the father brought about anguish and terror. See Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning knowledge. Ignorance is the problem of humanity in the Gnostic system, not sin. And the anguish grew solid like a fog so that no one was able to see. For this reason, air became powerful. It fashioned its own matter foolishly, not having known the truth. The creation of the material world was based on ignorance, foolish rebellion against the Invisible Godhead. It's set about making a creature. Humanity. With all its might preparing in beauty the substitute for the truth. An outstanding illustration of the heart of Gnosticism, but far removed. From. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But the text that I want to spend the most time on. And the rest of this lecture on. Is the one possible exception. We've already mentioned one text. Second century text attributed to Thomas. And we might mention that the very fact that these books were attributed to first century characters reflects the awareness by the Gnostic authors that what they were producing would not be convincing in its own right, would not be able to stand on their own unless they could deceive people into thinking that first century Christian authors wrote them. But there is also a Coptic Gnostic gospel of Thomas that we know from one fourth century Coptic text and from three very fragmentary second century Greek texts. Unlike the other Gnostic gospels, the Gospel of Thomas. Does at many points remind us of the Jesus of the New Testament. It is not filled with speculation about the creation of the universe. Neither is it a narrative like the fragmentary narratives about Jesus birth or passion that we discussed earlier.


[00:21:08] It is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Sometimes with absolutely no segways or links between them. Other than the introductory words. And he said. Many times, However, there is a term or a word or concept that enables us to see why two passages would have been juxtaposed, linked together by what were called catch words or catch phrases. No relation to the modern game by that name. Let's hear a little bit from the gospel of Thomas. These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus, the Greek word for twin Judas Thomas wrote down. And he said whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death. Hey, I guess we better keep reading. Jesus said let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. Oh, that sounds like the Sermon on the Mount. But it continues when he finds he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished and he will rule over the all capital a a term for all that exists, including the Godhead. Jesus said, If those who lead you say to you see the kingdom is in the sky, then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you it's in the sea, then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you and outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known and you will realize it that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty. You hear something that starts out sounding like Jesus teaching about the kingdom. Kingdom of God is within or among you.


[00:23:38] And then it moves in a surprising direction and it moves in a Gnostic twist. Knowledge is what is key. Then you will be known. By God and B Sons of the Living Father saying for. Jesus said the man. Olden days will not hesitate to ask a small child, seven days old, about the place of life, and he will live. For many who are first will become last. And they will become one and the same. If you are. Baby Gnostic. You can teach an old man who is not one. And yes, the first will become last. The last will become first. That's biblical, but now applied in a different context and then turned in a new direction. They will become one in the same. Gnostics believed in radical equality among all people. There are numerous parables in the Gospel of Thomas. Some of them in radically abbreviated form compared to New Testament texts. And for scholars who believe that the only direction that tradition developed was from the short to the lengthy. These abbreviated forms suggest that Thomas may have the earliest and most authentic version of the parables. But when one studies oral tradition more generally in the ancient world, we don't see any consistent patterns. Detailed texts can also be abbreviated. And when we read some of those parables, we discover little hints of Gnostic doctrine that suggest that they are later than the New Testament texts and have been tampered with. Consider, for example. Gnostic Text 64. Jesus said a man had received visitors and when he had prepared the dinner, he went and sent his servant to invite the guests. He went to the first and the man said, The master invites you. And he said, I have claims against some merchants.


[00:26:07] They are coming to me this evening. I must go and give them my orders. I ask to be excused. He went to another and said, My masters invited you. He said, I've just bought a house and I'm required for the day. Goes to a third in. The man says, My friend is going to get married. My friend is going to get. See, Marriage wasn't a good idea for Gnostics who promoted celibacy. But my friend is getting married. The parable sounds very similar to the parable of the Great Banquet. Until you get to the end, The master said to his servants, Go outside to the streets and bring back those whom you happened to meet so that they may dine. Businessmen and merchants will not enter the places of my father. A Gnostic twist against getting too involved in the commerce of this world. What's often lost sight of is that Gnostic attacks are at times fairly anti-Semitic. Saying 53. His disciples said to him, Is circumcision beneficial or not? He said to them, if it were beneficial, their father would be get them already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision and spirit has become completely profitable. Some Gnostic texts have been seconded in support of feminism. Because of the radical equality. But it was radical equality in search of the perfect androgynous. Sexless person. Here. Not the word of the Lord. In the final saying saying 114. Simon Peter said to them, Let Mary leave us for women are not worthy of life. Jesus said, I myself shall lead her in order to make her male. So that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male. Will enter the kingdom of heaven. Shall we have an altar call? About a third of the Gospel of Thomas resembles the canonical gospels.


[00:28:49] About half seems clearly Gnostic, and the remaining sayings are ambiguous enough that they can be taken in either direction. And that's the area that some scholars find fascinating. Maybe there are some stray sayings of Jesus that were preserved outside of the canonical texts, but of a more orthodox bent. And even if that's the case, that sets Thomas off from all of the other techs that we have surveyed. But it doesn't seem likely there is much here and nothing to subvert the classic Christian picture of Jesus.