The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 4

The Text of the New Testament

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.”

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 4
Watching Now
The Text of the New Testament


A. We have more errors (“variants”) than words

B. Questions we should ask of these “400,000” differences

1. Are the numbers reliable?

2. How many manuscripts?

3. What kinds and significance of variants


A. Sources

1. Greek manuscripts

2. Other languages

3. Lectionaries

4. Church Fathers

B. 20,000 texts, 8–16 variants per manuscript


A. Most common variation is spelling of one word that has no affect on meaning

B. Every manuscript from the second and early third centuries are carefully written — no evidence to the contrary

C. No evidence there was significantly higher percentage of variations before the fourth century

D. Modern texts

1. Nestle-Aland Greek text records only 10,000 variations that have any impact on meaning, and most have no impact.

2. United Bible Societies Greek text shows just over 1,400 variations

3. Most modern English Bibles note about 300–400 variations, and only two dozen affect a verse or more

E. Two larger passages

1. Longer ending of Mark (16:9–20)

2. Woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11)


A. 99% confident

B. No Christian doctrine depends on any disputed text

  • 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


The Text of the New Testament

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is the course, the historical reliability of the New Testament gospels. This is segment four on the text of the New Testament and especially of the Gospels. In our first three segments. We have done what could simply be called ground clearing. If we want to deal with the. Foundational, authoritative texts of Christianity. We have to, first of all, ask something about why those four texts and are there other texts that should have been considered. And so our first three segments address that question from varying perspectives. We concluded that although there are other documents that go by the name of gospel from antiquity, none of them are full fledged narrative accounts of the entire life of Christ or even the amount that we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. None of them are nearly as old mid second century at the earliest, and with the possible exception of a handful of sayings in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, they give us nothing of historical value about first century Christianity, though they give us great insights into the life and beliefs of second, third, fourth, fifth century heterodox or sectarian Christianity. So now we want to turn our attention more exclusively to the only documents we have. If we are going to learn about the Jesus of history. Except for a handful of references elsewhere. But we still have another ground clearing question to ask. Do we have reliable texts? It's one thing to say that I have copies even in the same language that an ancient document was written in. But how close to the original? Is a copy. Has it been reliably. Inscribed, transmitted, duplicated over those centuries, long before the invention of the printing press, when professional scribes carefully copied by hand. Creating multiple copies of someone's writings.


[00:02:44] How does the New Testament measure up? How did the Gospels measure up? If we don't have reason to believe that these texts are at least reasonably close to what was first written, then there's not a lot of point to continue this series. There's not a lot of point to ask questions about the historical reliability of what we have. If we're not sure, what we have is what was first written. As we will see. However, there is very good reason to believe we have texts that are extraordinarily close to what was originally written. This leads us in to the topic of textual criticism in this case of the New Testament. And the way I want to introduce this topic is in a way that a well-known speaker and scholar and professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Bart Ehrman, himself introduces the topic when he speaks and in a book somewhat sensationally entitled Misquoting Jesus, which really isn't about misquoting Jesus at all, but it's what the publishers gave it in order to sell books. Amen. Early on. Says this. Depending on whose estimate you follow, there are at least 200,000, possibly 300,000, or maybe even 400,000 textual variants. Involving portions of the New Testament far more than there are words of the New Testament. Wow. Hearing a claim like that is a good diagnostic. To determine if somebody has any clue how to handle statistics. What questions would you want to ask? Having heard a claim like that. Well, hopefully you'd want to ask, are those numbers even reliable if there is such divergence? One of them twice as big as another. But hopefully you would also want to ask. How many manuscripts are these spread about? Hopefully you would want to ask what kinds of variance are we talking about? How extensive are they? How significant are they? It's amazing how many people, non-Christians and Christians alike simply hear this statistic.


[00:05:51] And begin to lose faith or write off Christianity. And there's no reason to do that. Let's begin to address some of those questions we have from the Pre Gutenberg era, beginning already in the early second century and continuing in an unbroken tradition over the centuries that follow more than 5700. Texts of anything from a fragment of a few verses to an entire New Testament. And the Gospels are best represented of all portions of the New Testament. Among these 5700 texts. But that number swells to an additional 20,000 if we add portions of texts in the other ancient languages that the Greek New Testament was translated into languages like Latin and Coptic and Ethiopian and Armenian and Slavonic and Syriac. You know them all. And the number continues to balloon. When we add in texts that appear in lectionary use in Greek small books that contained readings of Scripture for each Sunday, for churches that followed a liturgical calendar. And that number continues to balloon as one turns to the writings of the ancient church fathers, who often quoted passages out of the New Testament, sometimes extensively. The realistic number therefore into which. We should place those 400,000 variance is about 25,000 tax. Unless, of course, as a scholar like Daniel Wallace would argue, the real number is closer to 200,000 variance. Well take both the lower and upper ends of the range and now you have 8 to 16 variants per manuscript. Sounds a lot different than 200 to 400000 variance. But even that doesn't tell you a thing about what kinds of variants they are. The sizable majority affect only the spelling of a word. There are many different verb and noun forms in ancient Greek that couldn't be written with or without a final end.


[00:09:01] The Greek letter for an RN was a new. And so scholars call this movable news, and I'm sure there are some puns to be made there. Spelling only not affecting the meaning one whit. Craig Evans has examined the approximately 100 earliest manuscripts, many of them involving gospels from the second and early parts of the third century. And has noted that every one of them is very carefully written. There were two ways the scribes copied material in the ancient world. If a document was comparatively unimportant, he could write in a fairly careless scrawl. Like people still do. If it was an important or even sacred document, a professional scribe who had what today we would call good calligraphy. Was hired to produce a very careful text. Bardem and has argued that some of these early documents, especially those that have lost, were probably very careful. Carelessly or casually copied. But there's no actual evidence to support that. There's not a single document anywhere that's been discovered of any fragment of any text of the New Testament in such a hand. Erman also suggests that prior to the establishment of the canon at the councils of Hippo and Carthage that we talked about earlier in the late three nineties. It was quite probable that there was a higher frequency of textual variance then afterwards, and that the further back you went from the end of the fourth century, the more frequency and variation there would be. Part of that is true. There is a slightly greater frequency of textual variant, but it's the same frequency in the three eighties as in the one fifties. There's no evidence of a growing trajectory of the further back you get. The standard editions of the Greek New Testaments available to scholars and students today.


[00:11:57] Print a representative sampling of. The textual variants that we know about and go out of their way to indicate those that could have any significant influence on the actual meaning of the text. And not just spelling variations. There is a well used international text known as the Nestlé Allen text of the New Testament that records in very cryptic, abbreviated fashion with symbols that you have to learn how to master. About 10,000. Of. The existing textual variants, and the vast majority of those only involve the position of words, the presence or absence of an article. The. The use of a conjunction rather than simply juxtaposing words in a series and the like. The other standard edition of the Greek New Testament that gives much fuller evidence for the manuscripts that support key textual variants, but therefore has to be much more limited in the number that they record is that of the United Bible Society. The UBS text, in which just over 1400 textual variants appear. The ones that typically actually affect meaning. In a modern English translation of the Bible, on average, maybe 3 to 400 of these will appear in textual or marginal notes. If you can't read Greek, make sure that you're reading a modern translation, not the King James version or the new King James version, which simply updates the language but not the textual basis. But virtually every other major English translation or modern language translations in other main languages of our world today will have footnotes that will introduce you to the most important textual variants. This need not be a mystifying topic to anybody. Read the footnotes and you will see interesting divergences. But. Comparatively few. Only approximately two dozen involve more than a single verse or even an entire verse.


[00:14:43] Sometimes these include verses that. The few dozen manuscripts the King James translators in the 1600s had access to included. But as we now have thousands of texts, including the oldest and most reliable ones that were not known in 17th century England, We know we're not in the original, like the longer ending to the Lord's Prayer or the Witness, the Kingdom, Power and glory forever and ever. Amen. It's not in the oldest documents. Undoubtedly, some scribe didn't like the fact that Jesus prayer is recorded and Matthew ended in. But deliver us from evil. I kind of think that's pretty good ending myself. But the language was actually language borrowed from Second Chronicles. It was scriptural language, but it created a dark solid. It created appropriate ending to the passage. People will be familiar with the story in John five of the man who is waiting by the pool of Bethesda hoping to be healed, and Jesus asked if he wanted to be healed. And and he said, I have no one to put me into the water when it is stirred to be healed. What was that belief about? And so in many later texts, there are the additional words that talk about the belief that the first person in the pool when an angel stirred up the water. Probably meant that the underground spring was gushing forth would be healed and words were added by scribes to clarify the story. People who staunchly support the King James version of the Bible often complain that modern translations take this good stuff out. Well, yes, if you're comparing it with the King James. But modern translations are going back to the best ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of both testaments. They're simply translating what was most likely there originally and not adding in.


[00:17:01] What unknowingly the King James translators added in that wasn't in the original. Modern translations are not in the business of taking anything out of anything but of approximating as best as possible. What was originally there? There are only two passages in all the New Testament, and both of them are in the Gospels that involve a textual variant of more than one and a half or two verses. And they are very fascinating and have an influential history of interpretation. The first of these is the so-called longer ending of Mark's gospel. All ancient copies of Mark agree and containing what we now call Mark 16 1 to 8. And of course, chapters and verses were added in the Middle Ages much later than the time of their first composition. But Mark 16 eight. At least to modern sensibilities. It seems to be a puzzling way to end the gospel, especially if you know Matthew, Luke and John. Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. Break for commercial. And when you come back. There's nothing more that's added. Wait a minute. Even one mark was written, as we will see in a later talk, probably in the sixties of the first century. People knew about Jesus resurrection appearances. People knew that the women eventually got over their fear and did tell the disciples then that many of Jesus followers and a few others encountered the living Jesus. Did Mark really intend to end the gospel here? And commentators have different theories. Some imagine that a longer ending simply was lost because it was part of the open end of a rolled up scroll and easily torn off. But many scholars believe that Mark knew the Christians he was writing to knew the fuller story.


[00:19:37] But Mark has been the gospel that has most emphasized the fear and failure of the disciples. Primarily the male disciples. Women come across looking almost flawless in the gospel of Mark. Until this last verse. Is this the great equalizer? Sooner or later, all human followers of Jesus failed him. And if Mark was written as church tradition argues to Christians in Rome in the sixties, as persecution was heating up, there would have been those who had failed Jesus. There would have been those who were afraid, who could have taken comfort from a gospel that emphasizes that even the original closest followers of Jesus had their moments, and yet he was able to continue to use them. However. Many later documents add 12 whole verses. Most modern translations include in brackets or in a footnote someplace. Language like the NIB has when it says the earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9 to 20. But what follows? Printed in the Navy in smaller italicized fonts to differentiate it from the text itself reads like a mosaic of elements from the other three gospels put together, rounding out the story with full fledged resurrection appearances with a version of the Great Commission similar to the end of the Gospel of Matthew. And then a couple of very strange verses. These signs will accompany those who believe in my name. They will drive out demons. They will speak in new tongues. They will pick up snakes with their hands. And when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all. They will place their hands on sick people and they will get well. I don't have any problem with exorcisms. I don't have any problem with tongues properly interpreted. I don't have any problem with healing sick people.


[00:22:07] I have a problem with snake handling. And with drinking deadly venom, the history of the 20th century and the Appalachian Mountains is rife with small rural King James only congregations that practice snake handling and venom, drinking. And all of them sooner or later had fatalities. I, for one, am glad I do not have to defend the longer ending of Mark as on a par with authoritative scripture. But then there is a very different kind of 12 verse segment. John. Chapter seven, verse 53 through 811, comprises the famous story of the woman caught in adultery. Here. Interestingly enough, even very liberal scholars, even someone like Bart Ehrman would say. This is something probably that happened that Jesus probably did. A woman who is brought to Jesus by a group of Jewish leaders caught in the act of adultery, or where the man or the man. And Jesus refused to condemn her, but uttered those memorable words Let anyone of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. And one by one they went away so that Jesus asked the woman, Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you? No one large, she replied. Then neither do I condemn you, Jesus declared. Go now and leave your life of sin. There's no one that we know of in the first century Jewish world who had such a lenient approach. To a person caught in such a situation. If Jesus didn't say this, who would ever have made it up? It probably is a true story, but it almost certainly was not in the original text of John. It's not in the oldest and most reliable texts. And in the texts that it does appear in, it does not always appear in this location.


[00:24:46] Sometimes it appears at the end of John. Sometimes it appears in the middle of Luke. And sometimes it appears at the end of Luke. Looks very much like a story looking for a home. A story that some scribes felt was too important to leave out. To crucial not to include. Nothing dangerous happens to us if we believe and act on this story. Like drinking snake venom. But if. The Christian doctrine of inspiration attaches, as it has historically only to the original manuscripts. Now lost, but reconstruct a bowl with a high degree of probability through all of the copies that we have. Then we should not treat this paragraph in the same category as the rest of the Gospel of John. I've been privileged to sit under good teaching by expository preachers who have worked their way to Mark, who have worked their way through John. And when they come to these passages, they have taken some time to explain to their congregations why they are not going to preach a formal sermon on them. And I think that's a crucial distinction. What is at stake. Even though scholars will say more than 99% of the New Testament text is reconstruct able beyond a reasonable doubt, even though the leading American evangelical texts credit, Dan Wallace will say there is an extraordinarily high degree of likelihood that we have the original text of every New Testament document. The only question is which manuscript is it in at a given point? It still is unsettling to some people to hear that there is not 100.0000% certainty. In all of these matters. And so at this point, it is also equally important to say no Christian doctrine, no ethical mandate, no. Command for Christian living or belief depends on any disputed text.


[00:27:32] Yes, there may be a text that in some of the later variants magnifies Jesus daddy by calling Jesus Jesus Christ or even the Lord Jesus Christ. The Jesus deity can still be demonstrated by countless texts, even if in that one the gospel writer first just said Jesus. Textual criticism is important. It enables us to argue that we have a very close approximation to the original. And now, at long last, we're ready to ask the question that some of you thought this whole series was about. Our Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Historically reliable.