The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 7

Reliability of the Oral Tradition (Part 1/2)

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?

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 7
Watching Now
Reliability of the Oral Tradition (Part 1/2)


A. Why write history if Jesus is returning soon?

1. Mark 9:1

2. Mark 13:30

3. Matt 10:23

B. Ps 90:4 in Jewish and Christian thought

1. 2 Pet 3:8

2. Jewish interpretation

C. Jesus’ ethical teaching assumes an extended time

D. Essenes (Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls)


A. Holocaust historians were objective (revisionists weren’t Jewish)

B. Already an uphill battle to fight, so why create stories?

1. Virgin birth

2. Resurrection


A. New Testament revelation

1. Was different (Rev 2:1; Acts 11:28; 21:10–11)

2. 1 Cor 14:29

B. First century issues not read into the Gospels (“Missing Sayings”)

1. Circumcision

2. Speaking in tongues


A. Jewish tradition was to take notes right away

B. Common to abbreviate discussions

C. Leadership would control

D. “Difficult Sayings”

Class Resources
  • 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


Reliability of the Oral Tradition (Part 1/2)

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is, of course, on the historical reliability of the New Testament gospel. Session seven deals with the reliability of the oral tradition. We left off at the end of the last segment talking about the small gap by ancient standards between the writing of the Gospels and the events they depicted, and the fact that the authors on both conservative and liberal reconstructions of history would have been either only one or two removed from the very events that were narrated. But even on the most plausible of conservative scenarios. Mark, followed closely by Matthew and Luke, would have been writing a good 30 plus years after the events they described. Even at the end of Jesus life. And so for three decades, the accounts of the events of Jesus would have circulated by word of mouth. Can we trust Ancient Jewish oral tradition. That's what our focus is on in this segment. And one of the ways to sharpen that question, to ask a subset of that question is to ask, Were the gospel writers interested in preserving history? Well, why wouldn't they be? Perhaps because Jesus said a number of things that apparently were taken by some of his followers to mean that. He would come back again within their lifetimes. For example. Mark. Chapter nine, verse one with parallels in Matthew and Luke as well. Jesus speaking to the crowd as well as the disciples, says, Truly, I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power. If that refers to his second coming, then it certainly sounds as though he's saying it will happen in the lifetime of some of his listeners. But interestingly, the very next account in all three gospels.


[00:02:52] Is the transfiguration. After six days, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain where they were all alone. And there he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white. And there appeared before me, Elijah and Moses. It's a supernatural event. That certainly fits the description of God's kingdom temporarily coming and being disclosed in the magnificent power and majesty that was normally hidden to people on Earth as Jesus walked among them. Ah, but what about another text that appears in all of the Synaptics as Jesus is talking about the end and about His return? And he says in Mark 1330. Truly, I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all of these things have happened. But what are all these things? Yes, he has spoken about his return earlier in the chapter, but in the immediately preceding verse, he says, Even so, when you see these things happening. You know that it is near. Right at the door. These things apparently are the signs that have been described that show that Christ's return is imminent but don't actually include Christ's return. And then there's Matthew ten, a passage that's not paralleled in any of the other gospels. Verse 23. When you are persecuted in one place, Jesus says to the one to flee to another. Truly, I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the son of man comes. Meaning that the 12 personally would not have gone throughout all of the Jewish cities before Christ's return or. Because in that very sermon, he goes on to predict a long period of persecution for the 12. Maybe he is saying. The cause of Jewish evangelism will never be completed.


[00:05:41] In which case it's not. An unequivocal prediction of the end in the first century. But suppose some of Jesus followers took these texts that way. Would they then? Have had any interest in preserving information about Jesus. You don't write a history if you think the world's about to end, even if you've misinterpreted something. But in first century Judaism. There was a text that had already had a history of influence in Israelite religion. Psalm 90, verse four talks about a day is a thousand years and a thousand years as a day with the Lord. Second, Peter will quote that passage and say the Lord is not slow as some count slowness, but he is not wishing for any to perish. Jewish writings in between the Old and New Testament use that text to explain why the writing prophets in the Old Testament had frequently predicted the day of the Lord being at hand final judgment, and yet century after century had passed. So even if some of the disciples had taken Jesus words to mean that He thought. His end was soon that they thought he was coming back imminently. That's no guarantee that they would have said conclusively, we know it has to be by a certain date. What's more, the kinds of things that Jesus taught on his ethical teachings seem to presuppose that the church, the community of his followers, would outlive him considerably. His ethic was not some. Unusual. Unusually urgent. Commands for a short period of time. He commanded his followers to pay their taxes each year as they came around. He gave instruction about marriage and divorce and remarriage. Which in the ancient world didn't happen nearly as quickly as the 21st century Western world, but presupposed life spans. He talked about being persecuted, being hauled before magistrates and kings.


[00:08:39] About loving one's enemy. In times of tribulation. Things that did not occur every decade. At any point. In the opening centuries of Christianity and other topics. What's more, as we've seen in some of our earlier comments, there was a community somewhat similar to the first Jesus followers the scenes on the shores of the Dead Sea. Who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls at a site called Qumran? Who, in some of their own literature, made it very clear they thought they could be living in the end times in the last generation of human history. And yet they preserved records from over a 250 year period of their own history. It's really only if somebody is convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt. That the end is just around the corner, that the dynamic of not being concerned for history comes into play. And there's no evidence that anybody in early Christianity went to that extreme. But change the challenge a little bit. Is it true that the Gospels are theological, that they have ideological commitments, they have biases, they have slants, they have spins on the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And if you have an ideological bias that's likely to distort. The way you present history, you no longer are interested in creating an objective chronicle of events. It's true. That can happen. But it doesn't always happen. Consider the tragic events during World War Two, the Nazi atrocities. The so-called Holocaust. 6 million Jews. Brutally killed. It was often times Jewish historians. In the years and decades afterwards, most passionately committed to seeing that such atrocities never befall their people or anyone else ever again. Who were the most objective historians meticulously chronicling life after life, after death after death. And the revisionists, the people who have doubted the extent of the Holocaust have tended to be the people who aren't Jewish.


[00:11:38] They didn't share the ideological commitment. And if you think about the nature of early Christian theology. Already. Jesus followers had an uphill battle to fight, as it were. Virginal conception. Teenage daughter comes home and says, Hey, mom, I'm pregnant. Don't worry. There was no guy involved. I sometimes hear the ludicrous claims that the miracles of the Gospels were believed in antiquity because this wasn't an age of modern science. People in the first century knew it took two to tango. No mother in their right mind would have believed that story, even in first century Galilee. And a resurrection, a bodily resurrection appearing to more than 500 people at different places and times. That was unheard of. There was already an uphill battle to fight, and there were plenty of people throughout that first generation of Christian history who were unconvinced. Who were among those Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus. Hostile eyewitnesses, we would call them in journalistic language. They could easily have debunked the faith right from the outset. If Christians on any widespread scale were caught falsifying the events. Sometimes the nature of one's ideology. Belief that God was uniquely acting in human history through Jesus Christ. Requires that you tell the story straight. But there's a third challenge. We know from the pages of Acts and the episodes of Paul and the Book of Revelation that one of the popular spiritual gifts of the first generation of Christians was the gift of prophecy, speaking messages that people believed came from the risen Lord Jesus. For the benefit of local Christian congregations. Surely the claim is made in some circles that because such revelations were deemed to come from the very same Jesus who had walked. The land of Israel that Jesus words from heaven through Christian prophets could have been intermingled with what he taught during his earthly life.


[00:14:33] And mixed together in the Gospels. It was the same Jesus who said them in any event. I suppose that's theoretically possible. But it's interesting, the three places we actually see early Christian prophecy taking place in the New Testament. To John the Seer and the Book of Revelation through Agaba Twice and the Book of Acts. What is said is very distinct from anything that's said in the Gospels. There's no confusion. And even if, hypothetically, that had happened. First Corinthians 14 reminds us that Paul taught the Corinthians always to evaluate and weigh prophecy. Jews had been taught to do that in Old Testament times. And one of the key criteria for false prophecy was that it contradicted previous revelation from God. So had some things snuck into the gospel tradition that came through a Christian prophet rather than from Jesus. It still would have been in sync with the teaching of the historical Jesus. But it's unlikely that that happened. See, there are topics we might have expected to find teachings of Jesus about in the Gospels. If the first Christians felt free to include what God's who Christ was revealing to them in the first generation of Christian history. Take, for example, the issue of circumcision. I suppose no one in my listening audience has ever listed circumcision as among their top ten ethical dilemmas in life. But try to put yourself in the place of an adult Greek male in the first century. A gentile. An uncircumcised man. Intrigued by this Jesus movement and aware that there was a division within that movement. Some saying you must keep all of the Jewish law to be saved. Worship Jesus's Messiah, of course, but don't neglect the law. Well, rabbis counted 613 laws on the books of Moses, and there were men prepared to do their best and 612 of them.


[00:17:25] But that last and final step to become a full fledged process light in a world without anesthesia. Are you empathizing yet? Fortunately for those adult Greek men, Acts 15 describes the decision was clear, though not after some hashing it out. You don't have to be circumcised to be saved. Hallelujah. But why did no one quote Jesus? Why is there no teaching of Jesus in the Gospels that would have settled it? Apparently no one felt free to make it up. And no one knew anything that the historical Jesus had said on the topic. The same is true of speaking in tongues. Threatened to blow the church and Corinth wide open. Chapters 12 to 14 of First Corinthians. First Corinthians is the book in which Paul most consistently alludes to teachings of Jesus to help settle ethical issues. Why? Nothing to settle this one. Apparently he didn't know of anything. And didn't feel free. To insert something and no gospel writer felt free to insert anything and make it sound like Jesus had spoken on the topic. There are additional. More positive reasons. For believing not only that the gospel writers wanted to preserve reliable history, but that they were in a position to do so, that they were able to do so. 30 years, by ancient standards, as we discussed earlier, was a very short period for oral tradition, and it probably wasn't exclusively oral. Rabbis, although they discouraged it in public, encouraged their disciples after a day of public ministry in a form of shorthand to take some notes on the most memorable things they had heard and experienced. Against the claims of some that. Tradition simply grew and grew, and accretions and embellishments and mythological and legendary editions were added. There is an equally strong tradition to abbreviate.


[00:20:12] Think about the detailed sermons in the Gospels. Even the Sermon on the Mount. Three full chapters. You can speak in a matter of 15 or 20 minutes slowly. Jesus didn't gather thousands to teach them that little. This is abbreviated highlights. And remember that this is not a free flowing new movement out of control. There is a center of leadership in Jerusalem that we read in the Book of Acts. Went to check up on how the gospel was being told when it made it to Samaria in Acts eight and other places and made corrections as necessary. Think about some of those hard or difficult sayings of Jesus. Whoever does not hate father, mother, brother or sister cannot be my disciple. Luke 1426 How many Hate your parents and don't raise your hands. Well, there's a parallel in Matthew that explains it. Whoever does not love God far more than these is not worthy of me. But why did Luke leave it in such a difficult form? If early Christians felt free to sow change or distort the tradition, why did Paul make distinctions like he did in first Corinthians seven, alluding to Jesus teaching on divorce and remarriage and saying, This is from the Lord and not I. But then going on to say, this is I and not the Lord. Doesn't mean he's just giving his own opinion. He ends the chapter by saying, I too think I have the spirit of God. It's not that one saying is uninspired and the other is inspired. It's that sometimes he can quote Jesus and other times he can't. And he preserves those distinctions. He doesn't blur them together. Where are the gospel writers likely to preserve reliable history? I believe they were. And we will continue in the next segment with even more reasons.