The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 10

Literary Genre of the Gospels

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?

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 10
Watching Now
Literary Genre of the Gospels


A. Aretalogies — lives of a divine person

B. Greek playwrights

C. Epic narratives

D. Gospel as a parable

E. Jewish Midrash

F. Sui generis — one of a kind

G. Biographies


A. Selectivity

B. Narrative time to indicate importance

C. Topical /Thematic and chronological arrangements

D. Paraphrase, abbreviation, and explanation, without quotation marks

E. Rewording the sources

F. Lessons should be learned from history — not mundane facts

  • 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


Literary Genre of the Gospels

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a class on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospel Session ten. The literary genre of the Gospels. We have been spending our time thus far looking at reasons why we should consider Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the first place, and no other texts from the ancient world. We have then looked at the reliability of the text itself. That is to say that we know what these writers wrote. We have talked about the reliability of translations, even in modern languages, including English. And then we have started to ask a series of questions that students of documents from antiquity, classical historians of all stripes, would normally ask early on in the investigation of the trustworthiness of ancient documents. Do we know who wrote them? Do we know how early they were written? How close in time? Were the authors in a position to know? If there was even a short gap between the events described and the composition of those writings, what kind of oral tradition in the oral cultures of the ancient world were involved? How reliably would things have been passed on by word of mouth? And then most recently, we have looked at the question of literary dependance where there is reason to believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke were in some kind of a relationship with each other in terms of one copying from another or to copying from a common source. In this early phase of investigating the reliability of an ancient document. Another key question that always has to be asked is what kind of book or books, what literary genre are we dealing with? In today's world, we have what is called historical fiction, where details are carefully researched about the context of. Characters that are entirely imaginary.


[00:02:30] In the 19th century, Herman Melville spent two years on whaling ships in the ocean to understand the ins and outs of that industry. Before he wrote what has become an American classic Moby Dick. None of the characters in his novel ever lived. But everything that happens to them is extremely lifelike. According to life in the mid-19th century, and particularly life on a whaling boat. Are we to imagine something like that going on in the Gospels? Interestingly, we are not aware of any documents from the ancient Near East. For that matter, we are not aware of any documents prior to the morality plays of the Middle Ages. That closely conform to what is called historical fiction. Today. A lot of people think that was what was going on with the gospels, but it does not seem to have been a literary option that was known in that world. But what were the options that were available? What are the major scholarly proposals for the genre or genres of the four New Testament Gospels? A very popular suggestion in certain circles has been what is technically called an era theology, a word that refers to. A life of a hero, a quasi divine, ized or deified individual whose life is seen as exemplary or virtuous. The Greek word array today means virtue, and whether it be some of the lives of the Caesars, whether it be some of the ancient heroes of old like that special healer skill piece. There are a series of Greco-Roman accounts of. People who once lived but whose lives have become larger than life down through the centuries. And often they have been believed to have become divine after their deaths. Is that what we are to imagine? When it comes to the four gospels of the New Testament.


[00:05:19] It's true they were all written in Greek, but Matthew, Mark and John more specifically were immersed in Judaism, not in Greco-Roman backgrounds. That may not be the best analogy. Those stories which do exist that have some at least partial parallels to the biographies of Jesus, most notably the life of Apollonius of Tyana, written in the third century by a man named Thilo Stratis. Post date. The Christian Gospels. If one literary form inspired another, it could only be that the Gospels inspired the later writers and not vice versa. In fact, students who have come through demonstrably pre-Christian sources have said. There aren't enough similar documents even to make this an existing category. At that early a date. Well, maybe we are to turn to the Greek playwrights who were unquestionably pre-Christian. The comedians. Or those who wrote tragedies. Certainly from one perspective, the life of a man with so many compelling characteristics, says Jesus of Nazareth, who then was innocently executed and experiencing an agonizing death. Could be likened to a tragedy. But because the Gospels end with the resurrection. And a comedy as a dramatic literary term does not necessarily mean something that causes laughter, though it might. But it simply means a work. With a happy ending after. Dramatic events that make that happy ending very much in doubt. One could understand how that category could be applied to the Gospels. But apart from those issues about endings. There is very little that is narrated in the poetic form of a Greek play. There is very little that suggests staging and scene work and acts. Or the larger dramatic features of plays. And again, those aren't. Very Jewish categories. What about something like The Iliad and The Odyssey, the epic narratives or sagas of Homer? Interestingly, the more that people excavate try.


[00:08:38] The sight of so much of Homer's fiction. The more they discover that. Some of what was thought to be fiction appears to have been factual. Undoubtedly, the stories were embellished. But the stories were embellished. Over a period of centuries. In fact, ancient Greek and Roman heroes often had miracles attributed to them. Half a millennium after their lives that none of the most ancient sources of information about their lives ever mentioned. 30 years seems to be much too short a period of time for sagas or myths or epic narratives to grow up about Jesus. A few scholars have pointed out. The frequency of Jesus parables and wondered if an entire gospel could be seen as a parable, a fictitious story to teach theological truth or an apocalypse. A story about the end of the world. Or at least the potential end of the world. But these have not caught on widely. Occasionally a scholar reflects on a Jewish genre of midrash, a word that simply means commentary, but as a literary genre, and more specifically, what sometimes is called the rewritten Bible. There are books in the inner testimonial period in which the stories of Genesis and Exodus are rewritten and elaborated and embellished. And the assumption is that Jews knew their Bible well enough that they would hear these and they could distinguish between what was biblical and what was. The preacher's embellishment, if you like. Preachers to this day retell biblical stories and add in all kinds of colorful, historically possible details. When they know their audiences won't confuse the sacred text with the elaborated retelling. Is that what Matthew and Luke did to Mark? But again. The theory has not caught on on a widely basis, on a wide basis. What has been popular is to say the gospels are sui generis of their own genre.


[00:11:21] One of a kind. But is that simply to punt and to give up? Today by far the most common. Identification of a general for any of the four gospels is that they are biographical. They focus on one central character. And intend to tell his life story. But they are ancient biographies, partaking of elements of Jewish biographies both inside and outside of Scripture and partaking of elements of Greco-Roman biographies. Modern readers coming to these texts. Will often say they don't read like a modern biography. We would never tell the story this way. And they would be right. People in the first century had no idea how people 20 centuries later would tell stories. And if you are watching this DVD in the 21st century. Hopefully you're not going to want to be judged in any story you would tell by standards that won't have been invented until the 42nd. So what were the characteristics of ancient biographies? Especially those that set them apart from many modern Western biographies. Great selectivity in narrating the portions of someone's life that were deemed most significant. How could Mark start a biography? By describing someone named John the Baptist who pointed the way forward to Jesus and introduce his main character, fully grown. Telling us nothing about his birth, nothing about his childhood, nothing about his young adulthood. That wouldn't pass muster in an introduction to literature class for college freshmen. Jesus never went to a college. Neither did the gospel writers, and they would have had no clue what a freshman was. Matthew and Luke, of course, do include material surrounding Jesus birth. But except for that one account at the end of Luke two about Jesus teaching in the temple at age 12, nothing between his childhood. And his public ministry at about age 30.


[00:14:33] That's no way to give a biography. No, not if you're writing in the modern Western world. But perfectly normal. In the ancient Mediterranean world. One used what literary critics call narrative time in order to help people understand what was important. Mark and John both devote nearly half of their accounts. To the events of Jesus last journey to Jerusalem through his death and resurrection. That's not proportional. That's not representative of his life. That's exactly what ancient biographers did. It sounds paradoxical, but Christians came to the conviction that the most important thing about Jesus life. Was his death. And resurrection. So their narrative time slows way down. And we read things in much more detail after large sections passed over without comment. It's been estimated that everything narrated of Jesus public ministry in Matthew, Mark and Luke put together could have occurred in about three months. But we know from John's gospel that he had a nearly three year ministry. A lot is being passed over. Ancient biographies. Thirdly. Sometimes preceded in chronological sequence, often proceeded topically. Thematically mark Chapter one after the introduction to John the Baptist. After a brief reference to Jesus Baptism and temptation in the Wilderness. Proceeds to describe a whole series of physical healings that Jesus performed. Chapter two one through chapter three, verse six Group together selection of conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish authorities over interpretation of the law. The rest of Chapter three contrasts Teachings about discipleship. With opposition that Jesus encounters. Chapter four in the first 34 verses is a collection of parables. Chapter 435 To the middle of Chapter six is a collection primarily of great miracles of Jesus, including miracles over the world of nature. And so it goes. And when you take a synopsis or a harmony of the Gospels and find where all those mark and passages are in either Matthew or Luke, they're not always in the same order.


[00:17:46] And then you need to realize that our English Bibles that sometimes use now or then are using the words. As we do in English. Now, the next thing I want to tell you is then, as in the sense of therefore, or it logically follows that. Unless we see terms in the Greek that specifically say the day after words six days later or something that has to be taken chronologically. We are safest not to assume a chronological link. And ask if there is some reason that topically or thematically the gospel writer has put these sections together. We've already mentioned in previous segments, this is a world without quotation marks or any felt need for them. It was perfectly appropriate, to paraphrase someone's words, as long as you were faithful to their intent and their meaning. You could abbreviate an account. You could explain Speaker's words, interspersing your explanation right in the middle of their words. Sometimes. And if you are faithful to their intention, there would have been no charge of. Playing fast and loose with history. In fact, one of the ways to internalize and own a document and put yourself forward as a competent historian or biographer was to reword one's sources to make it your own material. Why were the gospel writers so selective? One answer is how much you could fit on a scroll. And the cumbersome ness of having to write more than one scroll. But there was. Probably a more significant answer. The ancient world. In fact, most of world civilization until. About the mid-18th century in Europe and then in America. I believe that history was valuable in order to learn lessons from it. Good examples to follow errors to avoid the idea of our modern congressional record, which supposedly records every word of every speaker, even in a filibuster.


[00:20:59] Would have been considered absurd to the ancients. Why waste so much pen and ink? On that, which is irrelevant. The idea of publishing someone's journal. That's simply recorded day by day. Their intimate thoughts about mundane matters. Would have been, for one thing, a horrifying breach of privacy. And also largely pointless. Modern blogs. That talk about insanity after insanity day by day. Facebook posts. Of what the baby didn't eat and the mess that was made afterwards. What if simply convince the ancients of the utter decay of modern civilization? You didn't recount. History. You didn't tell stories from famous people unless they were important enough to learn something from them. And you know what? They might have had a better grasp on reality and value than we do. Now, the Gospels are not modern biographies, but they are good representatives of ancient biographies and most similar to the most trustworthy of ancient biographies and historical writing. But there is more. If you want rock solid evidence for the reliability of the gospels. Stay tuned for Segment 11. The evidence of the rocks of archeology.