The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 11

Archaeology and 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.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 11
Watching Now
Archaeology and the Gospels


A. Millstone

B. Cornerstone

C. Immersion pools

D. “Moses’ Seat”

E. Thatched roofs

F. Winepress


A. Ministry

B. Capernaum synagogue with “parsonage”

C. Peter’s home (possible)

D. Jacob’s well in Sychar

E. Pools of Bethesda and Siloam

F. Items around the Temple Mount

G. Excavations on the Galilee shore (Magdala?)

H. Khersa/Qursi

I. Gethsemane and “Mount” of Olives


A. Inscription about Pontius Pilate as Prefect of Judea

B. Johanan Ossuary

C. Fishing boat (“Jesus-boat”)

D. Caiaphas’ tomb

E. Ossuary of “James, son of Jospeh, brother of Jesus”

F. First-century house in Nazareth


A. Corban

B. Temple porticoes

C. Coins with Caesar’s image

D. “for what you are here” on a beaker

E. Vineyards

F. Nazareth decree about grave robbing

G. Ornate tombs in the Kidton Valley


A. Archaeology can’t prove certain things

B. It can corroborate

  • 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


Archaeology and the Gospels

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a class on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. Session 11 Turning to the question of archeology. With all of the general considerations that we have treated thus far. There are still various persons for a variety of reasons, who find. Among the most compelling of the evidence in support of the gospels, the quite literally rock solid evidence of digging up in the sands of Israel, or where ancient sites continue to be preserved in the midst of living cities. People go to Israel and tour groups year round and because of how common it is. We perhaps take for granted and forget how significant it is, how much of ancient Israel we have been able to unearth. What archeological insights are most significant for the Gospels? We can think perhaps in terms of four different categories. There are discoveries that give us insight into the specific imagery that Jesus uses in his teaching. He talks about the person who would cause one of his followers to stumble and says it would be better for that person to have a millstone hung around his neck and drowned in the depths of the sea. What is a millstone? This is something I buy in a jewelry shop like a cross and dangle it around my neck. No, a millstone was a heavy concrete slab. Circular shaped that was set in a birdbath like shaped concrete podium, a wooden shaft connecting that wheel to a donkey, and the donkey would walk around in circles until it. Wouldn't any longer. And drag this heavy stone around crushing the grain underneath it. One can scarcely imagine it being tied around a person's neck on land without them falling over. And certainly if you were to push a person overboard in the sea, they would drown instantly and decisively.


[00:03:08] What about? A cornerstone. Jesus likens himself. In the parable of the wicked tenants to a stone that people stumble over and one can see in the southwest corner of the existing Western Wall in Jerusalem, part of the retaining wall that originally surrounded the Temple Mount. Stones of huge proportions dating from Herod's day is some above ground, some underground in a tunnel that one can walk past and see how impressively solid such a foundation would have been. One can also see. Immersion pools all around the temple. MC about to use the Hebrew plural term places for pilgrims going up to the Temple Mount would have. Bathe themselves, not so much to get rid of their physical filth, though it would have accomplished that. But to become ritually clean and fit to enter into God's holy presence in the temple. We know of two of these that are particularly famous from the Gospel of John, chapters five and nine, the pools of Bethesda just to the north of the Temple Mount and the pool of Siloam to the south. Possibly the two largest and most used of these pools by pilgrims coming either from the north or the south to the city and to the Temple Mount. John five talks about the pool of Bethesda having five porticos, five colonnaded walkways, and in fact, the excavation of the pool of Bethesda. Any tourist can go there and see. It shows that you have a large rectangular area with what would have been a crosswalk in the middle, dividing it into two separate categories. Five colonnades, exactly as the gospel of John described it. In Matthew 23, Jesus talks about the scribes and Pharisees sitting on Moses seat. This would have been a large chair and honored position at the front of a synagogue.


[00:05:59] And one can go into Galilee, into the area outside of ancient Khorasan, and see the ruins of a synagogue, complete with. Part of and the location where Melissa's seat would have been. In many Christian churches there is an altar or a pulpit, and that is the place from which the pastor delivers a message. Standing while the people sit. In ancient Judaism. The rabbi, the preacher got to sit and the people often stood. Depending on which position you have, you might like one more than the other. But we can understand imagery that Jesus uses. Or how about the description in Mark and Matthew of a paralyzed man let down through a roof, into a room in a small home where Jesus was teaching to get his attention because they couldn't get through the crowds. There is a. Sixth century Talmudic village known as Kasserine in the Galilee that has in ruins stone buildings of the identical kind that were used already in the first century. And one can see and portions of roofs have been rebuilt with the thatched. Covering that would have been mixed with mud, would have created a flat surface that people could. Lie on, eat on, relax on. And with a little bit of effort, dig through in the extreme circumstances as described in Marc. It is, as it were, a living object lesson for what things looked like in Jesus day. One can go to the ruins of the Capernaum synagogue and see why and presses outside, illustrating the trampling of the grapes. Grapes put again in a kind of birdbath like ball and pressed down, and then the material pushed down to a cylindrical valve. And what still wasn't entirely liquefied at the bottom people and bare feet as the thick juice like substance came out would stomp all over them.


[00:08:55] And this would lead to the wine. Jesus talks in the Sermon on the Plain, and Luke speaks about disciples like good grapes that had been pressed down and beaten and liquefied in this fashion. But then there's the second category. Actual sites of Jesus ministry. As I just mentioned, you can walk on what is probably the site of the Capernaum synagogue that we read about in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the foundation Stones today, Black charcoal in appearance probably go back to the first century, although the synagogues, the columns of which and some stones in the walls are visible today are of a lighter color and only go back to the fourth century. But people tended in the ancient world to build synagogues, to build buildings on the ruins of the same kind of building, rather than to create a new site. So it is the probable site. There are the ruins of a large home. Walls about waist high and sections of rooms of a multiroom dwelling. Immediately adjacent to the synagogue. Typically, this is where the synagogue elder would live a lay person separate from the rabbi to that community, much like in modern American history until fairly recently. Most churches had personages that they owned. Right next to the church in which the pastor lived. We know the name of the synagogue elder of the Capernaum Synagogue. His name was Charis and Jesus raised his daughter from the dead. If you visit Capernaum, you can walk about the stones of what probably was Jerry's home. At that same site is an octagonal dwelling place that 30 years ago was much more interesting to visit than it is today. The Franciscans have now built an elaborate chapel above it, and you can only look through portions of a glass floor and see what once was out in the open for tourists to see.


[00:11:38] But this was a church as far back as the fourth century A.D., with graffiti suggesting that it was believed to be the site of Peter's home. And many, though not all archeologists, suspect that this is an accurate tradition. Head to the south, to Samarra, to part of the modern day West Bank and the thriving city of Nablus. And you can go in a church. Into his basement and see elaborately surrounded with ornate architecture and iconography a well. You can. If you can make it through the crowds of tourists, actually drink a cup of well water drawn from it. And there is an unbroken tradition back to Old Testament times that this is the site of Jacob's well, the site of the woman at the well meeting with Jesus in John chapter four. And many archeologists believe this is the actual site. We already mentioned the pools of Bethesda and Siloam in Jerusalem. And countless sidewalks and steps and ruins of shops all surrounding what once was the Temple Mount that today is the. Grassy elevated space that contains both the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, very holy shrines in Islam and controlled today by the Palestinian and Muslim population of East Jerusalem. But down below the Western Wall are first century sidewalks and steps and steps from the Kidron Ravine. Heading up. From the Garden of Gethsemane toward what probably was care for his home. Streets on which Jesus himself would have walked. You can go to the shores of Galilee. The western shores and find in a museum what were excavated from. Lakeside. First century Mosaic. Tile depiction of Jewish fishing boats and as recently as 2013. Evidence of a small town just to the north of Magdala. No one knew it was there.


[00:14:32] No one yet knows what town it is. But intriguingly, in Mark's Gospel, on one occasion, when Jesus and his disciples are coming back across the Sea of Galilee from the East, they land at a place called down Minister. And Matthew, in his parallel account, calls it Magadan, which appears to be a variant name for Magdala. Scholars have puzzled why two such different names? And the answer may be it's too early to know for sure that they landed right at the sight of these two cities together, which we had no idea of the existence of one of them, and just how close it was to the other. And then there is that. Tantalizing and puzzling set of synoptic accounts of the casting out of the legions of demons from the man on the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee. And depending on which gospel you read and which textual variant you accept, he is said to be from Gaza or Ghidorah or girl geisha. What's going on here? Gaydar was the province to the east of the Sea of Galilee. Carranza and Gary Garza are both alternate ways of rendering in Greek. A town that in Aramaic or Hebrew was called Khazar. And today in modern Arabic on the East bank is called. And there is the ruins of a fourth century Byzantine church, not far from the spot where the cliffs are the steepest. On the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, a place where a giant herd of pigs could very easily have rushed off the edge and tumbled to their death in the waters below. Back to Jerusalem. And one can walk. Among olive trees, some of which are perhaps 18, 1900 years old. Tour guides like to say that one of them is old enough that it was around when Jesus was there.


[00:17:08] But they count on unsuspecting tourists not to know Josephus narrative that the Romans cut down all the trees immediately around the temple when they invaded Jerusalem in A.D. 70. But there are some extremely old trees there. Guest Salmon has been cultivated today into a beautiful flower filled park. But we know the actual location of it and the slopes of the hill of olives. I say that as someone who lives near the Rocky Mountains. There is nothing in Israel, certainly not in Judea, worthy of being called a mountain. But it's the best they can do. You can walk up the slopes of the hill of olives in an hour or an hour and a half. Call it a mount if you must, but it's still there. And it's a real place that real people went to. And we could continue the list. But here is a third category. Comparatively recent finds a reminder that the whole science of archeology is still thriving and who knows what discoveries lie in the future. As recently as the early 1960s, the first inscription, all evidence was found in stone near Caesarea by the sea, and an inscription that in Latin referred to Pontious pilot as Prefect of Judea. In 1968, a small bone box, an ossuary was unearthed. Inscribed in which was the Jewish name of somebody named Yohanan. The Hebrew for John and inside was a portion of an ankle bone still affixed to a piece of wood with a nail, apparently a crucified victim. We knew that wrists were sometimes nailed to crosses, though often they were just affixed with ropes. We had never found any actual evidence of someone's ankle nailed to a cross, and people questioned the gospel account. Then they found one. In 1986 after a record low.


[00:19:47] Water line and drought on the Sea of Galilee. Pieces of a first century boat began to emerge at the shore and with painstaking archeological care and preservation and reassembling. You can now go to a museum in Ginza on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and see what. The people there have dubbed the Jesus boat. No one knows whose boat it was, but people know how to draw tourists. What was fascinating was that. You could see enough of the boat reassembled to imagine just about enough room for 13 rather small man to fit into it. The biggest boat. Even in iconography, even in picture form, that we are aware of old enough to have been potentially from the time of Jesus. Of course, you have to remember, the average height of a first century man in the Roman Empire was five four. And the average weight was 140. And in case you're curious, the average height of a woman was five feet and weight was 100. Nutrition has improved. And. Some of us over eat. In 1990. What at first was somewhat controversial, but now is widely accepted to been the tune. The high priest at the time of Jesus Death, Caiaphas. Was discovered. In the early 2000s, an ossuary or bone box with the intriguing inscription on it. James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus and Hebrew letters. Came to light. And all kinds of accusations came forward suggesting that this was tampered with. After years of careful investigation, all of those charges have been dropped. We still don't know which James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. Doesn't have to be a biblical one. Those were common names, but it is a first century ossuary, and it just may have been. The biblical James.


[00:22:36] In 2009, just before Christmas, appropriately. Ruins of the foundations of a first century house in Nazareth were discovered for years. The charge was. Nazareth was a tiny little village that we had some evidence for from about three centuries B.C.. A little bit more evidence from about three centuries A.D. and nothing in between. Why? We don't even know if it was in continuous existence. Now we know it was. As far as I know, no one has yet dubbed this the Jesus House. Because we have no idea whose house it was. But it is a reminder of how archeological discoveries go on. And who knows what will emerge next. And then lastly, there are helpful artifacts. We have found the term car bomb in an inscription and a context of a vessel dedicated to the temple for sacred use. We have discovered the meaning of the porticos porches, not pinnacles, as in some older translation. Jesus didn't go on top of a church spire to have the devil tempt him to jump off. He was simply looking over the flat top of the Temple Mount down to the Kidron Valley below. But that was still far enough down to kill him. If the Legion of Angels didn't come to rescue him. Of course, he resisted that temptation. Multiple coins with images of many of the emperors. Just as when Jesus asked for a coin and was. Making the point that it had Caesar's image on it. A beaker, a jar with the cryptic expression in Greek that Jesus spoke to Judas, literally a sentence fragment for what? You are here. Does that mean? Why are you here? Or does that mean do what you are here for? And in the context of the inscription, the latter is the case.


[00:25:03] Do what you are here for, namely drink from me. On the bleaker. Do what you are here for, namely betray me. In the case of Judas, we have ancient stones from ancient vineyards with walls and wine presses and towers still in place. As in the parable of the wicked tenants. We have a decree that was unearthed in Nazareth against grave robbing from about the mid first century. Does that have anything to do? With the. Death and resurrection of Jesus and the trumped up charge that people came and robbed graves. And that's why Jesus body was missing. So one of the mysteries of the universe. Or nay tombs, almost mausoleums in that valley in between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Some of them to this day, glimmering almost white when the sunlight falls on it at a certain angle. And Jesus talks about the Pharisees and scribes like whitewashed tombs beautiful on the outside, but masking corruption on the inside. These are our four categories. There are more illustrations we could give in each. Archeology can never prove that Jesus spoke the Sermon on the Mount. It can never prove that, he told the parable of the prodigal son, unless we find some spectacular inscription where somebody actually wrote it somewhere in the first century. But the kinds of things that archeological finds can weigh in on time after time after time corroborate. The teaching of the gospel such that we have every reason to believe more will yet be discovered, and every reason to believe that the gospel writers are telling it like it really was.