The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 13

Apocryphal and Gnostic Gospels Further Evaluated

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.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 13
Watching Now
Apocryphal and Gnostic Gospels Further Evaluated


Few number of manuscripts, with contradictions




Earliest possible dating is late second century, up to fifth and sixth


Bias is possible since much of the information was given in secret


Oral tradition of Jesus was fading by the second half of the second century


More probably that Thomas relied on the canonical Gospels and not the reverse


There are no documents that cover the span of Jesus’ life as do the canonical gospels, despite Dan Brown


Anti-Semitic and misogynistic attitudes don’t match


Jesus’ humanity


Only one Quran text supports an apocryphal statement


No supporting evidence because the apocryphal gospels don’t mention historical places or people


Rejected by the church

  • 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


Apocryphal and Gnostic Gospels Further Evaluated

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a course on this historical reliability of the New Testament gospels. Session 13. The apocryphal and Gnostic Gospels further evaluated. If you have been following this series from the beginning, you will know that early on we discussed the question of which gospels should one turn to as sources for information about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We did not begin by assuming the New Testament canon, but asked questions as to why Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were chosen in early Christianity and why a variety of other documents often called gospels, though none of them are complete narrative covering as much of Jesus life as the four in the New Testament were left out. But then we moved into questions of the reliability of those four. By now whether or not people have been keeping track. We have talked about at least a dozen clear criteria, a dozen issues or topics that historians regularly turn to when evaluating the reliability of some ancient text that at least purports to teach about the doings of a great individual or giving historical information about a certain period of time. And so because a fair question to ask is granted, we've made a case that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John hold up exceedingly well by these criteria. What happens if we now turn to some of those texts outside of the New Testament, the Apocrypha and the Gnostic writings, and apply the same criteria to them? Will they fare as well? Will they turn out to be even better, or will they not appear as trustworthy? So we want to look in this segment at evaluating the non-canonical gospels by 12 key criteria of historical reliability. Those following this series straight through will recall that early on we looked at the massive evidence.


[00:02:44] That textual critics analyze, answering the question how many, how reliable, how early are the handwritten documents of the New Testament of the Gospels in particular? If we ask that question of the apocryphal and the Gnostic gospels. In the vast majority of instances, we have exactly one manuscript. This is certainly true for the majority of the texts that were found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt just after World War Two. There are some texts that appear in multiple form. Typically two versions have been discovered. And one of the fascinating observations is that there are often significant places in those documents where entire paragraphs, episodes and selections of information are missing from one that are present in another or vice versa. There are places where. The same episode is narrated in a substantially different light. And so we have about as dramatic a contrast with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as one could imagine, from over 5700 Greek texts and over 20,000 in other languages and lectionary as and church fathers to a single manuscript or two that are quite different. Occasionally with the nonstick material there is slightly more. In the case of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, it is usually taken to be at least somewhat Gnostic. We have one Coptic full text from the fourth century and three fragmentary texts in Greek from somewhere in the second half of the second century. But again, that's all. And when we ask the question about the reliability of these documents. There is so little to compare them with that it's almost impossible to make any generalizations. Well, what then, can be said about their authorship? A second early question that we asked of the canonical texts. We don't know who the true authors were of any of these texts.


[00:05:52] We know that typically they were ascribed to first century, first generation Christians. Even though no evidence exists. For them prior to at the earliest, the second half of the second century. And so, for example, we saw apocryphal infancy gospels attributed to Thomas, attributed to James, the brother of John the Apostles. We saw Gnostic texts attributed to Philip, one of the 12 apostles, Nicodemus, the famous Jewish teacher who came to Jesus by night, and that later Christian tradition, we don't know how reliable it is, says that he became eventually a fully convinced follower of Jesus. We talked about a section of the Gospel of Nicodemus called The Acts of Pilot, and there are apocryphal traditions. We don't know if they're based on anything historical. It suggests that pilot became increasingly sympathetic to the Christian cause after Jesus death and resurrection. There are gospels attributed to other disciples such as Bartholomew. There is a gospel attributed to Mary. Most people have assumed that this was Mary Magdalene, but it's quite possible that people were envisioning Mary, the mother of Jesus. And there are other less significant later and more fragmentary works. But the point is in each case. Second half of second century Gnostics or later are trying to gain currency, trying to gain credibility for their texts by retro injecting them into a first century world, by fictitious solely using the names of respected first generation Christian authorities or those who they believe may have become Christians. Acknowledging, as it were, that their techs could not stand on their own merits alone. As Matthew, Mark, Luke and John could. Since initially they were anonymous documents. Unlike so many of the epistles, there is nowhere in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John that says greetings or good byes or mentions those four individuals names as their authors.


[00:08:49] The titles attached to the Gospels were most probably added when a four fold collection was created. It's unlikely that Mark, Matthew, Luke and John independently all entitled their texts in Greek, Taiyuan, Galia and Carterton, followed by their name. The Gospel according to so-and-so that reads like something that would have been added. Early, no doubt. Perhaps even at the end of the first or early second century. But. In the apocryphal and Gnostic texts. More often than not, claims of authorship appear right within the text. And yet there is every reason to believe that these are not accurate. We saw early on that closely related to authorship was dating. The earliest hard evidence for the existence of any apocryphal or gnostic gospel is late second century. All kinds of hypotheses have been formulated. Based on internal evidence alone. We talked about how some have believed that the Coptic gospel of Thomas contains traditions that predated. Those recorded in the canonical gospels, in which case those parts would have to go back to somewhere in the mid first century. But that's sheer hypothesis. There's no actual external evidence to that effect. And we also noted that there is very good evidence to suggest that even Thomas. Was later than and abbreviating much of the tradition of the canonical gospels. Even where he runs parallel the earliest dating so that we can reliably give therefore for our mid-to-late second century. The latest ones our fifth and sixth century. For these texts. They span nearly a half a millennium. But nothing close to being first century like the canonical gospels. What about the role of potential ideological bias? We talk to the canonical texts about how sometimes the very nature of the ideology in religious circles, the theology of a text might encourage people to skew historical reporting.


[00:11:44] But on the other hand. Depending on the nature of those convictions, could force people to be very careful in what they reported. And we suggested that there were good reasons for that to be the case with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John trying to fight an uphill battle already in convincing initially monotheistic Jews to make room in their understanding of God for this man Jesus, based on miracles, based on the nature of his death and his resurrection and the fulfillment of prophecy. If the ordinary, more mundane statements about his actions and teachings and whereabouts were in any substantial way falsified. Early Christianity would have been debunked from the outset. But when we turned to the Gnostic texts, we find a very different ideology. We find what is called dose of autism the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human. The Greek verb del Castillo means to seem and dose autism. D.O.C. Tyson No question about the full deity of Jesus. That was what troubled Jewish. Proselytize early on. But trouble imagining a true deity partaking of the genuine material realm because Gnostics believed matter was inherently evil and one had to be redeemed from the material world. Well, the moment that your ideology does not focus on one who can be truly human. Then one is not even interested in talking about when Jesus got tired or hungry or thirsty, or all the signs that one normally associates with humans. Instead, you're talking about. His esoteric teaching not tied to a particular time and place. Usually the claim was given in secret to one or just a small group of disciples. And this kind of ideology very much does potentially bias reporting. It. Leaves the door very much open for. People fabricating teaching of Jesus.


[00:14:26] Because when others ask. Why have we never heard this? The almost unforeseeable fireball answer always comes back. While he only told it to me. Or the two of us. What about the state of the oral tradition? It's often accurately observed that even after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were all complete, even well into the second century, perhaps to the middle of the second century, the oral tradition did continue to circulate. This was an oral culture. Just because there were scrolls available for individual congregations and wealthy people didn't mean that most people learned their information about Jesus from written texts. The quotations and the references to Jesus in the early church fathers of the first half of the second century show that traditions continued to circulate, including some about Jesus that do not appear in any of the four gospels. But neither do they portray him in any unorthodox fashion. But as soon as we get to the patristic writers, the church fathers in the second half of the second century and beyond, we see all kinds of evidence that suggests the oral tradition began to fade away. By this time, knowledge of the four written gospels was widespread enough. Access to scrolls, at least in local congregations, was prevalent enough that you no longer see in Christian writings these kind of allusions to things that Jesus did or said other than what very carefully matches what was written down in the New Testament texts. So while the oral tradition could have continued, could have theoretically been preserving information that the apocryphal and Gnostic texts also inscribed. Once you get past the mid second century, it's much less likely that what we read in those texts represents reliable oral tradition. But what then, about literary comparisons? What about the.


[00:17:08] Possible dependance of. Matthew or Mark or Luke or John. On a text like the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. And such theories have been suggested. What's fascinating, however, is that in Thomas, really the only one of the apocryphal and Gnostic texts with enough parallels to the canon to make this kind of a comparison even meaningful. What's fascinating is that Thomas has parallels to information found in all three synoptic gospels. The information found in Matthew and Mark, only the information found in Luke and Mark, only the information found in Matthew and Luke. Only the information found only in Matthew. Only in Mark and only in Luke. And oh, by the way, remember, less than 10% of Mark is unique to Mark. There is a parallel to the little story of the seed growing secretly in Mark for. A parable unique to Mark's gospel. In the Gospel of Thomas. What's more, there are parallels in Thomas to information found in either Matthew or Luke that reflect their distinctive editing and additions to Mark. And there is information parallel to John. Now for those of you into probability and statistics. Here's a problem. You can work on the formula for computing. Which is more likely. That. Matthew. Mark. Luke. John. And all of the hypothetical sources that they used accounting for. Those texts that appear only in two or only in one gospel. As well as their distinctive editing. All. Borrowed. From Thomas. A text we don't even know existed for sure prior to the late second century. Or is it not far more probable? That Thomas was written. After the four gospels were complete and began to circulate as a collection. And in the span of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus drew on at times almost randomly, each major section of each gospel.


[00:20:12] Thus creating literary dependance on all of their parts and all of their layers. Surely the second of those two hypotheses is much more probable. What about the issue of literary genre? Not a single one of the non-canonical gospels is a full fledged biography. We've already talked about how Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are very selective compared to ancient biographies. But we do not have in existence. Anywhere. No matter what Dan Brown's fictitious Da Vinci Code might have claimed. There is no text that we know of anywhere in any language from antiquity. Other than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that covers the amount of the span of Jesus life and ministry that those gospels cover. We have seen documents that add to and supplement his early years. In the Middle Ages, there were stories about Jesus hidden years as a young adult. We have seen ancient texts that supplement the story of his passion, his burial, his descent into hell, as its so called his resurrection. And then we've seen, quote unquote, gospels that really are just esoteric cosmological speculation about the nature of the universe. Reading more like philosophical treatises than the story of someone's life. And then the Coptic Gospel of Thomas 114 Sayings of Jesus not Connected narrative. By the criterion of literary genre. We have only four biographies. Now, to be fair, there are references in the early church fathers to a Gospel of the Hebrews, a Gospel of the Nazarene as a Gospel of the Knights, an early Jewish Christian heterodox group. And there are quotations ascribed to these texts. That partially parallel a variety of Jesus teachings from different phases in his life. Possibly one of these was a connected narrative. More akin to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John and what we have in existence, but we don't actually know that.


[00:23:16] As it stands. These are the texts that we have. What about the hard sayings of Jesus? Well, we saw some hard sayings. We saw the gospel of Thomas talking about Jesus, claiming that if circumcision was of any value, boys would emerge from their mother's womb circumcised. We saw the final text from the Gospel of Thomas saying that Jesus had to make women male in order to be fit for the kingdom of their father. Of course, one can say, Well, these are later glossies. That have corrupted the original text of Thomas. But if one says that it's not based on any evidence. It's sheer speculation. And these aren't the only texts that have an anti-Semitic or misogynistic bent to them, even though, admittedly there are texts that are more pro female in some of these documents. But these kinds of hard sayings are quite different from the hard sayings of the gospels that we looked at. And they don't inspire any confidence in the reliability of the texts that purport them. Are there key missing texts that you might have expected? There are. Anything that would prove Jesus humanity. And so. If historical texts focus on human beings. We don't have historical texts. What about non-Christian testimony? It boils down to one quotation. Which we had mentioned earlier as well. The Koran, referring to the apocryphal miracle of Jesus fashioning birds out of clay and breathing the breath of life into them. Nothing else is supported by any. Non-Christian text. How about archeology? Hardly anything for anybody to dig up. Because these texts don't have Jesus located in definable places. They don't talk about other people of history. Though we can confirm its esoteric secret revelation. Unless somebody were to discover that people in the early centuries had primitive tape recorders beyond anything we have ever imagined.


[00:26:24] There's nothing to test. And finally, what about other early Christian testimony? What about the epistles of Paul? What about claims like First Corinthians 15 supporting the resurrection? There's nothing. Nothing earlier than the apocryphal or non canonical gospels and contemporary and later Christian testimony. Rejected these texts as historically worthless. The contrast between the reliability of the canonical text by these 12 criteria and all of the other ancient texts sometimes called gospels, could hardly be stronger. If someone wants to believe that these other texts give more valuable information about Jesus. It's still a free country. They're free to do so. But they should realize that they are doing so flying in the face of virtually all rational evidence.