The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 14

Quests of the Historical Jesus

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.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 14
Watching Now
Quests of the Historical Jesus


A. Shows how people created a Jesus in line with their beliefs

B. Schweitzer concluded that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet


Concluded all we can know about Jesus is that he existed


A. Recognized a transcendent element in Jesus

B. Jesus was not seen as strongly Jewish

C. New criteria of historical inquiry


A. Took Jesus’ Jewishness seriously

B. Looked at all the historical texts

C. Emphasis on synthesis


Challenges of generalizations


A. Prioritizing Jesus’ Deeds

1. Eschatological prophet

2. Charismatic holy man

3. Social reformer

4. Proactive peacemaker

5. Failed zealot

6. Marginalized messiah

B. Prioritizing Jesus’ Teachings

1. Incarnation of Divine Wisdom

2. Sociopolitical liberator

3. Cynic sage

4. Oriental guru

5. Messianic herald of the Kingdom

  • 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


Quests of the Historical Jesus

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a course on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. Segment 14 The Quests of the Historical Jesus. This is not a series entirely or even primarily devoted to the historical Jesus, but an important question to ask after 13 lessons building up to the conviction that at least in their broad main contours, the portrait of Jesus of the Scriptures can be trusted. An important question to ask is what is the resulting picture that we find of Jesus? The quest of the historical Jesus is not unrelated to the issue of the historical reliability of the Gospels. For those who find only a small portion of the Gospels reliable, their picture of Jesus that results from those limited sections of the Gospels will be, by nature, somewhat different than those who accept most or all of the details of the gospels, which will be different still from those who accept parts of the canonical gospels and parts of the apocryphal and or Gnostic gospels. When we talk about the quest of the historical Jesus, we are really talking about multiple quests. Commentators today reviewing the last 200 plus years period of modern biblical criticism regularly refer to a proliferation of studies in the 1800s, particularly in Germany, to a lesser degree in France and England, and in the later part of the century, somewhat in America. As what from our perspective now is the first or old or old liberal quest of the historical Jesus. The term itself comes from a groundbreaking work written at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century by that polymath known best for his medical missionary work in West Africa. Albert Schweitzer. Who is also a concert organist and a theologian and a biblical scholar. Before he became a missionary, Dr.


[00:02:55] Schweitzer wrote a book translated into English as a quest of the historical Jesus, and pointed out in meticulous detail all of the different approaches in the 19th century that wound up recreating a Jesus largely in the philosophical image of the school of thought that birthed that particular kind of research. Those who did not believe in the supernatural found a rationalistic Jesus that could be spoken of entirely in human terms. Those who believed that the Gospels contained a lot of mythology likened Jesus to the divine heroes of the Greek and Roman world, those who found him as a popular but tragic figure. Martyred because people misunderstood what really was a compelling picture of preaching the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of humankind. Fell into. An ancient philosophical movement known as romanticism, shaded over into a movement that emphasized social progress. And on and on. The old quest, as summarized by Albert Schweitzer. Was also decisively debunked by him. And Schweitzer's own portrait. Emerging from the canonical texts was that Jesus was. An apocalyptic prophet believing in the imminent end of the world. Believing that his ministry would usher it in. As it became clear to him that his ministry was being rejected by the authorities and that he would probably be executed, he shifted gears. And was convinced that that martyrdom would usher in the fullness of the kingdom. But with 2020 hindsight, we can see that he was wrong. Not many people have followed Schweitzer's own interpretation of Jesus, but most historians believe that he very incisively evaluated the state of 19th century scholarship. The dominant. Name the towering figure of the first half of the 20th century, especially on the European continent. In historical Jesus studies was a man named Rudolf Boltzmann who at one point made the extreme statement that all we could know about Jesus was that he existed.


[00:06:19] Although he retracted that in other works. And. Accepted perhaps about 20% of the information we find in the canonical gospels. But Rudolf Boltzmann and several generations of students in German universities, particularly Marburg, where he taught for many years. Although they did not entirely neglect searching for the historical Jesus compared to other periods. As one scheme that ties this history, one can refer to them as the period of no real serious, detailed quest. After World War Two. Two of Bolton's former doctoral students, now distinguished scholars in their own right, Ernst Kesselman, and the American James Robinson. Both gave lectures that turned into sharp books. That used the title The New Quest of the Historical Jesus. The new clusters. Later names that should be added would include Gunter Barn, Common, Billy Markson and others. We're not as skeptical as Bolton, not particularly with respect to the sayings of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels. At least they believed a fair amount of Jesus teaching his agenda, as it were, could be recovered. They recognized a transcendent and sovereign dimension that suggested something more than certainly a conventional, first essential, first century Jewish rabbi. Though they stopped short of making explicit claims for Jesus deity. Much of this movement burst in Germany as it was not long after the the fall of the Nazi regime still at least tacitly imbibed a fair amount of antisemitism to the extent that Jesus was not portrayed as deeply enmeshed or embedded in Judaism. Of course, he was acknowledged ethnically to be Jewish, but the differences between his teaching and Judaism were highly stressed. Building on some of Bowman's own initial work, various criteria for authenticity, for determining on historical grounds alone what most probably out of everything in the Gospels went back to bedrock history did not require presupposing Christian faith.


[00:09:35] Were discussed, were developed or refined or applied to the texts. And as the movement. Left the fifties flourished in the sixties. It began to wane in the seventies and played out as seemingly all that could be done within its confines was being done. Somewhere in the mid eighties. Some would suggest EP Sanders book on Jesus and Judaism in 1985 was a groundbreaking work. A third quest began. A quest that continues to this day. That more so than at any previous point in the modern era truly took seriously Jesus Jewishness. Jesus had. The Roman censuses included a box to check for religious affiliation. Would not have checked Christian. The term wouldn't be invented for about 20 years after his life. He would have checked Jewish. In fact, people who have compared Jesus with the various Jewish leadership sects have observed that although he was different from all of them, at some point he probably had more in common with Pharisees than anything else. And you say, Wait a minute, didn't he come into all kinds of conflicts with them? Yes. Ever heard of sibling rivalry? People who are very similar in some areas but different and others clashing strongly. The third quest, much more so than the previous two took into account. All of the ancient sources that we have, including the Gnostic texts and the apocryphal texts that we have frequently spoken about. They started to move away from atomistic criteria that analyzed one verse or passage at a time and asked more synthesizing questions such as. What was Jesus overall agenda? What were his aims? His intentions, His purposes? Can we account for the movement that was birthed after him? Can we account for the convictions of the gospel writers, even if we don't agree with all of them? By the kind of Jesus we reconstruct.


[00:12:32] And if not, then. Our history is lacking something. Who did he think he was? What? Got him killed. If, as we said in an earlier talk, early Christians came to believe that the most important thing about Jesus life was his death. If he was a preacher of loving God and fellow humans. Emphasized by the old liberals at the end of the 19th century. That's seldom enough to get somebody martyred. People may not follow a preacher of love, but they usually don't kill him. Is there more that needs to be said? And of course, any brief overview of 200 plus years of scholarship will have over generalizations. It's not that no one was writing on Jesus in between these major periods. It's not that everyone in each period was exactly alike. In the 1990s, well into the period of the Third Quest, a group of scholars known as the Jesus Seminar reverted to methods of the new quest and reverted to criteria of the days of Rudolf Boltzmann in order to very add a mystically vote on every single segment of the gospel tradition and then color it in their publications red, pink, gray or black, depending on the probability they thought it had of being authentic. It was an older phase of scholarship. Anachronistically infecting the third quest. But despite problems with this schemata zation, it works as a basic overview. So where's it gotten us? At first blush, it has gotten us to a huge diversity of opinion. Ben Witherington in a book that has gone through two editions first published in the mid 1990s, has created a classification, a taxonomy of approaches to Jesus based on whether his actions are seen as primarily driving his agenda or whether his teachings are seen as primarily driving it.


[00:15:20] Recognizing that in almost every one of these portraits there are elements of each. The following schema is slightly revised from withering tense, sometimes using his titles. Sometimes I have modified them slightly. But he is certainly the driving inspiration behind this classification. Among those who have prioritized Jesus deeds are those like EP Sanders himself and several other scholars since. That have focused on Jesus as a prophet, predicting the destruction of the temple and the end of this age of human history as we know it. Eschatology is the study of the end times and since eschatological prophet. And noticed how much of Jesus agenda is driven by his recognition that. He must die and that his death will. Have some kind of sacrificial function. Like the temple was a place of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Was Jesus. Personifying. A new temple. Markus Borg is a representative of another group of scholars who have likened Jesus to what we might call a charismatic holy man, not unique in the history of the world, but one of just a handful of people who have been able to mediate the power of the divine to human beings through the godliness and purity of their character, their personal charisma, as well as charismatic in the more technical sense, as a conduit of the spirit of God. Or should we think of Jesus more akin to a social reformer? One thinks of someone like the American Richard HORSLEY, or the German writer Gerard Tyson. Someone who. Saw the kind of culture that could be created, that cared for the outcast of humanity, that lived by principles of justice, so often absent in the ancient Roman Empire, the demonstrated love for God and fellow human beings, but also was concerned to right injustices.


[00:18:21] Should we think, with Glen Stassen? And John Howard, Yoda of Jesus as a proactive peacemaker. Encouraging people to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, blessing the peacemakers in a world that was filled with hostility and violence and whose very social structures of power were rife with corruption and heavy handedness. In 2013. Most recently of all of these options, a best selling book on The New York Times best seller list written by a nominal Muslim raised in the United States of Iranian descent. Reza Aslan speaks of Jesus as a failed zealot, a true freedom fighter. Didn't he say he came not to bring peace but a sword? Didn't Peter brandish those swords in the garden? Only to discover they were hopelessly outnumbered. This is a view that has cropped up from time to time, about once every 30 or 40 years in the history of modern scholarship. After all, the people that have massively disproved it have been forgotten because we don't study history. Or is he with many? More conservative and even moderate scholars genuinely. The Messiah, the liberator the Jews looked for but marginalized because his message was one more of spiritual liberation. Then a physical and social liberation from Rome. But perhaps we should prioritize Jesus teachings instead, with Witherington himself, with the Gospel of John, focusing more on Christ as an incarnation of God's wisdom. Wisdom personified as a human being, as in Proverbs eight and nine, calling out to the people of the world to come and learn. From God's spirit. Maybe he wasn't just a social reformer. But not a violent revolutionary, but focusing on the principles. Not so much the actual actions that if implemented, if implemented, would create. Countercultural communities of love and justice in the Christian movement that the powers of the world would have to stand up and take notice.


[00:21:25] The vision of a John Dominic Crossin, for example. Or overlapping with Crossing's work, but moving more even into the direction of someone like a Gerald Downing. Was he a cynic? Sage? Burton Mac in the US would be another representative of this perspective. Cynics in the ancient world were those counter-cultural public dropouts of society beggars. Those who lived off what others would give them, though they had the potential to work protesting against society as normal. Often with a bag and a staff. A cloak, much like Jesus Sands the 12 out. With their accouterments. Was he with Bob Funk, the mastermind behind the Jesus seminar, more akin to a Hindu or Buddhist teacher, an eastern guru who only spoke short cryptic sayings. The longest of which might be a parable. But if we ever see red letters in our red letter Bibles going on longer than that, it can't be Jesus because. He just dropped pearls of wisdom and let you meditate on them for a while. Or once again, with more conservative scholars focusing on Jesus teachings. Someone like Peter O'Toole macher out of Germany and Ed matters in this country was here Messianic Herald of the Kingdom of God breaking. Into this world. Wow. Have the costs of the historical Jesus accomplished anything? If there is this much diversity. Although it may not be obviously apparent what these ten or 11 Pro files have in common. Is actually. That all are very conceivable within one strand of first century Judaism, and that was not always true in previous quests. All of them do take account and make at least a superficially plausible case for why certain parts of the Gospels are accepted, why others are deemed to be the retrospection of later Christian writers and all of them.


[00:24:26] Unlike many of the older quests, pictures of Jesus do make the attempt to set Jesus in the broader historical context of what came before him, of what came after Him, of what got him killed. And try to establish some kind of overarching agenda. That drove him. Our next talk will highlight why there is still such remaining diversity and suggest some ways that hopefully we can make more progress in narrowing down the options.