The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 15

Why Such Diversity Exists, and the Criteria of Authenticity

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 What then are the criteria for accepting a historical document as authentic?

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 15
Watching Now
Why Such Diversity Exists, and the Criteria of Authenticity


A. Many parts of many portraits complementary

Often an anti-supernatural bias

B. Presuppositions and ideological commitments

1. “Only that which liberates can be accepted” (e.g., feminism)

2. Final judgment

C. Starting points and central points

Violence of non-violence?

D. Which portions of Gospel tradition are accepted?

E. Burden of proof (“benefit of the doubt”)

F. Religious parallels


A. Traditional

1. Multiple attestation

2. Double dissimilarity

3. Coherence

4. Palestinian environment

B. Recent Proposals

1. A Continuum approach (double similarity)

2. Double dissimilarity and double similarity

Class Resources
  • An introduction to the common myths that challenged the historicity of the gospel message. Some of the myths have no connection to any historical evidence (e.g., the Da Vinci Code), recently discovered “evidence” is often distorted (Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic literature), and Blomberg concludes that we should be initially skeptical of new findings.

  • How did Christians arrive at the canon of 27 authoritative documents that were from God and therefore foundational for Christian belief and living? Blomberg looks at hints from the New Testament itself, the citations and writings of the Apostolic Fathers, third century discussions, and the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century. None of our four Gospels were ever questioned, and no other gospel was put forward as equally authoritative.

  • Looks at the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. They show an interest in the infancy and final days of Jesus, but are of no historical value. There are gnostic gospels (mostly fragmentary) that are more esoteric, philosophical speculation, and Blomberg reads sections from the Gospel of Thomas.

  • Are the copies of the Greek New Testament accurate? Are the variations among the manuscripts so significant that we can no longer trust them? What about the two paragraphs that some Bibles say are not authentic? This discussion is called “Textual Criticism.”

  • Are the translations of the Bible reliable? Do they faithfully convey the meaning of the Greek? Why are they different and do they disagree on the essentials of the Christian faith?

  • Nothing covered so far guarantees that what the Gospel writers said is true. How do historians make assessments about reliability of claims made in ancient works? How do we know who wrote a document, when did they write it, and were they in a context in which they could know what actually happened?

  • There was a 30 — 40 year gap between the events of the Gospels and the writing of the Gospels. Can we trust the accounts of Jesus’ life as they were told during this time period. Were the Gospel writers even interested in preserving history? Were they in a position to do so?

  • Three recent areas of study encourage us to accept the reliability of oral tradition. They are studies in the nature of an oral culture, how the Gospels follow an informal controlled tradition, and the effect of social memory.

  • Discussion of the literary dependence among the gospels, formally known as the “Synoptic Problem.” Argues that Mark was the first written source, and Matthew and Luke borrow from him, from a common document (“Q”) and used their own material.

  • What kind of books are we dealing with? Different kinds of literature will be analyzed differently in terms of reliability. If it is fiction, we will analyze it a certain way. How should we read the Gospels?

  • While archaeology can’t prove certain things, it can corroborate many of the details of the Gospels and should encourage us to look forward to even more discoveries. Blomberg looks at Jesus’ imagery, the sites he traveled, the results of recent discoveries, and the weight of artifacts encouraging us to trust the Bible.

  • There is a belief that any and all Christian evidence is tainted, and so only non-Christian evidence should be investigated. Not only is this falacious (“silly and nonsensical”), and there is non-Christian evidence that tells us a surprising lot about Jesus.

  • Now that we have seen some of the criteria that historians use to judge the reliability of an ancient document, we will use those same criteria on the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. Blomberg uses the twelve criteria of historical reliability.

  • What is the resulting picture that we find of Jesus? For those who find only a small portion of the Gospels reliable, their picture of Jesus that results from the  limited sections of the gospels will be somewhat different from those who find a large portion as reliable.

  • Why do so many different scholars have such different views of Jesus? There actually is more similarity than at first is expected, but the differences are due to things such as scholar’s presuppositions. What then are the criteria for accepting a historical document as authentic?

  • Given the criteria established for historical reliability, which portions of the Synoptics have the strongest claim to being authentic?

  • Considering all the questions raised about the quest for who Jesus is, what can we know for sure? What is the core of the gospel tradition that does not require faith?

  • We have been looking at topics pertaining to the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. Now it is time to look at specific issues that might question the reliability of the Synoptics. Does looking at a cross section of the “apparent contradictions” give us more confidence?

  • Continuing the purpose of the previous chapter, Blomberg looks at specific harmonization problems between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John.

  • Looks at the overall features of John, arguing that they show the gospel to be a reliable witness to Jesus.

  • Now that we have looked at the issues of John’s reliability in general, Blomberg starts working through individual passages that have raised questions for some people. The question is whether or not Jon’s teaching dovetails with teaching in the Synoptics. Much of the issue has to do with presuppositions and the burden of proof, and the evidence Blomberg cites is often when John’s teaching finds a connection with Synoptic teaching or with historical data.

  • This quest was due to a new emphasis on the historical reliability of John. Some events in John have a greater claim to authenticity by liberal critics. Blomberg then looks at a theme throughout John of Jesus as the Purifier, which parallels the Synoptics account of Jesus healing people, making the unclean clean. This too argues for a greater part of John's gospel being historically reliable.

  • Paul discloses quite a bit of information about the historical Jesus in his letters. His letters come from the 50’s and early 60’s, before the gospels were probably written, so he is an independent witness as to whom Jesus was based on a reliable oral tradition.

  • Blomberg summarizes the previous lecture and continues by pointing out the similarities of key themes between Jesus and Paul. Instead of seeing differences between Jesus and Paul, these themes actually show how similar they are. Blomberg concludes by explaining why Paul does not make more allusions to Jesus.

  • Miracles are natural and expected if in fact God exists. But does he exist? If a person begins with atheistic presuppositions, then miracles are impossible and those portions of the Bible unreliable. This is not a detailed discussion of the topic but a quick summary of the arguments.

  • Do miracles outside of the Bible that parallel biblical miracles call into question the veracity of the latter? The fact of the matter is that they were different and often later than Jesus’ miracles.

  • Can we believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? If not, then this part of the gospel story is not reliable. Blomberg covers general issues and specific problems, and then positive support for the virginal conception.

  • What led a band of defeated followers of a failed Messianic claimant begin to preach him as Lord and God? If the resurrection is fiction, then the belief of the early church still needs to be explained. Alternate explanations fail to impress; and there is evidence for a bodily resurrection.

  • Does a defense of biblical reliability lead to any new insights about Jesus himself? Or does it simply bring us back to the status quo of historical Christian orthodoxy? Have our churches been preaching a balanced picture of the Bible, or have they been selective?

  • Blomberg summarizes the main points he has been making.

An in-depth look at the charges against the historicity of the gospels, and the evangelical answers.

Dr. Craig Blomberg

Historical Reliability of the Gospels


Why Such Diversity Exists, and the Criteria of Authenticity

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a course on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospel Session 15. We just finished a survey of all of the diverse portraits of the historical Jesus today. At the end of the so-called Third Quest of the Historical Jesus, which begs the question, why does such diversity exist? And are there criteria of authenticity that we can employ to narrow the options somewhat and make responsible assessments of these various approaches? Why such diversity After 200 years of ever sharpening the focus and the questions that are asked? One answer is that there is perhaps less diversity than at first seems to meet the eye. If by diversity we mean contradiction. Any complex character who has had profound influence on human history will invariably have many facets. To their private and public personas and agendas and intentions and behaviors. It is in no way contradictory to say that Jesus, on the one hand, taught the establishment of small groups of his followers living out life together in service to God and to follow humans in ways that would have put existing models to shame in his first century world. And to say that simultaneously he predicted the destruction of the temple, the soon coming of a new age of human history. Which was bound up with his teaching of what he called God's reign or rule the Kingdom of God. It's no contradiction to add into that mix the conviction that he was a holy one, a godly person through whom the Spirit uniquely worked, touching people's lives, and that therefore he was the incarnation of divine wisdom. That he was a liberator of a unique kind. And we could go on. In fact, there are elements of every one of the 11 portraits that we sketched out at the end of our last segment that are true to the Scriptures that can and should be accepted to try to make sense of one who.


[00:03:21] Many people over the centuries have said. Fits. No single mold. Who breaks all conventional boundaries and categories and labels. Many parts of many portraits are therefore complimentary. But there are parts that contradict each other. Jesus can't have been merely a human being. With everything that appears to be something miraculous, explained, rational, mystically, while simultaneously. Having supernatural dimensions. It's one or the other or one in some contexts and the other in others. But. Neither can be absolutist and have the other fit into the system. And Thai supernatural commitments remain powerful among many scholars. The former co-chairs of the Jesus Seminar, Marcus Bargain, John Dominic Crossan, are more candid than many when on the one hand they acknowledge that Jesus did perform mighty feats that in his context were interpreted. As signs and wonders from God, but should not be understood by the historian as genuinely transcending the laws of science as we understand them today. There was not a genuinely supernatural bodily resurrection for either of these two scholars, and therefore even the miracle stories that are accepted are interpreted in ways. To varying degrees that are not consistent with the earliest Christian beliefs. Sometimes the presuppositions or ideological commitments are of a different kind. Only that which liberates. Can be accepted. Jesus had by his culture powerful, affirming views of women, but he stopped short of full fledged egalitarianism. And we can't in the modern world. So anything that would portray Jesus as less than fully liberating, according to some. Must be rejected. Final judgment, say others, is unbecoming and too primitive a concept for modern human beings. God will ultimately save everyone because love wins. And therefore, anything that teaches of judgment, of final judgment, must be reinterpreted or excised from the tradition. And more examples could be given here.


[00:06:45] What is a given scholars starting point. What are their central points? What are the paradigmatic teachings or sayings of Jesus that they believe provide the key to unlocking the meaning of everything else? If it involves statements that sound like Jesus promoted violence. Then anything else that makes him a peacemaker, a pacifier or even a pacifist must be reinterpreted or rejected. Or he is a promoter of nonviolence. In which case then statements about violence must be taken metaphorically at best. Which portions of the gospel tradition are accepted. If we do not accept all of it, obviously will. Be hugely influential for the picture that someone comes up with. But even among more conservative scholars who in principle say they accept all of it. I don't know that I've ever met a human being even in the most conservative Christian church. That accepts everything as of equal importance. There will be some issues that wind up trumping others or being used to interpret others. The plain meaning of scripture in one place trumps the plain meaning of Scripture in another place, because plane meanings don't always easily mesh together. And how much benefit of the doubt is a given scholar or commentator willing to give? We talked about places where the gospel tradition could be tested by outside sources, by non-Christian writers, by early Christian epistle writers, by archeology. But what about the places that. Have nothing remotely like them to either corroborate or contradict them. Do we give the Gospels the benefit of the doubt or they can't be tested? Or do we employ a hermeneutic of suspicion? So that they have to prove themselves before they can be accepted. That will make a huge difference. And finally, how much do we. Value. How much emphasis do we place on the partial and apparent parallels elsewhere in Judaism or in various Greco-Roman religions? And how much significance do we attach to them? When we are talking about the literary genre of the Gospels, we alluded to the conviction that there was a body of Greco-Roman stories of divine or quasi divine or deified human beings.


[00:10:22] Until scholars delved into those claims more deeply and discovered that the clear parallels were all post New Testament and pre New Testament, there was such diversity. And such a small pool of documents to study. Then it wasn't even fair to say. An accepted or recognized genre even yet existed. If there is agreement among a collection of scholars on how to answer a number of these six issues. One suddenly discovers the diversity of the portraits of Jesus is considerably shrunk. How do we arrive at perhaps a growing consensus? From the days of Rudolf Boltzmann on various criteria of authenticity, as they have typically been called, have been suggested. Some of these have been borrowed from classical historians work. Some of these are common sensical, but all historians imply some of them are more unique because of the unique facets of the composition of the four gospels, which we have discussed in some detail previously. Both Boltzmann and his followers. His students in The New Quest. Wade. How frequently independent documents attested. To something having to do with Jesus. And even today in the third quest with a more. Widespread proliferation of sources analyzed. If a saying of Jesus appears in Mark. If it appears in a slightly different but similar form in John. And maybe that in the Coptic gospel of Thomas, that is usually taken as triple attestation independent sources and there is a high degree of probability. Jesus said something like that. Now we have to realize that multiple attestation. Is not the same as counting the number of gospels something appears in. If we are convinced that Matthew at a certain place is simply reproducing Mark, then that's still only one independent witness. But the criterion of multiple attestation has been modified to talk about multiple literary strata.


[00:13:32] So perhaps there is a theme, there is an action, there is a conviction of Christ that appears in one form, in Mark and Luke, in parallel passages, in another form, in Matthew, in a different context, in an unparalleled passage, and in the third place. In an episode that Matthew and Luke have in common, but not Mark. Now we also have triple attestation. Mark's tradition. EMS tradition. And QS tradition. And that's very similar to what all historians would imply. The more independent sources that attest to something, the greater the likelihood that it took place. One can push multiple attestation even one step further and speak of multiple literary forms. The theme of the Kingdom of God is central to Jesus parables, but it also occurs in a number of His shorter, proverbial like sayings. It appears in a couple of his dialogs, the only three places it appears in the Gospel of John. In the dialogs with Nicodemus. Jesus and Nicodemus. And Jesus and pilot. Multiple literary forms. A very significant criterion. Especially for the new class. The second quest was the dissimilarity criterion, or more technically called the double dissimilarity criterion. That is when Jesus did or said something. That was so distinctive and so unique that we know of no other Jewish person in his first century world. Whose teachings or behavior or motives. Moved him at all in this kind of a direction. Then on balance, it's probably more likely that this comes from Jesus and no early Jew would have made it up. And then tried to pawn it off as coming from Jesus. But the criterion is called double dissimilarity because it works in the opposite direction as well. There needs to be some kind of a distinctive between Jesus teaching or behavior and the Christian movement that developed from it.


[00:16:30] So that we can say no early Christian, Jewish or Gentile is likely to have conceived of this. Then scholars spoke about a criterion of coherence that which did not in and of itself appear multiplier tested, that which did not as clearly pass the double dissimilarity criterion, but in some thematic way was closely connected with that which did pass. One or both of those criteria closely cohere with it. And finally, the fourth most commonly suggested criterion was one of Palestinian environment. It had to be conceivable in the world of the first third of the first century of ancient Judaism. It could not be a historical anachronism like George Washington jumping over the Delaware River in a motorcycle. It could not import from a later period of time or from a foreign culture, something that was unknown in early first century Israel. Part of the problem in the use of these various criteria was that some scholars somewhat modestly use them only to say, Here are the portions of the gospel tradition. That we can have a high degree of confidence in Jesus did or said, and we simply will not express any judgment about the rest. On the other hand, many scholars use them negatively as well. To say anything that did not pass these criteria could not be accepted. But given the disappearance of so much evidence on any topic from antiquity, just because a certain teaching of Jesus or event in his life is attested today in only one source is hardly any guarantee of how many witnesses there may have once been. And therefore is not a good reason for ruling out material as inauthentic. And if we say Jesus always had to have been different from his background and from those who follow him, then all we wind up focusing on are his distinct hips.


[00:19:11] And maybe not all of his characteristics, those things which he had in common. With the Judaism of his day and which his followers were able to reproduce with a fair degree of continuity. Even the criterion of Palestinian environment sets in a certain amount of tension with the double dissimilarity criterion. It has to be conceivable in a Jewish milieu. Recent proposals, therefore. Have gone in a number of directions. But probably the two most significant. Ah, what has come to be called a continuum approach. Focusing on. Two balancing trends. To the double dissimilarity criterion. Tom Homan, a Finnish scholar and a number of his works. Dale Allison in several large books on the historical Jesus and others. Have focused on those areas where one can find a certain phenomenon. Occurring in the Judaism, out of which Jesus was most immediately burst, including the movement of John the Baptist. Perhaps trends that come very early in his ministry and then play less of an important role. And then reappear in the earliest days of the movement that outlived him. Surely those should be themes that we would see implicitly, whether recorded or otherwise carried through throughout, like an apocalyptic Jesus. Believing the end of the world could be very near. It's what John the Baptist preached. It's what. The Thessalonians believers. Among Paul's earliest letters, first and second Thessalonians understood to be coming, it appears, scattered throughout the synoptic tradition. It must be bedrock. Jesus. But now I've got double similarity competing with double dissimilarity. Do I have to choose between the two? Or can we with 90 right. And a pair of Germans, Gerhard Thyssen and Annette Mertz and one of their students, Dagmar Vinter. Speak about a double dissimilarity and double similarity criterion. A four part.


[00:22:23] Approach. Can we look in the New Testament gospels for those themes, those sayings, those episodes from the life of Christ in which for. Criteria are simultaneously satisfied. The element in question has to be conceivable. In early first century Judaism. It can't be anachronistic. The continuum approach, the individual criterion of Palestinian environment are surely right on this count. But at the same time, we are looking for an element where Jesus gives a distinctive twist. Within that Jewish milieu that we don't know of anyone else in his day and place doing. Thirdly, is there at least some evidence? That Christians either on the pages of the New Testament or in the earliest Christian literature of the second century, or both. Continue this practice, this theme, this tradition. There is continuity between Jesus and the movement who outlived him. But. Didn't do so consistently or as characteristically or as distinctively or uniquely as Jesus did. If we can find elements of the gospel tradition that fit all four of those categories simultaneously. We will surely have about as powerful a case as can be mustered. And if there are multiplayer tested, that would be wonderful to. But even if not. Then there is good reason on historical grounds alone. Remember, this is a series on historical reliability, not what Christians may choose to believe by faith. That's another topic and an appropriate one. But simply wearing our historian's hats. What can we say? Do these criteria hold out promise of making any future progress for the answer to that question. Tune in. For Segment 16.