The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 16

Most Authentic Parts of the Synoptic Tradition

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

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 16
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Most Authentic Parts of the Synoptic Tradition













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


Most Authentic Parts of the Synoptic Tradition

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a class on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels, and we are up to session 16 the most authentic parts of the synoptic tradition. In our last segment, we looked at various criteria that have been developed in the modern quests for the historical Jesus. And. We want in this segment to turn to 12 elements that. Not universally, but fairly widely across a fair, broad cross-section of scholarship. Usually not including the most liberal fringe, which sometimes is. The element that gets the greatest publicity and notoriety. But nevertheless has widespread support that if we can say. With a fair degree of confidence. The historical Jesus of Nazareth, the Jew of the first third of the first century was about the following. What would those elements be? There is widespread agreement that. John the Baptist was a historical figure. We have seen in earlier lectures that Josephus spoke about him in a lengthy paragraph in his historical writings. He is mentioned in all four of the canonical gospels. So. Widely attested, appears in numerous literary strata and forms within those gospels. In fact, it's perhaps not Bible trivia to say after Jesus himself. We know more about John the Baptist than we do about any other character in the pages of the Gospels. Although he doesn't get a lot of press in Christian circles, probably because he was the forerunner, he was the one who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, as Luke put it in Luke 117. He came with. An extreme ascetic lifestyle. He preached a fiery, apocalyptic message of repentance for the kingdom of heaven was at hand. And on the one hand, that fit in to one line of Jewish expectation. But taken to an extreme that we don't find in the rest of the first century Jewish world.


[00:02:59] And we know that early Christianity continued a strong degree of apocalyptic hope, even though it was tempered over time with the growing realization that. The world might be around for quite a while. There was an apocalyptic element to Jesus teaching that is widely accepted. Perhaps even on the basis of the period of overlap with John's ministry and Jesus as integral to the teaching of these two historical individuals. It is reasonably widely agreed by all but a liberal fringe that Jesus called 12 disciples, 12 followers who would be his closest companions, and that he taught and lived with them, as one might have expected family members to do so. We read of the very countercultural statement at the end of Mark chapter three, verses 31 to 35 and parallels. When people said that Jesus biological family members were nearby wanting to see him and he said, Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? Whoever does the will of God. As he turned and looked at his most immediate followers and the crowds around him. He identified as his family members. Calling disciples was a standard event for an ancient Jewish rabbi. Jesus had no formal training that we know of, but he was certainly called Rabbi. He functioned as a teacher, an authoritative spokesperson for God. And so even as a self-styled rabbi, it would be completely natural and expected that he called. A group of at least slightly younger men to follow him, 24 seven, as we would call it today. But with a very important twist. Typically rabbis. Sifted among. The younger men they knew who were most eager to be their followers. Today, we might talk about sifting through job applications. We know of no such process with Jesus. Rather, he met people and B for or apart from any expressed interest.


[00:06:01] He took the initiative. To call them. And there seems to have been a very positive and very rapid response. After Jesus life, the first Christian leaders are regularly portrayed as themselves having followers. Paul virtually never travels alone, but with coworkers. And yet, curiously. After more than 200 references. In the gospels. An ax. To the term disciple. That word appears nowhere else in the New Testament. It's as if people recognized the privilege of Jesus closest followers was unique enough. They shouldn't replicate that word. Or to take a sports analogy. They retired the numbers of their jerseys. It's widely agreed by all but the most skeptical of scholars that Jesus Kingdom teachings. Especially his 40 or so parables that we find. Pervading the Synoptic Gospels form core authentic Jesus material. God's reign was the theme of large sections of Old Testament narrative. But the actual expression Kingdom of God appears nowhere in the Old Testament. Though sometimes in inner testament Jewish literature. Parables pervaded rabbinic teaching. But always to interpret scripture. Whereas Jesus uses them to illustrate the kingdom. In the subsequent church. No one ever tells a single story in identical form to one of Jesus parables. And yet the teachings that they promote about God's compassion for the outcasts, about the need for bold and confident prayer, about the arrival of the already, but not yet fully present kingdom. Remain deeply embedded in Christian tradition. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly even. Fairly skeptical. Scholars regularly believe that Jesus. Had the power through his spoken word, through his touch, through his physical presence. To enable those who believe that they were possessed by demons to believe that they were freed from them. And to be able to cure various forms of physical malady. Sometimes this is explained in more naturalistic terms than others.


[00:09:36] Psychosomatic, healing the power of mind over matter. Or of positive suggestion. Sometimes it's explained in terms of overcoming the ritual, impurity and stigmatization of their society. And sometimes it's explained in more supernatural terms. There certainly are well attested accounts of other Jewish healers and exorcists prior to Jesus time. Their accounts in the Old Testament, especially surrounding the ministries of Elijah and Elijah, even to raising people from the dead. It fits the Jewish milieu. But for the first century, unique to Jesus was the directness. A spoken word was enough. There was no prayer to God, invoking him as the great healer as so often among the other Jews or Greeks or Romans of the testimonial period. And we see exorcisms and healings and acts and allusions to them in other New Testament writings. But consistently done in Jesus name. Jesus never invokes God and he never invokes himself. He doesn't say in my name, come out. But. Later Christians do. Table fellowship with sinners. Associating even over meals. With the ritually impure, but also the morally impure. The tax collectors. The prostitutes. The most notoriously stigmatized of Jewish culture, all in context that are very well and commonly known. But defying the standard social taboos. As to who to associate with. Jesus does not become unclean by associating with these people. He makes the unclean clean. And we see that tradition continuing to some degree in the early church. But the context of fellowship over meals quickly gets narrowed to the single context of celebrating the Lord's Supper. Thanks to the significance of Jesus last meal with the 12. Hopefully you are seeing the pattern already among these first five examples of the double similarity and double dissimilarity criterion being fulfilled. It's widely agreed that Jesus engaged in various legal controversies.


[00:13:02] Not so much, if at all, about the written laws of Moses, but about the oral traditions, the oral law, the uniquely ferrous sack interpretations. What in the Gospels are called the traditions of our ancestors? Especially about Sabbath keeping the inner test metal Book of Jubilees itemized a long list of things prohibited on the Sabbath far beyond anything you can find in the Old Testament. And early rabbis lengthen that list to 39 different proscribed activities. As if waving a hand and knocking all the dominoes over. Jesus has nothing to do with this kind of legal kazoo history. The controversies are exactly what one would expect in early first century Judaism. The perspective Jesus takes is more sweepingly radical than what we know of from any. Of the existing Jewish groups after Jesus life, the things over which there were controversies, which also included fasting, which also included other laws of ritual purity. Continued, but gradually legalism crept back into the movement. There was a radical nature that was not able to be preserved. It seemed, of Jesus teaching. Peter. On the road to Caesarea Philip II at the pivot of Mark's gospel, the almost exact midpoint at the end of Chapter eight. Asked by Jesus, Who do people say that I am? And other disciples said, You are Elijah, or one of the prophets. John the Baptist, perhaps. But who do you say that I am? And Peter, speaking for the 12, says, You are the Christ. You are the Messiah. And in Matthew, a fuller account is given. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. And in Matthew, Jesus praises Peter profusely for that confession, but in both Mark and Matthew very quickly. Jesus charges the disciples to tell no one. What? Isn't this the point? Tell people about Jesus.


[00:15:41] Well, the reason for that surprising command becomes immediately apparent, because then Jesus begins to predict his passion and death and resurrection. And the disciples don't understand. They have no conception of a suffering, dying Messiah. The issue is a key one in the Judaism of the day. Jesus perspective has a distinctive twist. There is a continuity with Christianity. Paul would teach in second Timothy 312 that whoever wants to live a godly life in Christ will experience suffering. But no one would ever again. Paying atonement for the sins of the world. There was a uniqueness that was not carried over. The so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem, what we call Palm Sunday today contrasting dramatically with the triumphal entry of pilot every Passover coming from Caesarea on the coast to watch over the Roman troops at a time when Jews might riot. Jesus comes in on a donkey, a humble animal, fulfilling Zachariah nine nine. Your king comes on a donkey in honor of a cult. The fall of a donkey. But the people miss. The implications of coming in peace. Expectations of physical liberation have. Haunted God's people before and after words. And a mission of a humble arrival. Of a servant king. Did not fit many people's conceptions, servant leadership to this day. So one of the hardest things for God's people to get their hands around. Most leaders want to rule over their kingdoms. And not a few followers want their people to be powerful, heavy handed rulers. The Temple of Cleansing, which really was a temple messing up. So we'll call it an incident. Understandable. The Court of the Gentiles turned into a place for moneychangers and the purchase of sacrificial animals so that it could no longer be a house of worship, a protest completely conceivable, and yet countercultural.


[00:18:37] Continuity with later church practice. A respect for holiness and worship. But the mixture of. Money matters. Human. Commercial practices. And houses of worship continue to befuddle. And confuse and get mixed up. Jesus Last Supper, a Passover meal thoroughly Jewish, but invested with new meaning. This is my body. This is my blood. A meal celebrated by countless in the early church and throughout the centuries, but so overlaid with later theological debates that that simple metaphor was lost sight of. Did his bread and cup become the literal body and blood of Jesus? No, not while being held in his hand. There was no molecular inter mixture of food and skin. But the simple metaphor was often lost sight of. You will see the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven. Blasphemy. They cried at Jesus trial. Or, as Darrell Bock likes to call it, his final examination. I guess that's what happens when you teach seminary for career. The son of man. Not a well-known title. Came from Daniel seven one, like the son of man who Daniel saw in a vision who was carried on the clouds of heaven to the ancient of days to receive universal kingdom and worship. No mere mortal. But he was that and more. Understandable in a Jewish background, but used by Jesus to suggest that he was somehow this same heavenly figure. Shocking. But barely is the term son of man ever used again in the New Testament? And most Christians today hearing Son of man would think, Oh, that just means Jesus humanity. Rather than recognizing it referred to a human. Who demonstrated his divinity. In a key context in Daniel. And finally. The Roman trial or examination and execution. If we have said in past talks that the most important thing about Jesus life was his death, we can also say that the most documented thing about Jesus life was His death.


[00:21:52] Executed. Crucified under Pontius Pilot. Tacitus, Roman historian. Early second century. We've talked about that before. But why Rome? Jews had a law stone a blasphemer. John answers that question in a snippet out of the Gospel of John, widely agreed to be historical because under Rome, capital punishment was rare. Exceptions had been taken away from the Sanhedrin or ruling Council. Anyone who wants to be my disciple. Let's pick up his cross and follow me. And they did in the early church, some of them to martyrdom, but not all of them. But as time went by. The significance of the crucifixion. Was toned down. The metaphor of carrying one's cross was domesticated to. Mild annoyances. Instead of life threatening persecution. Here then, are a dozen. He features of the gospel tradition. Widely, though not universally accepted, even on historical grounds alone. Apart from presupposing any Christian faith. To be true of Jesus of Nazareth. So what kind of person? Did that make him to be?