The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 18

Problems of Harmonization among the Synoptics

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?

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 18
Watching Now
Problems of Harmonization among the Synoptics


Jesus walking on the water


A. Theological clarification (“perhaps”)

B. Representational changes in culture (roof)

C. Synecdoche (Holy Spirit)

D. Partial reports (cup and bread)


Location of first public ministry


A. Presupposing what is explicit elsewhere (divorce)

B. Excerpting different parts of a longer original (Jairus’ daughter)

C. Following conventional standards of speech (centurion)

D. Compressing or telescoping a narrative (fig tree)



Two blind men


A. Spellings

B. Rounded numbers


If we impose twenty-first century standards on the first century world, we will find mistakes.

  • 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


Problems of Harmonization among the Synoptics

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:01] This is a class on historical reliability of the New Testament gospels, and this is session number 18 Problems of harmonization among the Synaptics. For our first 17 segments, we have covered the waterfront of topics that pertain to the general trustworthiness of the Gospels, particularly the first three so-called synoptic gospels. But we have left all kinds of specific issues. Unaddressed. Can we move beyond merely affirming that? The first three Gospels are, in general historically trustworthy that the main emphases that are multipli attested that are distinctive can be trusted. And speak about. A greater degree of believability even than that. To do that, one would have to deal with a representative cross-section of what are sometimes called the apparent contradictions among gospel parallels. And we want to look in this segment at such a cross section. There are blogs and Web sites and published books that print so-called errors in the Bible, that number in the hundreds and even the thousands. Clearly animated by individuals who have no desire to make even common sense. Explanations of the kinds of superficially different statements that people make all the time, sometimes even deliberately juxtaposing seemingly contradictory thoughts. The Proverbs in the Old Testament, in back to back passages say Answer a fool according to his folly and don't answer a fool according to his folly. And it's obvious that the proverb writer didn't think he was contradicting himself, but talking about one move for one situation and one approach for a different context. There are all kinds of lesser seeming discrepancies among gospel parallels that simply involve diverse but non contradictory ways of describing the same events. And we have spoken in previous lectures about the practice of paraphrase of selection, of abbreviation, of explanation. Now, the Gospels are not worded identically.


[00:03:12] If they were, there would be no point in having multiple accounts. What we want to do in this segment is put all of those superficial differences that really don't amount to anything in terms of the meaning of texts to one side. And look at what are a comparatively small number of more difficult problems. We have seen in previous discussions that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all have different emphases with respect to the life of Christ and different ways of presenting the story are not necessarily conflicting. But there are a handful of places where at first glance it seems like theological differences have turned into outright conflicts. Consider, for example, how Matthew and Mark in Matthew 14 and Mark six respectively, tell the end of the story of Jesus walking on the water in Matthew. Jesus gets into the boat. The storm has been called, has been calmed, and Matthew says the disciples worshiped Jesus. And referred to him as the Son of God. Whereas in Mark, it says they still did not understand for their hearts were hardened. Well, at first glance, it sounds contradictory, but. Try some historical imagination. You're a disciple in the boat. You've just seen Jesus come to you walking on the water. What is this? Some preternatural. Experience. The winds have been calmed. Of course you will prostrate yourself before him. That was the position of worship, and that's what the word for worship basically meant. You might very well call him a divine son of some kind. But did that mean you really understood what you had just experienced? And whatever that level of understanding was in Matthew in Matthew six, ten, two chapters later. When Peter calls Christ the son of the living God, Jesus replies. Flesh and blood is not revealed this to you, but my father, who is in heaven, taking that to be an advance on Peter's understanding.


[00:06:08] Two chapters earlier. Let's not read too much understanding into Peter's use of that title. In the boat in chapter 14, could his heart still have been hardened? You bet it was even two chapters later after his great confession. He is not prepared when Jesus says the son of man must suffer. And I. He rebukes him. And Jesus has to return the favor. Calling him Satan. Get behind me. The two can be harmonized. But the more interesting question is why? Matthew and Mark, tell them so differently. Marcus the Gospel. It consistently emphasizes the fear and failure of the disciples to encourage beleaguered Christians in Rome under persecution. That's review from a previous segment. Matthew has more positive view of the disciples. Matthew more commonly uses the title Son of God than Mark. Matthew more often uses verbs for worship than does Mark. The differences can be harmonized, but they can also be explained as fitting in with the two gospel writers distinctive theological patterns. At which point? Apparent contradiction is the worst it can be called. It's not a genuine one. In fact, it's a purposeful difference for the theological emphases at hand. We've mentioned already the practice of paraphrase, which accounts for a great number of the differences in the teachings attributed to Jesus. Sometimes these can be in the service again of some form of theological clarification. A tiny but telling example appears in the parable of the wicked tenants, which is found in Matthew 21 and Mark 12 and Luke 20. The story is about a landlord who at harvest time sends his servants and finally his son to claim the portion of the fruit of the harvest that is due. Him and the tenant farmers refuse to give it and they beat his servants and they kill his son.


[00:08:55] A patently transparent story for the way the Jewish leaders of old had treated God's prophets. And now we're on the verge of treating His son, Jesus. But only Luke adds the little word, perhaps before the landlord's statement. That the tenant farmers will listen to him, will give him the fruit. They didn't. Which is not a problem as long as we're telling a parable, a story. A landlord whose hopes were dashed. But when we understand that this is a story about God, then whichever details correspond to the heavenly lesson. Had better make God not look like he was caught off guard. So Luke introduces the single word clarifier. Perhaps. Sometimes. Jesus teaching will be paraphrased to fit a change in culture. Representing the events that happen or that were described ever so slightly differently. In the story of the man let down through the roof by four of his friends that we've alluded to before. Luke says. They removed the tiles from the roof. As far as we know, homes in Galilee did not have tiles. They were thatch and mud such that the verb that Mark uses literally means they dug through the roof. Which could have been done. But Luke was a Gentile writing to Gentiles, writing somewhere in the Greek and Mediterranean world where tiles were used. So it would be natural for him to picture the home. In a way that people understood. By modern standards of precision. One of these would probably be called less accurate. By ancient standards of precision, nobody cared. Or consider again that figure of speech known as a syntactically. The part for the whole. We say all hands on deck, but we really want the whole person, not just their hands. An interesting parallel. Involves a passage from Mark seven.


[00:12:05] In the Sermon on the Mount and Luke 11. In. A series of teaching. Of teachings by Jesus on prayer. So I say to you ask and it will be given to you seeking. You will find knock on the door. I'll be open to you. For everyone who asks receives the one who seeks finds and the one who knocks the door will be opened. Verbatim parallelism. Sub for an article or two. Throughout. Then a series of rhetorical questions. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, we'll give him a scorpion. Matthew also has two such rhetorical questions. One is the same. One is different. We can easily imagine each of them excerpting two out of an original three. But then Jesus closes this little paragraph by saying, If you then though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children. How much more will your father in Heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him? Verbatim the same as in Matthew, except for Holy Spirit. Or Matthew has Jesus saying good gifts. Last time I checked, the Holy Spirit is a good gift. It's one of a larger category. And Luke is the gospel among the Synaptics that by far and away makes more references to the Holy Spirit than any other. And Matthew, the Gospel that by far and away makes reference to good things, good deeds, good works, good gifts, more so than any other. Are they contradictory? Not at the root level. One may be more literally what Jesus said. But by syntactically the two can be harmonized. Frequently there are passages that are simply partial apart parts of longer speeches. Did.


[00:14:32] Jesus. Bless the bread first and then the cup. As in Matthew or Mark? Or did he bless the cup first and then the bread as in Luke? Or did he bless the cup? The bread and the cup? Again, as in many manuscripts in Luke 22, 19 to 20. How many cups were there? One or two. And I think the answer is obviously far. Because this was a Passover meal at which four cups. Small cups of wine were prepared each to be drunk at a specified time throughout a leisurely meal. Highly symbolic of the Exodus experience, both gospel writers are merely narrating a small portion of a much longer meal, and there is no necessary contradiction. What about so-called chronological problems? What orders do things happen in? Where do they take place? Some of these we will see again in our discussion of the Gospel of John. Some of them are unique to the Synoptic Gospels. Matthew and Mark both placed Jesus. First adult ministry in the Nazareth Synagogue. A fair ways into his itinerant time in Galilee. Well, after his baptism. Luke, in chapter four, places it almost at the very beginning. Although if one reads the text carefully immediately before it, there is an acknowledgment that Jesus has been traveling about for a while. There is no necessary contradiction. Once we recognize that the gospel writers regularly associate material topically and thematically rather than chronologically. And we've talked about that in a previous lecture. The question then becomes, why is Luke the odd man out? Why does he put Jesus rejection in Nazareth as a kind of headline or frontispiece over his great Galilee in ministry? And the answer would seem to be. Just like in Luke 951 at the beginning of his extended travel to Jerusalem.


[00:17:33] For Luke, Jesus is always ministering under the shadow of rejection, under the shadow of the cross. It's there not to enable a dispassionate historian to create a chronological reconstruction, but to allow people to see theological connections and patterns. The way we talked about in our segment on ancient biographies. What about omissions? It's often hard to be sure why one gospel writer includes something that another doesn't. It's even harder to ask the question the other way around. And to guess intelligently why one gospel writer may have admitted what another one included. Maybe he is simply presupposing what is made explicit elsewhere. Jesus teaching on marriage and divorce. Has been carefully studied, especially in an age of rampant divorce in Matthew 19 one, 212, in verse nine, Matthew clearly allows. In his representation of Jesus teaching. An exception to Jesus statement against divorce in the case of marital unfaithfulness, in the case of adultery, of sexual infidelity. Divorce is permitted. It's not required, but it is permitted. But then I read the parallel account, and here there's no debate. This isn't the Sermon on the Mount with parallels scattered about Luke. Here. The setting, the location. The chronology is identical in Matthew and Mark, but Mark says nothing about any exception. To the no divorce prescription. How do we explain that? If we study other Jewish, Greek and Roman law, we discover that. Adultery was the one condition in which it was universally agreed across ancient cultures that divorce was permitted. Presumably Mark knew this, knew that his audience knew it and figured it didn't need to be spelled out and made explicit. It could just be presupposed. Sometimes again. Just like our discussion of what is uniquely included. People are simply excerpting different parts of a longer original.


[00:20:51] How do we explain? In the story of the resurrection of Jerry's daughter that. In Mark. There is a double request. First. Jerry's comes and says, My daughter is at the point of death. Jesus is apparently distracted by the woman with the flow of blood. And then further servants come and say, Don't bother the master. She's died. But he goes anyway and raises her. Hallelujah. But Matthew drastically abbreviate so that there is only one coming of Jerry's announcing my daughter has died. It's an extreme contraction. It's excerpting different parts, a much smaller fraction of a longer original, creating what seems like a formal contradiction. But the request, the statement that the girl was at the point of death, the healing, the commending of the man for his faith. The heart of the story is identical in both passages. Sometimes the gospel writers are just following conventional standard speech. Did the centurion come himself? As in Matthew. Matthew, Chapter eight. To plead for Jesus to come and heal his servant. Or did he send. Some Jewish elders to make that plea on his behalf, as in Luke Chapter seven. Probably he sent the elders. That would have been the appropriate etiquette. Then how can Matthew say he came directly? The same way that today. The media can announce. The president today. Disclosed. His plans for. Fill in the blank. When the press secretary was the one reading the announcement and the speechwriter was the one composing it, and one hopes the president saw it somewhere in between. It's simply literary convention. Sometimes it is the drastic compressing or telescoping of a narrative. Did Jesus curse the fig tree and did it wither immediately So Matthew, or did it weather the next day? So, Mark. Last time I checked.


[00:23:43] Think trees don't normally wither even in a day. And that could be very well spoken of as immediately. Compared to the normal time for decay. Are all of the sermons or addresses of Jesus in the Gospels from one. Single occasion or at times does a gospel writer bring together Jesus teaching from several different contexts on a single topic? That's not an idea unique to modern scholars. It was suggested by Augustine in the fifth century. It was suggested by John Calvin as he studied the Sermon on the Mount at the time. So at the time of the Protestant Reformation, it's in sync with what other writers did in the ancient world. We don't know for sure that Jesus did it. We don't know for sure that the gospel writers reported Jesus words as doing it, I should say. But it certainly is in sync with what would have been considered acceptable at the time. How do we account for? What are sometimes called doublets. Matthew describes Jesus healing to blind men, or Mark has only one. In fact, there are a number of places in the Gospels where one account has two of the same kind of individuals. And the other has only one. Well. If there were two, there was one. And only one is ever said to speak. Maybe one is more prominent. Maybe one is the recipient of healing. Maybe. There is one angelic spokesman at the tomb. It's not a necessary contradiction. It may not be the way we would. Narrate things, but it was perfectly acceptable in the ancient world. What about variations in names and numbers? Especially translating names into Greek. They could appear in all different forms. And we looked in our discussion of archeology at how Garrison, Girgis and Gandara all probably had to do with Carousel or Corsi.


[00:26:20] And what about round numbers? Was Jesus crucified at the sixth tower or the ninth tower? Or somewhere in between. In a world where a sundial was the most precise instrument for measurement, and most people didn't even bother watching them. There are still more and different kinds of problems of harmonization. But those will form the topics for our follow up lecture. But let's close this one by simply saying if we impose on first century tax 21st century standards of precision. We will find mistakes and errors and contradictions. But who would want to have 42nd century standards of precision and plot employed with them? In the 21st century. Who knows what such standards will be like? We have to employ first century standards with first century documents. More on that to come.