The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 19

Problems of Harmonization between the Synoptics and John

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

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 19
Watching Now
Problems of Harmonization between the Synoptics and John


A. Only 20& of John’s materials parallels the Synoptics

B. John did not want to duplicate commonly-known information


A. Christology (“I AM” sayings)

B. Other themes (e.g., presence of eternal life)


A. Overall outline of John

3 year ministry and the 46 years to rebuild the temple

B. Specific (“apparent”) dislocations

“Let us leave”

C. Passion Narrative

Was Jesus crucified on the Day of Preparation (Thursday) or Passover (Friday)?


Temple cleansing (2 options)


A. Extended discourses

1. Kernel teaching reminiscent of a Synoptic saying

2. “Johannine Thunderbolt” (Matt 11:25–27)

3. Abbreviations with careful structure

4. Conceptual parallels

B. Language indistinguishable throughout

1. Role of Holy Spirit/Paraclete

2. John’s years of preaching in his own idiom

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


Problems of Harmonization between the Synoptics and John

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a class on historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. This is session 19 and a continuation of our last segment that began discussing representative examples of the handful of somewhat more difficult problems that are often pointed out about harmonizing one gospel with another. In our last segment, we looked at a representative cross-section of problems among the three synoptic gospels. In this segment, we want to look at a representative cross-section of problems between the Synaptics and the Fourth Gospel. The Gospel of John. Only about 20% of John's gospel is paralleled in Matthew, Mark or Luke. So logically, a good starting point is to deal with the question of his omissions and therefore the 80% or so of John that is unique to his gospel. It is thus singly rather than multiple be attested. Of course, as we talked about in our discussion of the criteria, single attestation by itself should not make someone suspicious because so much evidence from the ancient world has been lost. John presumably did not want to duplicate frequently material that was already well covered by one or more of his predecessors. And he presumably wanted to add information that for whatever reason, the previous three had left out. But sometimes the question can be framed in a fairly pointed way. Take, for example, the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11. Surely the most dramatic of all of Jesus miracles. Four days after the man had died. Would not have been left out by any gospel writer. That it's only in John that it's. So hard to believe. Must make it suspect. But then one has to pay attention to. The structures that the gospel writers are using. Mark chooses to describe. Jesus ministry outside Jerusalem, primarily in Galilee, occasionally outside of Israel altogether.


[00:02:51] But Mark has only one trip of Jesus to Jerusalem that for the final Passover of his life. Matthew and Luke amplify many segments of Jesus life, but they preserve that basic framework from Mark. And have a record of only one visit to Jerusalem by Jesus as an adult man. For the final and fateful Passover. Where does the resurrection of Lazarus occur? Just outside Bethany, his hometown on Jesus. Penultimate second to the last visit to Jerusalem for John is the gospel from which we learn that Jesus ministry approximated three years in length and that, like every good Jewish man who was healthy and living close enough to Jerusalem for the three main annual festivals of Passover and the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles, he was in attendance at Jerusalem. That's very plausible. Mark, Matthew and Luke have been more selective. Any miracle, no matter how spectacular it was, will not have a place in them. If it occurred. In or around Jerusalem. But not during Jesus final visit. And after all, there are people raised from the dead in those other gospels. It's not as if they leave out that dimension of Jesus ministry altogether. As we saw with this in optics, there are times when there are theological differences between the Synaptics and John, most dramatically with their very exalted view of Jesus. Only in John do we have the seven I am sayings on the lips of Christ that He is the bread of life and the way and the truth and the life and the the gate for the sheep and the good Shepherd and the the resurrection and the life and so forth. Only in Johnny. 858 do we have Jesus saying before Abraham was I am alluding to the divine name of Exodus 314.


[00:05:25] Can we believe? That picture of Jesus that is utterly absent from the Synaptics. Well, not utterly. After all, Jesus does say as he walks on the water and is seen by his followers. Fear not. I am and it can be translated. I am here, but the words are ego in me. The same as in John 858 the same as in Exodus 314. And it is Matthew and Luke who tell the story of the virginal conception. Not John. Which makes Jesus. A divine. Human. Every bit as much as the fourth Gospel does. There are other themes. John's emphasis on. The presence of eternal life is much more dramatic than in the Synaptics. But both recognize a present and future dimension. What about chronological problems? It's true. Only John gives. A three year outline. But. Early in John's gospel. Jesus is in the temple, John 219 And he says, Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days. The authorities don't understand. They say it's taken 46 years to rebuild the temple. And then John clarifies that Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body. But even his disciples didn't understand until after he was raised from the dead. 46 years if we do the math. According to Josephus, that first century Jewish historian, the temple began to be rebuilt under orders from Herod the Great. In 20 or 19 B.C., as we would date it today, depending on whether you count inclusively or exclusively the dates in Josephus 46 years. Remembering that there was no year zero as we would use the calendar today. Gets you at the very latest to 27 or 28 A.D.. The earliest possible date for the crucifixion when the new moon of Passover fell on a Friday is 30 A.D..


[00:08:31] This can't be the year of Jesus death. It's true that all of the details of Matthew, Mark, and Luke put together could have transpired. If nobody ever slept in about three months. But is that what one would expect of an itinerant, popular messianic claimant? Is there corroborating evidence to suggest that John's chronology does mesh with the picture of the Synaptics? I think there is. What about specific dislocations or apparent dislocations? The last night of Jesus life, He's in the upper room. He has spoken to his disciples after dinner. The words are recorded in John 14 and at the end of John 14, he says, Come now, let us leave. And then apparently carries on talking. For another two chapters. And then looks toward heaven and prays what has often been called his high priestly prayer in chapter 17 and only in John 18, verse one, do we read when he had finished praying. Jesus laughed with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. Left where the upper room possibly Jesus wouldn't be the only person in the history of the world. I've known quite a few preachers. Who have said it now from my last point. And 10 minutes later. One wonders how long that point is. In fact, I have had guests who have virtually said, Come now, let us leave. And continued talking for up to a half an hour. But maybe. They did leave. At the end of Chapter 14, the topic switches abruptly to Jesus teaching about being the true vine. On the temple in the first century. On the walls surrounding it. Visible from the outside was a large insignia of a grape vine, and there were grape vines that Jesus would have passed in root. Is this when they left the upper room? And is it what was outside as they walked down the slopes into the Kidron Ravine to go to the garden at guest Simone that inspired his next topic.


[00:11:43] John, 18 doesn't say. Where they left doesn't say he left the upper room. It says he left and they crossed the Kidron Valley. If they had already been passing the southern side of the the Temple Mount, then that's what they would have left and the Kidron Valley would be the very next item they would have come to. So there's more than one way to skin a cat. Or harmonize the gospel. We don't have to say separate teachings of Jesus. God combined together in an awkward way that makes little sense. One of the most famous examples in the Gospel of John is the apparent contradiction of the dating of Jesus last Passover and therefore of his crucifixion. It is frequently claimed. That Jesus in John's gospel is crucified on Passover eve. On the afternoon before the evening in which people would have eaten the main initial celebratory meal of the weeklong Passover feast. And therefore contradicts the synoptic Gospels that very clearly have him celebrating his last supper as a Passover meal. On that first night of the festival. And the rationale that is usually given for this is that John is concerned to portray Jesus as the LAMB of God, as the one who would take away the sins of the world, just as John the Baptist in John Chapter one. Repeatedly called him the LAMB of God. Chapter 19, verse 14. Of John's gospel says that pilot brought Jesus to the stone pavement known in Aramaic as Gabbar tha. And it was the day of preparation. Of the Passover. And about the sixth hour, about noon. Well, which was it? Passover, the day before. You can't have it both ways. It's got to be one or the other. At least one of the gospels is wrong.


[00:14:30] Is it? If we flip back a few chapters. We read in John 13 that it was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the father having loved his own, who were in the world. He loved them to the end. And then John says the evening meal was in progress. Why do evening meal? The only one that's been mentioned is the Passover. And it had been just before the Passover. Isn't the most natural way of taking John 13 two as a reference to the Passover meal. After all, although there are very distinctive features such as the foot washing scene, this is the context in which Jesus predicts Judas would betray him and Peter would deny him exactly as on Thursday night in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Surely John is trying to portray this as the Passover meal. What can he possibly mean? Then in chapter 19, verse 14, when he says, it was the preparation. Of the Passover. The word for preparation. Paris QE. Even to this day is the Greek word for Friday. Preparation of the Passover can mean the preparation day. During the festival of the Passover. That is Friday of Passover week. Is there any way to choose between these two options? For what 1914 could mean. We keep reading. In John's gospel. And we see this expression. For the preparation for the Passover. We see it as well in Mark's gospel and we see. That they didn't want to leave Jesus body on the cross. Because the next day was the Sabbath. A Saturday. So it had to be a Friday. It had to be preparation of Passover week. Ah, but somebody says, What about chapter 18? Verse 28.


[00:17:33] Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from campus to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning and to avoid ceremonial and cleanness, they did not enter the palace because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. Passover was a week long festival. They wanted to be able to eat later that day. The special meals. That were throughout Passover week. What then? About. The six hour. The time when the. Sacrifices were being prepared. Doesn't John want to show Jesus as the LAMB of God? Well, he did in chapter one. But that title hasn't appeared in 18 chapters. And besides, John, 1914 doesn't put Jesus death at the time of the slaughter of the Passover lambs. It puts his trial before pilot at that time. And would his primarily Gentile audience pick up such a passing allusion? It was about a sixth hour. Would they even know that that was the time? The Killing of the Lambs. It seems like this notion. Of a contradictory chronology is somewhat exaggerated. What about alleged historical. Discrepancies. And these categories are not mutually exclusive. You can put different ones in different places, depending on. How you view them. What about? At passage. We alluded to already in John 219, part of a temple cleansing. But in Mark and Matthew, this occurs at the end of Jesus life. When did Jesus cleanse the temple? Early or late. Is it a ridiculous notion to suggest he did it twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end? Some have said he could never have done something like that without being arrested. Well, he did it without being arrested. Even in Mark and Matthew at the end of his ministry, although the authorities began to plot his arrest at that moment.


[00:20:15] Part of it depends on what you picture. A massive riot throughout the whole Temple Mount. No. A small protest in one corner with some tables overturned, some animals driven out. The people in the other corner of the temple may never even known about and business as usual again. The next day it would have caught the authorities attention. It would have meant they were watching him very closely. But then if even two or three years later he did it a second time, it would show he he could not be trusted that he was dangerous. But then on the other hand, maybe he only cleared the temple once. And this is an example like Luke for. Of putting the Nazareth Synagogue sermon earlier in the gospel record. It's interesting that the opening chapter and one half of John's gospel strictly follows chronological sequence so that we read what happens on the next day and 129 on the next day after that, and 135 on the next day after that. In 143 on the third day after that in two one. And then simply when it was almost time for the Jewish Passover in 313 and in three one. Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus. Nothing requires these to be in chronological order. And maybe this also is a headline that John deliberately puts early as a way to show Jesus as the one fulfilling the rituals and practices and festivals of Judaism, because he will be the new temple and he will be the new Sabbath, and he will be the new Tabernacles and he will be the new feast of dedication, as we see in successive chapters. Of course. John writes in a very uniform style throughout his gospel. Sometimes it's hard to know where one of the character's words stop and the narrator's word starts extended discourses.


[00:22:50] Longer at times than we find in the Synaptics often. With a kernel teaching or metaphor reminiscent of a synoptic saying. Jesus dialog with Nicodemus centering on being. Born of water and the spirit being born afresh like a little child going back into his mother's womb. Although Nicodemus misunderstands that literally. And Jesus in the Synaptics does teach on more than one occasion that unless a person becomes like a little child, they cannot enter the kingdom of God. The style is different, but the contents are very reminiscent. There is a very significant passage in Matthew 11. And it has a parallel in Luke. Towards the end of that chapter. Matthew 11, verse 25. At that time, Jesus said, I praise you, Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth. Because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for that is what you are pleased to do. All things have been committed to me by my father. No one knows the son except the father. And no one knows the father except the son and those to whom the son chooses to reveal him language that is extraordinarily like language that recurs in John's extended sermons of Jesus. It's been called the Johannine Thunderbolt. It just sort of dropped from the sky in to the middle of the Synoptic Gospels. But it's a reminder that the Jesus of history was much more versatile. The two use the hyperbole with which the Gospel of John ends. If everything had been written about him, the whole world couldn't have contained the books that would have had to been written. We have to remember that even the longest sermons in John, even the longest uninterrupted discourses, are probably very drastic abbreviations of much longer addresses to the crowds.


[00:25:18] And many of them are very carefully structured around scripture with parallelism and inverse parallelism in ways that suggest they all hang together as the product of one mind. If there. Our colonel sayings that sound like teachings of Jesus in the Synaptics then. Perhaps they all. Our authentic teachings. Students who have gone through a synopsis, even where John has no formal parallels to the synoptic and simply looked for teachings in Matthew, Mark and Luke that conceptually are similar. Fine. Many, many examples. A recent work by a European scholar named Philip Bartolomé has cataloged these in great detail. And one of the ways of explaining. The fact that Jesus words and John's words as narrator are often uniform in style. Is to recognize John's understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit, the parakeet, the advocate we quoted in our discussion of the canon, his teaching that the Spirit would lead them to remember everything he had taught. And if John, perhaps more so than Luke functioning purely as a historian, did have some sense of the Spirit's direct guidance as he penned his gospel, then he probably felt the freedom. To put things in his own words with an even greater degree of confidence. Let's not forget that if John was written the last and latest, perhaps as late as the nineties, he had years of his own preaching of the gospel in which to put Jesus words and his significance into his own idiom. Harmonization has exist. And yet. John still is different. Are there reasons for believing in the reliability of John? More generally. Most of what we've talked about in previous segments has pertained primarily to the Synaptics. It's time now to spend a couple of sessions focusing entirely on the Gospel of John.


[00:28:10] And on his very unique nature.