The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 20

The Reliability of John (global features)

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

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 20
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The Reliability of John (global features)


A. Jewish

B. Jew from Israel

C. Eyewitness (intimate knowledge)

D. One of the 12 apostles and one of the inner core (Peter and James not possible)

E. Only gospel to merely call John the Baptist “John”

II. DATE (90’S)


Fits what we know of John


As well as John’s memory and oral tradition




A. Presupposing knowledge of core Christian information in Mark

1. John 3:24

2. John 11:2

3. John 18:24, 28

B. Explaining cryptic parts of the Synoptics

1. John 2:19

2. John 18:31

3. John 1:35-42

  • 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


The Reliability of John (global features)

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a class on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels, and this is session 20, the first of two. On the reliability of John. It's one thing to defend the overall trustworthiness of the Synoptic Gospels, as we've been doing throughout much of this series. It's another thing to look at specific examples of apparent contradictions in the Gospels. Some will be more persuaded than others by our proposed resolutions. Some will wish that we had used other examples that seem more problematic to them. And there are outstanding evangelical resources, especially detailed commentaries on every one of the Gospels that are probably the best place to go to. If I have not addressed a topic, a passage, an apparent contradiction that you would have liked, or if you're just curious if there are other solutions besides the ones that I've suggested to the problems I have addressed. But now we need to spend a couple of sessions focusing on. John's gospel, as unique as it is, 80% unparalleled in Matthew, Mark or Luke. As we have noted before. Does that fact alone? Disqualify it? I don't think so. But it's a topic that we have to look at in more detail. We can begin by addressing some overall general or global features. As with the Synaptics, we can ask the question about authorship. We hurried through. The data about John. When we discussed authorship and dating in an entire earlier segment, knowing that we would come back in more detail here. Can a case actually be made for John the Apostle, not just to be at the very beginning of a long stream of tradition that led to the formation of this gospel but actively involved? If not writing every last word. Of this narrative of the life of Christ.


[00:02:38] B.F. Wescott in the 19th century put together a classic argument in five steps for the author of John that has often been ignored, but it has never been refuted. I think it remains persuasive. Was Scott's case. Went as followed. The author of John, first of all, must have been Jewish. He shows exquisite knowledge of the lay of the land, of the topography, of the geography of Galilee, Samaria and Judea. The three main parts of the country of Israel. He is familiar in detail with the festivals and the customs and the ritual and the role of the temple. Matthew, you may be the most Jewish of the synoptic writers and the one who most quotes Old Testament prophecy is to be fulfilled. But John is a close second when it comes simply to knowledge of things. Jewish. Second. Wescott argued that. The author of the fourth gospel was a Jew from Israel as opposed to the diaspora, as opposed to some other part of the country. For the reasons we have described. It's not surprising that some. Tourist books based on. A trip to the Holy Land largely follow the Gospel of John because of all the information that correlates with what tourists to this day can still see and visit. Thirdly, last cut argued that this Jew from the land of Israel was an eyewitness. He refers to himself as the disciple Jesus loved. He is there at the Last Supper. He is there on intimate occasions when apparently only the 12 are present. He is there. Leaning on Jesus breast. Hours before his crucifixion. That leads forcefully to the conviction that this was one of the 12 apostles. And to one of the inner core of the three apostles closest to Jesus, Peter, James and John.


[00:05:30] But Peter appears by name as separate from the beloved disciple. James is martyred. In A.D. 44, according to Josephus, Acts 12 describes the account much too early for him to have been the beloved disciple and author of this book. Which leaves the apostle John. And one more key point. All four gospels refer to the Ministry of John the Baptist in some detail. Only the fourth Gospel. Never calls him the Baptist. Only John. John the Baptist is called merely John. But how would early Christian readers have known which John, if there is an apostle and there's a baptize her. Unless they knew that one of those people named John was the author. And that he never referred to himself that way, but as the beloved disciple. And only to the Baptist by the name of John. So at least some interesting circumstantial evidence. If, as we talked about in an earlier segment, it turns out that a John the Elder, a follower of John the Apostle, is the author. Little is Lost. One more person is removed and distanced from the chain. But it's interesting to consider a case still today in the 21st century for the apostle John. The date. Some have tried to place into the sixties because that would have the time between the events and writing. But the external evidence is much stronger for the nineties, and we talked in our earlier discussion about authorship and dating that there is nothing to preclude the Apostle John having lived this long and having had a good memory. But who did he write to? Christian congregations in and around Ephesus. Simultaneously being. More and more rejected by the Jewish synagogues, excommunicated if they were Jewish followers of Messiah. And more and more having also to face the opposite prong of Gnosticism.


[00:08:28] A fair amount of the distinctiveness of John's gospel can be accounted for that by that context that his audience found himself in emphasizing. The conflicts. With the Jewish leaders. Not because. Christianity was inherently hostile. But because over and over again, John makes plain the Jews didn't understand that he had been born in Bethlehem and not in Nazareth. They didn't understand. The nature. Of the hopes they should have been having for Messiah. And then on the other hand, John's audience. Is infected by Gnosticism. Is that why John begins with common ground that the word was God? Gnostics believed in the deity of Christ, but they didn't accept his humanity. And so in John's Prolog, he moves toward affirming in John 114 that the word became flesh and dwelled among us. John probably had distinct literary sources. If this was the apostle, obviously he had his own memory. If it was a John the Elder, he would have had other oral traditions. In either case, there may have been shorter written sources. Not just Matthew, Mark and Luke. But at the same time, there is a stylistic or editorial, a redaction, all unity. It is found that. That suggests this document hangs together and if part of it. Can be defended at the core is going back to John then maybe by that criterion of coherence. We should accept a whole lot more. John has distinctive purposes, he tells us. His purpose statement. It's not as long as Luke's Prolog the first four verses of Luke's gospel, but in John 20 verse 30 and 31, he says Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by elite, by believing you may have life in His name.


[00:11:12] Why does he have seven miracles? In chapters two through 11. But instead of calling the miracles like the Synaptics, he calls them signs. Pointers to belief. He chooses what he believes will most fit his purpose as described in this verse. What is John's literary genre? Clearly it, too, is biographical. But is biographical in a more dramatic fashion, in a more stylized and literary fashion. If one were to create a spectrum from. The least stylized and most dispassionate chronicle of events to the most fictitious mythological story. At the other end, the Synoptic are certainly written with literary artistry. But John moves a little bit more in that direction, still well within the range of ancient history and biographical writing, not out here. With fictitious works. It has been plausibly suggested that the Book of Revelation, John's latest and last writing was written in seven Acts and was performed early in the history of the church as a seven act drama. Did John have? Influences from. The world of the theater. That were affecting him as he wrote his gospel as well. That can account potentially for some differences. But for the rest of this segment, and we'll be continuing a look at John's reliability in the next segment. I want to focus on what I find to be an absolute fascinating pattern of the relationships between John and the first three gospels. Leon Morris in the 1960s referred to this as interlocking. On the one hand, John does not seem to be literarily dependent on Matthew, Mark and Luke as they are among themselves. But on the other hand, he certainly presupposes knowledge of the carignan, the Greek word for proclamation, or the basic fundamental gospel message of early Christianity. And as Richard Bock in more recent works has demonstrated, he probably presupposes knowledge on the part of his congregation of at least the Gospel of Mark, if not the other Gospels.


[00:14:28] What are some examples of this phenomenon? Try to imagine. That you know nothing. About Christianity except what you are reading. For the very first time. Only from the Gospel of John. You know nothing of Matthew. A mark of Luke. You're a visitor from Mars. Or whatever planet you prefer. Hearing about this earthling religion. And you've been given a copy of the Gospel of John. You've been introduced in the opening chapter to the character of John the Baptist, to Jesus, to some of his first followers. To an early miracle. Teaching in the temple. And a dialog with Nicodemus. And then you come in chapter three. To the following paragraph. After this verse 22, Jesus and His disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them and baptized. Now, John was also baptizing it in on near Salem because there was plenty of water and people were coming and being baptized. This was before John was put in prison. What? This this good man, this prophet, this pointer to Jesus that I've I've read about in the the first chapter he was put in prison. Am I going to learn anything more about this? An argument developed between some of John's disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial wire shall vary from item. No, apparently, I'm not going to learn anything. More in chapter three. I know it's literary foreshadowing. Somewhere later in the gospel. I will read this story. And I never find it. Why insert a parenthetical comment apparently designed to help explain when something was going on? That it was before John was put in prison. To a group of people who know nothing about that account. Or did they? Did they know? The story narrated in great detail in Mark chapter six, whether from hearing Mark explicitly or just hearing Christian preaching repeatedly.


[00:17:37] It seems to presuppose knowledge. Of core Christian truth as found in Mark, even though there is no literary dependance. Our take Chapter 11. That magnificent chapter of the resurrection of Lazarus that begins now. A man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of and her sister, Martha. Here comes another parenthetical comment. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. Well, that's a natural clarification. Mary was the most common first century Jewish female name of all. There are multiple Marys in the Gospels. Of course, you're going to clarify. Except John one through ten has never introduced somebody named Mary. Who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. Now, this could be literary foreshadowing because in chapter 12, we will read that story. But it doesn't help somebody hearing the gospel read out loud, as was the custom. Who was not familiar with what would come. Two at this point in time be able to place this, Mary. Mark, however, tells the story in chapter 14 and in verse nine says that Jesus predicted that where ever the Gospels retold the story of what this woman did would be repeated in memory of her. And if that's what happened, then we would expect jobs, communities and FSS to have heard the story there is interlocking between John and the Synaptics. You are still a first time Martian reader. Our Jupiter in. Or Venetian or mercurial. Or maybe just a lunar. Or maybe from Krypton. And you come to John. Chapter 18. Jesus has been arrested. And he has been led before the father in law of the reigning high priest, a man named Anas, who himself had previously been high priest deposed by the Romans, but in Jewish thought.


[00:20:33] One was high priest for life. So it's not surprising that the courtesy would have been given to Anis to have a hearing with Jesus that ends. And in verse 24, we read. Then Anna sent him bound to care for the High Priest. The scene shifts to outside the courtyard. And Simon Peter is still standing there, warming himself. He has already denied Jesus once. Now the second and third denials are recorded and a rooster crows, as Jesus said earlier, predicted. Then in verse 28, the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. Wait, wait. I missed something. Anna sends Jesus to care for us. Care for sense Jesus on. Was I out for a snack during the commercial break and stayed away too long? What happened with Cephus. Anas takes him to a campus scene, Change back campus takes in the pilot. What about the trial before campus? John says not a word. Mark narrates it in great detail in Chapter 14. Matthew and Luke have parallels. Apparently, John is assuming knowledge of the event on the part of his audience so he can skip right over it. But the pattern of the interlocking goes two different ways sometimes. John explains something. That doesn't appear to need explanation. Unless you've read the Synaptics. And puzzled over something that was unusually cryptic in Mark. Rather than unusually elliptical in John. We've alluded earlier to that metaphorical and initially misunderstood statement of Jesus in the temple. Destroy this body. Destroy this temple, I should say. And I will raise it in three days. Meaning the temple of his body. But they didn't understand it until later in March 14 in the account of Jesus trial. Two or three years later. False witnesses charge Christ of having claimed.


[00:23:16] I will destroy this temple and raise it in three days. Of course, it's false testimony. But why pick that out of everything somebody might have made up? It sounds like a garbled version of what's found only in John. From two or three years earlier. Yeah, that could have been garbled over time. Or why? In the Synoptic accounts. Does. Jesus. Ever leave the Jewish court to begin with. The Jewish law had very clear provisions for capital offenses. If the Sanhedrin found Jesus guilty of blasphemy, they ought to take him out and stone him. Instead, they send him to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilot. What's that all about? There's not a word in Mark or any of the Synoptic Gospels to answer the question. But only in John. 1831 pilot said, take him yourselves and judge him by your own law. But we have no right to execute anyone. They objected, and we learned from Roman historians that Rome did indeed take away the death penalty, except in very specific cases from the Jewish High Court. While Israel was under Roman occupation. John supplies the answer. And finally. By the shores of Galilee. Mark Chapter one. Matthew four. Luke four. Jesus goes up to fishermen. A tax collector. Says, Follow me. And drop their nets and leave their tall boots. They do. And bam, they're on the road. Now I know Jesus had great charisma. And I know he had magnetic attraction, but are we seriously to imagine that without forming any opinion of this man or having any time to reflect in order to form that opinion? That is, if he had an unbroken. Ability to draw on the force and make objects move toward him like Yoda in Star Wars. These people simply dropped everything and followed him.


[00:26:24] It's theoretically possible. But John, Chapter one. Well before the great Galilean Ministry describes Jesus with John the Baptist near Jerusalem meeting. Peter and Andrew and Philip and Nathaniel and the first followers of Jesus. We're first followers of John the Baptist. And they came and they saw and they spent an evening visiting with Jesus. There's no indication they became permanent disciples at that point, but they saw Jesus baptism. They had time to form an opinion of him. Perhaps they asked more about him of others afterwards and then at a later date in Galilee, when Jesus is ready to formally call his 12 apostles. It makes sense. That they jumped up and left everything and followed him. It may seem that John and the Synaptics go merrily their independent ways, but that would be to overlook these fascinating, intertwining examples of some kind of interdependence. There is still more to be said about the reliability of job. But that will take us into our next segment.