The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 21

The Reliability of John (chapter by chapter)

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.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 21
Watching Now
The Reliability of John (chapter by chapter)


There was a time when John was more popular, and it seems doubtful that the church would have invented that fact.


Dovetails with the Synoptic teaching on new wine and new wineskins.


Dovetails with the Synoptic teaching on becoming a like a little child


Continues Jesus’ concern for Samaritans and outcasts




Two ceremonies that parallel Jesus’ teaching (historical verisimilitude)


Builds on the teaching about Israel’s shepherds in a pre-70 A.D. context


Jesus’ raises people from the dead in the Synoptics


Illustrates Mark 10:45 and servant leadership


Fewest points of contact with the Synoptics, but some overlap


Some specific clauses and concepts have parallels with the Lord’s Prayer


Most overlap with the Synoptics


Some overlap, and purpose statement overlaps with Mark 1:1

  • 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 (chapter by chapter)

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a course on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. And this is session 21. We left off in Session 20, having looked at some global concerns and reasons for trusting in the general reliability of John's gospel, despite it being so different from the Synaptics. In this segment, we want to look at the major passages. Virtually chapter by chapter through the Gospel of John and point out some reasons for accepting, at least in general, the probability that Jesus did or said these things through a variety of the criteria of authenticity that we have discussed earlier. As in the Synaptics also historical. Reasoning alone cannot demonstrate the accuracy of every last detail, though we did look in earlier segments at some of the classic problems of harmonizing both the Synoptic Gospels among themselves and then certain issues between the Synaptics and John. But so much in this kind of study depends on one's presuppositions, depends on where one places the burden of proof. Is it up to the person making a case for reliability to show beyond all reasonable doubt that Jesus did or said something, or when so much evidence is lost in ancient history? Do we give after repeated confirmation of what can be tested? The document, the benefit of the doubt where it can't be tested. So a lot of John certainly falls into that latter category of what can't be directly tested or confirmed or contradicted. But it is fascinating how if one goes virtually chapter by chapter, one can see main topics and strong reasons, despite their differences from the portrait of Jesus in the Synaptics reasons for accepting the probability that these things actually took place. We have seen in previous talks how Jesus and John intersect with one another, much more so in the Gospel of John than what we would know of simply from the information in the Synaptics.


[00:02:44] And one of the most intriguing references in John Chapter three is that statement that John makes that Jesus must increase, increase in popularity, increase in significance to the people of Israel, even as his role decreases, which of course suggests what we might have suspected any way since John's ministry began before Jesus, that there was a time when John was quite popular, quite well known. Even the Synaptics describe. In a slight generalization, all of Jerusalem going out to the Jordan River to hear John's preaching. But over time, that ministry recedes. Jesus is baptized by John, a detail that does not explicitly appear in the fourth Gospel, although the scene is there, the events surrounding it. John the Baptist testimony to it is there. But there is a sense in which more so in Japan. One gets the impression that there was a period of overlap in the ministries of these two people and that there was a time when John was better known and perhaps more popular and perhaps more respected. And that is not something that the early church would easily have invented because it was very concerned to magnify Jesus. We have talked already about how in John's gospel, his main function is simply as a witness, simply to testify to who Jesus is. But these hints that suggests there was a time when he was much more influential than later Christians tended to credit him with suggest that there is, at the very least, a historical core to this distinctive information about John and Jesus in the opening chapters of the Gospel of John. Turning water into wine at first glance seems to be a miracle, like nothing we read about in the Synaptics. But then if we pay attention to Jesus teachings, we discover and mark to and parallels.


[00:05:17] A brief parable or an extended metaphor in which Jesus insists that new wine must be put in new wine skins. The main point of all of the miracles in John's gospel is as pointers to belief in Jesus and John two ends. This particular account in John two ends in verse 12 with a statement that the disciples put their belief in Jesus, grew in their trust in who He was. But. Buried in the story. Not as prominent and not as likely to have been invented is the statement that this miracle took place with water that resided in six stone jars used for the Jewish rites of purification. Why mention that point? Unless part of the significance of this miracle is very much the point Jesus made in the Synaptics. A new age is arriving the age of the kingdom. A new joy is attached to that, as symbolized by the wedding feast. And with it, there is new wine. In this case, not requiring different receptacles, but requiring the transformation of the water used for the old purification rites of Judaism into something fresher. It actually dovetails with the Jesus we know from the Synaptics. What about the dialog with Nicodemus in John three? The core of that is Jesus claim that one must be born again, or it can be translated from above. And then he also states it as being born of water and the spirit. And we mentioned earlier that this is very closely, conceptually parallel to Jesus teaching in more than one synoptic occasion, where he talks about unless a person becomes like a little child, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. The core of the dialog fits the Jesus we know from the synoptic. We can also add that later, rabbinic literature testifies to an ongoing wealthy Ferris family, for which there was more than one generation of individuals named Nicodemus.


[00:07:59] We don't know if any of them exactly matches this Nicodemus, but it makes it very probable that such an individual existed and that this is not simply a fictitious account. When we come to Jesus with the Samaritan woman in chapter four, here is one place where we do feel like we're in familiar territory. Now, there's nothing in Matthew, Mark, or Luke about this particular woman, but Jesus concern for Samaritans appears, especially in Luke's Gospel, with the parable of the Good Samaritan, with the story of the ten lepers who are healed and only a Samaritan returning to give thanks. But Jesus concern for the outcast of his society permeates many parts of the synoptic tradition the poor, the sick women, those who were considered ritually impure or morally notoriously rebellious against God, the tax collectors, the prostitutes and that intriguing phrase, tax collectors and sinners that appears repeatedly, which if it doesn't shock a modern listener, they've probably been in church too long. Imagine putting your profession lumped together with sinners in general plumbers and sinners, construction workers and sinners, real estate agents and sinners. Seminary professors and sinners. We're on familiar ground when we come to the story of this woman who is also a Samaritan and who also has had five husbands and is now living with one who is not her husband. When we come to chapter five, we encounter the first of several long uninterrupted monologues, talks, sermons, addresses by Jesus. Particularly to crowds in Jerusalem at festival times. Here, there tend to be the fewest direct conceptual parallels to his teaching in the Synaptics. But there are interesting kernels, interesting car metaphors, or even miniature parables. There are those since the days of C. H Dodd onward who have wondered if at the heart of Chapter five was verse 17, a passage that has been called The Parable of The Apprentice, or of the father and his apprentice son, because it doesn't take much to imagine Jesus words as having originally been more generalized.


[00:11:11] He says, My father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working as he applied to himself. A short proverbial like statement that the Good Apprentice, the good son who is learning his father's trade, is always imitating and always watching and always learning from his father. That's the way his discourse in chapter five unfolds. The application of his defense for healing a man on the Sabbath. God works seven days a week. He does not stop providentially upholding the universe on the Sabbath. He brings new life into the world. On the Sabbath, certainly Jesus, he argues, could heal people on the Sabbath. Except that that logic only works if Jesus is blurring or even transgressing the boundary between humanity and deity. Because Jews understood the Ten Commandments to teach that mere humans were not allowed to imitate God in this one respect on the seventh day of the week. In verse 19 to 30. Then Jesus goes on to further expand this claim in a passage which is widely agreed to be very tightly structured in inverse parallel form, sometimes referred to as a chasm. So that the very center of the passage twice repeats with the solemn separation. Truly, truly, or very truly. I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes it has eternal life and will not be judged. And then verse 25 repeats that thought in each of its parts and very closely. If this passage is a tightly knit unity that springs from at least a kernel, saying that is very characteristic of the kinds of things Jesus says and the forms that he uses in the synoptic, then perhaps we are to see the entire discourse as a unity that comes from Jesus. In Chapter six, a major distinctive in the Gospel of John, after two stories that are familiar from the synoptic, the feeding of the 5000 and the walking on the water is the bread of Life discourse.


[00:13:57] And here again, a very Jewish form of preaching is used, sometimes referred to as a program midrash. A commentary that begins with an introductory text of scripture, expounds it, briefly, connects it to a second key text of Scripture, which is then expounded in more detail and then returns at the end to the initial text of Scripture. Here we have passages that are found in Exodus 16 four and Isaiah 5413 as Jesus talks about the manna that Moses provided in the wilderness and uses that to make the claim for himself that he is the bread of life and then moves on to talk about the text. They will all be taught by God. Finally, at the end of the sermon in the Capernaum Synagogue, coming back to the original claim dealing with manna coming down from Heaven and Jesus self-description as the bread of life. Key points of contact with the feeding of the 5000 common to all four gospels, a tightly knit unity. For a unique discourse. Perhaps it all originally went together and we actually have a much more abbreviated form in the other gospels. Chapters seven through nine are all united around Jesus ministry. During the Feast of Tabernacles. One fall, perhaps the fall of 8029 in Jerusalem. And he makes two dramatic claims in these passages, one in which he likens himself. To Living Water and the opportunity for his followers to experience this living water and be conduits for it. And twice, he refers to himself in chapters eight and nine as the light of the world, tied in very closely with the healing miracle. In Chapter nine of Healing the Eyes of a Man Born Blind. What's fascinating about these two claims is that they match closely to central rituals in Jerusalem that occupied a major part of the celebration each year of the Tabernacles Festival.


[00:16:47] Once a day, priests would draw water from the pool of Siloam, the very pool where the blind man is told to go and wash so that he can be healed and would process to the temple in a festive light parade, singing or chanting out of Isaiah, the text with joy, you shall draw water from the wells of salvation. How appropriate in this context for Jesus to speak of living water. And then each day, a giant seven branched candelabra was set up in the temple in the courtyard for worship services. Except that on the last and greatest day of the feast, to use the expression John himself uses, there was a service of darkness that replaced it. Appropriately, John calls himself the Light of the World. If historical verisimilitude counts for anything, if tying in with our criterion of Palestinian environment something that fits precisely its context in Israel, a pre 70 context, a celebration of the festivals that could not be done after the temple was destroyed. And the longer you date John after A.D. 70, the less likely a Gentile or largely Gentile audience in Ephesus would have known anything about these Jewish backgrounds. The more likely we are in touch with genuine historical tradition here. We keep on moving and we come to Jesus Good Shepherd discourse in chapter ten, which we're told in verse 22, took place at the Feast of Dedication, also known as Hanukkah, the celebration of the liberation of the Temple and ultimately of Israel by the Maccabees beginning in 164 B.C.. A time when Jews believed the prophecies of Ezekiel 34 of new and good shepherds replacing the false shepherds over Israel was occurring. The shepherds who were Israel's leaders, the Maccabee and family. Once again, Jesus words dovetail perfectly with the information about a Jewish festival.


[00:19:30] Best known to Jewish people. In the temple pre 70 fitting the context described. I say. But the resurrection of Lazarus is unparalleled. Unprecedented? It is. If we're talking about the length of time Lazarus spent entombed. But don't forget that Jesus raises Charis, his daughter, as well as the son of the widow of Nane in the Synoptic Gospels. And as we mentioned in a previous lecture, there may be a simple geographical and structural reason that this is found only in John. Mark, followed by Mathew and Luke, narrates only one visit to Jerusalem by the adult Jesus. Any miracle, however spectacular that occurred out of some other visit to Jerusalem. Finds no place in the outline that Mark has chosen and that Matthew and Luke have chosen to follow even while supplementing him. And this miracle occurred at Bethany just outside of Jerusalem. The second to the last time that Jesus is in the area, according to John's description, given that there are resurrections in the synoptic. Given that there's a reason the synoptic outline doesn't leave room for this story. We perhaps shouldn't take it as so significant or startling that Lazarus account is found only in John. Chapter 12 is largely paralleled in the Synaptics, except for some teaching that it triggers Palm Sunday and the events of the beginning of the week leading up to Passover. Chapter 13, however, does have the very distinctive scene on the last night of Jesus life of his foot washing. But this is of a very different character than all of the exalted titles and accolades that Jesus receives in the fourth Gospel. This is very much in keeping with the key text in Mark 1045 and parallels that the son of man came not to be served, but to serve, to give his life a ransom for many servant leadership.


[00:22:11] Very countercultural in the ancient world. Still fairly infrequent in the modern world. Not likely to be something people would have made up. The farewell discourse, spanning three chapters of John's gospel, has perhaps the fewest points of contact with explicit teachings recorded in the Synaptics of all. Although there certainly are general themes that are parallel Jesus predicting his coming death. But promising the Ministry of the Spirit following that and then predicting his second coming. Plenty of teaching in the Synaptics on those general themes. But once again, people looking at the structure of this passage, not quite as tightly knit as in Chapter five, have nevertheless suggested plausibly a kind of chi mastic or inverse parallel structure which places the center the climax of an inverse parallel structure in the metaphor of the vine and the vine dresser. In the opening verses of Chapter 15, Jesus says, I am the true vine. My father is the vine dresser or gardener. His people are the branches and he prunes every branch that is in him so that it would bear more fruit. This is the one place where we are in close touch with metaphors and parables that Jesus uses in the Synaptics. We think especially of the parable of the wicked tenants that likens Israel to a vineyard. Echoing the imagery of Isaiah five, likens the current Jewish leadership to wicked tenants and promises that two new tenants who will bear the fruit of the kingdom will replace Israel's current leadership. Chapter 17 is entirely occupied with John's so-called account of Jesus high priestly prayer, which at first glance again seems to have no direct relationship to anything in the Synaptics. Until we start looking at specific clauses. And parallels, at least in concept, appear to almost all of the petitions of the much better known Lord's Prayer in Matthew and Luke.


[00:25:07] The passion narrative has a lot of overlap, more overlap than any other part of John's gospel with the Synaptics. But we've already seen in previous talks that even some of the distinctive here have a case can be made for their reliability. Particularly the information that capital punishment had been taken away from the Jews under Roman rule, conforming with what we know Rome did on a consistent basis to its subjugated people. And we could give other illustrations here. The resurrection narratives have some parallels with the Synaptics several distinct features as well. But an important reminder in John's purpose statement in chapter 20, verse 31 that what he has chosen to write has been given so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing have life in His name. Intriguingly, those two titles match exactly the two titles that Mark one won places in the very opening verse of his gospel, The Christ or the Messiah and the Son of God, a reminder that John and the Synoptic are not quite so different as one might think after all. And the highlight of Chapter 21, the reinstatement of Peter. Three times Jesus asks him, Do you love me? Three times? He says that He does, and he's told to tend or feed Jesus spiritual flock his sheep. Is the natural sequel to what all four gospels contain. Peter's three fold denial. Much more could be said. But even this brief overview suggests that despite the superficial differences and and we dare not gloss over them. Between John and Synaptics, there are many more points of contact and first meet the eye. There are historical criteria that give us reason to think that significant portions of just about every major passage may well be historical, despite their differences from the Synoptic Gospels.