The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 22

Fourth Quest of the Historical Jesus

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.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 22
Watching Now
Fourth Quest of the Historical Jesus


A. Jesus’ initial association with John the Baptist

B. Jesus’ first encounters with disciples-to-be

C. Jesus’ inaugural temple cleansing

D. Overall three-year chronology

E. Centrality of Sabbath healings

F. Attempted revolt in the wilderness

G. Prophetic agency

H. Additional details in passion, resurrection stories


The argument is that purification is a consistent theme running throughout the gospel, and that parallels the Synopics recording of Jesus' healing ministry, making the unclean learn,  and that argues for the historicity of these stories.

A. Jesus and John the Baptist

B. Six stones jars

C. Temple cleansing

D. Born of water and the spirit

E. Living water vs. well water

F. At the Pool of Bethesda

G. Ritually unclean in the wilderness

H. Rivers of living water from within

I. At the Pool of Siloam

J. At the Feast Honoring Purification of Temple

K. The ultimate purification of Lazarus

L. Mary’s anointing

M. Foot-washing

N. Pruning the vine

O. Prayer for sanctification

P. Minor details in the Passion and Resurrection stories

  • 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.

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Historical Reliability of the Gospels


Fourth Quest of the Historical Jesus

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a class on the historical reliability of the New Testament gospels, and this is Section 22. In our last two segments, we have been looking at the reliability of John's gospel, and particularly the roughly 80% of his gospel that is distinctive compared to Matthew, Mark and Luke. We want to spend one more session on this topic from the perspective of what as far back as the late 1950s was dubbed by a man named John H. Robinson. The new look on John. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the assumption was that. The quest for the historical Jesus, which we also surveyed in its various phases in earlier lectures, had to occur almost exclusively based on the Synoptic Gospels, because John, for all of its good theology, was not historically reliable in the most part. Today, several decades after that new look began, there is in the biggest international society of biblical scholars from every conceivable perspective, the Society of Biblical Literature. An ongoing seminar called John Jesus and History. It would have been almost inconceivable even as recently as 20 or 30 years ago. And one of the leaders of that movement, Paul Anderson, longtime professor at George Fox University, speaks of wanting to begin a fourth quest of the historical Jesus beyond the three that we surveyed earlier, a quest that would take John seriously as an equal partner with the Synoptic Gospels. What has led to this call over the past half century or so? A number of details, some of the very same ones that we surveyed in our last lecture, some additional ones. Have increasingly been viewed as most likely historical, though they do not appear anywhere in Matthew, Mark or Luke. One that overlaps with our previous segment has to do with Jesus initial association with John the Baptist.


[00:02:43] The fact that their ministries overlapped more than one might have imagined from reading just the Synaptics, and that there was a time when John was presumably more popular and better known than Jesus, but that he receded in significance even as Jesus grew in his public ministry in Israel. A second detail often deemed historical involves the raft of encounters between Jesus and several of those men who would become part of his inner core of 12 disciples. We mentioned a few lectures ago the phenomenon in Mark and the other sin optics of Jesus appearing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, seemingly calling out people that we might imagine had never even seen or heard of him before. Follow me. I will make you fishers of man and boom, they're gone. But John describes Peter, Andrew, Philip, Nathaniel, who may well be the same individual as Bartholomew and the Synaptics, having first encountered Jesus in Judea when he is in the orbit, in the association, in the milieu of John the Baptist Ministry. And having more informal times of teaching and association with him. Not that Jesus didn't have charisma, didn't have spiritual power, but at least it makes a little more intelligible. The immediate reaction when he later selects 12 and more formally calls them along the Galilean shores. How many times did Jesus cleanse the temple? And in a previous segment, we talked about that debate. Is it once only at the end of Jesus life, with the John having moved that story to create a kind of headline. Early on in John chapter two over the rest of his gospel? Or were there two separate events? Jesus words associated with each are noticeably distinct. It's really only the John two event that could fairly be said to be a cleansing.


[00:05:25] Concern for the corruption that commerce in the Court of the Gentiles had created. Later on. It's in the context of predictions of the temple's destruction. It's more of a temple clearing. It's more of a temple messing up than any kind of cleansing. There's less hope for the possibility of reform. We mentioned also in an earlier segment that it's only in John two where we learn that this took place 46 years after Herod's commands to begin to rebuild the temple. Which brings us to a date, according to Josephus, is information that today we would call A.D. 27 or 28 to early. Even for the earliest of the two major dates of the crucifixion A.D. 30. And so the new look I'm John the the fourth quest. If that term catches on says whatever you do. Is this an optics? Jesus probably did do something like this in the temple at the beginning of his ministry. It's only John from which we learn that. Jesus had a approximately three year ministry. Not because John says so in so many words, but because John is concerned theologically to show Jesus as a fulfillment of the various festivals and rituals that occurred at the Jerusalem temple at holiday time. And so he points out the particular feast that various things happened at. And we can count and we can see how much time has elapsed. Although everything in the synoptic could have happened in a period as short as three months if there was no days left unoccupied. It's far more likely that a man who had so much effect for good and in terms of arousing hostility, had the length of a ministry that we find in the Gospel of John. Certainly we see Sabbath controversies in the synoptic.


[00:07:49] We see Sabbath healings. Among them. We see even more in John's gospel. And the controversies lead to longer discourses. Chapters five. Chapters nine. Brief references in chapter seven in between. This dovetails with what we know of Jesus from the synoptic and is simply highlighted and made even more prominent. All four gospels talk about the feeding of the 5000. But there is one line unique to John that is very suggestive, very widely taken as historical, because it fits the common expectations of Judaism of that day. We can pick the story up in John 614 after the people saw the sign Jesus perform the Feeding of the Multitudes. They began to say, Surely this is the prophet who has to come into the world, not a prophet, the prophet, The prophet predicted in Deuteronomy 18 one. Who would come? Who would be like Moses? Feeding multitudes in the wilderness. And then they say, John says that Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force. Withdrew again to a mountain by himself. The only place in any of the gospels where we have so explicit a statement of Jews wanting to put Jesus on the throne in Jerusalem as the successor in the line of David, a regal military messiah. But he knows that's not his role on this occasion. And so he withdraws. That passage refers also to Jesus as prophet. And in many of the discourses in the Gospel of John, he refers to himself as the sent one, the one sent by his father. Language that was regularly used by prophets. He says, I have come and the synoptic echo that language. I have come. Those of us who are so used to hearing it probably just think of a pastor driving up to church and saying, I have come since I came from my house.


[00:10:34] But in the first century context, this suggests some kind of preexisted, some kind of heavenly origin. It was more arresting. At the very least, his word, like the word of the prophets, is heaven sent. But in conjunction with the other language. One thinks something more is perhaps present. And we have noted that the new look on John's gospel also sees additional details in the passion and resurrection stories as most likely historical. I want to push this new look, this forth. QUEST If it's not premature to use that term yet, one step further. I want to go back through the major accounts that we surveyed one session ago that various criteria of authenticity suggest may well be historical and observe a consistent theme that emerges. A theme I call Jesus the purifier. In no instance is this. The most obvious or emphasized theme in the passage. In no instance does John as narrator suggest that this is his main point. So for those who are inclined to look for the dominant theology of John and attribute it to John himself rather than the historical Jesus. This theme is not susceptible to such treatment. It's more muted. Sometimes it's quite buried or implicit in the context, and yet it keeps recurring again and again, perhaps suggesting that there is a genuine historical dimension to Jesus of Nazareth being disclosed here. Jesus. With John the Baptist. What else does baptism express, if not a purification? But remember that job. Inchon is never explicitly called the Baptist. That. The Baptist in John. The gospel writer. Is consistently emphasized as the one who witnesses who testifies to Jesus. It's not the author of the fourth Gospels emphasis to focus on baptism. Which makes his role as baptize her as purifier all that much more intriguing.


[00:13:42] Six stone jars used for the Jewish rites of purification contain the water that was turned into wine. Who cares what the receptacles were? Isn't it the miracle that counts? The sign that led Jesus disciples to believe? That's what John stresses. And yet in a narrative of only 12 verses, that doesn't even bother to narrate the actual miracle that simply says in passing when they discovered the water turned into wine. Wait a minute. When did that happen? Why does John take time to mention the size and detail and nature of the jars? Unless he is making a point, unless he understands that Jesus was making a point, though it's not the one he most wants to stress. That purification in the era Jesus was inaugurating comes through the new wine, the new joy of the kingdom. We've mentioned that it's really only in, John, that one can speak of a temple cleansing more than a temple clearing. The main point John wants to make is Jesus teaching about himself being a new temple. But not far below the surface is the cleansing of the commercial corruption that he senses in that holy place. The main point with Nicodemus is that he must have a new birth. But there's all kinds of ways one could express the new birth. John quotes Jesus saying You must be born of water in the Spirit, a probable allusion to a text out of the Prophet Ezekiel. And found in is kill 36 only two chapters after the prediction about the new and good shepherds that we alluded to in an earlier segment. In Ezekiel 3625 to 27. The prophet says, I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities.


[00:16:20] And from all your idols, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Paul quote some of these same words in Second Corinthians. Born of water. And the spirit is presumably not two separate items, but a reference to this metaphorical water of new birth of spiritual cleansing. Water reemerges in John for the living water that Jesus refers to that he can provide in contrast to the literal well water that the woman is looking for. But again, that's not John's main point. His main point is to show Jesus revealing himself to the Samaritan woman as Messiah and then the evangelistic effect this has on her townspeople. But an important subordinate motif. Involves cleansing. The pool of Bethesda is the setting in Jerusalem for the healing of the crippled man in John five, which then triggers the discourse that occupies the rest of that chapter. And it was an immersion pool for the Jewish rites of ritual purification. This man hoped to get into it, to be physically healed. Jesus shows himself. As an alternative and an effective one where the man had not been able to get into the pool at the right time. To literal purification through water. The main point is healing apart from water. But interestingly, it's at the setting where such ritual purity was believed to be helped. And a point seldom even reflected on in the account of the feeding of the 5000 in the wilderness. Is that? No one. Had enough water. To make everyone ritually pure. Wouldn't have even had enough water to wash your hands before meal. Ritual on cleanliness does not prevent Jesus from ministering. Back to the Jerusalem temple and its environs.


[00:18:59] At the time of the Feast of the Tabernacles. And Jesus speaks about rivers of living water. The climax is his statement that before Abraham was. I am. And the climactic miracle is the healing of the man born blind. And his discussion about living water is left two chapters behind. But it's still there in a significant, even if subordinate role. Another. Pool. For ritual purification. This one south of the temple precincts, Bethesda was north, is the pool of Siloam. Jesus could have healed any of these individuals anywhere. Oh, yes. The man by the pool of Bethesda was there. But he sent the blind man in Chapter nine to go to the pool of Siloam. He didn't need to do that. Unless there's something about purification going on here. John's emphasis is Jesus is the light of the world. He heals the blind man who can see. But cleansing water. There's still a significant portion. The feast of dedication. What it meant nothing to any Gentile unless he or she had learned. That is celebrated. The re purifying of the Temple and the Maccabees used that language repeatedly. Jews celebrated Hanukkah. Because the temple is again dedicated now that it was ritually pure. John's main point is to call Jesus the Good Shepherd. But purification is again present. And what is purification, if not the raising someone from the ritual impurity. Not to mention physical decay of death. But there's more going on in Jan 11 than just the dramatic resurrection of Lazarus. This leads to a plot to kill Jesus. How ironic. Someone who has the power of life over death. The Jewish leaders think they can keep dead. But why is it that we read in John 1155 when it was almost time for the Jewish Passover? Many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing.


[00:21:55] Before the Passover, they kept looking for Jesus. And as they stood in the temple courts, they asked one another, What do you think is any coming to the festival at all? Why would they be looking for Jesus? Even before the festival. At the time. One people ritually purified themselves unless they were accustomed to Jesus doing something. In conjunction with Jewish rites of purification. Mary's anointing of Jesus that opens John 12 is yet another kind of purification, preparing his body for burial. A theme that John himself most highlights. What else is? Foot washing. Even if John's main point is servant leadership, there is a demonstrable element of water washing physically and ritually purifying feet. We talked about the vine imagery being at the heart of the farewell discourse and its castaic or inverse parallel structure. And at the heart of that is Jesus metaphor of pruning. The very word that's translated pruning. Can also be translated cleaning. Our cleansing. There is a purifying image here. Jesus prays for himself, for his followers, for those who would become believers after him. In his high priestly prayer of John 17 and prays for their sanctification. A word that can also be rendered purification. The main point is a prayer for unity. If one wants to attribute something to John just because it's a blatant point, then you will attribute that to John. But. Not far below the surface is the theme of purification. And finally, there are minor details in the passion and resurrection narratives as well. In the thorny problem of harmonizing John and the synoptic over the date of Jesus crucifixion, we made brief allusion to John 1828. The Jewish leaders took Jesus from campus to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning and to avoid ceremonial unclean this they did not enter the palace.


[00:24:52] Jesus exhibits no qualms about ceremonial unclean this course. If pilot wanted to take him in, Jesus would have had little choice. But. There's no protest that's indicated. His ministry is occupying something else is functioning on a different level. And even the reinstatement of Peter. You might have expected it to take place someplace near campus house, since that's where Peter denied Jesus three times. But it's when Peter says he's going home to Galilee, going back to his fishing trade, and Peter literally gets out of the boat wearing only his undergarment to slog through the water to get to the shore to see Jesus. It's not directly about purification at all, but. Here is water again, incidental and tangential to Peter's reinstatement, but present nevertheless. 1 to 5 of these points might in themselves not add up to anything significant, but consistently it makes us. Why it makes us remember an important theme of the Synaptics that Jesus heals, the physically and ritually impure, and that his touch, like with lepers, does not incur unclean ness. It makes the unclean clean. Perhaps a fourth quest of the historical Jesus. Would recognize that. This theme of making the unclean clean. Is a much deeper and broader concern than either the Synaptics or John by themselves might suggest. What would happen if the Church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century took seriously Jesus call not to separate from sinners, only from sin, but to be known as those who mixed it up with sinners. In the most difficult places of society in order to bring cleansing and wholeness, not fearing corruption, because greater is he who is in you than he was in the world. It would require some Christian maturity. After 2000 years, might that be possible?