The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 23

Knowledge of the Jesus Tradition in the Early Epistles (Part 1/2)

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.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 23
Watching Now
Knowledge of the Jesus Tradition in the Early Epistles (Part 1/2)


A. 1 Corinthians 11:23–25

B. 1 Corinthians 9:14

C. 1 Corinthians 7:10

D. Romans 12:14, 17–19

E. Romans 13:7

F. Romans 14:13–14

G. Romans 15:1-3

H. 1 Thessalonians 2:15–16

I. 1 Thessalonians 5:2–5

J. 2 Thessalonians 2:3–6


A. 1 Cor. 13:2, 1 Cor. 1-2, 1 Thess. 4:8, Gal. 1:15-16, 1 Cor. 5:1-5, Gal. 5:14, Col. 1:5–6, 2 Cor. 1:17

B. Flesh vs. Spirit, Christ as Servant


James 5:12 and Matt 5:33–37

  • 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
Knowledge of the Jesus Tradition in the Early Epistles (Part 1/2)
Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is, of course, on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. Segment 23 The knowledge of the Jesus Tradition in the Early Epistles. We shift gears slightly now from what we have talked about in previous segments. We have scoured Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from numerous angles. After discussing early on why we were not looking at any other so-called gospels from the ancient world. But a place that many people don't even think to look for information about the historical Jesus or for relevance in debating the reliability of the Gospels is the earliest New Testament letters, primarily the epistles of Paul, all but the very latest of his letters. But to a certain degree, also the letter of James, for which a good case can be made that it was written in the late forties. Most of Paul's letters were written in about 49 through 57 with his prison epistles, probably in the earliest years of the sixties and then the so-called pastoral epistles a little bit later than that. Paul discloses a fair about amount of knowledge about Jesus life and teachings. This isn't always observed. In fact, there is a long standing tradition in certain circles of New Testament scholarship to argue that. The Gospels must be suspect. Because if Paul had known. The amount of things they describe about Jesus as a convert from strict, for Christ's sake Judaism, then surely he would have disclosed much more. Then we see in his letters. Well, how much is much more? And how much is actually disclosed. Usually the people who make those claims aren't aware of the extent to which Paul does show an awareness of the gospel tradition. And we have to remind ourselves of some chronological markers at this point also.


[00:02:49] If Paul's letters had been largely or entirely written after the Gospels took written form, then it would be largely insignificant to observe that Paul quoted or alluded to them at numerous places. He would not represent an independent witness, whatever one made of the Gospels in their own right. One would then attribute to Paul's use of them. But there is very little debate in scholarly circles because of the amount of autobiographical information that Paul discloses in his letters concerning their date. There is some question whether Galatians is to be dated to the late forties or early fifties, but it's one of those two. First Thessalonians is almost universally agreed to date to about 50 or 51. Some dispute the authenticity of second Thessalonians, but many accept it to be genuine and would date it to about that same time. And it's virtually universally agreed that First Corinthians is around 55. Give or take a year. Second Corinthians 56 irritate here in Romans 57. Plus or minus a year. And yet, even just from these letters, we see a lot of references back to Jesus teachings. Where did Paul learn this from? If the Gospels did not yet appear in written form, not until the sixties. It must have been from a reliable oral tradition. Let's look at some specifics. Let's begin with the clearest references. When Paul talks about the Corinthian Christians profane in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. By not caring for the poor in their midst getting. Overfed and drunk at their Christian brothers and sisters expense. He quotes in some detail wording that is recognizable, even if not verbatim, from the synoptic accounts of Jesus Last Supper. And interestingly, he is most close to the wording of the Gospel of Luke, though again, Luke will not have been written yet in the mid-fifties.


[00:05:43] Here is what we read in First Corinthians 1123 225 Paul writes for I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you. And that is language of oral tradition, receiving and passing on in both Greek and Hebrew when used together that pair of verbs in a context of someone. Communicating significant information about a religious or philosophical movement was the standard language for talking about fixed, reliable oral tradition. Here's what that tradition taught Paul. The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me in the same way. After supper he took the cup, saying, This cup is the New covenant in my blood. Do this whenever you drink it in remembrance of me. And then. Verse 26 four Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's Death until he comes. Not as directly parallel, but alluding to Jesus reference in the Synaptics to not eating again of the fruit of the vine until he will excuse me not drinking again of the fruit of the vine, until he will drink it anew in the Kingdom of God versus 23 to 25. However, extremely closely parallel the most extensive and unambiguous quotation in Paul's letters of. Traditional teaching that came from the historical Jesus. A second. Almost as clear, though noticeably shorter example comes from two chapters earlier in first Corinthians nine. Verse 14. Here, Paul, in the context of encouraging the Corinthians to financially support. What today we would call full time Christian workers. He says in the same way the Lord has commanded that those who preach the Gospel should receive their living from the gospel.


[00:08:18] And we noticed way back in our discussion of the canon that in first Timothy five, he actually quotes the words that he alludes to here out of Luke ten seven. A parallel also in Matthew 1010 when he uses the quotation, the worker deserves his wages. That passage, we noted, may well have come very shortly after the completion of Luke's gospel. But here we have a reference back to the identical contents without an exact quotation Add a letter demonstrably earlier than any of the written gospels. What's fascinating is that unlike the statement about the Last Supper, which formed a central theological part of the emerging Christian tradition. This is much more a passing reference. Pay your teachers. Pay your pastors. Striking because rabbis, for the most part, were not allowed to receive money for ministry, lost it, compromised their motives. We have. Perhaps seen. Their rationale illustrated in our modern world at times. But Jesus took a different tack. Paul, despite his thorough immersion as a strict forensic rabbi. Would almost certainly not have come up with this idea from any source other than Jesus. And therefore we have a fairly clear allusion to his teaching. When if ever, is divorce and remarriage permissible? In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus gives one exception only in Matthew 19 nine and a parallel in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew five, and that is in the case of sexual infidelity, adultery, marital unfaithfulness. In first Corinthians seven, Paul is teaching on marriage and divorce and remarriage celibacy. And he says in first Corinthians 710 to the married, I give this command, not I, but the Lord. And the words, yes, it's he who is passing it on, but it's not he who originated it. It came from Jesus.


[00:11:06] A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. This may even come from the the stricter version of Jesus teaching that we talked about in an earlier lecture for Mark ten 1 to 10 where there is no stipulation for divorce on any grounds. We explain that apparent tension with Matthew 19, based on the fact that from all of our knowledge, all Jews, Greeks and Romans agreed that divorce was permitted, remarriage was permitted. In the case of sexual infidelity. You didn't have to spell it out any debates or about all other situations. And that's probably why Paul doesn't spell it out either, but makes this blanket kind of a statement. What's intriguing is his little parenthetical comment that this is not something directly from him, just from him, but it's from the Lord. He was aware of what the historical Jesus said and to verses later when he deals with a new situation presented by the Gentile world in Corinth. Apparently never an issue during Jesus life in Israel of an unbeliever wanting to leave. Paul writes to the rest, I say this I, not the Lord. If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with them, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. And he goes on to give his rationale. But he does allow if the unbeliever insists on leaving. Again, what's intriguing for our purposes is this little parenthetical comment. I, not the Lord, and countless Christians, said, Oh, okay, so here Paul's just giving his own opinion.


[00:13:18] Here. Paul is an inspired. No. That's highly unlikely. In verse 25 of this same chapter, he also says, I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who, by the Lord's mercy, is trustworthy. And in verse 40, at the end of the chapter, he says, I think that I too have the spirit of God. This is every bit as much inspired in the classic Christian doctrine of inspiration has always attached to all of Scripture, not selected verses. But what Paul is saying is that he can't quote a word from the historical Jesus. So he has to rely on his sense of the spirit guiding him for the judgment that he gives. If we turn to the book of Romans, we see another set of allusions to teaching found in the Synoptic Gospels, in Romans Chapter 12, verse 14 language closely parallel to what we find in the Sermon on the Plane, the Sermon on the Mount, but even closer, The Sermon on the Plain and Luke six Bless those who persecute you, bless those and do not curse them. And then again in verse 17 to 19 do not repay anyone evil for evil. Then Paul adds some of his own language. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. But then thinking of the language against retaliation. In Jesus. Great sermon. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written. It is mine to avenge. I will repay. Says the Lord. Not a direct quotation, but enough language similar. And such a dramatic countercultural teaching. Not found in the Greco-Roman world and barely found in any Jewish sources, even in the Old Testament.


[00:15:38] Where else would Paul have gotten this from? Unless from the tradition about Jesus. In Romans 13 seven. Everybody's favorite command. Give to everyone what you owe them. If you owe taxes, pay them. If revenue, then revenue. If respect. Then respective honor. Then honor. Pharisees resented. Paying tax to roam and sometimes encourage people not to do it. Paul wouldn't have learned this from his Jewish background. Most likely it is an allusion to Jesus teaching on the Pharisees and the Herodium ganged up on him in the temple. One group not wanting him to support payment of taxes, one supporting Herod, who would have wanted him to say that. And despite this Catch 22 situation, he manages magnificently to say. Both and but neither nor give it to Caesar. What is Caesar's. But give to God's What is God's? He doesn't entirely agree with either group. But partially agrees with both groups. Where else could people have gotten this from? Or again, one chapter later still in his letter to the Romans. Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced being fully persuaded in the Lord that nothing is unclean in itself. Language that emerges in Mark seven and in its parallel passages, beginning with a debate over ritual purity and handwashing, but moving toward the more central issue of the kosher laws of ritually clean and unclean food. And Mark 719 concluding with the observation that Jesus declared all foods clean. It now would be okay for his followers to enjoy shrimp and lobster and pork and ham and bacon, or however else they prepared the food of previously unclean animals. No one had to eat it.


[00:18:23] Jews could still follow their scruples for all sorts of reasons. But neither. Was that mandated? It was completely up to an individual's choice or an individual's conscience. Romans 14 is teaching tolerance on this and like minded issues where the laws of ritual purity no longer apply in the Christian age. Saul of Tarsus would never have believed this. He would never have made this up or gotten it from any source that we know of in his world. If it was not from his Lord Jesus. And finally in Romans, we turn to Romans 15. One, two, three. We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself. But it is written. The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. Here we have an Old Testament text being quoted, but we have the example of Jesus being specifically alluded to an example that perhaps again recalls explicit teaching. Like Mark ten 445 that the son of man came not to be served, but to serve. Notice how so many of these references that we've looked at thus far deal with practical, everyday ethical issues of Christian living. Notice how they tend to come from. In several instances. Matthew or Luke's great sermon. Or other conflicts with Jewish leaders. Clustering around. Parts of the gospels that suggest that maybe Paul knew larger context. Then he discloses just with these stray quotations. We can move to teachings about eschatology as well. And a number of texts in first and second Thessalonians seem to betray knowledge of Jesus teaching, particularly in Matthew 23 and in 24, and make us wonder if he knew a larger context there.


[00:21:19] He's excerpting from numerous parts of an entire. 2 to 3 chapter sermon. In first Thessalonians two versus 15 and 16. We read about the Jews in and around Jerusalem, in Judea. The leaders who killed the Lord Jesus. And. By solidarity with their ancestors, the prophets, and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way, they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last. Numerous allusions to Jesus was against the scribes and Pharisees for Matthew 23, climaxing as in both texts with reference to the full wrath of God coming upon the current generation of Jewish political and religious leadership. Or again, in first Thessalonians five. You know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. What a striking metaphor to apply to Christ's return. Who would have invented a metaphor likening Jesus to a burglar. What's he out to steal from me? Nothing. The point is merely the surprise that a burglar creates. Jesus himself told a parable. Matthew 24. Mark 13 using this same imagery. If not from Jesus, who would have dared to make this kind of a statement up. It seems that Paul recognizes the oral tradition, but the language continues. Language that is echoed in these chapters in the Synoptic Gospels as well. While people are saying peace and safety destruction will come upon them suddenly as labor pains on a pregnant woman. For a man. To use this metaphor. Was remarkable enough. For Paul to liken it to a. Coming destruction on the unfaithful, even among his own nation. Would have been audacious.


[00:24:15] Had he not first heard about it through the tradition of Jesus teachings. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness, so that this day should surprise you like a thief. There's the safe bet again. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to night or to the darkness. And again, even the metaphors of light and darkness a bit more common in religious literature, but still very pervasive in Jesus teaching. If we accept, as I do, the authenticity of second Thessalonians, we may move to chapter two and verses 3 to 6 of that letter. Now, it seems the Thessalonians believers have learned the eschatological message of first Thessalonians. Christ is still coming back soon. But maybe they have learned it so well, they are losing sight of a balancing theme. There still are some things that have to take place, and so Paul corrects their overcorrection. Don't let anyone deceive you in any way for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs in the man of lawlessness as revealed the man doomed to destruction he will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming Himself to be God. Where does Paul get this idea from, if not from Jesus discourse on the Mount of Olives, where he talks about the desolated sacrilege or the abomination of desolation? That will be set up in the temple immediately prior to its destruction. And we could continue with further wording in that passage. There are other possible allusions. I simply list them for interested readers. They have to do with such specific phenomena as faith that can move mountains. Or. Pillars of the church.


[00:26:39] Some standing here who will not taste death or the fulfillment of the law in the double love command. Or the mandate to let your USPS and your no be no. And the references are available for those who want to look up and see less direct or extensive allusions, but nevertheless reference to language that is likely to allude to Jesus teaching. There are other themes as well the striking contrast between flesh and spirit not found in the rest of the New Testament. The role of Christ as servant so common to his servant parables. And then it's fascinating that even the letter of James is permeated with allusions to the ethical teachings of Jesus, especially from the Sermon on the Mount. And to one fairly clear quotation once again to that teaching about oaths. Above all my brothers and sisters. James 512 says, Do not swear, not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple yes or no. Otherwise, you will be condemned. It appears then that the early letter writers, even prior to published written gospels, knew a fair amount of Jesus teaching. But there's still more that can be said. So we must continue this topic in segment 24.