The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 25

The Unique Problem of Miracles (Part 1/2)

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.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 25
Watching Now
The Unique Problem of Miracles (Part 1/2)






A. A “Science-of-the-Gaps” Response!

B. The Issue of Faith




A. Stories of secular people aren’t parallel to all that is attributred to Jesus

B. The closest parallels are post-Christian



  • 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 Unique Problem of Miracles (Part 1/2)
Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a course on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. Session number 25. We turn in this segment to the unique problem of miracles. As we suggested at the end of our last segment, it is possible to be sympathetic to open to the reliability of large parts of the gospel tradition, but demur because of all of the stories of the miraculous that appear. And then if those are called into question, but they form an integral part of the gospel witness overall, does that call an even greater part into question? There are a number of ways that historians, philosophers and scientists have addressed this question over the centuries. What I would like to do in this segment is to. Begin with. The claim. That miracles are natural. Paradoxical as that may sound natural in the sense of the normal or expected outgrowth. Of a universe in which a supernatural God, a God who in some way brought the universe into being. And did not simply leave it to run by itself, but continues to superintend its affairs. A miracle, of course, is a term that is used very loosely by many people in many situations. Someone who has been afraid of public speaking all of their life, who finally manages to give an address, as in the famous story of The King's Speech. Can be said to have done something miraculous. But what we're talking about are those events that have not been explained. And with all of our knowledge, cannot be explained as something scientific, as something that follows the normal processes of the natural world that requires some supernatural element. In order to account for them. If a person begins with atheistic presuppositions that a God of this nature does not and cannot exist, then it will logically never.


[00:02:59] Be possible. For there to be miracles in the religious or Christian sense of that term. This is not a series on arguments for the existence of God, but we do have to very briefly make reference to several classic reasons that Christians and other theists, other believers in God, two other religions have held over the centuries. The ontological argument for God's existence is the one that says that which exists is greater. Than that which merely potentially exists or can be thought of or conceived. And therefore, because we have the idea of a god. Where did that come from? Unless there really is in existence a God himself. Some philosophers have argued that if God didn't exist, humans would have had to invent him anyway. But on a theory of evolution, why is it. That human beings alone, among all the species of the earth, have a God consciousness, or even have a self consciousness able to reflect on the fact that they are reflective beings. This is a significant gap between the rest of creation and humanity. Perhaps better known. Are the next three arguments, the cosmological argument, the one from the very existence of a universe of a cosmos. Something had to always have existed. Since. Science at least has no way to explain something emerging out of nothing, either matter in some form always existed and through some process shaped itself into the universe as we know it, or God always existed who at some point fashioned the universe the cosmological argument. Claims that there cannot be an infinite regress. We cannot go back in time. Infinitely saying that something was created by something else. That's a nonsensical topic. It only makes sense to talk about infinity moving in a forward direction. And therefore, there must be a beginning.


[00:06:05] Although it is not always been held and may not always be held in science. Today, the Big Bang Theory continues to be the most popular explanation that at some point out of explosive forces of the most powerful form imaginable matter took shape. And the cosmos was formed. But science does not have an adequate explanation for who or what caused that big bang. Apart from God. Related to the cosmological argument is the teleological argument for God's existence. The argument from the telos, the design or purpose or goal of the universe. Closely related to this is the intelligent design movement that there are structures. Inanimate forms that are irreducibly complex, that cannot be disassembled part by part and imagined to have evolved part by part. If that process is reversed without a complexity coming into existence all at once. There is no function. The cilia in a human body that move food along. Are just one of a number of such irreducibly complex mechanisms. Countless elements of the universe have appeared to people throughout the centuries to have a purposeful nature to their design. Does that not require a designer who had the ability to think and reason and purpose? And then there's the moral argument for God's existence. Why is it that humans alone among the species of the universe. Have the ability to reflect on and adjudicate on and label various things as right and wrong. Not all cultures agree on what comes under each category, but all humans we have ever been exposed to have that ability and classify things as good or bad. They all have mechanisms for holding their members accountable. The most advanced ape or dolphin. May. Commit an atrocity, an ape may murder a human being. But we don't try it before a jury of its peers.


[00:09:06] The concept seems ludicrous. What makes human beings different? Where does morality come from? And then. There is a somewhat more subjective argument. But one that needs to be included. The argument from. Millions upon millions of humans experiences over the ages of having. Instantaneous. Non reverse healings. Of chronic problems as a direct response to public, concerted Christian prayer. Or various rituals or the laying on of hands. Or Christian prophecy. Or in some cases coming out of the blue when they were not formally seeking them. The same would be true of the casting out of demons. The same would be true on occasion of even more spectacular miracles involving the so-called natural world. There are those who say, well, there are things that science cannot yet explain. But over human history, science has been able to explain more and more of what was once not understood. And therefore the believer in God is really applying what is called the God of the gaps theory, whatever you can explain you attribute to God. But next century will be able to explain even more. And eventually we'll be able to explain all of it. I would like to suggest that what actually occurs is what might be called a science of the gaps theory. Craig Keener has written a two volume book on miracles, in which he has collected and presented several hundred of the most documented. Miracles, especially of physical healing and exorcisms, but other kinds as well. From every continent on the globe, he has classified them by geographical location. He has classified them by the kind of miracle that they were. And he has set up very rigid criteria. For those that he will admit. Only those with multiple written attestation from trustworthy sources that he has firsthand knowledge of people involved or people who reported them.


[00:12:13] That he has reasons to believe. That are lasting. Miraculous changes that have not been reversed and that have come not gradually but instantaneously in response to public, concerted Christian prayer. He literally has thousands in his files that come very close to meeting all of those criteria, but don't quite meet up. Combining his study with a Pew Forum study from the late two thousandths of. Christian churches throughout. The world of varying denominations, and it is possible to estimate that about one out of every 35 people. Of the 7 billion in our world today have either had in their own lives or in the lives of somebody they have known and can verify. An experience. Of an extraordinary event. Following into the classic Christian concept of miracle. And for scientists to say. That every one of these will someday be explained in ways that science cannot. Now is actually a science of the gaps response. It, in fact, requires more faith to believe in. Than that a God exists who chooses at times to work miracles. But what about all the times? It doesn't happen. That could be another entire series. The Bible itself is replete with texts and illustrations of how God so often prefers to work more through human weakness than through strength, and gives a long catalog of redemptive and remedial purposes of suffering. Believers usually only are able to acknowledge with 2020 hindsight, there are. Convincing theological explanations for suffering. There is a metanarrative of world view, namely humans, sin and its tragic consequences that lead to a fallen and broken world that can account for. All of the lack of the miraculous that we experience. Believers do not need to be able to explain every unanswered prayer for miraculous healing. The Bible gives them many possible explanations.


[00:15:28] Atheists, however, must be able to account for every apparent miracle or they do not have an all embracing system. They have a science of the gaps response and they are the ones living more by faith and not by sight. Then theists. But what about the miracles in the Gospels? If God exists, if at least the potential for the miraculous is there as a result. There are still objections that we must counter, David HUME, the famous Scottish theologian of several centuries ago. Summarized what is highly influential, sometimes with slightly different, slightly different wordings today. That while he argued, we cannot in principle exclude either God or the miraculous. It is not rational to ever conclude that we have experienced a miracle because the likelihood the probability. Of a naturalistic explanation will always be greater than one of a miraculous nature. Even the most trustworthy of witnesses can at times be fooled by their senses. Even the most trustworthy sources of news can at times be unwittingly duped by false information. Even that which seems unequivocally to be unexplainable by science, may at times turn out to have been a fraud or a hoax. And therefore it is never more rational to believe in a miracle. Then in one of its alternatives. But as has often been pointed out, that is not an argument. It's actually just an affirmation. It sounds plausible because we all know of situations in which people have been fooled. But presumably we all know situations in which we have not been fooled. When I see a family member, as I have, who has had a chronic illness that no doctors have been able to treat. Beyond superficial relief of symptoms and they participate in a Christian healing service, instantaneously healed and live for 20 years until they die without a recurrence of the malady.


[00:18:45] In what way? Has anyone been fooled? In what way is it possible to say. That I do not have certainty of that experience. I cannot claim that for my own. But people. Close to me who could not have faked. Because of the outward symptoms of their maladies. A healing. I have watched over time. In what way does Hume's argument affect? That situation. It sounds plausible in many contexts, but it ultimately is not an argument. It's simply an affirmation that this will always be the case. It can be refuted. Ah, but what about modern science, you say? What is modern science? Science, by definition, is the study of the repeatable. Of that which under laboratory conditions, which need not mean a formal office with equipment, but under some controlled conditions. Certain processes can be followed to yield the identical result as happened once before. That definition of science excludes the miraculous a priori. A miracle, by definition, is something you can't replicate. Maybe a person will be healed of the same thing twice, or two different people will be healed of the same situation. But the moment you claim to have a sure proof formula for a process that will work 100% of the time, you no longer have a miracle. You have human manipulation. Of the divide. A miracle by definition, transcends our ability. As mere humans to predict how and when it will happen. It's that which can't be completely replicated. Science has no domain in that area. It has no ability to adjudicate what can and can't happen. It can only state what can happen repeatedly. Under specified conditions. So it is not surprising today. In the 21st century, though, the historical, philosophical and the scientific issues have been dominant in various other eras that the biggest problem for many New Testament scholars today is the issue of apparent parallels to the gospel miracles.


[00:22:04] In religions and in philosophies outside of Christianity. Outside of the New Testament. Which then raises the issue where the gospel writers even recording what they believe to be literal fact. Or did they not recognize that they were giving more mythical or legendary accounts to teach theological truths, but not to describe things that actually happened to human beings on Earth? What are these parallels? And how close are they? Questions that have to be asked. There are all kinds of claims that circulate from time to time. One popular one is to say that there were numerous figures. In pre-Christian days who were said to have been born of a virgin. Worked miracles. Taught wisely. Gathered followers. Died. Martyrs deaths. And we're said to have been raised from the dead. So that when we see this cluster of events with Jesus, we should simply recognize it as an ancient way of glorifying and magnifying a human individual. And saying that God of the gods accepted him as a divinities man, perhaps upon his death. It's an easy claim to make. But what is the evidence that backs it up? How close are the parallels? And what is their chronological sequence? Are they truly pre-Christian? In fact, there is no. Uniform tradition. Before or after the life of Jesus, of numerous people having virginal births, working miracles, wise teaching, gathering disciples, atoning deaths and bodily resurrections. There is no individual anywhere in human history apart from Jesus who has had all those things predicated of him, rightly or wrongly. There are some individuals who have had. Things somewhat similar to a virgin birth attributed to them. There are others who have had miracles attributed to them. There are others who have had some kind of resurrection attributed to them.


[00:25:15] There are a tiny handful of people who have had two or three of these things attributed to them. There is no one who has had the whole package other than Jesus. And anyone who tells you otherwise simply doesn't know what they're talking about. Ask them for the evidence and then check it out. Don't just believe it. And intriguingly, even where several of these items are present, though not all. The closest parallels are all post Christian. They are all from the second century A.D. and beyond. They could not have influenced the gospel accounts of Jesus, though the gospel accounts might have influenced others. To try to create their great heroes as akin to Christ. The New Testament miracles, as we saw in an earlier account, consistently bear witness to the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Fulfilling prophecies, many of them in Isaiah 35, about a coming messianic age. They are not random. They are not frivolous. They don't reflect fighting among the gods. They don't reflect God acting as a mere human. As is so often the case, even in the partial parallels of mythology. And remember our lecture on non-Christian testimony to the Gospels, although there is comparatively little that is said explicitly about the details of Jesus life, there are multiple references in the Jewish document known as the Talmud to Jesus being a sorcerer who led Israel astray, an acknowledgment that he worked unexplainable feats but attributing his power to the devil rather than to God and Josephus himself in the first century, more modestly, in the undisputed portion of his testimony, says Jesus worked. Wondrous feats. The greatest paradox on from which we get our English paradox from. There does seem to be reason to explore this question further and not simply write it off a priori.


[00:27:58] That's what we want to do in our next segment. That will be the second half of this topic.