The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 26

The Unique Problem of Miracles (Part 2/2)

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.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 26
Watching Now
The Unique Problem of Miracles (Part 2/2)


A. New Testament Apocrypha are quite different

B. Greek and Roman heroes or gods

1. Apollonius of Tyana is post-Jesus

2. Mithras

3. Horus

C. Magic and exorcisms

D. Jewish backgrounds


A. Multiple attestation

B. Multiple literary forms

C. Double dissimilarity and double similarity

D. Coherence with parables and kingdom of God

E. The nature miracles

F. The virginal conception and resurrection

  • 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 2/2)

Lesson Transcript

[00:00:01] This is a course on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. Session 26. Continuing from our last segment on the unique problem of miracles. We left off having left unaddressed in any detail, the biggest challenge in the 21st century, at least among New Testament scholars or biblical scholars more generally to the miracles in the Bible. Not nearly so much historical or philosophical or scientific questions. Those, though those do continue to come up. But very much the question of parallels outside of the New Testament. We want, therefore, in this segment to compare and contrast in a bit more detail the miracles that one finds in other ancient literature that potentially impinged on the New Testament world and see what we see. If. You've been with us since early in this series when we talked about the apocryphal gospels. You will recall that these miracles were of a much more fanciful or frivolous nature. Sometimes one can see what inspired the the later writer, what gave them the idea? Jesus withering up a playmate that had been taunting him, reminiscent of that miracle in the Gospels about withering the fig tree. A symbol for the coming destruction of Israel. But it's one thing to cause a tree to shrivel up. It's another to do it to a human being. There are no direct parallels to fashioning birds out of clay and making them fly away. But one could imagine that as Jesus was believed to be the giver of life, that this kind of a story could come to someone's imagination. Accounts of Jesus going to hell, the realm of the dead and bringing God's people out of there between his death and resurrection reflects one segment of ancient Jewish belief. But nothing in the Gospels themselves would demand that this topic ever be addressed.


[00:02:54] And then in the Gnostic texts, we tend not to find miracles at all, but simply extended teachings or extended catalogs of Jesus teaching. So yes, there are some superficial similarities, but they are only that nothing corresponding to the consistent gospel testimony of the New Testament that miracles are a sign of the in breaking Kingdom of God, uniquely arriving in a new stage of power in the Ministry of Jesus, and yet to be completed in all of its fullness with His coming future return. In the area of Greek and Roman heroes or gods. There are again, especially in recent years, many who have resurrected older, 20th and even 19th century works that claim that there were all kinds of similarities between Jesus and other individuals, as we noticed in our last segment. Most of these are exaggerated. There may only be one or two parallels in a given individual, not the whole package as is sometimes claimed, and even then they may be fairly distant parallels unless they are post-New Testament too late to have influenced any accounts about Jesus. Undoubtedly, the most striking set of parallels comes in a third century work by a man named Filer Stratos, who wrote about a late first century individual from Tianna in part of what today would be Northwestern Turkey. Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius does. According to File, a Stratus biography works several miracles of healing that have some similarity to stories in the Gospels. Exercises daemons, which by definition bears some similarity to stories in the Gospels. And on one occasion apparently raises a young man from death by approaching his beer or coffin as part of the very funeral procession containing it is going past and on the spot awakens him. Thereby creating some striking parallels to the account in Luke seven versus 11 and following of the resurrection of the son of the widow at nine.


[00:06:03] The question here, however, is again, one of chronology. Apollonius lived a half century after Jesus. Even if we accept all of follow Stratos accounts as accurate. And interestingly, there are some fragmentary sources about this individual from an earlier date that do not nearly emphasize a miracle working dimension to his ministry as much. It may be that over the centuries his life has been embellished. But for the sake of argument, let's assume every detail and file of Stratos is accurate. It all happens too late. It all is recorded too late to have had any influence on Jesus or the gospel writers. If there was. A dependance It would have had to have been. Apollonius on Jesus. Follow Stratos on the Gospel Writers. And it may be that the parallels simply come out of a similar milieu, and we are not to draw lines of dependance either way. That is as close as we ever get. In the Greek and Roman world. Someone who was known to be a man, known to be a philosopher, known to be a teacher with the reputation of working miracles. That is as close a parallel as we ever get to the figure of Jesus. Now, one will hear frequent references to the religion of Mithras. Mithras was a Greek and Roman sect that grew in significance and number so that by the third century, by the two hundreds A.D., some estimate that there may have been close to the same number of devotees of myth heroism as there were to Christianity. Recognizing that we're still only talking even about perhaps less than 10% of the Roman Empire being Christian by this time. But Ms.. Ross was. Possibly. And centuries, millennia before the New Testament. A human being may be never more than one of the gods of the pantheons of Greece and Rome.


[00:08:55] It's hard to be sure, but he was not a figure in recent memory that people knew was a human being. Mithras was said to be a bull slayer, slaying an enemy of. The Greek and Roman people and their gods. And making him into a sacrificial victim. There have been allegations of parallels between initiation rites into myth, racism, baptism with the blood of sacrificial bull flowing down across. An initiates person. But that is a far cry from Christian baptism in water directly coming out of Jewish practices of water baptism for proselytize. It's true. There is mention of blood in the accounts of the Eucharist. This is my body. This is my blood shed for you that the bread and the wine symbolize them. But. Metaphorically not literal, blood dripping, and that two emerged much more clearly out of a Jewish ritual, Passover. The problem with those who would see these kinds of parallels as suggesting Christian dependance on the Greco-Roman world is that they ignore the demonstrable genealogical connection between the beginning of Christianity and Judaism and the much closer. Parallelism within Jewish rituals and rites of initiation sacraments to use the later Christian term. Ah, but Mithras was born of a virgin. Ms.. Rice sprang from Iraq. According to the mythology. Now, I suppose it's unlikely that the Rock had had sexual relations with anything or anyone. But that is stretching. Dramatically the concept of a virgin birth. It is true that in the second and third centuries A.D.. More parallels began to be drawn between myth, heroism and Christianity, the most famous of which was the establishment of. A holy day. In honor of the birth of the God. On December 25th. But this is a second or third century a development never attested in earlier.


[00:12:05] Mithras. So if it's not simply that Christians chose a day that the pagans around them already had off so that they could worship and be left relatively alone. The only lines of dependance that can be drawn are from Christianity to myth, realism and not the other way around. What's more, this was an all male sect, and it was a militaristic group. Made up of those who reveled in commemorating Rome's victories and looking forward to future battles. Neither of which has any parallel in the Gospels. Is this the best people can do? Who want to find parallels? Well, someone will say, What about Horace? And there are books and blogs saying here is where the inspiration for the gospel writers came from. Horace. Born of a virgin. Horace. Dying a sacrificial death. Horace resurrected from the dead. Horace was never a man. Horace was never alleged to have ever been a man. Horus was the son of ISIS and Cyrus, Egyptian goddess and God, respectively. And the virgin birth was not birth of a from a virgin at all. Merely ISIS firstborn. The sacrificial death was not about Horace. It was about his father, Osiris. And the only sacrifice was that ISIS was so upset with him that when he died, she cut his body up into multiple pieces. And yes, there was a miracle. According to the mythology, they were reassembled in the underworld and Horus came back to life. And he said, Scuse me. Oh, Cyrus came back to life and he stayed in the underworld. Beware of people who talk vaguely about mythological parallels. Ask them for the details. All of this for Horus was pre-Christian, but half of it involved his father. And the parallels upon closer inspection. Are pretty slim. So maybe we are to look to the realm of magic or the occult.


[00:15:04] In the ancient world. Maybe we are to look to exorcists for the closest parallel to Jesus. There are accounts in Jewish, Greek and Roman circles alike of other people besides Jesus casting out demons. We don't always know their historical value, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that they have some. One of the striking differences between the accounts of Jesus and all other known exorcists from the ancient Mediterranean world. Is that they used extensive formula, incantations, paraphernalia, magical objects, and in Jewish circles, at the very least, prayed to God of Israel, invoking his name and his presence and power. Whereas the accounts in the Gospels, without exception. Have Jesus simply speaking a word without any introductory formula, without any prayers to God, without any incantations, without any objects or paraphernalia. And the parallels don't extend beyond that one kind of miracle. Jewish backgrounds probably should be turned to. For the closest parallels. To Christian miracles, but not from Second Temple Judaism, not from the inner testimonial period, from the Old Testament itself. The ministries of Elijah and Elijah. Contain the closest parallels. Two healings, two resurrection from the dead to power over nature. But for the Christian believer. For the Orthodox Jew. Those things really happened. So they would support. The testimony of the gospels. Of course, one can doubt them as well. But then one quickly engages in circular reasoning. Why do you doubt the New Testament Miracles? Because their closest parallels are in the Old Testament. Why do you doubt those miracles? Because if I accept them, then I'll have to believe the miracles of Jesus. That's not logic. That's just irrationality. More positively. How can we support the New Testament? Miracles? They are multiplied. Tested. A tested. They are in. MA They are in John.


[00:18:10] Even though Q is almost entirely sayings of Jesus, the healing of the centurion servant is in queue if Q existed. They appear. I'll buy it with some distortion. In non-Christian sources they appear attested to by Josephus, by the Jewish Talmud, by Acts and the Epistle writers in the New Testament. They appear as well in multiple literary forms. A full fledged story. A command. Go, Peter. Catch a fish from the Sea of Galilee. Open its mouth. You'll find two coins used to pay the temple tax for you and me. You'll find a coin to pay for two people. I should have said. Did Peter go and do it? We don't know. It's not even a narrative describing something that happened. It's simply a command. Christians have assumed he did and that it happened. But it's a different literary form. It appears in passing references in the book of acts, in shamanic preaching, alluding back to what Jesus did during his lifetime. Multiple literary forms. Support appears by the double dissimilarity and double similarity criterion that we talked about in earlier lecture miracles coming right out of Jewish backgrounds. And yet with a directness. The one never found in the Old Testament or in Second Temple Judaism. Miracles continued in the Book of Acts and beyond. Sometimes Christian claim claims include the notion that miracles ceased at the end of the first century. They didn't. They continued in abundance well into the third century before the increasingly institutionalized Roman Catholic Church left very little room for them. But even then, there have been well attested accounts of the miraculous throughout Christian history, and now in today's world have proliferated again. But the early Christians always prayed in the name of Jesus rather than simply commanding a healing or an exorcism.


[00:20:57] The miracles cohere. With that. Bedrock core of authentic Jesus tradition that even most of the most skeptical scholars acknowledges his teaching on the Kingdom of God. And on parables, he says. If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you. The two are very closely intertwined. In fact, some of the most spectacular miracles of Jesus are best understood when one recalls some of the imagery from Jesus parables. We've mentioned how the turning of water into wine recalls Jesus teaching in the Synaptics about new wine for new wine skins. Judgment on the fig tree. The end of his ministry. Recalls the parable in Luke 13 of a barren fig tree standing for Israel, soon to be cut down. If they do not repent the feeding of the 5000 very similar to. Of feeding 100. With 20 handheld sized loaves of bread, not nearly this spectacular miracle, recalling Moses with manna in the wilderness. But what about. Two particular. Difficult miracles, bracketing Jesus life. What about the virgin birth, or more specifically, the virginal conception? There are no parallels to that in pre-Christian Judaism. There is Baron, Sarah and Hannah and able to give birth much like Elizabeth. Mary's cousin, mother of John the Baptist. But there are no virginal conceptions. What about the resurrection? At the other end of Jesus life. Once we realize that apart from the resurrections in the Jewish and Christian tradition of people who then died again later. There are no close parallels at all. There are stories of gods. Dying and rising every year corresponding to the seasons of summer and winter. Harvest times. Rebirth in spring. But that's a far cry from Jesus. The more that we stress the difference between.


[00:23:58] Jesus miracles and other supposed parallels. The more a different kind of question is raised. Can we believe them because they are so different? Our next segments will turn to those to bracketing key events. In closing the life of Christ.