The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 30

Summary and Conclusions

Blomberg summarizes the main points he has been making.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 30
Watching Now
Summary and Conclusions



A. The reliability of the text of the Gospels

B. The Aaccuracy of translations of the Gospels

C. First-Century, First- or Second-Hand authors and dates

D. A sufficiently reliable oral tradition

E. The composition of the Gospels

F. The literary genre of ancient biography


A. The significance of archaeology

B. Ancient non-Christian testimony to Jesus


A. The diverse quests of the historical Jesus

B. The most authentic parts of the Gospels

C. The Jesus who emerges from these parts

D. Can the Gospels be harmonized?


A. Distinctive issues with John’s Gospel

B. The Jesus tradition in Paul (and James)


A. Good reasons for believing the Gospel miracles

B. Unique issues surrounding the virginal conception and the resurrection

C. A Jesus who challenges everyone

Class Resources
  • 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
Summary and Conclusions
Lesson Transcript

[00:00:00] This is a course in the historical reliability of the New Testament gospels, and this is session 30 and the last one. Summary and conclusions. What are the key takeaway points that we have tried to make over the previous 29 segments? We have examined. A multiplicity of ancient sources. For knowledge of Jesus. We have looked in apocryphal gospels, we have looked in Gnostic gospels. We have looked in a variety of historical sources that have made brief reference to. Jesus of Nazareth. We have seen that there are sources outside the New Testament that corroborate Jesus existence and that corroborate. A bare outline of the events recorded in the Gospels, but not much beyond that. The apocryphal and Gnostic texts contain fanciful teachings and behavior. That are very unlikely to represent the first century. Jesus only. The Gnostic or Coptic Gospel of Thomas even potentially. Contains perhaps a handful of sayings. That may go back to Jesus not found in the New Testament canon. But for all intents and purposes, for any detailed understanding of this preeminent historical figure, we must look at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Can we believe that what we have in modern Greek editions of the New Testament corresponds to what these individuals first wrote? This led us to look at the issue of the reliability of the text of the Gospels. And our answer was overwhelmingly positive. More than 99% of the text is secure beyond any reasonable doubt. And even in the places where there is serious question, what was originally written is almost certainly one of the textual variants in existence. We're just not always certain which one compared to any other known document from antiquity, from any part of the world. The amount of textual evidence and the quality of it with respect to the New Testament gospels is unsurpassed.


[00:03:03] But what about those of us who don't read Greek? We have so many good up to date English translations of the Gospels following roughly into three philosophies of translation. Those that prioritize meaning structure. Precision and accuracy. Over. Clarity, intelligibility, freshness of reading and those that do the reverse. Wanting to be absolutely clear to the greatest number of people, even if small nuances of meaning at times are lost. And then thirdly, those who attempt to optimize both tasks while recognizing that in so doing a little tiny bit will be lost in each area. But pick a passage. Experiment for yourself. Look up in the representative translations we have outlined for each of the translation philosophy and you will have no question that you're reading the same text. Our translations are accurate. Our text is reliable. But can we believe the content that results? Classical historians early on in such an undertaking of any ancient document will ask. Do we know the authors? Do we know the dates? And we see a diversity of opinion. Depending on where scholars fall to the more conservative or more liberal ends of the spectrum. But what's important in this summary review is where virtually all scholars agree the New Testament gospels are first century documents written between 40 and 70 years after the events. They narrate at the latest. At most they are two individuals removed. From eyewitnesses of the life of Christ. And at best. They reflect eyewitness testimony. Extraordinarily good situations by ancient standards. And if we can write large tomes on the history of world civilization. From sources far less well attested. Then we should have great confidence about our ability to understand who the historical Jesus was. Still. There is a period of 30 or 40 years.


[00:06:15] Between the events narrated and the earliest existing sources. In which circulation of information about Jesus was entirely by word of mouth. Can we trust such an oral tradition in an oral culture? By people who deemed that tradition to be sacred, who revered the teacher, whose words and deeds that tradition taught about. The answer? Yes. People had the ability, both through verbatim memorization and through more informal but controlled oral tradition, to pass along for centuries and to master five times the amount of information found in even the longest of the gospels. We have every reason to believe the first Christians would have wanted to do this. And I would have had the ability to do it. The actual composition of the four gospels reinforces these convictions. If the first complete written gospel was not for 30 or 40 years after the events narrated, there were earlier written sources. We may not be able to define them in great detail, but Luke refers to many. Who preceded him. There is that persisting tradition in the early church that Matthew wrote something in Hebrew. Before the finalizing of the Greek text of the gospel that bears his name. If the first Christians did what other disciples of other religious and philosophical leaders did, there is every reason to believe that smaller source documents collecting together key teachings and deeds of Jesus would have circulated at a still earlier date. And therefore that the gospel writers were not in any way like modern novelists sitting down and making things up from scratch. But were editors piecing together numerous written and oral sources preceding them? When we examine the literary form or genre of Matthew, Mark and Luke and look at all of the proposals, we find that ancient historical and theological biography is the closest parallel, not written with the precision and the conventions and the exactness of quotation and the comprehensiveness of modern biography.


[00:09:26] But written, well, satisfying the criteria in the ancient Mediterranean world for what was considered trustworthy, reliable and accurate. Literary genre involves history. It involves theology and it involves literary artistry. And none of these needs be in conflict with any other. All can work in the service of magnifying and commending the Jesus that they describe. The Gospel of John. Contains more dramatic stylization, but is still much more like Matthew, Mark and Luke than any other ancient document that we know of and therefore well within the range of ancient biography. Turn to rock solid evidence, The evidence of the rocks, the evidence of archeology and large tomes can and have been written. About. Customs. Places, characters. Events, artifacts. That illuminate the teaching of the gospels, that corroborate the history of the gospels that correlate. What's the customs of the gospels? Archeology cannot. Prove that Jesus spoke the words attributed to him in the Sermon on the Mount. But the kinds of things that archeology can corroborate over and over and over again have done so. And even the handful of puzzles that remain have at least plausible, possible solutions so that we are well beyond the threshold at which, as historians, we should give the text the benefit of the doubt. One, there simply is no comparative evidence to either corroborate or contradict. Ancient non-Christian testimony is modest in its amount. But by no means as absent as some have claimed. If we review what we discussed author by author earlier on, we discover that without looking at a single Christian document, we have evidence that Jesus. Did indeed live. A human Jewish male living in the first third of the first century who was born out of wedlock, whose adult ministry intersected with that of a man named John who baptized people and called them to repent for their sins.


[00:12:43] From their sins, we discover that Jesus had a brother by the name of James and that he was the so called. Messiah or Christ believed to be. By his followers. We learn the names of five followers, four disciples and Nicodemus. We learned that he regularly got in conflict with Jewish authorities over legal interpretations, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilot, which limits the timeframe to somewhere between 26 and 36 A.D. and that despite this ignominious form of execution, people continued. To follow in his train and began to sing hymns to him as if he were a God. That may not seem like much, but in a world that had no reason to believe or imagined the extent of the religious following that would come in subsequent centuries. It's about what one might have expected. We believe we hear evidence as well of his miracles. Just attributed to a different source. When we turn to the various quests for the figure of Jesus that emerges from the material that can be corroborated by this, these previous bulleted points, we discover a great diversity. But we also discover that we have made progress. And today, more so than ever, we can place Jesus well within a credible early first century Jewish milieu. Albeit with significant distinctive twists along the way. We can reconstruct a picture of the Christ that is in continuity. It's the movement that he burst. Though, again. Because of who he was with distinctive twists that were not always well replicated. The most authentic parts of the Gospels have also formed one of our topics and even limiting ourselves to them. That which can be most authenticated on historical grounds alone without presupposing Christian faith. We can say a lot about the Jesus of history, the Jesus who announced the breaking of the Kingdom of God.


[00:15:56] But if a kingdom of God was present, then. A king. Must have been present. A Jesus who spoke in parables about the need to love God, to need the need to love one's fellow human. But. Much more. The need for repentance from sin. God's overwhelming, gracious, loving kindness, eager to welcome every prodigal back. At the slightest sign of genuine repentance. But one who easily rebuked the complacent or intolerant religious insider who begrudged God's generosity. To the way we're. The picture of Jesus that emerges from the most authentic parts of the gospels, from the most implicit Christology, without even turning to the more direct labels and claims that Jesus made. Is still one with remarkable self-understanding Authority. Transcendent power. And mercy. It's a Jesus Who? Without any fanfare simply claims. To be able to interpret the immutable law of God and explain what parts continue on without change and what ones don't and how they change. Who can describe and delineate who is the greatest and the least in the kingdom of heaven. Who, without any credentialing or commissioning, can describe everything wrong with the greatest power brokers of his day. Little wonder some finally executed him. Can we go beyond these broad contours of the gospel and defend the reliability of various specific details, especially when there appear to be apparent contradictions? We looked at a representative cross-section. Categorize them into various kinds of differences and suggested that there are plausible harmonization. The ones we didn't discuss have all been dealt with in scholarly and popular literature, in commentaries across many theological traditions. The one thing that listeners to this series should realize is that any topic we have not discussed, along with the topics we have discussed that impinge on this debate. Is not a new one.


[00:19:12] There's nothing new under the sun, although there are interesting new discoveries now and then and sensationalized claims that come out of them. That her later toned down. But before any one's faith begins to feel threatened, before anyone becomes too complacent in their skepticism because they find a problem. That I haven't addressed or a problem. They feel that my answers have not adequately addressed in this rapid race through a whole plethora of issues. Make sure you look in the best literature, which often is not online. You may have to get real books, but make sure you delve into the best of evangelical commentaries on whatever passages are involved. And if you then reject the best of our arguments, Fair enough. But make sure you've discovered them. First of all. There are distinctive issues with John's gospel. They don't come and do a play, come into play or don't come into play nearly as often. With the Synaptics, and we've looked at a representative cross-section of them. There are more good treatments of John in the so-called new look on John in the John Jesus in History seminar and other studies it has spawned. Which we discussed. There are ways to hear John in his uniqueness. That do not require us to take him as later on historical. Legend or fiction involving the Christ. We turn to the Jesus tradition in Paul. And ever so briefly in James and saw that despite a superficial absence of lots of direct quotations and references to details from his life, there was a surprising number of allusions, especially to his teachings on ethical. And on eschatological issues, a reference and a recognition of the major. Broadest contours of his life. And an understanding that epistles were not the main place to expect a rehearsal.


[00:21:55] Of details about the life of Jesus. So that we should put these observations in their proper perspective. We shifted gears and looked at the problem of the supernatural, of the miraculous, and suggested that if there are reasons to believe in God and there are, then there are reasons to believe that He would work supernaturally at times of his sovereign choice. And the affairs of humanity that there are. Hundreds and in fact, thousands of occasions. Even just in the modern world alone or very carefully documented events have taken place that science cannot explain, especially in the area of healing. In direct and instantaneous response to concerted Christian prayer. We see that the gospel miracles all coalesce around the theme of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. They are not random, They are not frivolous. They are not trivial. We then looked at. What for some are the two biggest stumbling blocks framing Jesus ministry, the virginal conception and the resurrection. And we suggested good reasons for believing in them as well. The result. Was not that. Traditional Christians can therefore become complacent. We've refuted the skeptics. So let's react and let's relax and. And rest. No. If one truly does take all of the gospel portrait into account, and if one majors on that which modern scholarship has majored and says is the bedrock core of the Jesus tradition, even without presupposing Christian faith. There is a Jesus who challenges everyone, challenges outsiders to his movement to repent. To believe the gospel, to give their lives for a cause that is more significant than any other in existence, and to surrender their lives to Jesus as Lord. In response to an offer of an eternal free gift of. Happiness and community beyond anything imaginable. Salvation, one preacher said, is absolutely free.


[00:24:54] But it'll cost us our lives. And there's the paradox of a Jesus. Who challenges everyone. I hope you know that. Jesus. I hope if you know him. You're challenging yourself to follow him in the inevitable areas that none of us ever achieves more than partial success in following in this life. I hope if you are still on a path of seeking that you will keep on it, that you will realize that there are no new questions that have not been given multiple answers. If you have heard all of the answers and find all of them wanting, that's one thing. But if you simply have heard one answer or none at all or believe there are none, then. You have more research to do. Don't reject something unless you. Know the full extent and the full range of what is involved in that movement. Jesus has been called a man for all seasons, a man who fits no portrait, who bursts all boundaries, who challenges everyone in the positive sense of offering purpose and meaning for life and eternity. That will never be boring. That can empower us to overcome even the darkest of moments. I commend that Jesus to you.