The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs

The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs

by Craig L. Blomberg, Robert B. Stewart

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ISBN-13: 9781433691706
Publisher: B&H Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 608
File size: 5 MB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Craig L. Blomberg is distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary and holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Aberdeen University in Scotland. His previous books include Jesus and the Gospels and the New American Commentary volume on the book of Matthew.

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The Historical Reliability of the New Testament

By Craig L. Blomberg

B&H Publishing Group

Copyright © 2016 Craig L. Blomberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8054-6437-5


The Formation of the Synoptic Gospels

Imagine the Internet buzzing with some latest discovery of an ancient document dug up in Israel. It is written in Hebrew and appears to shed startling new light on the Jewish religion of its day. But is it authentic? Are its contents true? How would reputable archaeologists, historians, and linguists proceed? Early in their analysis would be the attempts to answer a variety of questions. Can we determine the author of the document and its original setting? Are we able to estimate a date for the manuscript and dates for any events or activities described in the manuscript? May we discern anything about its composition, that is, how it was written? Do its contents parallel those of any other documents from the ancient Mediterranean world? If so, how similar or different are they? These and related questions usually take time to answer, even though ours is a world that demands instant information. One thing, therefore, we can almost certainly know when new discoveries like this hit the press is that every immediate opinion expressed by someone is tentative and provisional. Scholarly consensus, if it is achieved, will come much later, usually after all the initial publicity has died down. Unless one deliberately follows developments for a few months or even years, one risks believing the exact opposite or at least a considerable distortion of what is ultimately decided about the new find!

The New Testament Gospels, of course, have been known for nearly twenty centuries. Modern biblical scholarship has investigated virtually every subject one could think to ask about them from almost every conceivable angle for more than 200 years. Almost by definition what counts as news is that which is new, novel, or arresting. Virtually by definition what is utterly unprecedented in New Testament scholarship is almost guaranteed to be false because of the amount of investigation that has already gone into the discipline! It is almost guaranteed but not always. Still the proper response to any news item portraying Christian origins in some sensational new light is skepticism. Proceed cautiously, consult the sources, determine their credibility, look for dissenting views, and give the matter some time to see what, if anything is resolved. Many new theories are old ones recycled and tweaked, even though previously debunked. But a new generation that fails to study history carefully doesn't know this and so can fall prey to the new appearance of the theory. Even the theorist may not be aware how well-worn his or her ideas actually are.

In assessing the reliability of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, some issues must be addressed that recur for all New Testament documents. Others are unique to the literary genre of a Gospel. And because the contents of Matthew, Mark, and Luke overlap to a great extent in ways not true of other Gospels, inside or outside the canon, still other concerns affect the analysis of the three Synoptics alone. In this chapter we will address the issues of authorship, date, and circumstances of their composition, as is necessary for all biblical documents. We will look at the question of the nature of a Gospel and its author's intentions, an issue unique to Gospels' scholarship. Finally, distinctive to the study of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we will address the "Synoptic Problem"— the question of the literary relationship of the first three Gospels — along with related subjects that such study raises. These will include the nature of the oral tradition that preceded the writing of the Synoptics. Assessing the credibility of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke represents the ultimate goal of our investigation in all three of these categories.

The Settings of the Synoptics

What can we know about the writers of these three documents, along with the time and circumstances of their writing? Answers to a large degree depend on how much we value external evidence as over against internal evidence. External evidence refers to what information we have about the composition of a document apart from the contents of that document. Internal evidence refers to what we may deduce from the document itself. The external evidence for the formation of the Gospels begins to appear early in the second century. The standard New Testament introductions along with all the major commentaries on individual Gospels typically reproduce this information in detail; we need highlight only the most important claims here. Which internal evidence is considered significant varies widely from one scholar to the next; again we will note only the most commonly observed phenomena.

Authorship and Audiences

The Christian writer, Papias, early in the second century, offers the oldest known testimony concerning the Gospel of Matthew. His testimony is preserved in quotations by the early fourth-century church historian Eusebius. Several of the Greek words in his statement can be translated in more than one way, as indicated by the bracketed words that suggest alternate but probably less likely renderings: "Matthew composed [compiled] his logia in the Hebrew [Aramaic] language [dialect, style], and everyone translated [interpreted] it as they were able" (Hist. eccl. 3.39.16). The most ambiguous part of Papias's statement is the meaning in this context of the Greek word logia, a plural noun I have left untranslated. A logion (the singular form) essentially means "a saying," referring to spoken words. Some scholars have nevertheless assumed that here it refers to the entire Gospel because Eusebius has just cited what Papias taught about the whole Gospel of Mark, referring to it by means of the same word logia. Papias, who in turn is citing an elder named John, whom we will discuss later, says:

Mark was the translator [interpreter] of Peter; whatever he remembered, he wrote accurately, however not in order, of the things having been spoken or done by the Lord. For [Mark] neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but finally, as I said, was with Peter, who gave him the teachings as there was need (but not as making a systematic arrangement of the Lord's logia), so that Mark erred in no way (Hist. eccl. 3.39.15).

Despite those who would take logia to refer to a whole Gospel, it seems clear that the word here cannot refer to Mark's entire narrative because Papias is citing John the elder as describing constituent elements of that Gospel. He has just spoken of "the things ... spoken or done by the Lord," so he could be referring to some portion of the Gospel that contains both kinds of material. Or, a bit more naturally, in light of the root meaning of a logion, he could now be referring simply to teachings or discourses of Jesus, which makes it probable that he is doing the same thing a few sentences later when he speaks about Matthew writing the logia of Jesus.

What do we learn from all this testimony, if we accept it? At the very least we discover that Mark's Gospel relied largely on information from Peter, who in the Synoptics is one of the three apostles closest to Jesus. Mark's Gospel may not always be in chronological order, especially with respect to Jesus's teachings, but it is completely accurate in what it affirms. Matthew wrote something, probably as a precursor to what we call the Gospel of Matthew, in Hebrew or Aramaic, perhaps a collection of Jesus's teachings. There may have been multiple translations of this document, including into Greek, which could have resulted in any or all of what we know as Matthew's Gospel.

From other early church fathers, we may add the testimony of the late-second century bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, who declared that Matthew wrote his Gospel "while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel and founding the church in Rome" (Adv. haer. 3.1.1), a reference that fits most naturally into the 60s of the first century. Because Eusebius quotes Irenaeus also (Hist. eccl. 5.8.2), and does so accurately here where we can check him, we can be more confident than we otherwise would be that he quoted Papias accurately where we cannot check him. Justin Martyr, in the mid-second century, declared that Mark's Gospel was based on Peter's apomnemoneumata, that is, his "remembrances" or possibly "memoirs" (Dial. 106.3).

The only person we know of named Matthew from first-century Christianity was the converted tax collector, also known as Levi, who was one of Jesus's twelve closest followers (cf. Matt 9:9 with Mark 2:14). Mark was John Mark, a companion of both Peter and Paul, best known for deserting Paul midway through his first missionary journey (Acts 13:13; cf. 15:38) but later reconciled to him (2 Tim 4:11; cf. Col 4:10). The early church in Jerusalem also met for a time at the home of John Mark's mother (Acts 12:12). Luke was Paul's "beloved physician" (Col 4:14 KJV) and travel companion off and on throughout his missionary travels. He was believed to have written the book of Acts as a sequel to his Gospel, so that the periodic shift from third-person to first-person-plural narrative ("we did such and such") can then be explained as the places where Luke was actually present with Paul (Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–21:18; 27:1–28:16).

External evidence additionally claims that Matthew wrote in the province of Judea and, more specifically, from the city of Jerusalem (Monarchian Prologue, Jerome, Dorotheus, colophons of mss. K, 126, 174). Consistently, the patristic testimony insists that he wrote to Jewish Christians. Clement of Alexandria in the late second century declared that Mark wrote to Christians in Rome at their request (Frag. 9.4–20). One tradition notes that when Mark told Peter of his writing plan, "[Peter] neither actively prevented nor encouraged the undertaking" (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.14.6–7) — a fairly halfhearted approval that would not likely be invented if it were fictitious! Of the Synoptics the least is said about Luke, but we do read that he was "incited by the Holy Spirit in the regions around Achaia" (the southern half of the Greek peninsula) and wrote particularly for Gentile believers, probably also in Achaia (anti-Marcionite Prologue; Gregory of Nazianzus). We are also told that Luke was originally from Antioch in Syria (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.4).

What are we to make of these various claims? Each early Christian writer we have cited had a vested interest in linking the Gospels with apostolic tradition. Most of them elsewhere occasionally report information that appears to be distorted about some aspect of early Christianity. But it is hard to believe that the oldest traditions would uniformly associate the first two Gospels with Mark and Luke without some good historical reason, because neither was otherwise viewed as a significant character in first-century Christianity. First Peter 5:13 confirms that Mark and Peter were together in Rome (using the code word "Babylon") in the early 60s, but otherwise Mark is best known for deserting Paul and Barnabas! Luke, as we have seen, appears by name only in two lists of those from whom Paul sends greetings at the end of his epistles. The apocryphal and Gnostic Gospels by comparison, not written until the mid-second century at the earliest, choose much better known figures from the first generation of Christianity as pseudo-authors of their more fictitious documents to try to gain them a hearing — Mary (probably Magdalene but maybe the mother of Jesus), the apostles Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Peter, James, and even Nicodemus. Since we know of apocryphal works falsely ascribed to Peter, if the Gospel of Mark were just another such document, granted that the church fathers attributed much of its contents to Peter already, why not just simplify things and say Peter wrote it himself? Those who would believe that claim would then accept the book's authority that much more readily! Matthew, of course, was an apostle but, next only to Judas who betrayed Jesus, probably the least respected figure of the Twelve in Jewish circles because he had worked for the occupying enemy forces by collecting customs tolls for Rome. Judas did have a Gospel attributed to him but precisely because it turned him into a hero rather than a villain and most likely emanated from a thoroughly unorthodox Gnostic sect. No one trying to promote orthodox Christianity would have ascribed a document they held sacred to Judas! The same logic may well have applied to Matthew.

Turning to the internal evidence of the Gospels themselves, we discover no explicit claims for authorship. All known ancient Greek manuscripts containing the beginning of one of the Gospels include the titles "According to Matthew," "According to Mark," and so on. Yet it seems improbable that all of the Gospel writers would have independently chosen to call their works "According to [so-and-so]." The first communities to which each was written would have known the origin of the documents sent to them from the Christian courier who was assigned to deliver them and, according to the custom of the day, who probably read them aloud to the assembled congregation, possibly even adding interpretive explanations and/or fielding questions afterwards. Only when more than one Gospel began to circulate together, and especially when the fourfold collection of first-century Gospels was complete, would the need to distinguish one from another via written titles become essential. Strictly speaking then, the Gospels are anonymous. No text within them states who wrote them, the way a majority of the New Testament letters begin with a greeting from their apparent authors.

It therefore shows no necessary disrespect for the authority or accuracy of Scripture to suggest that someone other than Matthew, Mark, or Luke wrote the first three Gospels. Questions, for example, have been raised about Matthew concerning its apparent anti-Semitism, whether any of it reads like translation from Hebrew, and if an apostolic writer would have relied heavily on a Gospel from a nonapostolic author like Mark (as we will see most likely happened). The Gospel of Mark is sometimes charged with having too many "Latinisms," too much confusion of geographical details in Israel, or too little respect in its portrayal of Peter to have come from a Jewish Christian from Jerusalem. Luke's Gospel especially is accused of promoting too different a theology from the main themes of the letters of Paul to have been written by one of his close companions.

None of these charges carries all that much weight. Scholarship increasingly recognizes the sharp language about various Jews in the Gospel of Matthew (including on the lips of Jesus!) to reflect the intramural disputes within Judaism as to who were really the chosen people of God. Latinisms in Mark would be appropriate for a Roman audience, geographical confusion comes only when we assume Jesus traveled in linear rather than peripatetic fashion, and it is arguable that only a Gospel authorized by Peter would have allowed as much disparagement of him (and of the apostles in general) as we find. The theological differences between Luke and Paul undoubtedly prove that Paul did not write the Gospel (or Acts) but not that a companion of his couldn't have done so.

At the same time the credibility of the Gospels is not automatically called into question if the liberal consensus within New Testament scholarship turned out to be true — that anonymous first-century Christians, perhaps younger followers of the apostles or the traditional authors, were the actual writers in question.


From Jesus to the Gospels

More important than the question of authorship in this case would be the question of dating. Were those authors close enough in time to be likely to have their facts straight about Jesus? Here we again find the academic world divided — evangelicals typically, though not unanimously, date Matthew, Mark, and Luke all to the 60s (with Mark sometimes placed as early as in the late 50s), somewhere between twenty-five and forty years after Jesus's death in AD 30 (or possibly 33).The liberal consensus, though not without exception, dates Mark to the late 60s or early 70s and Matthew and Luke to the 80s or 90s.

Obviously the closer in time we can place the composition of a Gospel to the life of Jesus, the stronger the case becomes in principle for historical accuracy. The more conservative dates are partly bound up with external evidence but only partly. We have seen Irenaeus's convictions that Matthew was written while Peter and Paul were still preaching in Rome. This points to the first half of the 60s, since Peter was most likely martyred in the mid-60s,and Paul did not reach Rome until about 60. If Matthew used Mark, then Mark must be earlier, but by how much we cannot tell. If Luke wrote Acts, then he could not have written before the final events he narrates, which probably occurred in 62 (two years after his arrival in Rome — Acts 28:30). Acts 1:1 refers to Luke's former volume, showing that the Gospel was penned before Acts. And since Luke also used Mark (see below pp. 30–32), the Gospel of Mark must have been written before the Gospel of Luke.


Excerpted from The Historical Reliability of the New Testament by Craig L. Blomberg. Copyright © 2016 Craig L. Blomberg. Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents

Chapter One: The Formation of the Synoptic Gospels
Chapter Two: Contradictions among the Synoptics?
Chapter Three: Corroboration of the Synoptics
Chapter Four: The Formation of the Gospel of John
Chapter Five: Evidence for the Accuracy of John
Chapter Six: The Credibility of Acts
Chapter Seven: Paul in Acts and in the Epistles
Chapter Eight: Forgeries among the Epistles of Paul?
Chapter Nine: Is Paul the True Founder of Christianity?
Chapter Ten: The Non-Pauline Epistles—New Testament Anomalies?
Chapter Eleven: The Book of Revelation—Are Historical Matters Even Relevant?
Chapter Twelve: The Nag Hammadi Literature and New Testament Apocrypha
Chapter Thirteen: Textual Transmission and the Formation of the Canon
Chapter Fourteen: Miracles in the New Testament World and Today

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The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Danny_G More than 1 year ago
Challenges to the Christian faith have been given to Christianity in an attempt to discredit it. This may potentially shake the foundation of someone's belief and a key place to attack is the Bible. By drawing into question if the Bible is accurate, a person could potentially cause a Christian to second-guess whether or not the Bible they hold in their hands is true. Craig Blomberg, a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, has written a wonderful resource on the New Testament titled The Historical Reliability of the New Testament. Professor Blomberg addresses the historicity, dating, context, and authenticity of the New Testament. He does so the reader can understand the nature by which the New Testament came about and also some of the challenges that are brought to attempt to destroy the Scriptures. I really appreciated the attention to detail with special note on the Gospels. Professor Blomberg has given ample evidence for the authenticity of the New Testament thus giving Christians comfort knowing their Bible is truth. The book does not go into a lot of scholarly works but does notate various scholarly resources to support the information being presented. Professor Blomberg also does well to use language that is easy to understand but does not detract from the depth of research he has done. *I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.