The Reliability of the Gospels: FAQs
By Craig Blomberg
Years ago, a well-known company that helped individuals compute and file their taxes ran a series of television ads boasting something like a couple dozen reasons for using their services. Because they didn’t have time to mention them all in a short commercial, they would give just three or four, but they would number them along the lines of “Reason #5, Reason #9, Reason #16, Reason #23” and then just quit. It was clever psychology because it made you think there were so many other reasons also, even though you had no way of knowing if they actually had come up with any others!
I am very much aware that there are far more than just four frequently asked questions about the reliability of the Gospels, which is why I wrote an entire book on the topic thirty-five years ago and thoroughly revised and expanded it fifteen years ago. I have also addressed the issue in shorter and/or more recent publications. Here I have been asked to address certain specific questions in a very short article. Unlike with those commercials, however, readers should know that there are more questions and more responses available elsewhere.
FAQ #1: New Testament scholars don’t take the Gospels seriously as historical sources, so why should anyone else?
The premise of this question is false. If I were to craft a statement as an “average” of the beliefs in the guild, from the most conservative to the most liberal, it would read: Overall, most (not all) scholars believe in the historical accuracy of the major contours of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, especially where they all agree with each other. These include (but are not limited to) such details as Jesus emerging out of the ministry of John the Baptist, who baptized him, Jesus’ teaching about the arrival of God’s kingdom (though not yet in all its fullness), the major themes of his moral teachings and the possibility of an intimate relationship with his heavenly Father, God. He gathered twelve particularly close followers whom he instructed over a three-year period, one of whom would later deny him and another betray him. He performed various miracles of healing and exorcism (or at least what was perceived as such by their recipients), he was surprisingly willing to associate with the outcast and immoral of his society, he treated women as equals, had a strong sense of his own divinely ordained authority and mission, was increasingly opposed by certain Jewish leaders and Roman authorities, and crucified under Pontius Pilate. Many people believed they had seen him alive again after his death. Many of these immediately began to proclaim him as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah and as worthy of the kind of worship that was previously limited to the God of Israel himself.
Beyond this, there is a lot of debate about how much further one should ago in accepting the testimony of the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John. Is it proper to speak of Jesus as God? Or was he merely the last and greatest of Israel’s apocalyptic prophets? What do we make of the stories surrounding his birth? Can we move from belief in seeing him resurrected to him actually being resurrected? Still, if the question is about taking the Gospels seriously as sources of significant historical information, readers should not be misled into thinking that some large percentage of New Testament scholars worldwide don’t take them seriously.
FAQ #2: The Gospels contain accounts of miracles so they can’t be taken historically, can they?
That depends on your definition of miracle. As we noted above, many scholars believe that Jesus did cure people of illnesses and cast out what were believed to be demons in them. Even if one does not believe in the supernatural, there are many ways that ancient societies understood various afflictions and the possibility of God or the gods working through human healers that made it natural for them to believe they were cured in these ways. Psychosomatic or mental illnesses may have been behind what people became convinced they had been freed from, leading to the vanishing of physical symptoms as well. Jesus’ miracles over nature are usually not included here and, at some point, one must face head on the clash of worldviews. Has science really disproved the miraculous? By definition, it studies what is repeatable under laboratory conditions. By definition, miracles are the unexpected, unpredictable, singular events that are attributed to God. The two areas of study really don’t impinge on one another.
It is hard to read carefully Craig Keener’s detailed books on all the documented accounts of miracles parallel to those in the New Testament from our world today and then still attribute them all to human manufacture or deception. It is even harder when you have experienced some of them personally, as I have. Yet, even if one remains unconvinced, the presence of miracles in ancient histories or biographies has not deterred classicists from recovering true information from those sources. Belief in certain miraculous events was unrelated to various writers’ care in the rest of their narration.
FAQ #3 The Gospel writers were biased in favor of Christianity, so how can we trust anything they say?
Can we trust anything anyone ever says, including ourselves? If we adopt one extreme form of relativism, then, no, we shouldn’t trust a person whenever they are talking about something they believe in. Let’s be consistent, though, and then apply that principle across the board. I won’t believe the latest pulmonary research because the scientists engaged in it are biased in favor of the scientific method. I won’t believe Colorado sports reporters when they announce that the Denver Broncos have won a game because they are biased in favor of our sports teams. And I certainly won’t believe any atheist’s account of what happened in their lives because they are terribly biased against God! In other words, the whole approach of total relativism is completely self-defeating.
Another point, though, that we should remember, is that all the first witnesses of the life of Jesus and quite a few second- and third-generation Christians as well were not raised in a Christian home. They converted to becoming Jesus followers at least in part due to the compelling nature of the evidence. I am likely to take very seriously the arguments of a MAGA-Republican who votes for a certain Democrat running for public office because I suspect it’s taken quite a bit of convincing for them to do so. I should likewise be very curious about how a Jew who knew it was blasphemy to speak of any human being as God or for a Greek or Roman who knew it was impossible for a god or goddess to become fully human (as opposed to just temporarily appearing to be one) came to believe that Jesus was the perfect God-man, fully divine and fully human. They didn’t begin life thinking that and they had a ton of intellectual, social and emotional obstacles to overcome in starting to think that.
FAQ #4 Because the Gospels have so many differences among their accounts, how can we say any of them is at all reliable?
There are differences to be sure, but there are differences any time multiple authors recount their own versions of events in which they have participated or which they have learned about from others. Some will include incidents that others leave out. Describing what happened in their own words will lead to emphasizing different aspects even of events that they share with the other accounts. Add to that the fact that the first century was a world without quotation marks or any felt need for them. It was every bit as acceptable to paraphrase someone’s words as to recount them verbatim. In fact, when historians were deriving much of their information from earlier written sources, it was important for them not to just repeat their sources’ wording but to take it up and make it their own. No one used footnotes or bibliographies, so this was the way of avoiding too much of what we would consider plagiarism, even if the threshold of what one could copy verbatim was much higher.
The real question to ask about the Gospels, then, is if there are irreconcilable contradictions. Are there places where if one Gospel account is true, another one can’t be. The number of places where this even looks at first glance to be likely are relatively few and far between, and all of them have been explained, some of them with more than one plausible solution. Each person will have to decide if they find those explanations persuasive or not. But it is hardly fair to dismiss the Gospels without first examining those explanations. More importantly, there are at least minor discrepancies virtually anywhere that we have more than one account of ancient events, and these don’t lead historians to reject the value of the documents they study in the remaining places where those discrepancies don’t appear. If I catch you in making a few factual errors, I don’t automatically disbelieve everything you say!
FAQs #5, #6, . . .
I’m out of my allotted space, so you’ll have to read some longer works for answers to those other questions, but hopefully, unlike the commercials I mentioned at the outset, they won’t be too “taxing”!
 Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Leicester, UK and Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1987; Nottingham, UK and Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007).
 See esp. Craig L. Blomberg, “Jesus of Nazareth: How Historians Can Know Him and Why It Matters,” for the Christian Campus Initiative of the Gospel Coalition (2008), posted at http://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/cci/Blomberg.pdf. Repr. in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011), 438-74. Rev. for the 2nd ed. (2021), 448-81.
 See the forthcoming comprehensive study by Colin Brown with Craig A. Evans, A History of the Quests for the Historical Jesus, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming).
 For a concise primer, see James H. Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008).
 Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011); Craig S. Keener, Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021).
 Craig L. Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2014), chapter 6.
 Paul Merkley (“The Gospels as Historical Testimony,” EQ 58 : 328-36) offers an example from the ancient Roman accounts of Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, often held up as perhaps the most secure fact of ancient Roman history.
 For this and related issues, see esp. Larry W. Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2016).
 For typical differences among parallel accounts in Greco-Roman biographies, see Michael R. Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
 Gary Knoppers, “The Synoptic Problem: An Old Testament Perspective,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 19 (2009): 11-34.
 See also throughout Darrell L. Bock and Benjamin I. Simpson, Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).
 See esp. Paul R. Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007); Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007); Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018); Peter S. Williams, Getting at Jesus: A Comprehensive Critique of Neo-Atheist Nonsense about the Jesus of History (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2019).
— Craig L. Blomberg is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He has authored or edited 20 books, including The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Interpreting the Parables, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, and commentaries on Matthew, 1 Corinthians, and James.