Is the New Testament Historically Reliable? A Book Review

Christians have always had to deal with skeptics, but the frequency of public attacks against the Bible’s reliability seem to have increased in recent years (think only of the audacious claims of the Jesus Seminar, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, and Bart Ehrman’s unrelenting stream of skeptical books).  In fact, a couple years ago, I found myself having to respond to Newsweek’s public attack on the Bible.  Is the New Testament historically reliable?  This past week I’ve been reading Craig Blomberg’s recent (725 page!) book:  The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Belief.  I am happy to recommend it to anyone struggling with doubts about the New Testament’s reliability as well as to anyone currently dialoguing with such strugglers.

There are few scholars better situated to address the issues discussed in this book than is Craig Blomberg.  Note that this is not only because of how many other related publications he has written already.[1]  Blomberg’s relationship to the topic appears to be personal, and his personal commitment probably contributes to the verve with which he writes.  Blomberg was raised “in a fairly liberal wing of a mainline Protestant denomination.” (xxv)  He adds, “In my undergraduate education at a private liberal arts college historically attached to the denomination in which I was raised, I was taught that it was impossible to be an evangelical and maintain my intellectual integrity.  I was taught that the Bible was replete with errors, that it was a collection of books authored by Jews and Christians articulating their beliefs about God and his ways with humanity, but no more uniquely inspired than any other inspiring religious literature that had been penned throughout the ages, and sometimes less so.”  The author of this book came to a personal commitment to Christ through a parachurch organization in high school, but it was only through careful study of the Bible that he became “a Christian believer of an evangelical persuasion with a high regard for the accuracy and authority of Scripture.”

Perhaps somewhat because of his own journey, Blomberg pursues the following method in this book:  “I do my best not to presuppose my Christian faith when I am speaking in pluralistic settings and often even when I am speaking in exclusively Christian contexts attempting to better educate fellow believers for interaction in the public square….  I attempt to limit myself to arguments and the presentation of evidence that does not depend on being a Christian.” (xxvii)  This means that there is often more to say about topics raised in this book than is said; but it also means that the arguments may have a greater likelihood of convincing an unbeliever (even though Blomberg is quick to add, “I am aware that the extent to which a given person will find various arguments more plausible than not has a lot to do with whether they are inclined toward Christianity at all”).

Part One progresses first through the formation of the Synoptic Gospels, with discussions of authorship, audience, and dating, followed by comments about genre, source criticism, and the role of oral tradition.  The author then responds to proposed contradictions among the Synoptics, suggesting plausible harmonizations or clarifying possible compositional purposes of a given evangelist.  A positive case for historical agreement among the Synoptics closes out Part One.

Part Two follows a similar pattern to Part One, but focuses on the Gospel of John, a section of Scripture of special interest to the author.

The first section of Part Three follows a similar pattern for Acts that we already encountered in Parts One and Two, then proceeds to compare the portrayal of Paul in Acts with the Paul discoverable from his letters, addressing proposed contradictions raised by skeptics.  The author then addresses the question of whether there were any forgeries among the Pauline letters (responding negatively).  One of the strongest parts of the book, in my opinion, was a discussion of the relationship between the teaching of Jesus and Paul.  Was Paul teaching ideas that were in tension with the teaching of Jesus?  Absolutely not, says the author, heartily defending the agreement of Jesus and Paul.  I highly recommend this chapter (ch. 9).  (Note also the writings of David Wenham on the same topic).

Part Four gets labeled with the banal title The Rest of the New Testament (a title my friend and colleague Darian Lockett is unlikely to appreciate!).  Brief discussions of authorship, setting, and proposed difficulties for James, Hebrews, 1 Peter, Jude and 2 Peter, and the Letters of John are included.  Readers interested in those letters will find less help than they are likely to find in the earlier sections of Blomberg’s book.  The chapter on the Book of Revelation was interesting, but focused more on how to interpret John’s unusual apocalypse than on defending its historicity, which seemed slightly off-kilter for a book on defending the Bible’s historical integrity.

Part Five includes a helpful survey of some of The Nag Hammadi literature (Apocryphon of James, Gospel of Truth, Treatise on the Resurrection, Gospel of Philip, Dialogue of the Savior, Apocalypse of Adam), and adds a slightly longer discussion of the Gospel of Thomas.  In like fashion, a number of texts in the so-called New Testament Apocrypha receive brief, but helpful, discussions (Gospel of Peter, Protevangelium of James, Infancy Story of Thomas, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Acts of Andrew, Acts of John, Acts of Paul and Thecla in particular).  Blomberg counters the claim of Hal Taussig, the editor of A New New Testament, that other documents should be published alongside, and on the same level, as the canonical documents.  In addition to the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla that he already discussed, Blomberg briefly analyses the Prayer of Thanksgiving, Odes of Solomon, Thunder: Perfect Mind, Gospel of Mary, Prayer of the Apostle Paul, Letter of Peter to Philip, and Secret Revelation of John.  Discussions of all these documents are included to demonstrate how different they are from the New Testament writings, and how, unlike the writings of the New Testament, people have no business claiming that such (late) writings should receive the same use and acceptance as the documents that comprise the New Testament.  Part Five also includes a discussion of the textual transmission of the New Testament (helpful, all of it) and a bit on the formation and legitimacy of the canon (not bad, but probably still one of the weaker sections of the book—you’ll do better to visit Michael Kruger’s website or read one of his books instead).

Part Six is all about miracles.  Since most skepticism concerning the historical claims of the New Testament have traditionally come from people who question miracle-claims, this chapter is a necessary, and extremely beneficial, chapter.

If I had to raise any concern about the book, it would have to be that so many discussions feel unduly brief.  Now, don’t forget, there are 725 pages of text, so this criticism may sound audacious, especially to those of you who wouldn’t think of picking up a book longer than 250 pages!  But because there is so much to say about the reliability of the New Testament, the author chose (necessarily) to keep his discussions brief.  But let me note that the brevity is also one of the strengths of the book.  Dr. Blomberg has pulled together an impressive array of sober argumentation into a single volume.  I, personally, am happy to have access to so much information in one place, and anticipate referring to this volume often.  I am happy to recommend this book to anyone thinking about the historical reliability of the New Testament.

 

[1] Other books on the historical reliability of the New Testament by Craig Blomberg include:  The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nottingham: Apollos; Downers Grove: IVP, 2007); Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H; Nottingham: Apollos, 2009); The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP; Leicester: Apollos, 2001); Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2014).

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