I was first made aware of this book a few years ago when I read The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. For those unfamiliar with that book, the author is a former journalist who wanted to examine the evidence for the claims of the gospels by interviewing various christian scholars. One of the first experts Strobel interviews was Craig Blomberg, who refers to The Historical Reliability of the Gospels several times. The version I read was a later addition, and has clearly undergone some revisions. For starters, the version I read referenced books written after The Case For Christ was published.
To begin with, you have to note what this book is and what it is not. Blomberg deals with this question at the start of the book. He is only interested in the historical side of the gospels. Of course, from this stems the theological aspect, but that is not the aim of the book. He also restricts his view to look at the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John; there is very little by way of discussion of the rest of the New Testament, though I personally felt that it would have been apposite to include a look at Acts as well, given that that is the only historical book of the New Testament. Yet it has been left to a very brief discussion at the end of the book.
What follows is a work which summarises the scholarship of others, leaning heavily on the work Gospel Perspectives (which Blomberg contributed to, amongst others). He begins by looking at the general methods for the historical study of the gospels. These include harmonisation, redaction criticism and form criticism. Here, I felt Blomberg was fairly even-handed and gave praise to each methodology where due and criticism where it was deserved.
He demonstrates that he is not afraid to tackle potentially thorny issues head-on as from here he launches straight into the issue of miracles. He lays out various objections that one may have to believing the miracle stories of the gospels and then sets about his task of trying to show why they may be considered reasonable. It is here that I began to diverge from Blomberg. It seems his conclusions were reached before doing any research, though one may have guessed this from the outset. Personally, I found the chapter quite unconvincing and the arguments put forward fairly weak. That’s not to say I think it is without merit, but merely that his conclusions do not resonate with the evidence he presents. Central to this, and central to all of christian belief is the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Though multiple references are made to the recent magnum opus on this topic, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God , I felt that Blomberg’s case was too watered down. If it doesn’t convince me, a believer (albeit one not to taking to believe anything that confirms my viewpoint) I strongly doubt it would convince even the most open-minded of sceptics.
From here, he then widens his viewpoint to look at contradictions between the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), though he acknowledges at the start that there are so many “supposed” contradictions that he doesn’t have space to address them all. This is a little more reasonable than the previous section, particularly when one takes into account redaction criticism. The main argument is that if you accept that the gospels do not necessarily contain verbatim testimonies then to say “Jesus said x” may still be an honest and reliable account of the message he conveyed.
Central to Blomberg’s argument is to compare the multiple accounts of Jesus’ life to multiple accounts of other historical events and persons. Where there are summaries or apparent omissions, Blomberg challenges the critical reader to consider whether the gospels are often judged more harshly than other historical works. In particular, he argues that we ought to try and view the gospels through the eyes of early historians, rather than apply 20th/21st century historical analysis to a context where it does not belong.
Moving on from the Synoptics, he goes on to look at the specific case of the gospel of John. This is by far the most slippery of the gospels, when it comes to historicity. It seems to me a fairly common consensus that John was the last of the gospels to be written, and is the most “theologically biased.” In this, my opinion has generally been that the author of John’s gospel has been more of a portrait painter, whereas the Synoptic authors were trying to be more like photographers. So John has more character fleshing out the work, at the expense of strict historicity. Blomberg’s analysis seems to try to reconcile this view with his hypothesis that the gospel is also historically accurate. In this, though, he seems to come rather unstuck. He resorts to rhetorical flourishes at the end of his sections which give a far more firm conclusion than his own analysis allows for, which rather frustrated me as a reader. He tries to wriggle through arguments, rather than accepting what seems, to me at least, to be a far more reasonable conclusion that the gospel of John actually has some inconsistencies with the Synoptics. This is probably best demonstrated by Blomberg’s own words:
“Is John unaware the Jesus was born in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth? In fact, John knows the birthplace, but apparently some in Jesus’ audience did not. Their ignorance is not surprising, since Jesus had grown up and lived in Galilee for all but the earliest years of his life. That John lets this mistaken impression stand without comment testifies only to his skilful use of irony.”
His last major study is to look at the historicity of Jesus outside of the gospels; in other words the potential corroborative or falsifying evidence. This is one of the more convincing chapters, though its main point seems to be correcting the hypothesis that Jesus never existed.
In the appendices, Blomberg really hits the nail on the head. His section on historical methods is, I think, bang on. Here, he discusses what should be the “status quo” of belief when looking at any historical source. Should it be disbelieved until otherwise shown to be true? Should it be believed until otherwise shown to be false? Or should the default position be somewhere between? For me, this should probably have formed part of the introduction to the book as this historical hermeneutic is vital to how one undertakes such a study.
In his conclusion, Blomberg does not conclude that the gospels are entirely historically accurate. The evidence is not strong enough. Instead, he concludes that they have “general reliability.” That is, though they may not pin down every point precisely, they are sound enough to be regarded as the most trustworthy accounts for the life of Jesus.
There is one key omission from his discussion, and one that has been on my mind quite a bit over the last 6 months or so, which is the historicity of the Nativity narratives. But with that and a few points already mentioned aside, this is a worthwhile book to read. I don’t think it’s a totally convincing case but it does deserve to be taken seriously, as indeed Blomberg takes seriously the views of serious critical scholars.