Can we actually discover the real Jesus? Could the disciples have remembered the teachings of Jesus when they wrote the Gospels decades later? Sean and Scott welcome Dr. Craig Blomberg, a leading New Testament scholar, to discuss how Jesus scholarship has developed over the past few decades and some remarkable new trends.

Dr. Craig Blomberg is professor Emeritus of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He is the author or editor of over 20 books on the historical Jesus including Jesus the Purifier: John's Gospel and the Fourth Quest for the Historical Jesus.

Episode Transcript

Scott: What is the state of study on the historical Jesus? Why has there been skepticism in the past about the historical contribution of documents like the Gospel of John? How does the fourth gospel actually make a difference in how we view the historical Jesus? We'll answer these questions and more with our guest, Dr. Craig Blomberg, distinguished professor emeritus of New Testament at Denver Seminary, in his new book called Jesus the Purifier, John's Gospel and the Fourth Quest for the Historical Jesus. I'm your host, Scott Rae.

Sean: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell.

Scott: This is Think Biblically, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Craig, thanks so much for being with us, and so appreciate your work in this book. Looking forward to getting into this for our listeners.

Craig: Well, thank you for having me.

Scott: Yeah, now you've been studying the historical Jesus for a very long time. How would you assess the current state of scholarship around the issue of the historical Jesus?

Craig: I am very encouraged. If I look back to when I was an undergraduate in a liberal Protestant, liberal arts college and the amount of things I was taught were all that we could know about Jesus from historical research. I am very encouraged by how far we've come. I'm less encouraged at how well the story is known because what gets publicized is the avant-garde, the radical, the exotic and the exciting, and research that brings us closer in line with historical orthodoxy doesn't normally fit those categories.

Sean: That's a really interesting way to look at it. There's a difference between the research itself and what scholars are discovering, and we'll just say the marketing campaign of what the popular culture understands. So let me press on that a little bit further. So we're going to get to how historical Jesus scholars do the research – what's even meant by this, but why should everyday Christians just care about the nuances and trends in scholarship that has happened over the past few decades?

Craig: Well, I don't know that they need to care about the nuances, um, can leave that to, uh, the debates in journals, but, uh, the general trends I think are crucial because, what we were just talking about. People are likely to, even if they have no doubts, encounter friends or others on the web or on social media who have been influenced by skepticism and their arguments. And I am, if not daily, certainly weekly, uh, receiving all kinds of emails from people who just say, I'm a Christian layman from such and such, and I got asked this question and I don't know how to answer it. Can you point me in, in a good direction?

Scott: So Craig, what would you say to the priest to follow up on that a bit? What would you say to the person who says, you know, Hey, I, I trust the gospel accounts. I read my Bible. That's good enough for me.

Craig: I would say hallelujah. Um, but what happens when you come across something that you haven't thought about before, and now you have some doubts or, uh, probably sooner than that, what happens when you're interacting with somebody else, uh, who doesn't share the same starting point and it doesn't have that conviction that you have, they're not going to just say, "Oh, well, sure, you believe it, I'll believe it." They're going to want some reasons.

Sean: Craig, I'm glad you get those emails, because I get them daily, and sometimes they're heartbreaking. And I think you're right that some of the research in historical Jesus we're going to get into is encouraging for lay Christians to say, "Oh, this isn't just blind faith. There's reasons behind this." But I've also found when just Christians, maybe who don't have doubt, discover there's this archaeological and manuscript in this tradition that is confirming, it's really positive to their faith as well. So, seems to me there's both.

Craig: Absolutely.

Sean: Before we go any further though, there's a distinction in the book, and I believe this comes from the historical Jesus scholar John Meyer, so correct me if I'm wrong, but there's a distinction between the historical Jesus, the canonical Jesus, and the quote real Jesus. Walk through that for us, if you will.

Craig: Well, the real Jesus, just like the real Sean, Scott, or Craig is the sum total of everything a person ever did, thought, saw, experienced in life. And obviously no one ever gets a comprehensive record of a person's life. John himself at the end of his gospel acknowledges that when he says that the whole world couldn't contain the books that would be written if he tried to say everything he wanted to about Jesus. So the real Jesus is everything that the triune God knows happened to Jesus on earth and nobody else will ever have that comprehensive amount of detail.

Canonical Jesus is simply some total of what we're told about Jesus in the Canon of scripture and the historical Jesus, um, is, uh, if you think of, of sort of Venn diagrams, if that doesn't bring back horrible memories from high school math for people, uh, if the real Jesus is the giant circle that embraces everything, then you have two intersecting circles, much smaller ones inside of that. Um, there's going to be significant overlap, but, uh, there's information, um, that we can learn about Jesus, not a lot, but a little bit, um, from outside of the gospels, um, and even from outside of the new Testament. And then, uh, there's information within the gospels that we simply have no way of confirming or disconfirming based on the state of historical research. So the historical Jesus will be, for the most part, a selection of what we find in the canon that has historical support for it.

Sean: Okay. So roughly to say this, the real Jesus is the actual Jesus who was born, lived, walked, ministered, did miracles. The canonical Jesus is what we know about this Jesus in the Scriptures that's been delivered to us, that we believe as Christians. But then there's the historical Jesus that would include some of the canonical Jesus, but even within the canon, looked at that through a purely historical lens, some of those things can be corroborated and confirmed and known, even with a greater sense of confidence than other things. And with the historical Jesus, there are certain things we know maybe outside of the canon. Was that a fair summary?

Craig: That is so well phrased that now I understand why you're still teaching full-time and I’m not.


Sean: That was awesome.

Scott: So Craig, help us, our listeners a bit. There's been a lot of discussion, both at the scholarly level and the popular level about the historical reliability of the Gospels, particularly the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We'll get to the Gospel of John in a few minutes. And how the Gospel writers could have remembered the events and the words of Jesus when they were probably, at least, probably 30, 40 years after the events actually took place. Why should our listeners think that the gospel writers accurately recorded what they did about the life of Jesus, given that so much time had elapsed, and that memories are fallible, and we've got fallible human beings involved?

Craig: I think one of the most overlooked answers to that question is the notion that disciples of a rabbi, um, regularly discussed and talked about what their teacher said, um, the very first opportunity they had to, uh, we'd probably call it debrief after, uh, some ministry opportunity they regularly, uh, committed, uh, to memory, um, at least the basics, the gist of what, um, the teacher had said. And then as we know happened, if we trust scripture in the case of Jesus and the 12, they would repeat what they learned, what they talked about to other audiences. And we have in Mark 6 and Matthew 10, Luke 9, accounts of Jesus sending out to 12. And going, if we take it at all, literally, to every town and village within Galilee. Josephus said there were over 200 such villages. Even if that just means they weren't a lot of places, the disciples are replicating Jesus' ministry of preaching the kingdom of heaven, as Matthew puts it. And they are telling of Jesus' teachings as well as being empowered to work various kinds of miracles. Uh, this is not 30 to 40 years after, uh, it's more like potentially 30 to 40 days after these things have happened. And they've been talking about them. They've been rehearsing what they're going to say. Uh, it's, It's a totally different model than we normally think about.

Sean: Craig, one of the things I've heard you discuss elsewhere, we're obviously talking about your book, Jesus the Purifier, but you've written books defending the New Testament, defending the Gospel of John in particular, is that one of the ways they can remember is Jesus told stories and we remember stories. Jesus also probably told the same stories over and over again in a different way that they would remember. there's a decent chance that they took notes. There's all these kind of mechanisms built in that this idea of the telephone game is just completely non analogous to the gospels. So is that fair to say when the telephone game comes up? Cause I get this all the time from students. Did you say that is a complete dis analogous understanding of how these traditions were passed on and even originally written down?

Craig: It really is. Um, and add to that, uh, all the, the elements you've mentioned that, uh, a lot of Jesus, even the, the teaching that's not in parables is often in, uh, very poetic, very, uh, clipped and memorizable form. Um, but then I also love, uh, uh, Ken Bailey's story, uh, from the years he was teaching in Lebanon, a scholar who wrote a lot on parables. And he talked about wanting to replicate the telephone game in one of his classrooms to Muslim background believers. And they didn't get the idea. And it was like, why would you want to do this? And he said, just humor me as it were. And so he starts by whispering a fairly complex sentence in the year of the first student. And they went through the whole class and the last guy's quoted it verbatim exactly. And it's like, so what's the point? It's a different culture. They're used to doing it.

Sean: Interesting… Interesting.

Scott: Yeah. Now, Craig, I think, you know, some of the criticism of the telephone game has been that the more important the information, the more readily it's remembered.

Craig: Yes.

Scott: It's one thing to say about the grounds outside your house that it's got all kinds of different plants and grasses. It's another thing to say, there's a huge snake in your garden. And typically the more important the information, the more readily it's remembered and recollected. But I think what you've provided, I think is so helpful to recognize that the disciples of Jesus probably repeated his teaching, maybe hundreds of times to different audiences, you know, maybe starting even while Jesus was still alive. So that, you know, the process by which those things got cemented in their memory started, I think a lot earlier than the scholarship has tended to indicate in the past.

Craig: That's right. And those two are not mutually exclusive. people of my generation, even though admittedly, I was only eight years old when John Kennedy was assassinated. Um, I do have very vivid memories of that. Um, but one of the reasons the memories remain vivid is that over the years, there have been all kinds of social contexts where people have said, so can you remember where you were and what you were doing when Kennedy was assassinated and by repeating the stories that further cements the memory.

Scott: Yeah. Like you, I remember exactly where I was when I heard that news. Um, and I remember exactly where I was when I saw the first pictures of the nine 11 airplanes flying in the world trade center. I think one of the other things that I think that has caused some skepticism about the gospel accounts, and if we help our listeners with this is that there are some differences between the way the Gospel writers record certain accounts. Some of the versions of Jesus' teaching are a bit different. Say, the difference between the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, 6, and 7, and the other rendition of it in Luke 6 or so. So help our listeners understand what were the Gospel writers actually trying to do. They weren't trying to produce biographies or chronologies in the traditional sense. What were they trying to do and how does that help us account for some of these differences in the gospel accounts?

Craig: Well, actually they weren't trying to produce biographies in the modern sense because the modern sense hadn't been invented yet. They were trying to produce biographies in what was for them the traditional sense, which was that, uh, you put together a selection of key events, uh, and teachings from the life of a person, um, in broadly chronological sequence, you may or may not begin with something about their birth or upbringing, uh, depending on its importance for you. Um, there was a strong belief in the ancient world that you learned an awful lot about somebody by how they died. And so, uh, you didn't have to be a religiously significant person to have a biographer focus a disproportionate amount of time on the events leading up to it, including your death. Um, it was very common. You can see this in uh, Diogenes layer, just lives of the eminent philosophers for someone to group together, a series of the most famous or influential or significant teachings of an individual was very common to put together a collection of things that they did that all followed one particular model or pattern of activity. And you find all of these things in the gospels.

And then on top of that, you have to remember this is a world without quotation marks or any felt need for them. them. Uh, it was perfectly appropriate, uh, to put in your own words, the gist of what someone else said, so long as you were faithful to their intention and their meaning. Um, so, uh, I would say the gospel writers wrote very traditional biographies. It's just that their tradition isn't the same as ours. Um, I sometimes use the example from sports and from the telecasting of sports today. We have the most amazing precision. We can determine the winner of a swimming race by one one hundredth of a second. And you would only have to go back a hundred years and people's minds would boggle about the idea that that could ever even happen. And so you want to judge somebody's actions by what they had available to them, by the standards of the day, not by some anachronistic overlay from centuries later.

Sean: Craig, when I was in high school, there was so much discussion about the Jesus Seminar. Can you remind us what that was, what happened to it, and maybe how the Jesus Seminar is viewed today within historical Jesus research and scholars?

Craig: Ah, you're making me feel so old.


Sean: I was going to comment on not remembering Kennedy earlier, but I just let it slide.

Scott: I appreciate that.

Craig: I almost went to 9/11 rather than mentioning Kennedy for that very reason.

Sean: Fair enough.


Craig: The Jesus Seminar was a group who had been meeting for a number of years, but in the mid nineties, uh, published, uh, two large volumes that went through, um, one, all of the sayings of Jesus and one, all of his deeds, uh, from all five gospels. You say, wait a minute, what's the fifth? That would be the Gnostic gospel of Thomas. And, um, they did something that up to that point in time was pretty unusual and actually considered by standards of scholarly etiquette, um, out of bounds. Uh, it's kind of like we're talking about how old people are. I remember when it was absolutely unheard of for lawyers to advertise their services, that was just breaking all the rules of etiquette. And it used to be the same for, uh, true scholars in the whole realm of university disciplines. You are taken seriously if you courted media attention, you were just a popularizer.

Well, the Jesus Seminar broke from all of that and were wildly successful in devising a method where anywhere from 50 to 200 scholars who would come together twice a year, would vote on how probable they thought a certain part of the gospels was by tossing colored beads into a ball. Um, red, pink, gray, or black. Red being, uh, this is exactly Jesus. Pink, meaning it's close. Gray, there's some relationship but there's been a lot of distortion. And black, there's no relationship with Jesus at all. And then they would give each bead a numerical value, average the numbers and, uh, whatever color they were closest with. that was the color, they colored the saying in there four color edition of very attractive hardback books that were published. This became so well known that it had a disproportionate amount of influence on popular opinion as people thought, oh, these really are the world's leaders in this area. We need to believe what they say.

Scott: So Craig, let's go to the Gospel of John here for a moment. This is the majority of what your book is about. I think it's fair to say it was once considered, you know, not a significant contributor to the historicity of Jesus. Yet that view, as you point out, has basically crumbled over the past, you know, few decades. What are some of the historical discoveries about the Gospel of John, about the events of the Gospel of John, that have helped shift the scholarship toward viewing the Gospel of John much more positively now in terms of what it contributes to the historical Jesus.

Craig: It's one small portion of the developments that have been occurring, but you're absolutely right. And even though, uh, John seems to be, uh, the, the last and the latest of the four, and he is the one that has the greatest number of long, uh, monologues or dialogues of Jesus, uh, awful lot of red print if you have a red letter Bible, Um, at the same time, he is, uh, gospel that gives more passing information, just tangentially to where Jesus was when things happened. Something about the lay of the land, names of places. And to give just one example that research continues on. There are two large pools that are mentioned only in the Gospel of John. In John 5, Jesus sees a whole lot of sick people lying around the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, and he singles out one man interacting with him, heals him. And then in John 9, there's a blind man who he tells to go wash in the pool of Siloam. Well, these are pools that are, if you go to Jerusalem, you can see the ruins if you get on the right tour. And Bethesda is due north of the Walden city of the, I should say of the temple precincts, part of the Walden city of Jerusalem. And Siloam is due South. In fact, just within the last decade, there have been more excavations of Siloam and what we thought was sort of the heart of the pool turned out to be just barely the entrance area and we now know the pool was a whole lot bigger than it used to be. And there's good reason from the configuration of these pools and artifacts have been found around them to understand them as what in Hebrew are called mikva'ot, immersion pools. If I am a pilgrim to Jerusalem coming from the North. Uh, this will be my one big chance to immerse myself, to make sure that I am ritually clean before I enter the temple precincts. Uh, that's Bethesda. If I'm coming from the South, same thing is true about Siloam. Um, these are real places. They were involved with a purification. The stories that John tells accompanying these locations are about men who needed physical healing. And in one case, Jesus provides it without using the pool itself. In another case, he uses the pool as a help, but it all fits. Somebody who doesn't know the country, somebody who's writing perhaps as a gentile at the end of the first century, which is what I was taught not even quite 50 years ago, would not have had all of this information, would not have known to be able to make everything fit together so perfectly.

Sean: Craig, I have one question for you. I've always just been interested in and going back and forth in my own mind about, and you talk about this being kind of a trend in Jesus' scholarship that's welcome, and it's kind of related to how much can we know about Jesus' psychological state? So for example, people have said, you know, Jesus might have been affected by being an illegitimate child in terms of his psyche and his worldview. How much do you think these questions we should explore and are even knowable, given, like you said earlier, that the modern kind of tradition of psychology wasn't even remotely invented yet when these books were written.

Craig: Yeah, that that is another fascinating trend to watch. And Albert Schweitzer, who was so influential at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century in historical Jesus research, basically, for most of the 20th century, he put an end to all kinds of psychologizing treatments of Jesus, just pointing out, we just don't have the information to make this possible. And yet, um, in the last quarter century or so, uh, there has been, uh, a revival. Uh, it's not a big part of, uh, scholarship, but there certainly are a handful of folks who are doing what is called psychological criticism. It certainly is more sophisticated than what was done a century ago. And there are some things like experiences of fatherlessness that transcend generations. You don't have to know anything about Freud to realize that somebody's going to have different life experience, um, without a biological father, um, that there are things about people who have adoptive parents or an adoptive parent that, uh, are true cross-culturally and over time. Um, and so, uh, I welcome, uh, cautious hypotheses of that nature, but, um, we have to realize that no matter how hard we try they are going to be very speculative and certainly don't want those to trump the actual information that we have in the Gospels.

Scott: Craig this has been so helpful to us. Thank you so much for coming on with us and I think I hope our listeners appreciate all the work that you've done throughout your academic career to establish and to help listeners cement and students cement their confidence in the Gospel accounts of the historical Jesus and your role in that. I want to recommend to our listeners, again, your book, Jesus the Purifier, subtitled John's Gospel, and the Fourth Quest for the Historical Jesus. If you want to do a deep, deep dive into the Gospel of John, this is a really great place to do that. And if you really want to understand the history of the research about the historical Jesus. There's some really helpful summary and sketch of that history in the book as well. So it's a— Craig, it's a really wonderful contribution. We're really grateful for that, and we want to commend that to our listeners.

Craig: Oh, you're very kind. Thank you.

Sean: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. This podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I teach in the Masters of Christian Apologetics program, and we explore questions like the very one we looked at in this podcast, so we would love to have you consider joining us. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your Podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. To submit questions or comments or make suggestions on issues you'd like us to cover or guests you'd like us to include, please email us at That’s, and as we can, we're gonna come on and even address some of these on future episodes. Thank you for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.