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Rules of Thumb for Reconstructing the History behind the Gospels

In yesterday’s post I laid out the “wish list” historians have when it comes to sources of information about persons and events of the past, and evaluated how well the Gospels stack up against the list.  Now I want to move into the kinds of criteria biblical scholars use when trying to extract historical information from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, criteria made necessary by the fact that the Gospel writers were not trying to write objective historical narratives of what really happened, so much as trying to “proclaim the good news” of the salvation brought by Jesus.  These Gospels were not meant to be providing history lessons per se.  But nonetheless, they do contain historical information.  If we want to learn that information, how do we proceed?

Here is how I explain the beginning point in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet.




Using Our Sources: Some of the Basic Rules of Thumb

Before elaborating on some specific criteria that scholars have devised, let me say something about a few very basic methodological principles that most historians would agree should be applied to our sources.


The Earlier the Better

In general, historical sources closest to an event have a greater likelihood of being accurate than those at a further remove.  This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course – sometimes …

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An Important Criterion for Establishing What Actually Happened
The Historian’s Wish List



  1. Avatar
    Hormiga  July 25, 2018

    It’s a little late, but I just came across this story describing how the SETI(*) community also needs rules of thumb and guidelines for evaluating evidence.


    If I squint and look at the questions for evaluating credibility at a certain angle, I can kind of see points of contact with the ones you’ve been discussing for text criticism:

    Seven questions address how much credence a given report should get:
    How much uncertainty is there about whether the phenomenon actually occurred?
    How amenable to study is the phenomenon?
    Is the discoverer of the phenomenon the same entity that predicted such a phenomenon would indicate the presence of alien intelligence?
    Does the phenomenon look like a known instrumental or psychological effect?
    What do the builders of the detecting instrument, or the experts on the detection method, say about the phenomenon?
    Is there a good reason to think the phenomenon is a hoax?
    How does a wide community of experts assess the probability that there’s a natural or human-related cause for the phenomenon?

    (*)Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

  2. Avatar
    prestonp  July 28, 2018

    “Over the course of Christian history, probably the most religiously significant and theologically powerful account of Jesus’ life has been the Gospel of John. John says things about Jesus found nowhere else in Scripture: only here, for example, is Jesus identified as the “Word” that was from the beginning of all time, who was with God and who was God, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us” Bart

    The Epistle First John Chapter One: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.”

    Bart is incorrect. The Gospel of John is not the unique source he says it is. Error #1.

    Not only does this epistle describe Jesus in the same terms as the Gospel of John, both indicate that the authors were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus Christ.

    “These are powerful theological statements. But if they were actually said by Jesus, the historian might ask, why do they never occur in sources that were written earlier than John? Nothing like them can be found in Mark, Q, M, or L – let alone Paul or Josephus.”

    Error # 2: The author of the Epistle First John highlights the same theologically significant points. Bart says nowhere else in Scripture are these things mentioned.

    According to the very standards Bart employs to measure the value of ancient documents, the Gospel of John qualifies for redesignation. It must be upgraded to a significantly higher and much more reliable and credible, historically important classification.

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