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Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? – Darrell Bock

Home » Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? – Darrell Bock

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Bock about the historical reliability of the Gospels, and he explores how to listen to what the Gospel writers are presenting instead of only looking for answers to predetermined questions.

Topics of conversation include:

  • How can we make sense of the discrepancies in the Gospels’ genealogies?
  • How do we answer historical questions associated with the birth of Jesus?
  • Why do Mark and John exclude the virgin birth from their accounts?
  • How do we explain the differences of order in the temptation narratives?
  • What are some helpful resources when it comes to questions about the historical reliability of the Gospels?

Dr. Darrell Bock serves as executive director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center and as senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Baker Academic, 2002), Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence (Eerdmans, 2010), and Luke, 2 volumes in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 1996). Dr. Bock holds a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen.

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Introduction (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

The Gospels ask us to believe some pretty remarkable things—that Jesus Christ, the Son of God was born of a virgin, that he lived a perfect life, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and that he was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and that he rose from the grave three days later to ascend to the Father 40 days after that. Billions of people across the globe and throughout time have banked their eternal life on this being true. It all comes down to the four portraits of Jesus’s life, what we call the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and whether or not we trust these four Gospels, written nearly 2000 years ago. Many people have sought to undermine the historicity of these Gospels, believing that if they can crack the foundation of history, the entire faith will crumble. A lot is at stake. With this question today, we have Dr. Darrell Bock, professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, to help us on the question of the historicity of the Gospels. Dr. Bock is a prolific author, including books like Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence, and a magisterial two-volume commentary on Luke with Baker Academic. Dr. Bock, thanks for joining us today.

Darrell Bock (01:31):

Yeah, it’s great to be with you, Brian.

Brian Arnold (01:33):

So Dr. Bock, typically we begin with one big question, and today that is: are the Gospels historically reliable? Again, there’s a lot of stuff at stake here. If we chip away at the historicity of the Gospels, then I think it leaves room to question the faith itself. So to get at this question, I kind of want to start where the Gospels begin, and that is with the genealogy. So Matthew begins with a genealogy; in Luke 3, we get a genealogy, and those have caused a little bit of controversy. So walk us through those genealogies and some of the places where people have raised the question of the historical reliability.

Darrell Bock (02:13):

Well, the issue tied to the genealogies is that they don’t entirely match. They…particularly when you get around the place where you’re dealing with the descent in the generation from David, the king, to Solomon, Matthew and Luke go in different directions. And what makes it hard is that they both look like they’re actually genealogies tied to Joseph. One of the old solutions was to say one was a genealogy tied to Mary and the other was the genealogy tied to Joseph. That looks hard, because the way in which they’re introduced makes it look more likely that we are dealing with Joseph. He’s the one who is named as you move through the genealogies. The difference, I think, may be subtle. And what I mean by that is, one may be the biological line of Joseph, and the other may be what I will call the legal line of Joseph.

Darrell Bock (03:10):

And what I mean by that is, that one gives the biological sequence, but there’s a curse on Jeconiah, one of the kings in one of the genealogical lists, that disqualifies him…from his descendants being of significance. And so one line includes that, and the other line doesn’t, and I think it has to do with the divergence that comes there. Now, another question that emerges is: well, what is a genealogy of Joseph doing in a discussion about Jesus when you have a virgin birth? And the answer to that question is that Jesus is still legally connected, and legally involved, and legally adopted, if you want to use that kind of terminology, by Joseph. It’s his family that he comes out of. So even though it’s not a biological father connection, it is a legal and sociological connection that’s of relevance.

Brian Arnold (04:06):

And it seems like the Gospel writers are trying to even accomplish a little bit of different things in their retelling of the genealogy. So Matthew, it’s important to get these 14 generations that are going on—kind of explain to us what Matthew’s doing there…because timeframe wise, it’d be hard to believe that those equal 14 generations as it goes through.

Darrell Bock (04:28):

Yeah, they don’t. It actually…if you take the genealogies and you lay them next to the genealogy in Chronicles and Genesis, from which they’re built, it’s clear that there have been generations that have been skipped. There’s a rhetorical move being made with that in Matthew. And that is, if you add up the numerical values of the consonants that make up the name David, which is the name for David in Hebrew, you’ve got dalet, which is in the fourth position, vav, which is in the sixth position and dalet, which is in the fourth position. When you add that up: four plus six plus four equals 14—you get your 14 generations. So really, what the genealogy in Matthew is screaming is: “there’s a connection to David here!” And of course, David is in the genealogy as well. And the Davidic promise of the Davidic line is part of the promise of where the Messiah is going to come from. So Matthew is playing off of that rhetorically in presenting the material and in stressing the fact that Jesus has connections to David.

Brian Arnold (05:28):

Which sets up the whole gospel then—

Darrell Bock (05:30):

Exactly.

Brian Arnold (05:30):

To show that he is the lineage of the Israelite King, and then moving into the Israelite connection, even with Moses, I think specifically in chapter two, moving into his baptism then and wilderness testing. Matthew’s doing something really particular and theological, and it’s beautiful when you see it like that. Some of those questions of the historicity begin to fade as the theological prominence comes forward. Not saying it’s not historical, but saying that Matthew’s got another aim in mind.

Darrell Bock (05:58):

Yeah. What I like to say, particularly in dealing with the infancy material, is that oftentimes our modernist apologetic questions get us kind of off the track in terms of what to deal with in terms of the message of these texts. For example, in the Lukan infancy material, which is a section that I love, the point that is being made out of that early section, which is functioning as like a musical overture to the entire Gospel, is that God keeps his word and he does it in his timing and in his way. So you get two unusual births: an old couple on the one hand, and of course, the virgin birth on the other. And in the midst of that, God’s going to keep his word. And even as the birth announcements are made, and in both cases there are questions that the birth announcement raises, because Zechariah says “I’m too old to have a child.”

Darrell Bock (06:45):

And Mary says, “I don’t have any sexual experience, so I can’t have a child.” In both cases, God says, you know, basically—”I’m doing what I’m doing, trust me in this.” And Zachariah goes through a little quiet time to sort that out for him. He goes silent until the baby’s born. And for Mary, basically when she says, “let it be to me according to your will, God,” the text praises her for being this exemplary believer who responds and trusts God’s Word—in God’s timing, and in God’s way, which actually is one of the messages of the infancy material: God’s program is happening in God’s timing and in God’s way, even if there’s some things in it you might not have expected.

Brian Arnold (07:27):

I think that’s a beautiful rendition of what’s happening, and seeing God’s providence over both of these kinds of areas signaling something major, significant is happening here with the birth of his Son. I want to stick with the birth narratives for just a moment, because those do seem to be one of the battlegrounds for the historicity of the gospel. So one of the other ones I think of is: Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem because of the census of Quirinius. And that seems to have raised some historical questions. Walk us through that.

Darrell Bock (07:58):

Yeah. Well, the issue is that in Josephus, who is the Jewish historian of the period from the land writing in the same century as all this happened, he notes the Quirinius census took place in AD 6. Now Jesus’s birth in the Gospels is associated with Herod the Great, and Herod the Great died in 4 BC. So, you know, just do the math. I won’t even get into the conversation about how the Christ can be born “Before the Christ.” That’s a whole other question, but I think the issue here is that a census like this in ancient times takes a lot of time to pull off—between the time you register and the time you actually execute it. You know, the ancient times are not like our times—they weren’t hooked up by the internet. Communication didn’t happen instantly. Rome is a little bit of distance from Israel.

Darrell Bock (08:50):

So all the administrative responsibility that it takes to pull that off, et cetera, I think you’re just functioning with something that took a lot of time, that became…that executed and carried itself out in terms of the results and became associated with the name of Quirinius. But the work to get there probably took much longer than that. And so that’s…I think you’re getting a summary. You know, I joke—we have a major highway that runs through Dallas. When I was in college at SMU, so this would have been almost 50 years ago, they were talking about expanding and doing this highway, because the highway was inadequate, even dealing with the traffic back then. It took them 30 years from the time they discussed it, laid out the plans, et cetera, to actually build it. So, you know, which mayor’s in place is the responsibility for doing that? Is it the one who planned it? Or is it the one who executed it? That’s a good question. I think we’re dealing with something similar on the census.

Brian Arnold (09:49):

I think that’s a helpful way to kind of bridge that gap. And even just going back to something you said earlier, one of the problems that we have, is we sometimes demand things out of the text that the ancients didn’t demand out of the text. So reading as modern readers, and we want this kind of scientific approach to everything, that they don’t feel the need to answer all the time.

Darrell Bock (10:10):

Well, in fact, what they are trying to communicate to us are not always the questions we have about the content that they’re communicating. We have concerns that are driven by the way we think about history, the way in which it’s normally written, those kinds of things. We don’t wrestle very much with multiple accounts on the same event and how they fit together, those kinds of questions. You’ve got a bias in more skeptical scholarship towards what’s called harmonization, of trying to account side-by-side and trying to figure out how they fit together when they don’t align, which actually is normal in the way people talk about events, because they each will remember selective things and things that are drawn related to their personalities and that kind of stuff. But they don’t want you to go in a direction of thinking about how might these two accounts fit together. Even though one author is concerned with one set of things and another author is concerned with another, they tend to make the equation— the difference equals contradiction, which is not automatic. And so there are just a lot of things going on when you’re discussing historicity of this material.

Brian Arnold (11:14):

I think that’s a huge shift for the modern reader to keep that kind of context in mind, as they approach the ancient documents and let them speak on their own accord.

Darrell Bock (11:25):

That’s right. And then to really do the good job of listening to what the writers actually are presenting, as opposed to the questions we might have about what’s going on. I often say to my students, when we’re dealing with the infancy material, you know, you need to redesign your creche, at Christmas, because normally we have the magi sitting there next to the shepherds, you know, with the baby in the manger, all put together. We put together Matthew and Mark in what I call gospel stew into one scene and just mix it together. Actually, what probably happened was the magi came a little bit later than the shepherds. They weren’t all there on the same night at the same time. And we think we know that because of the way in which the deaths of the babies in Bethlehem were handled, because all babies two years and under were slaughtered. Now some of that was because Herod wanted to be sure, but the other part of it is, is that it looks like it gives a timeline into which the birth falls, and that wasn’t the sense—that the birth was immediate.

Brian Arnold (12:23):

Yeah. And when I want to be like “theological nerd” around the house at Christmas time, and to teach my kids, they’re seven and nine, that…not discrepancy, but the reality that the magi come later, I’ll move them across the room to remind my kids they’re not there at the stable scene. They’re coming, though.

Darrell Bock (12:42):

Yeah. Our joke is that you just keep the creche up year round, you just have magi show up later.

Brian Arnold (12:48):

There you go. I like it. It gives you Christmas decorations longer. You got to say, we’re waiting for the magi to come—we’ll leave it up till March for the symbolism. I love it. I love it. Well, let me ask one more question about historicity, but particularly in what we find absent from Mark and John. So if the virgin birth is so important to the story of Christianity, why is it that Mark and John elide it altogether?

Darrell Bock (13:12):

Well, John elides it because he trumps it. He goes to the fact that the Word became flesh. So he’s thinking about the preexistent Jesus and Jesus—actually, this is one of the themes of John’s gospel—Jesus is the sent one, which means he’s the sent one from heaven. So he doesn’t deal with the virgin birth because he has Jesus there from the very beginning of the creation, you know: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” So he…if I can think of it this way, he’s the prequel and the story starts before the sequel did. And so that’s what he’s doing. Mark just seems to be a choice. He doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’s birth or anything about his background. He starts with John the Baptist. He is focused on what happened in the relevant ministry part and develops that.

Darrell Bock (14:03):

So he’s just made a different choice, and that choice precluded any effort to talk about anything related to Jesus in his infancy. Of course, one of the fascinating things about the Gospels, all of them, is you actually get very little about Jesus’s life outside the ministry that he has. I mean, in Luke, we get the infancy material, and in Matthew, we get the infancy material, and we get one scene when Jesus is 12 years old. And then it’s like, we go through this time warp, you know, from 12 to 30—18 years about which we know absolutely nothing about what took place.

Brian Arnold (14:35):

And that seems pretty common in ancient literature. I know a lot of people argue that the Gospels were like a greek bios, a biography, which begins with what made this person so significant. When I was writing my book on Cyprian, it was so frustrating because, Pontius, his biographer, only starts in the time of his conversion, because he said nothing else really mattered except for the second birth. And I know for me as a historian, I love…especially like presidential biography, and it’s the first third that’s the most interesting to me. I want to know what it was that led this person to be this great president that we know of. And I, as a historian, would love if the Gospels…if we had a whole one from Jesus’s birth up through the time of his public ministry. And yet, the Gospel writers just don’t want to satisfy our curiosity there.

Darrell Bock (15:21):

No, you’re exactly right. And, you know, we just have to take the cards that we’ve been dealt, and we have to understand that those cards are cards in which the ancient bios story is told. And the bios’s concern with what makes a person great, you know—”what did they do and what did they say?” And they’re not interested in the elements of modern biography, like “what’s the psychology, what background did he come from? How did he grow up?” Those kinds of questions are not important to ancient writers when they’re focused on what made a person significant. They aren’t thinking about the background. They just don’t think about it that way. They just think about “what did they do and what did they say?”

Brian Arnold (16:03):

Yep. Again, it’s the issue of our perspective. We want them to be modern historiographers, and they just simply aren’t, and they won’t satisfy the curiosity. Well, let’s move beyond kind of the Christmas stories and some of those challenges of historical reliability. Let’s look at some examples from the Gospels a little bit later on. I think of something like the temptation narratives, where in Matthew and Luke records the ordering of temptations, but Luke’s ordering is actually different than Matthew’s. And I know I had Dr. Jonathan Pennington for New Testament, and he said, “we always want to know what really happened on that dusty road one day in Israel.” And so, something happened; one of these orders took place. Help us untie this knot.

Darrell Bock (16:46):

Well, one of the things is that I’m not sure he was on a dusty road. He probably was in a wilderness spot, somewhere a long way from the dusty road, and quite hungry. But the answer to this question is, the ancient writers are sometimes more interested in what happened than in what order it happened. And I actually think if you compare Matthew and Luke to one another, my own view is that Luke is the one who’s responsible for the alteration of the order of the three temptations. You know, we have some people who are so committed to inerrancy they say, “well, there are actually six temptations, and each one told three, and they were in a different order.” I don’t go there. I much prefer the idea of no, there were three. And if you look, the tighter—how can I say this—temporal link words are in Matthew, than they are in Luke.

Darrell Bock (17:38):

Luke simply has “an” to connect these temptations to one another. And in Matthew, when you get to the end, the last thing, it says “and then.” Okay, so it actually uses a sequence word, an actual sequence word to do it. And the reason why Luke flips the order, is because he’s interested, in particular, in the temptation that involved the temple in Jerusalem, because the middle section of his Gospel is going to be about the journey to Jerusalem, where Jesus met his fate. And rather than testing God by doing what I call the great spiritual dive, “God protect me!” temptation, he actually followed out the will of God and went and put his care in God’s hands with regard to the death, and left the resurrection in God’s hands to revive him, and to be the vindication of what he’s done. And that’s so important to Luke, that he has made that the climactic temptation. Again, for rhetorical reasons. Sometimes the moves that are made are not because we’re interested in historical sequence, but because we’re interested in making a rhetorical or a theological point. That’s what Luke is doing.

Brian Arnold (18:41):

The theology…the richness of the temple in Luke acts as the pinnacle, if you will, of temptation. Just similar to what we talked about earlier with Matthew, doing something theological with the name, David, in writing out the generations. To allow these people to do things theologically that, you know, if we’re reading it straight “it must be historical and the way we want it to be” is not going to pan out.

Darrell Bock (19:05):

Yeah. I sometimes talk about the Gospels and say, there are three ways to deal with the way you can see the Gospels working. You can think about it as a photograph. You can think of it as a portrait. Or you can think about it as an abstract painting. Okay? And skeptics tend to think of it more as an abstract painting, and some conservatives think of it as a photo, but it actually is more of a portrait. We have four Gospels because we want to understand the depth of Jesus. When I get four angles on him versus one, that gives me depth. And the other thing a portrait does is it allows hues and nuance and things like that—that a photograph, generally speaking, doesn’t possess. And so I tend to equate the Gospels more with a portrait than with either a photograph or an abstract painting.

Brian Arnold (19:49):

I think that’s a really helpful way for us to think about the Gospels. And every time we confront this issue, to keep that in mind and then seek for answers. I mean, somebody like Augustine says, “If I find an issue in the gospel, first it might be me—it might be my lack of understanding—before I blame the text of scripture.” With that in mind though, I do want to ask you, because you’ve spent a lot of time in your life and career on this issue. What do you think is the hardest question for the historical reliability of the Gospels?

Darrell Bock (20:22):

Well, I think the challenge in the historical reliability of the Gospels, of course, is that we’re dealing with limited remains about everything that did happen. And we’re dealing with four different stories with four different sets of concerns that get put next to one another. And we are able to generate a lot of questions about what’s going on than those texts answer. And, also, we’re dealing with very limited evidence that’s coming from 2000 years ago. So all of that is part of the challenge. History, the technical work of history is actually reconstruction. You’re using your sources, and what we call your reality, your archeological finds, et cetera, to reconstruct what took place. And you’re dealing with only some of what did exist at one time. So it’s just the nature of pursuing ancient history that is the challenge that comes. And then it’s how you approach it. You know, you can take the view that difference equals contradiction, or you can ask how might the different angles that I have here actually fit together. And depending on how you come into that conversation, sometimes—often—does dictate what you see, in terms of the pieces that you do have.

Brian Arnold (21:33):

Well, is there a question though, in particular, that you have found, that’s hard even for you to untangle in the Gospels? Because I agree, I mean, the broader thing, and it requires some humility as we recognize we’re dealing with not tons of evidence. But is there any…

Darrell Bock (21:51):

There are several questions where I will say to someone, “there are two or three possibilities here about what might be going on, but I actually don’t know.” And there are…I mean, the whole sequence of what happened right after the resurrection and how that works. Particularly with the appearance of Jesus in the garden to Mary, and the fact that the initial announcement in John is they’ve taken the body and we don’t know where he’s gone, which seems odd if they’ve had a view of the angels and the open tomb, you know—why do you start there? I think you start there because that’s emotionally their initial reaction, until they met the angel and he interacted with them. But because you’re getting a selective presentation from each author—and my own view is that they start to tell their story in John, and John and Peter head out the door to go see if the tomb is empty. They actually don’t hang around to hear the women. They actually go to see what’s going on at the empty tomb for themselves. And John tells the story of his experience. And so he tells that story first. And then he goes back and collects how Mary knew that the Lord was alive, which is something he probably heard later.

Brian Arnold (23:02):

Well, I’m glad you went there, Dr. Bock, because it bookends this conversation well. It seems like a lot of the controversy surrounding historicity is in the birth narratives and then in the resurrection, which, obviously, are two major pillars of our faith: the virgin birth and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. So thank you for hitting on that. As we kind of wind down today, what are some helpful resources that you would point people to, who might have questions about the historical reliability of the gospel?

Darrell Bock (23:31):

Well, you’ve already noted one. There’s a book by Michael Licona on the resurrection that’s very good. I did a work: Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus. Now that’s an 800 page—how can I say that—”elephant” take on everything, gives you all the detail, hitting some things you never dreamed of asking. A simplified version of that is called Who Is Jesus, which goes through the same material at a popular level, but has less of the detail, and is really written for a more popular audience. Whereas the other book is a technical monograph that’s designed for anyone and everyone who works in the area.

Brian Arnold (24:04):

Fantastic. Thank you for those resources. I hope people go check those out if they have questions about these things. As we said at the very beginning, there’s a lot at stake in the question of the historicity of the Gospels. Jesus Christ, Son of God, crucified and risen, is found trustworthy based on these Gospels that have been with us for 2000 years. People like Dr. Bock, who have spent a career demonstrating the historical reliability of those, we are grateful to people like you and the work you do. So thanks for joining us today and answering some of these questions.

Darrell Bock (24:33):

My pleasure. Anytime.

Outro (24:36):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.

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