The Early Date of Mark’s Gospel

In seminary we had to study modern Biblical scholarship, and one of my great blessings was that at Bob Jones I learned to be skeptical of the fundamentalists, but at Oxford I learned to be skeptical of the modernists.

Both groups seemed to me to be like two madmen strapped back to back. Both the fundamentalists with their total rejection of modern scholarship and the modernists who seemed to scorn every traditional understanding of the Scriptures on principle, were unreasonable.

One of the most commonly held conclusions from modern New Testament scholarship is that the gospels of Mark is the earliest gospel to have been written and that Luke and Matthew draw on Mark (and an earlier supposed document named ‘Q’) for their source material.  If you check out Wiki you will see an article that says most scholars believe Mark to have been written in the second half of the first century by an unknown Christian.

However what very few people realize is that this comparatively late date for Mark’s gospel is suggested almost entirely by the foundational assumption that Jesus could not have prophesied the future. It works like this: in the gospel Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was indeed destroyed in 70 AD. The scholars read the prediction of the temple being destroyed and assume that it indicates knowledge of the destruction of the temple which took place in 70 AD therefore the document in question could not have been written before 70 AD.

The problem with this is that it assumes that Jesus could not have predicted the future. Read more.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    I don’t find the “Mark wrote Mark” argument very compelling. I’ve recently written my own article on the subject, but in brief, I find the claim of Markan authorship plus the claim that the author was documenting the story of an eyewitness to be quite flimsy. Sure, it could’ve happened, but that’s not much to use as a foundation for a supernatural story.

    There’s a story going around that Mark is an eyewitness account, and that’s documented 60 years afterwards by Papias. We know this because of what Eusebius wrote 200 years later. There were lots of copyists in the picture (not necessarily as reliable as a photocopier), and Eusebius didn’t think much of Papias. And historians don’t think much of Eusebius. Pretty flimsy.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I wonder whether you read my whole post. The tradition from Papias from Egypt recorded by Eusebius 200 years later is corroborated by that of Irenaeus–writing in Gaul around 160. This witness is independent of Papias and pre dates Eusebius. Also pre-dating Eusebius and independent of Papias is the witness of Justin Martyr and Tertullian. The New Testament evidence shows that Peter knew Mark and was his companion in Rome, and the early (and universal) witness supports the tradition that the gospel was written by Mark. Also, there is no evidence anywhere or at anytime that suggests that anyone other than Mark is the gospel writer. If there was some doubt in the early church or some other person suggested I would love to hear the evidence. That being the case I think the burden of proof must fall on those who wish to prove that someone else was the author.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I have read your article. For your argument to stand you would have to completely dismiss not only Eusebius and Papias, but Irenaeus, Tertullian, the Muratorian Canon and Justin Martyr. Can you provide any reputable scholarly sources who do so? Furthermore, can you provide any evidence from the first five centuries of the church that shows there is any doubt about Marcan authorship of the second gospel? There was plenty of controversy over the date and authorship of other, late apocryphal gospels. If Mark was unreliable why is there no early debate about the question? Finally, if Mark is by an anonymous Christian who chose to increase his credentials by using ‘Mark’ as a pen name why would he choose a second string person like Mark and not put the name ‘Peter’ on the document?

      • PJ

        “There was plenty of controversy over the date and authorship of other, late apocryphal gospels. ”

        Not only apocryphal gospels, but also Hebrews, some of the catholic epistles, and the Revelation of John. The church fathers did not accept texts willy-nilly. They subjected them to criticism and investigation. They were, by and large, highly educated and intelligent men. Indeed, I imagine most of them would put to shame the average American in the liberal arts field.

  • RMT

    “two madmen strapped back to back”

    Hmmm… Seems like a very Dante-esque punishment.

  • Sue Korlan

    I have always wondered whether it might not have been possible that when Paul and Barnabas took Mark with them on their first journey, they discovered that many fewer people had heard of who Jesus was. None of the three of them would appear to have been Jesus’s disciples. They might have had a sayings collection, but it might have been helpful to have been able to provide the people, whom they were converting and then leaving, with a story of Jesus’s life. If so, I have always thought it possible that the reason Mark left them was to go to Jerusalem and have members of the community there who had followed Jesus for years help him write a brief biography of Jesus that gave the essentials showing why His life was important.

    But I would also add that I was taught at the graduate level at Notre Dame that Mark was written, possibly by Mark and maybe by someone else, at around the time of Nero’s persecution when the first generation was beginning to die because Jesus hadn’t come back as soon as they had thought so they had better write down His life for the next generation.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Read my whole post if you have not to understand the arguments for Mark’s being the author. Also, we know from Acts that John Mark was already part of the Jerusalem community. When Peter was released from jail he went to John Mark’s mother’s house.

  • Mary Irving

    The Fathers of the Church agreed that Matthew’s Gospel was the first. Why would anyone think that Matthew and Luke copied from Mark? Matthew was an eyewitness. He didn’t need Mark.

  • JennE

    So Matthew came before Mark? Mark before Matthew? And this “Q” thing has got me wanting to know where I can get more teeth into this. I read this quickly, including the link to more info. Thank you for stirring up more desire for knowledge on this. I didn’t realize there was such debate (if there is) on the authorship! This time I will have to make sure dinner is done before I go making more notes on this. Briefly, THANKS!!

  • Tomtom

    The “Q” hypothesis seems to hold up as you read a Synopsis. But did St. Paul follow “Q” or did he have another source? He was a yeshiva student, but did he put his letters together before St. Mark’s gospel hit the parchment?
    Regards to all.

  • Nathan

    I find the underlying assumptions for both the priority of Mark and “Q” to be very, very weak. Neither idea is present, in the least, in the early Church, a shocking silence considering how contentious the early Church was. Is it really likely no one bothered to keep (or even allude to) a document as important as “Q”? The underlying assumption for Mark writing before Matthew is that Mark is simpler than Matthew and we all know simple things evolve into more complex things, right? Of course, it is very possible that Matthew wrote first and in greater detail for any number of reasons. “Q” assumes someone must have recorded the teachings of the great teacher, Jesus, without bothering to write down all those pesky miracles. I, at least, find it hard to image recording the Sermon on the Mount (as much as I love it) and leaving out the walking on the the water, the healings, and the raising of the dead. At bottom, both are founded on the basic (unproven) assumption that Jesus isn’t God – so He must have been just a teacher whose sayings were collected sans miracles and Mark must have written first, before Matthew and Luke started to add more (false) miracles into the story. Then, armed with “Q” and Marcan priority, the same scholars “disprove” that Jesus was God, it turns out (they say) he was just a teacher and the story developed from there. Of course they are begging the question and the whole project collapses with the slightest touch of logic, but who uses logic anymore? I can’t think of another “science” where “scholars” make the evidence fit the theory, instead of vice-versa.

    • PJ

      “I find the underlying assumptions for both the priority of Mark and “Q” to be very, very weak. Neither idea is present, in the least, in the early Church, a shocking silence considering how contentious the early Church was”

      Indeed. As I said at the top of the thread, people often imagine the early churchmen as ignorant fanatics who created the canon in a state of panic. On the contrary, they were learned scholars attuned to the nuance of text and interested in the details of history. Origen, despite his heretical leanings, remains one of the most brilliant Biblical scholars and textual critics to this day. And, to top it all off, these men had the added advantages of temporal proximity to the events and immersion in a shared culture. There is much to learn from modern Scriptural science, but is there really a choice when it comes down to Chrysostom or Kung, Augustine or Ehrman?

  • Ben W

    I’m always intrigued by allegations of biases against the paranormal. Yes, historians ought to rule out the possibility that Jesus predicted the future. Why? Because predictive prophecy runs contrary to our best understanding of how the world works.

    That’s why we don’t think the Phoenix (mentioned by Herodotus, 1 Clement, and Ovid) really existed. It’s not that it’s impossible for a bird to have a 500-year asexual life cycle and a strange preference for ancient spices, but nevertheless that contradicts our best understanding of how the world works, and so we rule it out from the get-go. It doesn’t matter that the phoenix is multiply attested by ostensibly independent sources. Ancient testimony is just far too weak a sort of evidence to make a dent in our understanding of modern biology.

    Well, the same goes for predictive prophecy. We have a mountain of evidence that people cannot predict the future. If you’re going to suggest that Jesus had this remarkable power, you’re going to need a LOT more than just a bunch of anonymous ancient testimony for evidence. Indeed, trying to prove the paranormal with ancient testimony is a bit like trying to lift a cinderblock with a pair of toothpicks—they just aren’t strong enough to do the job.

    On the other hand, it is reasonable to suggest that maybe the so-called prophecy was just a lucky coincidence. After all, it’s not as if “this building will be torn down someday” is a particularly bold prediction. So, I do agree that the second Gospel may have well have been written earlier than 70 CE, even though I think *probably* it was written after. Also, even if it was written after 70, it may still have been written by Mark, and indeed he may really have been a companion of Peter.

    Then again, maybe not. Who knows? I appreciate that the earliest Christian authors seemed to agree that Mark really did write Mark, and that he really was a companion of Peter—well, the orthodox ones, anyway. But early Christians had a lot of wacky opinions. Irenaeus, for instance, supported his case for the canonicity of the Gospels by appealing to something like numerology: he argued that since there are four winds, and four corners of the earth, then there must likewise be precisely four canonical Gospels. Case closed, right? So given the quality of their reasoning, not to mention the biases they expressed, it’s hard to take their testimony very seriously. Oh, and let’s not forget that these authors all wrote decades after Mark had died.

    Moreover, it seems to me that the external evidence places the second Gospel in the late 60s anyway. Namely, Irenaeus states that it was composed after the deaths of Peter and Paul. It is thought that they died in 67 CE, so this only pushes back the cutoff date for Mark by three years.

    Of course, there are other arguments for an early date which do not depend on the undependable Irenaeus & Co. For example, NT scholar James Crossley argues for a date in the late 30s or early 40s, all based on internal evidence. However, I haven’t read his book, so I can’t really comment on the quality of his evidence. I can only say that from what I’ve seen so far, a later date looks more likely to me. But then, I’m no Biblical scholar.

    • MarylandBill

      I think the basic bias inherent in your argument is revealed by your choice of words. When you say “best understanding”, you are making a value judgement about a particular way of understanding the world. The “best understanding” is of course, the understanding that gets us closest to the truth. It is, of course, the conceit of every age to believe that their understanding of the world is the best one. Of course over the course of time, particular world views (i.e., ways of interpreting the world) often get over turned.

      Our current age has adopted a scientific world view that is so strong it all but excludes any other way of looking at the world. Therefore, if something occurs that stretches beyond the realm of the natural sciences to explain, it is far easier to simply claim that such an event never happened than to accept the fact that there are some things that our current “best understanding” is incapable of explaining.

      You claim that there is a mountain of evidence that shows that people cannot predict the future (are you referring to the evening weather forecast BTW?). Yet, I bet if we look at that evidence, what we see is that it shows that some people who have made predictions have turned out to be wrong… and others cannot predict the future in laboratory controlled conditions. Yet when God gives the gift of prophecy, it is not done in such testable methods.

  • Glenn Juday

    I believe that Fr. Longenecker’s main point is that the Gospel of Mark, currently believed by scholarly majority opinion to have been written first, is easily datable to an early enough time to have been the product of eyewitnesses. Given the culture and history of the region they came from, there is little doubt that the Gospels would have been the subject of violent objections if eyewitnesses were around who were available to compare invented mythologies to their own clear memories. Yet no such outbursts are recorded. In that part of the world, that silence says a lot – as long as the Gospels were circulating, as they certainly were.

    However, I personally am not convinced by the exclusively interpretive (not actually textual) case for Markan priority. And by any fair standard the “Q” hypothesis cannot be taken seriously unless it gets some actual evidence behind it, which it has failed to do for over a century. The Markan priority/Q hypotheses, certainly worth entertaining as hypotheses, were adopted relatively early in their existence in the modern era as a great one-two punch to the credibility of the supernatural and miraculous at the heart of Christian Faith. Still, this disreputable and mendacious association, is not, per se, a reason to reject them. But the counter indications are very substantial, in my opinion.

    Beyond any specific, technical points, there are two strong elements of a meta narrative to consider. First, the credible and majority witness and tradition of the early Church placed Matthew first. This fact can’t be lightly dismissed, especially if this source is invoked to bolster the case for the acceptance of the Gospels themselves. Second is the logic of the trajectory of the development of the Faith itself. Matthew is clearly written for a Jewish and Jewish Christian audience. He presumes knowledge in his readership of the living culture of diverse first century Judaism. His narrative invokes point after point, symbol after symbol as evidence, not of contradiction of Judaism per se, but of fulfillment at a higher level. This involves both long awaited messianic themes and symbols, and some that while surprising to those who heard Jesus, still quickly connected with Jews as both logical and appropriate. Now, the key point is that addressing Jews first is the order of exposition and proclamation of the Faith that Jesus Himself ordered the Apostles to follow. Oral aids would have been typical ( e.g. the canticles of Zechariah and Mary) but what was more distinctive in the Jewish tradition than writing down testimony to the action of God among His people under Divine inspiration? Are we to believe that the recognition of the need for the written form never occurred to the Judeo Christians, and that only decades and decades later when the sources were safely out of the scene was quill applied to parchment or papyrus?

    If such an unlikely extended period of sloth did not occur, then a Matthew Gospel or prototype was circulating. The, it is easy enough to see that after the great revolutionary decision (described as such in the New Testament) to let gentiles into the Church an edited form of an extant Jewish -oriented gospel was needed. To have maximum effect for its intended audience it would have to be stripped of excessive Jewish religious and cultural detail and allusion, and preserve only as much as the new audience could absorb about this, to them, somewhat exotic religion. This attitude is seen in the govern style of Pontus Pilate. For maximum effect on a Roman Empire audience formed under the pragmatic, empirically oriented Greco-Roman culture, the miracle stories would best be edited down and focused on the essential points of the Faith. Finally the “bottom line” transactional nature of the Roman culture would argue for a fast-paced presentation. All these approaches are the hallmarks of Mark’s Gospel. In my personal opinion, this argues not that Mark was a foundational, early, and primitive source that the other evangelists added to, but the opposite – that Mark pared down and tailored the presentation of the Gospel of Mark for a specific effect.

    Of course, neither viewpoint (Mark first or Matthew first) is an essential matter of faith. So in good conscience we can build the interpretive cases and go back and forth in the proper spirit while seeking a resolution, and in doing so deepen our understanding. It is ironic that this characteristic respect for the intellect, logic, proper use of reason etc. even on a matter near the core of the Catholic Faith is one of our great traditions, and is exactly the opposite of the cramped, dogmatic, narrow mindedness that atheists accuse us of – and a contrast to their own accusatory tactics and frequent close mindedness.

    I could go on with more examples of how this all comes together in language, history, material culture and evidence in harmony with the text, but all of us commenters can thank Fr. Longenecker for bringing up the subject and presenting the interesting, informative, and useful post that launched this thread.

  • Ben W

    Glenn Juday,

    Well Fr. Longenecker thinks it was written by John Mark, right? But John Mark was a later companion of Peter, not an eyewitness to the events recorded in the Gospel which bears his name.

    I’m also concerned about what you wrote here:

    “Given the culture and history of the region they came from, there is little doubt that the Gospels would have been the subject of violent objections if eyewitnesses were around who were available to compare invented mythologies to their own clear memories. Yet no such outbursts are recorded. In that part of the world, that silence says a lot – as long as the Gospels were circulating, as they certainly were.”

    I disagree with just about everything in the above quotation. I don’t think we are in any position to say how the eyewitnesses would have responded or declined to respond to false reports about themselves and/or Jesus. We certainly have no reason to think they would have risen up to commit violent acts against the authors or their readers.

    Moreover, even if such things actually did occur, why should we expect them to have been recorded? It’s not as if there were newsreporters running around publishing every violent outburst. And especially if the reaction was nonviolent, contemporaries may not have found it interesting enough to record. Or maybe it was recorded, but not transmitted down through history.

    Finally, it seems obvious to me that there were plenty of early Christians who rejected the Gospel of Mark, apparently but not necessarily for theological reasons. Take Marcion, for example. He seems to have been relatively well-informed, and yet he rejected the canonicity of Mark. I know that Christians often assume he did this for purely theological reasons, but how do we really know? Perhaps he rejected it in part because he doubted that Mark actually wrote it. Or maybe it was because he knew something about John Mark that we don’t know.

    Of course, this is all speculation. We just don’t know what happened back then, and so maybe Mark really was a companion of Peter who wrote his Gospel between 67-70. But that ignorance cuts both ways—that is to say, it could be the case that Mark had nothing to do with the Gospel which bears his name, and that the later tradition caught on because it was more palatable to the proto-orthodox than accepting the author’s anonymity. Without more evidence, we may never know the answer.

  • Chris O.

    Here’s standing on your head on this one:

    The Pontifical Biblical Commission (back when it had authority) lay upon us the obligation to subscribe to Matthean priority, and no Q. However, we are allowed to believe that perhaps Matthew in Hebrew was the original source (aka Q), which we have lost entirely, and then Mark was wrote, and then a Greek Matthew.

    I realize it is slightly off subject– great apologia for an earlier dating of Mark, Father– but I find the whole synoptic problem a very interesting diversion, so thought I would share!

  • Dan O’Sullivan

    Re: An earlier Mark.
    It never fails to startle that the post 70 AD dating of Mark’s Gospel relies solely on a 19th C. naturalist prejudice: predictive prophesy is impossible.

    On redating and the synoptic problem:
    Are you familiar with the modified “Griesbach Hypothesis” developed by Bernard Orchard, William R. Farmer, David Laird Dungan, and brought into the mainstream by C. S. Mann in his Anchor Bible: Mark ?

    Briefly, in contrast to the original, the modified hypothesis accepts the established scholarly opinion that Matthew and and Luke wrote independently of each other but departs from it in claiming that their gospels were written quite early and before Mark’s. St. Mark possibly intended to use these gospels in parallel to align them with Peter’s preaching, “fleshing out” St. Peter’s words, as it were, thus mutually enhancing each one’s authoritative witness.

    What gives this new synoptic theory so much plausibility is a curious fact that Orchard first noticed. In the conventional 2 document hypothesis Matthew and Luke are writing their gospels independently of one another, primarily following either Mk. or “Q” as their sources. Yet whenever one of them switches from Mk. to “Q” the other one, inexplicably, starts following the Markan narrative and vice versa. This anomaly disappears if Mark is the one alternating his sources. You can see this graphically illustrated in Orchard’s synoptic table of the entire texts of the gospels.

    The very liberal J.A.T. Robinson has forcefully shown how early (50′s) John’s Gospel could have been written.

    Finally, David Laird Duncan uncovers the rationalist anti-Christian roots of the Higher Criticism, stretching back as far as Spinoza and reaching its apogee in the Bismarck era of the German University with its political anti-Catholicm that translated into a hostility towards the primacy of Matthew, the “Church’s Gospel,” both liturgically and as the standard apologetic source.

  • Glenn Juday

    The foundation and spread of the early Church caused multiple and continuing controversies. The followers of John the Baptist did not even know that there was another baptism (into new, full Christian life) than the baptism of repentance they were familiar with. The Judaizers insisted that the Jewish ritual law be maintained for all in the Church, and they objected to gentiles being included in the Church. That division threatened to tear the Church apart at it beginning.

    Some zealous Jews took a vow not to eat anything until they had killed Saul/Paul (Acts 23:14). We even have extra-Biblical evidence that the proclamation of the Christian message caused the perfectly predictable reaction within the Jewish community. The Emperor Claudius (reigned A.D. 41 – 54) was reported by Suetonius in his Claudius (25.4) to have temporarily expelled the Jews of Rome because of the controversies dividing the community: “Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit.” (Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.).

    But is striking to me that among the controversies at the origin of the Church there is not one containing angry testimony from the numerous eyewitnesses claiming, in effect, “No, you are making up this Nazarene Jesus character and what he taught!” This is especially impressive because there were obviously folks who wished to discredit this new movement in the most extreme way, and there were thousands of eyewitnesses to the life and times of Jesus and the events immediately after the Crucifixion.

    So, I think it is reasonable for us to say how the eyewitnesses would have responded or declined to respond to false reports about themselves and/or Jesus, and we do have reason to think they would have risen up to commit violent acts against the authors of what to them would have been the supreme outrage. Conclusive proof? No. Congruent? Very. Make of it what you will.

    Peter moved his headship and leadership of the emerging Church. Obviously he first operated his ministry in the Holy Land, as Acts of Apostles tells us. Then, when the concerted attempt to murder him and others leaders of the early Church drove them out of Jerusalem at about A.D. 42, he set up operations in Antioch for a ministry in the East, apparently occasionally going in and out of Jerusalem. Finally, he set up operations in Rome, and was martyred there. Producing a basic written account for use in this ministry in Rome and across the Greco-Roman world would make sense. But which would the early Church have needed first – the Jewish oriented Gospel of Matthew, or the Greco-Roman oriented Gospel of Mark?

    Eusebius quotes Papias (who derived his information from the presbyters who heard the apostles) as saying, “Matthew, indeed, composed the sayings in the Hebrew language; and each interpreted them to the best of his ability.” Saint Irenaeus, one of the most important theologians of the second century, wrote in his Adversus haereses, “Matthew also issued among the Hebrews a written Gospel in their own language, while Peter and Paul were evangelizing in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church.” So it is entirely plausible that the Gospel of Matthew was composed first and may have been transmitted orally initially at least in part, or alternatively may have been written in Aramaic (or even less likely in Hebrew) from the beginning.

    Plausibly, once a written Matthew was available it may have been consulted as an aide memoire by Mark as he compiled pieces of Peter’s teachings and recollections, edited as they were for the gentile Greco-Roman world, into koine Greek text. Before, during, or after this exercise, the translation and codification of Matthew into koine Greek could have happened. If so, the facts would represent less of a hard and distinct origin of the two Gospels, but more of a blended origin than two absolutely separate manuscripts. In this somewhat restricted sense, source “Q” would finally be discovered to be the apostles, witnesses, and the Virgin Mary themselves.

    Still, the Faith does not require us to adhere to any of these particular conclusions of the pathway or the origin of the Gospels, simply that they are reliable and true and meant to help us achieve our salvation.

  • Billy Miller

    It seems that all the above are presenting compelling evidence for their point of view. Compelling, yet not convincing. Therefore, to believe in the traditional authorship of the Gospel, based on faith and long years of tradition, is as valid a position as any out there. I stand on my belief that Mark wrote Mark, Matthew wrote Matthew, Luke wrote Luke, and, of course, Ignatius and Polycarp wrote John…..

  • Nathan

    The notion that we have a mountain of (natural) evidence precluding any miracle (including prophecy) is just puerile. Obviously, miraculous happenings don’t happen naturally – that much is included in the definition of miracle. To then leap to “miracles can’t happen,” requires proving (not assuming) atheism. Instead we get something like the following:
    1) Miracles can’t happen
    2) Jesus predicted the future (a miracle) so
    3) The whole thing must be made up (and at some late time) therefore
    4) the evidence of miracles in the NT is dismissed

    But this is arguing in a circle and begging the question, which is invalid (and silly).

    I’m reminded of the Professor from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe crying out “Logic! Why don’t they teach logic in these schools.”

    Historians deal with ancient evidence and follow the leads thereof, they do not (as a matter of method) come to a philosophical conclusion (naturalism in this case) and then reject all evidence to the contrary only to cry out, “not enough evidence!” That is akin to Hitler deciding the Greeks were all Aryans because only Aryans (in his view) could create great culture. When shown the incontrovertible evidence that Greeks are not and never were Aryan, Hitler throws out the evidence b/c only Aryans can create great cultures. The same game is being played here, the evidence is rejected not b/c it is untrustworthy, but b/c it refutes the philosophy of the rejector. Which brings us back to Father’s wonderful image of the Fundamentalist and the Modernist strapped back to back, both demanding their view of the world be accepted BEFORE examining the evidence, then “fudging” the evidence to “prove” their theory. Sadly, this passes for intellectual discourse. “Why don’t they teach logic in these schools?”

  • Craig

    Nailed it Father. All of the 20th cent. historical-critical school was formally begging the question by assuming that since Jesus predicted the collapse of the Temple, it must have been written after.

    There is a solid tradition of the historical ordering being Matt, Mark, Luke, and then John.

  • Glenn Juday

    There is a telling detail in the form of a casual use of verb tense in John’s Gospel that I believe makes its composition presumptively before 70 A.D.

    The first half of the Chapter 4 of the Gospel of John Chapter is a sophisticated and multifaceted interplay of symbols, allegories, and concepts having to do with living water, presented in deceptively simple language. The two pools of Bethesda, just north of the Temple, as confirmed by recent archeological work, were a major facility to achieve ritual purity. The site contains a northern pool (furthest up the ancient ravine), and a southern pool (downstream and closest to the Temple). The southern pool was a mikveh – a pool used in Judaism for water immersion to achieve ritual purity. The northern pool was an otzer, (literally, “storehouse”) a kind of reserve pool. According to Jewish ritual purity law: “Most forms of impurity can be nullified through immersion in any natural collection of water. Some, such as a Zav, however require “living water,” [flowing water, or in Greek, “zoe” water] such as springs or groundwater wells. Living water has the further advantage of being able to purify even while flowing as opposed to rainwater which must be stationary in order to purify. The mikveh is designed to simplify this requirement, by providing a bathing facility that remains in ritual contact with a natural source of water.”

    It seems apparent that John assumes that the reader would have the understanding of the mikveh system of a Jew from late Second Temple times (the first century A.D.). The belief in Jerusalem, of long standing by the late Roman or Second Temple period, was that the Sheep Pool or Pool of Bethesda would be visited daily by an angel, who would stir the still waters into ripples. The schedule of the angel’s daily visit was not predictable, but the first person to touch the water after it had been stirred (“troubled”), would be healed. The Gospel of John recalls an incident of healing there:

    “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-za’tha [Bethesda], which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.” (John 5: 2-9)

    The way the early Church Fathers interpreted it, the miracle was also an analogy to the spiritual life of the believer. The believer seeks health and healing in the spiritual realm. But, being crippled by sin, believers are unable on their own power to move forward to receive what the Divine offers. Even the impulse to pull oneself toward the metaphorical place where healing can take place is crowded out (“…while I am going another steps down before me.”) by the desires and cares of the world. But at the invitation of the Divine healer (‘Do you want to be healed?’ – seemingly a redundant question to direct at someone who has been there for thirty-eight years), the recognition of the need for help allows the healing to take place. Thirty-eight years was the length of time that Israel spent in the wilderness after receiving the law at Sinai (Deuteronomy 2:14), invoking the promise of deliverance out of slavery, with the application in this incident of slavery to sin.

    John also appears to assume that any reader would know that all Jews would be expected to be ritually purified for the great feast of Passover (in Hebrew: “Pesach;” also known as Hag Ha Aviv “Festival of Spring”). This obligation to keep the feast in proper form played a role in the “endgame” of the authorities who were seeking to arrest the Nazorean Jesus:

    “Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover, to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? That he will not come to the feast?’ Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if any one knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” (John 11:55)

    In any case, the reference in the Gospel of John to five porticos is consistent with the archeological discovery of the site at that period. The excavated first century mikveh contains two slightly irregular quadrangular pools surrounded by remains of columns and covered porticos, with a central portico dividing the two, and so the four 4 perimeter porticos plus the central portico do in fact make five porticos as John says. The reference in John’s Gospel, generally conceded to be the last of the four gospels to be written, to the existence of the Sheep Pool in the present tense is particularly notable.

    The Pools of Bethesda were along the main axis of attack by the Imperial Roman Legions in 70 A.D. Any structures on the north perimeter of Jerusalem, especially those near the Temple where resistance was fiercest, were torn down or filled by the Romans during the campaign against Jerusalem as a matter of military expediency. And in the aftermath of the campaign, of course, the entire city was systematically destroyed – all of it.

    So the casual use of the present tense in reference to the Sheep Pool with an accurate description of its features that were subsequently obliterated and the entire population of over a million Jews who were residents or visitors killed or sold into slavery, appears to set an upper limit on the date of the production of the Gospel of John. After 70 A.D. there was nothing that would be described in the present tense in Jerusalem, those most familiar with it were dead, and Jews were banned from living there so that even inherited knowledge died out.

    Of course this is one more indication, if this limiting date is correct, that John and all the earlier Gospels were written by eyewitnesses to the events described, and their accounts circulated to audiences among whom for many the events were within living memory. I personally find an earlier dating more congruent with the lived reality of the time, rather than late dating based on inference exclusively from word analysis. While late dating of John’s Gospel (post- 70 A.D.) is theoretically allowable to those who adhere to the Catholic Faith, I find it quite unlikely and certainly unnecessary.

  • Michael

    Father, when you say: “It works like this: in the gospel Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.”, are you contributing this prediction to the Gospel of Matthew or Mark. It is my understanding that this prediction was made in Matthew which is why “scholars” place Matthew after Mark. Can you please clarify for me? Thanks.


  • Walt J.

    I appreciate your post. A couple years ago I ran across a web site that has a rather lengthy and apparently scholarly essay on precisely this topic. It strongly pointed to Luke as being the earlier writing. The site is, btw, of British origin. link: