Dating the Gospels: Harder than You Might Think

Dating the Gospels: Harder than You Might Think December 21, 2015

Dating the gospelsChristian apologists are eager to date the gospels as early as possible to minimize the period of oral history. Less time for oral history means less time for legends to develop, and this points to a more reliable gospel message.

I must confess that the conservative calculations sound reasonable in parts. This thinking places at least some of the gospels well before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. I’ll use a post from Jim Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity blog to represent this argument.

  1. First note that the destruction of the Temple isn’t mentioned anywhere in the New Testament, but Matthew 24:1–3 has Jesus predicting it. Matthew likes to write about fulfilled prophecies (Jesus was born of a virgin, as foretold in Isaiah, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as foretold in Micah, and so on). If Matthew was written after the destruction of the temple, how could Matthew resist bragging about yet another fulfilled prophecy?
  2. The destruction of the Temple was just one event during the First Jewish-Roman War (66–73 CE). Josephus claims that 1.1 million people were killed during the destruction of Jerusalem. This war is also not mentioned.
  3. Before that are the deaths of Peter (65 CE), Paul (67), and James (62 or 69), also not mentioned. The last half of Acts is a diary of Paul’s activities, ending with his house arrest in Rome. If Paul had already been martyred, wouldn’t that story be both powerful and relevant? Acts must precede these deaths, and Wallace dates it at 57–60 CE.
  4. Evidence for an early authorship of Luke is this verse from Paul’s epistle of 1 Timothy: “The Scripture says … ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (1 Tim. 5:18), which quotes Luke 10:7. Wallace gives 53–57 for the authorship of 1 Timothy. Scholars agree that Luke preceded Acts, and Wallace gives 50–53 for Luke.
  5. But Luke wasn’t the first gospel—that was Mark. Luke plagiarizes heavily from Mark, and Wallace gives 45–50 for Mark.

With Mark written in 50 or before, we’re less than twenty years from the traditional death of Jesus in around 30.

Another look at this argument

Let’s take another look to see how well it stands up.

  1. Matthew likes fulfilled prophecy from the Scriptures—that is, the Old Testament. He has no examples of fulfilled prophecy from Jesus. Maybe that just doesn’t do it for him. And is prophecy really the right word for what was likely inevitable? The Jews had had a difficult relationship with ruling empires and had even revolted against and broken away from the Seleucid empire less than two centuries earlier. Anticipating violent conflict with Rome didn’t require supernatural insight.
  2. Suppose Luke were written after the war with Rome and the destruction of the Temple. Why would it be surprising if it didn’t mentioned them? The gospel of John also didn’t mention them, and even most conservative scholars agree that John was written after 70 CE.
  3. The date of Paul’s death comes from tradition from the second century. The deaths of Peter and James are also poorly evidenced.
  4. While Wallace gives 57–60 as the date for 1 Timothy, Wikipedia gives an earliest date of the mid-60s. It could also have been written as late as the mid-second century because it seems to be responding to second-century heresies. If it does copy Luke, it would be surprising to see it elevate Luke to the status of Scripture just a few years after its composition, as Wallace claims.
  5. Even if we accept twenty years from the time of Jesus until Mark rather than forty, as other scholars say, doesn’t help much. If it were written the next day, its claims of the supernatural would still be highly suspect. Early dating doesn’t help much.

And note the juggling that Wallace must do. He wants to argue that legend couldn’t creep in over a few decades, so we can be confident that the gospels are an accurate biography of Jesus. But he must argue that legend did happen when given a few additional decades to justify why he can dismiss the Gospels of Thomas, of Judas, of the Ebionites, and others, many of them written in the late first or second centuries. (More on the development of myth through oral history here.)

Another challenge is that by reducing the time from events to originals, he’s increased the time from originals to our best manuscript copies. This centuries-long Dark Ages means lots of time for the story to change.

Continue with a look at the scholarly consensus for the dating of the gospels in part 2.

There is no apologetics in science, as there is in theology,
where unquestioned presumptions are made and then explanations sought
to make the data conform to those presumptions.
— Vic Stenger

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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