Friday, September 10, 2010

Can the Gospels be Dated Early?

We have determined that in spite of Dr. Bart Ehrman’s colorful assertions in his plethora of books, the New Testament we have today has a very high degree of accuracy (see The Accuracy of the New Testament, Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3), and we can be confident that what we have today is what was contained in the original autographs (original New Testament gospels). Knowledge of these facts can help shut the mouths of critics and skeptics that believe that the New Testament is riddled with errors and inaccuracies.

However, there is another objection that critics and skeptics fire out, and these ideas are devoured by this sin loving and blinded generation in order to further suppress the truth of God’s revelation (Romans 1:18). This objection is that the New Testament gospels were written too late to be eye witness testimony, but are instead legends, myths and embellishments of the story of Jesus. Is the truly the case? Is there any evidence that exists that can demonstrate that the New Testament gospels were written early enough to be the testimony of eye witnesses to the life of Jesus? This blog post will focus on that objection and give an answer to those that ask for a “reason for the hope within” us (1 Peter 3:15).

We are going to look at the existing manuscript evidence first, and make a case that the gospels we have today were written early enough to be one of the following: the testimony of eye witnesses, the memoirs of an eye witness, and the compilation of the testimonies of eye witnesses to the life of Jesus. Secondly, we will look at what various scholars have to say about when the gospels the gospels were written. The purpose of this apologetic, like all apologetics is, first to glorify God. Secondly, we want to strengthen the faith of the believer in the authenticity of the gospels. And thirdly, we want to shut the mouth of the skeptic. We want to accomplish the third by graciously presenting the facts that surround the life of Jesus and what His followers said about Him.

The Manuscript Evidence

I am going to present the case for the manuscript evidence for the early dating of the gospels by laying out a cumulative case for the early dating of these gospels. I am going to start with a very late date and then move down toward dates that are earlier and earlier. It is my hope and prayer that not only will these posts be read, but I am also looking for challenges to what I have written here. I don’t think I know everything, and perhaps I missed something that will make the case for the other side.

Earlier Than 250 AD

In 1931, the Chester Beatty Papyri was discovered. These papyri contain eleven manuscripts and three fragments of the New Testament. These papyri have been dated from between 200-250AD.

Earlier Than 200 AD

This is based on the “Bodmer Papyri” discovered in Egypt in 1952. These papyri contain the gospel of John (with the exceptions of John 5:3b-4; 7:53-8:11). These papyri have been dated from between 200 and 225 AD. Since the majority of scholars view John’s gospel as being the last gospel written, we can reasonably presume that the other three gospels were in existence at this time.

Earlier than 180 AD

We get this date from the Diatesseron. This was an attempt by Tatian the Assyrian (120-180 AD) to harmonize the four gospels into the language of Syriac. The Diatesseron became the standard text for Syriac speaking Christians for the next 500 years. Since this work was obviously written before Tatian’s death in 180 AD, we can safely presume that this work was completed earlier than 180 AD.

Earlier Then 150 AD

We come to this conclusion based upon the usage of the gospels by the early church fathers. For example, Justin Martyr in his work “First Apology” (150 AD) quotes from and alludes to John chapter 3 (1 Apol. 61, 4-5). Further, the above mentioned Tatian the Assyrian was a disciple of Justin Martyr, and therefore it is reasonable to presume that Justin was aware of Tatian’s work, the Diatesseron.

Earlier Than 130 AD

According to Eusebius, Papias of Hierapolis mentioned the writings of Matthew and Mark in his (Papias’) five-volume work, Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord, around 130 AD. Further, the famous “Ryland’s Papyri” contains a fragment of John dating from around 130 AD. It is clear that the gospel of John was completed long before 130 AD given the fact that it had been written, copied, and transmitted from Greece to Egypt over some period of time before becoming part of the “Ryland’s” collection.

Earlier Than 120 AD

In 120 AD, Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, a disciple of the Apostle John, and one of the three most important church fathers, wrote a letter to the church in Philippi. In this letter, Polycarp quoted from the gospels and other New Testament letters. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the gospels were in existence and well known prior to 120 AD.

Earlier Than 110 AD

Ignatius was the Bishop of Antioch in the late first and early second century AD. Ignatius wrote several letters around 110 AD that quote or allude to the gospel of Matthew. In his letters to Ephesus, Smyrna and Polycarp, Ignatius quotes or alludes to Matthew 12:33; 19:12; and 10:16. It is clear that Matthew was in existence and well known prior to 110 AD.

Earlier Than 100 AD

The Didache literally means “the two ways.” It is a non-canonical Christian writing that was apparently a manual of instruction used for the initiation of proselytes in the Synagogue, and later converted into a Christian manual. Athanasius described The Didache as “appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly joined us, and who wish for instruction in the word of goodness.” The Didache is most recently dated at approximately 100 AD, and quotes Matthew’s version of the “Lord’s Prayer” in Didache 8:1. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Matthew’s gospel existed and was well known prior to 100 AD.

Earlier Than 95 AD

Clement is listed as either the third or fourth Bishop of Rome, and wrote a letter to the church in Corinth that is known as 1 Clement. This letter is commonly dated to the end of the reign of Roman Emperor, Domitian (95 to 96 AD).Clement quotes or alludes to the gospel of Matthew in this letter. This establishes that the gospel of Matthew was already in circulation and quotable as early as 95 AD.

Earlier Than 70 AD

We place the gospels prior to this date because of a very significant event to both Jews and Christians, namely the Roman sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of Herod’s temple by four Roman legions under the command of the future Roman Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasian. This event is important because there is no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple in any of the gospels. The lack of any mention of these events is especially conspicuous in relation to Jesus’ prophecies concerning the destruction of both the city and her temple. It is reasonable to presume that if the gospels were written after 70 AD, that the writers would refer to the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecies in their chronicles of the life and saying of Jesus.

Further, there is absolutely no reference to this event, by the Jewish writers of the New Testament in any of the subsequent letters contained in the New Testament canon. Why is such a mammoth event conspicuously missing from the writings of the gospels and epistles? The reasonable answer must be that the gospels and epistles were written prior to 70 AD.

I also want to point out that this is not an argument form silence. The reason is simple, since the majority of first century Christians were ethnic Jews and came out of the Judaism, Jerusalem and its temple were an essential part of their worship as seen in the Book of Acts. It is therefore reasonable to presume that the lack of any mention of the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple is due to the fact that they had not been destroyed at the time of the writing of these gospels and letters.

Earlier Than 64 AD

The book of the Acts of the Apostles can be dated around 64 AD. We place the book at this date based on the following: 1. Luke makes no mention of the Jewish war on the Romans started in 66 AD; 2. Luke makes no indication of the destruction of Jerusalem or her temple; 3. Luke does not mention the persecution of the Christians by the Roman army that began in the mid-60s AD. Further, there are expressions used by Luke in Acts that are very primitive and fit well into a Palestinian context prior to the fall of Jerusalem. Luke also makes no mention of the martyrdom of three key Apostles: James, the brother of Jesus (62 AD), Paul (64 AD), and Peter (65 AD). In fact, Paul is still alive at the end of the Book of Acts. It is therefore reasonable to presume that Luke was written prior to 64 AD.

Since the Book of Acts was an ancient “sequel” to his gospel, it is reasonable to conclude that the Gospel of Luke was written before the Book of Acts. Paul knew of Luke’s gospel based on Paul’s quotation of Luke’s gospel in one of the last letters he wrote (1 Timothy 5:17, 18). Here Paul quotes both the Old and New Testaments (Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7). Based on this usage it is clear that Luke’s gospel was already in existence and was accepted as scripture by Paul at the time he wrote this letter. Based on these facts, it is reasonable to conclude that Luke’s gospel was written in the early 60s.

Earlier Than 60 AD

Like the Book of Acts, none of the Gospels ever mention an event that occurred prior to 61 AD. The Gospel of Mark is repeatedly quoted by Luke in his gospel which was clearly written prior to the Book of Acts. This comes as no surprise since Luke was functioning as a historian who was consulting the witnesses he had available to him (Luke 1:1-4). Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that Mark’s gospel was already in existence and widely accepted as an accurate account of Jesus’ life. If Luke can be safely placed in the early 60s, then it is reasonable, based on the above, to place the gospel of Mark in the late 50s.

Earlier Than 55 AD

Even though many liberal scholars deny that Paul wrote all the epistles attributed to him in the New Testament, even the most skeptical scholar accept that Paul wrote the Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians and Galatians, and that these letters were written between 48 and 60AD. The Epistle to the Romans is of particular importance to our discussion here, in that it has been dated at around 50 AD. The reason for the importance of this Epistle is that this letter contains “high Christology.”

In these letters, Paul portrays Jesus, not as a humble son of a carpenter from some insignificant village in a backwater region of the Roman Empire who taught nice things, and evolved into the Christ mythology. Rather, merely 17 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul outlines Jesus’ life just as it was described in the gospels.

In Romans, Paul proclaims Jesus as the resurrected “Son of God”. In 1 Corinthians, Paul summarizes the gospel and reinforces the fact that his message was the same message that was delivered to him by the Apostles. In Galatians, Paul describes his interactions with the Apostles (Peter and James, the brother of Jesus), stating that this meeting occurred 14 years prior to the writing of the letter (Galatians 1:18, cf. 2:1). Paul’s statement of events in Galatians means that Paul saw the risen Christ and learned the gospel accounts from the eyewitnesses (Peter and James) within five years of the actual event. This is why Paul states, in his definitive doctrinal statement of the resurrection, that there were still many living eyewitnesses who could confirm the resurrection accounts (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

Paul’s description of Jesus never changes in any of his letters. Paul stubbornly describes Jesus in the same manner over and over again. There is no evolution of Jesus from man to God in any of Paul’s writings. Paul is rooted in the gospel description of Jesus that he heard from his first meeting with the eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally.

Further, Paul appears to be familiar with Luke’s historical account of Jesus’ life in describing the Lord’s Supper to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, cf. Luke 22:19-20). Paul, wrote this letter from between 53-57 AD, and appears to be quoting Luke’s gospel (as Luke’s gospel is the only account of Jesus’ life that uses “do this in remembrance of me”). Since Luke travelled with Paul, it is reasonable to conclude that Paul was familiar with Luke’s body of work. Luke gathered his information from available eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4). It is reasonable to conclude that Luke used Mark’s account as it would be available at the time, and served as a basis for many of the details Luke records.

Further evidence of a 50s gospel can be gleaned from the work of Spanish Jesuit papyrologist, Jose O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan examined a papyri fragment discovered in Cave 7 at Qumran that contains Mark 6:52-53. This fragment has been dated at 50 AD. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that Mark’s gospel was in existence prior to 50 AD.

There are many good reasons to accept the fact that the gospels were written early and circulated by the early Christians who read them, quoted them and preserved them for later generations. This is why I have taken the evidence and arranged them in reverse chronological order in order to establish the early dating of the gospels. You, the reader, have read down the list and travelled back in time, and you have seen how each date is substantiated by the preceding date. I believe that we have a very strong chain that demonstrates that the gospels (and the epistles) are clearly early in their origin. However, is that just my opinion, or is there scholarly support for this conclusion. That will be the subject of the next post.


  1. Maybe Luke drew his account of the Eucharistic meal from Paul. The fact that some writing contains material similar to something found in another writing is not sufficient to tell you which came first. Either could have drawn from the other or both could have had a common sources.

  2. Many of your points are wide open to other possibilities. The most interesting argument you make is that Paul does not change his Christology - though some titles for Jesus tend to vary over time. Respect attributed to the apostles, details of end time prophecies and relationships with other religious groups (Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians... Samaritans) vary over time but who Jesus is rmains rather constant amid the New Testament writings from their varying sources.

    It is certainly 'possible' to argue for earlier dates - down into the 40's for Mark and Luke.
    You ran too quickly over 70AD though: This is a major argumnet of scholars against an early date. Serious alternative arguments about Temple prophecies are important in suggesting an earlier date. Reasonable counter-arguments CAN and SHOULD be made.

  3. My purpose is not to present what I have researched as the end all be all. In fact, I have discovered that there is an error in the above post that I will be addressing in my next post.

    Vinny and Anonymous, if you have viable alternative explanations why don't you post them so that we can discuss them?

  4. I thought the alternative was obvious from my comment. The account of the Eucharistic meal in Paul may have come before the the one in the gospels.

  5. Your not saying that the Eucharistic account may have come directly from eyewitnesses to what Jesus did and said, are you?

  6. (a long time later...)
    I will just add a few of the points which I believe scholars have no reason to argue and which show their views are often based on presumptions - and presumptions which are not the most logical either...

    1Corinithians is widely accepted as written mid 50's AD. In 1Cor 3 the people are God's temple, so Mark 13:1-2 does not need the Jewish Revolt as its inspiration. Scholars have no reason to suggest Mark 13 is about the destruction of the temple in 70AD. In fact their arguments about the 'desolating horror' in the 'place it should not be' omit the most likely scenario which is presented by Josephus and Philo in great detail. It is more likely that this alludes to the threat of Calligula around 40AD, a terrible time for the Jewish people. It makes more sense to use the strong allusion to events at that time as an indication that it was written soon after those events warning to 'stand firm' (Mark 13:13) while the Jews were all in a flap about their future.

    The most reasonable argument from Scholars is that, if the Gospel was early, why are its contents not referenced by Paul's early writings? The answer is that the ARE. The eucharist (mentioned) is in the Gospels and 1Cor 11. The whole structure of 1Cor is loosely based on the Gospel of Mark, starting at baptism and ending at the death and resurrection. 1Cor 3 says 'for do you not know that ....' in telling the people that THEY are the temple, as is the message behind Mark 13:1-2. The word 'Gospel' is used and there is no reason to presume it means anything other than the work which claims to be the Gospel as written first by Mark and used as a basis for the later Luke and Matthew.

    The final argument of scholars is that early writings say it was written after Peter's death. This again is a poor argument: Papias is earliest and a source of others and he makes it clear Peter left Rome. He doesn't say his 'departure' was death but evidently some later writers presumed this. Many earlier writers presume he is alive after the Gospel is written, able to endorse it! So scholars need to accept that the testimnoy is not all one sided so it is not a 'lie' put forward by the church. If it is not a lie then there is truth in it and which truth, that Peter was dead or alive? The evidence suggests 'alive' so it was written quite a while before 68AD on a previous occasion when Peter was in Rome.

    These points alone make a date in the 40's more likely than a date in the late 60s or later. There are no other reasons I know of for scholars choosing a later date. They end up arguing that 'by then, the apostles would have been old and dead' so they presume a lengthy period of oral tradition and they presume the authors are not the ones history claims they are but their presumptions are all based on this illogical presumption about the date of writing of Mark. To my knowledge there is no other reason for dating Mark late.