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Arguments for Early Dates of Gospel Composition

We shown conclusively that the gospels are post-70 CE document. Of course late dates of gospel composition do not make believers feel comfortable since the reliability of the texts become very questionable. Thus apologists, have tried to provide arguments for earlier dates of the composition of the gospels. We will look at three arguments for early dates of gospel composition; the first is by a "liberal" scholar, while the other two are current favourites among fundamentalist apologists.

The Argument From Unfulfilled Prophecies

John A.T. Robinson in his book Redating the New Testament [1] argued for a pre-70 CE dating of the gospels. He argued that Matthew could have been written as early as 40CE with John even earlier. Basically there are two main reasons why he argued for a pre-70CE composition:

  • Unfulfilled Prophecies: Robinson claims that there are prophecies supposedly made by Jesus that were unfulfilled. Had the gospels been written after 70 CE the authors would have fudged or changed the prophecies to make those look like they came true or leave out the prophecies altogether. [a]
  • Brevity of Prophecies on Destruction of the Temple: Robinson claims that the lack of details in the prophecies of the destruction of the temple argues for it being an actual prediction rather than something written after the fact.

Unfulfilled Prophecies

One of the examples given by Robinson involves a prophecy made by Jesus about the end of the world:

Mark 13:24-27 (Matthew 24:29-31; Luke 21:25-28)
"But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

Jesus supposedly ended this discourse with the statement below:

Mark 13:30 (Matthew 24:34-36; Luke 21:32-33)
"Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place."

The above, Robinson argues, is a mistaken prophecy. For the world obviously did not end. The evangelists would have left this out had the time between Jesus death and the composition of the gospels were a long time. Thus he argues for an early date of composition for the gospels, before the Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE. [2]

This argument is flawed. While I do not disagree that the above is an example of a failed prophecy of Jesus, I do disagree with the use of that passage to date the gospel as pre-70 CE documents. To bring more clarification on the matter, we see that Jesus actually uttered a similar statement in another passage:

Mark 9:1 (Matthew 16:28; Luke 9:27)
And he said to them, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power."

Note the statement about some of the people being alive when Jesus' returns. We would expect some of the people in Jesus' generation to be alive after 70 CE. We would also expect some of them (though very few) to be alive around the end of the first century. Thus this argument in no way favours a pre-70 CE date of composition for the gospels. [3]

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Brevity of Prophecies on Destruction of the Temple

One example Robinson gives for this argument is found in Matthew:

Matthew 22:1-10
And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, `Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.' But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, `The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.' And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests."

Here Robinson argues that the desciption italicised is very brief and that Matthew would certainly have added more details had this been written after 70 CE. However this argument is flawed. For Matthew did not make up the whole paragraph above from whole cloth. In fact he copied it from Q. We know this for a fact because Luke has a similar parable (Luke 14:15-24) which does not have the italicised portion above. What does this tells us? It tells us that Matthew inserted one line into an already pre-existing story in Q. It had the effect of "updating" the parable to include the destruction of Jerusalem and thus fulfils its task. [4]

Thus Robinson's arguments for a pre-70CE date of compositions for the gospels are far from convincing and we are not surprised that his views are not accepted by any consensus of scholars. [5]

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"Early" Gospel Fragments

Carsten Thiede has published three books, Jesus: Life or Legend?(1990), The Earliest Gospel Manuscript?(1992) and The Jesus Papyrus (1996) , in which he claimed that very early fragments of the gospels Mark and Matthew had been found. Let us look at these:

The Qumran Mark

The so-called Qumran Mark is a very small papyrus fragment, measuring only around 35 cm long by 25 cm wide, that was discovered by a Jesuit papyrologist Jose O'Callaghan in 1972 in the seventh cave at Qumran. O'Callaghan claimed that the fragment was from Mark 6:52-53. Since the cave is known to have been sealed in 68 CE, this shows that Mark must have been written prior to ther caves being sealed, perhaps as early as 50 CE. Carsten Theide had tried to revive this claim in his recent books.[6]

Let us look at the fragment itself. First we will note that it is very small, it consists of five lines with only one complete word. What is the word? The most banal of all words, the Greek kai which means "and". Apart from these three alphabets or letters, there are six other well preserved single letters, two imperfect letters which could be reconstructed with some certainty, six defective letters on which reconstruction is problematic and two unreadable letters. To summarize, only one complete word ("and"), sixteen scattered Greek alphabets about half of which are nearly illegible.

Much of the criticism by scholars on this claim lays precisely in this, the fragment is so ambiguous that you could fit anything you want into the clear letters and make up "likely possibilities" for the rest of the illegible ones and the blank portions. In other words the eyes of faith makes them assume things that are not there. Let us look at an example:

Mark 6:53 (transliterated from the Greek)goes like this: kai diaperasantes epi ten gen elthon eis Gennesaret kai prosormisthesan ("and when they had passed over, they came into the land of Gennesaret, and drew to the shore.")

Now if this fragment is from Mark 6:52-53, after kai we would expect the fragment to have a delta (d), yet at this point is one of the well preserved letters and it shows...a tau ("t")! The next letter, should be an iota("i") but here we have an imperfectly preserved letter that extends below the line, (much like a modern "j" or "g" or "p" goes below the line). Now the greek iota is like our modern "i", it does not extend below the line! The papyrologist T.C Skeat opines that it is most likely a rho ("r"-the Greek rho looks like a modern "p" and do tend to extend below the line). So what you really have is kai tr..., to make this into kai diaperasantes requires a lot of faith! [7] [b]

It is not surprising then when we hear what Burton Mack, John Wesley Professor of New Testament at the School of Theology at Claremont has to say about this:

Thiede's Dead Sea Scroll's scenario is preposterous; his theory about the Markan fragment among the Dead Sea Scrolls has been discredited;...[8]

The English textual critic J.K. Elliot had called The Earliest Gospel Manuscript? by Thiede "a publication cashing in on human gullibility."[9]

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The Magdalen Fragments

The other "proof" of early gospel composition is the three papyrus fragments that had been kept at the Magdalen College Library of Oxford since 1901. These fragments contain partial texts from the twenty sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 26:7-8, 10, 14-15, 22-23, 31, 32-33). The fragments are well known and scholars have reliably dated these fragments to the end of the second century.

It should be noted that Thiede's claim had "fizzled" somewhat. He initially made the claim, reported in the London Times in 1994 that the fragments are from the mid first century, i.e. circa 50 CE. He then promised to follow up this sensational claim with a more "scholarly" paper. Yet when his paper was published in a German academic journal of papyrology in 1995, he was only able to argue for a late first century dating of the fragments. [c] Since we have seen that Matthew was written circa 90 CE, dating the fragments to the late first century is not that sensational. However even this claim has been found wanting by experts. [11]

Thiede's main argument are:

  • that the script (handwriting) is similar in style to some Greek texts found in Pompey Herculaneum and in Qumran which are dateable to the first century CE.
  • that a similar fragment of Christian writing has been found in Qumran, the Qumran Mark dateable to before 68 CE.[12]
We have seen that Thiede's Qumran Mark is a figment of his (and Father O'Callaghan's) imagination. Many scholars expert in handwriting analysis of that era have shown Thiede's claim to be spurious. In the same German magazine, but in a later volume, the German textual critic Klaus Wachtel replied to Thiede's paper and showed that the style of the Magdalen fragments is the type that exists from the end of the second century to the fifth century. As an example of this, Biblical Uncial style (of which the Magdalen fragment is an early example) normally have each letter isolated from one another. Yet the characters in the Qumran text, as even Thiede admits, are "very close to each other, occasionally even connected." This distinction, Wachtel mentioned, is very significant. For the style of isolated letters is one of the reasons why scholars can, with certainty, date the Magdalen fragment to the end of the second century. [13]

Let us look at the main reasons why scholars date the Magdalen Fragments to the end of the second century:

  • The fragments are of papyrus (basically a kind of paper). Parchments began to be used after circa 200 CE. Thus these fragments probably date from before 200 CE.
  • The fragments are from a codex (i.e. loose papers bound into book form) as opposed to a scroll (which is paper rolled into, well, a scroll). The shift from scrolls to codex took place during the second century. Thus the fragment must date from after the first century.
  • The fragments are similar in style to other fragments of New Testament texts from the second and third centuries. The writing style fits the style which began towards the end of the second century CE.
  • A second century dating also fits with what we know of the spread of early Christian writing.[14]
The first three reason converges towards the end of the second century CE for the fragments. While the last is an important reminder that there is a mass of other evidence which must be accounted for if Thiede's argument is to have any credence.

Let's quote from Burton Mack again:

From a critical scholar's point of view, Thiede's proposal is an example of just how desperate the Christian imagination can become in the quest to argue for the literal facticity of the Christian gospels.[15]

The Argument from the Ending of Acts

Another favourite argument among fundamentalists for early dates of the composition of the gospels is taken from the ending of the Acts of the Apostles. This is how it ends (with Paul in Rome):

Acts 28:30-31
And he [Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered.

The argument is actually quite straight forward and deceptively attractive. The tradition is that Paul died in the persecution of Christians by Nero circa 64 CE. Thus, so they argue, had the author of Acts know about Paul's death he would have written about it. That he did not, means that he was writing at a time before it happened. Now it is generally agreed that Paul reached Rome around 60CE. Since Acts mentioned "two whole years" after that, this makes the date of composition circa 62 CE. Now it is generally accepted that the author of the gospel of Luke and Acts are the same person. And in Acts 1:1, the author referred to his "first book about Jesus", thus making the gospel earlier than this. Which makes the date of composition of Luke around CE 60. Now as it is well known that Luke incorporated large portions of Mark into his gospel, Mark must have been written much earlier, perhaps as early as the late fifties.[16]

Like all fundamentalist arguments, this assertion is not a new. Although when one reads books like Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ (Zondervan 1998), one is given the impression that these are explosive new evidence that main stream scholars have not considered. Actually this dating is the traditional date given by Christian apologists. For instance, in 1913, The Papal Biblical Commission decreed that, due to this passage, the Acts of the Apostles was written by Luke circa CE 62.[17]

There are many reasons why scholars no longer consider this date credible. A pre-70CE composition of Luke-Acts is a thoroughly discredited concept. Let us now examine the reasons:

Firstly, the claim that the author of Acts did not know that Paul died in Rome (probably during the Neronian persecution) is demonstrably false. We are given this information obliquely in the book of Acts. We see in Acts 20:25, Paul is supposed to have told the people of Ephesus that they "will never see my face again". That this was taken to mean that Paul will die soon is made obvious a few verses later: [18]

Acts 20:29, 36-38
[Paul speaking] "I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; "...And when he had spoken thus, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And they all wept and embraced Paul and kissed him, sorrowing most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they should see his face no more.

That Paul will meet the emperor Nero himself is also alluded to in Acts. This is what Luke had Paul say to his fellow seafarers:

Acts 27:21-24
As they had been long without food, Paul then came forward among them and said, "Men, you should have listened to me, and should not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. I now bid you take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, `Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you.'

As A.N Wilson pointed out in his book Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (Norton 1997):

The interesting thing about this speech, from the narrative point of view, is that, in Luke's terms, it is clearly true, or meant to be taken as true. Angels often appear in Luke's works-to announce the incarnation of Christ to the virgin, to proclaim his birth to the shepherds of Bethlehem, to proclaim his resurrection, to release Peter from prison. They do not lie, for they are messengers of God. So we can assume that the author of Acts believes, and wants us to believe, that Paul is indeed destined, not merely to reach Rome and to be tried, but that he will come face to face with Nero himself. [19]

Secondly, note that the last verses of Acts actually mentioned that Paul lived freely "for two whole years". There is actually no other way to interpret that (especially in the light of the verses alluding to Paul's death at the hands of Nero above) statement except that after two years a change happened and that this was Paul's condemnation and subsequent execution.[20]

Thirdly, we know that Luke used Mark as one of his sources. And Mark is a post 70 CE document. Since Luke copied Mark, the gospel of Luke must therefore be later than 70 CE. Furthermore, as we saw earlier, the gospel of Luke had very detailed allusions to the siege and fall of Jerusalem that the only viable explanation is that it was written after the event. Since Acts was written after Luke, it too must be a post 70 CE document.

Finally we look at why Luke ended Acts the way it did. Actually even a cursory thought should suffice to show that Luke could not have ended Acts with Paul's death. For, unlike Jesus, who was believed to have risen from the dead, Paul did not. Ending it with Paul's death would go against the whole grain of his work which was primarily a summary of the triumph of the apostles. The fitting end, of course, would have been the parousia itself. However since that had yet to happen at the time of writing, Paul's triumphal preaching was a satisfactory intermediate end. [21] As Werner Kummel explained in his classic Introduction to the New Testament (1975):

[I]n Lk 24:46f already the risen Lord proclaims as the meaning of both writings, not only the suffering and resurrection of Christ, but also the preaching "to all people, beginning from Jerusalem". And the same risen Lord (Acts 1:8) conveys to the disciples more precisely the charge "You will be my witness in Jerusalem and in all of Judea and in Samaria and to the ends of the earth." The theme of 1:8 is carried through in Acts and the declaration in 28:31 that Paul in Rome "preaches the kingdom of God and teaches about the Lord Jesus" to all who come to him ...strikes a "triumphal note" ..., which corresponds precisely to the author's aim in Acts and proves to be the intended end of the book.[22]

Let us recap why the argument from the ending of Acts does not work.

  • The basic assertion that the author of Acts did not know about Paul's subsequent fate is wrong. There are allusions to Paul's death and his "meeting" with Nero in Acts.
  • The fact that Acts said Paul preached without hindrance for "two whole years" implied that something happened after that. In this case the arrest and trial under Nero.
  • We know from an independent line of evidence that Mark is a post 70 CE document. Since Luke copied Mark, it must be a later work than Mark.
  • Furthermore the gospel of Luke added many details to the basic "prophecy" of Jerusalem's fall in Mark that it is ludicrous to assume that it was written before the event.
  • The ending in Acts is actually a very reasonable compromise ending, given that the ultimate end the parousia was not yet available and ending his work with Paul's death would have been anti-climactic. Thus even with Luke knowing Paul's subsequent fate, the way Acts ended is understandable.

These then are the reasons why the majority of critical historical scholars do not accept the dating of Acts as 62 CE. That fundamentalist "scholars" continue to use Acts 28:30-31 as an argument for early dates for the composition of the gospels shows the bankrupt state of their "scholarship."

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Notes

a.Note that Robinson's argument, for an early date is based on the fact that Jesus made false or unfulfilled prophecies. Thus it would not be a line of argument fundamentalist would readily agree with.
b.Reading Theide's book Jesus: Life or Legend?, without knowing the fragmentary nature of the letters, tends to lead one to imply that the word "diaperasantes" is in the fragment with only the "d" being changed to a "t"!
c.Why this change in claim? Surely if he can get a paper published with his initial claim of mid first century he could change the whole world of biblical studies as we know it. G.A. Wells in his book The Jesus Myth says this: "Articles published in acedemic journals such as the Bonn Zeitschrift are carefully refereed, and so authors do not find it easy to use these journals as a forum for extravagant claims". [10] In other words when you have to write for an audience of experts it becomes harder to try and pull wool over their eyes!

References

1.John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, SCM, London 1976
2.Wilson, Jesus:The Evidence: p43-44
3.Wells, Historical Evidence for Jesus: p113
4.Wells, Historical Evidence for Jesus: p123
5.Wilson, Jesus:The Evidence: p44
6.Thiede, Jesus, Life or Legend: p90
7.Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: p264-265
Wells, The Jesus Legend: p153-154
Wells, The Jesus Myth: p9-10
8.Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament: p9
9.quoted in Wells, The Jesus Legend: p155
10.Wells, The Jesus Myth: p6
11.Shorto, Gospel Truth: p257-258
Wells, The Jesus Myth: p5-8
12.Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament: p9
13.Wells, The Jesus Myth: p6-8
14.Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament: p9
Wells, The Jesus Myth: p7
15.Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament: p10
16.Strobel, The Case for Christ: p41-42
17.Guignebert, Jesus: p22
Williams, The Acts of the Apostles: p13
18.Schnelle, The History and Theology of The New Testament Writings: p243
19.Wilson, Paul: p246
20.Wells, The Jesus Myth: p31
21.Barr, New Testament Story: p 325
22.Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament: p164

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