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When Were the Gospels Written?

Were the gospels written before 50AD, as these Christians claim, or after 70AD, as critical scholarship claims?

By Merle Hertzler

 

One of the arguments against the historical reliability of the gospels is that they were written sometime after 70AD, a generation after the events they report. This makes it doubtful that the authors were eyewitnesses. Even if they were eyewitnesses, the passing of time would give us reason to question their recollections. Furthermore, by the time the books were widely distributed, no eyewitnesses would have been left, making it impossible for anyone to verify the books. So the late date of authorship gives us reason to question the accuracy of the gospels.

This is not the only reason to question the gospels. As I have shown elsewhere, [1] the accounts do not identify the writers, they contradict each other, they conflict with known history, and they are often implausible. These facts, combined with the late date of the writings, gives us reason to doubt their historicity.

Some Christians argue that the gospels were written through the direct inspiration of God, and that, therefore, it does not matter when they were written. They would argue that God was an eyewitness, and he has a good memory, and so he wrote the truth. But to use this argument, one would first need to prove that the gospels are the inspired words of God. I find no evidence for that. [2]

Other Christians will attempt to prove that the gospels were written shortly after the death of Christ, [3] and that, therefore, the accounts can indeed represent accurate memories of those events. But critical scholars have rejected this view.

So this is the question that we will deal with here: Were the gospels written before 50AD, as these Christians claim, or after 70AD, as critical scholarship claims?

The obvious place to begin our search is to look at the gospels themselves, to see when they claim to be written. Alas, the authors do not identify themselves, and they make no mention of the date of writing. So this doesn't help us.

Our search next takes us to early documents that refer to the gospels. We notice something odd. The gospels appear to be completely unknown to Paul and the other first-century Christians. Now if Paul or another first-century writer had referred to a gospel, we could use that information to date the gospels prior to that apostle. But the first century writings are no help here. Instead we find no clear mention of the gospels until well into the second century. [4][5] This absence-of-evidence would hint that the gospels were not written before the later part of the first century, but, of course, this is not conclusive.

So if we are going to date the gospels, we must turn to the text of the gospels themselves and analyze them, looking for subtle clues as to when they were written.

Fortunately for our search, there was a significant event that happened in 66-70 AD. The Roman army moved into Jerusalem and quenched a rebellion, destroying the city and the temple. The Jews were scattered. It was a traumatic event. Many thought the world was coming to an end. Jerusalem had been relatively peaceful back in 30 AD, but in 70 AD, this all changed. So we can look at the gospels, and see if they appear to be written before or after this event.

Let's begin with Mark, since we have good reason to believe it was the first gospel written. [6] Look at Mark 13:1-2

1 As He [Jesus] was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, "Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!" 2 And Jesus said to him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down." 3 As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?"

Mark [7] states that Jesus knew about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD. This is no problem for fundamentalists, for they say that Jesus could have foreknown this miraculously, but in scholarly circles this explanation is not deemed likely. Liberal scholars point out that Jesus could not have anticipated this--Romans seldom completely destroyed a city--and that therefore the books must have been written after the destruction. If the writer wrote after the events, the writer could have put these words into Jesus' mouth.

So we find two alternatives: Either the gospels were written after 70 AD, or Jesus miraculously predicted these things beforehand. Unless we appeal to a miracle, it is unlikely the books were written early. Let's read on to see what Mark's Jesus has to say about this event:

5 And Jesus began to say to them, "See to it that no one misleads you. 6 "Many will come in My name, saying, 'I am He!' and will mislead many. 7 "When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end. 8 "For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs. 9 "But be on your guard; for they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them. 10 "The gospel must first be preached to all the nations. 11 "When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit. 12 "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. 13 "You will be hated by all because of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.

What a graphic description of the turmoil of 70 AD! There were indeed many at that time which presented themselves as the Messiah. For instance, Josephus records that Menachem, son of Judas, and Simon, son of Gioras were Messianic pretenders.[8] Many Jews were flogged at that time. Many stood before governors. Brother betrayed brother. Children rose against their parents. The writer of Mark describes this era in detail. Now we have two views of how this accurate history came to be recorded here. Critical scholars think that Mark, writing after these events, conveniently tells us that Jesus "predicted" these things, thus adding credibility to his claim of Jesus as the Messiah. But fundamentalists would disagree. They would tell us that Jesus really did predict these things. Who is correct? Let's read on. We continue at verse 14:

14 "But when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION standing where it should not be (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains.

Here Mark gets interesting. He himself says that this is a point the reader needs to understand. He mentions that the disciples will see the abomination of desolation spoken of in the book of Daniel. Notice that he says "you" will see this. The "you" clearly refers to those Jesus was addressing in the story recorded in Mark 13, that is, to the disciples (v.1-4). So Mark refers to the teaching in the book of Daniel concerning the desecration of the temple and applies it to his own day. The verse Mark refers to is Daniel 9:27--"He will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate." Daniel went on to speak of the horrible desolation caused by this abomination, and than predicts a dramatic victory for the Jews 3 1/2 years after that desecration. Mark says this applies to his own day. What happens after this abomination? Look at (Daniel 12:6-12).

6 And one said to the man dressed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, " How long will it be until the end of these wonders?"...7 I heard the man dressed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, as he raised his right hand and his left toward heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever that it would be for a time, times, and half a time; and as soon as they finish shattering the power of the holy people, all these events will be completed... 11 "From the time that the regular sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. 12 "How blessed is he who keeps waiting and attains to the 1,335 days!

So, according to Daniel, there will be a "time times and half a time" from this abomination of desolation until the end. This is commonly believed to represent 3 1/2 years, which is equivalent to the 1290 days mentioned in v. 11. And there is a blessed time coming, according to Daniel, 1335 days after the abomination of desolation. Now Mark has just associated the abomination with his own time period, with the destruction of Jerusalem. This desecration occurred in July, 70 when the Romans set up a Roman Eagle for worship inside the Jewish temple. Then, in September of that year, they destroyed the temple. Mark apparently sees the Roman desecration of the temple in 70 AD as the beginning of that 3 1/2 year period leading to the Second Coming. Thus Mark predicts the Second Coming will occur in 74 AD.

Mark then goes into the details of the events that he predicts will occur after the desolation of verse 14:

15 "The one who is on the housetop must not go down, or go in to get anything out of his house; 16 and the one who is in the field must not turn back to get his coat. 17 "But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 18 "But pray that it may not happen in the winter. 19 "For those days will be a time of tribulation such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will. 20 "Unless the Lord had shortened those days, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days. 21 "And then if anyone says to you, 'Behold, here is the Christ'; or, 'Behold, He is there'; do not believe him; 22 for false Christs and false prophets will arise, and will show signs and wonders, in order to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 "But take heed; behold, I have told you everything in advance. 24 "But in those days, after that tribulation, THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, 25 AND THE STARS WILL BE FALLING from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken. 26 "Then they will see THE SON OF MAN COMING IN CLOUDS with great power and glory. 27 "And then He will send forth the angels, and will gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest end of the earth to the farthest end of heaven.

So what is the message that Mark has this Jesus tell to the people living shortly after 70 AD? He predicts some amazing things! The sun will be darkened! The stars will fall from heaven! They will see the return of the Son of Man (Jesus)! When will these things happen? Mark says that "you" --that is, the disciples who were hearing him speak-- will see these things. And he has a promise to these people: The Son of Man will come back and rescue them, as promised in Daniel!

Exactly when did Mark think these things would happen? Read on:

28 "Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 "Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door. 30 "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

When will this Second Coming come to pass? "He is near, right at the door," says Mark's Jesus. He says it will occur to "this generation." And he says that "you"--that is, the disciples--will see it. He declares that this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

Can it be any clearer? When the abomination occurs--which Mark sees as 70 AD--Jesus will shortly return. Obviously, whoever wrote this was mistaken. This prophecy was not fulfilled. How is it that Mark 13 is so accurate in describing events that took place before 70 AD, but suddenly loses all touch with history shortly after 70 AD? The answer seems obvious to me. These words were not spoken by Jesus in 30 AD. Rather, they were invented by Mark shortly after 70 AD, and they were inserted into the text as though they had been spoken earlier. By showing that the "prophecies" of Jesus up to this point had been fulfilled in recent history, Mark could show that the triumphant return prophesied in his book was also a sure bet. Mark's community could have reason to hope: Jesus would surely come and rescue them from this terrible situation. But Mark goofed. The promised return did not happen.

The liberal scholar can accept this. The human writer of the book of Mark, writing after 70 AD, predicted an event that would happen in 74 AD, and was mistaken. But the fundamentalist cannot accept that answer. Fundamentalists would have us believe that the verses predicting the destruction of the temple were indeed spoken years before the destruction, and were predictive prophecy. But how can that be? How can the writer so accurately know about the destruction of the temple, when he is so completely wrong about the Second Coming?

Remember that we had earlier narrowed the writing of this gospel to two alternatives: Either the words of Mark 13 were written after 70 AD, or they originated from someone with amazing prophetic power. But the second alternative is flawed. Clearly, the prophet in this passage was mistaken. The events did not happen as predicted.

Fundamentalists, of course, try to argue this prophetic lapse away. Some will tell us that "this generation" in verse 30 does not mean "this generation" but means "that generation," by which they conveniently refer to some later generation such as the one that saw Israel being restored in 1948. But that is a clear violation of the meaning of the text. It does not say, "that generation." It says, "this generation." And the continual usage of the word "you" makes it clear it refers to the disciples and to their generation.

Others will argue that "this generation" does not mean "this generation," but means "this race." But scholars have shown that this translation is mistaken.[9]

Others try to argue that the prophecy did indeed come true in the first century, a view known as Preterism. [10] But most Christians reject that view. For it is clear that Jesus did not return in the first century.

So the words of Mark 13 are not the words of an infallible prophet. Rather, they appear to be the words of a fallible writer after 70 AD who is encouraging the faithful that the Messiah will soon come back to rescue them. Mark continues:

 31 "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. 32 "But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. 33 "Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come. 34 "It is like a man away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert. 35 "Therefore, be on the alert--for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning--36 in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 "What I say to you I say to all, 'Be on the alert!'"

When Were the Gospels Written?

The Gospel of Mark By Peter Kirby.

Dating of the Synoptics by Paul N. Tobin.

Notice the continuing reference to "you" in this passage. This, of course, refers to the hearers of the spoken word, that is, to the disciples (see v. 1-4). Can there be any doubt that Mark expects Jesus to come again in his lifetime? Mark seems to be expecting Jesus to come back shortly to rescue the Christians--specifically, in 74 AD; specifically, in that generation; specifically, in the lifetime of the disciples. Mark goofed.

Matthew and Luke wrote after Mark, and copied from Mark. Matthew 24 and Luke 21 appear to be copies of Mark 13, for they use the same parenthetical comment found in Mark 13:14 ("let the reader understand") and they are often word-for-word duplicates of Mark. But Matthew and Luke write later and add their own view of things. So all three of these gospels must have been written after 70 AD.

And then there is the book of John. Scholars have found that this book too used Mark as a source for the crucifixion scene, and that therefore it was written after the book of Mark. The whole tone of the book of John is so far from the other early writings of Jesus, that critical scholarship places this book far after the time of Christ. So the gospels were all written after 70 AD.

 

Washing of Hands

Let's look at some other indications of a late date of writing. There are several passages that make sense only in light of the writers writing after 70 AD. For instance, in Mark 7:2-4 Mark describes a Jewish hand-washing custom:

1 The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.)

Now the custom of hand-washing that Mark references was instituted by two schools of the Pharisees in the Eighteen Measues that were written shortly before the fall of Jerusalem. Before that time, such handwashing was practiced only by priests, as described in Lev. 22: 2-6.[11] The writer of Mark was apparently not aware of the customs of Jesus' day, so he apparently inadvertently inserted this anachronism into the story. Had Mark written earlier, he would have known that handwashing was only practiced by priests at the time of Christ.

The Crucifixion Scene

The crucifixion scene is a big example of anachronisms from post-70 AD making their way into the story. Burton L. Mack explains:

The list of improbable features is quite long and includes such things as the trial by night, which would have been illegal; the basis for the charge of blasphemy, which is very unclear if not completely trumped up; the failure of the witnesses to agree, which would have called for a mistrial; the right of the Sanhedrin to charge with death, a sanction that they probably did not have at the time; the insinuation of the crucifixion taking place on Passover, which would have been an outrage; Jesus' anticipation of his death as a covenant sacrifice, which might be all right for a bacchic god but hardly for the historical Jesus; the disciples falling asleep in the midst of it all; Pilate's having Jesus executed as the "king of the Jews" without a good reason to consider him so; the high priests (in the plural!) joining in the mocking; and so on. [12]

All of these things would have made sense to the observer of the troubled times of the Jewish War of 70 AD. They are out of place in view of the relatively calm times of 30-50 AD. So it seems likely that the writers were aware of the Jewish War, and wrote after 70 AD, presenting Jesus in a world similar to their own world.

Christian Counter-arguments

Many Christian have tried to present counter-arguments. One common argument is that the Book of Acts does not record the death of Paul, and therefore, Acts was written before Paul's death. The gospels, which were probably written before Acts, would therefore have been written some time before the death of Paul. But this conclusion does not follow from the data [13]. The book of Acts is widely regarded to be written later for the purpose of "explaining" how the gospel got from Jerusalem to Rome. As Paul preaches in Rome in the last chapter of Acts, that is as far as the author needs to go. So he ends the story there, not because he was unaware of future events, but because he had accomplished the purpose of the book.

Also, there is strong evidence that the writer of Acts borrowed from the writings of Joesphus, pushing the date of Acts to after 90 AD. [14] So I do not buy the argument that Acts was written early, and that this forces the gospels to be early.

I conclude that the most probable date for the original writing of the gospels is sometime after 70 AD. This late date gives us good reason to question their historicity.

(Discussion of this essay can be found here.)

 

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Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Notes

1. Hertzler, Merle Are the Gospel Accounts Historical?, 2002

2. Hertzler, Merle Is the Bible Inspired? , 2002

3. Slick, Matthew J. When were the gospels written and by whom?, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003

4. Doherty, Earl The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth

5. Carrier, Richard The Formation of the New Testament Canon , 2000

6. Wallace, DanielThe Synoptic Problem, 2003

7. I use the traditional name for the author, "Mark." Nobody knows what his name really was.

8. Helms, Randel Who wrote the Gospels? (Altadenal, Ca.: Millenium Press, 1997) p. 9

9. Smith, Mark Matthew 24:34 & Genea: What The Scholars Say , 2000

10. See Preterism.info

11. Helms, Randel Who wrote the Gospels? (Altadenal, Ca.: Millenium Press, 1997) p. 10,

12. Mack, Burton L. Who Wrote the New Testament? (San Francisco; HarperCollins Publishers, 1989) p. 158

13. Kirby, Peter Acts of the Apostles , 2001-2004

14. Carrier, Richard Luke and Josephus, 2000

 Copyright Ó Merle Hertzler 2004. All rights reserved.

 

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