In the last article we explored the question of whether the alleged eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life were really present in the first place. In this article I’m going to investigate the question: “When were the gospels written?” There are many pieces of circumstantial evidence that form a compelling case for the early dating of the gospels. I’m going to give you seven, but the first two are especially powerful. Keep reading.
Seven Evidences for the Early Dating of the Gospels:
1. The New Testament Fails to Describe the Destruction of the Temple.
A hugely significant event in Jewish history was the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. Led by general Vespasian, who later became emperor, the Roman army was sent to Jerusalem to put down a Jewish rebellion in AD 66. It was an extremely brutal war with an estimated 100,000 Jews killed or taken into slavery in the northern region of Galilee alone. But even before the temple was destroyed, Jerusalem was put under siege and surrounded by Roman soldiers. After many battles and skirmishes, eventually the soldiers broke through the city walls and set fire to the city and the temple.
You might rightly think that if the gospels were written late in the first century, or in the early 2nd century, the destruction of both the temple and the city of Jerusalem would have been an important historical fact to include, especially since it would have been a fulfillment of Jesus’ own prophecy about the temple’s destruction.
An estimated one million Jews lost their lives or were carried off into slavery. If the gospels and Acts were written later than AD 70, as the critics claim, why weren’t these monumental events mentioned anywhere? The fact that those events are not in the gospels or Acts is compelling circumstantial evidence for an early date to the gospels.
2. Luke Said Nothing About the Deaths of Paul, Peter or James.
Sometime between AD 62 and AD 67, a few years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the apostle Paul was martyred in Rome. The apostle Peter was also martyred in Rome between AD 64 and AD 68. Luke wrote about both Peter and Paul in Acts but mentions nothing about their deaths. In fact, by the end of Acts one could safely assume that Peter and Paul were still alive. Also, according to Acts 15, James, the Lord’s half-brother, was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, but he was also martyred in AD 62. Since these men were significant leaders in the early church, their deaths would have been important events and would very likely have been recorded if Acts was written in the late first or early second century as the skeptics claim.
3. Luke’s Gospel Was Written Before the Book Of Acts.
In Acts 1:1-2, Luke wrote:
“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.”
It’s clear that by referring to “the first book,” Luke is alluding to his gospel account, since the same Theophilus is mentioned in Luke 1:3, which means that the gospel of Luke must have been written before the book of Acts. Also, if Paul, Peter and James were all martyred sometime between AD 62 and AD 68, then Acts certainly predates AD 62 and Luke predates Acts. Luke was likely written no later than 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, which happened in 30 AD, and it was probably written earlier than that. This fact combined with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem surely would have at least warranted a mention if the gospels and Acts were written after AD 70.
4. Paul Echoed the Claims of the Gospel Writers.
Some critics challenge the authorship of Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. However, Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, wrote that he believed Paul was their author. But even the most skeptical scholars agree that Paul is, in fact, the author of the letters written to the Romans, Corinthians and Galatians, which were all written between AD 48 and AD 60.
In Romans (circa AD 50), Paul refers to Jesus as the Son of God. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, written between AD 53 and 57, Paul summarized the gospel and emphasized that the apostles described their eyewitness accounts to him:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
It’s commonly believed that Paul’s conversion was around AD 33 or 34. A persecutor of Christians, authorized by Jewish authorities to arrest, imprison and in some cases send Christians to their deaths, his dramatic conversion came as the direct result of seeing the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus shortly after Jesus’ resurrection (cf. Acts 9). Remember, Paul was on his way to arrest more Christians when his encounter with the risen Jesus took place. What else could explain his radical change of heart and personal transformation?
Also, in Galatians 1, Paul says he went into Arabia, then returned to Damascus, “then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas (Peter) and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”
Most scholars believe that meeting took place around AD 36 or 37. Then, in Galatians 2, he went to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus some 14 years after his first visit. That time frame places Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem around 50 or 51 AD. Since the second visit was still relatively close to Jesus’ resurrection, and since most of those 500+ eyewitnesses mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15 were still alive, it would have been relatively easy to verify Paul’s story to determine whether or not he was telling the truth.
5. Paul quoted Luke’s gospel in his letter to the Corinthians.
In 1 Cor 11:23-25 Paul wrote this:
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
Now let’s compare that to Luke 22:19-20:
“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”
Luke’s gospel is the only gospel that has Jesus saying “do this in remembrance of Me.” So, either Paul is quoting from Luke, or this was a saying already in circulation and being used by those early Christians by the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians. But at the very least, this saying was being used by early Christians no later than between 53 and 57 AD. which is when 1 Corinthians was written. If it’s from Luke, then his gospel had to be around more than a few years before 53 AD and Paul must have considered it as coming from reliable eyewitnesses.
6. Paul Quoted Luke’s Gospel in His Letter To Timothy
Paul appeared to be aware of Luke’s gospel when he wrote the following in 1 Timothy 5.
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
Not muzzling the ox is a quote that comes from Deuteronomy, but the “laborer deserves his wages” is a quote from Luke 10:7. Even though some critics claim that it’s not certain that Paul was the author of 1 Timothy, that doesn’t change the fact that the earliest leaders in the church were at least familiar with the expression “the laborer deserves his wages.”
What is interesting is that the writer of 1st Timothy considered Luke’s gospel to be scripture. If Paul wrote 1st Timothy, which I believe he did, for a Jewish man who had actually been a pharisee, a scholar of the Hebrew scriptures, someone who persecuted early Christians, to compare Luke’s gospel as carrying the same authority as the Hebrew scriptures is nothing less than astonishing when you think about it. Luke’s gospel was already being accepted as having the authority of scripture by the time Paul wrote this letter, about mid-way thru the first century, a mere two decades after Jesus’ resurrection.
7. Mark’s Gospel Appears to Be an Early “Crime Broadcast.”
What’s a crime broadcast? When I was reading Wallace’s book, Cold Case Christianity, it was the same question I had. According to detective Wallace, when first-responding-officers arrive at the scene of a crime, they quickly gather as much of the available details related to the crime that they can, along with the description of any possible suspect, then they “clear the air” with the radio dispatchers so the dispatchers can then broadcast those details to other officers who may be in the area. He says, “Although Mark’s gospel contains the important details of Jesus’s life and ministry, it is brief, less ordered than the other gospels, and filled with action verbs and adjectives. There is a sense of urgency about it.”
That sense of urgency is what we might expect. Wallace writes, “the accuracy of the account was more important to Mark than anything else; for all Mark knew, Jesus would return before there would be any need to write an ordered biography of Jesus. Early believers, including the apostles, believed that Jesus would return soon.”
Even though all of this is circumstantial evidence, does that mean it is bad or useless information? No. Any historical event to which there are no living eyewitnesses today is based on circumstantial evidence since that’s all that we have. What does this particular set of circumstantial evidence tell us?
Given all of the evidence we have examined so far, we have strong circumstantial evidence that the gospels were written years before 70 AD. Also, Wallace writes, “the gospel writers appear in history right where we would expect them to appear.”
If the gospel writers were either eyewitnesses or reporting what they had been told by eyewitnesses, then we would expect them to appear sooner to the time of Jesus rather than later because they would undoubtedly want to preserve and communicate as much of Jesus’ life and the good news surrounding him as soon and as accurately as possible. Mark’s gospel certainly reflects that sense of urgency.
Is it at least possible that the alleged eyewitnesses were present in the first place? Is that the most reasonable inference from the evidence we have seen? That would seem to be the case. However, it depends on the answer to the question: When were the gospels written? Is it possible that gospels of Matthew and John were written by eyewitnesses who were present during the life of Jesus? Is it possible that Mark’s gospel is based on what Peter had told him and that Luke’s gospel and Acts were written as the result of intensive personal investigation and interviewing actual eyewitnesses and that it was written many years before Paul’s death? Based on the evidence, is it reasonable to conclude that the final gospel accounts were written or testified to by actual eyewitnesses?
The most reasonable inference seems to be that the gospels were written years before Paul, Peter and James’ deaths. I believe Matthew’s gospel was likely written within five to ten years of Jesus’ resurrection, Mark’s gospel likely written at or near that time, and Luke not too long after that. Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written sometime between AD 35 and AD 60 and John not too long after that, but very possibly within that same time frame. In fact, I believe the entire New Testament was written before AD 70.
Does that prove 100% that the gospels are reliable eyewitnesses of Jesus? No, but using a modern legal term, I believe the evidence is very compelling and provides us with proof “BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT.”
So if it is a reasonable inference that the gospels are reliable eyewitnesses and that they were written before the deaths of Peter, Paul and James, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, then why do some critics continue to deny it?
Three Reasons That Skeptics Give For Denying the Evidence:
1. The Authors of The Gospels are Anonymous
They argue that because the gospel authors are not clearly identified in their respective gospels, that they must be of late authorship by individuals other than the apostles. However, no other non-Christian or Christian writers of any other ancient sources were ever credited to anyone other than the four authors whose names appear on them. Additionally, early Christian leaders consistently recognized, identified, and condemned gospel forgeries that claimed to be written by apostles.
Also, why would the two gospels of Mark and Luke not be credited to actual apostles, since neither Mark nor Luke were apostles? Why pick two random names like Mark and Luke instead of two other apostles, like Andrew or Bartholomew, especially since Luke was not even Jewish?
2. The Temple Destruction Was Inserted Much Later
The critics claim that Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21, was inserted much later to make his prophecy seem more powerful. But this kind of unsubstantiated skepticism begins with the presupposition that prophetic claims and their fulfillment are impossible. So, beginning with that assumption, skeptics must find another explanation in order to rule out even the appearance of fulfilled prophecy. By moving the dates of when the gospels were actually written from early to late, they avoid the appearance of anything supernatural.
3. The Gospel Accounts Are Full of Miraculous Events
This goes hand-in-hand with #2. Some critics believe all miracles are works of fiction. They claim that supernatural components of the gospels are different from the narrative components which can be trusted as accurate history. They explain that the so-called “miracle stories” arose from within various Christian communities over decades or generations after Jesus, having been inserted much later in order to make Jesus appear to be more than the mere human that he really was.
Once again, are those claims possible? Yes. But given what we have seen in all the previous articles, is that reasonable?
In the next article we’ll examine if miracles are possible, because Jesus’ entire life is one miracle after another, from his birth to his resurrection and eventually to his second coming