Dating the gospels

No, I know that’s not a subject closely linked to creation teaching, science and so on, but it’s just for this once and it does kind of connect to my post on Jesus’s prophecy about Jerusalem. But an interesting post by Jonathan Bernier on the dating of the Letter to the Hebrews gives me an excuse.

When John A T Robinson wrote his book suggesting a radically early date for all the New Testament writings, he was (as an outsider) astonished at the shaky case made by New Testament scholars for late dates. That remains much the same situation today.

The one fixed point (even for most conservative theologians) is the Fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, and the gospels are usually dated close to or after this because Jesus prophesies it. Spot the problem there… Robinson, though, noticed that there is not a single book of the (entirely Jewish) New Testament that makes any clear historic reference to this event, the most significant national disaster for Israel since the Exodus, and the heavenly vindication, in Jesus’s eyes, of his ministry. Several NT books read as if they know it had not yet happened. That’s one reason I’ve been an “early date” proponent since I read Robinson back in the 1980s.

But here’s another line of inquiry. One of the other reasons for putting a relatively late date on the written gospels is that there was no need for them whilst eyewitnesses to the events were still alive. Partly that’s a ploy on the part of more liberal scholars to wangle some time for legends and variant traditions to arise (it normally takes two or three centuries, but at least thirty years is better than nothing…). But even conservatives like John Walton and Brent Sandy stress the orality of New Testament culture as a reason why committing the gospel to writing would be low down the list of priorities.

Now I’m very open to the idea of a period of oral tradition – it doesn’t affect the truth of the testimony until you get into form and redaction criticism’s imaginary “Q communities” confidently located in Galilee, and so on. But I still have my doubts, and I wonder if one problem may be that few New Testament scholars have belonged to churches that have experienced explosive growth.

For many years I was in a Church which grew from 100 members to something like three times that number in a decade. Believe me, that’s small beer growth compared to some churches I’ve known. But as I was in the leadership team, I know in this case what massive problems – though of the right kind – such growth brings.

And what is the biggest problem in a rapidly growing church? Leadership. We happened to be blessed with half a dozen experienced and mature teachers, mainly “grown” in other churches. But the church doubles in size, and you ask, “Shall we split off a daughter church?” But that means losing good leaders when you actually need more, and even when the right qualities are present, there is much for them to learn – which is why seminaries train people for several years.

In today’s climate, of course, it is possible, if not always easy, to buy in leadership trained at whatever universities and colleges your denomination favours. But that hasn’t always been the case. Read the history of the Reformation in England, and probably elsewhere, and the acute need for the new Church of England was well-educated and godly pastors. That had been a sore need before, but it had been long neglected, and ignorant or lazy clergy was one of the triggers for Reformation. It wasn’t easy even with a couple of well-established Christian Universities in the country.

I support an Asian-based college that trains local leaders for poor and small churches in Muslim countries. And astonishingly courageous young people they are. But even so there are churches in the west to fund it, and to provide much of the teaching (ultimately from those long-established colleges again). And those kids need to be away from home for a year or two – mostly they’re planting new house-churches onceĀ  they graduate. But what would be happening to any small group of new believers they had left behind to meet week by week without any teaching, while the leaders trained? What state would such churches be when the student returned?

This was the situation in the New Church of Jesus Christ, in spades, after Pentecost. We’re told in Acts that the Jerusalem church consisted of about 120 believers, with only the apostles fully trained by Jesus for leadership. One supposes that, scattered across Judaea and maybe further afield, there were small groups, maybe even whole villages, that had believed in Jesus through his own ministry or the missions of the twelve and Luke’s seventy-two.

Jesus had, through his teaching, completely redefined the Jewish faith in terms of himself. The resurrection had led to an incredibly steep learning curve for the disciples, as they came to terms with an entirely new kind of theology in just forty days. Even at Jesus’s ascension, according to Matthew, some of the apostles still held doubts. Remember that it’s unlikely they had any available copies of Scriptural books – they were expensive, and needed the community-power of the synagogues to obtain them. Their education in re-interpreting the law and prophets had to be oral, and committed to memory.

OK, so the apostles are going to be equipped with the Holy Spirit, and with Jesus’s post-resurrection crash course (in radical Bible re-interpretation), so we may picture them contemplating the task of nurturing the Jerusalem Church through their “oral tradition”, and even sparing some of the apostles, with difficulty, to be visiting preachers and seminar leaders out in the villages. Somewhere in the distant future looms the command of Jesus to claim their inheritance in the new promised land by preaching in “Judaea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.”

And what’s the very first thing that happens? Three thousand come to belief on the first day, and they’re largely Jewish pilgrims from every diaspora settlement in the world, who’ve travelled hundreds of miles to celebrate Pentecost in the Temple. The rest would be the local contingent from Jerusalem, and a new set of unevangelized towns and villages in Judaea and Galilee.

How do the apostles feel as they send hundreds of brand new converts back, after the festival, to every different nation and tongue? How will these converts form churches, learn what it was that Jesus is all about in relation to the “old religion”, counter the criticisms in the synagogue back home, and so on? Would there not have been some major anxieties in both the Jerusalem church and the departing new believers about the future?

The problems are only compounded over the next few years. The local Church grows to 5000, and the apostles enlist seven deacons to give themselves some space for teaching. But what about all those little churches in the Judaean countryside, week by week? And those languishing outposts in Parthia and the Roman Empire generally?

The stoning of one of the deacons, Stephen, leads to a persecution that scatters all but the apostles. And some of those scattered at least might have a little of Jesus’s teaching in their heads. But the Church is growing like Topsy, and I am certain that the biggest crisis was that of leadership. Oral tradition is jolly fine if you’ve got a village community sharing long-established tales and customs. It’s a different matter if all you’ve got is half a dozen believers in Jesus whose entire Christian training was what they learned at their impromptu baptism service before travelling back from their life-changing trip to Jerusalem.

What are you going to do if you’re an apostle, commissioned by Jesus to build the new Israel like Moses, and to take it not only round Judaea, but round the world? Sooner or later – and I suggest the day after that first Pentecost might be soon enough – you’re going to want a short written story of Jesus and the gospel, together with his basic training in the new way of life. In Hebrew or Aramaic. As soon as possible please.

How could you do it? I suggest you’d put the project in the hands of the most literate apostle, and make it something of a committee job, his drafts being augmented by the other apostles’ contributions where appropriate. When ready, it could be copied for anyone from the villages – or further afield – who needed an apostle but couldn’t book one. Lo and behold – the oral tradition is available to those huge numbers out of earshot.

Papias, early in the second century, said that Matthew was the first to compile his gospel, in Hebrew, in Judaea. Although our Greek Matthew looks like a later expanded version (apparently including much of Mark), it’s still based around five blocks of teaching material, like a mini Pentateuch, and is clearly written for discipling Jews in the faith. We can’t know for sure when the original was written, but it’s easy to see – from what I’ve said – when it would be desirable to have it available, and that’s almost from the start of the Church’s history. That is, if the apostles had any sense at all of wanting to ground their scattered converts in the life and teaching of Jesus. In fact, there is every sign that they were also fully aware that they were as instrumental in initiating the New Covenant for Israel as Moses had been the Old – and Moses wrote Scripture from the beginning.

We can pull Luke into this picture. Imagine Paul going out preaching, to Jews first, and then to Gentiles. He too is founding new, often small, isolated churches. Some will be excluded from the synagogues, where they are used to hearing the Scriptures taught weekly (though few will ever own any part of the Bible themselves, even if they can read Hebrew). I’ll wager that if Matthew’s gospel were available, as I’ve suggested, he’d have carried a copy (he didn’t, after all, hear Jesus in life). When he stayed somewhere for long – such as Corinth or Ephesus, investing in the services of a local copyist (a few denarii) would have given the new church a teaching text that would enable Paul to move on with a clearer conscience about his “spiritual babies”.

That would explain, of course, why Paul seldom felt the need to teach gospel events in his letters – it’s not that they didn’t matter to him (as some of the scholars say), but because they already had the book.

But here’s a problem. An increasing number of believers are Gentiles, and sophisticated ones at that – Paul is moving in high political circles, albeit often as a prisoner. The Gentiles don’t read Hebrew, don’t get many of the Old Testament allusions and Judaean local geography, and in any case …well, this gospel of Matthew lacks elegance, rather. Paul would really like to have a gospel in Greek.

Enter Luke: an able theologian used to handling Matthew, Greek background, knows the genres of biography and history, knows Paul’s way of preaching, and also a collector of anecdotes of his own from many meetings with eyewitnesses like Philip and Mnason. Probably he’s picked up Mark’s brief gospel along the way (Papias says Mark was Peter’s amanuensis, making Mark a compendium of Peter’s preaching). Luke, from this material, rewrites proto-Matthew for your Greek intellectual, and the Gentile disciples and Hellenic Jews now have the same advantages as the Hebrew-speaking believers.

Luke then replaces, or augments, Matthew in Paul’s knapsack: it has every reason to exist long before Paul ends up in Rome. Thomas Aquinas first suggested that the significantly unnamed “the brother famous in/for the gospel” in 2 Cor 8.18 was Luke, and some modern scholars such as John Wenham agree. The latter even suggests, quite plausibly, that Luke’s prologue doesn’t (in effect) say “There have been lots of tries at doing a gospel, and here’s mine”, but rather refers to his two main sources, one “undertaken by many” (Hebrew Matthew incorporating the input of the twelve) and that “handed down by those who from the first were eye witnesses and servants of the word” (the former being Peter the eyewitness, the latter being Mark the servant).

None of this goes with what I was taught at school about the synoptic problem, of course, but it seems that any consensus that once existed on that in the scholarly community is long gone. I’m just trying to see things from the early church’s point of view, and in my opinion trying to cope with what the Holy Spirit was doing across the world in the first thirty years, without any written teaching materials, wouldn’t have led to a Church, but to a host of syncretic Jesus cults… and dropping written gospels into such a mess a few decades later would have been far too late to remedy it.

Avatar photo

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Dating the gospels

  1. pngarrison says:

    I’m not up on these things at all, but I seem to remember the Didache as being supposed to be fairly early. Not ultimately canonical, but maybe important in the early days. What do you know about that?

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Preston

    As in all these things there is scholarly dispute (they don’t know nuffin’ – they just have good arguments about not knowing.)

    There seems agreement that Didache is based on a 1st century Jewish model “catechism”, and has quite “primitive” liturgical content. To me nothing would be more natural than for the early Jewish Church, increasingly marginalised from the synagogues, to adapt it for their own use. It’s used more or less verbatim in the (fairly early, but post-Temple-destruction) Epistle of Barnabas, suggesting its widepread distribution. As you hint, it’s evidence for some kind of standard written materials being of use quite early on.

    An early (and Jewish) origin would explain its relative lack of Christology – and in the context of my post, of course, would cry out for something more specifically Christian for discipling purposes. Conversely, if you already had Matthew, would you bother to adapt the Didache?

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    This post seems timely to me, as I have been reading the Gospels with the help of the “The Expositor’s Greek NT”. I have not finished John’s Gospel, but nonetheless I am struck by the way all of the Gospel writers write in their own style, and yet the meaning and message is constantly that taught by Jesus – as well as His actions and responses to the people around Him. I am at a loss on comprehending some remarks by so called scholars who try out odd speculation regarding these writings. If any of us are familiar with writings of various authors, be it scientific or sociological, we are struck by the great differences, both in style and content, that one associates with each of such authors. yet we see the Gospel writers, with great differences in their backgrounds and upbringing, conveying the same message, and with their own ‘take’. I understand this may point to an oral tradition and I agree this would be consistent with obtaining the accounts from eye witnesses (and apostles and such), but I am convinced that a lot has to do with inspiration and guidance by the Holy Spirit.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Glad it helped, even though off the Hump’s beaten track.

      Scholarship is an excellent thing, but we’ve had about 200 years when much “mainstream” scholarship has started from Enlightenment hyperskepticism, come up with methodologies reflecting that, and found what they were bound to find. As you know, I’ve studied some theology, and so often one has the sense, when reading the literature on NT origins, that they’ve constructed an entire fantasy world of nebulous communities, Pualine or Johannine “schools”, 2nd century evangelists pretending to be eyewitnesses, etc, having debunked actual history and early traditions.

      Of course, inspiration by the Holy Spirit is alien to the “historico-critical” method (as it has often been practised, anyway), and so often doesn’t get a look in the door. As in science, one begins from “history can’t study God” and soon gets to “there’s no God in history”.

      That’s not always true, of course – Jonathan Bernier’s article (from the viewpoint of “critical realism”) takes the historical setting of Hebrews seriously, as oppose to assuming from its sophisticated theology that it’s a late book. Stick it in its real setting, and suddenly it’s not just timeless theology, but a life and death struggle to hold on to your faith against the combined weight of your cultural assumptions, a persecuting state-religious apparatus and an unsympathetic Roman occupier.

      If Hebrews was written after AD70, there’d be little temptation for its readers to go back to Judaism because it was in pieces, Jesus’s prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction had been vindicated and the Jerusalem Church was almost the only institution back up and running.

  4. Timothy Hicks says:

    I always thought that the destruction of the temple would be a very odd thing indeed to leave out of your gospel! It would seem most appropriate to say, “Jesus prophesied that the temple would be destroyed… and look! It came true!” But it’s no where mentioned — not even hinted at!

    I also think it’s intriguing how in each of the gospels (maybe not all, could be wrong about that) mention Jesus rising from the dead, and the disciples take so long to recognize him. If you’re going to start the spread of a new religion that has a messiah rising from the dead, it would seem more practical to just say everyone recognized him, as a vote of confidence to your potential converts.

    It seems more indicative of writers who were more interested in portraying the truth, than sugar-coating the details; as well as recounting details that are relatively fresh in people’s minds.

    In regards to the prophecy …. it seems to me that most scholars automatically put the date of the gospels past 70 AD, out of hand, because … well … that would give credibility to Jesus, and would therefore be (dare I say it), supernatural.


  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    The other notable evidential “weakness” that turns into strength is the emphasis on the women as witnesses to the resurrection.

    It’s always possible to downplay whatever historical evidence we have, but those who see early Christianity as “hole in corner” are looking at a period of history which the destruction of Jerusalem decisively ended. It’s not surprising that records of the gospel’s first generation and its reception are not plentiful.

    Yet reading Acts this morning, I see the Jerusalem authorities petitioning Festus to get at the imprisoned Paul just three days after his taking up the post – it was a pressing matter. And later, the High Priest’s killing of James took advantage of a brief hiatus in Roman supervision.

    The Christians were a big problem, and it was not only because of the Resurrection claim, but because the message was so radical AND so popular, even in its heartland.

Leave a Reply