Friday, April 13, 2012

About the Gospels


Jesus of Nazareth is the central figure in Christianity, the single most important person ever to have lived, according to Christian belief.  While there is some information about Jesus that can be gleaned from other Christian sources, including Paul, and a small handful of obscure secular references, the four New Testament gospel accounts provide the bulk of what we know about him.  And thus the reliability of these accounts is very important to Christians and to Christianity.  So what do we know about their authorship and when they were written?  Actually not nearly as much as we might like.

It would be really great if we could find a copy of the Gospel of John with a copyright page included that listed the author and date of the first printing.  Unfortunately those kinds of clues are missing from the writings of that time.  It would also be convenient if other writers in the first couple of centuries had believed in providing references for their quotes.  There are plenty of short passages used in other writings that appear to come from one of the gospels, but they could just as easily come from another source.  As a result we have to use some more indirect methods to try and ascertain the dating and authorship of the gospels.

I have read from a variety of sources concerning the gospels, some claiming that the authors knew the geography of Israel as well as customs and titles common to the first half of the first century.  And other sources make just the opposite claim.  It is difficult for me to know just how to evaluate those conflicting claims, and so I generally ignore them.

The Destruction of Jerusalem

To me the most significant evidence for the dating of the gospels concerns the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Three of the gospels seem to directly refer to this event while the fourth indirectly does.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all refer to this event as if it were something yet to occur and Jesus was foretelling the destruction.  But did it really happen that way, or did the gospel writers, writing after the fact, put the predictive words into Jesus mouth?

Your response to that question is likely dependent on who you believe Jesus is.  If he was indeed God in human form, then to know the future would be no big deal; and his predicting it before his death, and having it written down prior to 70 AD would be no big deal.  But if you believe Jesus was a best an interesting teacher whose legend was expanded in the decades following his death, then the gospels must be written after 70 AD, and in such a way as to appear as unfulfilled prophecy.

Of course a third possibility is that Jesus did indeed foretell the fall of Jerusalem but the accounts we have today were not written until after the event.  The difficulty with that, at least to me, is that all three of the authors referring to the prediction refrained from using the event to prove that Jesus actually did forecast the fall of Jerusalem.  And how tempting that would have been, to say "Jesus said it, and it happened just like he said".

Another interesting issue concerning this forecast is that it appears to only be partially fulfilled.  If you read the 24th chapter of Matthew, the longest and most detailed account, you will see some things that could easily relate to the events of 70 AD, but other parts of it are clearly targeted at the end of the world.  The interesting part of this to me is what it says about the dating.  If these accounts were invented to show Jesus predictive power, they really could have done a much better job of it.  And if the prediction was indeed from Jesus but recorded later, it would have been awful tempting to edit the account to make it better jive with actual events, and not scramble it up with end of the world stuff; especially since you would be writing from after the end of the world.

So it seems most logical to me to date at least the Synoptic Gospels prior to 70 AD.  And even the gospel of John, in John 5:2, refers to the Pool of Bethesda as something that had current existence.  But that pool was destroyed in 70 AD.

The Death of Paul

The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are claimed to be written by the same author; and I know of no serious objection to that.  The author of Acts also appears to be a sometimes traveling companion of Paul.  There are three small sections in the latter part of Acts with the narrative changes from second and third person to a first person plural, indicating that the author had joined Paul on one of his trips.  The later half of the book of Acts is almost exclusively about the travels of Paul as he takes the gospel through the north-east corner of the Mediterranean.  And the account ends with Paul spending two years under Roman house arrest in Rome.   Paul seems to have been killed around 65 AD, yet Luke makes no reference to his death.  Why?  It would seem reasonable to me to assume that Paul was still alive when Acts was written, putting its date prior to 65 AD.  And Luke precedes Acts by probably a couple of years, putting it into the early 60's.

And that would put Mark, which appears to be a common source for Matthew and Luke even earlier.

Dates and Authors

Mark is likely the earliest gospel written, and a date in the late 50's would not be unreasonable.  This gospel in anonymous, although early tradition attributes it to John Mark, relative of Barnabas and one time companion of Paul.  It is said that he listened to the stories of Peter while in Rome and then crafted this account.  The curious reference in Mark 14:51-52 could well be Mark saying "I was there".

Luke and Acts are likely written in the early 60's, or possibly late 50's.  These accounts are also anonymous but appear to have been written by someone who spent at least some time with Paul.  The author also claims that at the time of his writing there were already a number of accounts of the life of Jesus and that he researched his account striving for accuracy.  By tradition the author of this set is Luke.

Matthew is likely written sometime in the 60's and like Mark and Luke is anonymous.  Tradition attributes this gospel to Matthew, the tax collector who became a disciple of Jesus.  But I do not think that likely.  If so, why would he draw so heavily from Mark rather than his own recollections?

John is traditionally dated to the end of the first century, but it seems more likely to me to also come prior to 70 AD and the fall of Jerusalem.  The author of John is not identified by name, but John 21:24 seems to indicate that it is written by one of Jesus disciples, likely John.

Two resources will provide an example of the datings that have been assigned to these 5 books.  The first of these is from the web site, Errant Skeptics (http://www.errantskeptics.org/Dating-New-Testament-Books.htm), which provides a listing of the dates given by a variety of scholars, both liberal and conservative, for the writing of the New Testament books.  The dates given below discard both the oldest and most recent estimates.  The second is from the book ‘Redating the New Testament’ by John A. T. Robinson, an often quoted book, although not universally accepted.

Errant SkepticsRedating the New Testament
Matthew49-90c. 40-60+
Mark45-73c. 45-60
Luke53-85-57-60+
John70-95-40-65+
Acts62-90-57-62+

Some Other Thoughts

There are those who will argue that the gospels were written long after Jesus death, and did not actually come into their finished form until the 4th century and were the product of much editing and revision over the preceding centuries.  And those are generally the same folks who will claim that the gospels are filled with contradictions and inconsistencies.  But is that not really a contradiction in itself?  Think about it; if the gospels were edited for 200 to 300 years before reaching their final state, wouldn't it seem like all of the inconsistencies and contradictions would have been edited out?  I know I would have at least done something about the genealogies of Jesus presented in Matthew and Luke.

If, on the other hand, the gospels were held as sacred from the beginning, and any editing strongly discouraged, then it really would not be strange to see four accounts of Jesus ministry with different focuses, with events in different orders and an inconsistency in the numbers of people in some events.

Discussion

If you have any comments, questions or discussion on this topic please go to the Rational Christianity discussion group and let your voice be heard.

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