The gospels were written within eye witnesses’ lifetimes

The canonical gospels are the four books in the Bible that record the events of Jesus’ life. This topic discusses whether they were written early enough to be verified by eye witnesses and it forms the foundation of several of my other topics that discuss whether they can be trusted significantly to be used as evidence for the existence of God. The question of who wrote these gospels and how close they were to Jesus affects how we trust their contents.

Who wrote the gospels?

Traditionally, the authorships of the four gospels have been attributed to the apostles Matthew and John, an interpreter of the apostle Peter called Mark and a companion of the apostle Paul called Luke. However, although the contents of the gospels have been diligently copied and preserved since their creation the evidence supporting these authorships is a little sparse.

It is mostly tradition that attributes the Gospel of Matthew to the apostle Matthew, although Papias, one of the leaders of the Christian church in the second century states that, “Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language,” and this is sometimes assumed to refer to a Hebrew version of the gospel of Matthew, though this is now highly contested. Papias also states that the gospel of Mark was written by Mark, the interpreter of the apostle Peter. Irenaeus, one of the church fathers in the second century, agreed that the Gospel of Luke was written by Luke the companion of Paul and this is echoed when the first person plural is used in the Acts of the Apostles (a continuation of the Gospel written by the same author), “After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered the island” (Acts 28:11). Irenaeus also recorded that the Gospel of John was written by John the apostle. In his youth, Irenaeus had heard Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, speak, who in turn was a disciple of the apostle John. Epiphanius, the bishop of Salamis in the fourth century records that John delayed the writing of his gospel out of humility until he was in his nineties. Interestingly, this gospel, which mentions other apostles by name, does not mention the name of John the apostle at all, but refers to him as ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’. This might be further evidence of John’s humility and some scholars have suggested that this is a further indication that the gospel was indeed written by John.

However, the sparseness of the supporting evidence has led some scholars to question the authorship of the gospels and even their dates. It has to be said that no serious scholars have dated the gospels beyond AD 70 for Mark and AD 100 for John.

When were the gospels written?

Dating any archaeological document accurately can be difficult. References to known historical events typically cause the document to be dated after that event, whilst the lack of any reference to a significant event that would normally be expected to be found can indicate that the document was written before that event. With regard to the gospels, the date of AD 70 is profoundly significant; it is the date in which Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by Roman soldiers following a Jewish uprising against their Roman occupiers and the subsequent siege of the city. Not only did this inflict terrible suffering on the residents of Jerusalem, but it destroyed the political and religious cornerstone of the Jewish culture at the time. The Christian community, which was predominantly resident in the Land of Israel was profoundly affected and fled to an area that is now located in present day Jordan.

The Gospel of Matthew, Mark and Luke all contain a prediction of this event by Jesus:

Mark 13:1-4
“As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’
‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ Jesus replied. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down'”

Some scholars have assumed that this was retrospectively written after the events of AD 70. However, John AT Robinson in his book ‘Redating the New Testament’ convincingly argues that these passages don’t accurately describe the events well enough to be written after their occurrence. They are recorded alongside Jesus’ prophesies of the end of the world and clearly show that the gospel writers were not aware that the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world were different events. Although, both the destruction of Jerusalem and temple and the end of the world prophecies are similar in so far as they are cataclysmic, Robinson shows that the end of the world prophesies differ significantly from the AD 70 events and that they instead probably reflect the Old Testament prophesies in Daniel. Writers prior to the event of AD 70 would not have been aware of this distinction and could easily confuse the two, whilst the differences would have been obvious to writers after AD 70, who would have avoided the confusion.

Robinson also presents other similar counterarguments. For example, Matt 22:1-10 contains a parable in which a king burns the home city of some people who rejected his invitation to a banquet and killed his servants. Some scholars suggest that this burning of the city, which could easily reflect many military expeditions of the day, is actually an inference to AD 70. The perceived inference is unlikely to be real, particularly as the Caesar who sent the Roman armies to destroy Jerusalem was Nero, the infamous persecutor of Christians, who would not have been suitable inspiration for the king in the parable, which was actually an analogy of God.

Robinson concludes that there are no significant retrospective references to the events of AD 70 and quotes Charles Torrey, who argues that if none of the gospels make any retrospective references to such a momentous event then they were probably written before that event.

Where Robinson argues that there is no significant evidence to suggest that the gospels were written after AD 70, Carsten Peter Thiede in his book ‘The Jesus Papyrus’ claims that there is significant papyrological evidence to suggest that Matthew and Mark were written prior to AD 66.

Thiede redated a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Matthew which was originally found in Luxor, Egypt in the late 1800’s and was bequeathed to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1901. He noticed that it had remarkable similarities in format and style to a smaller fragment (indexed 7Q5) found amongst the dead-sea scrolls of Qumran and concluded that it is likely to have been written about the same time. It is known that the religious community in Qumran abandoned their scrolls in AD 68 and there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that Cave 7, where the fragment was found, was ever revisited after that date. This indicates that 7Q5 was not written after AD 68. Additionally, 7Q5 was not written on a codex (a book format), but a scroll. Scrolls were quickly being superseded by codices at that time; something that affirms the earlier date. Thiede also argues that 7Q5 is a fragment of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 6:52-53); however, the small size of the fragment makes this latter point difficult to prove and highly contested.

Theide and Robinson therefore put forward strong arguments that some of the gospels, at least, were written within 2-3 decades of Jesus’ Crucifixion. They also both show how the later datings of the gospels have been based on academic assumptions, which have, in turn, been based on further assumptions, which like a house of cards, can easily fall if the underlying assumption is proven false. For example, some dates were based on the assumption that papyri would only be copied and transported between countries at an interval of ten years. These dates would then set the standard upon which other dates would be assumed. However, we now know that a papyrus could be copied and transported across the Roman Empire within days or weeks, leading to different dates.

The late datings seem to be further fuelled by a culture prevalent amongst the scholarly community in which scepticism is merited far more than a willingness to affirm traditionally held beliefs.

The Gospel of Luke is another gospel that could have easily been written before AD 70. The last half of the Acts of the Apostles closely follows the life of the Apostle Paul, even through his house arrest in Rome, but it stops short of his execution in AD 65. This is a strong indication that it was written before AD 65. In its opening sentence it also states that it is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. This indicates that the Gospel of Luke would have been written before the Acts of the Apostles and therefore before AD 65.

To me it seems perfectly likely that some gospels at least would have been written within a few decades of Jesus’ crucifixion. The early Christian community was spawned from the Jewish community, which, in turn placed a great importance on the reading and study of scriptures. It would have seemed perfectly natural for the early Christians to document and circulate their own scriptures early on.

Their validation by eye witnesses

Gospels that were written a few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion would have been in the Christian community during the lifetime of eye witnesses of the events that they recorded. These eye witnesses would then be able to either validate or discredit those gospels, which would in turn affect how well they were accepted. There are other gospels that exist that were never included in the Bible, but, judging by the numbers of papyri that remain to this day, it would seem to me that the Biblical gospels were most widely accepted and circulated, particularly the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. The very fact that the church fathers, such as Irenaeus, were quoting from the canonical gospels a couple of generations later shows that they had by then become trusted.

Theide’s and Robinson’s arguments are by no means universally accepted, but even if we accept the later dates suggested by the more sceptical scholars, we can still see that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written only four to five decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, early enough to be verified by those contemporaries of Jesus.

My feeling is that if the contemporaries of Jesus were involved in the writing and/or acceptance of these gospels then they can be trusted as a reasonable effort to record the facts of Jesus’ life as they were understood at the time.

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