“The fact that something is written down,” writes down Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, “is persuasive to people not used to asking questions like, ‘Who wrote it and when? How did they know what to write? Did they in their time really mean what we in our time understand them to be saying? Were they unbiased observers or did they have an agenda that colored their writing?'”
When I learned how to have a Bible study, some of the fundamental questions I was taught to ask: Who wrote it? When did they write it? Who were they writing to? What would this passage have meant to them at that time? It would seem, then, that many Christians are well versed in asking such questions, although, admittedly, probably many are not.
Here’s a question: is Richard Dawkins an unbiased observer of science and history, or does he have an agenda that colors his writing? If you’ve read his books or been following this blog at all, that answer is obvious. But it also depends on what you mean by “colored”. Everyone that bothers to write a book tends to have an inclination one way or another. However, the question behind the question, Dawkins implies, is how much have those writings been stretched from truth in order to advance said agenda? In the case of both the Bible and The God Delusion, we will continue to explore that question.
Dawkins asserts that historians have made “an overwhelming case” that the gospels are not reliable accounts of history. Here are the first couple of the overwhelming facts he presents:
- All the gospels were written long after Jesus’ death.
- All the gospels were written after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life.
So let’s begin:
How long is “long”?
According to Dawkins, the Gospels were written “long after” the death of Jesus, but he doesn’t say just how long, nor the implications of this. I’ll tell you the implications. The later the gospels were written, the more removed they would have been from the events themselves, and thus would have been more susceptible to exaggerations, errors, and even legends. If they were written earlier, they could reasonably be considered more accurate, since the events occurred more recently.
When do scholars place the gospels? It varies rather widely. Many, however, put Mark written around 70 AD, with Matthew and Luke written in 80’s or 90’s (maybe early 2nd century), and John written after those two. Let’s just assume this is true for a moment. That puts Christ’s death around 33 AD, and Mark’s gospel less than 40 years afterward. A long time by some standards, I suppose, but not really all that long historically, considering my grandfather fought in World War II and could remember events clearly and coherently in 2005, around 60 years later (the equivalent of the mid-90’s AD).
Reading through multiple sources, however, I can only really find one major reason for many scholars dating the gospels between that particular time-frame. And that is this: they think that whoever wrote Mark lied.
You see, the order of the Gospels has been widely accepted and seems reasonable enough. Matthew and Luke both seem to draw heavily from Mark, and John may draw from Luke. But the major piece of evidence given for landing these on a particular date comes internally from Mark, and from one verse in Mark, in fact.
Mark 13:2 – ““Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Here, he is referring to the temple of Jerusalem, and is essentially predicting the destruction of that temple.
The destruction of Jerusalem actually happened not too long after Jesus’ death, in 70 AD. But prophesy isn’t really something that can actually happen, you see. So, that means Jesus really didn’t predict that the temple was going to be torn down, and thus Mark just made that part up…after (or at least shortly before) the temple actually was torn down. There is other evidence that suggests that it couldn’t have been too long after, so we place it right around that time.
So the scholarly dating for the entire set of gospels seems to be based largely on the sentiment, “Nah, that couldn’t really have happened.” That might be convincing for some, but requires coming at the dating from a needlessly skeptical predisposition, and is a pretty inadequate thought to hang everything else on. Besides, arguing from a skeptical standpoint, couldn’t Jesus have actually predicted it and just have gotten lucky? I mean, I can predict the fall of American republic, and unless America lasts forever, I’ll be proven right one of these days. But thinking this way puts much of the scholarly dating back to square one, so we just gloss over it and say that Mark was written around 70 AD.
I should note one other reason that has cropped up for dating the gospels later, particularly Luke. There are a few similarities between the Gospel of Luke and Antiquities of the Jews, written by historian Josephus in 93 AD, so, some historians assume, Luke must have used that as a source, and thus would have to be written later.
There are a few similarities (no direct quotes, just some similar facts and wording), but the two texts do differ on many other fronts. The three options are: Luke drew from Josephus, Josephus drew from Luke, or they both drew from a third source. The reason to pick the first seems to be primarily because it advances the secular agenda the most. Historian Steve Mason had put forth this theory into writing, and it has gained some traction, but in the typical let’s-not-try-to-look-at-the-facts-too-much kind of way. This article, by the Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry, provides a pretty good analysis of Mason’s arguments and shows just how many large leaps of assumption he has to make to get history into this box. It also shows how option three, that they both drew from a third source, is the most likely, although that “third” source is probably a number of different sources, because many of the similarities were likely common knowledge in Jewish circles.
So if the evidence is rather slim (if existent at all) for dating the gospels in the fashion described, then is there other evidence that suggests an alternate dating? Actually, there is more evidence that the gospels were dated earlier than that, mostly before 70 AD (except possibly John).
- Acts, a highly historical book, stops dead short at Paul being imprisoned in Rome. It does not mention persecution by Nero (AD 64), the death of James (AD 62), the death of Paul (AD 64), the death of Peter (AD 65), or the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (AD 70), all very relevant to the history given. This would suggest that Acts was written in the early 60’s AD. Luke wrote Acts, and also the Gospel of Luke. In Acts, the writer refers to his own gospel, so that would put Luke prior to this.
- Matthew, likewise, mentions the prediction of the destruction of the temple, but does not suggest that it had occurred at the time of writing, which is uncharacteristic of him, considering his other mentions of prophecy come with a very clear declaration that those prophecies had been fulfilled.
- Early church fathers in the early part of the second century say they were written either by the disciples or by someone in direct contact with disciples or other eyewitnesses. In particular, Mark was said to have been writing from the direct accounts of Peter, who died in AD 65. The authorship often gets questioned by secular scholars, but that will have to be a subject for a later article. For now, though, this article by Tektonics is a good read on that subject.
- We can affirm an oral tradition, and these early church fathers say that what was passed down is in line with what the gospels teach. In particular, Irenæus was a student of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of St. John and other eyewitnesses. Irenæus wrote: “I can recall the very place where Polycarp used to sit and teach, his manner of speech, his mode of life, his appearance, the style of his address to the people, his frequent references to St. John and to others who had seen our Lord;
how he used to repeat from memory their discourses, which he had heard from them concerning our Lord, his miracles and mode of teaching, and how, being instructed himself by those who were eye-witnesses of the word, there was in all that he said a strict agreement with the Scriptures.” Polycarp’s own letter to the Philippians in AD 120 quotes the gospels about 60 times. This doesn’t necessarily put the writing of the gospels themselves prior to AD 70, but it at least puts them in line with the teachings of the eyewitnesses and those directly connected with them.
- A fragment found dating from AD 68 or before appears to be quoting from the Gospel of Mark (although, with only a handful of characters, it’s far from conclusive).
There are other reasons out there, but those were some of the stronger points. But really, regardless of which of those theories you hold to, the timeframe between Christ’s death and the writing was not all that lengthy. An article in Creation.com puts it well when it says, “That the Gospels were written decades later than the events does not devalue them as historical accounts; indeed, for ancient history, the Gospels were written surprisingly quickly. The only accounts we have of some events in Jewish history are in Josephus, written far longer after they occurred.”
So some secularists have decided to up the ante on the debate, and put all of the gospels and Acts even later, into the late second century. The reasons behind this theory are highly speculative, quite imaginative in some cases, and ultimately pretty illogical, if not a good bit bull-headed, and put a conspiracy theory slant on the whole matter. Most scholars, Christian or not, don’t take it all that seriously, but it still seems to grow in popularity nonetheless, like any good bit of wishful thinking.
An interesting classic text on the subject that calls serious evidence against this later theory is Constantin von Tischendorf’s pamphlet published in 1866, “When Were Our Gospels Written“. Some great arguments, largely from the standpoint of looking at the testimonies of the early church fathers and others in the 2nd century, but also addressing some of the various manuscripts and fragments that had been discovered at the time of writing. It’s written for a religious audience, so a non-religious reader may find some of his passionate discourse a bit off-putting, but much of his logic is solid nonetheless.
I’ll also comment briefly on his second point, that all were written after the epistles of Paul, which mention none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life. I’m not sure what all the current dating is for the various epistles of Paul, but it seems that it’s possible the gospels were written after Paul, but also possible that at least one of them was not. However, I’m not sure what this does for Mr. Dawkins.
Regarding the facts that Paul does not present, none of the epistles were biographies of Jesus’ life, they were largely dealing either with specific theological issues, or were addressing specific instructions to members of the early church. However, they do, in fact, mention certain facts of Jesus’ life. He died, he was buried, he was resurrected, he appeared to many witnesses, and he is one in whom we put our trust. These were the most crucial facts to the Christian faith. Besides, would he need to restate the events and/or words of Jesus if they early church already had them being circulated, either in written or oral form?
Ultimately, the dating of the original gospels is only so important to a secularist, because they usually attack the gospel reliability on another front…