Daily Archives: 2009-05-07 22:21:41 UTC

How the Gospels are most commonly dated (and why?)

From Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 144-145 (number formatting is mine):

  1. Even though it is very hard to date the Gospels with precision, most scholars agree on the basic range of dates, for a variety of reasons . . . .
  2. I can say with relative certainty — from his own letters and from Acts — that Paul was writing during the fifties of the common era . . . .
  3. [H]e gives in his own writings absolutely no evidence of knowing about or ever having heard of the existence of any Gospels. From this it can be inferred that the Gospels probably were written after Paul’s day.
  4. It also appears that the Gospel writers know about certain later historical events, such as the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 ce . . . That implies that these Gospels were probably written after 70.
  5. There are reasons for thinking Mark was written first, so maybe he wrote around the time of the war with Rome, 70 ce.
  6. If Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source, they must have been composed after Mark’s Gospel circulated for a time outside its own originating community — say, ten or fifteen years later, in 80 to 85 ce.
  7. John seems to be the most theologically developed Gospel, and so it was probably written later still, nearer the end of the first century, around 90 to 95 ce.
  8. These are rough guesses, but most scholars agree on them.

Here we have in a convenient nutshell the basic reasons behind the widely accepted dates for the Gospels. Bart Ehrman explains he is not going into details here, and one can find in the literature more nuanced arguments for relative and other dates assigned to the gospels. But with these dot points we can say we are looking at the trunk of the tree.

Dating Paul

The grounds stated for dating Paul to the 50’s seems reasonable enough. The only problem is that there is no external attestation for Paul’s letters till the second century. Ditto for the book of Acts. It is unknown until Irenaeus cites it in the latter half of the second century. That leaves only the letters of Paul themselves. How certain can we be about a date that relies solely on the self-witness of the documents themselves? Especially when we know that at the time Paul’s letters do appear they are simultaneously embroiled in controversies over forgeries and interpolations. (Marcionites accused “orthodoxy” of interpolating Paul’s letters; the letters themselves warn of forgeries, and many scholars believe the Pastoral letters are forgeries.)

But the point here is that Ehrman does supply the reasons, the evidence, for dating Paul the way most do.

Dating Mark read more »

The “oral tradition” myth of gospel origins

Bart Ehrman (BE) in Jesus, Interrupted, summarizes the standard view of how a long period of “oral tradition” preceded the writing of the first gospels. The Gospels of the New Testament, he writes,

were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death by people who did not know him, did not see anything he did or hear anything he taught, people who spoke a different language from his and lived in a different country from him. (p.144)

So how can they be considered reliable evidence of what Jesus did and said? BE answers:

The first step is to get a better handle on how the Gospel writers got their stories. . . . The short answer is that most Gospel writers received most of their information from the oral tradition, stories that had been in circulation about Jesus by word of mouth from the time he died until the time the Gospel writers wrote them down.

BE then explains that one thing the historian needs to understand is how the oral traditions about Jesus worked. Here is his take:

How did Christians convert people away from their (mainly) pagan religions to believe in only one God, the God of the Jews, and in Jesus, his son, who died to take away the sins of the world? The only way to convert people was to tell them stories about Jesus: what he said and did, and how he died and was raised from the dead. Once someone converted to the religion and became a member of a Christian church, they, too, would tell the stories. And the people they converted would then tell the stories, as would those whom those people converted. And so it went, a religion spread entirely by word of mouth, in a world of no mass media. . . . This is how Christianity spread, year after year, decade after decade, until eventually someone wrote down the stories.

From Jesus, Interrupted (Bart Ehrman), p.146

There is nothing controversial in this outline. The scenario is outlined in many biblical studies texts. But the scenario does not offer readers who are wishing to inform themselves the background to their gospel sources a truly fair or just account. Indeed, as a synopsis of the pre-gospel era it is as ideological as the Acts of the Apostles or the Apostles Creed. First, we have a description of people converting to a single religion with the God of the Jews at its centre, by means of the spread of stories said to be about that God’s son who died to take away the sins of the world.

Problems: read more »