Why I like to be late when dating the gospels (and acts)

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by Neil Godfrey

  1. anachronisms in the gospels themselves e.g. numerous encounters wtih Pharisees in Galilee: historically Pharisees should not be there in any numbers till after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce ; ditto for synagogues in Galilee pre 70 — archaeological evidence does not support any synagoge there earlier than the second century; gospel presumption of church traditions, rituals and hierarchical structure which might be expected to take time to arise — as reflected in teachings of Jesus, such as the eucharist for starters.)
  2. external attestation to the gospels not secure till second century specifically to Justin Martyr around 150 ce. See my category link to Justin from main page of this blog.
  3. related to that one is the lack of any knowledge to the narrative details prior to the second century (unless one thinks the early date for Ignatius is rock-solid)
  4. emphasis on the Twelve (and dialogue with Mark over this) to my mind at least points to what was a second century issue — i.e. asserting rival claims of ecclesiastical authority
  5. one might even wonder if the mere story of Jesus in the flesh, especially his resurrection appearances, had anti-docetic origins (i know, many will jump on me for saying that is circular, … but not debating the point here, just posting a list.)
  6. early traditions that seem to contradict any knowledge of the gospel narratives e.g. the view that Jerusalem fell because of James the Just and not Christ; the view that the eucharist was given by Jesus after his resurrection
  7. the arguably tighter fit of the Little Apocalypse to a dating from Hadrian’s time than to any period prior links to Detering’s article have been posted here before — check out the RadikalKritik link in the right column from main page of this blog.
  8. second century concerns — e.g. Mark allows for Jesus-people to do miracles without following the main group; not so Matthew. Concerns about the single right belief and practice was more a second century concern. Letters of Paul assume much diversity within churches. Of course this point won’t hold for anyone treating the letters of Paul as we have them as in the main genuine.

& Acts ?

If the ending of Acts can be shown to be unrelated to any knowledge of Paul’s death then it is origin is an open question, at least till we bump against external attestation (late second century — Irenaeus).

The naive reading of Acts tells us that it is just what it says it wants us to think it is: a true history of the origins of the church. Therefore if it concludes with Paul in prison, and if we surely know Paul was executed by Nero soon afterwards, chances are that the author wrote just prior to Paul’s death.

There’s another possible explanation for Acts ending with Paul in “benign captivity”.

That is, that the author was modeling his story in part on Israel’s Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings), which has a similar conclusion — the leader left in house arrest/home prison scheme:

2 Kings 25:
27 And it came to pass in the seven and thirtieth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the seven and twentieth day of the month, that Evilmerodach king of Babylon in the year that he began to reign did lift up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah out of prison;

28 And he spake kindly to him, and set his throne above the throne of the kings that were with him in Babylon;

29 And changed his prison garments: and he did eat bread continually before him all the days of his life.

30 And his allowance was a continual allowance given him of the king, a daily rate for every day, all the days of his life.

So here is another conclusion with favourable treatment of the leader in captivity — pointing to hope for the future maybe, or encouragement to readers not to be disheartened by their less than top status in their community?

Either way, the conclusion of Acts, seen in this context, need not be surprising or problematic.

(Compare the beginning of Acts with its miracle of languages and another counterpart in Genesis 11??)

But more pertinent is its content being of primary interest to second century ecclesiastical “issues”:

— it make it’s debut appearance around the same time as other Pauline documents are first attested, the Pauline corpus itself, the composition of the pastoral epistles claiming to be in the authority and name of Paul, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla, thus joining the ranks of what appears to be strong evidence for a wild controversy over Paul

— till the mid second century not even Justin had heard of Acts (or Paul) — as far as he knew the church spread throughout the world when 12 apostles from the day of Christ’s resurrection went dashing out from Jerusalem to the whole world with the message of the gospel (about as contra to Acts as one can get!) — check out the Justin link in the categories on main page of blog.

— Acts appears at the same time as Marcion who boasted the true Pauline provenance, anti-law, anti-Jewish. Interesting that Acts promotes anti-Marcionite themes and in particular an anti-Marcionite Paul.

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5 thoughts on “Why I like to be late when dating the gospels (and acts)”

  1. 1) Several synagogues have been unearthed from before the Jewish War, including one at Capernaum (see http://www.pohick.org/sts/faqs.html#What%20architectural%20remains). Also, Josephus mentions a gathering at a synagogue in Tiberias from the beginning of the Jewish war (Vita 276 ff.). And we have the writings of two influential Pharisees from the 1st Century (Josephus, Paul). The exact extent of the Pharisees’ influence in Galilee in the early 1st Century is disputed, but there is no doubt that they were one of the important Jewish sects (or ‘philosophies’, as Josephus calls them) of that time.
    2+3) There’s not only Justin, but Ignatius and Polycarp as well. Paul knows about the institution of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) and commends the Corinthians for keeping the traditions which he handed on to them (1 Corinthians 11:2). Is it too big a leap to presume that these traditions were stories about Jesus? And it’s a typical skeptical demand that the other side produce ‘rock-solid’ proof. Surely you wouldn’t begrudge the moderate scholar an argument that it’s at least quite probable that the early date for Ignatius is secure? That’s all we can ever work with in history, probabilities and plausibilities. The radical skeptic, of course, has a vested interest in denying an early date for these documents, since they not only corroborate Polycarp but also have extensive reference to many of the New Testament writings.
    4) The appointing of the 12 was a symbolic act which could very well have been performed by Jesus himself, reminiscent of the other symbolic enactments of Messianic claimants of the time (i.e. the Samaritan prophet, Simon bar Giora, etc.). And we don’t need to go to the 2nd Century to find arguments over authority. Paul’s letters are evidence enough of this (for example, “I am of Apollos”, “I am of Cephas”, etc.).
    5) You’re right that this argument would be circular. But assuming your view, explain how docetism arose in the first place. It seems to have arisen at least in part as a reaction against the ‘scandal’ of a crucified Savior. How could the exalted Christ really have been a flesh-and-blood human being who got weary, afraid, who suffered and died? He must only have ‘seemed’ (dokeo) to suffer. However the alleged docetic account presupposes the historical one.
    6) Origen is already commenting on the New Testament when he attests to this tradition! And is there any unambiguous passage in the Gospels or the rest of the New Testament which say that the destruction of Jerusalem was a result of the death of Jesus?
    7) Detering has an interesting and thorough argument, but the fact remains that the Little Apocalypse, compared to say the details found in Luke is remarkably generic. Virtually all of Jesus’ predictions can be drawn from Scripture or have scriptural precedent. They do not have to be tied down to a specific socio-historical setting. However, in 1 Thessalonians Paul reminds his converts that they already know that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (5:2), which of course is reminiscent of the analogy in the Matthean and Lukan apocalyptic material about the strong man who would not have allowed the thief to enter if he had known to be alert (i.e. Matthew 24:43). It is not too big a stretch to assume that such apocalyptic traditions were already in place by the time Paul wrote to the Thessalonians around 50 C.E.
    8) Concerns about a single right belief and practice were more a 2nd Century concern? Then why is Paul so furious about those who teach ‘another gospel’, and about those who claim that the Gentiles must be circumcised? And why does he give all sorts of practical advice (much of it resembling the Sermon on the Mount) on how Christians should live, including regulations for how Christian gatherings should be conducted, how Christians should behave with outsiders? Notice these examples are all from Paul’s undisputed letters. You are welcome to try to show that the Pauline corpus in its entirety is fictional and was composed sometime in the 2nd Century (but then, again you would have to explain away Ignatius and Polycarp, as well as Clement).

    If these are the arguments for a late dating of the Gospels and Acts, then I am glad I side with the conservative position. The only dilemma in my view is why we do not have more citations of these texts from the 1st Century, but given that we surely only have a fraction of early Christian writings which have been preserved this does not really puzzle me.

  2. 1) Re the synagogues in Galilee:

    For further demolishing of the apologetic Bagatti-Testa hypothesis check out Joan Taylor’s ‘Christians and the Holy Places’ (1993)

    Josephus speaks of a Proseucha, a place of prayer, in Tiberius.

    That something “is disputed” means nothing to me till I know who are the disputants and what their specific grounds of contention. We know the history tells us that Pharisees moved in large numbers to Galilee after the war.

    2) Justin is mid second century. Hence what I said holds: External attestation is not secure “till the mid second century”.

    As for Ignatius and Polycarp, ditto. On what “secure” foundation do you date these? What is a “moderate” scholar? I certainly don’t dispute the “possibility” of an early date for Ignatius but it is more the current number of votes that is deciding at this moment that it is “secure” — hardly the arguments themselves. How much narrative or gospel material do they know anyway? Very very little. Paul even less.

    And a huge YES, given the nature of the evidence we have in this field then YES, probabilities and plausibilities ARE all we can work with! What is wrong with that? Compare what historians work with in modern history. There is simply no comparison. What is wrong with attempting to work our way through probabilities and plausibilities? History is an exploration, not a faith requiring a foundational creed. Does faith really need to be grounded in some “certainties” in the historical record? It’s by no means “radical scepticism” in the sense you imply it to work within the limits of the nature of the scant evidence. It is dogmatism to try to place more weight on the evidence than it will bear — for the sake of supporting a religious faith. To work with probabilities and plausibilities is simply applying to the study of the Christian texts the SAME methods and approaches ancient historians apply to all their scant textual and other evidence. The ancient history of Mesopotamia and Greece that I learned at school is in many major ways completely different now because of this method allowing so much more to be learned. I don’t think the basic Eusebian model of church history has changed to any like degree in 100 times longer that time span.

    4) Read my critique of Meier’s study in which he gives the “foundational proofs” for the existence of the Twelve. It’s in the chapter 5a of my Bauckham discussion. There is simply nothing there but speculation and wishful thinking.

    5) As I said, this is not my place for presenting the argument, just a list. The idea that a great religion had such a romantic origin as from a single heroic figure is as fanciful as the origin of the human race being founded in Adam or Noah, or the Jews in Abraham. That’s a romantic telling but hardly consistent with what we know from modern studies of how such movements arise.

    6) You seem to miss the point. The question is to explain the tradition that James, not Jesus, is the reason for the fall.

    7) Naturally the text is drawn from the OT. The author would hardly use anything else.

    As for Paul and second century concerns, you seem to take the reading of Paul’s letters at face value. To do so raises more problems than it answers — why, for starters, were they not externally attested till the second century? — why though he rants in one letter for just one view but in another letter begs for tolerance and acceptance of other practices…. even such contradictions within letters…. It appears you are not familiar with scholarhip that challenges the orthodox views of Paul. I would mostly be repeating Detering’s Falsified Paul — you can see that online. I have also a category of introducing a range of my views on Paul’s letters.

    If you are resting your edifice on Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement then I would like to know the absolute bed-rock certainties on which you date any of them early.

    Maybe there was nothing from the first century to preserve. That would be a simpler explanation. The whole Eusebian-Acts model of the origins of Christianity just does not synch with the evidence. It makes more sense to first examine the nature of the evidence we do have and then attempt to interpret the content of texts through that — not try to postulate an edifice on the content of a few pieces and then explain away all the missing bits and contradictions.

  3. 1) I was not referring to the Bagatti-Tesla hypothesis about ancient Christian pilgrimage sites. I was talking about concrete evidence of synagogues in Palestine from the 1st Century, of which there is both literary and archeological attestation. Philo says that the Essenes had synagogues. What would a ‘proseuha’ or place of prayer be outside the Temple but a synagogue? Recently a synagogue was excavated near Jericho dating from the 1st Century B.C.E.

    Loffreta’s article surrounds the controversy over dating the ‘monumental’ Capernaum synagogue which all scholars acknowledge is late (i.e. 4th-5th Centuries). He does not discuss the probable remains of a mid-first century synagogue underneath it. See the website I linked to for more details.

    And what are your sources for the fact that Pharisees did not exist in Galilee before the war and only moved in after the war?

    2+3) First I would like to see your arguments for a late dating of Ignatius and Polycarp. As to what they ‘know’, remember that these are epistles and thus ‘high context’ documents unlike the Gospels, which are meant to convey in as full a manner as possible the information available about Jesus. Both Ignatius and Polycarp exhibit an easy familiarity with the New Testament documents, not in the style of ‘this just in’ but rather in the way the New Testament writings quote the Old Testament.

    4) I read your critique of Meier’s defense of the historicity of the 12. I found you just raising the usual skeptical questions, “Why should we accept this?”, etc. I have no answer to radical skepticism about anything, and neither does anyone else. What historians do is try to determine a plausible reconstruction of what happened. There are precedents for Jesus’ symbolic actions in other Messianic claimants of the time. What would be so improbable or ridiculous about a 1st Century wandering itinerant preacher who attracted followers and, the devout apocalyptic Jew that he was, symbolically choose 12 followers as his inner circle?

    5) What about Joseph Smith and Mormonism? What do we know about how such movements arise? I can name about 30 different religious groups centered around a single founder. They are called ‘charismatic’ groups because their origin lies in the charisma or attraction of their founder. And your own dismissal of ‘romantic’ conceptions of religious history reminds me of what I think is the main reason Doherty is pressing his mythicist thesis so aggressively, and which he admits on his webpage: he finds inconceivable that such an exalted status would be accorded to an earthly, historical person so soon after his death, and that the movement associated with his name would spread so far in a similarly short period. Because that would make the Resurrection a plausible candidate for explaining both of these facts. In order to defuse any hint of supernaturalism skeptics just HAVE to find a model of Christian origins which basically does away with any historical Jesus, and instead centers around disconnected groups of mystico-syncretic Jews and Gentiles.

    6)No one denies that there were all sorts of stories about the followers of Jesus and Jesus himself which have no foundation in history. The question is why legends sprung up around such people in the first place. Legends tend to cluster around important people. It seems likely to me that legends started proliferating after the first generation of followers of Jesus had died out. In Paul we do not find such extravagant speculations, only a passing reference to concrete people in Jerusalem involved in various administrative and missionary activity.

    7) You seem to have missed my point. The scriptural origins of the Markan apocalypse means that it doesn’t have to be tied to a specific historical period, and thus Detering’s argument that it is linked specifically to Bar Kochba and Hadrian is unfounded.

    You seem to be missing an all-important fact about the period under consideration. The war in 70 culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem was immensely disruptive for 1st Century Judaism. The sparsity of records about this period does not only apply to Christian origins. Without Josephus we would basically be in the dark about 1st Century Jewish history. Time and time again it amazes me just how much scholars of the period quote him, without any other attestation. It is true that external attestation for most of the New Testament only arises in the 2nd Century. That does not mean that they were not attested to in the 1st Century, only that our record of 1st Century Christianity is rather sparse, along with the rest of our knowledge of this time period.

    I am familiar with scholarship with challenges orthodox views of Paul. And I am familiar with views like Detering’s which question the authenticity of the entire Pauline corpus (which I alluded to in my first comment). I just think that such questioning is a desperate move to sever any link whatsoever between Jesus and early Christianity. Your brief sketch of why Paul’s letters are problematic is woefully inadequate. What do you mean by ‘just one view’ and ‘other practices’? Are you talking about the gospel Paul preached? Are you talking about the development of factions among the early Christians? Are you talking about intra-ecclesial regulations? I recommend Wayne Meeks, “The First Urban Christians” and Robin Lane Fox, “Pagans and Christians”. Paul’s letters fit a mid-First Century context very well.

    Again you present the familiar skeptical challenge of ‘absolute bed-rock certainty’. All I claimed was that a plausible argument could be made for an early date for Ignatius, Clement and Polycarp. I said nothing about absolute bed-rock certainties.

    I have found your blog to be very interesting, Neil, but it seems that you are too enamored of Dutch radical criticism. Your skeptical challenges are in the realm of possibilities. Fine. Hold on to them if you think they are the only conclusions honest intellectual inquiry can come to. But in my study of the New Testament I have found no reason not to accept the Gospels as a reliable source of information about Jesus, and the letters of Paul and Acts about the origin of the early Church.

    And with that, I’m off to Good Friday service…:)

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