Is it necessary for “mythicists” to date the gospels late?

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by Neil Godfrey

No, not at all.

My own interest in dating the gospels late has nothing to do with arguing for a mythical Jesus. I am not interested in arguing for a mythical Jesus as I have said many times in the past. My interest is in explaining the literature and evidence for Christian origins using the same basic methods I learned as a student of ancient, medieval and modern history some years ago now, and as I still see in vogue in history books currently being published. They even apply the same fundamental rules of evidence and inquiry that I imagine crime detectives or court-room judges understand. Generally self-testimony means little unless you can back it up with supporting independent evidence. If the external supporting evidence all points to a late date for the gospels, then why knock it? (External evidence may not always mean an explicit identification or testimonial, and it can take a range of forms, including prevailing ideologies, debates, literary styles and language, etc.)

The results of my approaches to investigating the origins and nature of the gospels, and the evidence for dating the literature, lead me to believe that the best explanation for the narratives of the gospels is that they originated as creative theology. I don’t know when, but suspect from the time of the early second century.

But it would not make any difference if the gospels were all dated conclusively between 70 and 100, or even between 35 and 65. That would not change certain facts about the gospels themselves, such as their literary and theological borrowings from earlier Jewish (and non-Jewish) literature, and their genre when analyzed from the perspective of ideological messages and communications rather than externals such as style or topics and language used.

Such an early date would raise questions in other ways, such as how to explain their stress on persecution at such an early date. But the historicity of their narrative contents stands independent of when they are dated.



How Late Can a Gospel Be?

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Nativity scene
Image via Wikipedia

Would it not be wonderful if our Gospels were all signed and dated so there could be no debates about who wrote them or when?

The hermeneutic of charity would rule and only the hypersceptical and “minimalists” would entertain any doubts.

Well, there is one gospel that is signed, addressed and dated. It was written by James the step-brother of Jesus in the very year in which Herod died and Jesus was born. At the end of this gospel it is written:

And I James that wrote this history in Jerusalem, a commotion having arisen when Herod died, withdrew myself to the wilderness until the commotion in Jerusalem ceased, glorifying the Lord God, who had given me the gift and the wisdom to write this history. And grace shall be with them that fear our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory to ages of ages. Amen.

What more could any student of the Bible want? Except maybe to have that sort of information tagged on to the Gospels in the Bible. This is from what is known as the Infancy Gospel of James (or the Protevangelium of James).

The problem appears to be that this identification is attached to a gospel that did not make it into the Bible. I am sure no biblical scholar and probably no serious Christian really believes what they read here. But there is more to it than simply not being in the Bible. This Gospel is about Mary and her own miraculous birth as well as her perpetual virginity. Jesus only appears at the very end as a little babe born in a cave. Probably most scholars would place this belief about Mary and her exaltation well into the second century. But Luke’s prologue itself points to much the same idea.

So why not place this Infancy gospel around the same time as Luke in the first century?

The basic ideas in what follows, and the title of this post itself, are all drawn from pages 340-1 of Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists by Richard I. Pervo. I have played a little with the way in which the ideas are presented but not much more. Just to be perverse, this post is not really about the Infancy Gospel of James at all despite the surface-discussion speaking of that Gospel most of the time, but about the dating of the Gospel of Luke. Continue reading “How Late Can a Gospel Be?”