How Late Can a Gospel Be?

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by Neil Godfrey

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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.

Let’s apply Bishop J. A. T. Robinson‘s method of dating the Gospels and see how they can help us in the dating of this Gospel. Some scholars seem to accept his methodology, and quite a few lay Christians seem to accept it also.

One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period — the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple — is never once mentioned as a past fact. . . . [T]he silence is . . . as significant as the silence for Sherlock Holmes as the dog that did not bark. . . .

Explanations for this silence have of course been attempted. Yet the simplest explanation of all, that ‘perhaps . . . there is extremely little in the New Testament later than AD 70 and that its events are not mentioned because they had not yet occurred, seems to me to demand more attention than it has received in critical circles. (pp. 13-14 of Robinson’s Redating the New Testament)

Well, according to Robinson’s case for the significance of Christian texts failing to mention such a significant event, we have a good reason for putting this Infancy Gospel of James before the year AD 70, too. And this, of course, is entirely consistent with the document’s own testimony that it was composed before AD 70.

What about stylistic features? Is there anything in this Infancy Gospel that would give it a place alongside any of the other canonical Gospels? Pervo writes:

In style and form it differs it differs little from the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke. Discussions of its literary character begin by noting its substantial borrowing from and imitation of the LXX [=Septuagint, the Greek language Old Testament], precisely as is the case with Luke. (p. 340)

I do not have the time to list the specifically Greek textual borrowings of Luke from the LXX, but I have in the past listed up to a dozen instances of Luke’s borrowings from Genesis in order to flesh out his infancy and resurrection narratives — 10 of those instances for the infancy narrative.

Nor is it hard to miss the flavour of the James gospel, as the following extract suggests with its many refrains from Genesis and 1-2 Samuel:

And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by, saying: Anna, Anna, the Lord hath heard thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive, and shall bring forth; and thy seed shall be spoken of in all the world. And Anna said: As the Lord my God liveth, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life. And, behold, two angels came, saying to her: Behold, Joachim thy husband is coming with his flocks. (From The Infancy Gospel — Roberts-Donaldson translation.)

Of course a translator has the power to decide how the tone will appear to his English-speaking readers, so I am not intending such an example to do anything more than to illustrate the point made by the scholarly works.

So when it the Infancy Gospel dated?

Several commentators explain that it cannot be earlier than the middle of the second century because it makes use of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. One must allow for enough time for these canonical gospels to have become into widespread circulation. It cannot be later than around 200 because it is known to Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

But if that is the case, then why not ask how we know when Luke and Matthew were written?

After all,

Conversely, by the criteria of formal and stylistic comparison, the Gospel of Luke could be dated c. 150, slightly before the Infancy Gospel of James. Fewer prejudices have a firmer foundation in ignorance than does the view that because of its genre Luke could not be much later than 80-90. (p. 341)

There is another criterion that, if used, can place the composition of Gospel of Luke into the second century. There is no clear external attestation to this gospel until Irenaeus in the latter part of the second century. Many believe Justin refers to it, but he is also dated to the mid second century.

This post is not attempting to present a comprehensive argument for a late dating of the Gospel of Luke. I have argued that more fully — or rather I have cited other scholarly arguments for that more fully in other posts that relate to the Marcionite challenge and catholicizing agenda of Luke.

I find it interesting that a scholar such as Pervo that there is little external or “hard” evidence for Luke being dated to the first century. By the time we do find external attestation we are well into the second century for the Gospel of Luke, and we find that at the same time it looks reasonably comfortable style-wise and even theologically (e.g. the exaltation of Mary) as other gospels that are more soberly placed well within the second century, too.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “How Late Can a Gospel Be?”

  1. You wrote: “Well, according to Robinson’s case for the significance of Christian texts failing to mention such a significant event [i.e., the fall of Jerusalem], we have a good reason for putting this Infancy Gospel of James before the year AD 70, too…”

    This brings to mind an unforgettable post written by Mr. Ken Olson back in 2005: “Top 10 Reasons to Accept the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as Historically Reliable.”


    Mr. Olson writes: “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas shows no indication of late date, nor any sign of dependence on the canonical gospels… Despite the fact that Jesus goes to the temple and teaches better than the elders there, there is no allusion to the temple’s destruction.”

    Please note that Mr. Olson’s post is dated April the 1st.

  2. Neil: “So when it the Infancy Gospel dated? Several commentators explain that it cannot be earlier than the middle of the second century because it makes use of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. One must allow for enough time for these canonical gospels to have become into widespread circulation.”

    It’s a bit like the wonder-worker story in Slavonic Josephus. The gospels come first and then someone decides to create their own story by taking bits and pieces out of them and then adding some of their own stuff. That’s the easy way out…

    However, if it’s a developing storyline that one is looking at – then, like Slavonic Josephus, the Infancy Gospel of James should be considered earlier, pre-gospels, rather than later. There is a very intriguing point in the gospel of James:

    “23. And Herod searched for John, and sent officers to Zacharias, saying: Where hast thou hid thy son? And he, answering, said to them: I am the servant of God in holy things, and I sit constantly in the temple of the Lord: I do not know where my son is. And the officers went away, and reported all these things to Herod. And Herod was enraged, and said: His son is destined to be king over Israel. And he sent to him again, saying: Tell the truth; where is thy son? for thou knowest that thy life is in my hand. And Zacharias said: I am God’s martyr, if thou sheddest my blood; for the Lord will receive my spirit, because thou sheddest innocent blood at the vestibule of the temple of the Lord. And Zacharias was murdered about daybreak.”


    The son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, John, “destined to be king over Israel’? And Mary’s son also! Fascinating! So, somewhere along the line in the gospel storyline development, this position on John the Baptist gets dropped! Two king stories linked together with two pregnancies. More likely history being condensed here with the pregnancy storyline. After all, salvation history is not history but historical interpretations, hence free to link together historical happening from diverse time frames.

    Far more interesting, methinks, to consider these early stories, Slavonic Josephus and its wonder-worker, and the gospel of James and its unique take on John, son of Zacharias, to be earlier than the gospel story. Instead of trying to figure out how someone could take the gospels as we now have them, and create the stories in Slavonic Josephus and the gospel of James, rather work forward. Work forward from the basic stories and see a developing gospel storyline that is reflecting upon and interpreting historical events.

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