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.



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

  1. Atheists have lost all their charm since the likes of Christopher Hitchens seized control of the “movement.” They are reduced to arguing banal facts with banal people, like somehow their “proofs” of the non-existence of a particular deity will magically resonate with those who believe.

    I postulate that this debasing of the atheists’ arguments down to the level of the religionists is intended to negate the influence of atheism and to relegate them to the same status as fundie Christians. Instead of arguing the existence/non-existence of deity with those who will never be convinced, I believe the time might be better spent attacking them on the lunacy of their political positions, something where belief has less influence. However the fundie Chritian vs the fundie atheist meme has grown exceedingly tedious in a very short amount of time.

    Treat them as you would children and their nonsense and elevate the discussion beyond them. Once they recognize their intellectual inferiority they’ll retreat to their caves for a group preening session. Assume their arguments are ill-informed and move on, or else you’ll spend the rest of your days in a “Oh yeah?” “Yeah.” exchange.

  2. Neil: “But the historicity of their narrative contents stands independent of when they are dated.”

    My position exactly!

    It’s the story that needs to be considered not the dates upon which such and such a person decides that he/she likes such and such a quote, from Mark or Luke, and decides to use that quote in their own writing, at such and such a place and time.

    Dating the gospels late is only dating the final versions of a developing storyline. And, obviously, once the idea took hold that JC was historical – then earlier versions of the storyline that would suggest storyline developments – would be quickly set aside and not preserved.

    Personally, I think the big debate over first comes Paul and later the gospels – an argument based upon dating the early manuscripts – is a bit like which came first, the chicken or the egg….

    The NT story needs to be viewed in it’s literary context – which means Paul follows JC. Turning this around – making the story run from Paul to the gospels makes no sense in a literary context. All that is is an attempt to use the dating of the ancient manuscripts as a model upon which to base a reconstruction of early Christian history ie Paul’s writings appear to be the earliest NT documents – therefore, that’s the way early Christianity developed. And tomorrow a new discovery finds a very early gospel manuscript. Then what?

    History is where it’s at; real history of the Hasmonean and Herodian era. That’s the backdrop to the NT storyline. And what the NT writers found relevant within that historical time period is the interesting question. That they did find some ‘salvation’ is at the core of the gospel’s imaginative interpretation, retelling, of that history. Paul and his vision might well enlighten theological/spiritual philosophizing – but it can’t hold a candle to the grand sweep of history.

    1. Actually, there are textual similarities between the Gospel of Mark and the letters of Paul, which strongly suggest that the writer of the Gospel of Mark had read the letters of Paul, so this is actually an important issue. I argue in my article (linked in a post below), that the writer of “Mark” was writing an intentional allegorical fiction, with scenes based on the Hebrew scriptures and the letters of Paul.

      The characters in the Gospel of Mark (James, John and Peter) are based on the letters of Paul and put Jesus in a relationship to them that mirrors their relationship to Paul. All of the other “disciples” in the Gospels are just fabrications of the author.

      I’ve also done a lot of work on who “James” is, showing basically that there was much confusion over “James” in the early church and that it can be fairly easily shown that in fact the James son of Zebedee of the Gospels is the same James that Paul described meeting, and that basically James, John, and Peter are the only “real people” (other than Pilate, etc.) in the Gospels.

      The James that Paul calls “brother of the Lord” is the same “James the Just” who is the same as “James son of Zebedee”. Basically, “brother of the Lord” was a title of honor, like “the Just”. James was likely the main leader of a messiah cult in Jerusalem, from which the sect sprang.

  3. You wrote: “[I]t 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 genre when analyzed from the perspective of ideological messages and communications…”

    Thomas L. Thompson made a similar point when dealing with criticism from Christian apologist J.B. Kofoed. Kofoed claims that, in order to reject the historicity of the Old Testament, the Copenhagen school has been pushing the date of the texts later and later. Thompson answers that when he published his study on the historicity of the patriarchal narratives, he dated these narratives as early as the early Iron Age, i.e., many centuries earlier than Kofoed himself would consider dating these texts: “It is not true that late dating has raised the issue of historicity. Historicity has always been primarily an issue of genre and authorial intention” (“The Role of Faith in Historical Research,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, vol. 19 [2005], pp. 111-134; here p. 120).

  4. Another issue that I rarely see addressed is when the gospels became generally accepted and circulated within the church. Even if Mark was written in 65 A.D., we don’t know who else knew about it. We can suppose that the congregations Paul founded accepted the teachings contained in his letters and thereby say something about the church’s beliefs at the time the letters were written. However, without knowing who read the gospels and who accepted them, knowing when they were written doesn’t seem to do all that much for our understanding of how the church’s beliefs developed.

  5. Since we have, as far as I can see, not a single literary reference dated to the first century that describes the conversion of any named person to Christianity, isn’t it most sensible to conclude that if it ever did happen in that century, it was to a largely illiterate population, if at all? We can date Marcion and we know he was the first person to ever have a Christian canon. We assume he was a second generation Christian. Does this not suggest an entirely second century existence of the church itself — at least the literate portion of it, regardless of the dating of the gospels?

  6. The simple answer here is NO, the mythicist position not only doesn’t require a late dating, it makes the most sense with the traditional dating.

    I’ll be producing a new article which puts forward the totality of my theory on the origins of the Jesus “myth” in a couple of months, but for now I refer you to my article on the Gospel of Mark: http://web.archive.org/web/20150704163240/http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/gospel_mark.htm

    There are many different “mythicist” positions, most of which I disagree with, but mine is essentially that the belief in a human Jesus came AFTER the publication of the Gospels, and that in fact is was the Gospels that created the belief in a real live Jesus.

    As such, obviously this relies on the Gospels having been written within the 1st century. My argument is that the Gospel of Mark was written around 70CE IN REACTION TO the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. I provide lots of internal evidence for this in the article. My argument is that the Gospel of Mark was an allegorical story in which the Jesus character was used to guide the reader through a series of events which portray the Jews as bad people who deserved the destruction which was brought upon them by the Romans. (from the author’s perspective) The author (probably himself a Jew) uses extensive literary allusion to the Hebrew scriptures to craft the various scenes, most of which are literary allusions to Hebrew scriptures about God brining destruction on the Jews for displeasing him.

    So, essentially, my view is that Christianity is a product of a messianic and apocalyptic Jewish literary tradition that goes back to the 2nd century BCE, of which the Gospel of Mark became the seminal work, and was copied by others, many of whom may themselves have believed that it was a true story.

    It is from these written stories that the belief in a real human “Jesus Christ” emerged. As such at least one Gospel had to have been in circulation by around 80CE.

  7. I suggest that we think about another question: Is it necessary for mythicists to date the epistles early?

    Earl Doherty argues that the gospels must be late because the epistles seem to be ignorant of the gospels. That was the the most compelling argument that moved me to become a mythicist.

    That argument implies an important corollary, which is that the epistles are reliable sources of information about an early, pre-gospel period of Christian history.

    It does not make sense to me to argue along Doherty’s lines and then simultaneously argue that the epistles were written as late as the gospels, sometimes in the middle of the Second Century.

    1. My recollection of Doherty’s argument for dating Mark around 90 was that this explains the gospels’ themes of persecution. The evidence, such as it is, points to this being the time when Christians began to suffer persecution.

      Doherty generally works with conventional datings of the texts because he considers them “defensible”, Mark being the principle exception. But yes, he does certainly work within the mainstream model of the relative dating of Paul’s letters and the gospels.

      My understanding of Doherty’s argument is that it is fallacious to interpret Paul’s writings through the “tyranny of the gospels” in large part because the gospels did not appear till some time after Paul. (The assumption that the gospel narrative was known before it was written is begging the question.)

      I personally think that Doherty’s arguments that Paul’s and others’ letters do not address, do not know of, a gospel Jesus Christ, stand secure in their own right even IF they happened to have been written after the gospels. (I don’t think they were written after the gospels, though.)

      Another valid point of Doherty’s argument is the “riotous diversity” of early Christianity. It is not necessary to imagine that even IF the gospels were written prior to Paul’s letters, that Paul must have known of them. Paul, he says, following Burton Mack I believe, is following one particular line of “Christ myth” while the Q community was located elsewhere and had a different frame of reference entirely. It was Mark (again as per Burton Mack) who brought the two together for the first time.

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