Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

It seems obvious to most scholars that our estimate of the age of a certain book . . . must be founded on information contained in the book itself and not on other information, and the estimate should certainly not be based on the existence of a historical background that may never have existed.

The above passage is from a chapter in Did Moses Speak Attic? by Professor Niels Peter Lemche of the University of Cophenhagen. The . . . omitted words were “of the Old Testament” but I omitted them in order to suggest that the same logic applies equally to books of the New Testament, in particular the Gospels.

The passage continues:

Although seemingly self-evident, this method is not without fault, and it may easily become an invitation to ‘tail-chasing’, to quote Philip R. Davies. By this we intend to say that the scholar may soon become entangled in a web of logically circular argumentation which is conveniently called the ‘hermeneutical circle’ . . . .

I have outlined Davies’ straightforward arguments for circularity at http://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/davies2.htm

There is another key and closely related point that is, I believe, at the heart of the dating of the Gospels.

Another points is that it is also supposed that the reading of a certain piece of literature will automatically persuade it to disclose its secrets — as if no other qualifications are needed.

That is exactly how the Gospels are dated from all I have been able to determine of various works about Gospel dating I have read. Most of them focus on the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 (adapted in Matthew 24 and Luke 21) and work from the assumption that by matching statements there (wars, abomination of desolation, etc) with possible events in the 40’s or 60’s and 70 they can determine that the Gospels were composed around those same years. To suggest that they may be dated quite some time after those events is often considered to be an arbitrary and tendentious position. I believe that the reverse may in fact be the case, as I argue in what follows.

Lemche continues, and I insert terms that I believe make his logic equally valid for the Gospels:

The first point to discuss will be the circular argumentation that is based on a too close ‘reading’ of the biblical text. . . . Some assume that these books must be old simply because they say that they are old. The exegete who claims that the books . . . must perforce be old will . . . have to accept the claim of the books themselves by either rather naively assuming that [an eye witnesses] could be the author . . . or by more sophisticated argumentation, for example, of the kind formerly often used to prove narratives . . . to be old because only an eye-witness [or oral tradition closely related to eye-witnesses] would have been acquainted with the particulars [narrated]. (p. 293)

How to escape this circularity?

In order to escape from the trap created by this circular method of argumentation and the rather naive understanding of the biblical text that lies at the bottom of such claims, it will be necessary to go further and find arguments not necessarily part of the biblical text itself but coming from other sources. Such information alone will be able to disclose to the reader that the [Gospels] were composed, not at [the 40s or 60s or 70s] but at a much later date.

Scientific procedure or its reverse?

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the Old Testament [Gospels] to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (p. 294, my emphasis)

The first time we have secure and verifiable confidence of the existence of the Gospels is in the latter half of the second century with the writings of Irenaeus.

Working back from that position we come to Justin in the mid second century and find some indirect hints that he may have known of the Gospels in a form not far removed from how we know them. Justin certainly speaks of quite a few things we find in the Synoptic Gospels. We sometimes find a phrase here and there in other works that we find likewise appear in the Gospels.

But we have no external basis at all to support our model that the narratives found in the Gospels are themselves historical or that they were composed within ear-shot of eyewitnesses of the events they narrate. The only rationale for this assumption is that the Gospels tell the story and sound like they are relating real events so we believe there narratives are derived from real history.

Some have attempted to justify this position by claiming that the only way we know of anything in the past is by the ancient works that speak of these events. But that position is really a common street understanding of how we gain our knowledge of the past. It is not scholarly. Any historian worth their salt evaluates the sources they use by firstly ascertaining their provenance, nature and reliability. Historians who have naively relied upon single sources without subjecting them to such tests have ended up with egg on their faces when others have come along and performed the tests that should have been done in the first place. See, for example, Liverani’s observations of early Hittite historians. But at least those Hittite historians did have a certain provenance for their source — a royal monumental stone — while for the Gospels we don’t even have anything comparable.

In the case of the Gospels we have only the self-testimony of their narratives and none of the additional resources we need to yield to us the answers we need in order to make judgements about the historical foundations of their narratives and when they were written. Even their genre is open to debate and it is genre that is an important (though not necessarily decisive) key to understanding the sorts of information their authors thought they were expressing.

The internal evidence of the Gospels gives us a start by date (terminus a quo). The external evidence gives us the finish by date (terminus ad quem).

The internal evidence is more than the Little Apocalypse, however. Synagogues and Pharisees as features of the Galilean life, and the sorts of characterisations of Pharisees we read about and the conflicts between Christianity and the rabbis we encounter in the Gospels, the beginnings of persecutions, not to mention the existence of Nazareth itself, are according to archaeological and other literary evidence very late first century or early second century developments.




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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels”

  1. Excellent post. Sadly, I don’t think there’s any wish to tackle such issues in NT scholarship. Their implications are probably too much to face. That’s the impression I get, anyway. The situation needs someone like Ehrman – probably the biggest name in NT academia – to speak out about some of these things you’ve continually brought up over the last few years. However, he’s more conservative than many scholars who are practicing Christians, so it’s not gonna happen. That doesn’t mean, of course, the problems will go away, although that’s the hope, I suspect.

  2. Not to mention that the work would need to be late enough (in the second century?) to facilitate an astute author’s inability to realize that his appeal to the “Synagogues and Pharisees as features of the Galilean life, and the sorts of characterisations of Pharisees we read about and the conflicts between Christianity and the rabbis we encounter in the Gospels, the beginnings of persecutions, not to mention the existence of Nazareth itself, …” would date, and discredit, his work to an audience that new anything about the area and era.

    This isn’t an argument for a later date as much as it’s an argument for the genre that has nothing at all to do with historical … anything! Ethically educational, possibly; Nationalistically Entertaining, likely; but an Inspirational Jewish novel is my bet.

  3. One day the NT literature will be given the same treatment as “minimalists” (but not really only “minimalists”) have been giving the OT. I sometimes wonder if the current (especially American) obsession of religion, faith, God, will have to go into eclipse before that can happen. Others are less pessimistic than I am and see the internet as accelerating the challenges of new ideas and the exposure of the ideologically barricaded fallacies of the old ones.

    1. I can be counted among those that see the internet as both a bulwark against indoctrination and a means of dissemination of facts pertaining to these literary constructs of political manipulation through mythological dogma.

      And no! I do not see these tales as starting out as anything but inspirational literature for a desperate community of displaced Jews.

      Remember, as I see the evidence, without the Temple and without a temple city, Jerusalem, the Jews of the Diaspora needed an intermediary for the reconciliation of sins with Yahweh, so the diverse beliefs of the sects throughout the many dispersed communities. They needed the most influential of angelic beings — an intermediary Son, or a more ephemeral emanation like the Word, or more Greek, say, the Logos; therefore, as it was required it was created to discern the innocent sons from the fathers who had apparently broken the old covenant. The emergence of, and the increased (but by no means the majority of) mainstream Judaic acceptance of the platonic anointed savior view was the result of the devastating Bar Kochba revolt (132-36 CE) and Hadrian’s abominable statue on the Temple Mount.

      My point is: like the change in Judaism resulting from the Babylonian Exile, or what masqueraded as such, in which a regional war god became an ethnically monolatrist deity, according to the flesh, of the Jewish people wherever they were, so too did the anointed savior evolve from the actual necessity of forced displacement, or some such. Therefore, the NT is of the same genre and should be considered in the same vein as the Old Testament by the minimalists and everyone else. The New Testament is merely a continuation of the Old except that many more branches from its evolutionary tree (i.e. Pauline, Petrine, Johannine, Apellean, and scraps from Marcion not to mention syncretization and synchronization for political motives) have been preserved. I wonder how many versions of Isaiah, or something similar, were in existence with the two of which we are now aware?

      Wait a minute! Is this a case of denying evolution? Again!

  4. At one level I am lost in this discussion. At another level, I would say there is no way (internet or not) to sort out the order of writing and dating of the NT as defined by Irenaeus and Athanasius. Fred R. Coulter gives a rehash of Ernset L. Martin but I think the Nag Hammadi texts are a good source of information re the NT. So far as I have read, ignoring the ‘AAaaagh!!! these are Gnostic’ crew’s rant, the NH texts strongly support a consistent and very close tie between Paul and James and a bit of a stick-it-up Simon Magus (and Helena). Basically God doesn’t leave a forensic trail, we might say He is inscrutable. All worries about whether 70 A. D. is some big deal or not are nonsense. We see where matters are going in our world (without the stress of sorting out every lie) and Scripture as per the NT is pretty plain e. g. II Thess. This in itself should re-orient our thinking. Its what we do with the little we have reliably been given that determines the next growth step in Scriptural understanding.

    1. The parameters are sometimes very broad. One cannot let wishful thinking narrow them. And all progress is made one tentative step at a time, sometimes a retreating step,… slowly slowly, and all generations have every reason to be deeply aware of how uncertain all we know really is.

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