2021-10-31

“The war of 70 is not a major issue” in the Gospels?

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by Neil Godfrey

Not too long ago I posted my thoughts on the gospel narratives placing the public ministry and death of Jesus in a round 40 years prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Maybe I was trying to convince myself because the thing that has bugged me is the absence of any early recognition of this setting.

Surely a catastrophe as momentous as the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE had to be linked in the minds of the authors of the first gospels with the crucifixion of Jesus. Is that not what the “Olivet Prophecy” of Jesus (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) was all, or in large part, about?

I have further suspected that the destruction of the temple and the mass crucifixions of the same period so chaotically upended Jewish life and beliefs that a new Jewish narrative emerged to help make sense of those events and that that narrative is what we read in the gospels.

Of course, if such a “new Judaism” did emerge and eventually morphed into “Christianity”, the first question that naturally comes to mind is: What of the letters of Paul? Other questions that arise from passages in Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius have been covered many times and the various arguments relating to them cover well-worn tracks. One common factor running through Paul’s writings and relevant passages in Josephus and Tacitus and that makes any assessment of their origins and functions problematic is that they appear to exist in isolated islands without any acknowledgement of their existence by outsiders until a good century or more after their presumed creation.

Some of the tell-tale signs that Justin was not using the gospels for his sources: he speaks of Jesus being born “near”, not in, Bethlehem; Jesus’ Davidic descent is through Mary; no genealogy of Jesus; Jesus “sweat blood” before, not after, asking to be released from the coming torment; John the Baptist was sitting by Jordan; the Jordan was engulfed in flame or fiery light when Jesus entered it; Justin has no awareness of a Judas or betrayal narrative; the point of the eucharist was to remember that Jesus came in the flesh; Jesus sends out the twelve from Jerusalem to preach to the world from the day of his resurrection…

But the same is true of the four canonical gospels. There is little hint that anyone knew about them at least until the time Justin Martyr was writing (140-160) and I personally think a reasonable case can be made that even Justin’s apparent references to gospel episodes were derived from a pre-gospel source (or more than one).

Problem: the further away from 70 CE we get before the gospels were written, the harder it is to think that the events of 70 CE were as critical as I have long supposed them to be.

An idiot, or one who treated his audience as idiots, once said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so we can’t assume that the first gospel was not written soon after 70 CE, but that goes without saying: we cannot justifiably rely upon mere (unsupported) assumptions at any time. But if there is no evidence to be found in the places we would most expect to see evidence, then questions do need to be answered.

Whilst in my moment of doubt Satan (who else?) led me to read a chapter that seemed to reassure me that a very late date for the gospels was not a completely lonely position to maintain. In “The Emphasis on Jesus’ Humanity in the Kerygma” Étienne Nodet lists three indicators that suggest a date far removed from 70 CE but it is the third one that I will quote here. All bolding is my own:

Another feature of the Gospels has puzzled many commentators: the war of 70 is not a major issue. In this respect, the evolution of Josephus himself is interesting. His first work was The War of the Jews, the original title being probably The Capture of Jerusalem; he gloomily states that “God now dwells in Italy” (J.W. 5:367). But some twenty years later, he hardly speaks of the war in his major work, The Antiquities of the Jews. He briefly states in Life § 422, summing up the war, that Titus has resolved the disturbances in Judah. In Ag. Ap. 1:33–36 he casually indicates that the priestly archives have been restored in Jerusalem, so that the priests may be fit to take part in divine worship.

In the Gospels, Jesus announces a ruin. In Lk 21:20–22, he sees an oncoming war, with Jerusalem surrounded by armies, but he explains that “all that Scripture says must be fulfilled” by allusion to Jer 25:15, who speaks of the destruction of Judah and the enslavement of the people “according to everything that is written in this book.” This may refer to the war of 70, but the main point is Biblical typology. In Mt 24:15–16 and Mk 13:14 he says, “When you see the appalling abomination set up in the holy place, then those in Judea must escape to the mountains.” This refers to Daniel’s prophecy, and behind it to the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BCE, after which Mattathias and his sons “fled into the mountains” (1 Macc 2:28). Indeed, the expression “set up” suggests a cultic device. The event alluded to can be either Caligula’s tentative plan in 40 to set up his statue in the Temple, or Hadrian’s politics aiming to transform Jerusalem into a Greco-Roman city with a forum and a capitol, in 132, which triggered the rebellion of Bar Kokhba. The second circumstance is by far the most fitting one.30 On the contrary, the war in 70 corresponds poorly, because even if the Romans actually worshipped their standards in the holy enclosure (J.W. 6:316), this was after the Temple burnt, but not to impose anything to the Jews. Titus’ triumph shows that the Romans wanted to bring the Jewish cult to Rome. The Sibylline Oracles present a better picture of this war in a prophetic style (4:125–127):

A Roman governor will come from Syria. He will burn down the temple of Jerusalem, and while doing so he will kill many people and destroy the great land of the Jews with its wide roads.

30 As is shown by the detailed study in Hermann Detering, “The Synoptic Apocalypse (Mk 13 par): A Document from the Time of Bar Kokhba,” JHC 7 (2000): 161–210. He notes that Mk seems to depend on Mt and not the reverse.

The entire article by Nodet is worth reading for its larger argument that the earliest theology about Jesus stressed his heavenly origin and spiritual nature and that the heavy focus on his humanity was a later development.

So many questions; so much yet to know.


Nodet, Etienne. “The Emphasis on Jesus’ Humanity in the Kerygma.” In : James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Research : New Methodologies and Perceptions (Princeton-Prague Symposium 2007), Eerdmans, 2014, pp. 753–68, https://www.academia.edu/6864927/The_Emphasis_on_Jesus_Humanity_in_the_Kerygma



2021-01-05

Spit at a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?

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by Neil Godfrey

Eric Eve

Last month I posted Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark? but this morning I was reminded of an article I read and posted about some years back that surely calls for a date soon after 70 CE. That article does not address the date per se but it does raise difficulties for a date very much later than the days of Vespasian’s reign: 69-79.

The article is Spit in Your Eye: The Blind Man of Bethsaida and the Blind Man of Alexandria by Eric Eve (if a nearby library subscribes to Proquest you might be able to access it at no cost there) and my derivative post is Jesus out-spitting the emperor. I won’t repeat the details I set out there except where they overlap with a few points I will highlight here. (See that earlier post for the extracts from Suetonius and Tacitus describing Vespasian’s healing miracles.)

In short, the core of Eric Eve’s thesis is that the author of the Gospel of Mark was responding to Vespasian propaganda that promoted him as a healer and as such either possessed by or strongly favoured by the god Serapis to be the rightful ruler of the world. Vespasian, you might recall (the details are in the earlier post), is known to have “miraculously” healed a blind man through the use of spittle while he was in Egypt and preparing to return to Rome to claim the emperorship.

Since Vespasian was not from the Roman aristocracy he relied heavily on propaganda programs to justify his aspirations to replace Nero and subsequent short-lived rulers. Roman historians, especially Tacitus, inform us that

while Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria. . . many marvels occurred to mark the favour of heaven and a certain partiality of the gods toward him (Hist. IV. 81)

The god Serapis was a composite deity constructed some generations earlier by Egypt’s post-Alexander Hellenistic rulers to encourage the unification of different peoples: (you will note the similarity with other posts suggesting the reason for the creation of Jesus was likewise to encourage a certain unity of Jews and gentiles in another context …. but we leave that for another discussion)

Serapis (Liverpool Museum)

The Egyptian cult involved the worship of the sacred bull Osiris-Apis, or Osarapis, which became Sarapis in Greek translation. It may have been this god’s connections with the underworld and agricultural fertility that made him appear particularly suitable for the grafting on of Hellenistic elements. Sarapis took on the attributes of a number of Greek deities including first Dionysus and Hades, and subsequently Zeus, Helios and Asclepius [my note: Asclepius was the god of healing]. He may originally have been intended as a patron deity for the Greek citizens of Ptolemaic Alexandria, but he became particularly associated with the royal family, and thus, perhaps, with a ruler cult. Although Sarapis was probably intended to unite the Greek and Egyptian populations (of Alexandria, if not of Egypt), he failed in this purpose, since he never caught on with the native Egyptian population. He proved more popular with the Greek inhabitants, although his popularity declined towards the end of the Ptolemaic period. By the Roman period, Sarapis’s popularity seems to have been on the rise once more, and his cult had long since spread well beyond Egypt, aided, no doubt, by the fact that he was the consort of Isis; both deities had cults in Rome by the time of the late republic. That said, the major rise of the cult of Serapis was to come about through Flavian interest in the god. Vespasian arrived in Alexandria at a time when association with an aspiring emperor could benefit an aspiring god as much as the other way round; the Sarapis cult’s support for Vespasian helped both parties, and that may well have motivated the priests of Sarapis to play their part in the Flavian propaganda campaign. 

The healings carried out by Vespasian seem designed to demonstrate the close association between the new emperor and the god. Healing was one of the powers long attributed to Sarapis, and the first healing miracle to be attributed to him was restoring sight to a blind man, one Demetrius of Phaleron, an Athenian politician. . . . In some minds Vespasian’s two healings might be taken as a sign, not simply that Vespasian enjoyed Sarapis’s blessing, but that he was in some sense to be identified with the god. This is in part suggested by the ancient Egyptian myth that the kings of Egypt were sons of Re, the sun-god, and is further borne out by the fact that Vespasian was saluted as ‘son of Ammon’ as well as ‘Caesar, god’ when he visited the hippodrome only a short while later.

Presumably the main targets of this propaganda were the population of Alexandria and the two legions stationed there, whose support Vespasian clearly needed to retain. No doubt different people will have understood this cluster of events in different ways. Some may have seen Vespasian as quasi-divine, others as a divinely aided thaumaturge and others as an exceptionally lucky man smiled on by fortuna and the gods. In any case the healing miracles and their association with Sarapis seem to have been designed more for eastern than western consumption

The classicist and specialist in Suetonius, David Wardle, is more direct with the reason for Vespasian’s miracles: Continue reading “Spit at a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?”


2019-04-23

The Gospels Not the Best Place to Look for the Origins of Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the NT as we have it, and especially the gospels, is entirely dependent on that branch of Jesus’ disciples, gathered around Peter (and Paul), which is centered on the kerygma of the resurrection. Acts has preserved a few traces of other groups: Apollos and the disciples at Ephesus, who know only the baptism of John, represent at least one other current, which must have lived on with its own teaching; a similar observation could be made on the subject of James, to whom even Peter gives an account of himself. Little is known about the Jewish-Christians, but their biography of Jesus (the “Gospel of the Hebrews”), which was apparently not published, would have presented a rather different picture from the one we know, even if the facts related were more or less the same. Traces there certainly are in the NT, but they have been almost obliterated by a final redaction which has a different orientation. Similar traces are to be found also in the Eastern Churches, which regard themselves as the heirs of Jude, Thomas, etc., although nothing in the NT would lead us to suspect that. . . . .

. . . .

From what has been seen in the previous section, it is clear that the gospels are not the best place to look for the origins of Christianity, that is to say, for what happened immediately after Jesus left the scene.

Nodet, Étienne, and Justin Taylor. 1998. The Origins of Christianity: An Exploration. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. (pp. 38, 39)

Nodet and Taylor cite two reasons for that conclusion: 1, the long delay from the time of Jesus until the “publishing” of the gospels; 2, “the almost total silence regarding rites.”

Now the NT, by and large, gives no information about how to perform any rites, despite numerous allusions to them. Even more: in the gospels Jesus institutes nothing.115 In other words, many things to be observed remained unpublished. (p. 39)


2017-08-07

Aesop / 2, a Guide to a Late Gospel of Mark Date

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by Neil Godfrey

Justin Martyr

Sleepy me forgot to include the main thought that led to the argument of the previous post. Reflecting on Hägg’s point about the Life of Aesop being produced at a time when interest in Aesop was the fashion of the day, the question I was asking myself was:

  • When do we see an interest in the pre-crucifixion earthly life-events of Jesus emerge in the record? When does that particular literary vogue begin?

Now that’s less subtle than an argument based on Paul’s influence on the Gospel of Mark.

The second century Pastoral epistle 1 Timothy speaks of Jesus testifying before Pilate.

Ignatius is among the earliest witnesses to an interest in biographical details of Jesus with his specifications of Mary’s pregnancy and Pilate’s role in the crucifixion. Though Ignatius’s martyrdom (and letter writing date) is said by Eusebius to be in the tenth year of Trajan (108 CE), we have reasons to think that the letters may really have been composed considerably later. As Roger Parvus writes:

Eusebius, in the fourth century, was the first to claim that the letters were written in the reign of Trajan (98 – 117 CE). A number of scholars have recognized that his dating is untrustworthy, and that the letters should be dated later. To give some recent examples:

  • Allen Brent says “we can…, if we like, place Ignatius’ work towards the end of Hadrian’s reign (AD 135)” (p. 318 of his 2006 book Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic.
  • And Paul Foster, in his chapter on Ignatians in The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers (2007), placed their composition “sometime during the second quarter of the second century, i.e. 125 – 50 CE, roughly corresponding to Hadrian’s reign or the earlier part of Antoninus Pius’ period in office” (p. 89).
  • Timothy Barnes, in a 2008 article in The Expository Times (“The Date of Ignatius”), concluded that the letters were written “probably in the 140s” (p. 128).
  • And Richard Pervo, in his The Making of Paul published in 2010 says “A date of c. 130 – 140 is the preferable date for Ignatius” (p. 135).
  • Earl Doherty too, in his Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, does not have a problem with dating the letters to the third decade of the second century. (p. 296).

Justin Martyr of the mid-second century, discussed in the previous post, is also the earliest of the Church Fathers to show a detailed interest in writing about events in the earthly life of Jesus. Most of his discussion is an attempt to prove that the Old Testament writings were prophesying cryptically about Jesus. Again, see the table I have posted on vridar.info.

Interestingly the literary focus on the life of Jesus first appears to gain wider traction around the same time as the interest in and heated controversy over Paul.

Sure we can date the gospels to the last decades of the first century, but by doing so we have to wait some decades (and Justin does not even appear to know any of the gospels in their final canonical form) before we find anyone appearing to take any notice of their contents or sharing their interest in Jesus’ life.

Justin is said to be the first witness to the existence of the gospels but we need to keep in mind that Justin also said that fire (presumably a spiritual fire) engulfed the Jordan when Jesus was baptized, that the infant Jesus was found in a cave, that Pilate conspired with the Jews to crucify Jesus, and indicates that he had no concept of any Judas character or betrayal of Jesus by a disciple.

Is it not interesting that “the church”, or at least the “proto-orthodox” side of Christianity, first appears to take an interest in writings about the earthly life of Jesus at the same time as heated arguments over the teachings of Paul?

The two interests, the teachings of Paul and the earthly life of Jesus, first appear in the wider record around the same time.

Justin, as we saw in the previous post, is certainly one of the more hostile of the “fathers” towards Paul and he it is who is the first to show a strong interest, most unlike Paul, in interpreting the Old Testament as a string of prophecies about the earthly Jesus.

I don’t think the Gospel of Mark was originally written as a literal testimony to the pre-crucifixion life of Jesus, though. The narrative is far too patently (in my view) symbolic to think that it was written with a mind to be read literally. The author does not attempt to proof-text his narrative in the same way the author of the Gospel of Matthew did by saying “Jesus did or said such and such so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (The only exception in English translations of Mark is in fact a gloss.) The Gospel of Mark was actually first associated with heretics (as was Paul) — with the followers of Basilides — though I suspect that Basilides’ followers knew of a kind of ur-Mark, not the form of the gospel we have today in our orthodox canons.

It is the Gospel of Matthew who is closest to the sort of narrative of Jesus that so engrossed Justin. Another point I find interesting is that the Gospel of Matthew, with its anti-Paul message and its focus on Jesus fulfilling passages in the OT, that was the most influential gospel in the second century while the Gospel of Mark was scarcely noticed among the proto-orthodox.

The point is that the mainstream view holds that the gospels were written between 70 and 90 and then forgotten or largely ignored until the mid second century.

Why not prefer to date them to a time when we find there was a more general interest in the sorts of things they write about?

 


2015-04-17

How To Date Early Christian Texts

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by Neil Godfrey

A new post has appeared on the Weststar Institute’s blog, 8 tips for dating early Christian texts. It covers considerable detail for both relative and absolute dating.

My earlier post, Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels, was a summary of Niels Peter Lemche’s explanation of valid methods to arrive at an absolute date range for the gospels. The Westar Institute post by Cassandra Farrin gives much more detail — most of it applicable to relative dating.

Her headings — but you must read her post to grasp the full meaning of each:

1. Does the writer refer to any historical figures and events?

2. What other texts does the writer know and refer to?

3. What is the earliest known reference to this text in other sources?

4. Does the text contain special terms or words that changed in meaning from one era to another?

5. Does the text copy the mistakes or variations of other, earlier texts?

6. Is the text concerned with questions or themes that were also popular in other texts of a certain historical period?

7. What genre is this text? Is it a letter, a gospel, an apocalypse? In what sorts of wider contexts was this style of writing useful and popular?

8. Is there any archaeological, socio-cultural, or paleographic research to back up your best guess?

The post links to another set of interesting ones, including one titled 5 Quick and Dirty Rules for Interpreting PaulContinue reading “How To Date Early Christian Texts”


2014-02-23

Constructing Jesus and the Gospels: Apocalyptic Prophecy

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by Neil Godfrey

destruction_jerusalemPassages that for modern fundamentalist readers refer doctrinally to Jesus’ death and some imaginary “end time” in some indefinite future:

Luke 12:49-53

49 I came to cast fire upon the earth; and what do I desire, if it is already kindled?
50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished
51 Think ye that I am come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:
52 for there shall be from henceforth five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three
53 They shall be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against her mother; mother in law against her daughter in law, and daughter in law against her mother in law.

Luke 21:23

23 Woe unto them that are with child and to them that give suck in those days! for there shall be great distress upon the land, and wrath unto this people.

Luke 23:28-30

28 But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.
29 For behold, the days are coming, in which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the breasts that never gave suck
30 Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us.

Luke 21:6

6 As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in which there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

Luke 21:20

20 But when ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that her desolation is at hand.

Luke 21:24-27

24 And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led captive into all the nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
25 And there shall be signs in sun and moon and stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows
26 men fainting for fear, and for expectation of the things which are coming on the world: for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.
27 And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

Luke 17:33-37

33 Whosoever shall seek to gain his life shall lose it: but whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.
34 I say unto you, In that night there shall be two men on one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
35 There shall be two women grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
36 There shall be two men in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left
37 And they answering say unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Where the body is, thither will the eagles also be gathered together.

.

The Literary Form of the Gospels

A proper understanding of literary form gives us a historical meaning.

Much depends on our analysis of the literary form of the gospels. If we conclude on the basis of Gospel passages like those above that the gospels are novella-like apocalypses or apocalyptic prophecies, a variant of writings like Daniel, then by definition they are written with reference to historical events known to their original audience.

When the above passages are read with the knowledge of those events, the war with Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem, then they refer both to the death of Jesus and the catastrophic fate of Jerusalem.

Thus a proper understanding of literary form gives us a historical meaning. (Clarke W. Owens Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels) Continue reading “Constructing Jesus and the Gospels: Apocalyptic Prophecy”


2012-01-01

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. Continue reading “Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels”


2011-02-23

How Late Can a Gospel Be?

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by Neil Godfrey

Nativity scene
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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. Continue reading “How Late Can a Gospel Be?”


2010-06-14

How to date the gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Four Evangelists, miniatures from the Gelati (...
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One who identifies himself as an Irish Anglican here has asked me if I would like to address the arguments of John A. T. Robinson in Redating the New Testament. While I have had such an exercise on my list of “to-do” items for some time, it is unlikely that I will get around to doing anything in depth for quite some time. I would have thought, from the fact that Robinson’s arguments for early dates seem to have made little significant impact on mainstream scholarship, we can see the arguments have not been overwhelmingly persuasive — apart from the more apologetically inclined who have a theological interest in seeing the gospels dated as early as possible to the events they narrate. (But not being a part of academia I might be misinformed on this point.)

As if the narrative is itself some external historical reality and not, indeed, just a lot of creative words making up the theological parable or story. Sound historical method, at least as found practiced outside the sheltered ranks of historical Jesus studies, and as well recognized by the likes of Albert Schweitzer himself, requires that there be some indisputable reference point or control that is external to the narrative itself before one can rightfully assume any narrative has some historical basis. But Schweitzer lost that battle and it appears that today many mainstream believers in the historical Jesus can only respond with insult in place of reasoned argument when challenged with this basic premise. That’s understandable. There is no reasoned rebuttal available to them.

Well, let’s see. I’m digressing. Back to dating the gospels.

There is one simple reason John A. T. Robinson’s dating arguments fail. There are a number of more detailed reasons. But one overall methodological reason undermines his entire effort. Continue reading “How to date the gospels”


2010-05-29

Why early Christians would create the story of Jesus’ baptism – and more evidence the gospels were very late

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by Neil Godfrey

John the Baptist baptizing Christ
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The historicity of Jesus’ baptism is asserted on grounds that the event would not have been told unless it were true, because it implies views of Jesus that no Christian would invent:

  1. that John was up till that point superior to Jesus,
  2. and/or that Jesus had sins to be buried in the Jordan River.

This is hardly a solid method to determine whether or not an event is historical or not, especially when reasons do exist that could indeed explain why Christians might invent the story.

I have usually given just one of these possible reasons in other posts, and that is that the author of the Gospel of Mark viewed Jesus as an ordinary man until the moment of his baptism when he was possessed by the Spirit of God and declared at that moment, God’s Beloved Son. Such a view is supported by this Gospel’s depiction of Jesus as far more human than the way he is shown in later Gospels, and also by Mark’s description of the Spirit possessing and driving Jesus into the wilderness. It was this lowly view of Jesus that the later evangelists attempted to re-write: Matthew declaring that John protested that he should not baptize Jesus; Luke only indirectly implying that John baptized Jesus; and John not mentioning the baptism at all.

But there is another evident reason that this scenario might have been invented. This was to fulfill prophetic expectations held among the Jews. One criterion that some scholars (e.g. Robert Funk in “Honest to Jesus”) use to cast doubt on the historicity of any passage in the Gospels is that of intended prophetic fulfillment. If a passage appears to have been written in order to fulfill some “prophecy” of Christ, then the historian must at the very least accept the possibility that it was invented for that purpose.

G. A. Wells in The Jesus Myth alerts us to the evidence that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be anointed by Elijah. And Mark’s Gospel specifically identifies John the Baptist with Elijah, and that at least one early Christian did point to Jesus’ baptism as another proof that Jesus was the Christ. Continue reading “Why early Christians would create the story of Jesus’ baptism – and more evidence the gospels were very late”


2010-05-20

Okay, just one more early-dating of Mark critique, but quickly

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by Neil Godfrey

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(response to recent comments on the earlier post “Dating Mark Early”)

Crossley presents three specific arguments to date Mark before 40 ce:

  1. the way he wrote about the disciples plucking corn on the sabbath could be interpreted by the unwary to mean that Jesus was abolishing the sabbath; but since other arguments “establish” this was not the case, the ambiguity in Mark’s narrative “demonstrates” that he wrote at a time when all Christians would have understood that Jesus plainly did not abolish the sabbath — and therefore at a time when all Christians were taking sabbath keeping for granted — i.e. before 40 ce.
  2. the way he worded Jesus’ saying in the divorce controversy appears on the face of it to mean that divorce is not allowed under any circumstances; but since it can be argued that Mark’s Jesus was always a stickler for the biblical law, and the biblical law did allow for divorce, it is “clear” that Mark did not mean his audience to read his words literally, but to assume that Jesus “meant” to allow for divorce for “the obvious reasons” anyway — and this also “proves” that Mark wrote very early before any divorce discussions arose in the church — i.e. before 40 ce.
  3. the way Mark chose his words in describing the handwashing controversy left it open for later readers to think that Jesus was declaring all foods clean, thus abolishing the biblical food laws; but since on other grounds it can be argued that Mark’s Jesus always observed biblical laws on principle, we can infer that Mark was writing at a time when his audience took this for granted and understood Jesus was not abolishing the food laws at all. — i.e. even earlier before 40 ce.

Any one of these arguments, Crossley admits, may not be persuasive for all readers, but together they become an argument of “cumulative weight” and therefore much stronger. The maths proves it: 0+0+0=3.

In one place in his book, The Date of Mark’s Gospel, he says that the first two arguments are the strongest case; but elsewhere he says the third is the strongest. I’ve dealt with one part of #1 here, and will deal with #3 in this post. Continue reading “Okay, just one more early-dating of Mark critique, but quickly”


2010-05-10

Dating Mark early

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by Neil Godfrey

Rob did not read the rules
Image by mizinformation via Flickr

In order to know how to interpret a document it is very often helpful to know when it was written. Maurice Casey (Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel) and James Crossley (The Date of Mark’s Gospel), however, turn this around and use their interpretation of the Gospel of Mark to determine when the Gospel was written. They date this gospel to within ten years of the supposed death of Jesus.

They begin by falling in line with the untested and unquestioned assumption of their peers that assumes that the gospels are based on a historical Jesus. There is no evidence for this proposition, so biblical scholars proceed by means of a circular methodology to discover the evidence they need to support it by analyzing different parts of the gospel texts. Cultural tradition and contemporary public and institutional support for this process enables it to flourish unquestioned, and give licence to its practitioners to ignore or ridicule any attempts to expose their circularity. Words of practical advice from Schweitzer and Schwartz to Hobsbawm and Thompson are dismissed. Discussions by Elton and Carr on historiography are misrepresented. They have learned nothing from the exposure of the same methodological flaws at the root of Albrightianism. All this has been addressed in previous posts and comments.

One passage addressed by Casey and Crossley in support of their case that the Gospel of Mark was written before 40 c.e. is Mark 2:23-28

And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.
And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?
And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him?
How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?
And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath:
Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.

Even though there is no historical evidence for a strong presence of Pharisees in Galilee until after the Jewish war and the fall of Jerusalem in 70; and even though we have no evidence that the laws of Leviticus were widely practised in Galilee in the time of Jesus; and even though Casey and Crossley concede there is no evidence that there was any sabbath law regarding the picking of grain until late rabbinic times, and even though there is evidence that the Pharisees were in fact far more lenient towards the poor and did not make crushing burdensome rules for them and were popular among the poor, Casey and Crossley, and many of their peers, are convinced that scenes like this are historical.

Importance of an Aramaic source Continue reading “Dating Mark early”


2009-05-07

How the Gospels are most commonly dated (and why?)

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by Neil Godfrey

From Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 144-145 (number formatting is mine):

  1. Even though it is very hard to date the Gospels with precision, most scholars agree on the basic range of dates, for a variety of reasons . . . .
  2. I can say with relative certainty — from his own letters and from Acts — that Paul was writing during the fifties of the common era . . . .
  3. [H]e gives in his own writings absolutely no evidence of knowing about or ever having heard of the existence of any Gospels. From this it can be inferred that the Gospels probably were written after Paul’s day.
  4. It also appears that the Gospel writers know about certain later historical events, such as the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 ce . . . That implies that these Gospels were probably written after 70.
  5. There are reasons for thinking Mark was written first, so maybe he wrote around the time of the war with Rome, 70 ce.
  6. If Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source, they must have been composed after Mark’s Gospel circulated for a time outside its own originating community — say, ten or fifteen years later, in 80 to 85 ce.
  7. John seems to be the most theologically developed Gospel, and so it was probably written later still, nearer the end of the first century, around 90 to 95 ce.
  8. These are rough guesses, but most scholars agree on them.

Here we have in a convenient nutshell the basic reasons behind the widely accepted dates for the Gospels. Bart Ehrman explains he is not going into details here, and one can find in the literature more nuanced arguments for relative and other dates assigned to the gospels. But with these dot points we can say we are looking at the trunk of the tree.

Dating Paul

The grounds stated for dating Paul to the 50’s seems reasonable enough. The only problem is that there is no external attestation for Paul’s letters till the second century. Ditto for the book of Acts. It is unknown until Irenaeus cites it in the latter half of the second century. That leaves only the letters of Paul themselves. How certain can we be about a date that relies solely on the self-witness of the documents themselves? Especially when we know that at the time Paul’s letters do appear they are simultaneously embroiled in controversies over forgeries and interpolations. (Marcionites accused “orthodoxy” of interpolating Paul’s letters; the letters themselves warn of forgeries, and many scholars believe the Pastoral letters are forgeries.)

But the point here is that Ehrman does supply the reasons, the evidence, for dating Paul the way most do.

Dating Mark Continue reading “How the Gospels are most commonly dated (and why?)”


2009-05-06

Why so long before the first gospel narrative?

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by Neil Godfrey

The answer I have most commonly heard to this question is that the earliest Christians were too much on edge expecting the return of Jesus any day to be bothered or to see any need to write down the things they supposedly heard Jesus did and said.

But the odd thing about this explanation is that so many scholars like to date the Gospel of Mark as early as 70 c.e., in the midst of the Jewish-Roman war, during the siege of Jerusalem. That is, precisely at the time when the return of Jesus would have been the MOST expected any day or hour.

Some even like to date this first gospel earlier, to the 40’s c.e. when Caligula attempted to have his statue placed in the Jewish temple. Again, one would have expected even more apocalyptic fervour that much sooner after the supposed events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It’s not as if there were no literates among the converts all those decades. If we take the letters of Paul at face value then we see evidence of a number of individuals with scribal skills.

Given the astonishing deeds and sayings earlier believers attributed to Jesus, it beggars belief that no-one would not have been interested all those decades to be among the first to commit them to writing.