Dating the Gospels

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 17 June 2021

The dates that the four canonical Gospels of the New Testament were composed has a great impact for Christians, of course, but also for historians, particularly on the matter of whether Jesus ever existed, and really for everybody living in the civilisation this religion has built.

A SCHOLAR’S LAST ACT

Shortly before he died in 2014, British scholar Maurice Casey published a book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths?, which is primarily an attempt to show that Jesus Mythicism is not just wrong but an unserious position; that it is, as Casey puts it in his conclusion, a part of “the fantasy lives of people who used to be fundamentalist Christians. They did not believe in critical scholarship then, and they do not do so now.”

Casey runs through some of the arguments: in an oral tradition and with events in a remote province of the Roman Empire among a disliked minority, expecting writings from Jesus himself or evidence on par with coins minted by Julius Caesar is unreasonable. Some of the contradictions in the Gospels themselves, like the stories told to have Jesus born in Bethlehem the better to conform with Jewish prophecies, make sense only if there was a real person born in Nazareth; if you were going to make the whole thing up, just have him born in Bethlehem. Then there are the non-Christian sources like Josephus and Tacitus. And so on.

If you know this material well, none of this is a surprise, but it is wonderfully written by a learned scholar who clearly knew his end was near and was done with any pretence that he took seriously a small group of obsessives who had swapped out one faith for another. If you haven’t come across this before and earnestly wish to assess the Jesus Mythicist case, Casey gives a highly readable and concise overview.

The purpose of this post is, however, to highlight chapter three, which gives a condensed version of work Casey has evidently done elsewhere at greater length on the dates for the gospels.

DATING THE GOSPELS

The traditional dating—once the Marcan vs. Matthean priority issue was resolved—was that gMark was written c. 65-70 AD, with gMatthew written c. 70-80 and gLuke written c. 80-90. After these Synoptic Gospels, which are interrelated and partially use each other as sources, there is the Gospel of John, written independently sometime later c. 90-110.

Casey makes an extremely compelling case that gMark dates to c. 40, i.e. within a decade of the crucifixion, and gMatthew to c. 50-60, while agreeing that gLuke was written in the conventional, comparatively late timeframe of c. 80-90 and leaving gJohn untouched. As Casey spells out, dating the Gospels has to be done internally, for the above-mentioned reason that in first-century Palestine there was not a general literary culture and there was absolutely no such thing among the tiny Jesus Sect.

Casey’s analysis among other things points to gMark’s clear Jewish context—as much as anything what isn’t in there; the things the author takes for granted that a Jewish audience would know—and some tell-tale signs in the Greek language used that Mark was working from at least one written Aramaic source that contained eyewitness testimony from someone who was in the Aramaic-speaking Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime.

The prediction gMark makes about the destruction of the Temple is clearly made before it happens—it includes things that did not happen, and omits mention of the central drama, the burning down of the Temple. Mark 13:14’s the “abomination of desolation” is an allusion to the Book of Daniel, but it is a reference in a new context: to the order in 39 AD by the Emperor Caligula to put a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem, seen by the Jews as an act of blasphemous idolatry that recalls the actions of the Greek King, Antiochus Epiphanes, setting up a statue of himself in the Temple 200 years earlier, triggering the Maccabean revolt.

There is little dispute that gMatthew writes with gMark as a major source, but Casey is convincing that gMatthew is composed with material direct from one of the Twelve Apostles—and in the circumstances, it seems quite likely to simply be Matthew.

The gMatthew has an edition to gMark’s list of the Twelve to record Matthew as a tax collector, which the author of gMatthew would not have done without a solid source. Since gMatthew betrays Aramaic written sourcing, and a tax collector would have been a skilled writer in a largely oral tradition, it stands to reason this was the Apostle Matthew, a conclusion buttressed—ironically—by the later confusion of the Church Fathers over gMatthew being authored by Matthew (it was quite probably written by someone called Matthew, a common enough Jewish name) and in “a Hebrew language”; it was partially authored by Matthew and partially in “a Hebrew language” (Aramaic), since gMatthew is a composite with a Greek-speaking final editor. Much earlier material, the so-called “Q Document” that the author of gLuke had access to, is also present in gMatthew.

The authors of gMatthew, while favourable to the gentile mission, clearly operate within a Jewish framework—there is concern that in the future sack of Jerusalem there would be Jews who refused to flee if it happened on the sabbath—and the eschatology of gMatthew is much closer to the early vision of Jesus’ ministry that says some present will be alive to see his return; this is dropped from gLuke, written after the assault on Jerusalem, at a time when most of the early members of the Jesus Sect are dead.

The author of gLuke, a highly educated Greek-speaking gentile and an intermittent companion between about 49 and 62 AD of Saint Paul during his evangelising mission, makes clear he is working later—under the patronage of a mysterious Theophilos—to try to compile “an orderly account” from previous efforts to do just the same, from surviving eyewitness accounts, and from those sources handed down. Luke is also clearly working after the fall of Jerusalem and modifies the Marcan prophecies to conform with the events in Jerusalem, eliminating those prophecies that never came to pass and are more connected to the immediate and apocalyptic element in Jesus’ ministry. All of which adds up to an early date being impossible for gLuke.

Casey credits Luke’s author as an excellent historian by the standards of the ancient world, who has gathered many sources of his own, including at least one in Aramaic. Doubtless the gathering of this material was aided by the connections he made earlier as part of the Pauline ministry, though Casey argues that neither these earlier connections nor the resources of Luke’s patron were strictly necessary: “Communication between different churches and synagogues, though slow by our standards, was effective and frequent. An author of Luke’s education and determination could have gained access to more material than we can envisage, and to oral sources as well as written ones”. Depending where he was educated, Casey concludes, Luke would either have been able to read Aramaic or had easy access to people who could.

1 thought on “Dating the Gospels

  1. hansvanniekerk

    Thanks, Kyle.
    I came across an interesting title: ‘Jesus’ Stenographers’, by the Dutch theologian Ben van Noort. Haven’t read the book, yet.
    Sounds like he likes to minimize the oral tradition part and champion a early written tradition initiated by stenographers, not unfamiliar in Hellenistic society – or so he seems to suggest.
    But i have to find out first.
    https://www.amazon.com/Jesus%C2%92s-Stenographers-Story-Red-Letters/dp/1973627671

    Reply

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