The New Testament Dating Game
BY FR. DWIGHT LONGENECKER
One of the big problems in sharing the faith today is the attitude most people have to the stories about Jesus. Many people have had no religious instruction at all, and those who have had some education have often suffered from incomplete teaching.
Poor teaching has been combined with misinformation in the media, irresponsible reporting, and popular fiction and films that mix historical facts with fanciful storylines. As a result, most people, when asked if the stories of the Bible are true, will probably shrug and say that the stories, if they are based in truth, are mixed up with myths and miracles. They imagine that the stories are folktales, legends, fables, and fairy tales.
Every Sunday Catholics recite the Nicene Creed at Mass and affirm that Jesus “was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Pilate’s name is in the Creed as a positive statement that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection took place at a particular place and time in human history.
But the stories were recorded after Jesus died and rose again. How do we know they were recorded accurately? We all know how a tale that is passed on can change and evolve. Were the stories about Jesus written down long after his death and resurrection? Were they changed over the years? Were miraculous and marvelous elements added to make Jesus more special?
JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM!
Older readers will remember a television show in which a dour detective would investigate a crime and, when talking to a witness, would mutter his catchphrase, “Just the facts, ma’am.” That’s what we need to do when examining the historical claims of the Gospels.
St. Luke claims at the beginning of his Gospel that the stories are based on eyewitness accounts that he has investigated carefully. He writes:
Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence. (Luke 1:1–3)
St. Peter and St. John both preach about what they have “seen and heard” (Acts 4:20 and 1 John 1:3).
We know from the Jewish customs of the time that the disciples of various teachers took notes, copying down not only the sayings of their master, but also recording the stories of their deeds. In addition the Jewish educational method relied heavily on memorization. Jewish boys had highly developed memory skills so they could pass down the faith accurately.
Remembering that Jesus’ disciples were Jewish men, we can conclude that the stories and sayings of Jesus were recorded and remembered accurately.
LOOKING THE SAME
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “synoptic Gospels” because they look the same. In other words, they contain many of the same stories and sayings of Jesus. St John’s Gospel is a later composition and stands on its own.
How the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke came to be written is one of the great mysteries of New Testament scholarship. It is called “the synoptic problem,” and literally shelves of books have been written proposing theories of how, when, and by whom the three Gospels were written.
The traditional view is that Matthew was written by Jesus’ apostle who was the tax collector also called Levi. Mark was written by John Mark, who was a cousin of Barnabas and a traveling companion and assistant of both St. Paul and St. Peter.
Luke’s Gospel was written by St. Luke—a doctor who was another traveling companion of St. Paul and who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. However, some scholars debate the traditional authorship, suggesting that the Gospels were written much later by anonymous writers who simply took on the names of Matthew, Mark, and Luke to give their writings more authoritative weight.
This theory is increasingly dismissed as we come to learn more about the Gospels. There were later Gospels attributed to the apostles in order to give the writings weight, but the fact that Mark and Luke were not actually apostles weakens the theory that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written by someone else. If an anonymous author wanted to give his bogus writings extra authority, he would surely have ascribed them to one of the apostles.
Brant Pitre, in his book The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, makes the point that we do not have any ancient manuscripts of the Gospels that do not have the names Matthew, Mark, and Luke at the top, and virtually all the ancient writers agree that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were the authors. No one has suggested otherwise for 1,900 years. We can safely conclude, then, that the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
THE DATING GAME
Why does it matter when the Gospels were written? It matters because the later they are, the more likely they are to have evolved, grown, and become elaborated over time. On the other hand, the earlier the Gospels were written, the more likely they are to be accurate historical witnesses of what really happened so long ago.
So how do we determine the date of writing if the Gospel writers didn’t put the date at the top of every page? We begin with the latest possible date and work backward. We know that the three synoptic Gospels had to have been completed by the year 150 A.D. because we have actual manuscripts of portions of the Gospels from that time period or before.
So we can begin our detective work from the year 100 A.D. We know that the four Gospels were completed by then because St. John died in the 90s A.D., and his Gospel was written after the other three.
Could the other three have been composed much earlier than that? To determine that, we have to find a datable event we can connect with the Gospels. For many years scholars said that date was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. Because that event is hinted at in the Gospels, scholars think the Gospels must have been written after the event.
However, Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem is not that clear. This theory is also based on the assumption that no one can prophecy the future. However, Jesus could have prophesied the future — or he simply could have predicted the fall of Jerusalem — because he was familiar with the politics and personalities of the time. Therefore this date is not the best one on which to rest our case.
THE DEATHS OF PETER AND PAUL
The martyrdom of Sts. Peter and Paul in 65 A.D. is a better fixed point. It is a well-established tradition that they died under the persecution of the Emperor Nero. The reason this is interesting is that St. Paul is still living at the end of the Acts of the Apostles and there is no mention of the death of St. Peter (even though his death is mentioned in John’s Gospel).
If the Acts of the Apostles was written before the deaths of Peter and Paul, then it must have been completed before 65 A.D. We know that Luke wrote Acts of the Apostles after he wrote the Gospel with his name on it, so therefore Luke’s Gospel must also have been written before 65 A.D. We can safely move the date of its writing back to about 60 A.D.
Scholars tell us from studying the text that Luke was probably the third of the synoptic Gospels to have been written. This matches with the earliest traditions. If that is the case, and if Luke completed his Gospel around 60 A.D., then Mark and Matthew’s Gospels were written even earlier.
THE MYSTERY OF MATTHEW AND MARK
The earliest traditions record that Mark’s Gospel was based on the memories and preaching of St. Peter. This would make sense since Mark was a companion of Peter. Papias, one of the early Church Fathers, reported that Matthew wrote his Gospel in his own tongue of Aramaic or Hebrew. The version we now have, however, is written in Greek. Just how and when Matthew and Mark’s Gospels were composed continues to be debated, but if Mark was Peter’s companion in the 50s A.D., then we can place the composition of Mark’s Gospel somewhere in the second half of that decade.
Meanwhile, Matthew may very well have collected the stories and sayings of Jesus and written them down in Hebrew or Aramaic. There is every reason to believe that he would have done this around the area of Judea and Jerusalem before the apostles dispersed widely. Therefore, this collection may have been as early as 45 A.D., just about 10 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
This early collection by Matthew may then have been used as a source by Mark and Luke, and later Matthew (or another editor) produced the more complete Gospel, drawing on what Mark and Luke had written. This version was composed in Greek and is the edition of Matthew’s Gospel we now have.
If you like history, these details are fascinating, but why do they matter? They matter because they show that the stories of Jesus — far from being myths and later elaborated legends — are historically reliable and trustworthy. The stories and sayings of Jesus are given not just for historical interest, however, but so that we might know and believe that Jesus is the Son of God and our Savior.