An Argument for the Early Dating of the Gospels

June 13th, 2010

Adapted from a podcast at pleaseconvinceme.com

For those who would claim that the Four Gospels are a reliable eyewitness testimony, there is substantial evidence to bolster the claim. The Four Gospels, and the New Testament, were indeed written soon after Jesus’ resurrection.

Since the first century, there have been movements to eradicate the deity of Jesus. It is an old art, based on unsupported claims and purported reason. In the early church, it was the Judaizers who would negate the finished work of Jesus, if possible, by applying the yoke of the law to all. There were even purported gospels by Gnostics extolling the various teachings of an imperfect god. It is in their vanity they refuse to align their minds with the mind of God, instead making god in the image of man.

Presently, the neo-atheists and neo-Gnostics are presenting the same worn claims, albeit to fresh ears. In humanity’s quest for something spiritual to fill a self-imposed void, they eagerly consume the delusion offered to them by the same ravenous wolves.

What is at stake?

Paul answers this question in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. The resurrection is central to Christianity. If there is no resurrection than we hope in vain. One well used weapon in their arsenal is the reliability and veracity of the eyewitness testimony. The attack is relentless, as it has happened throughout church history. Most will tell you that the New Testament was penned in the late second century.

Is that true?

Let us examine the evidence.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 250

On 19 November 1931, Chester Beatty purchased a collection of papyri. The manuscripts were purportedly found in the city of Aphroditopolis. The eleven manuscripts in the collection consisted mostly of portions of the Old and New Testaments and are known as the Chester Beatty Papyri. The three New Testament manuscripts contained fragments of the Four Gospels and the book of Acts of the Apostles.

These fragments are dated by paleography to the first half of the third century. In other words, between A.D. 200 and A.D. 250. What is significant, is that the substantial amount of time for these works to be collected and transmitted would have had to occur before this time. Regardless, the gospels were written and accepted before A.D. 250.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 200

The Bodmer Papyri were discovered near Dishna, Egypt in 1952. They were found at Pabau, the ancient headquarters of the Pachomian order of monks. These 22 papyri contain segments of the Old Testament, New Testament and other Christian literature. Significantly, this collection contains the oldest written fragments from the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John manuscript is almost a complete copy and is dated at A.D. 200 Because the Gospel of John is widely accepted as the last gospel to be written, this would put the other gospels into circulation well before this date.

Gospels dated Earlier than A.D. 175

The Diatessaron, created by Tatian the Syrian, was a harmonization of the Four Gospels. This important work was the standard text for the Syrian church. Tatian died in A.D. 180, and the Diatessaron is generally accepted as written between A.D. 160 and A.D. 175. At this date, the gospels were accepted and in circulation before it was written.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 150

Early church fathers had a habit of quoting these Four Gospels. One such church father, Justin Martyr, ministered in Rome, where he founded a school. Amongst his pupils was Tatian the Syrian. Justin was an early defender of Christianity, he wrote eight apologies. Only three have been found to still exist… they are First Apology, Second Apology and Dialogue with Trypho. Justin quoted John 3:5 in Chapter 61 of his First Apology, further in chapter 63, he quotes Matthew 11:27 and Luke 10:16.

This presumes the Four Gospels were known and used in church teachings when the First Apology was penned somewhere between A.D. 147 and A.D. 161, based onto who it was addressed. However, the mention of “Felix” as governor of Egypt is believed to be a reference to Lucius Munatius Felix which further fixes the date to around A.D. 151.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 130

Eusebius of Caesaria was one of the first writers to chronicle the history of the early church. He quotes Papias, whom he called the Bishop of Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale, Turkey, ) among others. Most notably in volume 5 of Historia Ecclesiastica, he quotes Papias’ Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord. In the quotation Papias , himself, quoted the Gospel of Matthew, as well mentioning the Gospel of Mark. Papias died in A.D. 130.

The Rylands Papyri contains a fragment of the Gospel of John. It has been dated to about A.D. 125. This fragment, discovered in Egypt, puts the Gospel of John in use, there. Allowing for the copying and transmission of the text, we can presume that the youngest gospel, John’s, was in use before this time.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 120

Polycarp, a disciple of John, was Bishop of Smyrna and was martyred around A.D. 155. He wrote a letter to the Philippian church (ca. A.D. 110 – A.D. 135)in which he quotes or alludes to the Gospel s and other New Testament writings. The date of the letter cannot be fixed with certainty, Polycarp lived around 86 years, fixing a date of around A.D. 120 would put him at around 55 years old when he wrote it.

The significance of this letter is Polycarp’s reliance on the writings of the Four Gospels and other New Testament books. It is apparent that these were recognized as the word of God and perceived that way by both writer and reader, when the use of the letter is taken into account.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 110

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, wrote several letters in A.D. 110. In his letters he quotes and/or alludes to the writings of Matthew. This would mean that the Gospel of Matthew would already be in circulation for it to be used this way.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 100

The ancient writing Didache: Teaching of the 12 Apostles, in chapter 8 quotes the Lord’s Prayer from the Gospel of Matthew. The Didache had been widely disseminated by about A.D. 100.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 95

Clement, Bishop of Rome, in a letter to the Corinthian congregation, quoted Matthew. The letter is dated during the reign of Domitian circa A.D. 95.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 70

Herod’s Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 under Titus. This was predicted by Jesus in the Matthew 24:1-2 and Luke 19:44. There is no recording of the temple’s destruction in the Gospels. If the Gospels were dated later than this date, this would be a significant omission, considering Jesus’ Himself predicted its destruction!

Even the writer of the book of Hebrews would have included this fact to bolster the claims set forth in that book. In fact, the entire New Testament is silent on this fact, in stark contrast to those who would have you believe that Christianity was invented over a period of time.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 64

Luke authored his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, yet there is no mention of the temple’s destruction, the siege of Jerusalem or the intense persecution of Nero. These would be significant and important milestones for the early church.

Early skeptics thought the titles, terminologies and customs used by Luke were primitive and thought false, until Luke’s terms were bolstered by archaeology.

Luke is likely writing Acts very early, as there is no mention of the martyrdom of James in A.D. 61, Paul in A.D. 64 or even Peter in A.D. 65. In fact, at the end of Acts, Paul is still alive! With that fact, it would be a reasonable conclusion to date the book of Acts before A.D. 64.

Luke himself, in Acts 1:1, refers to his previous work, leading one to reason that the Gospel of Luke would have to be written, circulated and well known before this book was written. Bolstering this claim, Paul quotes both Deuteronomy and Luke’s Gospel in 1 Timothy 5:17-18.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 60

If Mark is the earliest gospel written, it would have to precede the Gospel of Luke. This is derived from Luke 1:1-4, where Luke tells of his purpose in writing the account. He occasionally quotes the Gospel of Mark, so it would be reasonable to conclude that the Gospel of Mark was recorded before A.D. 60. This would allow time for transmission and circulation.

Gospels dated earlier than A.D. 55

There are three letter widely attested to be written by Paul. These are the epistles to the Romans, 1 Corinthians and Galatians. These were written between A.D. 48 – A.D. 60, the Epistle to the Romans, in the opinion of most scholars was probably written in A.D. 55 – A.D. 57.

In Galatians 1:18-19 Paul tells us that three years after his conversion, he went to Jerusalem to meet Peter and James. Paul returned to Syria and in Galatians 2:1, Paul tells of returning to Jerusalem to meet the apostles 14 years later. In Galatians 2:7-9 Paul describes his meeting with the apostles. The theory that this is one of Paul’s earliest epistles, would date this before A.D. 55. This same theory purports the meeting in Galatians 2: 1-10 and Acts 11:30 is the same. This theory implicates Acts 15:20 as describing the non-existent letter to the Galatians. If so, this places Acts well before the Epistle to the Galatians, and pushes the dating of the Gospels even earlier!

It is reasonable to conclude that Paul saw the risen Christ within five years of the resurrection.

Paul opens his letter to the Romans by declaring Jesus as the resurrected Son of God in Romans 1:4! This is about 17 years after the resurrection. The message is clear in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Jesus is accepted as God incarnate, resurrected and glorified! Paul is reciting the gospel. These men are resolute and steadfast in doctrine. Attesting to the reasonable conclusion that these books were written, accepted and circulated among still living witnesses. Living witnesses who could refute the testimony.

In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 Paul quotes almost word-for-word Luke 22:19-20. Luke was Paul’s traveling companion, and Luke borrowed from Mark… this would place the gospel of Mark’s account very early in church history.

Jose O’Callahan, a Spanish Jesuit paleographer made headlines in 1972. He announced he had a translated piece of the Gospel of Mark on a Dead Sea Scrolls fragment. The Dead Sea Scrolls are dated to between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50. Again, this places the Gospel of Mark well within 15-17 years of the resurrection of Jesus.

There is ample evidence that points to the Gospel of Mark being recorded very early in church history. Some even think that the Gospel of Mark is an early memoir of Peter. This theory also requires an early date for the Gospel of Mark. It is a reasonable conclusion when one examines the evidence put forth.

Conclusion

Jesus is no prophet evolving into mythology as the agnostic apologizers would have you believe. Instead, He is indeed the risen Christ, Messiah… Son of God. Because Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection, He has taken the sting from death, as Paul proclaims in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55.

But as Paul goes on to declare that the sting of death is sin through the power of the law in 1 Corinthians 15:56. We now declare from the rooftops , 1 Corinthians 15:57 “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”