Beyond Tradition

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men." Colossians 2:8

Gospel Date: Introductory

 by Sean D. Harmon 

 
Part I of VI:

 

Introductory

It is pretty much a consensus that Jesus was crucified somewhere around 30-36 CE (a popular date seems to be 33). The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the earliest full biographical texts about him we have today. Of course, we don't have the original works, so there is a divide between scholars as to the date of when the original gospel texts were written. The majority of scholars agree on a date scope of around 70-100 CE for all four.[1] But were they composed sooner? There are far more scholars that support a date earlier than 70-100 than there are those who support a date later than 70-100.

In fact, there is no shortage of these pre-70 CE scholars, such as John A. T. Robinson, Carsten Peter Thiede, Gunther Zuntz, Bernard Orchard, Harold Riley, Allen P. Wikgren,  Eta Linnemann, D.A. Carson, Joseph S. Exell, David A. Fiensy, Robert H. Gundry, Gary R. Habermas, Simon J. Kistemaker, and Claude Tresmontant who have argued a date around 40-70 CE. And though I feel most of these scholars present strong arguments for this, some of them in my opinion are not as strong or thorough as they could be. These are generally the scholars who are dubbed the "fundamentalist" or evangelical fringe, despite the evidence that supports these dates, which I'll discuss in a bit.

As was stated, Judea (or Israel) was a province of the Roman Empire, called Palestine (but for sake of confusion, we'll call it Judea). Daily activities in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, at least for the Jew, centered on the Jewish Temple, which was the second Temple built in Jerusalem.[2] After the first Temple, Solomon's Temple, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the process of rebuilding Jerusalem and the second Temple began in 537 BCE under auspices of Cyrus, king of Persia (Ezra 1:3-4). After a succession of decrees, rebuilding and restorations, the final restoration or renovation occurred during the reign of Herod the Great in 20 BCE.

You had two rulers in the kingdom of Judea: Herod Antipas, Herod the Great's son, who was appointed by Rome to rule specific parts of Judea from 4 BCE to 39 CE; and a governor (or Procurator), Pontius Pilate, ruling other parts. King Agrippa I, Antipas' nephew, took over the reign after Antipas was exiled in 39 CE. The Jewish religious ruling and influential class probably consisted of many sects, groups and subgroups, but the primary ones consisted of an aristocratic group known as the Sadducees, though probably smaller in number, that dealt directly with the functions of the Jewish Temple and probably had most of the political clout among the Jews and who made up most of the Jewish Sanhedrin (the Jewish political ruling party). The group with the largest numbers were the Pharisees, who probably had the most influence when it came to purely religious and theological issues. Then there were the Essenes, more of a separatist group than a ruling class. The former two are the predominant players portrayed in the gospels, particularly the Pharisees, whereas the Essenes are not mentioned at all, probably because of the fact they were a sectarian community and the fact they had very little to do with Christianity during this time. All three were somewhat in contention with each other as far as theology and doctrine. All of them were considered devout Jewish sects, and most likely the influential religious sects of that day. Zealots made up the fourth Jewish group. This group was radical in nature, analogous to the Muslim extremists of today, and whose vehement religious beliefs often resulted in violent actions against the Roman state. There were other minor groups like the scribes whose function was exactly that: transcribing doctrine, chiefly the law, onto papyrus; and lawyers who were expert interpreters of the law.

The general populace, which consisted mostly of the working class or "blue collar," was basically made of three camps of people in the first century: the Jews, the Samaritans (technically Jews, but treated as half-breeds), and the Gentiles (non-Jew, Roman, or Greek). As I stated in another article, the disciples of Jesus, who were Jews, became known as apostles after Jesus' proclaimed resurrection and ascension into heaven. Paul, a zealous Pharisee, who was not one of the original twelve disciples, and who went on a Christian persecution rampage shortly after the resurrection, strangely and abruptly converted to Christianity which, according to the book of Acts (9:3-7), was a result of a miraculous event. Paul subsequently became one of the most influential first century Judeo-Christian missionaries and writers of the New Testament.

From sources such as Philo, Josephus and Tacitus, the radical fundamentalism of second Temple Judaism was analogous to the radical religious fundamental environment of Afghanistan today and Rome was analogous to the US invasion and occupation of their country. Hellenism did little to curtail this religious fundamentalism. We see from both biblical and extrabiblcal sources that Hellenist Jews in places like Alexandria and Damascus were just as radically fundamental in their Judaic beliefs as anywhere else. Roman authority often accommodated their fundamentalism to curtail any violent situations and keep the peace for the most part. At least this was so under Tiberius. After Tiberius it sort of fell apart, particularly when Nero took the reign in 54 CE. 

The first Judeo-Christian church in the first few decades of the movement was established at Jerusalem with the apostles as the leaders, and gradually fanned out from that point on until 70 CE. We see in Acts (which I'll discuss in later articles), that this church council at Jerusalem was primarily the authorities of the Christian faith pre-70 CE, and was often consulted about issues and contentions that occurred in the first few decades of the Christian movement. Though persecution by the Jewish order is well documented in the NT works, Roman persecution is not specifically recorded being that this didn't heighten until the reign of Nero in the mid to late 60's. The persecution starting with non-Christian Jews makes sense since the resurrection of a proclaimed messianic figure immediately and directly threatened allegiance to Jewish politics, the Levitical Priesthood, and the Judaic law which kept these institutions firmly intact, so the Jewish establishment had much more at stake right out the gate.

During this time, pre-70 CE, some of the apostles, particularly Paul, wrote their epistles (letters) to the churches in and around Judea and throughout the Roman Empire, particularly Asia Minor, which were accumulated later on and included in the New Testament canon (discussed here: The Genesis, New Testament, or New Testaments?). Around the late 60's, the persecution of Christians historically began to shift into the hands of the Romans. Social and political unrest between the Jewish community and the Romans also began to seethe during this time. This unrest sparked skirmishes in 66 CE by Jewish rebels who were jaded over incidents of mistreatment by the Roman ruling class. As civil war escalated and intensified, Roman legions were eventually sent into Judea full force starting at the North. These imperial forces eventually overthrew and laid siege the city of Jerusalem in 70 CE, resulting in the utter destruction of the city and the Jewish Temple, raiding of the treasures inside, as well as the slaughter and captivity of many Jews that was the catalyst of the Jewish Diaspora (scattering) that lasted up to the second century.

This is an important bit of history because this plays a major role in our gospel dating. To get somewhat of a scope of this tragedy, think of the trauma 9/11 had on America psyche, then multiply that by about 10 and you get some idea of the impact this event had on Jewish culture in the first century. (Note: there are two apostles named James who are prominent in the New Testament works. One was James the brother of John, one of the original twelve disciples, which we will refer to as James the Greater. The other James was a later apostle, not one of the original twelve, and known as the brother of Jesus, we will refer as James the Lesser). The evidence for an early date is in no way flimsy, yet cumulative. I'll start with the weakest evidence to the strongest in subsequent articles, beginning here.

Anecdotal arguments for the gospel of Matthew

These are generally arguments pre-70 proponents have used as support, some of which are extremely circumstantial and some that are actually quite strong, but these are by no means actual foundational pre-70 arguments. However, they do add more support to the foundational arguments when looked at cumulatively:

  • In Matthew (5:23-24), Jesus gives specific instructions to his followers on how to properly bring a gift to "the altar," a teaching that seems pointless for Matthew to have included if his work had been written post-70 CE when the Temple, wherein the altar existed, was no longer standing.
  • Matthew (17:24-27) records a miracle where Jesus tells Peter to catch a fish. Peter finds money in the fish to pay the Jewish Temple tributary tax. The point of the story exemplified solidarity with the Jewish/Christian community and using the paying of Temple tax as an example of this. The problem is, this not only would have been another irrelevant message after the fall of the Temple, but problematic because, in the aftermath of the destruction, the Temple tax instead went to support the pagan temple of Jupiter in Rome.[3]
  • In Matthew (12:12-13), Jesus accuses the merchants of "making" (present tense) the Temple a den of thieves, in contrast to Mark (11:15-17) and Luke (19:45-46).
  • Matthew (23:16-22) records Jesus warning about swearing in the name of the Temple and the altar.
  • Matthew mentions the Sadducees in the present tense (3:7, 16:1, 16:6, 16:11, 23:23, ), which is somewhat odd considering that the Sadducees, whose sole function revolved around Temple logistics, had lost all power and significance and ceased to exist after the destruction of the Temple.[4

 

It should also be noted that Mark (12:18) and Luke (20:27; Acts 5:17, 23:8) also address the Sadducees in the present tense. Though I feel mentioning or not mentioning the Sadducees may have little significance in Matthew's case (Matthew was writing to Jews who obviously knew who they were even if the Sadducees were not around at the time), Matthew is clearly issuing more warnings from Jesus specifically to the Sadducees who, in many instances, are actually addressed with the Pharisees in Jesus' discourses, which is exceptionally odd in light of post-70 environment. Post-70 proponents argue that the reason Matthew had Jesus issue so many warnings to Sadducees was to highlight Jesus' prophetic potency about the fate of the Sadducean order. However, the warnings are not specifically about their fate or the discontinuation of their function, nor does Matthew ever make this clear in Jesus' rebukes. 

John

Though the date of the synoptics varies among scholars, there has long been a fixed 90-100 CE date for the gospel of John, with the exception of A.T. Robinson and a few others.[5] There was once a time scholars primarily based this late date argument on the claim that John was influenced by Hellenized Greek thought through and through, particularly John's and Paul's remarkably similar dualistic theology, with some unjustifiable accusations that his deep theological ideas were perhaps taken from Hellenized authors such as Philo, or had pre-Christian Gnostic influences, all of which were ideas thought totally alien to a second Temple Jewish contemporary. However, with recent discoveries in archeology that remarkably correlated and confirmed John's detailed descriptions of Judea, in addition to similarities with other Jewish literature of that era, such as the Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, the Qumran scrolls (discussed here: Meet the Ghost Writers, John) and the common parallels found between these works and John as well as other works of the New Testament showed that John is rooted in contemporary Judaism.[6] Leon Morris argues that these prominent influences in John's gospel alone must be considered when dating John...


"Scholars have sometimes argued that the Gospel according to St. John is essentially Hellenistic. That is to say, it is written in a Greek environment, and is designed to appeal to men saturated in Greek culture by the employment of Greek concepts and imagery. Usually there has also been the thought that it is a late writing, composed possibly well into the second century A.D. Such ideas have been losing ground for some time, and the discovery of the scrolls has hastened their demise. The more firmly it is demonstrated that the ideas and the language are basically Palestinian the more difficult it is to claim that the Gospel is essentially Hellenistic. It makes an appeal to Hellenists, but that is another matter. Moreover any contact between Christians and the covenanters must be very early. It is impossible to maintain that after the death of Jesus, when Christian preachers dispersed throughout the world the movement began to be influenced by such a sect as the men of Qumran. The contact must be early. This does not compel an early date for the Fourth Gospel, but it is consistent with one. It demands that the author must have come in contact with the kind of thinking that is typical of Qumran, and as far as we know there was no opportunity for this in later times."

 

Though some have tried to find a direct connection between the Qumran community and early Christianity because of these stark parallels, most scholars have debunked this view. Christianity wasn't an offshoot of the Qumran community; instead they find similarities as well as dissimilarities that distinguish the two (much like finding common cultural parallels in two political works of the same era and from the same city, yet enough dissimilarities to distinguish one as a Republican and the other as a Democrat). Though some pre-70 proponents have used the argument from silence and pointed out the lack of mention of the destruction of the Temple or the war by John as evidence that John's gospel is a pre-70 work, I don't put much stock in this particular argument simply because there are quite a few reasons John may not have bothered to mention the event, in addition to a passage that some could arguably suggest does hint of the event (John 2:19-21). There are, however, a lot of stronger factors for an early date for John's gospel other than what we've just discussed.

Saeed Hamid-Khani points out a slew of 20th century scholars who debated between each other concerning the original linguistics of John's gospel, whether it was translated directly from Aramaic or an Aramaic writer drawing upon Hebrew and Aramaic sources then layering them in as he wrote. This is because the gospel of John apparently has a clear Aramaic underlying as well as the other four.[7] As I pointed out earlier, the author of John was unquestionably Jewish. Hengel identified the author of the gospel of John as someone who "came from the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem."[8] This is quite notable, but not as strong at second glance being that it wouldn't have been impossible for a Jew, fluent in both Aramaic and Greek, to have written the gospel as late as the end of the first century. On the other hand, John's style and detailed topography is clearly in a pre-70 context, which had to have come from an eyewitness intimately familiar with this culture and environment (discussed here: Meet the Ghost Writers, John). Instances such as his description of the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2), strongly suggest a pre-70 Judean contemporary.

Leon Morris gives a list of quite a few scholars who have revised their views about John's late date,[9] suggesting that a date for John later than the 80s is now based mainly on ignorance of this research, in addition to resting on old canards that have since been debunked, such as John's "advanced" Christology; another argument that I challenged in another article (here: The Christology of Paul: John and Paul). So, it would appear that there is a lingering nasty bias rearing its ugly head in John's case, even possibly an unconscious denial by an obstinate yet fringe remnant who can't come to terms with John's gospel as an early work mainly because it is the gospel that seems so independent of the other three that broadly expresses Christian theology the most. Yet, when looking at the evidence, nothing about an early date is implausible. Of course, John is not totally exclusive from the other gospels. There is about 20% (maybe more) remnant of the synoptic tradition (Gospel of Mark, Matthew and Luke) found in his gospel, and according to the church father Eusebius, John indeed had knowledge of the existence of these works when he composed his gospel.[10] 

Moreover, the only evidence I've seen for John's late date argument other than misconceptions and sheer speculation is the fact that John is the only gospel to reference hints of Christian expulsion from the synagogues (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:1-2). Scholars argue this occurred in its defining moment at the Council of Jamnia in 90 CE, when Jewish rabbis definitively severed ties with Christianity and made the expulsion of Christians official.[11] This, some argue, suggests that the writer of the gospel of John was embellishing these incidents to reflect what was occurring at the time he wrote the work, presumably around 90 CE. However, this is essentially under the silly and unrealistic impression that at no time between the start of Christianity up to 90 CE, a span of about six decades, in all the regions of Judea, this was ever a problem or even a threat made against early Christians or even Jesus himself.

Needless to say, such an assumption proves to be pretty absurd on further examination. We know that Jews were expelled from Rome by Claudius Caesar (Acts 18:2), apparently due to riotous disagreements between Jews and Christians, until Claudius died in 54 CE, which was most likely also alluded to by the first century historian Suetonius.[12] In light of this, the argument that Christians were being expelled from synagogues decades before 90 CE would be a pretty reasonable assumption not only for practical purposes in keeping the two bickering sects apart and keeping the peace within the communities, but Jews getting revenge for their prior expulsion by Claudius. The theological friction between Jew and Christian obviously did not begin in 90 CE, but began when Jesus first started his ministry about six decades earlier, and thus had ignited from that point on. We know for a fact expulsions occurred well before that time, as Jesus himself was kicked out of the synagogue at Nazareth in Luke's account (4:28-29), in addition to expulsions of Paul (Acts 13:50) who made a reference to being "driven out" by the Jews in his Thessalonian letter (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15). True, the synoptic gospels don't specify synagogue expulsions as specifically as John, or in the same way, but there are many things John mentions that the other three don't mention, or patterns that are unique only to John which makes the argument rather irrelevant (perhaps John had a specific reason of pointing this out, or took the expulsions much more personal than the others).

A 60-80 CE view is certainly reasonable and I see absolutely no good evidence whatsoever to the contrary other than conventional tradition. In fact, because of the lack of evidence, some scholars have even supposed that the gospel of John was written in "stages" beginning in the 60s and finalized in the 90s.[13] The popularity of this view is somewhat surprising since it is also based on just more supposition, such as some of the ways John seems to be internally structured; the flow of narration in some areas that appear impersonal at times (which might be explained better as an oral construct -- see the discussion here: The Q Conundrum, Problem #6), and the story of the adulteress (John 8:1-11) that is missing or misplaced in older extant manuscripts of John. Needless to say, this is not really evidence of a later date.

There's certainly nothing totally against the idea that John had secretaries or perhaps a school of disciples who accumulated his oral teachings into a text form with John's witness and authority behind it (see John 19:35, 21:24), but there is absolutely no documented proof, external or physical evidence of any kind for the complete gospel of John having been written in editorial stages. In fact, this is difficult to even pose logically. If this was not written by John, then the fact his name was totally excluded from within the work itself when almost every other disciple was mentioned, or how such a diverse and exotic manuscript was accepted as apostolic and included in the church canon if it was a result of such abrupt editing from outside sources, remains unanswered. There is no extant copy of John found (the earliest being p66 and p75, dated at around the late second, early third century) that contains any evidence of these stages or layers, nor any church father indicating any knowledge of such editing. Moreover, Alands argues that the textual consistency is just as solid for John’s gospel, percentage-wise, as any of the other gospels of the New Testament.[14] When we evaluate the circumstantial evidence, a late date argument for John is extremely volatile and surprises me why it's still firmly held.

 

Authorship quandary of the gospel of John

Though nothing is certain either way, the evidence supporting the names of the apostles who are ascribed to them is on some pretty solid ground, and I analyzed this in another article (here: Meet the Ghost Writers). If the four names ascribed to the gospel works were accurately identified by the earlier church historians as the true authors, this would make the gospels as pre-70 works, though not impossible, very difficult to dispute. It's almost impossible to argue that John's gospel was not written by a Jewish eyewitness who was intimately familiar with not only activities of the inner twelve, but with pre-70 Judean society and culture. However, it's one thing to argue his work was done by a non-eyewitness, but then asserting it as a post-70 work when much of the Judean culture, politics and environment had been irreparably altered and most, if not all, access to sources of this information, including topography not found in other historical literature, may have been lost or destroyed in the aftermath of the war just adds to the difficulty (discussed here: Meet the Ghost Writers, John). The solution to this is that we presume the the gospel of John was written by a Jewish contemporary of pre-70 culture who at least lived in the area and had close contact with the eyewitnesses around Jesus, or that it is in fact a work by John the disciple. The only other historian of his era that parallels this type of detailed information off Judean culture, politics and geography is Luke/Acts and Josephus, and yet such details found in Josephus is the primary reason scholars agree he was an eyewitness to most of the accounts he recorded.

These are all anecdotal, but when taken in a cumulative fashion with the other evidence I'll present in following articles is quite strong. In the next article I'll explore what I feel are the actual pre-70 foundational arguments.

 

Click here for Part II, or here to go back home

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Source References

1. See Gospel Dating.

2. See Temple in Jerusalem.

3. See Fiscus Judaicus.

4. See The End of Sadducees.

5. John A.T. Robinson, Preteristarchive (www.preteristarchive.com).

6. Daniel B. Wallace, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Argument, Outline: Hellenistic Thought (www.bible.org).

    Craig A. Evans, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewishness of the Gospels, p.10-11; html, pdf (www.craigaevans.com).

    James H. Charlesworth, Petr Pokorný, Brian Rhea, Jesus Research: An International Perspective, pp.61-66; 2009. 

    Leon Morris, The Dead Sea Scrolls and St. John’s Gospel (www.biblicalstudies.org.uk).

7. Saeed Hamid-Khani, Revelation and Concealment of Christ, pp.140-143; 2000.

8. Hengel, ibid., p.4.

9. Morris, The Gospel according to John, p.29: 1995.

10. Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 24:7 (www.newadvent.org).

11. See Council of Jamnia: Late First Century Developments Attributed to Jamnia.

12. Suetonius, The Life of Caesar: Claudius, section 25 (www.fordham.edu).

13. See Gospel of John: Date

14. Kurt Aland, Barbara Aland, The text of the New Testament, p.29; 1995