When were the Gospels written? How can they be reliable if they are so far removed from the life of Jesus?
When were the Gospels written? I saw something on the History Channel that said that the first Gospel was Mark and was written 40 years after the death of Jesus and that the other three Gospels copied Mark’s Gospel and added to it. If this is true, how accurate could they be if they are so far removed from the life of Jesus?
Thank you for your question. For many people, the dating of the Gospels seems like an unimportant matter until questions of the Gospel’s accuracy begin to rise. If we were to grant that Mark was written in AD 70 then that would mean that Mark waited 40 years after the events to start writing. 40 years however is not that long. Keep in mind that the Vietnam War ended more than 40 years ago and we still have veterans telling stories of their experiences today. The problem is it is difficult to show that Mark was an eyewitness. He certainly isn’t listed as one of the Apostles and his name is found nowhere in the Gospel. Some scholars speculate that the fleeing naked man in Mark 14:51-52 was Mark himself, but the evidence for this is scarce. Scholars who hold to this view do so on the basis of the fact that the naked man seems irrelevant to the actual story and so was probably included to show that the author was there. Also Mark was a resident of Jerusalem (see Acts 12:12) and according to church tradition, Jesus and His Apostles had their Passover Seder (the last supper) at Mark’s house.
But like I said, the evidence that Mark included himself in his Gospel as the fleeing naked man is rather weak. It is rational to conclude that Mark was not an eyewitness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But we learn a very interesting thing about him from a few quotes from some early Church Fathers:
“Having become the interpreter of Peter, Mark wrote down accurately whatever he remembered. However, he did not relate the sayings of deeds of Christ in exact order. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter. Now, Peter accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s saying. Accordingly, Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For one thing, he took special care not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.” – Papias (c. 120, E), 1.155, as quoted by Eusebius.
“After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.” – Irenaeus (c.180, E/W), 1.414.
“Mark, the interpreter and follower of Peter, begins his Gospel narrative in this manner.” – Irenaeus (c.180, E/W), 1.425.
“Mark was the follower of Peter. Peter publically preached the Gospel at Rome before some of Caesar’s equestrian knights, and adduced many testimonies to Christ. In order that thereby they might be able to commit to memory what was spoken by Peter, Mark wrote entirely what is called the Gospel according to Mark.” – Clement of Alexandria (c.195, E), 2.573.
“Such a ray of Godliness shown forth on the minds of Peter’s hearers, that they were not satisfied with a single hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine proclamation. So, with all manner of entreaties, they pleaded with Mark, to whom the Gospel is ascribed (he being the companion of Peter) to leave in writing a record of the teaching that had been delivered to them verbally. And they did not let the man alone until they had prevailed upon him. And so to them, we owe the Scripture called the ‘Gospel of Mark.’ On learning what had been done, through the revelation of the Spirit, it is said that the Apostle was delighted with the enthusiasm of the men and approved the composition for reading in the churches. Clement gives the narrative in the sixth book of the Sketches.” – Eusebius, citing Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.579.
So Mark may not have been an eyewitness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but Peter had. Peter was Jesus’ chief disciple and was someone who Jesus appeared to personally after His death (see Luke 24:34 and 1 Corinthians 15:5, Simon and Cephas are both other names for Peter). Thus Peter was all the eyewitness Mark needed to compile a narrative. It is interesting to note that Luke starts of his Gospel by mentioning that many people compiled narratives of Jesus’ life based on eyewitness testimony (see Luke 1:1-4).
So the problem of where Mark got his information from is taken care of, but what about the late dating of Mark? If Mark was written in AD 70 and the other Gospels were written later then doesn’t that mean that these other Gospels (which contain more information) were too late to be written by eyewitnesses?
For this we need to examine the reason why scholars think that the first Gospel was written in AD 70. Historians are absolutely sure that in AD 70 the Jewish Temple was destroyed during the fall of Jerusalem. Interestingly this event is predicted in Mark 13:2, Matthew 24:2, and Luke 21:6. Here is Luke’s account of the prediction:
“Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’”
It is quite interesting that Jesus made a prediction that was historical proven to come true. This would certainly serve as historical evidence that Jesus was in fact divine. However, in order to explain this phenomenon without having to admit the divinity of Jesus, skeptical scholars are forced to conclude that Jesus never made this prediction. Instead Mark, Matthew, and Luke were all living in a time after the destruction of the temple, and they put this prediction on the lips of Jesus. As Bishop John A. T. Robinson said in his book, Redating the New Testament:
“One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most dateable and climactic event of the period – the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple – is never once mentioned as a past fact. It is, of course, predicted; and these predictions are, in some cases at least, assumed to be written (or written up) after the event.”
The problem is that this assumption is based on the premise that Jesus is not divine, and therefore would be incapable of predicting the future, which is essentially the very thing that skeptical scholars need to prove. It cannot therefore be used as a premise for dating the Gospels so late. For someone to argue that the Gospels are not trustworthy accounts of Jesus’ life based on their supposed late date is nothing more than reasoning in a circle. The logic is as follows:
- Premise 1: The Gospels cannot be trusted because they were written several decades after Jesus’ death and are therefore legendary.
- Premise 2: This is because three of the four Gospels mention Jesus predicting an event (the temple’s destruction) that is known to have occurred 40 years after the supposed prediction.
- Premise 3: Jesus could not have made this prediction because He is not divine. Therefore the Gospels, which contain this prediction, were written after the event occurred.
- Conclusion: Therefore, the Gospels cannot be trusted because they were written several decades after Jesus’ death and are therefore legendary.
As anyone can see, the conclusion in this argument is identical with the first premise. This is a text book example of begging the question.
Now, having destroyed the evidence that the Gospels were written late, I will now demonstrate that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written early. As for John, I do believe that it was written by John, “the beloved disciple” (see John 21:20-24) shortly before his death in AD 100.
The date of the fall of Jerusalem serves to show an early date for the Gospels better, in my opinion, that it shows a later date. This is especially true in the case of Luke. Luke is the only Gospel writer who wrote a sequel to his Gospel, which we call the Acts of the Apostles. In Luke’s Gospel he depicts Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple, but does not make that prediction come true in his sequel. Acts ends with Paul’s house arrest in Rome in AD 60-62. Just eight years later the temple would be destroyed and the prediction Jesus made in chapter 21 of his Gospel would have come true. If Luke was writing Acts after the destruction of the temple it seems rather strange that he didn’t continue the story beyond Paul’s imprisonment in Rome and conclude his story with a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy. Especially since continuing the story past Paul’s imprisonment would cause the story to also include Paul’s untimely death in AD 65. Since Luke was Paul’s traveling companion, it would seem highly appropriate for Luke to pay tribute to his fallen comrade if he were writing the book of Acts after his death. As it is, Luke spends the last five chapters of Acts anticipating Paul’s trial before Caesar and ends the book with no mention of it. Clearly, Luke finished the book before Paul had his trial before Caesar and before he was beheaded in AD 65. Since Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, it had to have been written before Acts, and since Luke probably used Mark as a source, Mark had to be written before Luke. This means that both Mark and Luke were living at the same time as the eyewitnesses they interviewed for their Gospels. Matthew and John were eyewitnesses themselves and were therefore based their Gospels on their own memory.