Given the date, it is perhaps appropriate and traditional to mull over some seasonal aspect. For this year, I’d like to ask a question regarding the timing of the authorship of the Gospels. These are the alpha sources for much of our cultural inheritance. I’m not going to simply quote some dates at you, nor will I cobble up some whacky fringe theory. Instead, I will lay out (briefly) the reasons why the prevailing consensus is what it is.
Stick with me here because this is not simply an academic question, there is a punchline at the end.
First let me indulge in a bit of preamble, and then we can dive into the details of the question itself.
It is generally accepted by most people, regardless of their specific belief or lack of any belief, that Dec 25th is not the actual date that Jesus was born. No date is specified, instead it is the chosen time to mark the occasion. Christianity thrived because it adopted and repurposed festivals that already existed. Long before Christmas humans were at this time of year giving each other gifts, having a family gathering, attending parties, and also participating in a religious service – the Romans called it Saturnalia. Beyond even that we find most other cultures in the northern hemisphere marked a solar death and rebirth at this time of year. Dig into it all and you will rapidly find yourself awash with solar symbolism.
The Gospels and “Gospel Truth”
There are four texts that are commonly accepted as historical accounts by those that believe – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are not actual historical documents, but that’s perhaps a posting for another day. Nor do they even tell us that same story – Neither Mark nor John say anything at all about the birth of Jesus. In Matthew we discover that Mary and Joseph lived in their own house in Bethlehem (no stable, no census, no inn, and no shepherds). In Luke we find something quite different (no astrologers and no flight to Egypt). These are rather glaringly distinctly different stories that are not the same. What you will of course be familiar with is the blending of it all.
What can also be rather revealing, and yet also challenging, is working out when these stories were written, and why?
That naturally brings us to our question for this posting.
When were the Gospels written?
I can of course simply quote a few dates, but that does not quite cut it. What is perhaps a bit more interesting is to wonder why the subject matter experts reached such conclusions.
There is a prevailing consensus that exists and that is not one that is inspired by religious belief. Instead there is actual evidence, so let’s take a very brief tour of that.
- Dated to about 80-90
- There are three lines of reasoning for this date range
- Matthew reflects the final separation of Church and Synagogue – that happened about 85
- It mentions the capture of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70
- It uses Mark as a source
You might also wonder why the conclusion is that Matthew copied Mark and not the other way around. Basically the answer is that the text in Matthew not only copies Mark and adds more material, but it also fixes Mark’s sloppy Greek.
- Dated to about 68-70 – this is the earliest Gospel.
- What is the reasoning for this date?
- There are references to persecution and also war. This is generally a text that fits into the cultural context of the Jewish wars or Nero’s oppression and persecution in Rome, hence the date range. It also contains a reference to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem which happened in 70.
- Generally thought to have been written in the same timeframe as Matthew, 80-90, but there is some descent and some suggest an even later date of 90-100
- What is the reasoning for this?
- There is evidence, both textual (the conflicts between Western and Alexandrian manuscript families) and from the Marcionite controversy
- Luke-Acts were tightly coupled together and were subject to on-going revision well into the 2nd century
- This is dated to 90-110
- What is the reasoning for this?
- The lower date is influenced by the reference to the expulsion of Christians from the synagogues
- The higher date in the range is based upon textual evidence that the Gospel was only known about in the early 2nd century.
There are a couple of additional points here.
We can hold these dates with a reasonable degree of confidence because these are the date ranges generally accepted by the vast majority of the subject matter experts who devote their entire career studying it all. That not an ad populum fallacy, the consensus exists for a reason, and is not belief driven.
We should hold such dates with an appropriate degree of provisional acceptance. If somebody makes a better argument that convinces the subject matter experts, or some new evidence is discovered such that the prevailing consensus changes, then you should also consider altering your view as well.
You will find alternative dates suggested. Some are far earlier and some later, but these are the outliers and consist of fringe views that are argued in a manner that does not persuade the vast majority of subject matter experts.
OK, so the point is this.
- The very earliest Gospel dates to almost 30-40 years after the events it describes.
- The two distinctly different Christmas stories that we have date to texts that were written 80-100 years after the events they supposedly describe
These texts are not documents that describe historical events, nor are they authored by eyewitnesses but instead are the prevailing religious belief written down. To put that bluntly, these accounts are religious propaganda. It is a common belief that the authors were eyewitnesses, but Luke himself explicitly tells you at the start of his Gospel that he was not an eyewitness and instead was simply writing down what was commonly believed.
There is one other point here. It can be very easy to accept things that align with our existing beliefs and reject information that conflicts with that, so asking questions such as “When were these documents written?”, along with “How are such dates attributed?” can lead to some quite disturbing and unsettling conclusions.
Perhaps a case in point that illustrates this is Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He started his career as a Born Again Fundamentalist, but slowly slowly over time came to terms with such facts. He evolved into a liberal Christian and then maintained that stance for several decades. Today he no longer believes at all and is an agnostic atheist. He also writes very well, so if a deeper understanding of all this is of interest then I can highly recommend any of his books. He makes a complex and deeply academic subject not only very interesting, but also very accessible, but don’t take my word for it, you can check out the Amazon reviews.
Unto Us a Child is Born – Dec 25th
Given the date there is one additional observation to add here.
Dec 25th is a special day because on this date long ago a very remarkable child was born. By the time he was 30 he would transform the world.
Happy Birthday Issac Newton, born Dec 25th 1642.
The Wikipedia Page “Dating the Bible” contains a very concise digestible summary of it all and points you towards the academic citations.