Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dating the Scriptures

A couple of months ago, I saw a really interesting post over at Source Theory, that I've been wanting to write about for a while, on the conjectural date of the Gospels. He says

Recent discussion over at the Synoptic List has again got me wondering at how Matthew, Mark and Luke are presumed to have been written decades apart. That any of them were written even a decade apart is really only a conjecture, based on a hypothesis of literary dependence which does not really require such a conjecture. Actually the two notions are a bit circular since literary dependence is also based on the notion that the Gospels are written decades apart!

The three synoptics may all have been composed within one year of the other two. It is strange that scholars often give dates for Matthew and/or Luke that are a decade or two after Mark, when what they really want to say is merely that, say, Matthew evidences some knowledge of Mark.

I'm quite taken by the idea of Matthew, Mark and Luke being within a year or two of each other. I must admit that I found the standard dating of all four Gospels is too suspiciously neat and tidy. Below is a fairly standard scholarly dating of the four gospels taken from the Wikipedia entry on Gospel:

  • Mark: c. 68–73, c 65-70
  • Matthew: c. 70–100, c 80-85. Some conservative scholars argue for a pre-70 date, particularly those that do not accept Mark as the first gospel written.
  • Luke: c. 80–100, with most arguing for somewhere around 85, c 80-85
  • John: c 90-100, c. 90–110, The majority view is that it was written in stages, so there was no one date of composition.

In most of the standard New Testament Intros the gospel dates worked out something like above, Mark in the 60s, Matthew either in the 70s or 80s, Luke in the late 80s or even 90s and then John last of all in the 90s or early 2nd century. The only major difference was in one of Helmut Koester's books where he seemed to date John to c. 70 but without going into why. (I remember asking my then New Testament lecturer about it but he shrugged it off saying not to worry but ignore it).

As I said such a scenario had been nagging at me because it just seemed too neat and tidy. The big question for me was why always a 10 year gap. It just seemed too arbitrary, having little relation to the messiness of ordinary life. I admit doubts were really sewn by J A T Robinson's Redating the New Testament in which he had a go at dating all of the New Testament texts to before 70. He argued that all four Gospels were roughly contemporaneous. Coming into existence over a roughly 10 year period in the 50s and 60s, a notion that to me always had merit. The standard approach smacked of some sort of 'monology' - there always has to be one gospel, one prime text but maybe for early Christians such monology was an alien concept. Later Christians on the other hand would always be troubled by having not one gospel but four.

Another issue is the question of history. For too long biblical studies has been understood as a variant of history, digging around in the texts to ascertain what actually happened. And so in gospel studies there has been the quest for the historical Jesus all based on the assumption that te textual account must bear some correspondence to reality. And yet the obvious fact of the gospels is that they are constructed not according to the dictates of historical verisimilitude but instead by other concerns altogether. Perhaps that is why John is always dated last of all, its storyline is quite radically different to the other three and therefore, it's assumed, can't bear any connection to the real history. That plus the notion that it is the most theological of the gospels places it in the 90s as far away as possible from the lifetime of Jesus. After all people living close to Jesus' time would not re-arrange the facts and embed them in myth and theology would they? (My answer is yes they would) The other convenient result of such thinking is that the magical and mythical are undertood as later accretions to the gospel events. The more there are the later the text goes the thinking.

Thus we have the phenomenon of the debate over whether Jesus actually rose from the dead. N T wright for one has written extensively on it in an atttempt to represent the final word on the topic. But is there any new data on which to base all these extensive arguments. None whatsoever. At the heart of the debates are the same texts and narratives. It doesn't matter whether one wants to uphold the tradition or 'get back to the facts', neither side is working with any novum. Of course, historical Jesus questers nowadays are working with a plethora of newly discovered texts but most of them do not add any substantial new data. The arguments thus keep chasing their tales, the reconstructions become more and more elaborate.


  1. Or as Niels Lemche puts, ever more elaborate rational paraphrases of the text.

  2. Audrey said

    I thought the post 70 date, has to do with the destruction 0f the temple, as there are references to that event in some of the gosples (could be wrong about this)

    As to the early christians rearanging facts to suit early myth and theology, of course they did! Herod killing the new born in Mathew is clearly meant to put Jesus in the same league as Moses - Its not a statement of fact, it's a literary allusion.

    As to the resurection - to an atheist like me, it's simple, if he got up - he was'nt dead. If he was dead - he did'nt get up. This is another example of the early christians using myth (and imagination) to make a theological point, to take it literaly is a little silly.

    I supose the ten year gap is just to give time for Mark to be written, then considered worthy of being copied, then physicaly caried to other early Christin communitys, by donkey (eh haw) or on foot. Then read, then thought about, discussed, preached about, argued about. then some one has to be inspired enough by something in the original story, or missing in the original story,(this does assume that mark was first, as there is enough evidence to make that a reasonable view) that they felt another version was needed. Ten years under that context is pretty fast, it could just as easily been 20 or 30, as you say the dating are guestimates, one or two years is pushing it, though possible