Last time we focused on the authorship of the Old Testament. We looked at three primary areas where the Old Testament is challenged. This article will address questions regarding the authorship of the New Testament and particularly the Gospels.
Like the OT discussions, this is an overview of key areas targeted towards the layman. As before, I’d suggest Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ at a more introductory level or Geisler and Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist at the intermediate level. If you want to get advanced, look for William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith.
In my opinion, defending the historicity of the New Testament is actually far easier than the Old Testament. The attacks are frequently focused on authorship and target the dates of the documents as well as the sources for the documents. The crux of the effort is to separate the gospels from the events they describe. This gives skeptics the supposed excuse to discount them an exaggerated legends rather than recorded history.
There are two important elements of the New Testament itself that must be remembered at the outset.
1. The New Testament is a collection of documents by a variety of authors. It is not a single collaborative document like many attempt to treat it.
2. Do not allow critics to apply a double-standard to the New Testament, especially with regard to the historical narratives of the Gospels and Acts. The is a tendency for critics to hold the NT to a far higher – unattainable – standard than other historical documents. Do not accept that.
So let’s get started…
Dating the Texts
One of the most frequent criticisms encountered is that the texts cannot be considered reliable because of the time between the writing and the events. Many skeptics will date the gospels to the second or occasionally third century. Then they group the traditional gospels with other pseudo-Christian texts of these later periods. You then get these arguments.
1. The attributed authors cannot possibly be the actual authors. Due to the “late” dates of their writing, the people who are claimed to be the authors would be long dead.
2. Too much time has passed between the actual events and the actual texts. Because of this, legend has corrupted the actual events.
3. Because of the late date, the claim is also made that equally valid texts are excluded to support an agenda. This will be taken up in the next part of the series. Keep the dating discussion of this article in mind, though, because these arguments also apply there.
The short response to the dating issue could be as simple as if the skeptics’ claims are valid, then we cannot trust any history account outside our own individual experience. We can brush off the American Revolution or Civil War as nothing more than myths based on this logic. This approach puts the skeptic on the same level as those who put the lunar landings of the Apollo missions as a vast, faked conspiracy.
Another key point in responding to these type of criticism is that the traditional dating and authorship go back to the earliest records of church history. Until recently, there has never been a challenge to them. If the dates and authorship claims did not go back to the beginning of the Church, perhaps the skeptic might have a case. However, in the historical context, in questioning the dating (and authorship) the burden of proof is overwhelmingly on the skeptic.
Even so, there are easy responses to address the criticisms.
Let’s begin with the last of the Gospel’s written; John. There is little argument from anyone that this was the last of the gospels to be written. I’ve seen liberal scholarship often date John in the mid- or late-second century. Conservative scholarship and tradition will date it in the late first century, commonly around 90 A.D. Supporting this early date is the simple fact that there have been fragments found that have been dated to 120 A.D. This easily supports the 70-90 A.D. date.
This earlier date also fits well with the peak of the gnostic heresy which questions the physical resurrection and a rejection of the “physical.” One of the unquestioned aspects of John’s gospel is that it is a response to gnosticism. This is especially apparent in the emphasis by John on the physical nature of Jesus, especially after the resurrection. Remember that it is in John that the record of Thomas’ doubt is recorded.
With John’s date, being the last gospel written, then obviously the other three gospels would be written prior to 70 A.D. This date is important because Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome during the rebellions in 71 A.D. Consider also that these texts contain prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem. In texts that often center around the fulfillment of prophecy, that none of them would reference a clearly fulfilled prophecy is hard to believe.
This sets an upper limit for the first three gospels (known as the synoptic gospels) of 70 A.D. The lowest possible limit is, of course, the death of Jesus around 33 A.D. This is an extremely close time to recorded events in even modern history. One could be satisfied here, but let’s see if we can narrow the window a bit more.
To do this, let us look first at Luke. Luke not only wrote the gospel that bears his name, but also the book of Acts. That these have the same author is not questioned by believer or skeptic. (At least not by credible skeptics.) What is interesting in the authorship is that Acts switches from third person to the first person “we” when Luke begins his travels with Paul, as is corroborated in Paul’s letters. In fact, Paul is not only the apostle who vetted his work, he is also the reason for Luke’s writing. Tradition has it that the gospel and Acts were written as part of the testimony and documentation for Paul’s first trial. Now we are between 60-64 A.D. – within 30 years of Jesus’ ministry and easily within living memory of eyewitnesses. Paul, in his letters, also references Luke’s writing as scripture (1Tim 5:18) – another argument for the earlier date.
Luke gives us something else important regarding authorship. He notes in the beginning of the gospel that he used multiple sources for his work and researched it thoroughly. Tradition has one of the sources as Mary, the mother of Jesus. Considering the family perspective in Luke, this makes sense. Another source is what appears to be a lost work of material common to the synoptic gospels commonly referred to as “Q.” He also mentions “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses,” so there were other firsthand sources. Finally, one of his sources is clearly the gospel of Mark, since he quotes much of Mark’s work in his own (as does Matthew!). That means, of course, that Mark has to predate Luke.
Then there is the gospel of Mark. I take the position that Mark is the earliest of the gospels. There are some who make the argument that Matthew is the older, but that is not important to this discussion. Based on what we already know, we can date Mark between the death of Jesus in 33 A.D. and 70 A.D. Tradition puts Mark around 50 A.D. Some might complain that I have used the word “tradition” to much in these datings. I would say that perhaps a better phrase would be “attributions to the earliest of church authorities.” And if the tradition is not sufficient, in the case of Mark we have physical evidence. Craig Evans is expecting to release research soon regarding an ancient fragment of Mark. This fragment is expected to be dated at least to 80 A.D. I’ve heard reports in apologetics circles that it may go as far back as to the 50’s. In short, we are seeing physical evidence that points to the earlier dates.
Matthew – depending on your view, either used Mark as a source or was edited down to be a source for Mark. I’ll leave you to do the math as a matter of expediency.
So we have the gospels – including logical and physical evidence – in a time frame that is consistent with traditional authorship. There is one additional point of logic that comes to mind. In Matthew and John, you will hear the argument that the gospels took their name in order to create a tie to apostolic authority. Yet in Mark and Luke’s cases there is a pointless second layer added in that they wrote for Peter and Paul, respectively. If the desire was an apostolic connection, it would have made much more sense to attribute the books to the related apostle.
History and Legend
What is most important here, is that even without traditional dating, we have the NT gospels placed in the mid-to-late first century. We are within decades of the original events and within the lifetime of eyewitnesses or firsthand knowledge that could easily dispute the gospel claims. This is the environment in which we find skeptics levelling the claim of corrupted accounts due to legend?
This dating is early enough to rule out the introduction of legend. Just as today, when legendary elements are introduced into historical accounts, there are many that would be quick to correct the record. As I’ve noted in earlier articles, other non-biblical histories, do not face such criticism even though they may have centuries between their writing and the oldest manuscripts. This is one of the double standards I mentioned earlier. It is totally fair to point this out and not accept the argument unless they are willing to question any history as critically.
The legendary criticism also has another weakness. We do, in fact, have legendary accounts of biblical events in which to make actual comparisons. There are numerous gospels and acts from the second and third century in which legendary elements are clearly present. There are bits of extreme hyperbole, fanciful language and later literary styling that make this clear. One great example would be to read what is called the Infancy Gospels or the Acts of Peter. It is quickly clear that these are not historical accounts but rather the “pulp fiction” of the day. The writing between these texts and the canon is night and day.
It is not until recently that there has been any effort to challenge the dating or authorship of the New Testament. I find it difficult to accept such dates without compelling evidence to address the reasons mentioned in this article. That said, there are also many more arguments that can be made, though they get out of the layman level that I am trying to maintain. Tools like literary criticism and analysis are often feared by Christians as things that exist to tear apart the Bible. That is the furthest from the truth. While critics may use these tools, they are just that: tools. Believers can – and do – use them, as well, to effectively defend the faith.
The short end of this is that there is no compelling reason to doubt the accuracy of the events recorded in the scripture. Skeptics ask for extraordinary evidence to believe the written record and yet the written record is just that – extraordinary.
The remaining question in the biblical reliability part of this discussion is to consider whether there are other texts that should be included. Keep this dating discussion in mind, because it is an important part of what we will address in the next article.