Sceptics of the bible claim that the New Testament was written too late following the events it describes to be trustworthy. The claim goes that due to this time gap myths developed about what Jesus actually said or did, and also that those who wrote about these events couldn’t have been eyewitnesses.
The opinion was once in vogue and many sceptics suggested that the gospels were written sometime after the thirties of the second century – AD130-200 some 100-130 years after Jesus’ death (AD30).
To begin with, the important thing to say is that, these dates offered were not based on any historical evidence but were likely offered in an attempt to discredit the miracle stories by those whose presuppositions lead towards a naturalistic worldview (e.g. can’t believe in anything supernatural).
The evidence now points to and almost all scholars would hold to a much earlier date for the gospels than the date mentioned above, a date which would mean that our 4 gospels were written by those who were eyewitnesses or was passed on to them orally, by those who were eyewitnesses. The result of this would be to, dramatically increase the reliability of these recorded events as laid out in the gospels.
The suggested earlier dates are as follows:
Mark AD64-65, Luke AD67-68, Matthew AD68-70, John AD90-100. Some scholars would still date as later than this and would suggest the following dates: Mark AD65, Matthew AD85-90, Luke AD80-85, John AD90-100. But even with the later dates, the situation is encouraging from the historian’s point of view, for the first three Gospels were written at a time when many were alive who could remember the things that Jesus said and did, and some at least would still be alive when the fourth gospel was written.
So let’s consider the evidence which strongly suggests an earlier date to the writing of the gospels. To consider the dating of the gospels I will suggest two ways in which to consider the evidence. There is the internal evidence and external evidence.
Several events where not described in the Gospels which one would expect to see, as their inclusion would do nothing but add weight to the gospel message. No mention was made of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD70, the Jewish war from AD66-70, the persecution of the Christians by the emperor Nero around AD64, the death of James in AD62 (which was recorded in Josephus 188.8.131.52) and the death of Peter AD64-68 and the Apostle Paul AD67.
The destruction of the temple was predicted by Jesus in the gospels and its exclusion in the gospels can only be satisfactorily explained by the fact that, they were most likely written prior to this historically verified event.
What external evidence e.g. Outside of the gospels themselves, do we have to authenticate this early dating claim and hence such a small time gap?
The books of 1st and 2nd Corinthians and Galatians are well attested (almost universal acceptance) to being of an early date (AD50-55) and contain many facts which agree with the gospels. Jesus’ death on the cross (1 Corinthians 15:3), resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:4) and his appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-8) along with many other similarities. Given their acceptance when recording these same miracles on what grounds are we then to doubt the gospel records?
The Early Church Fathers quoted from the gospels directly: Letter of Clement to Rome quoted Matthew 7:2 (1 Clement 13:2) in his letter written in AD95-97. Polycarp is also said to have quoted all four gospels in his letter dated to AD100-135 entitled The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians 2:1-3 and 7:2.
Ancient Manuscripts: John Rylands Papyri (P52) dated to between AD117-138 contains portions of John’s gospel. Dated on palaeographical grounds and is currently in the John Rylands Library in Manchester and is the oldest extant fragment of our New Testament. This is only a copy and not the original gospel meaning that if this was the first direct copy from the original, the original would be dated sometime around AD90-100. If not the first copy then this would push the date back even further.
William Albright an archaeologist and biblical scholar put it well when after many years of study said:
“We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about AD80, two full generations before the date between 130 and 150 given by the more radical New Testament critics today”
Or to quote the verdict of Sir Frederick Kenyon a scholar whose authority to make pronouncements on ancient manuscripts was second to none:
“The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authority and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”
The evidence stands strong that no book from the ancient world has as small a time gap between composition and the earliest manuscripts as the New Testament. If we were to reject the New Testament based on too long a time-gap, then we would have to reject all other ancient documents which were written much longer after the original events.
Points to Remember so that as disciples we are Prepared to Answer are as follows:
1) Previous dating (mid second century) rejected by vast majority of scholars. Purpose of this was based on philosophical presuppositions as opposed to historic evidence. It is an old and outdated theory.*
*Use it as an example however when faced with many new theories by asking, the person what evidence do you have to back up your claim? and what motivation could they have in attempting to undermine God’s Word?
2) Internal evidence: historic events (Jewish war AD66, Fall of Jerusalem AD70, Death James AD62, Peter AD64-68 and Paul AD67) not included yet they would serve to enhance the Gospel message considerably.
3) New Testament Letters: Confirm events as described in the Gospels
4) Early Church Fathers: writings directly quote the gospels (AD95-150)
5) Manuscript evidence: (John Rylands fragment AD117-138) supports a much earlier date.
Please send comments and any questions you may have.