Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dating the Gospels

One of the unsupported assertions Richard Dawkins makes with regard to the accounts of Jesus' life is this...
All (four gospels) were written long after the death of Jesus and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life.
First, let me put this charge in a proper perspective, by looking at some other ancient biographies/histories that are accepted as reliable. Virtually all that we know about Alexander the Great (a pretty important person) comes from Plutarch, who wrote his biography some 450 years after Alexander died. Likewise, Livy wrote about the founding of Rome and its subsequent history 450 years later. A good example--because he was contemporary to Jesus--is Tiberius, the Caesar on the throne from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37. There exist four sources of material about Tiberius. One was written near the time of his death, but this one provides us with very little information about Tiberius. The next earliest--by Tacitus and Suetonius--were each written 100 years later, and the fourth is later still.

By comparison, all four gospels were written much closer (in time) to the events they record. John's gospel was probably the latest; most scholars believe that it was written toward the end of John's life in about A.D. 90 (though some argue for a date as early as A.D. 70).* A.D. 90 is only 60 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, and within the lifetimes of many people (besides John) who remembered the events.

Earlier this month was the 63rd anniversary of D-Day, arguably the most important event of the past century, when the storming of the Normandy beaches led to the eventual conquest of the Nazis and the liberation of France and other occupied countries. Our local paper interviewed a man who participated in those events, and we readily accept his testimony as reliable. We don't accuse him of making it up, saying "no one can remember events from that long ago!"

But each of the other gospels was written even closer to the crucixion--generally dated at A.D. 30--and the events of Jesus' life. The Gospel of Mark was written between A.D. 55 and A.D. 60, within 25-30 years of the crucifixion. This represents wonderful attestation relative to other ancient historical accounts.

Dawkins is right about one thing--some or most of Paul's letters were written even earlier than the gospels. But I'm not sure how this fact helps his argument. True, Paul doesn't offer the same sorts of details about Jesus' life that the gospels do. This is, quite simply, because Paul was writing neither history nor biography but rather practical letters of encouragement and commentary on the theological implications of those well-known events that the gospel writers eventually recorded. But it is important to note that Paul's Christology is every bit as high as that of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While he may not have recorded many specific details of Christ's life, central to his program was his understanding and portrayal of Jesus as the dying-and-rising sinless incarnate Son of God. In another post, I'll share how this view of Jesus can be traced all the way back to within 2 to 5 years of the crucifixion.

* Because of its explicitly high view of Jesus, higher critics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries rejected John's authorship and argued that his gospel was written as late as the middle of the second century. This view was refuted by the discoveries of the Rylands papyrus--which dates to A.D. 125 and contains a portion of John 18--and the Dead Sea Scrolls (which augmented our understanding of first-century Palestine).

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