The Late Dating of the Gospels

I have been listening to a podcast by York University professor Philip Harland and have been enjoying it.  I disagree with about 25% of what he says but there are enough good insights for it to be worth my while.  One of the things that he says, that I hear from many scholars, continues to bother me.  This has to do with the late dating of the Gospels.  Harland dates the Gospel of Matthew to 80-90 AD.  There are a variety of reasons for that.  Like most scholars, Harland agrees that Mark is the earliest Gospel.  I agree.  They then look at Mark 13  (the “Little Apocalypse”) and see Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple.  Since critical scholars have trouble believing in real prophecy, they assume Mark wrote this after, as it was happening or just before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  Often they grudgingly give Mark a date of around 68, so that the destruction might not have quite happened but yet is close enough that the writing was on the wall.  Since Matthew and Luke use Mark they must be after 70 AD.  Harland notes the theme in Matthew of the conflict with the Pharisees.  I again agree.  He then assumes that this represents a later time in history, post-destruction, when the rabbis had developed from the Pharisees and were well into their conflict with the Church.  Thus a date of 80-90 gives enough time for that conflict to have developed.

Here are my problems.  I do not agree that the destruction of the Temple could only have been spoken about just a couple of years before the event.  Even putting aside prophecy or the deity of Christ, there is little reason to doubt that Jesus spoke these words.  The destruction of the Temple was hardly unprescedented.  This was afterall the second Temple, since the first was destroyed by the Babylonians.  In addition, reading Josephus, it is clear that there was ongoing tensions between the Jews and the Romans and there had been a number of close calls even before the first Jewish War.  Jesus, as a man who could read the times, could have predicted the destruction of the Temple, even without supernatural powers.

Regarding the conflict between the synagogue and the church, I think scholars are also mistaken.  There is no reason to assume that the conflict had to have waited for the development of rabbinic Judaism.  It is easy to see how someone like Paul would have made Jewish enemies.  There is also no reason to doubt that Jesus did indeed come into conflict with Pharisees and other Jewish parties.  Perhaps Matthew is what it purports to be, an account of what Jesus said and did and perhaps Jesus did see the destruction of the Temple coming and did have trouble with other Jews.

Although Harland does not make this point, it is easy to see why some scholars would prefer a late date for the Gospels.  The earlier they are, the more reliable they are as sources for the historical Jesus (there is a reason why we do not give much credence to the later Gnostic Gospels).  If the Gospels are dated later, we can always point out the gap in time and dismiss anything we do not like as an invention of the early church.  But perhaps we need to put aside our preconceptions and examine the Gospels as we would any other texts and give them a fair reading, accepting the possibility that they may have something to say about the time of Jesus.

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13 thoughts on “The Late Dating of the Gospels”

  1. The problem is that you have not demonstrated that the Gospel writers were trying to support prophecy. There is no reason to doubt that Jesus expected the Temple to be destroyed just decades from his time.

  2. Hello Stephen,

    I’m glad you’re listening to the podcasts, despite any disagreements on points.

    I think the arguments for a late-first century (post 66 CE) dating for the canonical gospels is well argued in all kinds of scholarly literature, so I won’t reiterate those here. On the other hand, nothing is “certain” in history — just different levels of probability using historical tools.

    I won’t fully respond to your points above, except a brief moment on your comment that “If the Gospels are dated later, we can always point out the gap in time and dismiss anything we do not like as an invention of the early church.” This implies that I have a personal interest in dismissing things that I do not like in the gospels. What I “like” or “do not like” on a personal level rarely if ever plays a role in my _academic_, historical observations. Also, there are plenty of late, “invented” things that I do like personally, but that isn’t relevant to doing history, in my opinion. “Invented” ain’t so bad;)

    All the best. Phil H.

  3. Thanks Phil for your comment.

    I tried to make clear in my post that you do not try to make the jump from a late date of the gospels to a lack of historical value for the gospels. That is something that I really appreciated about your podcasts. I sensed a real attempt to avoid value judgments. My point was rather that many scholars do use the possibly date date for the gospels as a way of dismissing them. Of course some evangelicals try to force an early date to bolster the value of the gospels.

    I understand that the scholarly consensus is Mark at or about 70 and the rest after. That may even be true. But I am not convinced that a 70 date is required for Jesus to predict the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Outside of any theological concepts of prophecy, it is indeed possible that Jesus as a man of his times understood the direction things were going and expected things to come to a head. It would be interesting to do further work on this but alas I have a stack of projects to work on.

    Thanks again for your comments and I enjoyed your podcast.

  4. 1) Matthew 1:23 says that Jesus (the messiah) would be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Yet no one, not even his parents, call him Immanuel at any point in the bible.
    2) The Messiah must be a physical descendant of David (Romans 1:3 & Acts 2:30). Yet, how could Jesus meet this requirement since his genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 show he descended from David through Joseph, who was not his natural father because of the Virgin Birth. Hence, this prophecy could not have been fulfilled.
    3) Isaiah 7:16 seems to say that before Jesus had reached the age of maturity, both of the Jewish countries would be destroyed. Yet there is no mention of this prophecy being fulfilled in the New Testament with the coming of Jesus, hence this is another Messiah prophecy not fulfilled.

  5. I am not sure what any of this has to do with the date of the Gospels but they are good questions anyway.

    1) You are interpreting this as a modern person but you need to look at it as a first century Jew. By the standard of Qumran pesher and rabbinic midrash, this is pretty straight forward. The original Isaiah passage talked about a child being born in the days of king Ahaz and that by the time the child was old enough to know good from bad, Ephraim and Aram would be destroyed (thus protecting Judah). Matthew, reflecting on Jesus’ virgin birth and the way he seemed to reflect God’s presence, saw this Isaiah passage as the perfect way to speak their contemporary reality. You might not like it, but it makes perfect sense to a first century Jew.

    2) Physical descent is not as important as legal descent. Adoption was not a second rate relationship. Compare the relationship of Julius Caesar to Octavian/August Caesar.

    3) See my first answer. Isaiah 7:16 is not originally about Jesus. Matthew is using Isaiah to explain his own experience and that of the early church as they try to wrestle with who Jesus really was.

  6. Thinking of the power that created all things and wondering how such minutiae would fit with its view of life on this particular small plant on the edge of the milky way. There is a disconnect.

  7. Have you seen the current discussion among Isreali Archiologists that argue the Hebrews were never slaves in Egypt. That most of the OT was wirtten over a short period to create a story to support the idea that David was more than a small chief of a tribe at about 800 BCE?

  8. It points to all the discussion that the dating of the gospels is also like arguing how many angels can sit on the head of a pin. Humans need their stories to give their lives meaning. An actual god would not care about these endless arguements but more about actual behaviors.

  9. I am aware of the minimalist argument among archaeologists. I also am aware that is is very small segment among biblical archaeologists. There is in fact evidence that there was a thriving civilzation in Israel with Hebrew cultural identifers in the time of David 1000 BC.

  10. Matthew 41 A.D.
    Mark 45 A.D.
    Luke 54-62 A.D.

    If Matthew had been used at Paul’s trial in Rome c. 60-63 A.D. it would have been a disaster. Thus…. Luke

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