Dating of Gospels and Acts: Response to Frontline-From Jesus to Christ

So I was quite confused when watching PBS Frontline on “From Jesus to Christ” and how the scholars they had on the production dated the Gospels. They had them all at the very earliest AFTER the destruction of the temple, and said they were all decades apart. So if I do the math, Mark is around 71ish, Matthew 85, Luke 95, John into the second Century, and Acts I guess would also be second century. To me, and hopefully to you, this is absolutely absurd. None of the Gospels nor Acts mentions the temple being destroyed. John, who is typically dated after the destruction of the temple even by more conservative dating, is much more figurative and loose than the others, so maybe that is not so surprising. But when it comes to Luke, who mentions reigns of governors and such, and deaths of seemingly minor martyrs, why would he fail to include something as catastrophic to Jews as the temple being torn down?

The people of the program seemed to be reading way too much into Mark, as they said that his Gospel was actually an answer to the fall of Jerusalem. I find this to be odd, since he never mentions the fall, as one might want to say what they were answering in such a work.

So how about my idea of the dating and how I think it went down, which maybe you should take with a grain of salt, but it seems pretty logical to me, and much more plausible than the dates that this program laid out.

Acts: Before Paul and Peters deaths, which were mid-60s. The entire book of Acts pretty much follows Paul’s life, chronicling many of his journeys, as well as his trial and his trip to Rome. Yet the book seems to end rather abruptly, as it does not mention the verdict nor the sentencing that Paul received, which we know to be beheading. Now this would seem extremely strange had Acts been written in the 90s or the second century, or even the 70s or 80s for that matter. Why include so many details into Paul’s life and leave out his death? As for Peter, we hear of Stephen’s martyrdom, as well as other seemingly minor figures compared to one of the main apostles, so why would the martyrdom of Peter not be mentioned. Another interesting part of that is the story usually associated with Peter, that he was crucified upside down because he did not feel worthy of Jesus death. So I say around 63 or so, since it includes Paul’s initial trial and his trip to Rome to stand trial there, but nothing more.

Luke: Before Acts. This is pretty obvious, as I know of nobody who says Luke was written after Acts. The typical dating is about a decade before, but lets play nice and say 5 years, which would put Luke around 58.

Matthew: Before Luke. Sticking with the seemingly consensus order, Matthew comes before Luke but after Mark. Again, often placed, as seen in frontline, a decade preceding Luke, but again we will say 5 years, placing this Gospel around 53.

Mark: The earliest Gospel by most accounts. We will again use our 5 year formula, placing it in the late 40s, maybe 48 or so.

John: Difficult to date John, given its much more abstract and yet concrete writings. Much more up front than the others about Christ’s divinity, which makes sense if Jerusalem has fallen and such claims would not result in such consequences as death somehow or another by Jewish law-keepers, much like Jesus. So I am comfortable saying after the destruction of the temple, and I like to be nice, so we can say around 85 for John.

Paul’s letter: Often dated in the 50s or late 40s, this would seem highly unlikely if Mark was written in the late 40s. So I think we can pretty safely say, given our dating of the other Gospels, that Paul’s first letter was written in the mid to late 30s, given his many journeys and the timescale he himself gives and that Luke gives in Acts.

These “conservatively” liberal dates, I say this because it would be very easy to stick with the general liberal framework of a decade between each piece, end up putting Paul’s writings within 10 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which is pretty significant. However, I do find it plausible that some version of Mark was floating around in some areas as early as the early 40s and that Paul didn’t hear about it due to geographical restrictions, and similar concepts can be applied to the other gospels as well.

Where does this leave us? First letters in regards to what is now orthodox Christianity are written within 5-10 years of Jesus death, which means Paul was preaching before this, which means the hymns and such that he quotes are earlier than the beginning of his ministry, which would put these within a year or two of Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension. So in contrast to the liberal frontline idea that there were many ideas of Jesus and many Christianities rising in different regions that wouldn’t be “set straight” until the second or third centuries, we see a unified Christianity from the outset, and while some were saying other things, Paul, the apostles, and the original disciples were correcting these as they came about, and not simply corrected at some council in the third century.

So not only is this important in dispelling the myth of there being many versions of Christianity that were quite unique, it also gives credence to the historicity of the New Testament writings as they inch closer to the dates of what they are giving accounts of.

More to come on the Frontline special, and here is the link to watch it.


About sorentmd

I am a student at the University of Cincinnati and am majoring in Philosophy and Marketing. I love the Lord, and I try to live my life in a way that pleases Him. View all posts by sorentmd

2 responses to “Dating of Gospels and Acts: Response to Frontline-From Jesus to Christ

  • Mike

    I’m in no position to confirm that your dating of the New Testament documents is accurate. I can say, howver, that it makes far more sense than the late dating depicted on the show you describe (and that is generally held among liberal biblical scholars.

    What puzzles me is why there are not more conservative scholars who hold to a timeline like yours. For even they typically date, for example, Paul’s earliest letters in the 50’s and the earliest gospels in 60’s. Do you have an opinion on why this is?

    • sorentmd

      That is a great question. I am by no means a scholar on this, but I would say there are a couple of aspects that contribute to it. First, I would say that they have access to manuscripts and the dating of them. So it is likely that we have none that are dated that early. But it is important to note that this does not mean that they were not written before, only that we don’t have copies that were written before. It’s easy to look at history through a 21st century lense. Now, books are mass printed at once, and maybe republished at a latter date, but with the publication date nice and neat on the first page. But in the 1st century, everything had to be hand copied and dates weren’t usually used.

      Having said this, it’s easy for someone who does not want them to be dated very early, and for the laypersons, not having earlier manuscripts seems convincing.

      The other aspect, and this may be more unconscious, is the stigma attached to evangelical christianity. By dating them too early in comparison to the “objective” liberal scholars, they would become ostracized and discredited, much like what Michael Behe has endured based on his work, where he can’t be used as a credible source.

      The only thing I know is that the story I gave is, though just a story, is quite convincing to me. I am sure that none of the gospels were written after the temple was destroyed. It would be like me writing a biography of JFK or Lincoln, and not writing about their assassinations. The only reasonable reason would be that it had been written beforehand. The destruction was earth shattering for the Jews. And Jesus had foretold it. Surely there would have been some mention of it in some context.

      However, it does seem to be a pattern that evangelicals do date the NT in a similar manner to what I have suggested, which is actually where I get it from. It makes sense.

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