Dating the Gospels: A Presuppositional Problem

What you presuppose is often what you see

Probably one of the most difficult hurdles in Christian apologetics is to overcome the objection that the gospels are too late to either be written by or confirmed by eyewitnesses to the events that they portray. As this Boston College mini-course discusses, the scholarly consensus is that the synoptic gospels were written post-AD70, based upon a hypothetical document called Q. 

Of course, the evidence for this hypothetical document is strictly circumstantial, Edwin Freed, in The New Testament: A Critical Introduction, which is a very accessible introduction to New Testament study, notes,

There is obviously a relationship of literary dependence among the synoptic gospels. They are strikingly similar in some places, yet noticeably different in others. The similarities suggest the existence of a primary source from which the others are copied.[…]

[…]Trying to solve the synoptic problem is important because the more nearly we can determine the primary text, the more accurately we can learn about the life and sayings of Jesus….In seeking solutions to the synoptic problem we must work with three groups of data: material common to all the gospels, material common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark, and material peculiar to each gospel.(p.61)

Now, we have to stop for a minute and recognize that this is something of a modern problem that modern scholars (and skeptics in history) have concocted. 

Some of the issues, namely the fact that there is material “common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark” has an explanation in the biblical text itself when Luke, in the introduction to his gospel writes,

Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know for certain the things you were taught. (Luke 1:1-4, NET)

But then there’s also the signing off in John’s Gospel,

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24, ESV)

I mean, it’s like some of these people have never picked up a Bible and read it. 

Luke makes it clear that he’s drawing from external sources in order to compose “an orderly account”. The admission that “many have undertaken to compile an account”, indicates that there were written sources that were out and about in the community, and the fact that his will be “orderly” in contrast to them, seems to indicate some frustration with them. John’s gospel ends with its peculiar testimony of authenticity. The question is how many is “many” and what is meant by “account” and “who is bearing witness”? Luke’s own words, as well as that testimonium seems to refute one of the claims in Freed’s work:

Although it is impossible to determine the original sequence of Q material, Luke may have preserved the arrangement more accurately…(p.65)

As I said, it’s easy to assume that these people have never actually read the Bible. One also cannot help but notice a measure of circular reasoning when it comes to these arguments. The assumption is not to think that the source of the information is from the authors themselves, as they experienced Christ, but from another source. The very methods of analyzing these documents, makes certain assumptions. Textual criticism, while extremely valuable in bringing light to the text, not just in content, but in relationship to one another, and with other historical documents, betrays some of the biases of those who engage in the practice. Freed explains,

The word criticism often has the negative connotation of finding fault or disapproving, but when used in NT study, it has a positive meaning. The word criticism comes from the Greek verb krinō, “to separate”, “distinguish”, “choose”, “decide”, or “judge”.

The next statement, however, as much as he wants it to be true…it’s often not,

The historical-critical method in itself is neutral. It seeks to prove nothing but is primarily concerned with acquiring information. Therefore, people who use the historical critical method act as historians and try to determine the truth of the matter under consideration. (p. 75)

He continues, noting that when the matter is applied to the matter of studying the Bible and its contents that it, “involves determining the oldest text, its literary nature, and the circumstances that gave rise to it” (p.75). One of the problems with that is, what is meant by “the oldest text” will carry certain assumptions that are not neutral. Remember, the assumption of most of these scholars: they believe that Mark’s gospel was first. How do they determine this? They create what amounts to an artificial distinction between what is written in the gospels, as conveyers of the personality and general teachings of Jesus, and what was said about Jesus by his disciples at the beginning of their ministry. 

Without a doubt, given the time (in history) and place (in geography), there was a period when there was no written gospel to speak of. There was simply the remembered teaching of Jesus, but this was not an individual effort, rather this was a communal effort. Why were there 12 disciples that Jesus specifically chose (even though one would betray him) to give specific teaching to? Because it made it easier to transmit the specifics of his teaching. Jesus spoke to large crowds, but it was to those whom he chose to make the particular truths known, the disciples—who would later be apostles—that would be charged with explaining what was taught. What would be a modern example of this? I know.

Consider a university professor who taught a class that had 400 students. And he taught 2 classes like this a semester. There is no feasible way that he could interact with each and every single student in that class. As a result, that professor has chosen 4 or 5 graduate teaching assistants to handle smaller groups of students, only bringing the most specific matters directly to him. That is what we see portrayed in the gospels, and was a common occurrence in the ancient world as it was, and what most biblical scholars would use to distinguish between what we have written down and what was originally taught, thus creating a distinction between the written gospel and the oral gospel. Freed notes,

We learn about the oral gospel from the apostle Paul’s letters which were all written (c. 50-65 CE) before Mark. Paul refers to this gospel about fifty-six times, and does so in every letter; in each instance the word “gospel” means something oral, not something written….

To distinguish it from the written gospels, the material from and about Jesus that was spread orally from one generation to another is usually designated by the general term oral tradition. (p.75)

This is where, I think, Freed is making an artificial distinction between the gospel (εὐαγγέλιον, noun form), or “good news”, and the εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo, verb form), “act of proclaiming good news,” and what we call “the gospel,” that is the record of the “good news”, found in the four gospels. This is often exacerbated by those who assume that the written gospels somehow are not transmitting the oral tradition that was taught. 

Also notice how its just taken as an accepted fact that Mark was the first gospel. What evidence do they have for this? They argue that Mark doesn’t have a birth narrative, that he just jumps into the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and interaction with John the Baptist, what is shared between Matthew and Luke with Mark with what isn’t. It begins to sound very compelling, if you ignore what Paul actually says, and what they necessarily assume about the preexisting oral tradition, which poses a problem.

Now, I want to note here that there is something of a—and I want to use this word carefully—problem. As it was stated, Luke was not and eyewitness, but was reporting the accounts of the eyewitnesses. Mark was also not an eyewitness, as the early church historian Eusebius wrote, reporting a statement by the bishop Papias,

Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things done or said by Christ.  For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them.  For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.

There seem to be a few choices here: 1) Eusebius was lying; 2) Eusebius was misled; 3) Eusebius was telling the truth. The first is blatant and intentional. The second is unintentional. The third is also blatant and intentional. Since the man claimed that was reporting the statement of another, a statement that is lost to history to confirm, it is very easy, and undoubtedly seems logical to exclude number 3. Therefore, number one or number two seems to be the likely option. However, while it seems logical to exclude number three, it still stands because there is nothing to disconfirm it, unless one simply has a presuppositional bias against it. 

This becomes a problem for dating the gospels, although those who operate on the assumption of Markan priority don’t take the patriarchs seriously. Because Eusebius, when he quotes Clement of Alexandria, throws a whole wrench in the works,

Again, in the same books [the Hypotyposes], Clement gives the tradition of the earliest presbyters, as to the order of the Gospels, in the following manner:  “The Gospels containing the genealogies [i.e. Matthew and Luke], he says, were written first.  The Gospel according to MARK had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out.  And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it.  When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it.  But, last of all, JOHN, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.”  This is the account of Clement.  (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.5-7, emphasis added).

Now, Clement, at least to me, has much more authority—mainly because he was a whole lot closer to the events— than these modern scholars. But, moreover, when we look at Paul, the way that he makes statements in his letters, for example his Lord’s Supper discourse in 1 Corinthians 11, when he talks about the bread and the cup, bears a striking resemblance to Luke’s account. And, if Luke is using Mark and Matthew as sources, as they argue, and the vast majority of scholarship argues for dating 1 Corinthians to the mid-50s CE, that would blow a serious hole in argumentation for dating the gospels to after AD70. Of course they will simply try to wave away this as Paul merely using the oral tradition, often pointing to the example of the creedal form Paul uses in chapter 15 of the same letter.

The word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:23, where he says that he “delivered”(paradidomi) to the Corinthians is the same word used in 15:3, however, given the semantic range of the word, there is no reason to assume that just because of the creedal form that they mean the same thing. Paul’s use of the creed, the accepted statement and profession of common Christian belief, in an argument, doesn’t determine how the word is to be understood. Paul’s very peculiar, very specific choice of words in 11:23, indicates a direct quotation of a source, something that is normally only seen when quoting the Old Testament or another commonly known or available source. Of course, it could also be argued that Luke is simply quoting Paul’s version, but that undermines arguments for Luke’s supposed dependence on Matthew and Mark, which are virtual carbon copies of one another.

In the end, I don’t think, that there is any meaningful way to separate what was spoken from what was written, without packing in truckloads of unjustified assumptions, especially when it comes to dating the gospels, just like when it comes to discovering which order that they were written in. There is simply no purely unbiased way of looking at the material, because everyone brings assumptions to the text. Primarily, those who argue for late dating—dating after AD70—do so, not because of any historical evidence, but because of anti-supernaturalistic assumptions.

There is no way, according to those who take that view, that the gospels could have been written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in AD70, because there is no such thing as predictive prophesy. No one, presuppositionally, can know the future or speak authoritatively about it. That’s why a late dating is preferred. The testimony of history, the gospels and Paul’s letters themselves, seem to give evidence otherwise.

The temptation is simply to defer to the scholars. The problem is just because a group of people accept something to be true, doesn’t automatically mean that it is.


  1. All this I have spoken to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you. 27 Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled; do not be afraid.…

    I wouldn’t want to bet my life, my eternal well being on trying to outsmart God. It is one thing to make millions writing bull out of sincere misunderstandings and confusion. It is another to make a decision to con the naive and trick them into a trip to hell with you out of arrogance and defiance.

    In the snap of the fingers all these debates will be forgotten, like chasing kids who tease each other on the playground. Life, heaven and hell, will come breaking through in a flash. Weeping and gnashing of teeth versus unspeakable joy, peace and exquisite beauty for eternity.

    He promised to bring back recollections of everything He taught the original gang of followers so that they would record the truth just as He had given it to them.

  2. “Without a doubt, given the time (in history) and place (in geography), there was a period when there was no written gospel to speak of.” Triggerman

    Personally, I’m convinced many were jotting down His words during His travels while He healed folks, shared parables, the Sermon On The Mount, John 13 thru 16, etc. After all, He surrounded Himself with the most gifted, the brightest, the most capable people group in history: The Jews. They were not about to let His Person and all that He did and said be forgotten and not passed on with accuracy. Queen Salome Alexandra made sure that reading and writing were taught in the local synagogues.

    Also, if Mark and those guys were familiar with how the oral tradition worked, they would have been very cautious indeed to rely upon it alone for their sources. I think portions of His life were recorded as He walked among them and that eyewitnesses shared what they remembered as they met to focus on the Word in Acts 6:4 “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.”

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