- Were the Gospels written 100 years and more after the event?
- Or does the internal evidence and the witness of history point to a date before the destruction of the Temple (70 CE) as the most likely date for writing the Gospels?
- Eye witness evidence for the Gospels.
- Impossible to make up details at a later date.
- Witness of the early church and the manuscripts to an early date.
- Did Matthew and Luke copy from Mark?
In this chapter of his book Asher Norman claims: ‘The Epistles and the Gospels were not written by actual witnesses to the events they described.’ He goes on to say that the Gospels were written by unknown men who took the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John up to 150 years after the events they describe.
Asher builds his case for this on a mixture of liberal theology and a book called ‘The Jesus Mysteries’ by Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke. This book is a rehash of pseudo-historical books about Jesus, which claim that Jesus never existed and that the Christian story was a product of various pagan myths. Its authors have a background in New Age mysticism and spiritualism and make some outrageous claims, for example that the Greek god Bacchus was crucified and Christians copied the idea. No serious academic takes their work remotely seriously, yet Asher can rely on the ignorance of his readers on the subject when he refers to Gandy and Freke as reputable scholars: ‘Many scholars believe that the Gospels were originally anonymous works … not originally attributed to any particular author and further altered and added to over time.’ (P 143).
To illustrate the claim that the Gospels were written long after the event he quotes from a book called ‘The Diegesis’ by Rev Robert Taylor: ‘It is certain that the New Testament was not written by Jesus himself, nor by his apostles but a long while after them by some unknown persons.’ (Page 144). Commenting on this, he gives this as an example of the fact that ‘Christian clergymen were also well aware of this problem in the 19th century.’
He relies on no one knowing the true identity of Rev Robert Taylor (as I did not before reading this). However a search on the Internet revealed that there is no way that this man could be claimed as a representative Christian clergyman of the 19th century, even of liberal clergymen who did question the authorship of the Gospels. Robert Taylor began as an Anglican clergyman, training at Cambridge in the 1820s under the evangelical Rev Charles Simeon. He then gave up Christianity and turned to eccentric anti-clericalism. He ended up in jail where he wrote ‘The Diegesis’, attacking Christianity on the basis of comparative mythology and attempting to expound it as a scheme of solar myths. He became known as the Devil’s Chaplain when he pronounced ‘God and the Devil to be but one and the self-same being. Hell and Hell-fire are, in the original, nothing more than names and titles of the Supreme God.’ This somewhat discredits Asher Norman’s claim to be putting forward reliable information on the subject he is writing about!
Higher Critical Theology.
Leaving aside the eccentrics who Asher Norman takes as his source of information, we have to acknowledge that much of the church has taken on board Higher Critical Theology which questions the traditional view that the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who were either apostles of Jesus or familiar with those who were apostles.
This theology does undermine faith that the New Testament writers gave a true and contemporary account of what happened and were inspired by God. What Asher Norman does not tell his readers is that the same theology also denies the faith he professes – that the Torah was given word for word by God to Moses. Such theologians teach that Moses was not the author of the Torah but that many different writers contributed to it and it was completed in the days of Ezra (about 900 years after Moses). This is known as the ‘documentary hypothesis’ or the ‘JEDP hypothesis’. The foremost exponent of this view was Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918), who linked his views in with the evolutionary view of history.
This view teaches that instead of Moses writing the Torah, various anonymous authors compiled these five books (plus other portions of the Old Testament) from centuries of oral tradition, up to 900 years after Moses lived. It places great importance on the fact that two different names are used in the Torah for God – Elohim and YHVH / Yahweh or Jehovah. From this fact it concludes that the passages which call God ‘Elohim’ were written separately from the passages that call him ‘Yahweh’. These supposed narrators are designated as follows:
J stands for those biblical passages where the Hebrew letters YHWH / Yahweh / Jehovah are used as the name of God supposedly written about 900–850 BC.
E stands for those passages where Elohim is used as the word for God supposedly written about 750–700 BC in the northern kingdom (Israel).
D stands for the supposed writer of Deuteronomy, believed to be the book found in the temple in Jerusalem in the days of King Josiah in 621 BC. (2 Kings 22:8). Wellhausen taught that Deuteronomy was actually written at the time of Josiah.
P stands for the priests who lived during the exile in Babylon and allegedly composed a code of holiness (i.e. most of the Book of Leviticus) for the people at the time of Ezra around 530 BC.
Various editors R (from German ‘Redakteur’) supposedly put it all together.
If this view were correct then the Torah would be a pious fraud. It would teach us that we should not bear false witness, while bearing false witness itself. It would claim to be written by Moses at the time of the generation that came out of Egypt, and came through the wilderness, when in fact it was written centuries later. If Asher Norman and other critics of the New Testament used the same criteria for the Hebrew Bible, they would soon demolish their own basis for faith.
I do not accept this view as being correct and believe that Moses was the writer of the Torah as the text claims: ‘And Moses wrote this law and delivered it unto the priests, the sons of Levi, which bare the ark of he covenant of the Lord and unto all the elders of Israel’ Deuteronomy 31.9. See also Exodus 17:14; 24:4–7; 34:27; Numbers 33:2; Deuteronomy 31:22, 24. For more on this see our article ‘Did Moses write the Torah?’
On the basis of Higher Critical Theology Asher Norman says that the Epistles were written in the first century with no mention of the Gospel accounts. He says that the Gospels were not written at the time the Epistles were written and that the authors of the Epistles really knew nothing about Jesus as described in the Gospels. He goes on to say that Mark was written in around 125 CE and Matthew, Luke and John around 175 CE. He says that Matthew copied about 90% of the Gospel of Mark and Luke copied 50% of Mark.
He does not mention ‘Q’, the other alleged source of the Gospels which is the basic proposition of the ‘Two Source’ theory of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) taught by the Higher Critical Movement. Q (taken from the German word Quelle meaning source) is an alleged document which liberal theology says was in existence at the time of early Christianity and formed the basis of the Gospels which were written later. As a point of information no historical or manuscript evidence to confirm the Q document, which is a device created by 19th century sceptical theologians to deny the verbal inspiration of the Gospels.
Are there answers to Asher Norman’s claims?
An early date for the Gospels.
It is interesting that in recent years there have been many scholars questioning the late dating of the Gospels. In 1976 noted liberal theologian John Robinson put forward the view that the whole of the New Testament was written before AD 70. He reasons that no book of the New Testament describes the fall of the Temple in AD 70 as an event that had already occurred: ‘One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to the single most datable and climactic event of the period – the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the Temple – is never once mentioned as a past fact’. (Page 13 ‘Re-dating the New Testament.’)
A number of other scholars today give reason to believe an early dating of the New Testament. The book by F.F. Bruce, ‘The New Testament Documents – Are they reliable?’ gives good reasons to believe in the early dating of the Gospels and Acts, their apostolic inspiration and historical accuracy. John Wenham in his book ‘Re-dating Matthew, Mark and Luke’ put forward the following dating scheme for the books of the New Testament.
c 40 Matthew
c 45 Mark
c 48 Galatians
c 49 Jerusalem Council
50 1 and 2 Thessalonians
c 54 Luke
55 1 Corinthians
56 2 Corinthians
57-59 1 Timothy, Titus
60-61 Philippians, 2 Timothy
Wenham abandons the ‘Two Source Hypothesis’ – that Mark + Q influenced Matthew and Luke – and returns to the traditional view that Matthew came first and was followed by Mark and Luke.
Michael Phelan in his two volume book ‘The New Testament Received as Scripture’ published by Two Edged Sword has put together a great deal of information backing up the early dating of the New Testament. He quotes a number of early church figures who testify to the authorship of the Gospels. These are summed up in this passage in Eusebius which quotes Irenaeus, ‘The Ecclesiastical History’, translated by Oulton, Volume 2, page 47-49:
‘Matthew published among the Hebrews a written gospel also in their tongue … Mark also, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the things which were preached by Peter, and Luke also, who was a follower of Paul, put down in a book the gospel which was preached by him. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who had even rested on His breast, himself also gave forth the gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.’
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons around AD 180, wrote, ‘For as there are four quarters of the world in which we live and four universal winds, and as the Church is dispersed over all the earth, and the gospel is the pillar and the base of the Church and the breath of life, so it is natural that it should have four pillars, breathing immortality from every quarter and kindling the life of men anew. Whence it is manifest that the Word … has given us the gospel in fourfold form, but held together by one Spirit.’ (Against Heresies III). He goes on to affirm the Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the authentic accounts.
There is an enormous amount of manuscript evidence for the New Testament, way beyond any other ancient document, including the Old Testament. There are more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today. No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. The world’s second best documented ancient book is Homer’s Iliad of which we have 643 manuscripts.
Quotations from the New Testament in early Christian writings are so extensive that it could virtually be reconstructed from these writings without the use of New Testament manuscripts. There are no less than 36,289 quotations from the New Testament in the works of the early Christian writers Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Hippolytus and Eusebius. (Information from ‘Evidence that demands a verdict’ by Josh McDowell).
The New Testament itself gives us some very good clues as to when it was written. If we take as a starting point the Book of Acts we have some events recorded there which can be checked against Roman history and the writings of Josephus. In chapters 24-25 Paul is taken before the Roman governors, Felix and Festus. We know from Josephus that Festus succeeded Felix in AD 59 and died in AD 62. According to Acts 27 Festus granted Paul’s request to be tried in Rome. After surviving a storm at sea on the way, Paul arrived in Rome and stayed there for two years (Acts 28.30). This would take us up to around AD 62. Acts ends quite abruptly without mentioning the fact that Paul was executed in Rome probably around AD 65. Luke does mention the death of James, the brother of John, in chapter 12. James plays a very minor part in the Book of Acts, so why does Luke not mention the death of Paul who is the main subject of the entire section from Acts 13-28? The most obvious answer is that he completed Acts before Paul was executed.
So the most likely date for writing Acts is around AD 62-65. In the opening verses of Acts Luke describes his former book in which he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach (i.e. the Gospel of Luke). So the Gospel of Luke must have been written before this. In the opening verses of his Gospel, Luke writes of those who had previously undertaken to write an account of the things ‘that have been fulfilled among us’ (i.e. the life of Jesus). The logical assumption from this is that the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were written before Luke.
Regarding the rest of the New Testament Paul’s letters must have been written before he died! 2 Peter 3.15 contains reference to Paul as to someone still alive, so Peter’s letters were written before Paul died. Jude contains material very similar to 2 Peter so was probably written at about the same time. Hebrews must have been written before the destruction of the Temple, whatever one’s view about whether or not it was written by Paul. James was written probably by James the bishop of the Jerusalem church who according to Josephus was put to death by the Sanhedrin in AD 62. That has covered the entire NT apart from John’s writings.
John was the longest living of the Apostles, exiled to Patmos under the persecutions of Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), so his books could have been written later, and certainly the early church tradition is that John wrote his Gospel after the Synoptic Gospels. Liberal theologian John Robinson in his book ‘Re-dating the New Testament’ came to the conclusion that John’s Gospel was written before the destruction of the Temple. John 21.19 possibly implies that Peter was still alive at the time of writing John’s Gospel.
By this method we have placed most of the New Testament being written before AD 70.
Now Asher Norman and critics of the Gospels could say all this was information supplied by a later editor to make it look as though these books were written by contemporaries, but we then have some logical problems. What would be their motives? How would they get away with it? Would they be able to produce reasonably authentic information about the geography, history and social conditions of the time if they were inventing a story 100 years or more later?
A number of passages in the New Testament make references to ‘eyewitnesses’ to the events that are being recorded. See Luke 1.1-4, John 19.35, Acts 2.22, Acts 26.24-6, 2 Peter 1.16-18, 1 John 1.1-4. The opening verses of Luke say:
‘Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.’ Luke 1.1-4.
The implication is that Luke got his information from eyewitnesses, one of whom was most likely Mary who gave him details of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus as recorded in his Gospel. Obviously he could not have gained such information 150 years after the event. If he had have done so, who would have believed him? Any logical person reading the first verses of his account would dismiss it straight away. ‘Eyewitnesses’ of events that took place nearly 150 years ago? ‘Having a perfect understanding of all things from the very first.’ Impossible. Why read any further? If I was publishing a book today in which I claimed to have eyewitness information about the reign of Queen Victoria or the American Civil War, no one would take me seriously for one moment.
Another issue is that it would have been extremely difficult for a later writer to put down information which would tally with the history, geography and customs of what they were writing about. With no Google searches or encyclopaedias available to refer how would they have got their facts right? By the time Asher Norman says the Gospels were written, the Jewish world of Galilee and Judea we encounter in the New Testament was no more. Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in AD 70, and following the failed Bar Cochba revolt in AD 135, the Romans operated a scorched earth policy in Israel, wiping out its Jewish identity and renaming the land ‘Palestina.’ They renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina, which was made off limits to Jewish people. Most of the Jews were killed or sold into slavery and many of those who survived left the devastated land.
It would have been virtually impossible for a later writer to get his facts right about life in Judea in the period before these calamities occurred. FF Bruce testifies to the accuracy of New Testament historical details: ‘The place names, the geography, the titles of the various public figures are all remarkable in their accuracy and could only have been produced by someone who genuinely was an eye witness of the events, or who had access to those who were’. Sir William Ramsay, regarded as one of the greatest archaeologists ever, wrote of Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, ‘Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians. Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.’
The Gospel writers showed knowledge of the geography, history and customs of the time and place which are accurate. The fraudulent Gospel of Barnabas, favoured by Muslims, which was written long after the event contains references which show its author was not an eyewitness. For example it states that Jesus was born when Pontius Pilate was governor (he did not become governor until AD 28-29) and that Jesus sailed in a boat into Nazareth (a bit hard as there is no sea or river at Nazareth). There are no such inaccuracies in the New Testament.
Epistles written before the Gospels?
Asher Norman says that the Epistles were written first and then the Gospels much later. He says the writers of the Epistles were unfamiliar with the text of the Gospels and did not quote or even refer to them. He says that Mark wrote the first Gospel and Matthew and Luke copied most of their material from Mark. In this he follows the conclusions of liberal Christian theologians whose critical works on the text of the whole Bible began in the 19th century.
Most of the Epistles were written by Paul, others by Peter, James, John and Jude. Critics of Christianity like to claim that Paul invented a ‘Jesus’ who had no connection to the real Jesus. In a TV programme ‘The Real Jesus’ shown on Channel 4 in December 2000, Hyam Maccoby, author of ‘Revolution In Judea: Jesus And The Jewish Resistance’, claimed that Paul knew nothing about the real earthly Jesus and received all his information from his communications with a ‘heavenly Jesus.’
Paul may not have known Jesus in the flesh but that would certainly not prevent him from finding out about him from those who did. The accusation that Paul invented a different Jesus from the real one and is himself the true founder of Christianity is in no way supported by the New Testament. The fact that Paul does not write in detail about the life of Jesus recorded in the Gospels in his epistles is not significant. He was writing letters to Christians whom he assumed to be familiar with the Gospel story telling them how to apply their faith to life situations. Neither do the epistles of Peter, James, John and Jude contain references to events in the Gospels other than the death and resurrection of Jesus, apart from 2 Peter 1.18 which refers to the Transfiguration.
All that Paul does write about Jesus is in harmony with the Gospels. He knew that He was divinely pre-existent and yet also a real human being descended from Abraham and David; that He lived under Jewish law, was betrayed after eating the Passover with His disciples, endured the Roman penalty of crucifixion, was buried and rose again from the dead. He knew the disciples and was familiar with details of their lives, including the fact that Peter was married (1 Corinthians 9.5, Mark 1.30). His teaching is in harmony with the teaching of Jesus on all ethical matters.
Both Jesus and Paul lay great emphasis on personal integrity and speaking the truth. In Ephesians Paul writes, ‘We should no longer be children tossed to and from and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness by which they lie in wait to deceive, but speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into him who is the head – Christ’ (Ephesians 4.14-15).
However according to critics like Asher Norman and Hyam Maccoby Paul himself was practicing trickery and deception, by inventing a false story and knowingly deceiving others with it. Paul’s own testimony is that his reward for spreading his message was not to be showered with honour and money, but beatings, perils, weariness, hunger and toil (2 Corinthians 11.23-33). Is it really likely that he would go through all this for a story, which he knew, was not true? He faced his coming execution with the confidence that ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord the righteous judge will give to me on that day and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing’ (2 Timothy 4.7-8). Could he have done this if he knew that his life had been wasted spreading a lie?
There is internal evidence within the New Testament itself that the writers of the epistles knew the Gospels. In 1 Timothy 5.18 Paul writes: ‘For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and, “The labourer is worthy of his wages.” Paul here quotes from both Deuteronomy 25.4 and Luke 10.7 and refers to both as ‘graphe’ – scripture. For this verse to make any sense he must have had a copy of the Gospel of Luke which must have been widely acknowledged as scripture.
In addition to this we find that Paul follows virtually the same wording in 1 Corinthians 11.24-25 as we find in Luke 22.19-20 regarding the taking of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. We also have the interesting verse in 2 Corinthians 8.18-19: ‘And we have sent with him the brother whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches, and not only that, but who was also chosen by the churches to travel with us with this gift, which is administered by us to the glory of the Lord Himself.’ Michael Phelan writes of this:
‘The context is that of the bringing of an offering to the poor believers in Jerusalem. This offering was to be conveyed by Titus and another brother, ‘whose praise is in the Gospel.’ From verse 22 we see that a second unnamed brother was sent also making three altogether. A widely held view of the ancients is that this first unnamed brother is Luke and that the Gospel that was praised throughout all the churches is not the Gospel message but a book, namely our third Gospel, which now bears Luke’s name. If this is true then of course Luke’s Gospel was written not only before 2 Corinthians, but well before it, as time must be allowed for it to have circulated far and wide, and to have become recognised as a most praise-worthy book. It is difficult to believe that the Gospel message itself could be meant here, as the Gospel is so conspicuously the Lord’s work from start to finish that it would be utterly inappropriate for any human to receive praise for it, and the suggestion that Paul himself would make such a basic theological error is not even worth considering. Moreover the remark that the Gospel message of salvation is ‘praised throughout the churches’ would be completely unnecessary. It would comprise the greatest statement of the obvious that is conceivable.’ (‘The New Testament as Received Scripture’ – Volume II page 121).
Peter also refers to events that took place in the Gospels in his epistle: ‘For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honour and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.’ Here we have the writer claiming to have been an eyewitness of the Transfiguration of Jesus which is described in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. (2 Peter 1.16-18).
In 2 Peter 3.15-17 Peter recognises that Paul’s writings were authoritative and then refers to ‘the rest of the scriptures’ and warns his readers to beware of those who twist their meanings. This implies that he considered Paul’s writings to be scripture as well as other documents which are not named.
Matthew and Luke copied from Mark?
The relationship between the Gospels is a complex one and for a detailed examination of this subject I recommend Michael Phelan’s books already mentioned. In his study Bible John MacArthur gives a brief answer to the critics claim which I would agree with.
‘The arguments above do not prove that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source. In fact the weight of all the evidence strongly resists such a theory.
- The nearly unanimous testimony of the church until the 19th century was that Matthew was the first gospel written. Such and consistent and impressive chorus cannot be ignored.
- Why would Matthew, an apostle and eyewitness to the events of Christ’s life depend on Mark (who was not an eyewitness) – even for the account of his own conversion?
- A careful statistical analysis of the synoptic gospels has revealed that the parallels between them are far less extensive and the differences more extensive than is commonly acknowledged. The differences in particular argue against literary dependence between gospel writers.
- Since the gospels record actual historical events it would be surprising if they did not follow the same general chronological sequence.
- The passages in which Matthew and Luke agree against Mark amount to about one sixth of Matthew and one sixth of Luke. If they used Mark’s gospel as a source there is no satisfactory explanation for why Matthew and Luke would so often both change Mark’s wording in the same way.
- No historical or manuscript evidence exists to confirm the Q document. It is purely a fabrication of modern scepticism and a way to deny the verbal inspiration of the gospels.
- The theories of literary dependence between the gospels are notorious for downplaying the significance of their personal contacts between each other. Mark and Luke were both companions of Paul (Philemon 24). The early church (including Matthew) met for a time in the home of Mark’s mother (Act 12.12). Luke may well have met Matthew during Paul’s two-year imprisonment at Caesarea. Such contacts make theories of mutual literary dependence unnecessary.’ MacArthur Study Bible page 1282.
Paul writes: ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.’
2 Timothy 3.16
The writers of the four Gospels were all inspired by the Holy Spirit to give their four different, but complimentary accounts of the life of Jesus the Messiah. Any alleged contradictions can be explained to those willing to consider the claims of the Gospel that Jesus is the promised Messiah and Saviour of the world. Those who wish to reject this message will never cease from trying to find reason for their unbelief.
I would conclude by urging Jewish readers not to take as a proven fact the assertions of Asher Norman and others that the Gospels are fictitious works written long after the event. Instead consider the words which John puts at the end of his Gospel: ‘And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.’ John 20.30-31.