The Case For Christ Topical Studies-The Dating And Reliability Of The New Testament Gospels

(Unless otherwise noted, all italicized quotations are from Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation Of The Evidence For Jesus, 20-46 (Kindle Edition, Interview With Dr. Craig Blomberg); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)

One of the most often heard objections against Christianity goes something like this:

“Even if the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they wrote so many years after Jesus’ death that they cannot be reliable. Who remembers the exact words or events of something forty or fifty years earlier?”

There are at least two serious problems with this argument.

The first is that the Gospels began to be written within a few years of Jesus’ ministry, when the events and teachings of Jesus were still fresh in the minds of the writers.

The second problem with this argument is that even if it were true that the Gospels were written decades after Jesus died, they would still be accurate because of the oral nature of Jewish society.

Let’s look at each one of these issues.

The Dating Question

“The standard scholarly dating, even in very liberal circles, is Mark in the 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 80s, John in the 90s. But listen: that’s still within the lifetimes of various eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus, including hostile eyewitnesses who would have served as a corrective if false teachings about Jesus were going around. “Consequently, these late dates for the gospels really aren’t all that late. In fact, we can make a comparison that’s very instructive.”

The dates mentioned above certainly reflect the modern day scholarly belief regarding the dating of the Gospels; but they do not take into account some very powerful archaeological evidence.

The Magdalen Papyrus

The Magdalen Papyrus is a copy of the Gospel of Matthew that dates back to within a few years of Jesus’ death.

“The Magdalen Papyrus includes three fragments which contain a total of 24 lines, written on both sides in the format of a codex rather than a scroll….If Thiede is correct, then P64 was copied while Matthew and the other eyewitnesses were still alive….These ancient fragments of the New Testament are one of the many pieces of evidence we have that the Gospels and epistles were written very early, by the apostles themselves, and certainly not by drunk monks in the Middle Ages.” (Chuck Missler, How We Got Our Bible, 1051-1080 (Kindle Edition); Coeur d’Alene, ID; Koinonia House)

Well, how early into the first century was the Magdalene Papyrus written? Cooper has well written:

“Our attention is drawn to the work of Dr Carsten Thiede, and his book, The Jesus Papyrus (see Bibliography). Suffice it here to say that a thorough and scientific analysis undertaken by Dr Thiede of the Gospel fragments known to scholars as the Magdalen Papyrus (named after Magdalen College Oxford, where it is kept), dates this particular copy of Matthew’s Gospel to times so close to the Resurrection, that it could easily have been copied or read by an eyewitness of our Lord’s entire ministry. To be brief, the Magdalen Papyrus was copied out between the mid-40s and AD 50. But we must also bear in mind that this particular papyrus was itself but a copy of an even earlier original, though by how many removes we cannot know.” (Bill Cooper, Old Light On The Roman Church: A Consideration In Four Parts Of Certain Neglected Areas Of Church History, 599-605 (Kindle Edition).

The Dead Sea Scrolls

There is also evidence from the famous Dead Sea Scrolls the point to a very early writing of the Gospels.

“The caves at Qumran are famous for the hoard of Old Testament and other manuscripts that have been found there. But the thing which receives the least publicity (if any publicity at all) is the fact that the caves have also yielded fragments of New Testament books. This absence of publicity – this blanket denial of their identity is not to be wondered at. The fact of the matter is this, that these manuscripts were deposited in the caves at Qumran by the year AD 68 at the very latest, when Qumran and the surrounding area was overrun by the Roman 10th Legion, and according to the critics, the New Testament – especially the Gospels – had not yet been written by that time…Cave 4 at Qumran is of some interest to us here. In that cave was discovered a particular fragment known today as 4QAlpha. Though not actually a fragment of Mark’s Gospel – it was originally thought to be a medical text it does reflect the healing miracle of the blind man recorded in Mark 8:22- 26, and moreover contains the New Testament names of Caiaphas, Peter (the first time that this name has been found in an Hebrew/Aramaic document), and Aquila…Fragments of various New Testament books were themselves found in the caves of Qumran, most notably in Cave 7. One that is of particular interest is called 7Q5, and carries nothing less than a passage from Mark 6:52- 53. 3…identifying other fragments from Cave 7 as parts of the New Testament, especially fragment 7Q4 which contains 1 Timothy 3:16- 4:3….The discoveries in Cave 7 at Qumran – and the commendable diligence of O’Callaghan who identified them – proves that what the critics have been teaching all these years is wrong, misinformed and mistaken on all levels. Archaeology has never spoken plainer than it speaks right now. Copies of the New Testament books of Mark, 1 Timothy, James, Acts, Romans and 2 Peter (at least) were all in circulation by AD 68 at the very latest, and clearly years before. But what is more, they were in circulation internationally and not just locally amongst Christian groups or churches….We spoke earlier of the lack of publicity which surrounds the discovery of New Testament books – or rather their fragments – at Qumran, and their omission is pointedly displayed by Emanuel Tov, who has issued a ‘complete’ list of all the Biblical texts discovered in the Qumran caves. 22 It is indeed a prodigious and comprehensive list, except that when it comes to Cave 7 he omits all reference to the New Testament fragments which were discovered there….As we have seen, represented amongst these ‘unclassified’ fragments are the New Testament books of 1 Timothy (7Q4); Mark’s Gospel (7Q5) (7Q6, 1) (7Q7) (7Q15); James (7Q8); Acts (7Q6); Romans (7Q9); and 2 Peter (7Q10). How these can all be omitted from a list which claims to be ‘complete’ is something to be wondered at. (Bill Cooper, The Authenticity Of The New Testament: part One-The Gospels, 300-470 (Kindle Edition))

Speaking of these facts, Geisler has written:

“Jose *O’Callahan, a Spanish Jesuit paleographer, made headlines around the world in 1972 when he announced that he had translated a piece of the Gospel of Mark on a DSS fragment. This was the earliest known piece of Mark. Fragments from cave 7 had previously been dated between 50B.C. and A.D. 50 and listed under “not identified” and classified as “Biblical Texts.” O’Callahan eventually identified nine fragments….A date beforeA.D. 50 leaves no time for mythological embellishment of the records. They would have to be accepted as historical. It would also show Mark to be one of the earlier Gospels. Further, since these manuscripts are not originals but copies, it would reveal that the New Testament was “published”—copied and disseminated—during the life time of the writers. It would also reveal the existence of the New Testament canon during this early period, with pieces representing every major section of the New Testament: Gospels, Acts, and both Pauline and General Epistles.” (Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia Of Christian Apologetics, 188 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

Carsten Thiede writes of the way that many scholars are affirming the early date of the New Testament based upon the abundance of textual evidence:

“Some readers of this book may remember the excitement in 1976 when John A.T. Robinson published his mould-breaking Redating the New Testament. Here was an arch-liberal theologian, labelled by some as the heretic Bishop of Woolwich, allegedly a proponent of the fashionable ‘God is dead’ tendency, who was suddenly stating, in a well-documented monograph, that every single New Testament text was written before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Overnight, he became a traitor to the ‘liberal’ cause and the new hero of the ‘conservatives’. And yet he was and remained the same John A.T. Robinson. He had merely discovered that sober textual scholarship must not be hidden under the bushel of ideological preconception. Take also the prototype of German liberal theology at the turn of the twentieth century, Adolf von Harnack. As a textual historian, he remained a classical scholar to the bone. When he realized that he and his colleagues had placed the Acts of the Apostles much too late in the first century, he corrected his error publicly and stated, in a carefully argued study, that Acts was obviously written before the deaths of James, Peter and Paul–in other words, before AD 62/ 64. This meant that Luke’s Gospel was written earlier still, perhaps as early as the late fifties, and that for those who propose the chronological sequence Mark-Matthew-Luke-Acts, Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels must have been written in the fifties of the first century, if not earlier. This was (and is) sensational or provocative only to those who refused to envisage an early Christian community that did the obvious thing and wrote about Jesus, spreading the written message as well as preaching it by word of mouth. In fact, many professional historians have now begun to turn the tables. For many of them, dating the Gospels in the fifties or sixties of the first century is not early at all but still too late. One would have to explain why it took the first Christians twenty, thirty or even up to forty years to produce the earliest written record about Jesus. In other words, dates around the fifties of the first century are the latest conceivable ‘middle ground’. John’s Gospel, often presented as the odd one out and at best seen as a latecomer, has also been rescued from the dumping ground of second and third-generation datings. Again, it was John A.T. Robinson who set the tone when he advocated a publication date in the late sixties and argued his case persuasively in The Priority of John in 1986. Continental scholars like Klaus Berger of Heidelberg University have taken up his baton…Paul’s letters in particular are meant to correct errors and to put local communities back on the right track. In one of his letters, Paul explicitly asks for his teaching to be passed on to others and to make sure that they read what he had written elsewhere (Colossians 4: 15–16). Written records were needed, and there are scholars today who are convinced that at least one Gospel, Mark’s, existed when Paul wrote his letters, and that another one, Luke’s, may have been known to him in his later years….And if we abandon the implausibly late dates commonly suggested for the publication of the Gospels and accept the date of AD 40 suggested for Mark’s Gospel by the Jewish classical philologist Guenther Zuntz, or the mid to late forties preferred by other philologists and historians, we can see how soon this Jewish messianic document could have reached synagogal libraries throughout the Roman empire. It looks as though it even reached the library of the orthodox messianic movement of the Essenes at Qumran, where, according to a group of Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, a fragment of Mark’s Gospel was found in Cave Seven. The people who collected these writings did it for a purpose. They wanted to read, study, compare and make up their own minds about the ways of God and his Messiah with his people.” (Carsten Peter Thiede, Jesus? Man Or Myth? 85-105, 378-408 (Kindle Edition); Oxford, England; Lion Books)

The archaeological evidence demonstrates that the Gospels were indeed written within a few years of Jesus’ death.

Oral Society

Blomberg does make an excellent point that even if the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death, this would not reflect on the accuracy of these Books. Consider the following chart (from Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics, 307; Kindle Edition; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

In another work, Bloomberg elaborates on this dimension of the oral nature of Jewish society:

“What is important from all of these studies, however flexible the tradition could at times become, is what a far cry we are from the original form-critical model of largely uncontrolled tradition. Thus when Bart Ehrman likens the transmission of the Jesus-tradition to the children’s game of ‘telephone’ in which a whispered message is quickly distorted as it is passed from one child to the next, 39 he has chosen an utterly inappropriate and irrelevant analogy to what would actually have gone on among first-century Christians! 40 Instead, the studies surveyed in this section have been suggesting as a working hypothesis that there is every reason to believe that many of the sayings and actions of Jesus would have been very carefully safeguarded in the first decades of the church’s history, not so slavishly as to hamper freedom to paraphrase, explain, abbreviate and rearrange, but faithfully enough to produce reliable accounts of those facets of Christ’s ministry selected for preservation.” (Craig L. Bloomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 61-62 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Academic)

Jones concludes:

“Here’s the primary problem that I find in the critics’ claims: they forget what people in oral cultures could remember. You and I live in a written culture. That is to say that if we need to remember a certain truth or task, we write it down. High levels of literacy and easy access to writing materials turn all sorts of items—napkins and notepads, tabletops and palms, maybe even the margins of this book—into targets for our thoughts. The results of this cultural shift go beyond the marked-up margins of this book, however. It has resulted in what one historian has called “the dethronement of memory.”21 To recall crucial truths, we no longer rely primarily on our capacity to remember; we depend on written words supplemented by pictures….So, their culture remained an oral culture—a culture where persons received and passed on truths in oral form. Teachers used rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and alliteration to imprint instructions on their students’ minds, telling and retelling truths until the vital content could be recalled at a moment’s notice. When especially significant events occurred, communities rapidly preserved the essential content in pithy oral histories.23 Whenever discussions of teaching methods emerged among the Jewish rabbis, it is clear how highly they valued the capacity to pass on oral traditions and histories. Here’s how one first-century Jewish author described the process: “Instruction proceeds in a leisurely manner; he lingers over it and spins it out with repetitions, thus permanently imprinting the thoughts in the souls of the hearers.”24 A rabbi named Perida was said to have repeated every teaching four hundred times. If a pupil still failed to comprehend the teaching or to remember the essential content, Rabbi Perida reiterated the teaching another four hundred times.25 As a Jewish teacher with a band of disciples, Jesus would have been expected to train His followers to preserve His teachings. In such a context, John Dominic Crossan’s claim about the collective recollections of early Christians—“the oral memory of his first audiences could have retained, at best, only the striking image, the startling analogy, the forceful conjunction . . . the plot summary of a parable”—is simply false. Jesus was a first-century Jewish teacher; as such, His first followers would have learned and preserved His teachings with a high degree of accuracy.” (Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies And The Cross: How To Intelligently Counter The Ten Most Popular Theories That Attack The Gospel Of Jesus, 1883-1902 (Kindle Edition); Lake Mary, Florida; Front Line)

For many reasons, we can trust the early dating and reliability of the Gospels. Even if they had written decades after Jesus’ death, this would not reflect on their reliability due to the oral nature of Jewish society.

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