The Search For The Historical Jesus: The Gospel According to Whom? (Part II)

The New Testament: Its Apostolic Foundations & the Significance of 70

The answer to the question of the “historical Jesus” is intricately tied to the question of the New Testament. The bulk of our knowledge about the person of Jesus comes from the New Testament; for this reason, the New Testament must become the principal object of analysis to answer the more fundamental question: who was Jesus of Nazareth?

God chose to communicate with mankind in human language, which by necessity is deeply shaded by the personality, culture, and time of each sacred author. The sacred authors inevitably wrote as people of their own time for their own time while communicating the truths that God wished to be written. Accordingly throughout history any attempt to understand and learn these truths has required that the Church “journey back” to the world of the sacred authors to truly understand Sacred Scripture.

The challenge in recent centuries has been taken up by biblical scholars. The most common scientific method of biblical study is the “historical-critical method,” which as its name suggests, is particularly attentive to the historical development of the biblical texts and the traditions behind them across the passage of time. Despite the fact that the method in question is freely practiced in exegesis, even by Catholic scholars, the methodology is itself called into question by a number of scholars and religious faithful who judge the method deficient from the point of view of faith. Critics argue that scientific exegesis has provoked widespread confusion and doubt upon numerous points hitherto accepted without difficulty and it because of this that both scholars and the faithful have been encouraged to adopt positions contrary to the faith of the Church on matters of great importance, from the virginal conception of Jesus, His divinity, miracles, the doctrine of the resurrection, the roles of men and women, human sexuality, etc.

Scientific exegesis, it is argued, even when it avoids negative points has led to an environment that is sterile to progress in the Christian life. In other words, the Bible far from being an open source to God’s self-revelation has now become a closed book, confined to the historical time period of its production with contents that have been radically called into question. Interpretation of Sacred Scripture may always have been something of a problem, but now it requires such technical refinements as to render it a domain reserved for scholars alone.

To some degree the critical position is one of hyperbole. But it is unmistakably clear that the field of biblical scholarship fails to fully reflect the vision of the Church.[1] This is occasionally true even of Catholic scholarship. Often the principal methodology, as it is practiced, naturally contradicts orthodox Christianity and obscures the figure of Jesus. Undoubtedly the historical critical method properly understood is an indispensable tool to the Christian faith. However, the tendencies of biblical scholars often can do quite a disservice not only to Christianity but to the academic community. This is not to say that biblical scholarship has not made an enormous contribution to Christianity or academia; the vice versa is most certainly true.

The most obvious example of this critique rests with the “historical Jesus” and the New Testament. The portrait of Jesus of Nazareth that one subscribes to is heavily influenced by one’s (historical) reading of the New Testament, which, fundamentally rests upon one’s reconstruction of the chronology and development of Christianity. This historical reconstruction, to make matters more complicated, is necessarily derived from the New Testament itself. Therefore the question of when the New Testament canon was written is paramount, as dating is intrinsic to the question of chronology—which, as aforementioned, is crucial to the question of the historicity of the New Testament which is critical in answering the question of the “historical Jesus.”

It must be asked then, when was the New Testament written? The answer remains unclear despite the emergent scholarly consensus that would lead one to falsely assume this question has been resolved.

In the field of archaeology, historical dates agreed upon by scholars and written in books can unexpectedly appear less assured than even the largest consensus might imply. This is true as well of the chronology of the New Testament where one deals with a grab-bag of absolute and relative dates. The number of “fixed points”— indisputable historical dates—are awfully in short supply and between these few known “points” are a great number of events to be accounted for, strung together like beads on a string placed relatively around the absolute dates according to guesstimated required time-lapses—which are highly subjective—to account for diffusion of oral preaching throughout Palestine and into the Gentile world, presumed literary dependence of one biblical author on another, transmission, and theological and ecclesial development. The unearthing of new absolute dates would demand a re-examination of all relative dates and consequently the intervals of time might expand or contract. In the process, as with any other scientific discipline, enduring assumptions might become less secure as prevalent schemes and patterns taken for granted by the experts become subject to radical questioning.

Such an academic challenge occurred in 1949 following the radio-carbon revolution which permitted, for the first time, absolute dating of prehistoric materials.  A second revolution followed in the 1960s with the calibration of the dates confirmed by radio-carbon dating, which did not see a shift backward or forward of all the dates, but a fundamental change in the pattern of relationship of the events in question. The parallel is edifying because it goes without saying that the chronology of the New Testament, as the scholarly community has largely presented it, rests on many presumptions rather than facts. Historically speaking, objective facts are particularly scarce. Therefore, one must ask, on what foundation does so-called “critical orthodoxy” base many of its assumptions? Some are valid, most certainly. But are they all? Question some of the integral assumptions and the entire theoretical edifice will appear all the more doubtful.

Looking backward in history, by the early 1800s, historical criticism of the New Testament, or any of the Bible, had not quite begun. The traditional methodology of dating the New Testament was contingent on the question of authorship. Each of the writings found in the New Testament were attributed to an apostle or a disciple of one of the apostles.  The New Testament period was seen to have closed with the death of St. John the Apostle who according to Christian tradition survived into the reign of Emperor Trajan which began c. 98. The other end, the beginning period, was calculated to roughly AD 50, by closely following the history of the early church supplied by Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul in Gal 1:13-21, which eludes to either fourteen (or seventeen, if the ‘three years’ and ‘fourteen years’  mentioned are not concurrent) “silent” years  following St. Paul’s conversion some years after the crucifixion of Jesus around the year 30. Thus the span of time for the composition of the New Testament, traditionally speaking, is roughly fifty years (AD 50-100).

By the middle of the nineteenth century different portraits began to appear in the academic world. Ferdinand Christian Baur, a German theologian and professor of church history at the University of Tübingen was amongst the chief leaders in this movement. In fact, the Tübingen School was at the height of its influence in the 1840s. Baur considered 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians as authentically Pauline and the Book of Revelation was attributed to the Apostle John—he set these in the 50s (Paul) and the late 60s (John). The rest of the New Testament he dated up to or beyond AD 150. Baur dates the books such believing there to be evidence in the New Testament of a persistent conflict between the “conservative” Jewish Christianity of Jesus’ original disciples and the so-called universalist Hellenistic Christianity of St. Paul and this divergence, he argued, did not conclude until some time in the mid-to-late second century.

At the turn of the century, Baur’s thesis had markedly been reworked.  Later critics noted (1) 1 Clement, which is generally accepted as authentic and commonly dated c. 95-6, and (2) the seven epistles of St. Ignatius written sometime in the first decade of the second century and (3) generally, the familiarity of second century Church Fathers with many works of the New Testament either through direct quotation or indirect references.  St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius, two of the earliest, both celebrate Sts. Peter and Paul in the same sentence without the slightest hint of tension. This demanded serious reconsideration of emphasis on the supposed conflict between Jewish and Hellenistic “Christianities,” which seemed mostly settled by the time of their writing. The reasoning of Baur to project the writing of the New Testament far into the second century because of this very alleged quarrel became unwarranted.

Later Adolf von Harnack, a German scholar published his own survey, which has never been repeated (except once) on so comprehensive a scale, dating all the early Christian literature, canonical and apocrypha. He concluded (list only includes canonical books):

  • 1,2 Thessalonians (AD 48-9)
  • 1,2 Corinthians, Galatians (AD 53)
  • Romans (AD 53-4)
  • Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians  (AD 57-9)
  • Pauline fragments of the Pastoral Epistles (c. 59-64)
  • Mark (c. 65-70)
  • Matthew (AD 70-5)
  • Luke-Acts (AD 79-93)
  • John, 1-3 John (AD 80-110)
  • 1 Peter, Hebrews (AD 81-96)
  • Revelation (AD 93-6)
  • 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (AD 90-110)
  • Jude (AD 100-30)
  • James (AD 120-40)
  • 2 Peter (AD 160-75)

Although there is not absolute agreement, the common dates of contempoary scholarship are fairly represented by Werner Georg Kümmel[2]:

  • 1,2 Thessalonians (AD 50-1)
  • 1,2 Corinthians, Galatians, Phillipians, Romans (AD 53-6)
  • Romans (AD 53-4)
  • Colossians, Philemon (AD 56-8)
  • Mark (c. 65-70)
  • Matthew (AD 80-100)
  • Luke-Acts (AD 70-90)
  • Hebrews (AD 80-90, with some advocating for a decade earlier)
  • Ephesians (AD 80-100, with some conservatives placed it c. 61-3)
  • 1 Peter, Revelation (AD 90-5, some date Revelation c. 68).
  • John (AD 90-100)
  • 1-3 John (AD 90-110)
  • James (c. -100 with some pushing as far back as the 120s)
  • Jude (c. 100)
  • 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (AD 100+ whereas a minority might put it around AD 65-80)
  • 2 Peter (AD 125-50)

By the 1950s (when Kümmel collected his dates) the gap between the more liberal (cf. some of the very late dates given by Harnack) and conservative scholars narrowed with a surprising degree of consensus emerging. The span of composition is generally agreed to be from about AD 50-110+ with debate primarily over disputed epistles, e.g. the Pastoral Epistles of Paul and the Catholic Epistles of Peter, John, James, and Jude, and the wandering star Ephesians which conservatives put earlier and liberals later.

The undertaking of dating is complex and there are serious problems with the current methodology. First, it must be established that there are three major schools in contemporary biblical criticism:

  • Redaction criticism – regards the author of the text as editor (redactor) of his source material and focuses on how the redactor has shaped and molded the narrative to express his theological goals.
  • Source criticism – deals with documentary origins and attempts to determine the sourced used to create the final text.
  • Form criticism – analyzes the formative process of the oral tradition into writing

The redaction critic together with the source and form critics emphasize the role of the Evangelist as an editor of written and/or oral materials. There is no reason to dispute this point, but there is reason to question why this fact demands late dates.

A casual survey of several scholars will affirm the point that a large number, but not all, biblical critics have a certain view of the history of Christian origins[3] which affects their dating of the New Testament. This view of the historical development of Christianity might be described this way:

  1. ‘Palestinian Jewish Christianity’ – shortly after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, there was a “Jesus movement” that was a sect within Judaism that believed that Jesus was the Messiah, a prophet, or a great rabbi. Judaism was a religion of theological diversity and this Jesus sect was no different than any other sect—the Pharisees, Sadduccees, Zealots, Essenes, etc.
  2. ‘Gentile Mission’ Jewish Christianity – the “Jesus movement” as it grew embraced, to the chagrin of some (cf. the Council of Jerusalem) a “Gentile mission” to include pagan followers of the teachings of Jesus (often called “God-fearers”). As the Gentile church grew tension shaded their relationship with Jewish Christians.
  3. ‘Gentile Christianity’ – the career and life of St. Paul marks the beginning of what might be called Christianity. Contrary to the primitive life of the “Jesus movement,” Paul preached a universalist message and began to theologize the person of Jesus creating a wholly new theological system that appears contrary to the strict and narrow vision of Jewish Christianity and contrary to the belief of the early “Jesus movement,” particularly by way of belief in the divinity of Jesus.
  4. ‘The Period Post-70’ – the twenty five or so years following the fall of Jerusalem, in which, the majority of the New Testament writings are said to have been written, the previously mere-‘sect’ has become the ‘church’ and is well on its way to becoming an ‘institution’—something wholly and categorically different than Judaism. The collapse of institutionalized Judaism incentivized great faction-fighting between Jews and Christians, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians culminating in an alleged formal ban of Christians from synagogue worship c. 85 as attested to by the Gospel of John.
  5. ‘Emergent catholicism’ – no longer operating under a Jewish mentality of coexistence in the midst of various theological sects within one religious tradition, the church becomes an organized institution, particularly after the rise of gnosticizing docetic and Montanist heresies in the early second century. This shift includes a move toward ecclesial structure and hierarchy, doctrines, more developed theologies of Christ, emphasis on orthodoxy, and a more distinguished religion broken away from Judaism.

Such described “periods” represent a speculative construct of the historical evolution of Christianity based on the data of the New Testament text analyzed in its historical setting. It remains (quite obviously) the entire developmental scheme in conjunction with the time it is assumed to require looks as if it is imposed on the biblical text as was the case of Baur and the Tübingen School.  Obviously any hypothetical schemas can hardly suffice as an objective standard to determine the dates of New Testament books since the history of development imagined is tentative and relative.

In regard to the matter of dating, one virtually must look in vain in contemporary scholarship for any serious engagement of external and internal evidence to date the New Testament opposed to working from a priori commitment to some pattern, or tidy scheme, of historical development in which each New Testament book is made to fit—into whichever period the text seems to reflect best. What is more curious is that scholars who evince this very tendency do not bother to substantially explain why, say, 1-3 John reflects the early period of ‘early catholicism’ or 2 Peter (post-AD 125 on most reckonings) the middle strand of that same period? Might these scholars explain how 1 Clement (commonly dated to AD 95-6) can demonstrate concern for apostolic succession[4] or Ignatius’ in the next decade or so can plea for Christian unity around a monarchial-like bishop[5] which in many ways is a quintessential concentration of ‘emergent catholicism’ with the rise of an ecclesial body and episcopacy, while the same scholars date canonical books that mention none of these things in such developed fashion, e.g. 2 Peter and occasionally the Pastoral letters of St. Paul, to the status of a contemporary writing or blatantly after both Clement and Ignatius’ writing? This does not begin to convince.

Sadly for much of the last century, if not before, form critics have uncritically assumed the basic solutions of the source critics particularly in regard to the so-called synoptic problem; the redaction criticis have, in turn, assumed the work of the form critics. The New Testament for quite some time has not been subject to a fresh re-examination. No one since Harnack (with one exception to my knowledge) has gone back to look at the early Christian literature for its own sake without taking upon assumptions and solutions drawn up by others. It is when one faces this glaring fact that the foundation of the common solutions and “dogmas” of “critical orthodoxy” began to look unconvincing—call into question a major thesis and the entire edifice the pattern is built upon begins to falter. This is applicable to the academic battleground over the Gospel of John. An article[6] featured in TIME Magazine captured the growing disapproval of treatment of John by the mainstream of scholars:

An oral tradition of Hebrew and Aramaic underlying the Greek of the written Gospels made it necessary to use rough and often clumsy Greek equivalents for Semitic concepts. Hence, the treasury of scroll literature is enabling scholars to achieve new insight into the meaning of many passages. For example, the question of what the angels sang in their well-known announcement of Jesus’ birth has long bothered biblical scholars. “And on earth peace, good will toward men,” says the King James version, and the Catholic Douay Bible has it “peace to men of good will.” Now in the scrolls the idiom is found in its original form: “good will to men of [God’s] favor,” i.e., the elect in the apocalyptic age.

The Essene scrolls are closer in feeling and language to the Gospel of John than to any other part of the New Testament. And words that seem almost like a paraphrase of John’s famous Prologue occur in the Rule of the Community: “And by His knowledge, everything has been brought into being. And everything that is, He established by His purpose; and apart from Him nothing is done.” Professor William F. Albright of Johns Hopkins has pointed out that many phrases are duplicated in both, and in both the dualistic coupling of opposites recurs again and again—light and darkness, truth and error, spirit and flesh, death and life. The parallels and similarities are, in fact, so numerous and conclusive that they seriously challenge the theory that the Gospel of John was the latest to be written and that it shows marked Greek influence. Instead, many modern scholars now view John as thoroughly Jewish and his Gospel perhaps the earliest of the four.

The question as to why John is dated so late is not taken seriously amongst scholars who insist on Hellenistic influences and a suspected reference to a formal ban of Christians from the synagogue liturgy in c. 85, which must indicate that John is written after that point. If either of these two points can be argued against and there surely are good reasons to think they can be, what should prevent the conclusion that John with its striking linguistic and wisdom-tradition parallels to the Dead Sea Scrolls does not belong to a period of Palestine prior to the Jewish revolt of AD 66?

Yet the Gospel of John cannot be re-dated without raising a litany of questions in regard to the development of Christianity and the New Testament, particularly the Johannine relationship to the Synoptics and how these stand in relationship to the canonical epistles. In other words, one cannot simply make a case without disrupting the commonly held pattern of development.

It would appear, by this very example, that the insecurity of the far from certain picture drawn by contemporary scholarship necessitates a second glance. The argument of William F. Albright, John A.T. Robinson, John Wenham, and others, basically ignored and not taken seriously in the scholarly community deserves the occasion to be promulgated and evaluated objectively. Quite arguably, the case put forth by these brilliant thinkers illuminates the greater point of this series and it is for this reason (and the fact that I am undogmatically convinced of their argument) their case will be made as the avenue of making that very point.

John A.T. Robinson in particular revisited the dates of the New Testament (the only person since Harnack to do so independently) to argue jokingly that the entire canon had been written prior to AD 70 from a reduction ad absurdum viewpoint. Yet in the midst of the experiment he became convinced of his position, criticized the exegetical criticism of his colleagues, and placed the entire canon earlier than the most conservative scholars ever had despite the fact Robinson himself unmistakably subscribed to theological liberalism.

It is most reasonable to conclude with Robinson that it is odd, if not downright incredible, that on all counts the most historically datable, dramatic and violent event of the first-century—the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 and with it, the collapse of institutionalized Judaism centered upon the temple—is never mentioned as a past fact in the New Testament, even when certain present-day circumstances are alluded to elsewhere. The Gospels seem to allude to this event in the form of prophecy and the prevalent judgment is to assume that these predictions were written up after the fact. Yet it remains the overall silence is remarkable and essentially bears little difference in peculiarity that one might discern if, say, the entire publication of the New York Times on September 12, 2001 failed to make any reference to the terrorist attacks the previous day. This analogy fits well with the New Testament scenario.

One might expect

…that an event like the fall of Jerusalem would have dinted some of the literature of the primitive church, almost as the victor at Salamis has marked the Persae. It might be supposed that such an epoch-making crisis would even furnish criteria for determining the dates of some of the NT writings. As a matter of fact, the catastrophe is practically ignored in the extant Christian literature of the first century.[7]

Anglican priest and theologian, Charles Moule makes a similar remark:

It is hard to believe that a Judaistic type of Christianity which had itself been closely involved in the cataclysm of the years leading up to AD 70 would not have shown the scars—or, alternatively, would not have made capital out of the signal evidence that they, and not non-Christian Judaism, were the true Israel. But in fact our traditions are silent.[8]

Quite expectedly, elaborate explanations have been given for this silence. The simplest explanation, if not the most obvious, is that perhaps little, if any, of the New Testament is later than AD 70.

In regard to the prophecies of the Synoptics, a distinction is often made between the evidence of Mark and that of Matthew and Luke. This is largely due to the presumption of Markan priority and a considerable number of scholars willing to date Mark just prior to the Jewish revolt of 66. Whatever their sequence, it has no bearing on the fact that any or all three could have been written before or after the fall of Jerusalem.

Mark 13:1-37 is a discourse between Jesus and his disciples about the perilous fate of Jerusalem and His own Second Coming. The question when this all would happen (v.4) is never answered and there is no further reference to the destruction of the temple. A number of critics concede that this discourse could be (it need not be) an artificial construction, a literary strategy, typical of Mark comprised of private inquiry by an inner group of disciples[9] to shed light on contemporary interests of the Church with Jesus’ teaching.

The lack of correlation with the initial question about Jerusalem’s fate and Jesus’ answer might suggest that the discourse is not being written post-70 when the fate of Jerusalem is dreadfully clear. The only subsequent reference to the temple in the discourse is only by implication[10]. The later-mentioned “abomination of desolation” does not seem to refer to the destruction of the temple sanctuary in August 70 or the desecration of it by means of pagan sacrifices at the hands of Titus’ soldiers, for by AD 70 anyone in Judea wishing to “take to the hills” was perilously behind schedule for a timely escape, as their very escape route (the hills) had been under enemy occupation since the end of 67.[11]

In fact, the only historical source for what Christians actually did (or were told to) is St. Eusebius[12]. Christians were advised before the war to depart from the city, not by the mountains as is Mark’s instruction, but rather to Pella, a Greek city that lay below sea level on the east side of the Jordan valley. If this account is trustworthy, Mark’s prophecy is complicated all the more by way of bizarre instructions that would have inevitably led Christians into enemy hands and contradict what is said to have been the course of escape.

It is more credible if Mark 13 is a reflection of the archetypal Jewish resistance to the desecration of the temple-sanctuary by an idolatrous image under Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 168-7 B.C. This was “the abomination of desolation” (1 Macc 1:54) referred to by the prophet Daniel (9:27 ; 11:31; 12:11) and it was in response to this and of the local enforcement of pagan rites that Mattathias and his sons “took to the heels, leaving all their belongings in the town,” (1 Macc 2:28; cf. 1 Macc 2:6-12). Mark 13 makes such use of Daniel it is inconceivable that what is regularly associated with the “abomination of desolation,” mainly the termination of daily sacrifices in the temple[13], was not alluded to, or outright stated, if by then the sacrifices had not just ceased because of pagan occupation, but the destruction of the whole temple which makes all sacrifices impossible. Why make reference to a previous historical situation generally, if the temple had been by then literally cremated as it was in August 70?

The generality of Mark’s prophecy needs more emphasis. The Evangelist’s words are not too dissimilar from St. Paul (cf. 2 Thess 2:1-12) ascribing Jewish apocalyptic imagery for the incarnation evil representing Satan in whatever shape he might take at a given time. Mark 13 need not reflect a post-70 situation rather on the contrary. Mark 13 is completely appropriate for Christians as they faced duress and persecution, became vigilant of false prophets, and for some, endured trial before partial Jewish courts and pagan emperors, in an overall reassurance of reward for faithfulness. Needless to say the phrasing had been shaped and accentuated by Christian experience but there is no reason these things, as Bo Ivar Reicke[14] argues, cannot correspond to the period of church history covered by Acts (c. 30-62).

As aforementioned, there is increasing agreement among scholars that Mark 13 does fit better before the destruction of the temple and it is dated around the period before the break of the Jewish War (c. 65). The same deduction has not been granted to Matthew or Luke which are still judged to contain vaticinium ex eventu of AD 70.

In the parable of the marriage feast (Mt 22:1-14), St. Matthew writes:

The rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city (v.6-7).

The parable itself has similar parallels in Luke and the Gospel of Thomas. Yet neither of the other two bears this unique verse, which includes a king and fiery destruction. The most obvious, and pressing, question is whether this addition was written in retrospect from the destruction of Jerusalem. Yet the wording of Matt 22:6-7 reflects a programmed depiction of ancient expeditions of reprisal and an established topos of Near Eastern, Old Testament, and rabbinic literature that makes it quite precarious to infer that it must reflect a particular occurrence. If Mt 22 does reflect the events of 70 one might expect that it make distinctions like other post eventum prophecies, namely, that while the temple perished by fire, the walls of the city were thrown down. A clear ex eventu prophecy is that of the Sibylline Oracles (4:125-7):

And a Roman leader shall come to Syria, who shall burn down Solyma’s [Jerusalem’s] temple with fire, and therewith slay many men, and shall waste the great land of the Jews with its broad way.

It is precise and specific detail, as can be found too in the Epistle of Barnabas, that one does not find in the New Testament. Moreover, the king in Matthew’s parable clearly stands for God. In the war of 66-70, the king who sent his army was Nero, followed by Vespasian. It seems unimaginable that a Christian writing post-70 would identify God with either of these figures, particularly Nero, who sanctioned the brutal killing of Christians particularly the pillars Peter and Paul, the former of which is highly esteemed in Matthew’s gospel. It is clear, however, that the Christians came to see the destruction of Jerusalem as God’s retribution against Israel, regardless of the human agent. Mt 22:7 could reflect 70, on the other hand, it need not.

Similarly, the prophecy of the apocalypse in Mt 24 has no more explicit references than does Mark. In v. 3 the Evangelist notes that no stone will be “left on another” because the entire temple will be “thrown down.” This again is incorrect. The temple was burned down as aforementioned; the walls of the city were “thrown down.” Following this prophecy, the discourse is broadened not to answer just the date of the destruction of the temple but the greater theme of the whole chapter: the Second Coming.

Tell us, when is this going to happen, and what sign will there be of your coming and of the end of the world? (Mt 24:3)

So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. (Mt 24:15-20).

Matthew like Mark does not mention the reference in Daniel to the cessation of the daily sacrifices. If Matthew intended the reader to understand the prediction of events already lying in the past by the time he is allegedly writing, he has certainly given little help—even when he knows what happened! Given other occasions when Matthew appeals to conditions in Jerusalem “to this day” (27:8; 28:15) one would reasonably expect him to draw attention to present devastation to the site, yet no hint is given.

It is also quite extraordinary that in v. 29 the Evangelist says that “immediately (εὐθέως) after the stress of those days…the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven.” Contrary to Mark who made the promise vaguely (“in those days, after that distress”) which left it open to be any time, Matthew is unambiguous. Harnack was so mindful of this fact that he dated Matthew c. 70-5 judging that the Evangelist (on the assumption that the prophecy is written in retrospect) connecting the fall of Jerusalem to the “immediate” coming of the Son of man could not be intelligible unless the Evangelist was writing soon after the events of 70.

This in fact leads to other considerations. Matthew incredibly retains unaltered Jesus’ solemn pronouncement, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place.” This statement is equivalent to that of Mk 9:1. Most notoriously of all, the Evangelist has written: “Before you have gone through all the towns of Israel the Son of Man will have come” (10:23). It is surely incredible, on the usual reckoning, that the Evangelist or even his supposed redactor(s) writing some 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus would include this material with no attempt to explain away or cover up such obviously by then unfulfilled predictions. One might expect modifications to prophecies after the non-event (cf. St. Paul reworking previous statements in 2 Thessalonians regarding the assumption of the imminent return of Christ). It is difficult to see any motive for preserving, let alone inventing, prophecies long after the dust had settled in Judaea, unless it be to present Jesus as a prophet of uncanny accuracy, which the Evangelist has quickly undermined himself in by including manifestly unfulfilled predictions.

St. Luke tackles the matter with the specification we expect but fail to find in Matthew (cf. Luke 19:41-4; 21:20-4). Yet the prophecy of Luke is made up of Old Testament references especially noticeable in the Greek text for v. 43 (cf. Is 29:3; 37:33; Jr 52:4-5; Ezk 4:1-3; 21:26) and for v. 44 (cf. Ps 137:9; Ho 10:14; 14:1; Na 3:10). Luke’s prophecy suggests the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 587 BC as much as, and more than, that of AD 70 of whose distinctive features it says nothing. It cannot be concluded that the destruction of the temple of AD 70 had already taken place by the writing of the Gospel of Luke.

C.H. Dodd makes this precise point:

These operations are no more than regular commonplaces of ancient warfare. In Josephus’ account of the Roman capture of Jerusalem there are some features which are more distinctiove; such as the fantastic faction-fighting which continued all through the siece, the horrors of pestilence and famine (including cannibalism), and finally the conflagration in which the Temple and a large part of the city perished. It is these that caught the imagination of Josephus…nothing is said of them ehre. On the other hand, among all the barbarities which Joseph reports, he does not say that the conquerors dashed children to the ground. [On the contrary, youth under the age of 17 were sold into slavery]…So far as any historical event has colored the picture, it is not Titus’ capture of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, but Nebuchadrezzar’s capture in 586 B.C. There is no single trait of the forecast which cannot be documented directly out of the Old Testament.

Luke has preferred to concentrate on the destruction of the city rather than the temple despite the fact Luke retains with Mark and Matthew the question of the fate of the temple buildings (Lk 21:5-7). There is now a reference to devastation and not simply desecration. Luke replacing Mark’s “abomination of desolation’ with ‘Jerusalem surrounded by armies’ convinced Reicke that Luke is not writing after the event.[15]

There is no indisputable ground for assuming that he is alluding specifically to the Jewish revolt of 66-70, let alone writing after it. None of this in itself decides the issue of when the synoptic gospels, or any of the New Testament, were written. It is safe to conclude with Reicke that is “an amazing example of uncritical dogmatism” that the synoptic gospels should be dated after the Jewish War of 66 because they contain prophecies ex eventu. Indeed on these grounds alone one might reverse the burden of proof. C.C.  Torrey [16]sums up the problem this way:

It is perhaps conceivable that one evangelist writing after the year 70 might fail to allude to the destruction of the temple by the Roman armies…but that three (or four) should thus fail is quite incredible. On the contrary, what is shown is that all four Gospels were written before the year 70. And indeed, there is no evidence of any written later than about the middle of the century. The challenge of scholars to produce such evidence is hereby presented.

Indeed it is surely astonishing that the New Testament authors, many of whom were Jews themselves, if they were writing post-70 largely ignored a historical catastrophe with severe religious, cultural, and political ramifications that forever changed the social landscape and sealed the fate of the remainder of the first century—especially when Josephus tells us that over a million people (the majority being Jews) were killed during the siege with roughly another hundred thousand, including children, being sold into slavery by the same agency that had brutally persecuted Christians with punitive laws and unspeakable violence.  It is difficult to imagine that this reality would not even make an appearance especially in apologetics against the Jews, for the events of AD 70 surely would have echoed the Fall of the Temple centuries earlier during the Babylonian conquest and subsequent exile which the Jews themselves believed to be divine punishment for their failure to be faithful to God. Yet this is strikingly never laid out explicitly or unambiguously in such language that it is impossible to argue that it could have been written prior to the event, which makes its careless to use the events of 70 as a sole, absolute yardstick for dating the gospels. The burden of proof seems to lie on those who insist that the prophecies must be post-70.

Of course the argument from silence cannot itself make a case. In the posts that follow, the pre-70 hypothesis will be put to the test and what this might mean, if valid, for the historical Jesus is undoubtedly significant—not that the historical Jesus or the integrity of Christianity absolutely rests on the hypothesis that the New Testament might have been written early.

November 5, 2009, Feast of Saint Elizabeth, Mother of John the Baptist

[Revisit Post I here.]

[1] Sancta Mater Ecclesia (Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels); Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation).


[2] W.G. Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament

[3] L. Michael White, From Jesus to Christianity (mentioned in Post I) is a prime example of this.

[4]St. Clement of Rome: “Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . .. Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge, they appointed ministers already mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry,” (1 Clement 42:4–5, 44:1–3).

[5] St. Ignatius of Antioch: “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid,” (Smyrna 8:3-5).

[6] TIME Magazine ,“Out of the Desert

[7] James Moffatt, Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament

[8] C.D.F. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament

[9] Mk 4:10; 7:17; 9:28

[10] Mk 13:14-16

[11] G.F. Brandon, New Testament Studies

[12] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History

[13] Dn 8:13; 9:27; 11:31; 12:11

[14] Bo Reicke, ‘Synoptic Prophecies’

[15] ibid. [“If the Gospel of Luke is supposed to have been composed after the historical siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Evangelist must be accused of incredible confusion when he spoke of the flight during that siege, although the Christians were known to have left Judaea some time before the war even began in A.D. 66.”]

[16] C.C. Torrey, The Four Gospels

4 Responses to The Search For The Historical Jesus: The Gospel According to Whom? (Part II)

  1. gmc4jesus says:

    No one has impacted the world as much as Jesus Christ. His life is a subject worthy of everyone’s time. Getting To Know Jesus is a Bible study that looks at every event in Jesus’ life as recorded in the four Gospels. As we look at Jesus historically in the Getting To Know Jesus Bible study series, we also see how His life and teachings apply to our lives today. He is our Lord, Savior and role model.

  2. Eric, I’m mildly surprised that you haven’t cited or alluded to NT Wright’s work… it’s particularly relevant to this discussion. Any particular reason for not including him?

  3. Eric Brown says:

    N.T. Wright was in the original of this piece; he didn’t survive the editing. He, to say the least, is one of the scholars that I think is phenomenal and he highly has influenced my own, less than scholarly, conclusions. He might make an appearance in later posts.

  4. Ah, the editing process… bane of words! 🙂 Glad to hear of your appreciation for Wright’s work… there certainly seemed to be some agreement between your views and his!

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