In a book published earlier this year entitled “Jesus Before the Gospels,” agnostic scholar Bart D. Ehrman argues that the gospels are not accurate because human memory is too fallible.
Jesus was crucified in 30 AD and, according to Ehrman, the first gospel to be written down, Mark, was not written until around 70 AD. Hence, there was a period of about 40 years, or two generations, when the stories about Jesus of Nazareth were transmitted orally. During this period of oral transmission, Ehrman argues, many of the facts about Jesus’ life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection were forgotten, misremembered, added to, or altered for ideological reasons.
But was there really a gap of 40 years between Jesus’ death and the writing of the first gospel? When were the gospels written?
I hope, in the future, to respond more fully to the arguments Ehrman levels against the reliability of oral transmission of the gospel stories, but for now I will explore the evidence that the gospels were written before 70 AD.
The Significance of 70 AD
First, we should explore why 70 AD is such a crucial chronological marker. All three synoptic gospels mention Jesus’ prophecy that Herod’s Temple would be destroyed (Mat. 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6), yet none of the gospels mentions the dramatic fulfillment of that prophecy.
Herod’s Temple was the greatest architectural marvel of its day. It was constructed of snow white marble, decorated with gold leaf in various places, and the entire outer front wall was covered with blindingly brilliant gold plating:
Now the outward face of the temple . . . was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white. (Josephus, Jewish Wars, Book 5, chapter 5, number 6)
Jesus mentions the gold of the temple in Mat. 23:16-17: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?”
This astonishingly beautiful structure redounded to the glory of Rome, if part of Rome’s domain. So Titus, when he besieged Jerusalem to crush the Jewish Revolt, wanted to preserve the temple if at all possible. Titus begged the Jews not fight in its precincts, and also had Josephus make an appeal to the Jews, promising to preserve the temple if they would peacefully leave it. But the Jewish zealots forced his hand. The temple grounds had an outer courtyard and a divided inner courtyard; each of these three areas was very impressively walled, and thus separately defensible. The zealots occupied the whole area and defended it so tenaciously that a great many Romans were killed trying to take it.
Titus ordered that the gates to the courtyard be set afire to gain entry to the courtyard. (Josephus, Jewish Wars, 6.4.1) He still wanted to preserve the temple itself, but a Roman soldier set it ablaze against orders. Immediately upon hearing this, Titus gave an order to extinguish the flames, but his legions were maddened by the long siege and the continued fanatical resistance from the inner courtyard; as Josephus sadly reports, “he was not able to contain the fury of his soldiers.” (Jewish Wars, 6.4.7. See also, White, Great Controversy, 32-34) The temple burned, and 10,000 Jews were slaughtered in its precincts. (Jewish Wars, 6.5.1)
After capturing the remainder of the city, Titus ordered the destruction of what was left of the temple, such that “not one stone was left upon another.” (Jewish Wars, 7.1.1) Only the massive foundation platform, the result of expanding and squaring off the temple mount, remained. One of the platform’s huge retaining walls, known as “the wailing wall,” is sacred to Jews to this day.
The destruction of the temple was an epochal catastrophe for the Jewish nation, comparable only to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. And yet there is no mention of it in the gospels, despite the fact that it was a most dramatic fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy.
The gospel writers were not shy about pointing out fulfilled prophecy (Luke 24:44-8; Mark 15:34 [quoting Psalm 22]; Mark 14:27 [quoting Zech. 13:7]). Matthew, whose gospel was directed toward the Jews, was careful to note many fulfilled Messianic prophecies from the Old Testament (Mat. 1:22; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54-56; 27:9-10, 57-60).
Surely, if any of the synoptic gospels had been reduced to writing after the destruction of the temple, that gospel would have mentioned the fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy. So 70 AD marks an upper limit on the dating of the three synoptic gospels.
70 AD a Triple Fulfillment of Prophecy
The events surrounding 70 AD were a triple fulfillment of prophecy.
First, Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple: “Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” (Mat. 24:2; Luke 21:5-6). That prophecy was dramatically fulfilled in 70 AD.
Second, Jesus predicted that before Herod’s Temple should be destroyed, the Christians would face persecution. “Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers.” (Mat. 24:9) Jesus was saying that some of his followers would not live to see the destruction of the temple, because they would be martyred in prior persecutions. As we will discuss below, James the brother of John (and son of Zebedee), James the brother of Jesus, Peter and Paul were all martyred before 70 AD. This is a second fulfillment of prophecy.
Third, Jesus said that when Jerusalem was surrounded by armies, the Christians should flee: “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city.” (Luke 21:21-22)
But how were the Christians to flee Jerusalem if it was surrounded by armies? The Jewish Revolt began in 66 AD. Soon after the start of the revolt, a large Roman army under Gaius Cestius Gallus invaded Judea and surrounded Jerusalem. But after a siege of only 9 days, and for reasons that remain obscure, Cestius Gallus retreated to the coast. The rebels followed him and dealt him a serious mauling at Beth Horon; 6,000 Romans were killed and the Twelfth Legion’s eagle was lost. Ellen White tells that, because they knew Jesus’ prophecy, the Christians left Jerusalem after the zealots left to chase Gallus to the coast. As a result, not one Christian died in Jerusalem when the siege was resumed by Titus some three years later. (GC, p. 30)
I would argue that even the first part of this triple fulfillment, Gallus’ lifting of the siege, was a dramatic enough fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that it certainly would have been included in the gospels, and pushes the writing of the gospels back to 66 AD, or before.
Acts was Written in 62 AD, After the Gospel of Luke
The Book of Acts was written after the Gospel of Luke by the same author, the physician Luke (Acts 1:1-2):
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
So Luke’s gospel was his “former book,” a book already written when he began to write the book of Acts. Hence, if we can determine when Acts was written, that is an upper limit on the dating of the Gospel of Luke.
The history of the early church related in Acts makes no mention of the martyrdom of several of the most important apostles, including James the brother of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, even though Dr. Luke discusses these men at length in several passages. He does record the martyrdom of James the brother of John (Acts 12:1-3), so it is surprising that he does not record the martyrdom of Peter, Paul, and James the brother of Jesus. Hence, we can reasonably conclude that Acts was written before these events occurred.
Unanimous church tradition places the martyrdom of Peter and Paul at Rome, during Nero’s reign and persecution. Nero was emperor from 54 to 68 AD, but his persecution of Christians intensified in 64, after the Great Fire of Rome, which Nero falsely blamed on the Christians. Church tradition places Peter’s death in 64 AD, and holds that he was crucified upside down at his own request. A modern archeologist has suggested that this took place on October 13, 64 AD, at the celebration of Nero’s first decade as emperor. Paul was a Roman citizen and could not be tortured or executed in a way that, like crucifixion, involved torture. He was beheaded sometime after Peter’s martyrdom, probably in 67 AD.
But James, the brother of Jesus, who presided over the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15, was martyred even earlier. According to several sources, including Josephus, James was martyred in Jerusalem in 62 AD. So based upon the omission of the martyrdoms of James, Peter, and Paul, we would date the writing of Acts at about 62 AD.
We can confirm this date by an independent method. The last chronological marker in Acts is when Porcius Festus replaced Felix as procurator of Judea (Acts 24:27). Based upon a coin issued in Festus’ name in the fifth year of Nero’s reign as emperor, we believe this change was effected in 59 AD. Acts tells that Paul left Caesarea for Rome very soon after Festus took over as procurator, but the voyage took several months, including three months wintering on Malta (Acts. 28:11). The last thing mentioned in Acts is that Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years (Acts 28:30-31). So if Paul left Caesarea in 59, arrived in Rome in 60, and spent two years under house arrest, his arrest ended in 62. And since this is the very last event noted in the book, Luke probably wrote it in 62 AD.
So we know that the Gospel of Luke, which was written before Acts, was written before 62 AD.
Luke Quoted by Paul in First Timothy
The dating of Luke as being from the early sixties, at the latest, is confirmed by the fact that Paul quotes Luke in his first letter to Timothy, Chapter 5, verse 18. In stating that the elders who rule well should be compensated, Paul notes that:
“Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’”
The bit about muzzling the ox is from Deuteronomy 25:4, but in the second part, the worker being worthy of wages, Paul is quoting Christ, as per the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, verse 7. Now, obviously, Paul could not have quoted a passage of Scripture that had not yet been written. And not only had Luke’s gospel been written, it was well known. And not only was it well known, it had been accepted as “Scripture” on a par with Deuteronomy, which is part of the law of Moses, the Pentateuch.
When did Paul write First Timothy? Most conservative scholars believe that First Timothy was written after Paul’s house arrest in Rome (60-62) but before his final imprisonment, ca. 66 AD. By this time, Luke’s gospel had not only been written, it had become “Scripture.”
Luke Quoted in First Corinthians
But another Pauline epistle pushes Luke back much further in time. Compare this passage:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:
And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.”
After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, “this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” 1 Cor. 11:23-25
To this one:
And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.”
Likewise, also the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” Luke 22:19-20
Paul is clearly quoting from the Gospel of Luke in his letter to the Corinthians. Luke’s gospel is the only one that says, “This do in remembrance of me.” Matthew and Mark do not include that phrase in their gospels (Mat. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25).
Paul also appears to be referring to a written gospel, or gospels, when he says:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures . . .” (1 Cor. 15:3-4)
Here Paul is referring to a gospel story regarding the death, burial and resurrection of Christ that was written down and had become “Scripture” before Paul wrote First Corinthians.
When did Paul write First Corinthians? The consensus among conservative scholars is that First Corinthians was written circa 53-56 AD. So now we know that Luke must have been written before 56 AD, possibly before 53 AD, just 23 years after the death of Christ. Who was still alive then? According to Paul, most of the 500 witnesses to the Resurrection:
. . . that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
But let us assume, just for purposes of argument, that Luke was not written until long after AD 70. Let’s assume that both Paul and Luke quoted from an oral tradition about the communion supper—“this do in remembrance of me”—dating from 30 AD, that had been passed from person to person until Paul quoted it ca. 53-56 AD and Luke quoted it some years after 70 AD. Was anything important about this oral tradition lost? Was anything misremembered? Was anything intentionally altered for ideological reasons?
Assuming Ehrman is correct about when the gospels were written, what does this say about the accuracy of oral transmission? Is oral transmission as frail as Ehrman would have us believe?
Matthew and Mark Predate Luke
So we have now pushed the writing of the Gospel of Luke back before 56 AD—and perhaps even before 53 AD, depending upon when First Corinthians was written.
The issue of priority and order among the three synoptic gospels is a thorny question addressed in many scholarly tomes. And although it is by no means unanimous, most conservative scholars believe that Luke was written after Matthew and Mark. Luke seems to be quoting liberally from both Mark (350 verses) and Matthew (250 verses), which obviously indicates that Matthew and Mark were already written when Luke wrote his gospel.
If Luke was written by 53 AD, that means that Matthew and Mark were written even earlier, probably around 50, or even in the 40s. Thus, it is very reasonable to believe that Matthew and Mark were both written less than 20 years—less than one generation—after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in 30 AD. How reasonable is it to suppose that the gospel message became hopelessly garbled and inaccurate in such a short period of oral transmission?