Dating the New Testament
I try to briefly summarize a case for the whole New Testament being early (before A.D. 70), answer some objections, point to some books for further study, and apply this to our lives.
17 Dec -21 Dec. A.D. 2010.
I claim the whole New Testament was written within 42 years of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since men who knew the truth were alive, we can trust it; historians depend on people who saw things. But let’s go beyond men like Immanuel Velikovsky and Werner Keller who may have denied or ignored God while believing men saw what the Bible said; the point is to believe in Jesus Christ to have life through his name. The devil knows the Bible is true, but it does not affect his lifestyle.
“42 years” begins with Jesus’s resurrection at A.D. 28, or 30, or 33, or so–30 makes a nice round number–and ends when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70. Others have said the New Testament was written by then, but a majority wrongly claim it’˜s later, so let’s look at the books, think about church life and history in those days, decide for ourselves, and live accordingly.
Jesus ascended to Heaven and sent us the Holy Ghost. Jews and converts to Judaism, pilgrims from the whole region, were converted into followers of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost and after. (Liberal friends, wait a minute, and I’ll do a version for you.) Some pilgrims would’ve had to go home within a few months. They would’ve needed information about Jesus to take home with them; bluntly, they needed a “gospel.” So Matthew wrote his gospel (at least a first version) within a few months, and it went all over the Roman Empire and the near east, becoming the most popular of the four gospels in terms of number of ancient manuscripts (hand-copied; printing was 1400+ years later). Does this make sense?
Furthermore, Jesus had prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple: read Matthew 24/Mark 13/Luke 21. And neither Matthew, nor Mark, nor Luke, all of whom show interest in the fulfillment of prophecy, say Jerusalem was destroyed. So they were written before it was destroyed. They all say Jesus predicted his death and resurrection, and that it happened; so they’re all interested not just in the fulfillment of OT prophecy but in things happening that Jesus said would happen. Peter’s denial, Judas’s
betrayal, and the sending of the Holy Ghost are other examples.
I promised a liberal version. (We fundamentalists can skip this paragraph if we so choose. Liberals, please rethink your worldview: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken”–Saint Oliver Cromwell the great.) Jesus was a Palestinian Jew, eh? Possibly “A Marginal Jew,” but that’s what he was and where he lived. He had brains, charisma and purpose, enough to make an impression, or we’d have forgotten him. He had followers. After he died, his movement continued, and people from distant regions became followers too; Jerusalem was a place where Jewish pilgrims came. Follow me so far? They would’ve had to go home, and they would’ve wanted some account of Jesus. This demand would’ve arisen within at most a few years, likely enough months, from the disappearance of Jesus. (My friend Jim Jordan thinks the Jerusalem church would’ve been needing one by Pentecost evening, since Jesus was a new Moses. If you liberals prefer a few years, maybe they could’ve waited that long to meet the demand, though I think it would’˜ve begun to be felt sooner, within weeks at most.) It would’ve been, at that point, a rather Jewish demand. Matthew is the most obviously Jewish of the gospels: “Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
Furthermore, the traditional Matthew, the tax collector, would’ve known how to read, and would’ve had money. He might have collected Old Testament scrolls from direct piety; he might have collected them due to being despised as a sinner and feeling his guilt. (Henry VIII and King John, not famous for their holiness, took an interest in theology.) We’re looking for a very early follower of Jesus who could read and write and who could’ve had OT sources at hand? We’ve got a candidate. Matthew and Luke, you say, built upon Mark, but since, you say, they had their own sources, ideas, and agendas, they felt free to add, delete, and modify. Since all three mention the call of Matthew/Levi the tax collector, they constitute more than one witness, though perhaps not a full-blown three. (Mathematics recognizes not just one and two and three dimensions, but partial dimensions.)
Back to what the Bible says. Luke is followed by Acts, and Acts ends around A. D. 62. Even Harnack the liberal became convinced this meant Luke/Acts was written by the early A.D. 60s.
So Matthew and Luke were written by A.D. 70. What about Mark? Some say Mark is so badly written, compared to Matthew, that Mark must have been written first. Yeah, right. Fletcher Pratt’s history of the Civil War must be the latest, for nobody since has written better–more accurately and comprehensively, maybe (MacPherson is pretty good), but not better. And Louis Berkhof must have written his “Systematic Theology” after his “Manual of Christian Doctrine,” for the Theology is nothing special in style but the Manual has no style at all. (In case my sarcasm is not clear, Pratt wrote more than 50 years ago and Berkhof condensed his Manual from his big book.) In these cases we know the facts. So we need not speculate the reverse for Matthew and Mark, eh?
So much for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. What about John? Well, after Jesus raised Lazarus, the Jewish rulers plotted against Jesus, and High Priest Caiphas said, Better for one man to die than the whole nation. And John (or his editor, for our liberal friends) commented, Caiphas was prophesying that one man would die for the people. Now if Jerusalem had been destroyed when John wrote–if Caiphas’s policy had totally backfired–the editor would have had more explaining to do. Since the editor said one man had died to save the nation, he was editing before Jerusalem fell. And the editor did say more: he said Jesus died not just for Jews but for Gentiles. (John 11:49-52, loosely paraphrased). As an excuse for the fall of Jerusalem despite Caiphas’˜s policy, this is pretty lame; but it does sound as if the Gospel was reaching Gentiles when John wrote. So John wrote, including his editorial comments, before A.D. 70, though not before, say, Paul’s first two or three missionary journeys. (I suppose after John went to Heaven, or jail, his friends may have added John 21:24, but that wouldn’t have taken them long.)
Even liberals tend to believe Paul wrote Romans, I and II Corinthians, and Galatians, so I won’t discuss those. Note that the resurrection of Jesus, as a factor for our lives here on earth not just as some spiritual going to Heaven when we die, is found in these undisputed books. My brother fundamentalists, do our lives here and now line up with Jesus’˜s resurrection and its meaning according to Paul? My liberal friends, if your Jesus stayed dead, is he really the Jesus of history?
Ephesians and Colossians are like Matthew and Mark: was one revised from the other? I’d rather say that, whichever was first, Paul and his team may’ve used some of what was in the first as they wrote the second for its somewhat different people and situation. Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon liberals tend to credit to Paul. (Since Caesar Nero had Paul martyred–again, most agree about this–anything Paul wrote must’ve been before A.D. 68, when Nero murdered himself.)
Liberals dispute II Thessalonians, I and II Timothy, and Titus, but since Paul’s name is on them, and conservatives have ably defended their Pauline authorship, and at least one moderate liberal, John A. T. Robinson in “Redating the New Testament” (a book which, though liberal, agrees with the claim of this paper, and contains quite a bit of careful Bible study) ascribes them to Paul and his team, I won’t discuss them further.
Hebrews? II Peter says Paul wrote a letter to Jews, to Hebrews; so I’ll put Hebrews under Paul. Hebrews throughout refers to the Jewish system with its sacrifices and priests as ongoing, rather than defunct, so put it before A.D. 70. Also, since the point of Hebrews is to argue that we should follow Jesus rather than various excellent things in the Jewish system, the Roman destruction of the Jewish system would’ve helped make this point if it had happened. Rather, “That which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13)–but it hadn’t yet.
James. Sounds like a sermon based on Matthew. Probably early, especially if its author was the James martyred by Herod (Acts 12). Sounds Jewish, another indication of earlyness (“Earliness,” says my spell check, but I think “earlyness” is clearer.) No reason to put James after A.D. 70.
I and II Peter. Nero martyred Peter before Jerusalem fell, so Peter wrote before that. Doctor Peter Leithart in “The Promise of His Appearing” has written a very clear, convincing little book arguing this for II Peter, which is perhaps the most doubted (by our liberal friends) book of the New Testament.
I, II and III John. I John. Very little to go on here, but notice the atmosphere of crisis: “Even now there are many antichrists” (!) I argued above that John wrote his gospel before Jerusalem fell; I will argue the same for Revelation. So why put 1-2-3 John any later? We know the church faced crises is the A.D. 60s/early 70s: the first great Roman persecution under Nero, and the destruction of Jerusalem. Since Revelation (below) and John’s gospel (above) were written before A.D. 70, same with his letters, eh?
Jude. Jude and II Peter are like Mt/Mk and Eph/Col: which was first? (John A T Robinson thinks Peter’s secretary interrupted writing II Peter to write Jude.) Connected to II Peter, so date it about the same.
Revelation. Kenneth Gentry’s books “Before Jerusalem Fell” or (shorter) “The Beast of Revelation” prove, say I, that Revelation was written before A.D. 70. They prove it. Revelation itself indicates this (“internal evidence”), and early Christian writers (“external evidence”), carefully considered, indicate the same. (A liberal wrote: I’m not a fundamentalist like Gentry, but Gentry does seem to have looked at the external evidence more carefully than anyone else has.)
Consider. Jesus and his first followers were Jews, and Christianity started as a branch of Judaism. The destruction of the Temple/priesthood/sacrifices system, which had been God’s true religion for about 1500 years, would have been horribly traumatic for them, as the vicious murder of both your parents–or their execution as terrorists–would be for you. Jesus loving His Church would’ve done well to prepare Her for this awful shock; and He did prepare her.
Consider again. In most of the New Testament, the Jews of those days, more than Romans, stirred up persecution for the Church. Pilate had to be talked into crucifying Jesus, and Paul appealed to Caesar for protection from the chief priests. Whatever Nero’s persecution of the church was like–and it was bad enough to draw the notice of the pagan historian Tacitus 40 years later–it was the first great Roman persecution, coming from Caesar himself. This, too, would’ve been a great shock for which Jesus would’ve done well to prepare his dear church–and he did prepare her.
OBJECTIONS and other comments
The above set out reasons for dating the New Testament books before A.D. 70. Now to answer some objections and make application.
Hey! We know God doesn’t work miracles and doesn’t foretell the future, so we know stories about miracles must’ve been written down long after the events described hadn’t happened, and we know prophecies about, say, the destruction of Jerusalem must’ve been written down after it had happened, so we know the gospels, especially, were written after A.D. 70 rather than before.
Answer: you may not have seen miracles (or you may not believe: atheist B. F. Skinner had experienced a remarkable answer to prayer that he chose to ignore), but if one miracle has ever happened, then a worldview which totally denies miracles is wrong as a complete view of everything, however many non-miracles it does account for. So consider, with an open mind on the topic, which worldview is correct: the no-miracles-at-all worldview or the some-miracles worldview? The God-says-and-does-nothing worldview, or the God-we-can-know worldview? The claim that miracles and prophecy within the NT narrative (the story it tells) prove the narrative to be late is not knowledge on the factual level; it is a presupposition on the theoretical level. So consider the alternative presupposition. (OK, you can make it more complicated than those two alternatives, but consider at least those two.)
And since my wife and her mother have each experienced at least one miracle–my wife was healed of headaches at a Carmen concert, and her mother alone in a car and dozing off at the wheel saw a strong arm steer her around a semi–and I had, if not a prophecy, at least a notion at the A.D. 2007 Biblical Horizons conference that the next BH conference I attended I’d attend with a pregnant wife, and so it came to pass in A.D. 2010–and since Jim Rutz and Jack Deere have written good books on God doing things and talking to people these days–I think facts disprove the no-miracles-at-all worldview, and I beg those of you who hold it to reconsider. And, of course, since God talks and does things, the NT need not be later than A.D. 70, and we must all repent of our sins.
Hey, your complaints about the Jews under Revelation are anti-semitic! Answer: to murder a Jew or a Gentile is murder, to steal from a Jew or Gentile is stealing, etc; but the Jewish prophets of Israel from Moses to Jesus, indeed from Jacob to Paul, dearly loved Israel and yet insisted she must repent of her sins. So to criticize Israel with a view to turning her from wrong to right is pro-Semitic. Was Paul anti-Christian when he wrote to churches to shape up? Jews who become Christians are more than welcome to be Jewish Christians, circumcising their sons, celebrating Passover, and so on; but he who loves Jews tells them to become Christian so they can go to Heaven instead of Hell when they die and participate in the resurrection of life instead of the resurrection of damnation when Jesus comes back. Also, what Jews 2000 years ago did to Paul or Jesus does not impose guilt on modern Jews; let each be judged for his own sin, as Ezekiel the prophet said. The modern country of Israel, though an excellent country compared to most of its neighbors,
is not without sin, and is not a country of Christians.
Hey, you’re so simplistic and naÃ¯ve! Answer: there are more trees in the forest than I have time to look at, but if I see the forest I know where the trees are. This short summary tries to teach something, and anyone who wants a more sophisticated version is more than welcome to pursue one. Not all of us are called to read lots of thick books with hundreds of footnotes. God prosper you if you are.
Hey, your interpretation of Revelation shows you are no fundamentalist! Answer: the classic five fundamentals are: Is the Bible inerrant? I answer yes. Was the mother of Jesus a virgin, at least when He was born? I answer yes (read “The Virgin Birth of Christ” by J. Gresham Machen.) Did Christ die for our sins? Yes (I Cor 15:3-4). Did he rise bodily from the dead, emptying his tomb? Yes (ditto, or read “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” 800 pages by N. T. Wright, modern and scholarly. OK, just read the relevant chapters in “The Challenge of Jesus” or “Surprised by Hope,” also by Wright, much shorter books.) Is He coming back? Yes, Matthew 25:31-46, John 5:28-29, etc. On those five points I’m a fundamentalist, and I choose to stand with my rather despised brothers. Granted, I’m postmil or optimistic amil rather than premil–I think the 2nd coming of Jesus will be rather simpler than in some theories, and I expect the gospel to prevail worldwide before he comes back–and I apply more of the NT to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70 than most fundamentalists do, so you might want to call me a four-and-a-half point fundie rather than a five, but I’ll take the label. I do expect His return. If you want to call me an evangelical that’s fine with me too.
Hey, you’re an atheist like Warner Keller and William Barclay, explaining how and why men wrote the Bible instead of the Holy Ghost inspiring it! Answer: No, I have affirmed that God talks and does things, both in New Testament times and today, unlike Keller and Barclay who seem to say that the things described in the Bible really happened but were not, or mostly not, miracles done by God Himself. As for the Bible, I believe God inspired it, and dictated some of it, but it itself says God used a variety of methods–“Biblical Theology” by Geerhardus Vos has something on the variety of ways God spoke to the prophets–so if God in His providence caused men to write (exactly) what He wanted them to write, however much or little they knew he was inspiring them, He did indeed inspire them and what is written is what He wanted written, as if He had dictated it, or indeed written it down Himself. I fully affirm the “inerrancy” point of fundamentalism (with whatever sophistication may be necessary for any particular discussion.)
Finally here. Trust the Bible because Jesus did; trust the New Testament because it was written when and by whom it was written by. Feel free to consider other views: but where else can we find such love as that Jesus Christ voluntarily died to take care of the bad things we have done, and of the badness that made us do them? Where else can we find such power as in his resurrection, defeating death itself? Where else can we find the Almighty Creator empathizing with us by experience, including experience of the worst of human life–being tortured and slaughtered for crimes of which he (Jesus) was innocent? These things are true. Knowing when the New Testament was written helps us to be sure they are true. So let us trust God–not just the Bible, but triune Jehovah Himself–and live accordingly, repenting of our sins and ‘˜putting on Christ.’
Bibliography–books for further study if you wish
Redating the New Testament, by John A. T. Robinson. Liberal, but puts the whole NT before A.D. 70, and includes quite a bit of careful Bible study. Some differences in details from my position above: Revelation a wee bit later, and he thinks Mt/Mk/Lk kept revising from each other for 20 years or so.
Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke by John Wenham. Evangelical. Puts all three before A.D. 70, though Matthew not as early as I. Some details, not complete, on Mk condensing Mt and Luke expanding Mk.
Before Jerusalem Fell, by Kenneth Gentry. (Revelation) Evangelical and proves its case, putting Revelation before A.D. 70, during Nero’s reign. “The Beast of Revelation” is shorter but also proves the case. Perhaps Gentry’s briefest statement is the chapter summaries in his “House Divided.” I think all three may be available online: try www.garynorth.com/freebooks.
The Promise of His Appearing — by Peter Leithart. (II Peter) Evangelical. Proves its point, and thereby makes sense of 2nd Peter; some liberal, dating 2nd Peter later, claimed it was a confused mess that could say anything, but Leithart makes it clear (though he does not expound or apply much on topics other than the date and main topic of the book.)
William Hendrickson gives good detailed commentaries on most of Paul’s letters, ascribing them to Paul within Paul’s lifetime. (On Revelation and perhaps John, Hendrickson puts a late date.)
Warner Keller, The Bible as History. German? historian or theologian? Don’t bother. Affirms that what the Bible says happened happened, e.g. hitting a Sinai rock brought forth water, but tries to give non-miraculous explanations. Even modern liberals, I understand, have abandoned this approach.
Immanuel Velikovsky. Similar to Keller. On ancient history I think his books are worth reading. On astronomy (“Worlds in Collision”) and prehistory (“Earth in Upheaval”) not so much.
William Barclay. Liberal Scottish preacher. Non-miraculous for the most part. Perhaps not totally worthless, but for the New Testament I’d read N. T “Tom” Wright’s New Testament for Everyone series at a plain level, and detailed commentaries if necessary.
“A Marginal Jew” Title of a scholarly book, or series, about Jesus. I’ve glanced at it but not read it. Lots of details. More believing than some modern liberals.
Jim Rutz’s book “Megashift” and Jack Deere’s books “Surprised by the Power of the Spirit” and “Surprised by the Voice of God” make the case for miracles and prophecy today. (Gentry in other books denies this, saying miracles and prophecy ceased when the apostles died, and many evangelicals and fundamentalists take this position. As long as they believe in the resurrection of Jesus, which they do, they’re still Christians.) Of course, anyone who read I Corinthians 13 and 14 should know miracles and prophecy do not guarantee perfection or anything close to it. As I like to say, Jesus is normal; the rest of us are weird. Follow Him.