Dating and Authorship of the Gospels – Mark and Luke

When discussing the use of the Bible as a historical source, or the primary source for knowledge about early Christianity, or its Apostolic origins, there is often much debate about who wrote the Gospels, and when. The Christian often assigns an early date and agrees with the traditional authors, while the sceptic often assigns a late date and says that we have no idea who wrote the texts. The sceptic will then use this fact in an argument for why we should not accept Christianity, either because we don’t really know anything about the early Christians, or because the texts lie about their origins, etc. Here, I intend to lay out systematically some arguments to assign an early date and traditional authors to the Gospels.

(I will also include Acts in Luke, and refer to Luke and Acts together as “Luke”, since Acts is written by the same person as Luke, and certainly written a short time after Luke.)

The order of the sections may seem a bit odd, but I think it better shows the flow of my argument, and the dependence that exists between the various facts here. We will only concern ourselves here with Mark and Luke, Matthew and John will come later.

Mark was not late

Much of the analysis of the Gospels depends on their inter-relationships. That is, if we know that Mark was first, and we know that Mark was after 70, then we know that the other Gospels must be some time after 70. And so the whole framework of the sceptical dating system really depends on one or two key arguments. But we can not only refute these one or two, we can also establish one or two key arguments from the other direction, and propose an earlier timing for each Gospel based on their inter-relationships.

The primary argument for a late Mark, a Mark written after 70, is the inclusion of Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple. As these scholars argue, Jesus can’t have known that the temple would soon be destroyed, so this prophecy is the work of a later author, writing after the event, inserting the prophecy into Jesus’ ministry.

In most circumstances, I would be on board with the methodological naturalism employed here. If you made the same argument regarding the text outside the context of a religious debate, I would accept it. However here, it is often circular. If we are going to make the assumption that Jesus is incapable of prophecy, conclude late Gospels, and then use that conclusion in an argument against Christianity, then that argument is a circular argument, as it includes the premise “Jesus is incapable of prophecy”.

Given our context of debating the truth or falsehood of Christianity, it seems most reasonable to not make this assumption of Jesus’ inability to prophecy. That assumption is simply the assumption that Christianity is false, and such assumptions are not useful to us when we are trying to determine whether Christianity actually is true. You can’t make an argument that Christianity is false if you assume as a premise that Christianity is false. Therefore in this context, we ought not use this argument for a late date of Mark.

And indeed, there are no other serious arguments for a late date of Mark. There are some very speculative arguments which I will discuss, but this is certainly the main one.

One of these speculative arguments is the argument that the legion of demons in Mark 5 would only be comprehensible to readers of Mark after the war in 70, because before this time the Roman military in the area was not legionary. I think this is a very poor argument for several reasons. First, it assumes that Mark was written to Judeans, not people more familiar with Roman legions. Second, it assumes that the Judeans would not be familiar with the concept of a “legion”, which I think is absurd. Roman legions had existed for centuries by this point, were the pride of the Roman nation, and had been instrumental in dozens of battles and wars. To say that the Judeans would have no idea what a “legion” is is absurd. In fact, it may make even more sense here, if they had only heard rumours of the legendary “legion”, an unparalleled military force, the demon’s use of this word would be far more intimidating.

Luke was not late

If we have no good reason to believe Mark was late, then we have one fewer reason to push the composition of Luke out to the end of the first century as many scholars do. However there are other arguments for a late Luke, and I would like to deal with those.

One such argument is the claim that the author of Luke used Josephus as a source, and that since Josephus only wrote by about 90 AD, Luke must be at least this late. There is only one real possible case where this happened: the references to Theudas and Judas in Acts 5 and Josephus’ Antiquities 20:97-99, 102. However Josephus and Luke do not agree precisely on the dates, so either they are referring to different events, or if Luke used Josephus as a source he didn’t trust Josephus’ timelime. In that case, why use him at all? And why are there not more similarities? Importantly, why did Luke not include an account of the martyrdom of James found in Josephus? James is very significant in Acts 15, if Luke knew of James’ martyrdom, it would certainly have been included. More on that later.

Luke was early

If Luke really was written by Luke, Paul’s travelling companion, then Luke and Acts must have been written during Luke’s lifetime. This makes a date as late as the end of the first century or the start of the second century unlikely. We do not know exactly when Luke died, but it is unlikely he lived that long.

However, this is my main argument: if Luke knew about the deaths of James, Peter, or Paul, he would have certainly included them. The persecution and martyrdom of Christians is a central theme of Acts, and Peter, Paul and James are central figures of Acts. And indeed, their deaths are some of the most significant events in first-century Christian history, outside the life of Jesus Himself. It is absurd to suggest that the meticulous Luke, concerned with persecution, concerned with the lives of Peter, Paul and James, and concerned with Christian history in general, would omit these events. Neither would it omit the more general persecution of Nero, or the destruction of the Temple (surely he would include that in order to validate Jesus’ prophecy).

James was martyred in 62, and the latest event recorded in Acts is in 62, so I think we can pretty accurately date acts to around 62: after the last recorded event, before the news of James had reached Luke.

Consider also the account of the events of Paul’s last missionary journey that Luke records. Unlike the earlier events from many years before this point, this journey is described in great detail. The details described are often somewhat irrelevant to the theological point that Luke is attempting to make, and seem to be included simply because they are true.

This phenomenon has been explained by critical scholars as the author of Luke, writing in the late first or early second centuries, adapting some previously written work and incorporating it into his. However, there is no reason to believe this other than their presupposition that Luke was not an eyewitness and Acts was written late. There is no change in the kind of language, no change in the themes of the work, nothing in the text that would indicate that it was another work incorporated into Luke. Instead the natural conclusion here is that Luke spends time on these events because they had just happened, and describes them in detail because he was there. Which leads us to…

Luke was written by Luke

This was the universal position of the early church, as far back as we have sources. And indeed, this is the testimony of the work of Acts itself. We know at what point in the narrative Luke joins Paul on his journey, and this is the same point at which the language switches from “they went” to “we went”. 

Of course many scholars dispute the “we” passages, since as Luke must have been written late, these cannot be genuinely written by a travelling companion of Paul. But I think their arguments are not very good. There seems to be no real textual evidence that the “we” passages are forgeries as Ehrman claims, or a stylistic choice that doesn’t indicate Lukan authorship as other scholars claim. Their claims are mere suggestions, without any textual evidence to support them. 

One such argument is given not on the basis of textual evidence, but on the basis of “irreconcilable” differences between how Luke presents Paul and how Paul presents himself in his epistles. However these differences are quite tiny, and Luke’s representation of Paul is compatible with Paul’s own description of himself in his epistles. 

There is more positive evidence of Luke being the author. The author was clearly someone very familiar with technical medical terminology, due to the technical medical terminology that appears several times throughout these works. The author was also familiar with the geography of first century Judea, therefore someone who likely had first hand knowledge of the area.

Mark was early

We have gone one direction and refuted some arguments for a late Mark. We should now go the other direction, and produce some arguments for an early Mark. The strongest argument is the date of Luke: if I am right and Luke was finished by 62 then Mark must have been completed some time earlier, since it seems like Mark drew on Luke.

Some other arguments include Mark’s use of Latinisms. Mark uses many Latin terms which he expects the reader to be familiar with. These show a certain affinity for Rome, rather than hostility, but we’d expect hostility towards Rome if the great persecution had begun, if Paul and Peter or even James had been executed etc. This along with the dating of Luke places Mark certainly before 64.

Some scholars have used the existence of these latinisms indicates that Mark is writing after the war in 70, when Roman occupation had caused the Judeans to become more familiar with these Roman concepts. However some scholars suggest an alternative: if Mark was written for a Roman audience while Peter was in Rome, as the early sources claim, then it makes perfect sense for Mark to include these Latinisms. Peter seems to have been in Rome in 42, so this suggests an early date for us.

Just how early was it? I think a compelling argument can be made that Mark was written in the late 30s or early 40s. I will not go into all of these arguments, as I think it is sufficient to push Mark earlier by pushing Luke earlier. But for anyone who wants to examine more arguments, these are good. Another similar argument is given for a date of 45, which is also worth investigating. Once we dispense with the prophecy argument, there are good reasons to put it as early as 40, and that is where I will place it also.

This early date does raise a question: why did Paul not make any mention of Mark in his epistles? I think the answer is simply: he didn’t need to. Paul rested on his authority as an Apostle in his writings, and had no need to cite a work written by a non-Apostle to justify himself, even if Mark contains Jesus’ words.

Conclusion

We have very briefly examined some of the reasons why Luke and Mark are dated to be quite late, and shown these reasons to not be good ones. We have also very briefly given some positive reasons for early dates of Mark and Luke, and traditional authorship of Luke. These arguments have, to the best of my ability, been based on objective reasoning which assumes neither the truth nor falsehood of Christianity, and simply engages with the historical evidence.

Further Reading:

Acts 17: Paul’s Apologetic Methodology

My church is currently preaching through Acts, and the week before last we covered Acts 17. I think this is quite an important passage for aspiring apologists, as we are given a record of how Paul engaged with pagan philosophers in the preaching of the Gospel. Clearly what’s given to us is a summary of his time in the aeropagus, and I think it is worthwhile spending some time “filling in the gaps” so to speak: trying to reconstruct some of the flow of his no doubt detailed and nuanced argument from the summary that the Spirit has delivered to us via Luke.

Here is the section in question, Acts 17:22-31:

So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

Here are the stages of argumentation and rhetoric that I see present here:

  1. Altar to an unknown god. Paul appeals to the place of God in their own worldview. In a sense, they already know there is a God.
  2. Paul proclaims that there is a God who created and sustains all things, something like a cosmological argument (which had already been invented and used)
  3. Paul proclaims that God created all people specifically, and appeals to existing Greek belief here
  4. Paul argues that it cannot be any of the Greek Gods that did this. If God created us, then we cannot create temples and idols for that God.
  5. This belief was unknown, but now God is doing something new, and calling all to repent and believe
  6. God will judge all those who refuse and all those who sin via one Man
  7. God proves Himself through the resurrection of this Man

 

Calvin’s commentaries are helpful here. Calvin rightly points out that quoting scripture at the Greeks would be useless, since they do not accept it. Instead, Paul proves the nature of God through natural theology, through reasoning about the world and about God. To all those who say that this is not a valid apologetic methodology, it seems that Paul does make use of it here. This is the second time we’ve seen Paul do something like this, he also does so in Romans 1.

In fact, two of Paul’s primary arguments are also two of my primary arguments. First, proving via reason that there is a creator God who desires worship. This is precisely what we do with the various cosmological arguments we deploy. Second, appealing to the resurrection of Jesus to demonstrate that God is in some way connected with Christ. Paul uses it to demonstrate that it is via Christ that God will judge the world. Today, we use it to demonstrate that Christianity is the correct monotheistic practice, since cosmological arguments could equally demonstrate the truth of other monotheistic practices. But Paul shows us that the use of the resurrection as an apologetic argument is valid.

There is of course far more in this passage here that the modern apologist can learn from. I just wanted to point out the use of these two arguments, and encourage us to think carefully about Paul has engaged in his apologetics.

 

Biblical Justification for Classical Arguments

Since I am Reformed, I have often been criticised for my use of classical apologetics such as Cosmological Arguments on the basis that it has an unbiblical anthropology. The presuppositionalist claims that we shouldn’t grant the ground to the atheist that they can use reason, since reason is grounded in God and depends on God. Under their worldview, there is no God, so there is no justification for why they can use reason.

Further, claims the presuppositionalist, by doing this we allow man to sit in judgement over God. Man gets to weigh the evidence, and then use their reason (for which they depend on God) to judge whether God is God or not, whether God exists or not. But in reality, God is the judge, and we have no authority over Him.

I think there is some merit to this, but I do not think this disqualifies classical arguments. And indeed, I think there is biblical precedent for these arguments and a place for them in apologetic practice.

First and most obviously, we appeal to Romans 1. Here is the section I have in mind (please read the context yourself):

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

Why are men without excuse? Because knowledge of God was freely available to them: His eternal power and divine nature are displayed in creation. But they did not approve of having God in their knowledge, so they suppress the truth and their foolish hearts were darkened.

This affirms what cosmological arguments claim: that we can look at the world, and reason about it, and deduce that there is a God. This also applies to fine-tuning arguments. Paul affirms that this kind of reasoning (though not individual arguments, just the kind of reasoning) is valid, and in fact, people are morally guilty for failing to accept the conclusions of this kind of reasoning.

Now the presuppositionalist claims that yes, this is the case. But their foolish hearts were darkened, and they cannot see this any longer, as they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The only thing that can undarken their hearts is God regenerating them, the hearing of the Gospel, and faith in God.

I agree. And I think that no apologetic encounter is complete without the Gospel, and in fact, the proclamation of the Gospel must always be central. Don’t get me wrong, if you walk up to someone, run them through the LCA, and leave, you’ve done them basically no good.

But I don’t think that means that cosmological arguments do no good. Part of the proclamation of the Gospel is that there is a God, there is a Designer and a Judge, and we have failed to live up to His standards. And if we must justify that claim, we will, and we will use cosmological arguments as part of that justification.

And of course, no-one will listen unless God regenerates their heart. But if God does regenerate their heart, as is His prerogative, then cosmological arguments which demonstrate to their mind the truth of God can be an effective part of Gospel witness. And if He doesn’t, then they expose inconsistency. More on that later.

The second main point I want to make is this. The presuppositionalist says that the atheist has no ground for using reason without appealing to God, no reason to believe that reason is reliable apart from God. I want to point out that that is precisely the same way cosmological arguments proceed, but in reverse. The presuppositionalist claims “Reason is reliable only if God exists”, and the classical apologist claims “If reason is reliable, God exists”. These two statements are logically equivalent. For we assume reason and conclude God, so reason entails God. And so when the atheist says they can use reason but have no God, then if the classical arguments are sound, we can say that they are inconsistent.

And notice that no matter which path we take, classical or presuppositional, we must appeal to reason at some point. If we do present a convincing argument that reason is grounded in God, the atheist must use reason to accept the argument. We both assume they are able to reason, even if they don’t have a sufficient ground for it.

Now it is true that discussions cosmological arguments can often get lost in what we might call meaningless minutia, and we lose our focus on God. But I submit that not only is this true for any kind of argument, but also that it isn’t a huge problem. While every conversation we have must have Christ at the centre, not every sentence needs to. Clearly, in negative apologetics, we know this, when we respond to a supposed contradiction in the Old Testament we normally don’t talk much about Christ in that particular subpoint.<

We also see from Paul at Mars Hill that it is valid to in a sense “enter into” someone else’s worldview in order to preach the Gospel. Paul begins his evangelistic and apologetic work at Mars Hill by appealing to a god the Athenians worshipped, the unknown God. He identifies this god with God, claiming that this God created the universe and everything in it. He then quotes parts of some works describing Zeus and attributes them to God. Paul enters into their worldview to make a point, to demonstrate the truth of God inside their worldview. Because of course, we know that any worldview without God is inconsistent. So if we enter their worldview and pretend that it is consistent, we ought to be able to prove God exists. This is what cosmological arguments do: let’s enter into the atheistic worldview, pretend that we can reason, and deduce that God exists.

But as we saw above, the dark-hearted fools who are unregenerate won’t accept it. More often than not, they admit they have no response to the argument, but retreat to “Well sure maybe God exists. But if He does, He is a moral monster and is evil and I would never worship Him.” And this is the appropriate place to quote Romans 9: “And who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”. We affirm, like our concerned presuppositionalist does above, that God is the judge and we are not. We point out their pride and wrong-headedness in sitting in judgement over God.

They pretend their disagreement with God is intellectual, not moral. But we know from our study of Romans 1 that it is indeed moral. Cut away their intellectual pretence, and they are forced to admit the truth. This is where we cut to the heart: man placing Himself above God. And if God grants them a regenerated heart to see this and repent, then they can turn and be saved.

This is why I think cosmological arguments, and other classical arguments, are valuable. Never do they comprise the entirety of our apologetic preaching or methodology, but they are valuable components. Paul affirms their soundness in Romans and applies a similar methodology (to Pagans rather than atheists) at Mars Hill. Not the only valuable arguments, but good ones to have in our bag when the need arises.