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.
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.