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There’s No Good Reason to Deny the Early Dating of the Gospels

Not long ago, Daniel Wallace (no relationship to me, except that all us Wallace’s claim to descend from William) posted some great news about an early fragment of the Book of Romans that was recently discovered. This fragment dates to the early third century which puts it in rare company. It contains Romans 9:18–21 and small portions of Romans 10. Wallace made news a few years back when he mentioned an early fragment of the Gospel of Mark that has yet to be published. The fragment of Mark is said to be as early as the first century.

dating gospels

I had the great pleasure of visiting with Dan Wallace at an event where we got the chance to examine a number of very ancient manuscript fragments. Some of these were Biblical fragments; some of these were non-Biblical ancient documents. We were the first people to examine the documents in nearly two thousand years. By the end of the day it was clear to me that there are literally thousands of fragments of ancient texts still out there to be discovered and examined. We have only touched the tip of the iceberg and as our ability to find and examine these fragments continues to improve, we’ll surely discover much more evidence that the New Testament was written very early and transmitted faithfully.

In fact, this is the focus of my book, Cold Case Christianity. I’ve been studying this issue from the perspective of a detective for some time now and I’ve written about the evidence for early dating and about the reliable transmission of the documents at ColdCaseChristianity.com.  If the New Testament eyewitness accounts were written as early as the evidence infers, many of the objections of skeptics are impotent. Early manuscripts mean that the original witnesses to the life of Jesus were (1) available to write the documents we now have, and (2) early observers of Jesus’ life would have been available to deny the testimony of the gospel authors. The continuing discovery of early fragments of New Testament documents corroborates this early dating.

When visiting with Dan Wallace, Greg Koukl and I asked him about the skepticism on the part of people like Bart Ehrman related to early dating. We asked Wallace if there was some specific manuscript evidence that inclined people to deny the early dating of the Gospel accounts. Wallace said there was no such evidence. We then asked why people continued to deny the early dating if, in fact, we were continuing to find early fragments and there was no contrary manuscript evidence. It turns out that the late dating of the gospels is due primarily to a denial of supernaturalism.

One of the primary reasons why skeptics date the gospels later than 70AD is the fact that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple in the gospel accounts (i.e. Matthew 23). Secular history records that the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, fulfilling this alleged prediction by Jesus. In order to avoid the accurate prophecy from Jesus, skeptics argue that the gospel must have been written after the temple was destroyed. After all, how could Jesus possess the supernatural power of prophecy if nothing supernatural exists? The philosophical naturalism of the secular historian prevents him from accepting the possibility of accurate prophecy.

The gospels also contain many descriptions of miracles. The philosophical naturalist must also deny the truthfulness of these supernatural accounts. Skeptics, therefore, date the gospel accounts very late, arguing that eyewitnesses to these events were already dead and unavailable to deny the claims. It turns out that the presupposition of philosophical naturalism is at work in the minds of those who would deny the early dating of the gospels. When this presuppositional bias is removed, the remaining evidence confirms that the gospels were written in the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, and God’s Crime Scene.

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Why Didn’t Luke Include The Deaths Of Paul, Peter and James In The Books Of Acts?

In my book, Cold Case Christianity, I attempt to evaluate the gospel accounts with the same criteria used by jurors to assess the reliability of eyewitnesses in a criminal case. In California, jurors are encouraged to ask themselves, “How well could the witness see, hear, or otherwise perceive the things about which the witness testified?” In essence, jurors must determine whether or not a witness was even present and able to see what it is they say they saw! For those of us who are examining the gospel accounts, this means we’ve got to answer the simple question, “Were the gospel written early enough to have been written by people who were actually present for the life and ministry of Jesus?” This is a critical question in evaluating the reliability of the New Testament gospels, and I think the Books of Acts is the key to the answer.

I make a much more elaborate and cumulative case for the early dating of the gospels in Cold Case Christianity, but a portion of this case revolves around Luke’s omission of three important deaths in the Book of Acts: the deaths of Paul, Peter and James. A recent listener to the Stand to Reason “Please Convince Me” Podcast recently wrote: “Firstly, perhaps such historical events were simply beyond the scope of the author of Acts? It has been suggested that the author may have been aware of the aforementioned events, but he chose instead to end his account thematically with the Gospel finally reaching the heart of Gentile civilization, Rome… Is it really viable to suggest that these possibilities are less reasonable than the early dating hypothesis?” One of the evidences in the Book of Acts that makes the omission of Paul, Peter and James’ death so powerful is the inclusion of two other deaths in the narrative: the deaths of Stephen and James, the brother of John:

Acts 7:58-60
When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of da young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 12:1-2
Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.

As important as Stephen and James, the brother of John, were to the early Church, it can hardly be argued that Paul, Peter and James, the three most important Christian leaders of the first century and the primary characters of the Book of Acts narrative, would not be considered important enough to describe their deaths. Is it possible (viable) that Luke “may have been aware of the aforementioned events, but chose instead to end his account thematically with the Gospel finally reaching the heart of Gentile civilization, Rome?” Of course it’s possible, because anything and everything is possible. But it’s not reasonable. And as I’ve described in my book, the difference between what’s possible and what’s reasonable is critically important to jurors. Jurors are instructed that they are not to spend time “speculating” in their jury deliberation about what’s possible, but to consider instead what is reasonable in light of the evidence. The inclusion of the deaths of Stephen and James (the brother of John), make the exclusion of the deaths of Paul, Peter and James (the brother of Jesus) powerful evidences for the early dating of Luke’s work. The most reasonable inference from the omission of these deaths is that Luke wrote his narrative prior to their occurrence.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianityand God’s Crime Scene.

Comment or Subscribe to J. Warner’s Daily Email