dating gospels

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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38 replies
  1. Ed Vaessen says:

    “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.”

    Please show a complete gospel text that can be dated back to before 70AD in which he prophecy is made.

    Reply
    • Brian says:

      I’m curious as to why you request something that is currently believed to not exist? In your thinking what must follow if a complete early copy of a gospel does not exist?

      I’m interested because one should apply the same reasoning to all texts for which we do not have a complete copy. For example, we don’t have a complete copy – or any copy for that matter – of the Gettysburg address that Lincoln supposedly gave. What we have now are several versions, based on supposed first-person recollections. These versions contain a number of textual variants. Though while I do not doubt that Abraham Lincoln actually lived and probably gave a talk at Gettysburg, I am skeptical as to what he actually said because we don’t have a copy of what he actually said. I think some aspects were added later in order to make this address more important than it actually was. I don’t have any evidence to support my claim, I just don’t like republicans, and so I’ll just use this excuse to muddy the waters and support my claim.

      Reply
      • Ed Vaessen says:

        The sceptics viewpoint is of course reasonable, but in principle it can be proven wrong. The question simply is if one can prove that the ‘early’ manuscripts can be dated before 70AD. If carbon dating were accurate enough, that might be possible.

        Reply
        • Brian says:

          The skeptics “desire” for a copy of a Gospel definitively dated prior to 70AD is reasonable. I use the term reasonable to mean understandable. I do not mean that it is obligatory or even typical with regard to history and ancient texts. That was my point writing about the Gettysburg Address. I just think that skeptics can understandably desire a text dated prior to 70AD – so do believers. However, skeptics have also rolled out ‘historical’ arguments, such as Christ as a copy of prior mythologies, such as Mithras. The problem there is they reference a mythological character purported to have been invented prior to the life of Christ, but the first archeological or textual evidence we have of this myth is from around 80AD. Despite this lack of evidence that the character of Mithras was definitively created prior to the life of Christ, they appear to have no problem making the argument. We all need to examine our arguments and reasoning and make sure their consistent. And if they can’t be consistent within our existing worldview, then we ought to seriously consider altering our worldview.

          Reply
      • David says:

        Brian, This is a silly analogy. President Lincoln did not in the Gettysburg Address claim that if I did not accept the contents of his speech I would burn in hell forever. I can guarantee you that if he had his speech would be thoroughly scrutinized. Your analogy actually makes the point for the skeptic. Lincoln’s speech could, just as easily as the bible, be a piece of fiction/folklore. But the point is, who cares? No one is asking anyone to believe Lincoln’s “gospel” and become a Gettysburg Addressian or face eternal torment.

        Reply
    • Alan Halsey says:

      Why would you need to see “a complete gospel text that can be dated back to before 70AD” to reasonably determine the early dating of these ancient manuscripts? I don’t need to see the computer you used post this question to reasonably expect you are the original author. We can use the same method applied to other ancient texts to determine the authenticity and early dating of the gospel. Sure, extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence and I think we have it in the sheer volume and accuracy of the copied manuscripts. Proof? No. Evidence + reason? More than enough. If you don’t come to the same conclusion, I get that. But your request for a complete text is not a rebuttal. The point of the article is there is no counter evidence to the early dating.

      Reply
      • Ed Vaessen says:

        Alan halsey:
        “Sure, extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence and I think we have it in the sheer volume and accuracy of the copied manuscripts.”

        An accurate copy is no more than an accurate copy. It does not tell us when the original was written, nor if it is a trustworthy report.
        Matthew with his solar eclipse, the earthquake and the rising dead walking in Jerusalem strikes us a fantasy writer. Why would the death of Jesus have to be accompanied with such ‘special effects’? It is an insult to the dignity of people.

        Reply
  2. Ed Vaessen says:

    “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.”

    Please explain how the removal of bias proves that the gospels were written in the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. For example the witness Matthew who due to religious bias wrote about a solar eclipse, an earthquake en the zombie walk.

    Reply
  3. Ed Vaessen says:

    “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.”

    What a claim it is: ‘We’ll surely discover’.
    I would expect some solid evidence instead of wishful thinking.

    Reply
      • Ed Vaessen says:

        “The same is true for macro evolution and all its missing links.”

        Evolution theory does not collapse with missing links. There are more than enough fitting links. As was predicted.
        Evolution theory would only collapse if impossible links were discovered, like the famous rabbit in the Precambrium.

        Reply
      • Louie says:

        No there aren’t, that’s why you guys try and glue bones together to fill in the gaps.
        “I would expect some solid evidence instead of wishful thinking”, especially on the side of “science”.

        Reply
        • Kyle says:

          This is Christian rhetoric with no evidence. Simply put, you are being misled to further a point of view that feels threatened by this area of science. Can you offer anything solid to refute the claims of evolution?

          Reply
          • Louie says:

            I’m not threatened by it, just unconvinced it is truth. The world I see around me does not fit the model of evolution, it fits creation much better. Its not that I refute all its claims, in regard to mico-evolution I am sold. I have not seen anything that proves macro-evolution.

          • Kyle says:

            From our other conversations that is clearly due to a lack of understanding of what evolution means. Imagine I told you the reason I don’t believe in your god is because the last time there was a thunderstorm and I looked up I didn’t see anyone chucking lightning bolts down from the sky. They just appeared at random. That doesn’t fit the creation model so clearly it is wrong.

            As for macro, here is a good video showing one piece of evidence of macro-evolution. Be warned it is slightly graphic. It depicts an autopsy of a giraffe.
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cO1a1Ek-HD0

          • Ed Vaessen says:

            Louie:
            “I’m not threatened by it, just unconvinced it is truth. ”

            Truth for you seems to about ‘us’ glueing bones together.
            I seems you forgot that you wrote it.

          • Louie says:

            Kyle:
            That was interesting, but is not proof of macro-evolution. Its this level of arrogance that led people to remove peoples appendix because they were vestigial organs. That was a stupid thing to do, they did not fully understand the design. Is this nerve route a flaw? Are there issues with this nerve route? Are giraffes facing huge problems because of it? Seems to work fine as is, without Richards help.

          • Kyle says:

            This is not an area for you to decide “that’s not proof”. You have continually demonstrated your breathtaking lack of knowledge and understanding when it comes to evolution. You are not in any sense a credible authority on the subject.

            A few basics for evolution:
            Whether something could be considered flawed or not, does not mean it could not be the product of evolution.
            Whether something causes issues or not, does not mean it could not be the product of evolution.

          • Louie says:

            Kyle:
            I know what you are saying. But at the end of that video, Richie was the one claiming it was evidence, it was a “poor design”, so it could not be the result of a creator and must be the result of evolution! It does not prove anything. I agree it does not take the shortest path, but it could be for a reason. Lets take this strange finding, and figure out what all the details are regarding its purpose, before we label it as evolution and poor design like we did with the appendix. Only to find out later… Oops, my bad. Perhaps we take a giraffe, and lop off all the extra, and connect it back in place using the shortest path and see what happens? I don’t know what the next step is, but I do know that I am not going to accept Richie’s opinion on its own. His mind is made up, and therefore his opinion is less valuable. Science doesn’t say anything, scientists do. Look on the web, other scientists debunk what he’s saying in that video. Lets find the truth.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            Louie, the nerve in the giraffe is like if you see the cord of a plug stretching all the way across a room, bending around a table at the far end, and then coming all the way back again to plug into a socket a few inches away from where it started. And common sense tells us that the table started off by the plug socket, gradually got pushed along the room, and took the plug lead with it.

            Could there be other explanations? Perhaps, but if someone asked if the room looked like it had just been arranged by a master designer who put everything in the right place, or whether the furniture had shifted around a fair bit, I’d say that cord stretched across the room was strong evidence for the latter.

            Plus we have earlier fossils and bones of giraffes that point towards it having a shorter neck in the past – that’s like if we had photos of the room in the past where the table was originally much closer to the plug. It all adds up.

          • Kyle says:

            “Richie” and many other biologists affirm this. So it is not only Richard Dawkins.

            ” I don’t know what the next step is, but I do know that I am not going to accept Richie’s opinion on its own.”

            For not knowing much about what’s going on you seem determined to ignore the findings of one of the leading scholars in this field. Who’s opinion would you accept? Perhaps a preacher or cleric of some sort with absolutely no formal education in biology?

            “His mind is made up, and therefore his opinion is less valuable.” – No. Your mind is made up. Therefore your opinion is less valuable.

            “Science doesn’t say anything, scientists do.” – Theology doesn’t say anything. Theologians do.

            “Look on the web, other scientists debunk what he’s saying in that video. Lets find the truth.” – Going back to how your opinion is less valuable, you could try to bolster your reputation by actually backing up your claims instead of flippantly dismissing anything that goes against your world view and telling those of us who provide multiple sources to “look it up”.

          • Ed Vaessen says:

            Louie:
            “Lets find the truth.”

            Your truth is about scientists glueing bones together and suggesting that it is all there is to it.

        • Ed Vaessen says:

          Louie says:
          “No there aren’t, that’s why you guys try and glue bones together to fill in the gaps.”

          This is clear demonstration of not knowing anything about science and still thinking you can judge it.
          And what is worse: you simply go on this way, thinking that when you put such sentences together, you are contributing to a discussion.

          Reply
        • Ed Vaessen says:

          Louie says:
          “No there aren’t, that’s why you guys try and glue bones together to fill in the gaps.”.

          Interesting is also to notice that I am referred here to as “you guys” and they I am supposed to have the habit of glueing bones together…

          Reply
        • Ed Vaessen says:

          Louie:
          “No there aren’t, that’s why you guys try and glue bones together to fill in the gaps.”

          Ed:
          “Truth for you (Louie) seems to about ‘us’ glueing bones together.
          I seems you forgot that you wrote it.”

          Louie:
          “Ed:
          Not sure what your point was. I did not forget I wrote it.”

          So you confirm that you wrote it. Which makes clear that you have the strange fantasy about me (and others) that we go around, glueing bones together.

          Reply
          • Louie says:

            Ed:
            Get a grip. That was a reference to the Piltdown man, and you are savvy enough to know that. Were the bones actually glued? I don’t know, but probably not. But were they altered and placed together to push forward something that is only a theory? Yes, they were.

          • Ed Vaessen says:

            Louie says:”
            Ed:
            Get a grip. That was a reference to the Piltdown man, and you are savvy enough to know that. Were the bones actually glued? I don’t know, but probably not. But were they altered and placed together to push forward something that is only a theory? Yes, they were.”

            The fact that it took you so long to come up with that excuse exposes you. What you really wanted to tell and still want to tell here is that ‘we’ are liars. Piltdown was doubted from the beginning by the scientific community. You know that (at least you would have known that already a long time ago if you actually had taken the effort to study the matter, as well as tree rings and paleosoils). Piltdown was proved to be a hoax by the doubting scientific community, though very late. You know that all. And still you do as if science still sees Piltdown as a proof for evolution and if that is the common way to do science.
            In fact, you are the liar for neglecting these simple facts.
            You are the supporter of a football team that lost its match 0 to 100 and for the rest of eternity howls about the fact that a there was much doubt about a penalty that was given to the other team (otherwise it would only have been 0 to 99), even if the other team acknowledged that in hindsight it was an error of the referee to have given it.
            But I don’t blame you. You never really wanted to lie. You simply wanted to shout ‘Piltdown hoax! Piltdown hoax!’, just like the child that believes Ken Ham when he shows photoshopped pictures.

            The tragedy is that you are not a child anymore.

  4. Ed Vaessen says:

    “The gospels also contain many descriptions of miracles. The philosophical naturalist must also deny the truthfulness of these supernatural accounts. ”

    And so also the Muslim must deny the divine nature of Jesus as the the Christian must deny that a Hindu God with the name Ganesha exists.
    What exactly is the criterium?

    Reply
  5. David says:

    Wow! That’s quite a jump. I don’t follow your logic Mr. Wallace. You said, “This fragment dates to the early third century which puts it in rare company.” Therefore we know the gospels preceded 70 CE? What? You also said with no evidence to back it up that, “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.” It’s not a denial of supernaturalism that keeps skeptics from accepting the early dating of the gospels. It’s lack of evidence. The solution seems obvious to me. Show us the fragments that predate 70 CE and we will accept that they were written before 70 CE. Jesus also predicted his return within the lifetime of at least some of his disciples. Does the failure of this prophecy mean nothing to you? Doesn’t a failed prophecy by Jesus sink the whole ship?

    Reply
      • David says:

        Kalmaro, Mark 8:34-9:1 and parallel verses in Matthew and Luke. Mark 13 and parallels in Matthew and Luke.

        Come on Ed. Stop being such a skeptic. Mr. Wallace has “proven” (providing zero evidence) that the autographs of the scriptures existed prior to 70 CE and were essentially the same as the early third century manuscripts that we actually do have. After all, isn’t an assertion just as valid as providing evidence? You really need to be more receptive to dogma Ed.

        Reply
    • Ed Vaessen says:

      David:
      “It’s not a denial of supernaturalism that keeps skeptics from accepting the early dating of the gospels. It’s lack of evidence. The solution seems obvious to me. Show us the fragments that predate 70 CE and we will accept that they were written before 70 CE.”

      Indeed. Mr. Wallace seems not very willing to show them.

      Reply

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