Are the four gospels dependable? Or are they simply the result of generations of flawed oral transmission? I discussed this question previously and determined that the gospels are much more dependable than implied by the idea of flawed oral transmission.
Another question on the reliability of the gospels has to do with when they were written. There are advocates for both extremely early dates and for extremely late dates. I even saw a claim that the gospels were written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus, which is impossible because passages from the gospels were referenced and quoted by the early Church Fathers long before that.
Another source I read said that Mark was written very soon after the death of Jesus, which is equally unlikely. These extremes usually come from biased agendas about the gospels.
The Dating of Mark, Matthew, and Luke
Generally accepted dates by some scholars for the gospels are Mark (70 AD), Matthew (85–90 AD), Luke (85–90 AD).
Some advocates for earlier dates for Matthew and Luke point out that they do not mention the deaths of Peter, Paul, or James—all of whom were killed before 70 AD. But I don’t think this is a good argument because the gospels are about the life of Jesus and do not cover later history as the book of Acts does.
However, I suggest that the dating of Mark to 70 AD is in error.
Some scholars date Mark, Matthew, and Luke at 70 AD or later because that is the year the Romans destroyed the Temple, and since these gospels mention Jesus’ comment that the day would come when not one stone of the Temple would be left on another (Mark 13; Matthew 24; and Luke 21), they conclude that the gospels were describing the Roman destruction and therefore were written after that destruction.
Mark 13 reads:
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
As I mentioned last time, I think Jesus was observant enough to see how things would turn out for Jerusalem if the Jews continued their aggressive resistance to Rome, so a much earlier date for Mark is possible. However, Matthew and Luke elaborate on Mark’s passage in such a way that it well might indicate a later date for those gospels.
On the other hand, in his introduction to Acts Luke writes that he had already written his gospel. Acts 1 says:
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.
Consider that the last thing the Book of Acts mentions is that Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years and then released about 62 AD. Acts 28 states:
For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!
If Luke completed the Book of Acts later than 70 AD, after Paul’s martyrdom around 64 AD, it is odd that he did not mention the death of Paul in the Book of Acts.
So if the gospel was written before Acts, it seems that it would have been written before Paul’s death about 64 AD. And the gospel would have been written even earlier that. This evidence seems to point to an earlier date for Luke than does Luke’s elaboration on Jesus’ discussion of the destruction of the Temple. It is difficult to determine which is the stronger evidence.
Shared Components of Matthew and Luke
Scholars are almost unanimous that Matthew and Luke have a variety of sources, two of which are identifiable in both of them. The first common source is the Gospel of Mark, which we have already discussed, and the second is a written collection of Jesus’ saying (referred to as ‘Q’), which is used by both gospels. Obviously, both of these sources are older than either Matthew or Luke.
We have discussed the date of Mark previously. Regarding the date of ‘Q’, scholars such as James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester suggest that collections of sayings of Jesus represent the earliest Christian materials. The fact that Matthew’s and Luke’s use of ‘Q’ is often word-for-word would indicate that ‘Q’ was a written source, so ‘Q’ could be very early, indeed.
Both Matthew and Luke had other sources as well, and it cannot be determined whether the sources were written or oral, or, if they were written, how early the sources might have been written down. So it seems that parts of Matthew and Luke are much earlier than compositions of the books themselves.
The idea that their sources were from a long period of flawed oral transmission is a mere assumption. We know that some sources were written, and some of the other sources might have been written—we have no way of knowing. But the certainty some have that the gospels are based on long histories of flawed oral tradition is unsupported.
There is One More Aspect to Consider
If the four gospels are based on various lines of flawed oral tradition, then it seems there should be much more variation among them than there is. And yet, the overall reports of Jesus’ teaching and actions portray a rather consistent portrait of Jesus and his character. What we see is essentially one story of Jesus—not four.
But, even so, we need not assert (or expect) that the reports of Jesus are precisely accurate or his sayings word-for-word. Will talk about that next time.
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