When were the Gospels written? / Πότε γράφτηκαν τα Ευαγγέλια;

The following post is quite extensive. Whoever reads it though, will benefit greatly with new insight on this very serious topic of the date of the composition of the Gospels. Η ακόλουθη ανάρτηση είναι εξαιρετικά εκτενής. Όποιος όμως τη διαβάσει θα αποκομίσει νέα δεδομένα σε σχέση με αυτό το πολύ σοβαρό θέμα του χρόνου συγγραφής των Ευαγγελίων.

There are three massive, enormous historical facts in relation to which it is both possible and necessary to situate the four Gospels. And not only the four Gospels: all the writings of the New Testament. These absolutely crucial historical facts, and the dates they occurred, are as follows:

1)  A.D. 70. The assault on Jerusalem that began on August 29; the burning and destruction of the Temple; the burning of the holy city; and, finally, its capture. The city and its ramparts were razed to the ground, except for the towers of the king’s palace.

2) A.D. 64 or 65 (there exist learned discussions as to the actual year). The massacre of the Christians initiated by the Roman emperor Nero.

3) Around A.D. 36. The commencement of the preaching of the word of God, the good news of salvation announced by the Galilean rabbi Jesus to the uncircumcised pagans. This began after the first Christian martyr, Stephen, had been stoned to death.

In his book Redating the New Testament, the illustrious English biblical scholar, Bishop John A. T. Robinson, has thoroughly discussed the implications for the New Testament writings of the first of these three massive, enormous historical facts, namely, the capture, burning, and destruction of Jerusa­lem and the Temple by the Roman armies of Titus in August and September of the year A.D. 70. The fact on which Robinson has based his work had been previously noticed, but the credit for fleshing out this fact with a sustained and comprehensive argument rightly belongs to Robinson. The fact in question is that not a single one of the New Testament writings, in the Greek versions in which we possess them, seems to evidence any awareness whatsoever of the simply immense fact of the capture, destruction, and burning of Jerusalem and the Temple. There is no trace of this calamity in any of the New Testament writings. Apparently, nobody had ever heard of these events at the time the New Testament writings were set down in written form.

The capture, destruction, and burning of the Holy City and of the Temple were even more significant for the Jews scattered throughout the Mediterranean world of the first century than was the destruction of Berlin in 1945 by the Soviet and American armies for the Germans, or the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans in the same year for the Japanese. Jerusalem was much more important for the ancient Jews than these cities were for the Germans and Japanese. The Holy City and the Temple were the heart and soul of Judaism; the Temple, located in the center of Jerusalem, was the center of Judaism.

Moreover, as we have already pointed out, all the Christian communities which were very quickly to be found spread all over the Mediterranean world had nearly all originated in a Jewish synagogue, in a community that had been divided up like a living cell, depending upon how the existing members reacted to the news that came from Jerusalem concerning the Galilean rabbi who had lived and taught and then had been crucified and had risen from the dead. The four Gospels were indisputably composed within the universe of these same Christian communities, whether the Jerusalem community or outlying ones. However that may be, all the Christian com­munities had originated with a mother cell, that is, with a Jewish community already in place. If the Gospels had been written long after the events they describe, as the reigning theory holds, the capture, burning, and destruction of Jerusalem must surely have left at least some trace in the Gospels. Yet there is no such trace in them.

There are many occasions in the New Testament when Jerusalem, the Temple, and Temple worship are mentioned; all of these occasions would have provided opportunities to mention or allude to the ruin of A.D. 70. There is no such men­tion or allusion.

If we read a novel, a newspaper, or a history about Berlin written before the 1939-1945 war, we are treated to descriptions of the city, its parks, its richness, and its splendor. Here and there, in numerous phrases, we will come upon a reference or an allusion to this or that building, this or that monument. However, if we read a novel, newspaper, or history about Berlin written after the Second World War, even one recounting events in Berlin before the war, we can rather quickly tell from the phraseology employed whether the author wrote before or after the war and the capture and destruction of Berlin. The author would have no reason whatsoever to hide the fact that he was writing at the end of the war, after the catastrophe; and he would let fall indications in his text that would allow us to determine whether he wrote before or after the war. One very simple text: if he were writing after the war and making mention of the monuments that existed in Berlin in the time of peace before the war, he might be likely to use the past tense.

The authors of the four Gospels—if indeed we can speak of single authors, rather than redactors, of the first three—had no reason whatsoever to conceal the fact that they were writing after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, if indeed that was the case. Yet on the many occasions in the text when the city, the Temple, the Temple liturgy, or the Romans are being described or discussed, there is never the slightest men­tion or trace about what must have been the most overwhelming fact of the whole century, especially for the Jews of the Diaspora, from whose communities the first churches had also issued.

The thing is impossible: If the four Gospels had been written after A.D. 70, there would have had to be at least some mark or vestige to indicate this, even if only in the phraseology of the writers, a verb conjugation, or a verb tense. But there is no such mark or vestige; there is no indication whatsoever.

Not only is there no allusion to the destruction of the city and the Temple as having already occurred, there are usages that indicate precisely the contrary. In the fourth Gospel, for example, which according to current scholarly opinion, is supposed to have been written at the end of the first century (after overwhelming contrary evidence made it no longer possible to claim this Gospel had been written in the second century, as the most respectable scholarly opinion used to hold), we read the following: “Now there is in Jerusalem by 3 the Sheep Gate, a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, which has five porticoes” (Jn 5:2). “There is”: this is the third person singular, present tense, indicative mood of the verb “to be,” in Greek estin. How is it possible for any author whatever, at the end of the first century, not to speak of the second, to pen a phrase, “there is in Jerusalem,” when, by that time, Jerusalem had lain in ruins for some thirty years? If a later writer, journalist, or historian was referring to monuments existing in Hiroshima or Nagasaki prior to 1945, would he use the present tense of the verb “to be”?

We will, of course, be treating the fourth Gospel later on. There are many more surprises in store for us when we do.

But it is evident from what we have already seen that the thesis of John A. T. Robinson in his fine book      Redating the  New Testament is of quite decisive importance. It is not even pri­marily a question of determining whether the Christians of the period around the end of the first century were, or were not, interested in the destruction of the Jewish Temple. It is a purely literary question, or, rather, a problem of language and expression. The dominant opinion in biblical scholarship today requires that the writers of the Gospels were describing a period far removed in the past from themselves; at the same time they were describing a very precise and definite time and place, namely, Judea and Galilee, and the city of Jerusalem, in the period before the Jewish-Roman war of A.D. 66-70. Now if a writer describing such a period came after an event of the magnitude of the issue of that war, that fact is likely to be most evident from hundreds, not to say thousands, of indica­tions in his text; it can be determined by the time the reader has read for ten lines or so, just as it can be determined about a report on Berlin whether it was written before or after the destruction of the city by the allies in 1945. This would be especially true if the writer has absolutely no reason to conceal the time that he was writing, whether before or after the catastrophe. The time that he was, in fact, writing could be seen from the way that he described things as existing, or as no longer existing.

In the case of the four Greek Gospels, there is not the slightest hint that their redactors—to adopt for the moment the hypothe­sis of our adversaries—ever harbored any suspicions that the city they had occasion to describe constantly in their narrative had been completely destroyed many years before.

The book of John A. T. Robinson is a fine book of high scholarly merit. It is also a very candid book in which the author admits that, for many years, he himself believed and taught what today’s majority scholarly opinion continues to believe and teach, namely, that the Gospels were late docu­ments that underwent considerable literary transformation before being set down in final form. The fourth Gospel, accord­ing to this hypothesis, was the latest of all the Gospels to be written down. There are biblical scholars who, if they could get away with it, would be prepared to hold that the fourth Gospel was written in the nineteenth century by Victor Hugo.

And, for a long time, Bishop Robinson himself believed and taught what the majority of biblical scholars have believed and taught for several generations. One fine day in the autumn of his distinguished career as a scholar, however, he was moved to inquire into the basis of these scholarly dogmas that have come to be taken virtually for granted. Once he had posed the question, he suddenly realized with some disquietude that he did not know the answers.

Why date Matthew at the end of the first century? Why date John as late as into the second century? These theories were nothing but established scholarly habits, first advanced by the German historical-critical school of the early nineteenth century. F. C. Baur actually held that the Gospel according to John had been written as late as A.D. 170. Robinson there­fore decided to re-open the whole question of the dating of the New Testament writings and examine all the evidence anew, without prejudice. The results that he arrived at are very dif­ferent from what is still regularly taught in courses on the subject.

The fact that his results are so much at variance with reigning scholarly opinion may explain the silence that has greeted his book both in France and in Germany.

However, nothing should be easier than to refute Robinson. His whole thesis rests upon the fact that no text in the entire New Testament mentions or alludes to the destruction of Jerusalem as an accomplished fact. All that would be required to refute him, therefore, would be to produce a New Testament text showing that its author was indeed aware of the capture and destruction of Jerusalem.

Upholders of the dominant opinion in biblical scholarship are not happy with Robinson’s book; if Robinson is right, they are wrong. In scholarship, as in all the other affairs of life, it is always very difficult to own up to being wrong. It is even more difficult to admit to having taught errors and ab­surdities throughout one’s entire scholarly career. That Robinson’s thesis has not found automatic acceptance is therefore quite understandable. Nevertheless, the fact remains that those who are not happy with Robinson’s book have ready recourse to a remedy. All they have to do is point out one or more New Testament texts evidencing a knowledge on the part of their authors of the capture and destruction of Jerusalem. Evidence of such knowledge would constitute conclusive proof that the passages in question had been written after A.D. 70.

Critics of the Robinson thesis have few such passages, or none, that would enable them to refute it. Some critics, how­ever, do think they have found two candidates for the honor of refuting Robinson. The two passages invoked are Matthew 22:7 and Mark 13:14. Let us equip ourselves with some strong magnifying glasses and examine these two passages very carefully.

The passage from Matthew occurs in the Parable of the Marriage Feast. In this parable, it will be recalled, Jesus com­pared the kingdom of heaven to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son. He sent out his servants with many invitations to the feast. These servants, of course, stood for the many prophets sent by God in the history of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. However, those who were initially invited did not wish to come. The king sent out with invitations still more servants (standing for still more prophets): “Tell those who are invited, ‘Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast’ ” (Mt 22:4).

Again, however, nobody was interested in coming to the marriage feast. Those who had been invited went off to their respective farms, businesses, or whatever. Some even did more than that; they seized the king’s servants and killed them. At this point came the passage which some believe contradicts the thesis of Robinson:

The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city (Mt 22:7).

Here, then, is a text which scholars adhering to the majority opinion of a late composition for the Gospels think proves that the author or redactor of Matthew knew about the con­quest, destruction, and burning of Jerusalem. We should note well that this is one of the few passages of any kind that has been brought forward in this connection.

According to the majority opinion, the fundamental parable in which this passage was included underwent what are often styled “literary transformations.” This means, in plain language, that the passage was inserted in order to refer to the fate of Jerusalem.

However, this hypothesis obviously depends upon Matthew’s being a late composition which underwent literary transforma­tions. But the fundamental question is whether Matthew is in fact a late composition. Again, the question is begged.

Another considerable assumption underlying the hypothesis that the Gospels underwent literary transformations is that the Christian brothers and sisters of the earliest communities were permitted to alter the texts available to them—to add or take away, retouch or reframe, a parable of our Lord himself. Perhaps the idea that the community could alter at will the accounts it possessed of its Founder is an idea (congenial) to eras as dishonest as those of the nineteenth century and of our own twentieth century. It is not immediately evident that the first generations of Christians were involved in dishonesties of the same type. Indeed, there is no real evidence that the Christians of the first or second centuries ever permitted anyone to add or take away, retouch or reframe, such char­acteristic teachings of Jesus as his parables. Critical historians of our time may find it easy to postulate such activity on the part of the early Christian communities. It is not clear that the first Christians would have found it equally easy to do. We must return to this particular question later on.

Further, we must consider what other consequences would follow if we accepted the majority opinion in biblical scholar­ship and hold that someone actually did alter a parable of our Lord and, referring to the fate of Jerusalem, inserted the passage to the effect that “the king was angry, and he sent his troops,” etc. One of the consequences of this interpretation would be, in the context of this particular parable, the necessity of con­sidering the armies of Vespasian and Titus that annihilated Jerusalem and the Temple as armies of God. The alleged alteration could mean nothing else but that, and it is certainly to suppose a great deal to suppose that even an early Christian community permitting the Gospels to be doctored would also immediately agree to such an alteration as that. We eventually have quite an imposing structure of suppositions here.

However, if we agree that the Gospel according to Matthew arose out of a community composed of brothers and sisters whose religion was originally Judaism, we must immediately, recognize that such and interpretation conferring God’s approval on the actions of the Romans would be impossible. The sama thing becomes true if we attempt to hold that the Gospel was written later, say, after the horrible massacres of the Christians inaugurated by the Roman emperor Nero.

Moreover, if we admit that the parables of our Lord did undergo what are so modestly termed “literary transformations,” that the community did in fact permit alterations in the accounts it possessed of the Masters words and acts, then we must also admit that we no longer have the slightest idea what belongs authentically to Jesus in the Gospels and what does not. Every­thing in the Gospels is open to question in that case.

Still another unproved  assumption  required by the viewpoint that Matthew 22:7 is an insertion is the assumption that Jesus himself could not have pronounced this particular sentence. Why not?

The Parable of the Marriage Feast, however, is self-contained, and all of one piece. Like the other gospel parables, it hangs together. In this mashal our Lord delivered himself of the kind of teaching that can be frequently found in the history of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. It has a meaning. God sent his servants, the prophets, to his beloved people, “virgin Israel.” However, the prophets were often persecuted, and precisely because of the nature of the message they brought from God. Some of those same prophets were even put to death. Now it could be that in Matthew 22:7 our Lord was thinking of the future destruction of Jerusalem; but this, of course, is not certain. For Jerusalem already had been conquered and burned more than once in the past. These earlier catastrophes had been foretold by the prophets, for example, by Jeremiah. It was in no way necessary to be prophetic, or to be able to foretell the future, in order to have composed this particular mashal. Even if the passage does refer to the future destruc­tion, must we assume that our Lord did not have the prophetic powers that the ancient prophets had?

Assuming the passage had to be written after the destruction of Jerusalem is thus in no way necessary. No matter how many times we consider and reconsider Matthew 22:7, we cannot prove on the basis of it that its author knew about the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem. The city “burned with fire” is an expression that is encountered many times in the Old Testa­ment. Translated into Greek, the phrase is exactly the same as the one quoted here.

Let us take up our magnifying glasses again, preferably some very large ones, and examine carefully another passage brought forward to refute the thesis of Bishop Robinson that all the books of the New Testament were written prior to A.D. 70. This passage is supposed to refer to the beginning of the Roman-Jewish War:

But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains (Mk 13:14).

The phrase “let the reader understand” is considered to be the insertion here. This is the phrase which is supposed to betray the fact that Mark knew about the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction and burning of the Temple, and hence Mark’s Gospel had to have been written some time after these events had occurred in A.D. 70. (It is supposed to follow from this also that the composition of Matthew has to be placed later still, since the reigning scholarly opinion, of course, is that Mark is anterior to Matthew.)

There is one thing that this phrase “let the reader under­stand” does prove and that is that there was very early a written text to which to refer the reader in the list of warnings placed in the mouth of Jesus himself in this chapter of Mark. There was obviously something for the reader to read; there was also something difficult for the reader to understand, namely, what the “desolating sacrilege” referred to in this passage was. This phrase is itself a reference to “the one who makes desolate” in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. One thing this short phrase most certainly does not prove, however, is that the author of Mark was acquainted with the fate of Jerusalem and of the Temple.

Yet these two passages that we have quoted and scrutinized (Mt 22:7 and Mk 13:14) are the only ones brought forward by those who are so unhappy with Robinson’s book. As we have seen, they do not add up to impressive evidence; they are, in fact, less than nothing; they are nonexistent as evidence. Even with a large and powerful magnifying glass, we do not find anything at all against Robinson’s thesis. There is nothing at the present time that can be adduced against it.

So much for the first of the massive, enormous historical facts in relation to which it is necessary to situate the New Testament writings. The second of these massive, historical facts, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70, was the persecution unleashed against the Christians by the Roman emperor Nero around A.D. 64 or 65. Scholars have debated exactly when the Neronian persecution actually began. Before Nero launched his campaign against the Chris­tians, some of them had, of course, already experienced perse­cution and had suffered for their faith; however, they had not suffered persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities.

The first persecutions against the Christians had been instigated by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. We have already had occasion to recall that Stephen had been put to death around A.D. 36. There seems little doubt that Pontius Pilate was transferred back to Rome in the course of that same year. A young rabbi of the Pharisee party was present at the stoning of Stephen, as he himself was to relate: he was Sha’ul (Saul) whom we know familiarly by his Roman surname Paulos or Paulus (Paul).

The persecution that followed the putting to death of Stephen was terrible. The bloody traces of it can be discerned in the Acts of the Apostles as well as the Book of Revelation. At the death of the emperor Tiberius on March 16, A.D. 37, Gaius, better known as Caligula, became emperor. In A.D. 37, Caligula named as tetrarch of Galilee Herod Agrippa I, son of Aristobulus and grandson of Herod the Great, and of Berenice, daughter of Salome, sister of Herod. Caligula wanted to have his own statue placed in the Jewish Temple, but he was assassinated on January 24, A.D. 40. He was succeeded by Claudius as emperor on January 25, A.D. 41. The new emperor confirmed Herod Agrippa I in his dignity, and, indeed, expanded his domains, reconstituting the old kingdom of Herod the Great.

It was this Herod Agrippa I who had James, the son of Zebedee, beheaded. According to certain ancient documents, his brother John was martyred at the same time, just a little before Herod Agrippa I himself died (in A.D. 44). In A D. 62, during a period before the arrival of the new Roman procurator, Albinus, who governed between 62 and 64, the high priest Ananus, also called Hanan II by some historians, son of the high priest Annas, brought about the death of James, called in the New Testament “the brother of the Lord.” Ananus had this James thrown down from the southeast corner of the great enclosure of the Temple. James was stoned, and,  finally, despatched by a club-wielding cloth fuller. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, was in Jerusalem at the time this occurred and wrote about it.

However, the four Gospels do not evidence any knowledge or awareness of the persecution unleashed in Rome by Nero. Instead, they evidence a great deal of knowledge and aware­ness of the persecutions engineered by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, virtually from the beginning of Christian preaching. If we read very carefully the predictions of persecutions enunciated by Jesus in Matthew, we will find that these pre­dicted persecutions resemble the persecutions by the Jewish religious authorities and the synagogues. Persecution by the Roman authorities was apparently still unknown at the time of the composition of Matthew’s Gospel.

If this Gospel according to Matthew, then, was really not composed until the end of the century, why did not the text allude to the by then familiar persecutions unleashed by the Roman emperor? At the moment we are speaking only of Matthew. Since the votaries of today’s reigning majority opinion in biblical studies insist that the Gospels underwent many “literary transformations” to reach the form in which we know them, why would not the anonymous fabricators of these literary transformations have included in Matthew some reference or allusion to these terrible ordeals which, beginning with those ordered by Nero, were part of the later Christian experience. (There is no such trace in the Book of Revelation either.) We must go back and read the texts carefully if we harbor any doubts on this score. Certainly there are references to bloody persecutions, but they are not attributed to the Roman authorities; they bespeak an experience only of the actions of the religious authorities of Jerusalem.

There is similarly no trace of Roman persecution in the fourth Gospel which, for more than a century, scholars have assured us was written very late, at the end of the first century or perhaps even in the second. Certainly the fourth Gospel speaks of persecutions; indeed the whole book breathes an atmosphere of something resembling terror; but it is a terror related to the Jerusalem religious authorities, not to the civil authorities of the Roman Empire.

We have now examined a fair number of examples, and it is now possible to sum up some conclusions:

(1) The Gospel according to Matthew, as we have it in Greek, is actually a translation of an original Hebrew text or of several different Hebrew texts.

(2) This translation is very ancient because:

(a) the text betrays no awareness of the capture and destruction of Jerusalem and of the Jewish Temple;

(b) it betrays no awareness of the horrible persecutions and massacres of the Christians unleashed by Nero in A.D. 64 or 65;

(c) it betrays no awareness of the putting to death of James, the bishop of Jerusalem, called “the brother of the Lord,” which took place in A.D. 62;

(d) it betrays no awareness that the good news [besorah, in Greek εὐαγγέλιον] has begun to be preached to the uncircumcised pagans: the word of God has been passed to non-Jews—the entire text of Matthew bespeaks a period and a situation where this development has not yet occurred, and hence it must have been written prior to A.D. 40;

(e) its characteristic expressions and explanation indicate that the translation of the Hebrew was made in order to reach Greek-speaking Christians of Jewish origin in the Diaspora, who would not have required the same kinds of explanations and clarifications as those brothers and sisters embracing Christianity directly from paganism.

Claude Tresmontant, The Hebrew Christ, σελ. 45-56, 77, 78.


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