Saturday, 31 August 2013

Studying Jesus#2-Dating the Gospels

This is the second installment in the Studying Jesus series..

Even if we didn't considered the New Testament to be the inspired word of God, we still have to consult the 4 Gospels to study the life and teachings of Jesus. This is for the simple reason that these are the earliest books we have on the historical figure of Christ.

The Background

What's the issue of dating anyways? The point is that the time of writing, as many claim, largely influences what we believe about the text. Of course, (as the argument goes) there is no God, which logically follows that the supernatural doesn't exist. So things like virgin births and resurrections cannot be a part of the historical records. 

So if a piece of writing contains such events, then obviously it must be detached from the events it purports to narrate by a significant time frame. The conclusion: the 4 Gospels were not written centuries after Jesus. These are the ideas that form a background to our discussion. 

Things to Consider

Before moving on, we need to answer one important question: does a late dating harm the Christian position? While critics will say yes, it should not be forgotten that as far as Greco-roman history is concerned, we have precedents that late dates do not necessarily imply forgery or falsehood. 

For instance, the earliest written records about the life and conquests of Alexander the Great come 3-4 centuries after his death. But no one doubts the historical position of the Macedonian conqueror. So even if the Gospels are dated late, that still doesn't make them unreliable.

Dear Theophilus

Just the opening lines of Luke and the Book of Acts signify a common author, all other arguments kept aside. Since Acts mentions a "former book" (Acts 1:1), we naturally assume that The
Gospel narrative was the first to be written in Dr. Luke's two-volume set.

So, when was the book of Acts written? Acts, as we know, is the history of the early Church. It tells how the Christian Faith spread out like fire after the ascension of Jesus. It also introduces us to St.Paul, who would go on to become a historical figure in his own right.

The thing to be noted here is that a plain reading of the text gives you the impression that the heroes of the Church like Peter, James, and Paul are still living. But we know from non-Biblical sources that they were martyred during the 60s. 

But more importantly, Acts makes no reference to the destruction of the temple. This happened in 70 AD, when Titus laid siege to Jerusalem. Christians have over the ages held that Jesus prophesied this event when he said: "no stone will be left on another". Since Luke also records these words (21:5-7), it makes no sense that we wouldn't have mentioned the event when it happened, thus proving the fulfillment of prophecy. However, he simply couldn't write it down if the event hadn't taken place as yet.

This is good internal evidence to indicate that the Book of Acts was written prior to AD 70, even 60. This means that Luke would have been written much earlier. And Luke, in his preface, mentions other writings, which may possibly indicate other canonical Gospels. 

Destruction of the Temple-Continued

It is also worth nothing here that Matthew and Mark also record the prophecy of Jesus regarding the destruction of the temple (chapters 24 and 13 respectively). Matthew in particular was quite fond of fulfilled prophecy. If the event had already happened, Matthew would have definitely recorded it. But he didn't, which gives strength to a pre-70 AD dating. Thus, the proponents of the Markan priority have to push the dating of the 'first' Gospel even earlier. 

External Evidence

Here we present two lines of evidence to suggest that the Gospels were written in the first century. The first is the John Rylands fragment of the Gospel of John. Classified as P52, this credit card-sized fragment contains couple of verses from the 18th chapter of John, and it is generally considered the oldest written record of the Greek New Testament. P52 is dated between 117-138 AD.

Majority of the scholars argue that John was the last Gospel to be written. Since the fragment is dated early second century, we can be confident of a late first century date for the writing of this gospel. And naturally, the other 3 would have been written even earlier.

The other line of evidence is the early Christian writings. In a previous article, we saw that Irenaeus writing in the 2nd century hints at a common knowledge of the Gospels in the early Church. Couple this with the P52 argument, and we have a good case for a first century dating for all the 4 Gospels. 

What Does This Prove? 

It is generally held that Jesus left the earth about 33 AD. If the Gospels were written maximum by 100 AD, then we only have a gap of 70 years, or two generations, between the events and their recording. This, as we discussed, is good enough on historical grounds. The gap is not so extensive as to pave way for embellishment. 

But that is not all. We also have to take into account the Jewish oral culture. One example would suffice. The Babylonian Talmud was put on paper in 200 AD, yet the oral traditions behind it were from the exile period. This of course, it is a much greater time frame than we have for the New Testament.

Jesus was Jew, and so were his followers. He used several methods while teaching that would help his listeners to memorize what he said, e.g. repetition (Matthew 7:13-14 and 18-19), parable (Luke 15), and hyperbole (Matthew 5:29).

So if we combine the arguments given above with the oral tradition factor, we have powerful evidence on our hands that on historical grounds, the Gospels not not only the earliest written works on the life of Jesus, but they have also preserved His teachings with great credibility. 

(Next in this series: Studying Jesus #3)

Friday, 16 August 2013

Studying Jesus

After the Bible series, I have decided to start a more focused topic that revolves around the person and teachings of Jesus Christ at my Church. The aim is to look at the 4 Gospels as historical books, and see what the core message of Jesus really is, i.e. the message which divides the believer from the non-believer. 

Last Sunday, I took up the issue of the authorship of the Gospels. Who were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and how do we know that it was these guys who actually penned the 4 books we see at the beginning of our modern New Testaments?

Now we know who Matthew and John were. They were disciples of Jesus who later became great leaders of the Church. But who the heaven are Mark and Luke? We do not find them present during Jesus's life on earth, so how come they recorded His biography and teachings? 

A more serious question is, why did the Early Church accept the writings of these 2 "outsiders"? These are the questions which we will try to answer.

Luke and Mark

Although the Gospels do not mention Luke or Mark, we do find references to them in the Book of Acts and the Apostolic Epistles. For instance, Paul writes:

"11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry." 2 Timothy

Here the Apostle Paul lists Luke and Mark in intimate terms, as his ultimate ministry partners. We know Luke was Paul's "beloved physician" (Colossians 4:14) who accompanied him on his various missionary adventures in the Roman Empire. But who was Mark?

We find him an equally authoritative testimony of him in 1 Peter 5:21, where Peter Himself says:

"She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark."

Mark therefore was a close disciple of the Apostle, and there is no question about Peter's testimony.

So now we have come confidence that even though Mark and Luke were "outsiders", they were associates of the Apostles and known men in the early Church. 

But the questions still remains, how do we know that it was Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John who actually wrote these Gospels?

Witness of the Church

Testimony of the earliest Church fathers clearly indicates that they believed these 4 persons to be the writers of our New Testament Gospels. Here are some references:

"Matthew published his Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul were preaching and founding the church in Rome. After their departure Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also transmitted to us in writing those things which Peter had preached; and Luke, the attendant of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel which Paul had declared. Afterwards John, the disciple of the Lord, who also reclined on his bosom, published his Gospel, while staying at Ephesus in Asia."

St. Irenaeus (130-202 A.D) -Bishop of Lyons, In "Against Heresies" 3.1.1, and also quoted in Church History, Book V, Chapter 8 

Again, in the same books [the Hypotyposes], Clement gives the tradition of the earliest presbyters, as to the order of the Gospels, in the following manner:  "The Gospels containing the genealogies [i.e. Matthew and Luke], he says, were written first.  The Gospel according to MARK had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out.  And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it.  When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it.  But, last of all, JOHN, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel."  This is the account of Clement.  

(Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.5-7).

So we see that the Church traditions coincide with the internal evidence of Scripture.

Some Logical Arguments

Mark and Luke were not even disciples of Jesus, and Matthew was a former tax-collector, an occupation hated by his contemporaries. 

If someone wanted to forge the Gospels, one would use more popular names like Peter, James or Mary. In fact, there is no reason to ascribe these names to the Gospel accounts if they did not write them.

Of course, John can be an exception to this since he was a regarded highly by the Church. But then again we see that the Book of Revelation, also ascribed to the same Apostle, was not so readily accepted by the Church.

Hence we see that an impressive a cumulative case can be made for the traditional authorship of the New Testament.

(Next up in this series: Studying Jesus #2)

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