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A Catholic Dating Service

The closer the New Testament documents are to the historical events of the life of Jesus Christ, the more they can be trusted

We’re talking about dating the New Testament . . . not dating an eligible young man or woman. While going on a date is important, the dating of the New Testament is more important—and here’s why.

The closer the New Testament documents are to the historical events of the life of Jesus Christ, the more they can be trusted as being historically accurate. If the New Testament documents are not to be trusted for their historicity, then the moral and doctrinal teachings found therein are more easily debatable. If the stories of the New Testament are fanciful constructions by Christians of a later date, then they can be dismissed as pious frauds. Likewise, the moral and doctrinal teaching can be dismissed as not really from Jesus himself.

From the rise of biblical criticism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, modernist Protestant scholars like Friedrich Schleiermacher disputed the traditional early date of the New Testament documents; denied authentic apostolic authorship; and dissected the texts using form criticism, linguistic criticism, and historical criticism. Their critical method—rooted in rationalistic assumptions—soon jumped from the German theological schools to Anglicanism and Catholicism. The modern critical method seemed to bring the hard-edged tools of scholarship and a scientific method to the practice of understanding Scripture.

The results were mixed. On one hand, we now know far more about the intricacies of the biblical texts, the historical background of the New Testament, and the complexion and intellectual world of the early Church. On the other hand, the rationalistic foundation of modernist biblical criticism has meant that the supernatural elements of the New Testament are sidelined, ignored, seen as later interpolations, or simply explained away.

As the critics did their work, a new generation of scholars succeeded them and continued to dismantle the New Testament, doubting more and more of the historical accounts of the Gospels until German theologian Rudolf Bultmann would famously assert not only that there was very little we could know about the historical Jesus but that it didn’t matter. Existential belief in Jesus was all that mattered and not historical “facts” about Jesus.

Matter matters

Were you taught in Sunday school that history was “His story”?  Historicism is the heresy that denies such an idea. Instead of there being an overarching “meta narrative,” history is simply an accident of random events. Historicism is an outgrowth of atheism, because if there is no master storyteller, there can be no master story. For the modernist, as for the atheist, history doesn’t matter, as matter doesn’t matter.

The doctrine of the Incarnation, however, forces us to hold that matter matters. If God took human flesh in human history, then not only does human flesh matter, history matters. The facts of the Gospels cannot be dispensed with as meaningless or futile, leaving one with existential faith alone. Without the facts of the life of Christ, there is nothing in which faith can be rooted. St Paul was blunt about this when he wrote, “If the resurrection did not happen, our faith is in vain” (I Cor. 15:14).

They say the devil is in the details, but so is the divine. If history matters, then facts matter, and if facts matter, then details matter. It is therefore important whether Mark wrote Mark’s Gospel or not. It’s important if Peter went to Rome or not. It’s important to know if Paul really did write to the Christians in Corinth or not. Furthermore, modernist biblical critics know that the details are important; otherwise they would not trouble themselves to dissect, dispute, and deny them.

The destruction of the Temple

To date the New Testament accurately, one has to get involved in some clever detective work—fitting a piece of the puzzle here and deducing how another missing piece might fit there. To do this, one of the first details any student of the Gospels learns is the importance of the date A.D. 70. It was then that the Roman armies, finally wearied of a Jewish rebellion, besieged Jerusalem and, after starving or slaughtering the inhabitants, destroyed Jerusalem utterly and dispersed the survivors.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem.

And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:1-2).

With their rationalist presuppositions firmly in place, modern biblical critics concluded that the entire New Testament could not have been composed before the year 70. The reasoning went like this: “Mark’s Gospel is the earliest Gospel. Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. We know that people can’t foretell the future. Therefore this must have been written after the event and made to sound like a prophecy.” This one conclusion—based on the assumption that seeing the future is impossible—is the basis for the continuing idea that the New Testament is a late-invented document.

Once this “fact” was in place, every other piece of evidence relating to the dating of the Gospels had to conform to this single conclusion. So, if evidence was found that a particular Gospel was written earlier than A.D. 70, it could not be so, because everyone “knew” that it all had to be written after A.D. 70. The authorship of the Gospels also had to be in question. If most the apostles died before A.D. 70, then it was impossible for them to be the authors of the Gospels.

The entire edifice of modern biblical scholarship regarding the New Testament, therefore, relies on this one iffy conclusion. The main problem with this conclusion is that it displays a remarkable ignorance about how prophecy actually works. A prophecy is not necessarily a supernatural event like some pagan soothsayer trying to read a crystal ball. Jesus’ prophecy that Jerusalem would be destroyed may have been a supernatural vision of the future, but it could just as feasibly been a common-sense realization of what would happen, knowing how the Romans treated rebels and knowing how inclined the Jews were to rebellion. It is not necessarily a supernatural gift to see how things are going and to predict what will happen if they don’t change.

The deaths of Peter and Paul

So Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem is not a reliable fixed point for determining the date of the New Testament. There is, however, an earlier reliable date:  A.D. 65. We know this is the year St. Peter and St. Paul were killed in Rome during the persecution by the Emperor Nero. Therefore, Paul’s epistles and the first epistle of Peter were written before 65.

We can also piece together evidence to determine that other books of the New Testament also date from before the deaths of Peter and Paul. St. Luke, Paul’s companion and the author of one of the Gospels, wrote the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts, Peter and Paul are both still living. If Peter and Paul had died by the time Luke completed Acts of the Apostles, we can be sure he would have mentioned their deaths—especially since both were martyred.

Luke would have mentioned their martyrdom for three reasons: first, he told the story of Stephen’s martyrdom and, second, the related the death of the apostle James. Thirdly, the death of the martyrs was an important feature for the early Christians. They used it as a teaching point. John does this in his mention of the death of Peter in his Gospel.

Furthermore, Luke makes it clear in Acts that his Gospel was the first volume he had written. Luke says in his opening words, “In my former book, Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen” (Acts 1:1-2). If the Acts of the Apostles was written before A.D.65, Luke’s Gospel must have been written even earlier.

Many scholars believe the Gospel of Luke used the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as source material. If so, then the other two synoptic Gospels are even earlier than Luke—which we’ve seen must be dated before 65. The fact also that Mark and Matthew do not record the deaths of the apostles points to the conclusion that their deaths had not yet taken place.

The Sons of Thunder

This theory can be corroborated by an interesting detail about St. James. The snippet of evidence appears in the work of Justin Martyr. Justin was one of the early Christian writers called the Apostolic Fathers. He lived from A.D. 100-160 AD—just a hundred years after the death of Jesus. A convert, Justin Martyr wrote various works defending the Christian Faith. One of the details he recorded is this:

It is said that he [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and it is written in his [Peter’s] memoirs that he changed the names of others, two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder.”

What are Peter’s “memoirs”? We know it isn’t the Gospel of Peter, which is a later apocryphal Gospel that was written long after Justin Martyr died. The early tradition of the Church (recorded by Papias at the end of the first century) was that John Mark was the companion, translator, and scribe for Peter and that Mark’s Gospel is based on the memories of Peter himself.

Therefore, in the absence of any other writings that might be Peter’s memoirs, we can safely conclude that the “memoirs” to which Justin Martyr refers are Mark’s Gospel. What seals the deal is that Mark is the only one of the Evangelists who records that Jesus nicknamed James and John “Boanerges—Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17).

Peter and Mark in Rome

If, however, Justin Martyr knew of Peter’s “memoirs,” which recorded a detail only found in Mark, then we can be confident that Mark was the companion and secretary of Peter. Furthermore, we know that Mark was in Rome with Peter, because in his first epistle Peter sends greetings from “Babylon” (which was early Christian code for Rome) and includes greetings from Mark.

Another intriguing detail from Mark’s Gospel points to Rome. In the Passion narrative, Mark records the fact that Simon of Cyrene was “the father of Rufus and Alexander” (Mark 15.21). Why would Mark record such a detail unless his readers knew who Rufus and Alexander were? The early traditions say Rufus and Alexander became missionaries, and when he is writing to the church at Rome, Paul greets a certain “Rufus and his mother” (Rom. 16:13).

What happened to Rufus’s brother Alexander? In 1941, an archeologist discovered first-century tombs of Cyrenian Jews in the Kidron Valley near Jerusalem. One of the ossuaries had the Greek inscription Alexander, son of Simon. A son of “Simon” named Alexander buried in a first-century Cyrenian cemetery in Jerusalem? Just a coincidence?  Maybe by the time Paul wrote to the Romans, Alexander had died, and only Rufus and his mother were still living and had fled to Rome.

Scholars believe Paul’s letter to the Romans was written about A.D. 56. If the Rufus Paul mentions is the same person mentioned by Mark as the son of Simon of Cyrene, then Mark’s Gospel was not a late, pseudonymous document but was written by Peter’s companion Mark before A.D. 55—just more than twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus.

The divine is in the details

Evidence is of different quality. The date for the death of Peter ad Paul is very strong, and the silence about their death in the Acts of the Apostles also points powerfully to a date for the three synoptic Gospels as prior to A.D. 65. The documentary evidence from Justin Martyr and Papias is somewhat weaker for various reasons, and the evidence about Rufus and Rome is mere conjecture.

However, when all the evidence is put together, the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together. As they do, the old foundation of modernist criticism begins to crumble. There is no real reason to suppose that the destruction of Jerusalem is the important terminus date. It is much more reliable to link the date of the death of the apostles to the writings that are actually by them or about them.

Since St. Paul died in 65, we can place all the epistles attributed to Paul before that date. Scholars may quibble about whether certain passages in the epistles of Paul are authentic or not. The main point is that the vast majority of writings attributed to Paul are of an early date. The A.D. 65 date also, as we have seen, points to a date for the synoptic Gospels prior to A.D. 55. That really leaves only the writings of the apostle John to be somewhat later—and even they must have been completed before the turn of the first century.

There is a popular myth circulating that the books of the New Testament are filled with late-invented mythical interpolations. Scholars like to imagine that a long time elapsed in which Greek philosophical and mythical ideas infected the early Christian texts. The early dating of the New Testament helps to dispel this myth and uphold the truth that the Gospels are the authentic and reliable witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that the epistles record the remarkably early interpretations of those events for the world’s salvation.

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