Sunday, January 18, 2009

The new prophesies and the dates of the gospels

Now that we have reviewed all of the new prophecies recorded by the authors of the four gospels, we are in a position to look for patterns that may indicate the date of authorship. We have seen some of the problems in determining to what exactly the prophecies are referring. When the reference is clear we can review the way the prophecies are handled and look for patterns that may indicate the date of authorship.

Mark

In the Gospel of Mark, the typical case is that the fulfillment is recorded following the prophecy. For example, when John the Baptist prophesies that someone is coming who is more powerful than he, shortly afterwards Mark records that Jesus came. The same is the case when Mark records that the disciples will leave, that one of them will betray Jesus, and that Peter will deny him. Sometimes there is a longer distance between the record of the prophecy and its fulfillment. For example, there is more space between Jesus' prophecies of his death and resurrection and the actual record of these events.

There are relatively few prophecies that Mark records for which he does not record the fulfillment. The question becomes, "Why does Mark not record the fulfillment of these prophecies?" In some cases the answer is easy. For prophecies of the end of the world, Mark would not record the fulfillment because they are not yet fulfilled. In other cases, the answer may involve how much Mark was interested in the fulfillment. When John the Baptist prophesied that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, Mark did not record the fulfillment. Was this outside his area of interest?

When it comes to the question of dating the Gospels, the key question is whether the fall of Jerusalem was past at the time of writing. Mark records prophecies of the destruction of the Temple and of the fall of Jerusalem. Why did he not record the fulfillment of these prophecies? Was it because the fulfillment was still in the future, or was it simply outside his area of interest?

Here I would like to draw your attention to two specific features in Mark's record of the prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem. The first item is that this prophesy alone is singled out for hesitancy about the date. "No one knows the day or the hour." It would hardly be necessary to mention this if the fulfillment were already past. But some may say this hesitancy refers not to the fall of Jerusalem but to the end of the world. This brings us directly to our second point. The Gospel of Mark contains prophecies of the fall of Jerusalem (that we recognize as such because the events are past, for us) mixed together with prophecies that seem to refer to the end of the world. It is not clear whether the author believes that the world would end when Jerusalem fell, but many people -- both believers and skeptics alike -- have thought, based on passages such as this, that the earliest Christians expected the immediate end of the world. Because we live after the fall of Jerusalem, we know that the world did not end at that time. No one who lives today would write a document that confused or conflated the end of the world and the fall of Jerusalem. If Mark wrote after the fall of Jerusalem, conflating those events is difficult to understand. However, before the fall of Jerusalem, it would be relatively easy to conflate two future events as things dealing with an indeterminate future. I will take the question of whether Jesus expected the fall of Jerusalem to be the end of the world or whether that was something that was unclear in the mind of Mark, and leave that question for another day. For the present purpose, it is enough to notice that it would be unlikely for Mark to include passages in which the end of the world and the fall of Jerusalem were mixed together in that way if the fall of Jerusalem were already past and yet the end of the world were still in the future. A natural explanation for conflating prophecies of two such distinct events is that the writer did not know they were distinct events. This would be the case if both the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world were still in the future at the time of writing.

Matthew

In Matthew we see a very similar situation to what we saw in Mark. Most prophesies show a fulfillment shortly after the prophecy is recorded. A few do not, and they follow a very similar pattern to that already seen in Mark. When it comes to the question of dating the Gospels, Matthew does not provide us with much new information.

Luke

The author of Luke, however, left us not only a gospel but also the Book of Acts. We have more material and also a larger timespan being covered. Many people assume a date for the Book of Luke around the year 80. If we look at the prophesies Luke records, we see that all those known to be fulfilled before the year 80 have their fulfillment recorded in either Luke or Acts – except for the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Taking together both the books of Luke and Acts, we see the author record the fulfillment of one prophesy after another. The baptism of Holy Spirit was recorded as a prophecy with a future fulfillment in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the fulfillment is recorded in the Book of Acts. The persecution of the early Christians was recorded as a prophecy in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; again the fulfillment is recorded in the book of Acts. Luke is so conscientious about recording the fulfillment of prophecies that he seems nearly to have used the prophecies as a checklist for the events he chose to record.

What if the fall of Jerusalem had simply been outside his area of interest? What if he simply considered the events to be outside the scope of the narrative? We have an example of Luke handling just such a situation in the Book of Acts. When the prophet Agabus predicted a famine, Luke did not record the famine in any detail; however, he makes a point to mention that the prophecy was fulfilled. Based on the recurring patterns of recorded prophesies and fulfillments, we may consider it to be part of Luke's scope and intended subject matter to show when prophecies were fulfilled. Under the circumstances, it would be strange for Luke to record the prophecies of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, but not even mention their fulfillments as he had mentioned the fulfillment of Agabus' prophecy of the famine. This provides us with substantive reason to question whether Luke was written after the fall of Jerusalem as is commonly supposed, or whether it was written before the fall of Jerusalem.

Note that one of the main reasons cited for dating Luke after the fall of Jerusalem is that Luke plainly made use of Mark and Mark was also assumed to have been written after the fall. If Mark had been written after the fall, and Luke used Mark, then Luke must also have been written after the fall of Jerusalem. However, since we have seen substantive objective reasons from the text for thinking that Mark may have been written before the fall of Jerusalem, and then the date of Luke also becomes an open question. Both Mark and Luke handle the prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem differently than the other prophecies. In Mark, the prophecies of the fall are the only ones singled out with a hesitancy about their date; they also seem to be conflated with prophecies of a distinct event, the end of the world, which obviously did not happen at the same time as the fall of Jerusalem. In Luke, if we assume the date of 80, it becomes difficult to explain why there is no mention of the fall of Jerusalem given the author's demonstrated tendency to record a prophecy's fulfillment whenever it is known. This opens the possibility that Luke may also have been written before the fall of Jerusalem.

An early date for Luke would also explain something that is otherwise difficult to explain: why Luke would follow Paul so closely for so many years but end the narrative when Paul was still in prison. The Book of Acts mentions Paul more often than Jesus. In fact, the word "Paul" occurs more often than the word "God" in the Book of Acts. The opening chapters of the Book of Acts give a broader picture of the activities of the early Christians; in the later chapters after Paul was introduced, the narrative becomes largely focused on Paul. If the Book of Acts had been written substantially after the fall of Jerusalem, 10 to 20 years after Paul's death, it would be very difficult to explain not only why the fall of Jerusalem was not mentioned, but also why the martyrdom of Paul was not mentioned. Luke had shown an interest in recording martyrdoms; why leave out that of his main subject? Here we have more than one line of objective evidence converging on a slightly earlier date for Luke: one which would explain why he omitted major events which were so clearly within the scope of his purpose.

John

The Gospel of John deserves a brief mention in this context. It is different enough in style and content that we should be cautious in drawing too many conclusions from a comparison of John to the others. However the Gospel of John is unique in being the only gospel accepted into the canon that was widely agreed from earliest times to have been written after the fall of Jerusalem. How does the Gospel of John handle prophecies? In particular, what about the fall of Jerusalem? Here we see the Gospel of John following the usual pattern, typically recording both a prophecy and its fulfillment. However, John shows little interest in the fall of Jerusalem. Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke record Jesus' lengthy prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, John skips that entire conversation. The only place in John where we see Jesus talking about the events of the year 70, Jesus is saying, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it." While the predictions in Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain urgent calls to watch, the Gospel of John contains no call to watch for the fall of Jerusalem. Why have the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple become so much less a matter of urgency? While in some places the earlier Gospels seem to conflate the fall of Jerusalem with the end of the world as part of some unknown future, the Gospel of John conflates the destruction of the temple with Jesus' death and resurrection as part of a fulfilled past. And finally, while in the earlier Gospels we see the prediction of Jerusalem's destruction giving those Gospels a forward-leaning sense of urgency, in the Gospel of John that forward-leaning sense of urgency is instead supplied by the death of the beloved disciple and Jesus' return.

Closing words

The dates assigned by scholars to the gospels are often based on assumptions about how the gospels handle new prophesies such as Jesus’ prophesies of the fall of Jerusalem. One common approach to dating the gospels rests on the assumption that if a prophesy were recorded then its fulfillment must have been in the past. Based on this assumption, it was widely assumed that even the earliest gospel must have been written after the year 70. My main purpose in undertaking this study was to make a more thorough analysis and determine whether the assumption was warranted about how the authors would handle the prophesies. The point of the previous posts on this topic was to provide a more complete and thorough analysis of the new prophecies. I found that the authors of the three synoptic gospels all treat the prophesy of Jerusalem’s fall differently than they treat other prophesies known to have been fulfilled at the time of writing. This brings into question the assumption that recording the prophesy is a sure sign that the fulfillment was past and raises the question why the fall of Jerusalem is handled differently than the other prophesies.

None of the information we have here is enough to prove beyond all doubt the date at which the Gospels were written. However, it does provide warrant for seriously considering earlier, pre-destruction dates for the Gospels of Mark and Luke.

3 comments:

BruceA said...

This has been a very interesting series.

I'm finding myself more comfortable with the idea that Mark, at least, may have been written before 70 AD.

Looking again at Mark 13 / Matthew 24, I am struck by the difference in the disciples' initial question. Jesus speaks of the Temple's stones being thrown down, and the disciples say, "Tell us, when will this be, and..."

"...what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" (according to Mark)

"...what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (according to Matthew)

As you mentioned in your post, Mark makes no distinction between the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world. In Matthew the question is reworded to make more of a distinction between the two. This and some other passages (e.g. "He sent his troops...and burned their city," Matthew 22:8) suggest to me a post-70 date for Matthew.

As for Luke, I think you make a plausible case, taken by itself. I would note that the issues you raise — no mention of fulfillment of the Temple destruction and no mention of Paul's death — could also be explained if Luke had been planning to write a third volume but for some reason was unable to complete it. His gospel mentions Jesus' promise to send the Holy Spirit, but the fulfillment of this promise does not appear until Acts. The persecutions under Nero and the destruction of the Temple would have fallen beyond the timeline of Acts, so if Luke wanted to mention these things, he may have been preparing another book. But there's no way to know unless someone digs up an unfinished manuscript somewhere.

Again, this has been a very interesting series of posts.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

Matthew is a complicated one, isn't it? There are *parts* of it that I would bet are earlier than Mark. I hope to untangle the evidence on Matthew one of these days ...

I really appreciate you hanging with me through the whole series. Not too many people are interested in this kind of thing, except as a sleep aid. ;)

You'll notice your own intuitions were vindicated on whether some prophesies were just "off scope" for some of the authors. You have good instincts.

Your thoughts on Luke are ... not impossible, but far from proven. Which is roughly where I had to leave Luke myself. ;)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for doing this. A thorough job.