I was recently on a flight to Philadelphia to teach at a conference on the reliability of the Bible. I had a great conversation with the lady sitting next to me. Monica was her name. She had abandoned her confidence in the Bible some twenty years ago. And now at the age of 40, she was full of doubts about its reliability. And yes, I do think God arranges some divine appointments for me on my flights!
One of the objections Monica raised regarding the reliability of the Bible concerned the supposed late authorship of the Gospels. She told me one of the reasons she doubted the Gospels was because, “The Gospels were written down 300 years after Jesus lived!”
Now, I’ve heard this before, as you probably have. Critics raise this objection to suggest that the Gospels could not possibly be trustworthy if they were written that long after Jesus lived.
Well, what should we do when someone makes a claim like this? I like to put the burden of proof back on the person making the claim. So, that’s what I did with Monica. I started by asking her a question, “Who told you that?” (In other words, “How did you come to that conclusion?”)
Is that a perfectly fair question? Yes.
Her response? “Weren’t they?”
She went from sounding like an authority on the matter, to someone completely unsure of what she just boldly proclaimed, all in response to a friendly question (“Who told you that?”). She didn’t know why she even believed what she had just stated.
And this is very common. Critics make all kinds of claims about Jesus and the Bible that they are completely unprepared to back up with any kind of evidence.
Friends, there’s no evidence any of the New Testament books were written down three hundred years after Jesus. Not even liberal scholars believe that! And not only is there an absence of evidence for a late authorship of the Gospels, there is good evidence that most of the New Testament was written down before AD 70. What evidence? Well, for starters…
1. The Scriptures are silent regarding the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70.
Look at Mark 13.
Then as He [speaking of Jesus] went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”
Jesus prophesied here and in other places in the New Testament that the temple, as well as the city of Jerusalem, would be destroyed (Matt. 23:35-36, 38; 24:1-2; Luke 21:5-6, and 21:20-24).
In Matthew 23:36 and v. 38 Jesus said that the judgment would even come upon the generation that was alive at that time. And it is a well-established historical fact that these things did happen in A.D. 70.  In fact, it was the most significant judgment God had ever brought upon Israel. God’s people, after that event, were scattered from their homeland for 1900 years. The huge Jewish temple, with the massive stones that Jesus’ disciples were so impressed with (Matt.24:1ff) was utterly destroyed by the Romans, and literally burned to the ground! And although the authors of Gospels and the other New Testament epistles consistently hi-lighted fulfilled prophecy to establish the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, none of the New Testament writings mention the fact that this prophecy was fulfilled. That’s interesting.
And not only are the Scriptures silent regarding the temple’s destruction, but the New Testament refers to a temple that was still standing. The Book of Hebrews, as well as 2 Thessalonians (2:4), speak of the Jewish temple and the activities associated with it as though it were still standing. (See: Heb. 5:1-3; 7:23,27; 8:3-5; 9:25; 10:1,3-4, 11; 13:10-11; 2 Thess. 2:4; Rev. 11:1-2). As you may remember, the book of Hebrews is an exhortation to discouraged Hebrews, Jews, who had received Christ but were tempted to go back to Judaism, its sacrificial system and worship in the temple. That clearly implies that the temple was still standing, for you can’t go back to the sacrificial system and worship in the temple if there is no temple.
So, this silence regarding the destruction of the temple, as well as the references that imply that the temple was still standing, are best explained by the fact that the New Testament was largely finished by A.D.70.
The second reason we believe in an early completion date of the New Testament is…
2. The silence of the Scriptures regarding the great persecution of A.D. 64.
History tells us that July 19th, 64 A.D. was a real turning point in the days of the early church. On that night, in the heart of the city of Rome, a fire mysteriously broke out at the Circus Maximus, the biggest stadium of its day. This was Rome’s version of the Rose Bowl. The place sat 100,000 people. Soon the entire city was engulfed in flames. The fire burned for six days until it was finally over for lack of fuel. Many died. Hundreds of public buildings were burned to the ground. Their great temples and shrines, ruined. Acres of land, scorched. Thousands of homes destroyed, leaving many of the city’s inhabitants homeless and hopeless.
When the facts came in, sometime later, the Roman historian Tacitus (in his book Annals, 15:38-44) concluded that the Roman Emperor Nero was actually the one to blame. We’re told that Nero hired professional arsonists to burn the city to the ground so that he could erect marble palaces, and other monuments that would forever establish his name in history. (It would be a new, and grander Rome!)
Now, needless to say, this didn’t go over so well with the people of Rome. In fact, they were outraged. Their businesses, homes and history, were all up in smoke. All eyes were turning to Nero, the emperor. Who was to blame? What would he do?
In order to divert suspicion from himself Nero quickly looked for a scapegoat to blame the fire on. Well, he didn’t have to look very far for a group that would work out quite nicely. There were already crazy rumors circulating about a group of religious cannibals who were meeting in each other’s homes and eating the body of their leader and drinking his blood. They would work perfectly! They were already considered narrow-minded about the truth, saying there was only one God. And so out went the Emperor’s proclamation: The Christians are the ones who burned down Rome! And an order was given to arrest them for punishment. This unleashed one of the most gruesome, horrific times of persecution and suffering the church has ever seen! All throughout the city of Rome (and ultimately other parts of the empire) Christians were being arrested by the thousands. Eusebius and others tell us about the great suffering they endured.
These brothers and sisters were tortured on the rack, crucified, sewn up in animal skins and fed to wild dogs in the arena for the entertainment of the people, thrown to the lions, tied to bulls and dragged down to death, tied to stakes, after which they had pitch and tar poured over their bodies, that they might be turned into human candles and left to burn as night time torches in Nero’s gardens, etc.
And yet the New Testament writers, who on numerous occasions mention the names of rulers like Herod, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, are completely silent regarding Nero and this incredibly difficult time.
The Scriptures do talk about persecution, but nothing like what happened in the days following July 19th, A.D. 64. We believe, with good reason, that this is because the Gospels, as well as the book of Acts, and even all of Paul’s epistles, were probably all done before A.D. 64.
Now, let me build even a stronger case for you if I may. You’ll recall that when Luke wraps up the Book of Acts there in Chapter 28, the apostle Paul was still living. Right? He was under house arrest in Rome. Now, an early church father by the name of Clement of Rome, who wrote in the latter part of the first century tells us that Paul was martyred in the early 60’s A.D. in Rome , along with Peter around A.D. 65. If that is the case, and there is good reason to believe that it is, then it is safe to say that the Book of Acts was probably done in the late 50’s or very early 60s, while Paul was still alive.
Well, turn over to Acts Chapter 1.
“The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen…”
We see here that Luke originally wrote the book of Acts to a man by the name of “Theophilus.” Well, here’s what’s amazing. Luke refers Theophilus (there in v.1) back to his “former account” of all that Jesus began to do and teach. That former account was the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:1-4 indicates that that Gospel was also written for Theophilus).
Here’s a question I have for you: If the book of Acts was completed while Paul was still alive in the late 50s or early 60s and Acts was Luke’s second account, what does that tell us about the dating of the Gospel of Luke? It tells us that it was written even earlier than Acts!
3. Paul was martyred in the early 60s; but he was still alive at the end of the Book of Acts, Luke’s second writing.
It is safe to date the authorship of Luke’s Gospel to some time within the first 25 years of Jesus’ life. And what’s amazing about this is that most scholars (conservative and liberal) believe that Luke referred to Matthew and Mark’s Gospel as reliable sources to help build his Gospel. And there are some good reasons why they think that. If that was the case, that would mean that Matthew and Mark’s Gospels were written prior to Luke’s, even earlier than the late 50’s/early 60’s date we’ve demonstrated.
4. Paul quotes Luke’s Gospel and refers to it as Scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18.
Turn with me to 1 Timothy, chapter 5. Notice it says there in verse eighteen…
1 Timothy 5:18
For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”
When Paul quotes the scripture that says, “The laborer is worthy of his wages” we know Paul was quoting the gospel of Luke. Why? Because this passage is something that only Luke records for us. This statement is found nowhere else in the Bible, Old Testament or New. Why is this significant in establishing that the New Testament was completed early in the first century?
When did Paul die? Approximately A.D. 64.
This means that Luke’s Gospel must have been done and in wide enough circulation for both Paul and Timothy to know its contents and regard it as scripture prior to Paul’s death!
We also see Peter (in 2 Peter 3:16) referring to Paul’s letters, as scripture. Peter died around A.D. 65. That means that Paul’s letters were completed within 31 or 32 years after Jesus’ death.
5. The internal evidence within the Gospels themselves.
There are many seemingly insignificant details within the Gospels themselves that point to an early rather than late authorship. One of my favorite examples is found in John 5. John writes…
“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water.”
There at the Pool of Bethesda, as you probably recall, Jesus healed the man who had been lame for 38 years.
But let’s look at this again. There’s something you may have not noticed…
“After this there was…
(Notice that John is speaking in the past tense)
…a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is…
(Notice, John switches tenses, and now speaks in the present tense, saying in effect ‘Right now, there is, at the time I, John, write this.’)
…in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.”
The Pool of Bethesda that John refers to here was present at the time that he was writing this Gospel. Why is this significant? This pool, the pool of Bethesda, was destroyed in A.D. 70 with the destruction of the temple and was completely buried. This helps again to establish that the Gospel of John was probably written before A.D. 70.
This is just one example of what appears to be an insignificant detail within the Gospel text itself that points to an early completion date.
By the way, archaeologists discovered the pool of Bethesda in 1888. How many porches did they discover? Five, just like John said in verse two. I’ve been there and seen the ruins with my own eyes. This was an amazing discovery.
6. The discovery of a manuscript copy of Mark’s gospel amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls.
A paleographer by the name of Jose O’Callaghan made headlines around the world on March 18, 1972 when he identified a fragment of a hand written copy of the gospel of Mark in a collection of Dead Sea Scrolls. Based on the containers that the manuscripts were found in, the location of the caves, and other archaeological and historical evidence some scholars have concluded that that this copy of Mark must have been completed before A.D. 50! That’s within seventeen to twenty years after Jesus was crucified. The New York Times and Time magazine both did a story on this. The New York Times said, “If Father O’Callaghan’s theory is accepted it would prove that at least one of the gospels—that of St. Mark—was written only a few years after the death of Jesus.”
In concluding, listen to what these experts had to say about the whole issue of New Testament dating:
F.F. Bruce, the well known professor at the University of Manchester in England, said:
“The amount of evidence available to establish a first century date for the completion of the New Testament is so great that it cannot be reasonably denied.”
William F. Albright, who was formerly a liberal critic of the New Testament, said this in his book, Recent Discoveries in the Bible Lands:
“We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about A.D. 80, two full generations before the date between 130 and 150 given by the more radical New Testament critics of today”
John A. T. Robinson, once known for his role in launching the “Death of God” movement, wrote a revolutionary book titled Redating the New Testament. In this book he suggests dates for the New Testament books that place them earlier than the most conservative scholars ever held. Robinson places:
• Matthew’s completion date at 40 to after 60
• Mark’s completion at about 45 to 60
• Luke’s completion at before 57 to after 60
• and John’s at from before 40 to after 65.
This would mean that one or two of the Gospels could have been written as early as seven years after the crucifixion. At the latest the Gospels were all composed within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the events. Assuming the basic integrity and reasonable accuracy of the writers, this would place the reliability of the New Testament documents beyond reasonable doubt.
Two additional questions…
A. Why weren’t the Gospels written down within a year after Jesus’ death?
• We don’t know that they weren’t. Maybe they were.
• There’s no need to write down gospels for a future generation if you believe there will not be a future generation who would need them. The disciples, as you can see in the New Testament, were hoping that Jesus was coming back in their lifetime. It may be that as Jesus tarried and the disciples were advancing in years, that they saw the need to write down His words so that you and I might benefit.
B. How could the gospel writers have accurately remembered all that Jesus said and did?
• The supernatural aid of the Holy Spirit. On the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion Jesus told His disciples:
“These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance [what?] all things that I said to you.”
So, even if the Gospels had been written very late in the first century, there would be no problem with the time span because of the ability, not of the disciples, but the Holy Spirit who would help them. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would help them by bringing to their remembrance all the things that He told them.
• It’s reasonable to assume that the disciples may have taken detailed notes. (Matthew being a tax collector would have even been skilled in shorthand.)
• Jewish students in the first century were amazingly committed to memorizing lengthy portions of scripture. Rabbis were famous for having the entire Old Testament committed to memory.
• One doesn’t easily forget the miracles or words of One he is convinced is God in human flesh.
1. For example see Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews.
2. See our resources on Preterism at AlwaysBeReady.com for more on the dating of the Book of Revelation.
3. See The International Bible Encyclopedia for good details on this.
4. J.P. Moreland suggests Paul’s death was probably happened in A.D. 64, along with Peter around A.D. 65.
5. For some reasons why, see J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 152.
6. See the entry “Bethesda” in the New Unger’s Bible Dictionary.
7. Dr. Norman Geisler includes this discovery in Baker’s Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. This discovery has been questioned by some conservative Christian scholars, for example see the book Jesus Under Fire. There is some question as to whether this manuscript is actually a copy of Mark’s gospel.
8. See Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ, 105.
9. F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Manuscripts—Are They Reliable, 15.
10. Quoted by Norman Geisler in Baker’s Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 529. Original appears in Recent Discoveries in the Bible Lands, 136.
11. This information was found in Baker’s Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Norman Geisler, 529.
12. See Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 43.
CHARLIE H. CAMPBELL
is the founder of the ABR Apologetics Ministry, a popular guest teacher at churches and conferences in the United States and internationally, and the author of several books and DVDs, some of which include:
• The Bible’s Scientific Accuracy and Foresight
• Scrolls & Stones: Compelling Evidence the Bible Can Be Trusted
• Evidence for God
• One Minute Answers to Skeptics
• Archaeological Evidence for the Bible
• Answering Atheists
• The Case for the Resurrection
• If God is Loving, Why is there Evil and Suffering?
• Homosexuality and the Bible: Answering Objections to the Biblical View
• Teaching and Preaching God’s Word
• Apologetics Quotes
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