6 Reasons to Date the Gospels and Acts Early

The majority opinion in New Testament studies is that the four biographies written about Jesus–the Gospels–and the Book of Acts were written after 70 C.E. Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke, and John was written in the 90s. Acts would have been written some time after Luke, obviously. The arguments put forward for this “later date,” I would argue, are quite weak.

The main argument is based on Jesus’ predictive prophecy about the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21), which we know happened in 70 C.E. We also “know” that Jesus wasn’t really divine and so could not make such a prediction. Therefore, it is more likely that the Gospel writers were looking backward, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., and putting these words into Jesus’ mouth for the purpose of giving him greater authority.

This all sounds plausible until you examine the passages in question, which I have done here. I encourage you to read the full article, but let me summarize why this is not a good way to date the Gospels.

  1. All the details in Jesus’ prediction can be traced back to Old Testament passages about the destruction of the first Temple.
  2. Even if Jesus was not divine, he could still make a prediction. People do this all the time. We know, through Josephus, other people were prophesying the destruction of the Temple before 70 C.E. as well.
  3. If the Gospel writers were writing in retrospect, they would have mentioned that Jesus’ prophecy had come true, as they do in other places about other prophecies (Luke does this in Acts and Matthew records Old Testament prophecy fulfillment all the time).

In the end, I agree with notable New Testament scholar, E.P. Sanders, who says “there is no material in Mark which must be dated after 70.” I would say the same for Matthew, Luke, and Acts as well. In fact, I would argue that there are some data in the Gospels and Acts that must be dated before 70 C.E., if they are to make sense at all.

1. No Description of the Temple Destruction

Now, before accusing me of an argument from silence, let me explain. We clearly have a prophecy made by Jesus in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21. However, we are never told in the Gospels or in Acts what happens to the Temple. Was Jesus’ prediction right? In fact, if you read the Gospels and Acts all the way through, you would have no reason to suspect that the Temple was not still standing.

The reason this is not an argument from silence is two fold. First, we know that the Gospel writers liked to prove when a prophecy had come true. We know that if Jesus had made a prediction that came true, they would want to point that out. So, if Jesus predicted the Temple destruction and it later came true, we have positive reasons to believe they would have pointed this out. However they did not, and so this stands in want of an explanation.

Secondly, the Book of Acts is a book about the events of the early church in and around Judea in the first century. A book that details many historical and political events fails to mention the single most important political event at that time. This would be like a history of the United States that failed to mention the Revolutionary War. Not quite analogous, but you get the point. For positive reasons, we know the author would include this event, if it had happened.

What best explains these curious facts? The easiest explanation is that the Temple had not been destroyed yet, which would give these books a dating before 70 C.E.

2. No Description of the Deaths of Peter, Paul, or James the Brother of Jesus

Likewise, we should explain that this is not an argument from silence either. We have positive reasons to expect these events if they had indeed occurred by the time of the writing of the Book of Acts.

The Book of Acts has two main characters: Peter in the first half, and Paul in the second half. James the brother of Jesus was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem in the early Church. He was so well known that even Josephus, the Jewish historian, mentions his death in 62 CE.

The Book of Acts details the deaths and martyrdoms of Stephen and James the Son of Zebedee (minor characters with respect to the book).

Therefore, if the main characters of the book (Peter and Paul) and one of the most well known Christians of the time (James) had been killed or martyred, we would expect the author of Acts to record this. However, there is no mention of the death of Peter, Paul, or James the brother of Jesus, all three of which happened before 70 C.E. Surely, at least one of them would have been mentioned.

The easiest explanation is that Paul, Peter, and James were still alive at the time of the writing of the Book of Acts which would give it a date before 70 C.E. Now, remember that Acts was Luke’s second volume, following the Gospel of Luke. This means Luke’s Gospel was written even earlier, which would mean Matthew was written even earlier because Luke and Matthew share material, which would mean Mark was written even earlier than Matthew because scholars believe Mark wrote first. This would push us quite a ways back.

3. The Temple Tax

In Matthew 17:24-27, Jesus (and subsequently Matthew) approves of paying the double drachma Temple tax. We know from Josephus and Suetonius that after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., this tax was shifted to the temple of Jupiter. Would Jesus, and subsequently Matthew, really persuade disciples of Jesus to pay tax to a pagan temple? Not to mention, the passage would demand that the disciples be identified as “sons” of Jupiter. This is hardly believable. The most likely understanding is that Jesus, and subsequently Matthew, were teaching early Christians to continue paying the Temple tax because the Temple was still standing. Hence, a date prior to 70 C.E. is demanded.

4. Temple Swearing

In Matthew 23:16-22, the author records Jesus chastising the Pharisees for swearing by the Temple. Whatever the purpose and application of this text, why would the author of Matthew use an antiquated example to make his point? In other words, if he is trying to make a point to an audience post-Temple, why use this illustration of “swearing by the Temple” to make it? The easiest explanation is that the Temple was still standing and therefore a useful tool to make the point. You cannot swear by a Temple that does not exist.

5. The Altar

But there’s more. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus says, “Therefore if you present your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and first go be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your gift.”

There would be no reason to make this point to an audience post-Temple. This pericope has no direct application to someone that will not present a gift at the altar because the altar no longer exists. The easiest explanation is that Matthew included this pericope for an audience that would immediately understand and apply its meaning to their lives. Hence, they would be familiar with the altar because it still existed in the Temple which still existed.

6. Overall Attitude Toward Jewish and Roman Authorities

Many have noted the negative attitude of the Gospel authors toward Jewish authorities and also the positive attitude toward Roman authorities.

The antagonists of the Gospel stories are Jewish authorities, not Roman. In fact, the Gospels portray Roman authorities in a positive light at times. Multiple centurions are mentioned in a positive light both in the Gospels and Acts. Paul appeals to Roman authorities for help. Pontius Pilate finds no fault in Jesus. We could go on.

After 70 C.E., or after Nero’s persecution of the early church in the 60’s C.E., this would be highly unlikely. Likewise, if the negative attitude toward the Jewish leaders reflects in any way the relationship between the early church and Jewish leaders at the time of the writing of the Gospels, the easiest explanation is that the Jewish leaders were in fact still leaders and had authority. Something that was not true after the destruction of the Temple.

If some New Testament scholars, like Richard Bauckham, are correct that the author of Mark is intentionally keeping some people unnamed in his Gospel for fear that the Jewish authorities would persecute them, then this also would lend a hand for a date prior to 70 C.E.

Conclusion

Not only do we have good reason to reject the main argument for a late date, but we have good reason to believe the Gospels were written early, at the very least in the early 60’s.

This places many stories of Jesus and the early church only 30 years removed from Jesus’ death. This means the first recordings of Jesus and the early church would certainly be within “living memory.” Many eyewitnesses would have still been alive, which is a slam dunk when it comes to historiography.

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Published by Haden Clark

Haden lives in North Texas with his wife and two dogs. He holds degrees in theology and philosophy.

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