The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 6

Authorship and Dating of the Gospels

Nothing covered so far guarantees that what the Gospel writers said is true. How do historians make assessments about reliability of claims made in ancient works? How do we know who wrote a document, when did they write it, and were they in a context in which they could know what actually happened?

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 6
Watching Now
Authorship and Dating of the Gospels


A. Written testimonials from the second, third, and early fourth centuries (Patristic evidence)

B. Matthew

1. Papias

2. Irenaeus

3. Wrote in the 60’s primarily to Jewish Christians

C. Mark

1. Clement of Alexandria

2. Wrote in the 60’s primarily to Roman Christians

D. Luke

1. No evidence as clear as for Matthew and Mark

2. “We” statements in Acts

3. Tradition agrees Luke was a Gentile written for Theophilus

E. John

1. Papias (disciple of John)

2. Later evidence: Ephesus; end of first century


A. Matthew

1. Destruction of Judaism

2. Anti-supernatural bias

B. Mark

1. Nero’s persecution

2. Earliest Gospel, prior to Luke-Acts

C. Luke

1. “Jerusalem surrounded by armies”

2. Goal of Acts is to get Paul to Rome

D. John

1. Lifespan (40 – 100 years)

2. John perhaps was the youngest disciple (80 in the 90’s)

E. Two sets of dates

1. Conservatives: Matt – Luke in the 60’s; John in the 90’s

2. Liberals: Mark in the 70’s, Matt and Luke in the 80’s; John in the 90’s


A. First century documents

B. From eyewitnesses or second-hand witnesses

C. Good evidence by ancient standards (compared to other histories)

  • An introduction to the common myths that challenged the historicity of the gospel message. Some of the myths have no connection to any historical evidence (e.g., the Da Vinci Code), recently discovered “evidence” is often distorted (Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic literature), and Blomberg concludes that we should be initially skeptical of new findings.

  • How did Christians arrive at the canon of 27 authoritative documents that were from God and therefore foundational for Christian belief and living? Blomberg looks at hints from the New Testament itself, the citations and writings of the Apostolic Fathers, third century discussions, and the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century. None of our four Gospels were ever questioned, and no other gospel was put forward as equally authoritative.

  • Looks at the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. They show an interest in the infancy and final days of Jesus, but are of no historical value. There are gnostic gospels (mostly fragmentary) that are more esoteric, philosophical speculation, and Blomberg reads sections from the Gospel of Thomas.

  • Are the copies of the Greek New Testament accurate? Are the variations among the manuscripts so significant that we can no longer trust them? What about the two paragraphs that some Bibles say are not authentic? This discussion is called “Textual Criticism.”

  • Are the translations of the Bible reliable? Do they faithfully convey the meaning of the Greek? Why are they different and do they disagree on the essentials of the Christian faith?

  • Nothing covered so far guarantees that what the Gospel writers said is true. How do historians make assessments about reliability of claims made in ancient works? How do we know who wrote a document, when did they write it, and were they in a context in which they could know what actually happened?

  • There was a 30 — 40 year gap between the events of the Gospels and the writing of the Gospels. Can we trust the accounts of Jesus’ life as they were told during this time period. Were the Gospel writers even interested in preserving history? Were they in a position to do so?

  • Three recent areas of study encourage us to accept the reliability of oral tradition. They are studies in the nature of an oral culture, how the Gospels follow an informal controlled tradition, and the effect of social memory.

  • Discussion of the literary dependence among the gospels, formally known as the “Synoptic Problem.” Argues that Mark was the first written source, and Matthew and Luke borrow from him, from a common document (“Q”) and used their own material.

  • What kind of books are we dealing with? Different kinds of literature will be analyzed differently in terms of reliability. If it is fiction, we will analyze it a certain way. How should we read the Gospels?

  • While archaeology can’t prove certain things, it can corroborate many of the details of the Gospels and should encourage us to look forward to even more discoveries. Blomberg looks at Jesus’ imagery, the sites he traveled, the results of recent discoveries, and the weight of artifacts encouraging us to trust the Bible.

  • There is a belief that any and all Christian evidence is tainted, and so only non-Christian evidence should be investigated. Not only is this falacious (“silly and nonsensical”), and there is non-Christian evidence that tells us a surprising lot about Jesus.

  • Now that we have seen some of the criteria that historians use to judge the reliability of an ancient document, we will use those same criteria on the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. Blomberg uses the twelve criteria of historical reliability.

  • What is the resulting picture that we find of Jesus? For those who find only a small portion of the Gospels reliable, their picture of Jesus that results from the  limited sections of the gospels will be somewhat different from those who find a large portion as reliable.

  • Why do so many different scholars have such different views of Jesus? There actually is more similarity than at first is expected, but the differences are due to things such as scholar’s presuppositions. What then are the criteria for accepting a historical document as authentic?

  • Given the criteria established for historical reliability, which portions of the Synoptics have the strongest claim to being authentic?

  • Considering all the questions raised about the quest for who Jesus is, what can we know for sure? What is the core of the gospel tradition that does not require faith?

  • We have been looking at topics pertaining to the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. Now it is time to look at specific issues that might question the reliability of the Synoptics. Does looking at a cross section of the “apparent contradictions” give us more confidence?

  • Continuing the purpose of the previous chapter, Blomberg looks at specific harmonization problems between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John.

  • Looks at the overall features of John, arguing that they show the gospel to be a reliable witness to Jesus.

  • Now that we have looked at the issues of John’s reliability in general, Blomberg starts working through individual passages that have raised questions for some people. The question is whether or not Jon’s teaching dovetails with teaching in the Synoptics. Much of the issue has to do with presuppositions and the burden of proof, and the evidence Blomberg cites is often when John’s teaching finds a connection with Synoptic teaching or with historical data.

  • This quest was due to a new emphasis on the historical reliability of John. Some events in John have a greater claim to authenticity by liberal critics. Blomberg then looks at a theme throughout John of Jesus as the Purifier, which parallels the Synoptics account of Jesus healing people, making the unclean clean. This too argues for a greater part of John's gospel being historically reliable.

  • Paul discloses quite a bit of information about the historical Jesus in his letters. His letters come from the 50’s and early 60’s, before the gospels were probably written, so he is an independent witness as to whom Jesus was based on a reliable oral tradition.

  • Blomberg summarizes the previous lecture and continues by pointing out the similarities of key themes between Jesus and Paul. Instead of seeing differences between Jesus and Paul, these themes actually show how similar they are. Blomberg concludes by explaining why Paul does not make more allusions to Jesus.

  • Miracles are natural and expected if in fact God exists. But does he exist? If a person begins with atheistic presuppositions, then miracles are impossible and those portions of the Bible unreliable. This is not a detailed discussion of the topic but a quick summary of the arguments.

  • Do miracles outside of the Bible that parallel biblical miracles call into question the veracity of the latter? The fact of the matter is that they were different and often later than Jesus’ miracles.

  • Can we believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? If not, then this part of the gospel story is not reliable. Blomberg covers general issues and specific problems, and then positive support for the virginal conception.

  • What led a band of defeated followers of a failed Messianic claimant begin to preach him as Lord and God? If the resurrection is fiction, then the belief of the early church still needs to be explained. Alternate explanations fail to impress; and there is evidence for a bodily resurrection.

  • Does a defense of biblical reliability lead to any new insights about Jesus himself? Or does it simply bring us back to the status quo of historical Christian orthodoxy? Have our churches been preaching a balanced picture of the Bible, or have they been selective?

  • Blomberg summarizes the main points he has been making.

An in-depth look at the charges against the historicity of the gospels, and the evangelical answers.

Dr. Craig Blomberg

Historical Reliability of the Gospels


Authorship and Dating of the Gospels

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is course on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. Segment six The Authorship and Dating of the Gospels by way of Review. We have. Looked at. Why choose Matthew, Mark, Luke and John rather than some other ancient sources? We have looked at whether or not the text of those documents can be recovered with a high degree of reliability and determined that those are our best sources and we can reconstruct them very accurately. Then in segment five, we talked about modern English translations and suggested various reasons for the diversity of translations. But irrespective of the particular version, again, a high degree of ability to understand and to reproduce what the ancient texts were saying. But nothing we have said in our opening five. Segments. Necessarily makes anything. The gospel writers recorded. True. Simply means we know what they claimed. How do classical historians of any ancient document? Where eyewitnesses have long since died. Where the vast majority of evidence and writing from the same time and place has long since been lost. How do historians begin to make assessments about the reliability or unreliability of historical claims made in ancient works? This segment will address two questions that are closely intertwined that have to be asked pretty early on in that quest. Do we know who wrote a particular document? The Question of Authorship. Do we know the date? At which they wrote. Were they in a position, in a place, in a time, in a context to have access, either because they themselves had experienced the events or because they were in contact with people who had or because they relied on written source material or oral tradition that ultimately came from people who knew what they were talking about. This is the question of the authorship and dating of the Gospels.


[00:03:09] Scholars divided the evidence for any ancient document into two categories what's called external evidence and internal evidence. External evidence means what we can find out from other sources outside of the document in question external to it. Internal evidence hopefully obviously means what emerges from the document and its contents itself. If we begin with the external evidence for the gospels. We are, for the most part, referring to the testimonies, the written materials of second and third and occasionally fourth century Christian writers, those closest in time to the first century when the New Testament Gospels were first penned. What do as they are called, the patristic sources the early church fathers have to say about the composition of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and is their information credible? We will go through each of the Gospels one at a time. For the Gospel of Matthew. By far, the most important and earliest tradition comes from an early second century writer by the name of Papias. Unfortunately, papacies works are lost. We know them only because they are quoted in later. Early church fathers particularly. The man who is known as the first true church historian. You see this writing at the beginning of the three hundreds. Here is how you see bias. Refers to Papias testimony about Matthew. Matthew compiled. His sayings in the Hebrew language. And everyone translated them as they were able. Now, truth in advertising requires me to say that's not the only way to translate into English. The Greek that you Sebas uses to quote papias his words. The term four compiled could also be composed. The term for sayings occasionally refers to an entire narrative. Hebrew could also mean Aramaic, a very similar cognate language. And translated could also mean. Interpret it.


[00:06:15] Frustrating that the oldest and most important testimony has those many ambiguities to it. But there is. A consistent pattern across the testimony of the early church fathers, and that is that Matthew wrote first. But what he wrote first was something in Hebrew. We do not have any ancient manuscripts of any of the gospels in Hebrew. We have a 14th century Hebrew manuscript that has a few curious little deviations from the Greek texts that don't read just like a translation. And a few scholars have wondered, might that have preserved touches of some original Hebrew? We have no way of knowing. But. The word lagi usually translated sayings also suggests that what Matthew wrote first in Hebrew may not have been a full gospel, may not have been an entire narrative. It may have been a collection of Jesus sayings, which perhaps then he later expanded to what we know of as a full fledged gospel. There's also the important testimony of. You see this? This time, quoting Irenaeus, a late second century church father whose works we can consult and discover that CBS has quoted him accurately. Which is good because there's always the question. Did you CBS quote paperless accurately? We can't prove it, but at least where we can check you. CBC generally inspires confidence. Irenaeus, endorsed by CBS, wrote that Matthew wrote While Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel and founding the church in Rome. In other words, in the sixties of the first century. We know from a variety of sources that Peter was in Rome, at least by approximately A.D. 60. And we know that Peter and Paul both lost their lives under the persecution instigated by the Emperor Nero sometime in the mid to late sixties. So here we have a framework for the composition of Matthew.


[00:08:59] We also have a smattering of ancient sources that suggest Matthew May well have written from Jerusalem. We're less sure where he wrote to. It could have also been within Israel. It could have been to Antioch of Syria. But we're told and there is plenty of internal evidence to back up the likelihood that he wrote to congregations of primarily Jewish Christians. Modern scholars, as we will see when we discuss the internal evidence. Often opt for a slightly later date, but that requires rejecting Irenaeus, his testimony as unreliable. And I'm not convinced there is good reason for doing that. But more on that in a moment. Turn to the gospel of Mark. Turn again to the external evidence to the writings of the early church fathers. This time it is a writer by the name of Clement. Who gives us important information. Also late second century. Also, according to CBS, when Peter had preached the word publicly in Rome and announced the Gospel by the Spirit, those present of whom there were many besought mark since for a long time he had followed him and remembered what had been said to record his words. Mark did this and communicated the gospel to those who made request of him. And Peter knew of it. He neither actively prevented it. Nor encouraged the undertaking. Kind of indifferent. Other second century sources and following confirm that Mark was writing to Roman Christians. That he was writing. In what today we would call the sixties. As things were getting more difficult for Christians in Rome in 64, Nero would unleash the first formal state sponsored persecution of Christians. But it didn't happen overnight and without gradual preparation as tensions became greater. Not least because Rome had originally granted Christianity the same freedoms as Judaism had not to have to worship the Emperor.


[00:11:48] But by the sixties it was very clear Christianity was not just the Jewish sect, that it was at its beginning. More Gentiles than Jews were flooding into this movement. And it had to be considered a new and separate religion. Mark, then we have reason to believe. Probably also wrote in the sixties as things were getting tougher to encourage beleaguered Roman Christians. Unfortunately, there is no clear detailed statement, even as long as those we have just read about the formation of Luke. The early church believed Luke was a Gentile. They associated him with the man by that name who appears in the greetings at the end of a couple of Paul's letters, especially in Colossians, described by Paul as his beloved physician. His favorite doctor. The Book of Acts traditionally has been ascribed to Luke, and in the latter half of acts, when the narrator focuses primarily on Paul and his missionary journeys three times for significant chunks of text lapses into the first person plural, saying, We did this and we went to such and such a place and we saw this suggesting that he was present with Paul on those occasions, which would fit an accompanying traveling doctor, especially because Paul had some recurring malady that he referred to as his thorn in the flesh. In Second Corinthians 12, suggestions from the ancient church as to where Luke was from and or wrote to include a cave. The southern half of Greece. Philip II in the northern part of Greece and Antioch in Syria. If we're honest, we have to admit a certain measure of ignorance. He is writing to a man by the name of Theophilus and puts his name in that place early in his gospel, where ancient historians typically identified their patron, the person who funded their historical project.


[00:14:17] Theophilus appears to be a Christian, a new Christian, and one that Luke wants to assure with even greater certainty the truth of the things about which he has been instructed. Finally, we come to John. John. Is spoken of once again by Papias and an intriguing passage that refers to how Papias sought out any information he could find out about the apostles. He appears to have been a disciple of John the beloved Apostle, the member of the inner three core Peter, James and John that led the 12 disciples, the one who. Jesus loved and was closest to at The Last Supper. But Papias also speaks about a second man named John, whom he calls an elder, and who he links with a man named Christiaan, who is not one of the 12. John the elder may well have been another disciple of John the Apostle. So it's not entirely clear which of these two men Papias is referring to when he talks about the writing of the gospel. But in the other later ancient Christian external testimonies. It is the beloved disciple. It is the member of the 12 John, who is said to be writing to the churches in and around Ephesus. Near the very end of the first century. Well, surely that should settle it. Right. We have to look at internal evidence as well. We have to look with Matthew, especially at the fact that there are a couple of places where Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem with such vividness that many scholars wonder whether his words have been written up in light of the actual destruction of the temple and much of the city in A.D. 70. In which case we would have to date Matthew a little bit later. On the other hand, this is often bound up with a conviction that Jesus could not have supernaturally predicted the destruction in this amount of accurate detail.


[00:17:00] Which is a bias against the supernatural that probably should not influence our discussion. When we come to mark the debate tends to surround the fact that if. Mark was writing Christians already undergoing persecution by Nero. He would have had to have been writing in 64 or later, whereas for reasons we will see in a subsequent lecture. If Mark was the earliest written gospel, at least in Greek and Luke, as most scholars believe, followed Mark. And Luke ends his book of acts with events that happen no later than 62, when Paul was still waiting in house arrest in Rome for his appeal to Caesar to be settled. Then Mark had to have been written before Luke acts and therefore before 62. Hence the debate. Luke in that same passage in Jesus discourse on the Mount of Olives about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, actually adds a reference that is not found in any other gospel to Jerusalem, surrounded by armies, much more specific than anything we find in Matthew and Mark that just speak of a desolated sacrilege or an abomination of desolation. Maybe then Matthew and Mark are priests 70, but Luke is post 70, and the reason that AX ends so abruptly is not because it's the last thing Luke knew of to write, but because he got Paul to Rome, the heart of the Empire. And geographically, that was the goal of the narrative of acts. So once again, there is debate. We've already seen the debate about which individual named John may be behind John here. Maybe the biggest question has to do simply with life span. Can we imagine a disciple? Of Jesus in the twenties of the first century, still being alive at the end of the nineties in a time and place when average life spans were late forties.


[00:19:33] Well, that is an average. It's not an upper limit. And the Jewish document known as the Mission, now written in about 200, specifies attributes of people decade by decade, all the way to the age of 100. Roman sources documenting the ages of people in various parts of the empire at different times make it very clear that there were people who lived into their seventies, eighties and nineties. Just not nearly as common as in our modern world. There is the interesting tradition in the early church that John was the youngest of the disciples, perhaps still an adolescent, a teenager. After all, Jesus, about 30, when he began his ministry as a self-styled rabbi, would have typically gathered younger men around him as disciples. So none of the disciples were likely more than in their mid-twenties. If we did the math, then if Jesus was crucified even as early as 30, some would say 33. If John was, let's say, 19 when Jesus began his ministry, let's say in 27. He could have been a man still in his eighties. In the nineties. Very much in a position to have written this text. The upshot is. That we should think of two sets of somewhat competing dates. For conservatives Matthew, Mark and Luke in the Sixties. John probably in the nineties for more liberal scholars. Mark In the seventies, Matthew and Luke in the eighties and John in the nineties. For other reasons that we don't have time to go into. There are debates over whether the Gospels named for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written by them or otherwise anonymous followers of them. But let's not lose sight of what is agreed upon. These are first century documents. These are documents that either come from eyewitnesses.


[00:22:02] Matthew, one of the 12 disciples and converted tax collector, John, one of the inner core of the three closest disciples to Jesus. And. Second hand. Witnesses. Mark, whose family lived in Jerusalem. We learned from Acts 12, and he could have been present during Jesus lifetime to see some of his ministry, but we're never told that he did. Rather, he is a companion in the Book of Acts of Paul. And later. And first Peter of Peter. And as we read from the external evidence believed to have gotten most of his gospel information from Peter Luke, almost certainly not even an inhabitant of Israel. During Jesus lifetime. But a follower of Paul and someone who was free. And in Israel during a two year period from 57 to 59, while Paul awaited the outcome of his imprisonment in Israel even before appealing to the emperor. Luke was free during those two years with the opportunity to interview anybody. Still alive from Jesus lifetime. If those inscriptions are not true, then Matthew and John are written by second hand sources, but no further removed from the originals. Then Mark and Luke already must be even on the most conservative explanation. We're either first or second generation. But we're first century. Is that good? It is by ancient standards. When in most instances histories that we have come from three, four, 500 years after the events they record. When to take a biography, for example, of the life of Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C. We have to turn to the late first and early second centuries A.D. and the writings of Plutarch and Arrian. And yet in that more than 400 year period of time. Classical historians are able to piece together what they believe is a very reliable sequence in detail of the events in the life and exploits and conquests of Alexander.


[00:24:52] Our confidence in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John's ability to tell the story accurately of Jesus should be that much more enhanced. But we still have to deal with the question of the period between the events and the first written gospels, even if it was as short as 30 years from 30 to 60. That is a sufficient period of time for all kinds of things to get garbled. Heck, today it only takes 30 minutes for the news media to garble something. No offense to any newscasters listening who don't fit that stereotype. So we will turn next to the question of the reliability of the oral tradition. But for now, what can be determined from authorship and dating inspires confidence that these writings and their writers may well have gotten it right.