Why I Believe EVERY Synoptic Gospel was Written Prior to AD 62

So I’ve been reading Brant Pitre’s (Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary) book released last year: ‘The Case for Jesus – The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ.’

I highly recommend this book. It is concise, very accessible and yet extremely insightful, with solid scholarly citations.

I want to share 3 reflections, in 3 separate blog posts, on the back of it.

The first is this –

I am now even more convinced that EVERY Synoptic gospel was written prior to AD 62.

As this is a blog I obviously will not be making any sort of an exhaustive exploration of the infamous Synoptic problem, nor will I even attempt to survey the various arguments for and against early and late dating. I just want to give you the reason for my view and explain why I believe this to be stronger than any case for later dating.

The reason is this – There is both strong internal evidence AND strong external evidence that Luke wrote his gospel prior to AD 62. If this is so it is highly likely that every gospel was in circulation by this time.

Internal Evidence that Luke was written by AD62

The internal evidence from the Synoptics suggests Luke does not know about the destruction of the Temple in AD70. This is most relevant because it is by-and-large the a priori assumption from sceptics, that Jesus could not have legitimately prophesied these events (prophecies that are recorded in all the Synoptics), that direct them into postulating post AD70 dates for them.

But why don’t any of the Synoptics even mention that this prophecy has been fulfilled, if any of them were written after AD70?

Moreover, as Pitre states, consider these verses –

“But when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…Pray that it may not happen in winter.” (Mk.13:14,18)

“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…
Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.” (Mt.24:15,20)

“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it.” (Lk.21:20-21)

As Pitre points out, what sense does it make for Mark to include the detail of Jesus instructing his disciples to pray that these things do not occur ‘in winter,’ if these events had already taken place…in July which they did?!

Why would Luke add the instruction to not to let others ‘enter the city’, if it had already been destroyed when he wrote this?!

Why would Matthew add the detail to pray that it not take place ‘on a Sabbath’ , if it had already happened?!

Think especially about Luke – if this meticulous historian whose motive in writing Luke / Acts is to ‘write an orderly account of everything he has investigated’ (Acts 1:3), then why, if he knew about the Temple destruction in AD70, and therefore included a prophesy about it which he transferred onto the lips of Jesus in Luke 19 & 21, why would he then omit to even mention the fulfilment of these prophecies within his conclusion to Acts??
Especially as he does feel that a lesser prophesy that was fulfilled is worthy of a mention!

Namely, Acts 11:28 says this –

“One of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world; and this took place in the days of Claudius”

And these are not just ‘arguments from silence,’ as some critics claim –

For Luke NOT to mention things like the destruction of the temple, or the death of Paul, or the widespread persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero in the mid AD60’s,
[See here – http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/tacitus_persecution_under_nero.htm%5D
if these events had taken place by the time he wrote Luke / Acts, then it would represent a complete contradiction to both the meticulous nature of his writings and the very purpose for them (a contemporary historiography of the new Christian movement).

Moreover, that Jesus would prophesy the destruction of the temple is not as implausible (even leaving the question of Jesus’ divinity to one side) as many sceptical scholars would presume and suggest. Especially when we properly consider the context. For the temple had already been destroyed in 586BC by the Babylonians, in a very similar fashion to the way in which Jesus describes it happening again (2 Kings 25:8-10).

As C.H. Dodd notes, “there is no single trait of the (Jesus) forecast which cannot be documented directly out of the Old Testament.”

Secondly, this type of prophecy was not unique to Jesus. Josephus recalls a ‘Jesus the son of Ananias’ who, in AD66, drew on the book of Jeremiah (See Jeremiah 7) to also prophesy that the temple would be destroyed. (Josephus, Jewish War, 6.301)

Finally, the vast majority of modern scholars concede that Mark, at least, was written before AD70 for many reasons (personally I believe it was written well over a decade earlier for several reasons, but that is for another time).
The consensus is that Mark was written around AD65. Even if it is as late as that, it still means that Jesus prophesying the destruction of the Temple was recorded years before it finally happened. Therefore, any appeals to Matthew or Luke supposedly knowing about the destruction of the Temple as being ‘evidence’ of their being written post 70AD, are vacuous and redundant, as their accounts clearly mirror Mark and not personal knowledge.

In sum, the whole assumption that the Synoptics and Acts were written after the destruction of the Temple in AD70 just doesn’t stand up to internal scrutiny.

Occams Razor and the conclusion to Acts

Unless there are very good reasons not to, I would always defend the principal of Occams Razor, whether that is in looking at matters of history, science or deduction.
Ie – that, all else being equal, the simplest of any competing hypotheses ought to be preferred.
[https://www.merriam webster.com/dictionary/Occam’s%20razor]

When it comes to the ending of Acts the simplest conclusion to draw is that it ends there because Luke’s recounting of events for Theophilus (Lk.1:1-4, Acts 1:1) has pretty much got up to the present. So Acts was completed soon after its narrative conclusion with Paul in prison in around AD62. This is the view that Pitre takes (p.99) and he further cites the work of the great German scholar: Adolf Von Harnack (p.99 – 100) who also takes this view.

Indeed, Pitre also makes the insightful comparison between Acts and Josephus’ Antiquities:
Why does Josephus’ Antiquities finish where it does? – Because, by his own admission, Josephus had got “up to the present day” (Antiquities, 20.267)

THE CLINCHER:

Paul, himself, quotes from the gospel of Luke! – This is not mentioned by Pitre, but is what strongly corroborates all of the above and the hypothesis that Luke / Acts was completed by AD62.

For in his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes –

 For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’” (1 Tim.5:18)

This latter dictum: ‘The worker deserves his wages’ is a direct quote from Luke’s gospel! (Chapter 10, Verse 7). (Greek – ἄξιος γὰρ ὁ ἐργάτης τοῦ μισθοῦ αὐτοῦ)

Now we know that Paul quoted already existing Christian creeds and oral traditions (eg. 1 Cor.15:3-7)
It’s also no surprise to see him quoting from the OT and calling it ‘Scripture’ (as he does in 1Tim.5:18 by quoting from Deut.25:4 with the muzzling an ox reference).
But quoting from a verse that we have today in Luke’s gospel (the wording is to be found nowhere else) and calling it ‘Scripture’ is more of a surprise at face value.
However, Peter, in his 2nd letter refers to the writings of Paul and remarks that –

“There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” – (2 Pet.3:16)

Peter refers to the writings of Paul as being in the same category as other Scriptures.
It should therefore be no surprise to find that Paul quotes Luke’s Scripture: His gospel, in the same breath as older OT Scripture too.

Now the internal evidence points strongly to Luke being a companion of Paul
(See Col.4:14, 2 Tim. 4:11, Philemon v24 and especially the ‘we’ passages of Acts:
Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–28; 28:1-16).
So these passages corroborate the notion that Paul both knows Luke, and well enough to be in a position to quote from what he’s written.

Therefore, if Paul could already be citing from the gospel of Luke in a letter to Timothy sent before he died (around 64-65 AD), then Luke’s gospel, obviously, must have been written before this time.

External Evidence that Luke was Written by AD62

Brant Pitre, in his chapter on the early Church Fathers cites several important documents, but I’d like to draw our attention to 3 in particular –

  1. Irenaeus of Lyons – (writing circa 180AD) – “Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.” http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103301.htm
  2. Origen of Alexandria (circa 220 AD) – “And thirdly, that according to Luke, who wrote, for those who from the Gentiles [came to believe] the Gospel that was praised by Paul.”
    https://www.loebclassics.com/view/eusebius-ecclesiastical_history/1926/pb_LCL265.75.xml?readMode=recto
  3. Jerome (circa 390) – “Luke, a physician from Antioch, indicated in his writings that he knew Greek and that he was a follower of the apostle Paul and the companion of all his journeying; he wrote a gospel about which the same Paul says, ‘we have sent him a brother whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches.’ http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2708.htm

And what both Origen (see Eusebius, Church History 6.25.3, 6) and Jerome are referring to is a verse from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, where Paul says –

“And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel. 19 What is more, he was chosen by the churches to accompany us as we carry the offering, which we administer in order to honour the Lord himself and to show our eagerness to help.” – (2 Cor.8:18-19)

So not only do both Irenaeus and Origen confirm that Luke’s gospel represented the oral gospel preached by Paul, but Origen, and later Jerome, firmly believed that Luke wrote his gospel while Paul was still alive. (See Pitre p.47-8)

Conclusion

Various sceptical scholars are forced into some Teflon gymnastics in order to avoid the reasonable conclusions that are to be drawn from the internal and external evidence (and there’s more than can be included here!) that relate to an early dating of Luke’s gospel.
They (like Bart Ehrmann) have no other option but to go down the road that argues things like –

‘oh…umm… Paul didn’t write the patristic letters (even though they say he did and the early church Fathers did not dispute his authorship, and Paul’s authorship was universally accepted for the first 1850 years of Christianity).
Oh…umm… Paul didn’t write Colossians (Even though it says he and Timothy do).
Oh…umm… Jesus couldn’t have predicted the destruction of the temple (even though ‘Jesus the son of Ananias’ also did according to Josephus – Jewish War, 6.301. See Pitre p.92)
oh…umm… the Luke mentioned in Philemon (A Pauline letter that no-one disputes) is ‘another’ Luke.
oh…umm… the ‘we’ statements in Acts are not quite what they seem. They don’t really mean we.
oh…umm… the writer of Acts is not in fact the writer of Luke’s gospel, it’s really another writer who is also writing to Theophilus and just pretending to be Luke. (though the numbers claiming this are thankfully dwindling fast).

And so on, and so on…

I do think it is the duty of any responsible historian or scholar to carefully and (as far as possible) objectively weigh the merits of competing lines of evidence.
And, for my money, whenever there is both strong internal and external evidence to favour a particular hypothesis (in this case a dating of Luke’s gospel to around AD 62 or earlier) such evidence should trump other speculative, stylistic and circular claims that are made to promote a hypothesis of a later (post AD 70) date.

My own presumption – I have focussed on Luke’s gospel in this post because I, like the majority of biblical scholars, believe it to be the last of the Synoptics to have been written.
If this presumption is correct, then the belief that all 3 Synoptic gospels were written and in circulation by AD62 is extremely plausible.
After all, Luke begins his gospel with the concession –

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us…”

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s