Early Dating of Luke's Gospel

The early dating of the Gospels
One of the things that I love about Faith Ignited is our communities willingness to wrestle with doubts and questions.  We are not afraid of any challenge to our faith in Jesus Christ, and we look forward to helping people remove logical barriers between them and God because we love thinking critically about important things.
Recently we received a question about the early dating of the gospels.  The argument is that if the gospels were written in the second through the fourth century then how could we trust that the information they present is accurate.  If the gospels were written at the stated late date, that would explain the miraculous reporting as mythologizing the gospels with the passing of time.  Just as stories about Davy Crocket have grown over time, so did the stories of Jesus. 
The second part of the question we received had to do with the Davinci Code myth, which states that the Catholic church suppressed and hid gospels about Jesus to persuade people to believe a certain way, ultimately as a control device used against the public.  Here we see Marxism begin to sneak into the objection as Marx believed all religion was invented to control the behavior of the simple minded.  The short answer is that the Catholic church did not hide documents or other gospels.  The “secret” gospels referred to in the DaVinci Code are not only available to everyone but were written long after the canonization of the four gospels that are in our Bible. 
Question:            I have heard that we cannot trust the gospels because they were written long after Jesus’ life.  Is it true that the gospels were not written until the second, third, and fourth centuries?

If we are talking about the four gospels in the Bible, the answer is no.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were all written before 100 AD.  Mark the earliest gospel was most likely written before 50AD.  This moves the written accounts of Jesus to less than 20 years after his death and resurrection.   
If we are talking about non-Biblical gospels, such as the heretical gospel of Phillip, Thomas, Mary, Peter, and so forth, then yes.  These gospels have always been available to the public but have recently become more popular in public in part because of the misinformation presented in the fictional work of the Divinci Code by Dan Brown.  Remember that the four canonized (they are in the Bible and recognized as authoritative) gospels were all written before 100 AD.  Compared to the dates given by textual critics for other non-biblical writings about Jesus. 
  • Gospel of Marcion (mid-2nd century)
  • Gospel of Bardesanes (late 2nd–early 3rd century)
  • Gospel of Thomas (2nd century; sayings gospel)
The above-mentioned non-canonical gospels were not written until much later after Jesus' life, death, and resurrection and therefore were never viewed as being worthy. 
There were three basic standards that a document had to meet in order to be included in the Bible. 
  •  The book had to be written by an eyewitness (example: Acts, John, all of Paul’s epistles) or by someone who was in communication with eyewitnesses (example: Mark, Hebrews). 
  • The book had to have been written in the lifetime of the eyewitnesses to ensure credibility of the information being passed on. 
  • The book had to be accurate and true in the information that it presented.
The early church was not about spreading a myth or popularizing Jesus.  The message of Jesus was counter-cultural, and by the middle of the first century, a person claiming to follow Jesus was rising their life with a public profession of faith.  The information recorded about Jesus had to be true or else the spreading of the gospel message would have been attacked for its errors and exaggerations.  If the gospels were fabricated, they could have been proven false by the eyewitnesses who were still alive at the time of their distribution.
Even the most liberal scholars date the four gospels in the Bible at the latest by 100 AD.
Some people stop here and say, "Got you!" the gospels were all written late and therefore cannot be trusted.   
This is a terrible argument.  The time between the resurrection and the writings of the gospels is too short to permit any major exaggeration or myth to be added to the story of Jesus.  Just as a fisherman cannot get away with exaggerating how big his catch was to his wife if there was a crowd who say him and were present when he shared the story, the authors of the gospels had eyewitnesses who would have loved to stomp out the message that Jesus was the Messiah if the accounts recorded false details.
When we compare the time between the recorded accounts of Jesus and the death of Jesus, the historical gap is almost nonexistent for textual critics.  For instance, Plutarch wrote the life of Alexander the Great around about 100 AD.  Alexander the Great died in 323 BC.  That is four hundred years between the recorded history and the actual event.  The gospel accounts are less than 70 years between the event and recording.  Few people doubt the recorded events from Plutarch.  If we hold the Bible to the same standard of evidence as other historical writings, the Bible accounts of Jesus are absolutely trustworthy. 
Question:            When were the gospels written?

Three of the gospels were written before 63 AD.  Mark is first gospel very short.  Mark's ends with the abruptness of the empty tomb and the angels announcing the resurrection.  Then because we are so deceptive, there is a possibility that an additional ending was added because we don't have verses 9-20 until the second century, therefore, we noted it in the Bible.  Mark is most likely the Mark who fled from the arrest of Jesus and became a scribe to Peter.  There are several places of emphasis where Peter is highlighted in a unique way in the gospel of Mark.
Matthew used the Q (Q is the textual critic's term used to describe the written material about Jesus that preceded the gospels but is has not survived the passage of time.  “Q” is the first letter of the German word meaning source.) source, and most likely Mark, wrote to a Jewish audience.  He uses Joseph’s bloodline to trace Jesus back to Abraham and David, while Luke uses Mary's lineage.  Matthew was a Jewish Tax collector and had a heavy emphasis that Jesus is the new and Greater Than Moses.
Luke writes, possibly using all three sources.  Luke is a doctor and is Paul's traveling companion.  Luke writes both the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.  The book of Acts contains over 90 specific details that verify that Luke was writing in the first century.  He gives specific places, names, dates, rules, ship details, sailing passages, and even sea depths that have been verified.  Luke is so accurate that even non-Biblical scholars often use the gospel of Luke as a reference for information regarding geography and confirmation of other details from the first century. 
John is the only gospel written late.  The earlies dating being in the 60's AD to the latest, being in the 90's AD.  John writes having the three other gospels at his disposal addresses different problems in the early church.  The Greeks wanted to know how a God could be human and still maintain his divinity.  The Jews who had been dispersed after the conquest of Jerusalem wanted to know if there was any hope since the temple had been destroyed.  John does not need to tell the same stories that everyone already knows, so he shares stories that had not been previously recorded.  The details given by John in his gospel are historically accurate and archaeologically verified.  In 1888, archeologists discovered the pool near the Sheep gate called Bethesda, (John 5:2-9).  For years critics of the historical accuracy of the gospel of John claimed that it could not be trusted because the pool of Siloam did not exist.  In 2005, the pool of Siloam, mentioned in John 9 was discovered, and excavation of the pool is on going.    
Why do scholars believe that the first three gospels were written before 63 AD?
The first evidence for the early dating of the gospels is in the recognition that Luke wrote both the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.  The book of Acts is mainly about the ministry of two leaders in the early church, the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul.  Both Peter and Paul were martyred between the years of 63 AD and 64 AD.  The book of Acts does not mention anything about their death.  The book of Acts concludes with Paul in prison in Rome and doing well.  If the book of Acts was written before the martyrdom of Paul and Peter, then that means the book of Acts was completed before 63 AD.  The gospel of Luke was written by the same author before the book of Acts (see Acts 1:1-2); therefore, Luke had to have been written before 63 AD at the very least.  Given the lack of computers and typewriters, it is safe to presume that the gospel of Luke was written at the latest in 60-62 AD.  If Luke used both Mark and Matthew as source material, as almost all scholars conclude, then Matthew was written at the latest 60-61 AD.  If Matthew used Mark, then Mark had to have been written at the very latest 59-61 AD.  Logically, the very latest the first three gospels were written within 10-30 years of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.   Eyewitnesses were still alive who could have refuted the gospel accounts and immediately killed the message being proclaimed by the gospel authors by revealing the writings as a sham. 
The second argument for the early writing of the gospels is from the lack of information regarding the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The temple was destroyed in 70-71 AD.  Not one of the gospel authors records the event.  It is a glaring omission from the gospel authors since Jesus predicted the temple's destruction.  The gospel authors could have easily referenced the invasion of the Roman army and the destruction of the temple, both as verification of Jesus' ability to know the future. 
The third argument is from the writings of the Apostle Paul.  Paul relates early creeds from the church that scholars date to within 3-5 years of Jesus’ resurrection I 1 Corinthians 15:3-9 and Philippians 2:6-11).  Remember, Paul was martyred in 63 AD.  Dead people do not write books or letters.  Therefore, Paul's writings had to have been written before his death.  Even the greatest skeptics will acknowledge that Paul's letters appeared early, with letters like 1 Corinthians written in 52/53 A.D.  Paul quotes Luke's Gospel directly (placing Luke's gospel on the same level of authority as the Old Testament)
"Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.  For the Scripture says, 'You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,' and, 'The laborer deserves his wages.'” (1 Timothy 5:17–18, ESV).
The first quotation — “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” — comes from Deuteronomy 25:4.  The second quotation — “The laborer deserves his wages” — comes from Luke’s Gospel, specifically Luke 10:7.  Paul also quotes Luke 22:19-20 in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, If Paul quoted Luke’s Gospel in multiple letters, Paul was clearly familiar with Luke’s Gospel.  If Paul quotes Luke’s gospel and Paul’s letters were written in the early 50’s, that means that Luke’s gospel was written by 52 AD at the latest, which means that Matthew and Mark were most likely written in the late 40’s.  That is less than 20 years removed from Jesus' life, death and resurrection.  There simply is not enough time for mythological influence to infect the gospel narratives.  There are too many eyewitnesses who could have destroyed the fragile movement of the early church by providing proof that the disciples or Paul made up the story.

The Best Argument against the New Testament
The best and most rational attack against the gospels is not that they were written late and therefore are filled with incorrect information or exaggeration.  Not that they cannot be trusted because of scribal errors or later additions to the text, but these conspiracy theories are only discussed outside of academic circles where factual verification is unknown or irrelevant.  The best attack against the gospels is to disagree with Jesus himself.  The most honest person who studies antiquity, biblical scholarship and archeology is wise enough not to claim biblical errors or that the gospels are not reliable.  The scholar simply admits that they refuse to believe Jesus claims about himself which is namely that He is God.  All other arguments against the gospels are smoke and mirror tricks used to deceive the uneducated to deceive others. 
Think of it this way; the gospels have been around for over 2000 years.  No other writing in history has been so scrutinized or tested by both believers and non-believers.  Yet not a single valid argument is made by any reputable scholar that the gospels were not what they claimed to be, namely eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.  If there were any decent and logical criticism that could be leveled against the gospels' historical accuracy, it would be worldwide news.  It is best for the critic to simply admit the truth that they do not want to believe in Jesus.  Attacking the historical, archaeological, biblical study or any other scholarly study of the Bible leads to a dead end. 
Closing note:
In this brief document, I have obviously not responded to every single attack or criticism against the gospels, nor have I discussed the questions about the transmission of the gospels over time.  I have also not discussed the variances within the New Testament that amount to about three percent of all scribal errors within the gospel copies of the copies.  Let me simply say that there are no core doctrinal issues affected within the small variances in the thousands of manuscripts that we have.  In fact, that small variances are some of the most useful pieces of evidence for the reliability of the transmission of the gospels over the centuries.  These questions are for another article.

 Thank you for your questions and your passion for seeking to understand how we can trust the gospel authors. 

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