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Dating the Gospel of Luke (part 3)

Isn’t it true that the four Gospels were chosen from “many” Gospels?

I’ll take a brief pause here from dealing solely with Luke’s writings to answer a question I just received from a viewer of The Real Jesus video podcast. Inevitably, someone is going to ask a question about the dating of the so-called Gnostic Gospels.

On Tue, Oct 27, 2009 at 10:18 AM, YouTube Service wrote:

Was there a massacre around the time of Jesus birth?

You guys seem a lot more learned about the historical dating of the Gospels. I don’t think anything in the New Testament can be trusted. I have heard a few times from different places that there were over 80 gospels and the oligarchy chose what Gospels it wanted when a lot of people just wrote them up and sold them.

The “many Gospels” referred to here are writings from the second century and later composed by a group called the Gnostics. This was a world-wide religious movement in the ancient world that believed the material world was evil and taught that salvation was spiritual and could only be obtained through “secret knowledge” or gnosis. The Gnostics syncretized the tenets of many other religions into their writings. As Christianity began to become widespread, the Gnostics made use of the sayings of Jesus in order to popularize their own teachings. But we do not see any of these Gnostic Gospels until the mid to late second century.

If one wants to know about the flavor of the Gnostic Gospels, just read them. They contain just the sayings of Jesus and usually claim that a particular disciple of Jesus received “secret knowledge” that the author of the book is now revealing. They are fundamentally different than the four Gospels. Judaism and Christianity are holistic religions, while Gnosticism is dualistic, pitting the evil material world against the spiritual world. Since history of the material world is evil, there is no attempt to give the reader a sense of a connection to history. Just as I have been arguing for the historicity and authenticity for the canonical Gospels, the Gnostic Gospels reveal a blatant agenda to distort the teachings of Jesus with no respect for even an appearance of factual reality.

The “many gospels” hypothesis is the brain-child of professors and popular authors such as John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels and Marvin Meyer. Their writings make for brisk sales and media attention because they are so sensationalistic. No university wants to pay researchers to publish papers and books reiterating the view of the Church Fathers on the dating and origin of the Gospels. Researchers are paid to publish “new findings” and are under a considerable amount of pressure to get some media attention.

There is also an underlying motive by some to promote an “original” form of Christianity that was more liberal and less patriarchal. Whether or not the Gnostic Gospels provide this point of view is debatable. However, this might be one reason why there has been such a flurry of interest in recent years over these “new discoveries.” (In fact, most of these writings have been known through archaeological discoveries since the late 1800s and much of the content of the books has been documented ever since they appeared in the second, third and fourth centuries.) Dan Brown has even made this burgeoning Neo-Gnosticism the thesis of his best-selling novels, which he claims are “based on history” even though his plots are fictional.

The conspiracy theory goes as follows: Gnosticism was the “original Christianity” – in fact, there were “many Gospels” and “many Christianities” based on Gnostic mysticism. Then about 180 AD, Irenaeus the Bishop of Lyons appeared. He and his followers were intolerant bigots who hand-selected and/or edited the four Gospels they felt most represented the patriarchal view of the Apostle Paul toward women and sexuality. (Or in some far-fetched versions, this historical revisionism didn’t occur until the Council of Nicea in the fourth century.) According to this hypothesis, the New Testament canon was a response to a perceived Gnostic threat to the authority of the bishops.

This view is in contrast with the testimony of Irenaeus and Tertullian who explained that various Gnostic sects each adopted one of the four Gospels that they believed best supported their views often editing out parts they disagreed with. The Ebionites used only the Gospel according to Matthew, because they thought it represented a more “earthly” Jesus. The Adoptionists made use only of Mark, because they felt it separated “Jesus” from “Christ.” Marcion used only the Gospel of Luke because he felt it represented a more “spiritual” Jesus. Finally, the Cerinthians and Valentinians used only their warped interpretation of John to show that Jesus was a separate spiritual being from the evil demiurgic God who created the material universe.

By the end of the second century, the Gnostics had already begun writing their own books of “secret knowledge” based on the writings of Jesus that had little regard for the historical-narrative structure of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Some liberal scholars, such as Crossan, Pagels and Meyer, have tried to turn this scenario on its head by saying the Gnostic Gospels came first and the canonical Gospels drew from them. It is true that Gnosticism existed prior to Jesus, but the religion borrowed bits and pieces from Judaism and Christianity, not vice versa.

But here is the bottom line: The four canonical Gospels have a remarkable pedigree. The four Gospels were known and quoted numerous times by other Christian writers in the late first and second centuries. In the late 1800s, some liberal Higher Critics placed the Gospels very late, even at the end of the second century, but due to more recent archaeological discoveries and scholarship, almost every scholar now agrees the four Gospels are first century books. One would have to ignore the writings of the Church Fathers in order not to see this.

My view is that all the books of the New Testament were probably written before 70 AD. The exception to this might be the Gospel of John and the letters of John.

First, there is the Didache and 1 Clement, both written in the late first century, which quote heavily from the New Testament. Then by 90 AD there isn’t a decade in which there isn’t a work that draws on the New Testament. Around 125 AD, another early yet seldom mentioned Christian apologist, Aristides of Athens, wrote the following to the Emperor Hadrian.

Take, then, their writings, and read therein, and lo! you will find that I have not put forth these things on my own authority, nor spoken thus as their advocate; but since I read in their writings I was fully assured of these things as also of things which are to come. And for this reason I was constrained to declare the truth to such as care for it and seek the world to come.

This shows that within 60 years of the lifetime of the Apostles, the New Testament writings were known throughout the Roman Empire.

In fact, it has been demonstrated that the majority of the 7958 verses in the New Testament could be reconstructed just from the writings of the Church Fathers up until about 200 AD. This includes 268 citations by Justin Martyr, 1,038 by Irenaeus, 1,017 by Clement of Alexandria, 9,231 by Origen, 3,822 by Tertullian, 734 by Hippolytus (Geisler and Nix, General Introduction to the Bible, 431).

As you look at the following timeline, consider that the earliest of the Church Fathers lived early enough to have known the Apostles and that the overlapping lifetimes of all these men indicate a great certainty for the transmission of Apostolic writings. The four Gospels are quoted very early, but the Gnostic Gospels are unknown until after the middle of the second century.

Patristic Writings Timeline

The following authors cite the New Testament. The timeline indicates the most likely dates of their works.

The Didache – c. 70-100 AD
Clement of Rome – c. 96 AD
Ignatius of Antioch – c. 110-117
Polycarp of Smyrna – c. 110-155
Papias of Hieropolis – c. 125
The Epistle of Barnabas – c. 100-132
Aristides of Athens – c. 123-127
Quadratus of Athens – c. 123-127
Hermas of Rome – c. 125-135
Mathetes – c. 130-150
Aristo of Pella – c. 140
Justin Martyr – c. 150-160
Tatian – c. 150-165
Theophilus of Antioch – c. 169-182
Melito of Sardis – c. 172-177
Irenaeus of Lyons – c. 175-185
Athenagoras – c. 176-178
Muratorian Canon – c. 175-200
Clement of Alexandria – c. 180-200
Tertullian of Carthage – c. 200-220
Origen of Alexandria – c. 200-230
Hippolytus of Rome – c. 220

Your comments are welcome!

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