Dating the Gospels

Destructive criticism frequently announces its triumphs, always with confidence inversely proportional to the amount of evidence on which they are based. By the operation of the same law of human fallibility, real discoveries in Theology are seldom publicized and their importance even more seldom appreciated.

A striking instance of this was the observation by Bishop Wordsworth in his New Testament Commentary, dated 1862, that in 1. Tim. 5:18 the Apostle Paul was quoting from Deut. 25: 4 and from Luke 10: 7 "with the preamble by which St. Paul is accustomed to introduce quotations from Scripture," to quote his own words. He cites Rom. 4:3; 9:17; 10:11 ;11:2; Gal. 4:30. From this he draws the conclusion that "the Apostle purposely designed to teach the important truth, that the Gospels are inspired by God no less than the Books of Moses are; and that the Gospels are to be received as Scripture by all, as the Books of Moses were received by the ancient people of God, and by the Apostles and Evangelists, and by the Son of God Himself." He refers to his Note on Luke 10:7, where he cites 1. Cor. 10:27 as a quotation from Luke 10:8 and 1. Thess. 5:3 as a quotation from Luke 17:26. He also points out that 1. Thess. 5:2 implies knowledge of Matt. 24:43 or Luke 12:39. He also suggests that in 2. Cor. 8:18, "the brother, the applause of whom is in the evangel throughout all the churches" must be Luke. This, however, as he states it, involves an anachronism, for to euaggelion, the evangel, meant something more in Paul's teaching than simply what we call "the Gospels," though the written accounts are certainly part of "the evangel." Yet that does not materially injure Wordsworth's argument, for the greater includes the lesser. Viewed from the standpoint of our days, it is altogether extraordinary that Wordsworth never seemed to appreciate the overwhelming importance of his discovery or even to have gone further into the matter. Yet in fairness it must be remembered that when his Commentary was published, the present almost universal unbelief in the churches had only begun to develop. So far as I can discover, no writer since has ever shown the slightest inkling of the existence of Scripture evidence for the very early date of the Gospels. Certainly I was completely unaware of any until, three years ago, I happened on some, which was quite different from Wordsworth's. So astonished was I that I hardly dared publish it; and until I discovered that I had been anticipated by Wordsworth I felt reluctant to say much about it, lest I should appear to be indulging in self-advertisement. Subsequently it was privately printed in The Differentiator. Yet, thanks to the moral support this discovery has afforded, my grasp of the truth has become much clearer, and I want now to give it wider publicity. When looking into what the New Testament says about "the Scriptures" and examining Acts 17:2,3, it suddenly occurred to me that it was rather odd that Luke should so pointedly divide what Paul placed before the Thessalonians into two contrasted parts, one a prophecy about the Christ, the other a vivid assertion about his announcement to them, thus:

" Now, according to the custom of Paul, he entered to them, and on three sabbaths he argues with them from the Scriptures, opening up and setting forth that, It was needful for the Christ to be suffering and to rise out of dead ones' and that, 'This One is the Christ—the Jesus Whom I am announcing to you.'''

From the way this is worded in the Greek, it is evident that if Luke had possessed the device of inverted commas, he would have used them as done here. We are given two distinct state ments, preceded by hoti, that, and the former is the subject of Old Testament prophecy. So one is almost forced, once this is perceived, to ask the question: Where do we find the latter? The simple answer is, here, in John 20:31 : "Yet these were written that you should be believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that, believing, eonian life you may be having in the name of Him." Nothing could be more explicit, yet it appears to have escaped notice completely. Needless to say (one may hope) that this must not be taken as meaning that the other Gospels do not contain this testimony. The essential point is-and it is an extremely striking one-that it is in John's Gospel that the explicit assertion is made which Luke is echoing in Acts 17:3. In the modern climate of opinion, it certainly is not easy to accept the idea about Luke's Gospel put forward by Bishop Wordsworth; but to be faced with the concept of John's Gospel being recognized, established, Scripture by the time Paul's ministry began-that is indeed utterly revolutionary.

Yet, one may well ask: Why not?

There is nothing in the Acts account to forbid it. There is no evidence anywhere, of any sort, to forbid it. In plain, cold fact, outside the New Testament there is no firm evidence whatever, one way or the other. So why not? If we were to strike out the speeches, the contents of the first sixteen chapters of Acts would be quite meagre. Are we seriously to suppose that the Twelve Apostles and their converts did little or nothing beyond what is recorded? During that period of waiting in the upper chamber (Acts 1:13-26), when they completed the Twelve again, the brethren surely did more than merely wait. Surely they compared their reminiscences? Surely the understanding of the Scriptures conferred by the Lord Jesus Himself on the two after the journey to Emmaus (Luke 24) did not disappear as into the desert sands? And what of the succeeding months? We are told repeatedly nowadays that no one felt it needful to record these events in writing. Not only does Luke 1:1 flatly contradict this, experience of human nature flatly contradicts it too. Peter and John were seen by the top people of Jerusalem to be unlettered and plain men (Acts 4:13); but that certainly was not true of Matthew and Luke; and the tradition that Mark was Peter's amanuensis is by no means unlikely. Besides, if unlettered men could by the Holy Spirit's power speak as they did, it is hardly reasonable to claim that John could not have written as in his Gospel; for, deep indeed though the thought in it may be, there is nothing particularly erudite in the actual wording and, in any case, John would only have been writing down what the Holy Spirit had brought to his remembrance. The profundity is in what the Lord Jesus said, not in the reproduction of it.

Some will, no doubt, retort with the air of one laying down the ace of trumps: "But in those days people did not need to write down such reminiscences; they had good memories, and recited these things over and over again." Then why were there so many written documents? Why were the Epistles copied and circulated? Wandering story-tellers used to rely on memory; but those who wrote the Gospels could and did write themselves, as Paul and Luke did. Nobody would ever have invented such a retort who had stopped first to think and who was not already wedded to an untenable theory.

The testimony of the earliest Fathers is not definite, but it tends to show that they believed the Gospels to be very early documents. As, later on, tradition began to take the place of recollection, testimony becomes more precise and less reliableIt is worth noting, too, how prejudice is created by the now common practise of speaking of "the Gospel tradition" or "the Church tradition." No such things exist. The Oxford English Dictionary defines tradition as "Opinion or belief or custom handed down, handing down of these from ancestors to posterity." But that is just what Christianity is not. On the contrary, it is derived from written records, and we have no knowledge whatever of any so-called "Gospel tradition" existing in addition to those written records. To declare that the records themselves are a tradition is to assume the very thing that ought to be proved. The critics have themselves created a tradition when writing of Q, Ur-Marcus, Proto-Luke, etc, as if they were tangible entities, whereas no record of any sort of the existence of these can be found outside their tradition. The word has become a badge of loose thinking. We hear of "the Anglican tradition," "the Methodist tradition," etc.;, whereas the histories of these institutions are on record and are in no sense traditional, except in the perverted modern fashion of using these words. One of the clearest patristic traditions comes from Irenaeus, who wrote: "Matthew produced a Scripture of a Gospel while Peter and Paul, in Rome, were evangelizing and founding the Church. Yet after the decease of those ones, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, has delivered to US himself the things proclaimed by Peter, in writing."

Now the first half of this assertion is undoubtedly untrue; for if there is one thing more certain than anything else in the early history of the church, it is that some time before Paul ever visited Rome he wrote his Roman Epistles to the existing and even flourishing church there. In Rom. 15:17-25 he makes two things very plain: he wanted to evangelize where Christ was not named, so as not to be building on another's foundation (v. 20); and he hoped, while going through on his way to Spain, to visit Rome (vv. 23, 24). Moreover, if Paul had no hand in founding the church in Rome, it is impossible that Peter could have acted with him in so doing; and there is no firm evidence that Peter himself ever visited Rome either. Thus, the whole story by Irenaeus discredits itself and can safely be dismissed; for if the part we can test collapses, the rest is discredited. The truth is, Scripture is self-accredited, and can stand firmly on its own feet.

Of the theory that the common source of the Gospels was oral, there is this to be said: it is wholly unproven unless, as I contend, they were written while the Twelve were together in Jerusalem at and after Pentecost. Then it is easily understandable that they conferred together and planned the whole operation, each Gospel being written to cover its own specific purpose. In such circumstances, some material might conveniently be reproduced in different Gospels in the same words or nearly the same words. For it must not be overlooked that actual complete identity of words is not common, and writing as if it were is tantamount to deliberate deceit. Yet there are many close resemblances, and these are adequately explained by the presumption that the Apostles and disciples talked over them frequently, the differences by the presumption that while the general ideas remained in mind the actual wording did not, the rare coincidences by an occasional exceptional accuracy of memory where exactitude was specially important. Furthermore, it is fairly well known that the general framework or literary structure of all the Gospels is the same, even though Mark and John leave out certain sections found in Matthew and Luke.

So Acts 17:3 furnishes clear testimony that at the very outset of his general ministry the Apostle Paul recognized the Gospels as Scripture and is nowhere recorded as having been contradicted by anyone. At so early a date, generally considered to be within twenty years of Pentecost, this can only mean that the Twelve Apostles, the church at Jerusalem, and Paul, Barnabas, and the other later Apostles so recognized them as well. That being so, and in view of the considerations set out above, we must regard them as having had the full, unquestionable authority of all the Apostles. We are often told that "the Church" gave us the Bible. If by this is meant that the Gospels were issued with full apostolic authority and the Epistles with the full apostolic authority of their authors and the Apostles associated with them, this is true. On the other hand, if it is taken to mean that the authority of Scripture rests on certain Councils convened centuries later, it is false and utterly misleading. In fact, at so late a date such an "imprimatur" is an impertinence.

Why has this truth about the Gospels generally been hidden from us? Partly on account of the twisting given by; so many versions. The New English Bible's version of Acts 17:3 is a masterpiece of additions to and distortions of the Greek text. Itturns the second affirmation inside out. its wretchedly poor paraphrase reads: "Following his usual practise Paul went to their meetings; and for the next three Sabbaths he argued with them, quoting texts of Scripture which he expounded and applied to show that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. 'And this Jesus,' he said, , whom I am proclaiming to you, is the Messiah.'" It is instructive to compare this attempted paraphrase with the translation near the start of this paper and the original Greek. It betrays utter disrespect for the integrity of God's Holy Word. This, we are informed, is "the best available scholarship." What must the worst be like?

It is difficult to see why any paraphrases at all should be necessary, let alone such bad ones as this, which can only mislead, for an accurate version is easily understood by ordinary people.

The experience of Paul and Silas in Berea (Acts 17:11), though not so definite as evidence, when considered carefully supports the testimony of Acts 17:3; for however thorough and prolonged the search ofthe Berean Jews into the Old Testament might have been, it could not have established that "this One is the Christ-the Jesus Whom I am announcing to you." It could and did form the basis for the revelation of this fact in the Gospels, but it was not itself that revelation. Without the Gospel history, no amount of study of the Old Testament would confirm this vital truth; it could only confirm the truth about Jesus when eventually He did appear; and that truth itself is disclosed in the Gospels, and in them alone. Further testimony, all the more effective by being indirect, is furnished by Acts 18:24-28, where we are told of a certain Jew, named Apollos, a scholarly man, "being able in the Scriptures. He was one who had become instructed in the way of the Lord and fervent in the spirit. He talked and taught accurately what concerns Jesus, fully versed only in the baptism of John." This can only mean that he fully understood the doctrine set out in the Gospels, for there and there alone is set out the baptism of John. The further teaching of Pentecost and the even more recently revealed teaching then being declared by the Apostle Paul was beyond his horizon. So we read that Priscilla and Aquila "took him to themselves and more accurately expounded the way of God." This is precisely what might be expected of a scholarly man who nevertheless had access only to the Old Testament and the Gospels; for both pose vast problems that can be solved only through knowledge of the rest of the New Testament.

To the Thessalonians Paul opened up the Scriptures. The Bereans, "more noble," examined the Scriptures for themselves. To see if these things had been prophesied? No! Simply, "if these things BE SO." Thus Luke's testimony. Paul's is just as clear, for in 1. Cor. 15:3,4 we find: "For I give over to you first what I accepted also: that Christ dies for our sins according to the Scriptures, and and that He was entombed, and that He was roused the third day according to the Scriptures." Now, note particularly: what is twice said with such special emphasis to be "according to the Scriptures" is not some prophecy that He would die, or some prophecy that He would be roused; for if Paul had used such a word we would have perceived quite plainly that he was referring to the Hebrew Scriptures, to the Old Testament. But what he declares so definitely here is found in the Gospels, and nowhere else at all. Consequently, we again find the Gospels as a whole written of as something actually available and already authoritatively accepted as part of the Scriptures-and this is one of the earliest of Paul's Epistles.

Possibly, some might contend that these interpretations are too literal, and that the foregoing passages might well mean no more than that what is said is in harmony with the Old Testament Scriptures, in general agreement with them. This, however, is less than fair to Luke and Paul; for that idea could well have been asserted explicitly, had they meant it, as in Luke 5: 36; Acts 15: 15. The verb sumphOneO means precisely that, whereas this particular usage of kata with the accusative means according to, "in reference to some standard of comparison" (Green's Grammar). He adds "stated or implied," so there is no room for doubt. The Gospels were such a standard, the Old Testament was not.

The foregoing ideas must seem radical in the extreme; and this is to be expected, for they are radical, in that they are a return to the very roots of Christianity. Why must most of those who call themselves Christians lean so heavily, and so trustingly, on critics, councils and the so-called Fathers? The cardinal principle: "Go back to the original documents" applies in matters such as this even more urgently than in historical research. Here is an appeal to original documents. Let us at least give it an unprejudiced hearing.

Assuming that a prima facie case has been made out, let us now turn to an examination of some of its consequences.

With the dates of composition of the Gospels brought within a decade of Pentecost and probably much less, the Synoptic Problem and that of the nature of John's Gospel, which are really two aspects of the same question, are completely transformed. While the apostles and their friends were together in a close-knit company, there would be continual consultation between them; and there is no imaginable reason why each Gospel in turn should not have been examined and discussed with the greatest care and thoroughness. The prophecy of John 14:26 ("The Holy Spirit, Which the Father will be sending in My name-that One will be teaching you all, and will be bringing to your memory all which I Myself said to you") will acquire a relevance far beyond what it has had hitherto, if read in this light. Moreover, the account in the first chapters of Acts will itself be clarified. Amid the vast excitement at Pentecost, the Apostles themselves maintained a placid attitude altogether at variance with that of the crowds who heard them. They and their companions persevered with one accord in prayer (Acts 1:14). Presently, they chose a twelfth to complete their number (1:26). When they began at Pentecost to speak different languages, it was the multitude, not the Apostles and their companions, who were confused (2:6) and who thought that they were drunk with wine (2:13). But the speech promptly made by Peter was calmly reasoned. No trace of excitement, let alone of hysteria, can be found in it. Completely in line with John 20:31 and Acts 17:3 are its closing words: "Let all the house of Israel know that both Lord and Christ God makes Him—this the Jesus Whom ye crucify" (Acts 2:36). This agreement is, must be, altogether other than mere coincidence.

So we find, right at Pentecost itself, the calmest, clearest setting out of the purpose of the witness of the Apostles, namely, to declare that the Jesus Who had been crucified was both Lord and Christ. To declare this also was the purpose of John's Gospel. To prove this beyond any possibility of doubt, and from the Scriptures themselves, was the Apostle Paul's purpose in the opening moves of his ministry to the Gentiles. In the face of a proceeding so logical as this, how can we doubt that the first purpose of the Twelve, once their mission started, was to prepare those Scriptures to which the Apostle Paul was presently to appeal?

The moment we accept this proposition the whole idea of Mark and Luke being late scissors-and-paste efforts, and John an even later compendium of religious meditations, becomes absurd. Though baffled by the apparent absence of the evidence now unearthed, many of us have felt that such ideas are wholly unreasonable and wholly alien to the whole spirit of the New Testament. Now we need not take them seriously, if we ever did. For, in fact, once the accepted ideas about the Synoptic Gospels are critically examined, their glaring absurdity stands out. Dr. G. W. Wade, in his book "The Documents of the New Testament," very obligingly prints his translation of the Gospels, noting throughout the sources (as determined by the critics) of each paragraph and sometimes each sentence. For brevity he uses the following abbreviations: Mk. for Mark, the well-known "Q," L for "Proto-Luke" and M for Matthew's supposed special source; "20-," say, for the first part of v. 20, "-20-" for the middle, "-20" for the last part, and similarly for any other verses. He does say that the divisions between the sources are in some places uncertain; but even so his results are remarkable, to say the least.

Two samples follow. This is what we find for Luke 17:22-37 : v. 22 L; 23 Mk; 24 Q; 25 L; 26,27 Q; 28 to 30 L; 31 Mk ; 32 L; 33 Q; 34 L; 35 Q; 37- L; -37 Q.

Turning to Matthew, which Dr. Wade places later than Luke, we find Matt. 12:22-40 parcelled out thus: vv. 22,23- Q ; -23,24- M; -24 to 26 Mk; 27,28 Q; 29 Mk; 30 Q; 31 Mk; 32- Q; -32- Mk; -32 to 34- M; -34, 35 Q; 36, 37 M; 38, 39- Mk; -39 Q; 40 M.

Admittedly, these are two particularly conspicuous cases. Nevertheless, the question must arise how any really critically minded person could take such results seriously. All too readily do those who accept the views of the critics talk glibly about Q, the source of Matthew, the source of Luke, just as if they were tangible entities that could be seen, handled, read and compared with the Gospels as we actually have them; whereas they are, in sober fact, at the best reconstructions based on a theory, at the worst pure fancies. For nowhere is there the smallest evidence that they ever existed. No Father refers to them, no writer until comparatively recently even imagined their existence. The critics themselves admit that their reconstructions are incomplete. They do not say scrappy, but that is what it amounts to.

Imagination boggles at the thought of the Pseudo-Matthew, armed with scissors and paste, cutting out and reassembling bits and pieces from various accounts he had managed to corne by; yet even less credible is the thought of his poor, confused brain churning out these bits and pieces from recollections of various accounts he had heard and read, using this bit from Mark, that from "Q," still another from his own private Source-and yet, in spite of the confusion, managing to achieve his splendidly readable and self-consistent story. Truly, it must have been an age of miracles!

Let us clear our minds, once and for all, of the idea, sedulously put about, that there is any objective evidence at all for the theory that Matthew and Luke are composite affairs, worked up from old accounts plus imaginary reconstructions very many years after the events they purport to relate. Even if we had to rely on subjective criteria alone, it would still be easier to believe them to be original documents than the hotchpotch imagined by the critics.

How much simpler it is to believe that the Apostles worked out all four Gospels among themselves; Matthew and John writing their own; Peter, perhaps, through Mark writing his special contribution; Luke probing and checking the reminiscences of their associates as well, and producing his own special complete representation of the perfect humanity of the Lord Jesus; all these checked by, and issued with the authority of, all the Twelve Apostles; and presently adding that of the Apostles Barnabas and Paul as well.

A further conclusion emerges at once. The Greek Scriptures, commonly though inaccurately called The New Testament, are now seen to be unified to an extent never appreciated hitherto. Instead of dragging on over two or more generations, their launching was immediate. The Gospels, narrating an accomplished fact, appeared very early indeed; the Epistles as soon as the ground was prepared for them. All Paul's churches must have had the Gospels in their possession, or available for their use, as soon as Paul began to evangelize them; so the myth that Paul preached Christ to people who had no means of knowing about Him, and so preached Christ that only the bare facts of His death, entombment and resurrection were necessary, vanishes, as it deserves to vanish. If it were undesirable for these Christians to have copies of the Gospels, it must be just as undesirable for us. They can do no harm at all provided they are not misused by attempts to substitute them for the Epistles, as so many do. Underrating the Epistles is no reason for underrating the Gospels.

This sort of idea is, all too often, fostered by a misunderstanding of 1. Cor.2:2. Some have foolishly made this text to teach that there is no need for anyone to do more than "proclaiming Christ crucified" (1. Cor. 1:23). Yet the context makes it entirely clear that Paul is here reproaching the Corinthians for their spiritual blindness: "For I decided not to perceive anything, among you, except Jesus Christ-and Him crucified." Elsewhere he branches out into every kind of doctrine, but not to people in the state they were then in.

Once this vital truth about Jesus Christ was grasped; then, and then only, could Paul go on to building up the churches. We need the Gospels for their disclosure of this fundamental truth; then we need—how we need!—the Epistles for their answer to the many questions which the Gospels leave unanswered. As did the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we need all which the Prophets speak, in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27). R. B. WITHERS

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