Why is it that if you read what Wikipedia says about the date and authorship of the Gospels, it is very different from the way most pastors in evangelical churches and most ordinary Christians talk about the Gospels?
I am preaching through the Gospel of Mark. I regularly tell the congregation that Mark is one of the four ancient biographies of Jesus based on eyewitness testimony and written when there were many eyewitnesses still alive. However, if you check Wikipedia, you will be told that Mark was written between 68 and 74 AD, and that most scholars believe it was written after 70 AD.
Note that this is 35 to 44 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Wikipedia makes many other confident, and seemingly authoritative claims, such as that Mark was not the author of the Gospel, and that his Gospel was probably the first one written.
What is going on? Are evangelicals like me simply benighted? Obviously, this is a big topic, but before I share a couple of points to help you think through the issues, you need to know this: Wikipedia reflects what mainstream academic scholarship says.
Wikipedia reflects what mainstream academic scholarship says.
Mainstream scholars, being scholars, would probably object to some of the details in Wikipedia, but they would say that it is fundamentally correct. In fact, many would probably put the dating of Mark a tad later. By “mainstream” scholars, I mean that most who teach at a place like the University of Toronto or McGill, or at one of the historic mainstream seminaries (both protestant and Catholic), would say that by and large, Wikipedia has gotten things right.
Before I share with you a couple of points to help you think through the issue, I want to let you know that none of my formal education prior to ordination was done under evangelical scholars in evangelical institutions. All of my education was done in either a secular university (studying mainly sociology and a big chunk of philosophy) and in an uber-liberal Roman Catholic institution. I never had an evangelical as a professor. (I know, some of you are thinking to yourself that that explains a lot about me!). My education was in the mainstream.
To help think through the gap between what Wikipedia says, and what I say when I preach through Mark, it is good to think about a miracle like the feeding of the 5000. This miracle is the only miracle other than the resurrection of Jesus, which is reported in all four Gospels (Mark 6:30-44; Matthew 14:13-21; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13).
Each of these accounts is carefully constructed to make it very clear that a miracle happened. The language used is not “once upon a time” or myth or parable. It is the language used in real history being told.
The story occurs in a desolate/isolated place. The crowd is so big that even nine months worth of wages would not buy enough food. The crowd is revealed to be 5,000 men plus women and children. The food has run out and they are hungry. Jesus has them sit down (this means they will see that there is no stockpile of food). By sitting down the crowd will see the apostles continually hand out food from small bags or bowls and never run out. The crowd will have seen Jesus give each of the twelve a very tiny amount of bread and fish and command the apostles to start feeding everyone. By the end of the story, everyone has enough to eat so that their hunger is satisfied. Twelve baskets of unused bread and fish are left at the end. All 12 apostles know that the food they handed out was replaced by more in their basket or bowl.
The miracle is a big miracle. Jesus made bread and fish out of nothing. You can say that there is more matter in the universe after the miracle than there was before the miracle.
With that said, here are a few (hopefully) helpful points to understand why mainstream scholars often differ with evangelical pastors on the dating of the Gospel books:
1. Mainstream scholars assume that this story could not possibly have happened.
To be fair, most of them would not even be conscious that they have an assumption like this. If challenged, they would say with a smile and a shake of their head, that no reasonable or educated person would ever think that a story like this actually happened. They would deny that this is an assumption—it is just the way the world works.
2. Given that this story cannot be historically true, then another explanation is needed to explain how the story got written and what it means.
Now here mainstream scholars are a bit stuck, because obviously the Christian faith had a beginning. The simple solution is to create a long time period between the life and death of Jesus and when the Gospel was written.
In fact, the longer the better. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when these new scholarly theories were being developed, it was not unusual to have the mainstream scholars confidently date the whole New Testament as having been written a century or more after the life and death of Jesus.
Subsequent archaeological discoveries meant that this belief was untenable, so the timeline was shortened.
3, Creating a long time period between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels (and the New Testament in general) allows mainstream scholars space to spin theories of authorship and non-historical meaning.
It makes necessary a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. It allows them to spin theories of different written sources which are creatively adapted and edited for political or mystical or “faith-community” hegemony purposes.
So, when I am preaching through the Gospel of Mark, why do I describe Mark as an ancient biography of Jesus based on eyewitness testimony and written when many eyewitnesses were alive? I say this because I think it is true.
Here are a few more considerations:
1. There is no historical and documentary evidence that multiple documents predating the New Testament existed.
I mean real evidence, not linguistic slights of hand. There are no “early versions” of a Gospel. There are no diaries or other accounts of how the Gospels were written. The early historical evidence is in keeping with the historic Christian position of Gospel authorship by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
As many authors have shown, the more archaeology develops, the more the accuracy and verisimilitude of the Gospels are established. (see Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? for a powerful summary of and a pointer to the scholarly literature).
2. Both a casual and a close reading of the Gospels reveals that they are claiming to give an accurate historical account that the original readers/hearers could independently check if they wanted to.
The authors know the difference between metaphor, parable, prophecy, and history. To read the text as if it is not claiming to be telling historical truths is to fail to read the text properly.
Only the explanation given in the New Testament can adequately explain the rise and expansion of the Christian faith in the face of resistance and hardship.
3. It is essential to the Christian gospel and to the Bible that Jesus truly died and that on the third day he was truly resurrected.
The grave was empty because He had risen. In the case of the feeding of the 5000, read in the context of each of the Gospels, you see that the same hand that created all things out of nothing is the same hand that sustains all things and is the same hand that was nailed to the Cross to redeem His fallen creation.
The biblical miracles are essential to the Gospel. They are a design feature, not a bug to be fixed.
There is a rich, thick, deep history and literature of Christian thought which shows not just the truth and reasonableness of miracles, but the importance of them for a wise, humane, and beautiful understanding of the world – one which leads to human flourishing.
In contrast, the assumed naturalistic worldview of mainstream scholars has fatal problems. Historic Christianity looks very good in comparison.
I know that there are evangelical scholars who would disagree with me, but there are no necessary reasons to think there were long gaps between the life and death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole.
Friends, I invite you to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Gospels, the four ancient biographies based on eyewitness testimony and written when many eyewitnesses were still alive! Learn of Jesus. It is true and it is beautiful. He is the miracle-working, crucified, risen Saviour and Lord!