Apologetics vs. Real scholarship on the dating and authorship of the Gospels:

I was inspired to write this article in response to a recent post on a FB forum for fans of Dr. Robert Price. Obviously attempting to evangelize to the non-believers, a Christian by the name of Timothy Kennelly posted a summary of claims made in Brant Pitre’s “The Case for Jesus”. Kennelly claimed that Pitre made a convincing case that all four NT Gospels were written prior to 70CE, and that they weren’t originally anonymous, but rather that church tradition regarding their authorship was indeed accurate. Likewise, Kennelly claimed that Pitre showed that all four Gospel authors believed that Jesus was God. Furthermore, Kennelly claimed that Pitre showed that “many of the elements of the standard critical take on the Canonical Gospels are products of scholarly bias as opposed to good scholarship”. So, for the benefit of my readers I would like to give a quick response to these claims.

Pitre was attempting to respond to the general academic consensus that all four NT Gospels were written following 70CE, by arguing that there is no explicit mention of the destruction of Jerusalem and it’s temple anywhere in the Gospels. Pitre is not the first Christian apologist to attempt to make this case. Rather, countless apologists prior to Pitre have already made the same argument. Here lies the difference between apologetics and scholarship; Christian apologists generally make no attempt at even acknowledging the quite obvious responses that critics give to their arguments. That is, apologists make no real attempt at engaging with the opposing view. Alternatively, critics have long been attempting to directly engage with the arguments presented by apologists.

The argument that apologists like Pitre make is that had the Gospels been written after 70CE they would have featured explicit reference to it, particularly in light of the prophecies of the destruction of the temple, as found in Mark 13. For those unfamiliar, Mark 13 is often referred to as the “mini-apocalypse”, as it features Jesus giving a quite specific prophecy that the temple of Jerusalem would be destroyed, and that the end of the world would follow (Kennelly has implied that Mark 13 wasn’t specific in referring to the destruction of Jerusalem. This is of course completely untenable; the prophecy is quite explicit). Christian apologists claim that had Mark been written post 70CE than it’s author would have wanted to boast about the prophecy coming true, something along the lines of “… and look, it did happen! Therefore Jesus really did posses supernatural abilities!”.

The response to this is really quite simple. If the author of Mark had written something along the lines of “…and we all know the prophecy came true…” then that would give away that it was written after 70CE. If you are writing after 70CE but trying to pass off a work as if it were written prior to 70CE, you can’t give the game away by putting something in the text that explicitly places it after that date. Again, if you are trying to present a text as predicting some recent event before it happened, you can’t put in an explicit statement that the event has now occurred and that the prophecy has been fulfilled, otherwise you give the game away. Obviously this is just simple logic, and I am not the first to point this out. The very fact that Christian apologists are still making this argument in light of this is pretty staggering.

To further this, we should note that it was extremely common in the ancient world for religious texts to present themselves as being written in an earlier age to when they were, both to give them additional authority and in order to pass them off as being prophetic. There is actually a Jewish work known as the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch which attempts exactly the same thing as the Gospel of Mark, in presenting a prophecy of the destruction of the Temple as being given well before the even had taken place. Again, scholars date this text after 70CE for this simple reason.

Likewise, a non-Canonical (but otherwise orthodox) Christian text called the “Epistle of the Apostles” gives a prophecy of the coming of the Apostle Paul, even though the text was clearly written in the 2nd century (at least). Furthermore, it wasn’t just Jews and Christians that backdated prophecies. Rather, retroactive prophecies are also found in the religious texts of other cultures; for example, the Bhagavata Purana contains a prophecy of the spread of the Vishnu cult in Tamil country, leading scholars again to date it after this was known to have happened.

Occam’s Razor states that that the simplest explanation is often the best explanation. It is far simpler to suppose that a text that clearly references a historical event was written after the event in question rather than before, unless there is extremely strong evidence to the contrary. In the case of the Gospels, the earliest fragments are generally dated to the late 2nd century CE and beyond (with the only exception being P52, which is late 1st – late 2nd and beyond); hence we have no manuscript evidence of them prior to 70CE. Likewise, there are no external references to the Gospel narratives that are pre-70CE. There are no inscriptions, no artefacts, nothing at all.

Christian apologists have often argued that if a narrative ended at a certain point and failed to mention later traditions (relating to the death of disciples and so forth), that this is evidence for it being early (this argument is often presented for Acts of the Apostles). Again though, such arguments are entirely theoretical, and one can envisage countless reasons why a narrative would end at a certain point even if it were late.

Obviously the evidence for Markan priority is pretty straightforward, and it is mostly only conservative Christians that contest it (though there are a few other theories floating around, such as that the Gospel of Phillip or Marcion’s Gospel pre-dated Mark). Firstly, Matthew and Luke copied the vast majority of Mark verbatim, and it is much simpler to suppose that they both expanded upon Mark than to suppose that Mark is a shortened version of them. Furthermore, Mark is lacking a birth narrative or post-resurrection appearances (noting that Mark originally ended at 16:8); hence it is clear which way development went. So, considering that Mark is clearly post 70CE, this means that all four canonical Gospels are post-70CE. The evidence is really straightforward; there really isn’t much room for debate.

Regarding the authorship of the Gospels, mainstream scholarship long ago concluded that church tradition regarding the authors of the four canonical Gospels was largely (if not entirely) fictional, and that all four Gospels were originally anonymous. Kennelly claims that Pitre refuted this by pointing out that the earliest manuscripts we have for the NT Gospels have the names of the traditional authors on them.

Much has been made of the fact that the Gospel texts themselves do not have the names of the authors within them. Some have argued that this implies that they were originally anonymous, whilst others have argued that it was common for ancient works to only have the authors name at the beginning or end of the manuscript. I cannot personally offer any opinion on that. I do think we shouldn’t base any claim that they were originally anonymous on that fact alone.

However, whilst some Christians will claim that there was never any debate amongst the early church as to the authorship of the NT texts, the fact remains that we do know that there were multiple versions of the canonical Gospels in circulation, and that some of these variants went by different names to what we know them as. For example, Marcion’s Gospel appears to have been related to Luke, and we generally know of his by the name “Gospel of the Lord” (though I believe it also went by other titles). In fact, I believe that it is up for discussion as to whether Marcion claimed his Gospel was written by the Apostle Paul? Whilst church tradition maintains that Marcion removed material from Luke (thus making Luke earlier), there are some scholars that believe that Marcion himself wrote his Gospel by adding material to Mark, and that Luke is a redaction of his Gospel (and I personally believe that the evidence for this conclusion is strong).

Regarding Matthew, it seems that a number of heterodox Jewish Christian sects had their own versions of the text. In this case the works were known as “The Gospel of the Hebrews”, “The Gospel of the Ebionites” and “The Gospel of the Nazarenes” etc. Again, as with Marcion’s Gospel, I believe that a good case can be made that Matthew is a Catholic redaction of one of these Gospels. Likewise we know that many of the Alexandrian Gnostic heresiarchs used a version of the Gospel of Mark, and we do not know what theirs was called. Furthermore, there is likewise evidence that the Gospel according to John was used by heterodox Christian sects, and there is even a tradition that both John’s Gospel and Apocalypse (Revelation) was written by the Alexandrian heresiarch Cerinthus (though I personally have long suspected that Cerinthus wrote Revelation and Mark). Hence we have real reasons to doubt the original attribution of the names Matthew and Luke to their respective Gospels, and there is also evidence to suggest the same could have been so of Mark and John.

From the late 2nd century onward we have evidence of the power of the proto-orthodox Church, which wielded authority over a large number of churches over a large area. The fact remains however that at the same time, Marcion’s churches were spread far and wide, and his churches certainly would have used his canon of NT texts rather than the Catholic one we are more familiar with. The earliest evidence we have for the NT canon as we know it comes from Irenaeus in the late 2nd century, and likewise the earliest surviving manuscript fragments with names on the Gospels also date around the turn of the 2nd-3rd centuries CE. Beyond that the earliest surviving complete NT manuscripts date from the 4th century CE.

If Catholics hadn’t sought to destroy manuscripts and entire texts that they didn’t consider canon (and likewise if they had deliberately attempted to preserve such texts) we would indeed have surviving manuscripts bearing different titles to what we know today. We even know of variant titles for some of Paul’s Epistles, and again one can certainly make an argument that the Marcionite titles are more original.

We should also mention that we do not hear of orthodox Christians accepting that heterodox Christian Gospels really were written by Mary, Judas, Phillip, Peter and Thomas etc. I have never heard of any alternate tradition that gave different titles for the Gospel’s of Mary and Judas, and yet it would be foolish to presume that they were really written by  historical disciples of Jesus by those names, just because the Gospels bear those titles.

Christians of all persuasions (orthodox and heterodox) backdated their Gospels, Epistles, Acts and Apocalypses, and presented them under the names of prominent disciples in order to give them authority. This was how they rolled. Christian apologists are trying to have it both ways by using special pleading to try and defend the traditional dating and authorship of the canonical NT texts, whilst likewise accepting the conclusions of mainstream academia on the dating and authorship of heterodox texts, even though they display the same tendencies as the canonical texts.

Anyways, all of this is quite mute when you consider that aside from what names were originally attributed to these Gospels, one way or another the Gospels are largely (if not wholly) fictional. Again, as I’ve stated repeatedly, large chunks of the Gospels are Midrash, or are historically impossible, or are dependent upon pagan myths etc. There were obviously no eyewitnesses to Jesus feeding the 4,000, because it was copied from a story of Elisha in 2 Kings 4:43-44. There were no eyewitnesses to record Jesus’s last words on the cross because nobody was within earshot, not to mention the text is taken from various passages in Psalm 22.

There was no eyewitness to Jesus’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, as the disciples are all presented as being asleep. There were no eyewitnesses to the cleansing of the Temple, as the whole narrative is practically historically impossible (it would have started a riot, the Roman guards out the front would have killed them all on site, and there is no mention of such an event by Josephus, Philo or Justus). And on it goes…

Anyways, on the final claim about all four canonical Gospels teaching that Jesus was God, it certainly is true that there are some references to divinity in all four Gospels. However, I believe it is still quite correct to state that there are a variety of Christological views represented in the New Testament Gospels. For example, the Gospel of Mark has no birth narrative (but rather starts at the baptism) and describes Jesus’s family as thinking he has gone mad when he starts preaching and performing miracles (Mark 3:21). If we were to take this in isolation (bearing in mind that it was the first of the NT Gospels) we would have no reason to suspect that anything supernatural had occurred to Jesus prior to his baptism. No virgin birth, no angels, no pre-existent Logos. Just a mortal human being who was overshadowed by a divine presence from his baptism on. And what would you know, this is exactly what a number of prominent heterodox Christians who used the Gospel of Mark (in some form) believed.

Likewise, the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke (as we know them) do not necessarily presuppose a pre-existent Christ being born into the flesh. Rather, if read in isolation they simply present a god being born the same way as various pagan gods or Emperor’s were born (Dionysus, Perseus, Augustus etc.), that being via the supernatural impregnation of a mortal female by the supreme male God. They were a god, son of God for sure, but it was their supernatural birth that established this as their genesis, not necessarily their descent into the flesh. What’s more, as previously stated, we have good reasons to believe that the canonical versions of Matthew and Luke are redacted forms of heterodox Gospels, in which case Ur-Matthew was originally also an adoptionist Jewish Christian Gospel, and Ur-Luke originally featured Christ descending down from heaven.

As for John, there is no birth narrative, so we have no reason to presuppose that if read in isolation its readers would have thought that Christ was born from a virgin. However, John most certainly makes it clear that Christ was a pre-existent divine being who had taken part in Creation and had descended down from the heavens. Furthermore, a number of critical scholars have presented a very strong case that even in the form we know it today, the Gospel of John presents Jesus as not being the son of Yahweh, but rather the son of a higher God. Whilst John is big on the whole divinity of Jesus thing, it is also very critical of “the Jews”, to the point that it can be argued that it is presenting Jesus as being from a God above Yahweh, which would mean that it originated amongst Marcionite-Valentinian circles or something along those lines (to which we should cite the tradition that it was a Valentinian who wrote the first commentary on John).

Let us remember that aside from the orthodox church post-Irenaeus, most Christian sects used only one Gospel at a time. That is, prior to Irenaeus, even proto-orthodox Christians would likely have not necessarily tried to harmonize multiple different Gospels with different Christology’s. Likewise, both before and after the time of Irenaeus, the multitude of heterodox Christian sects generally made use of one narrative Gospel (though some had supplementary Gospels of a more esoteric nature). Why use multiple Gospels that contradicted each other (and the doctrines of your sect), when you could use one that said exactly what you wanted it to say?

Anyways, all of this should show rather clearly that there is a vast chasm separating Christian apologetics from secular scholarship, although it is also true that the quality of secular scholarship is compromised by the interpenetration of apologetics into its field. Nevertheless, the frequent claims made by Christian apologists as to the reliability of the NT texts and the authority of their tradition blow away in the wind when compared with the arguments and evidence presented by critical scholars.

Regardless of how many times critics refute their claims, Christian apologists have continued to make the same ridiculous claims and use the same erroneous arguments. Christian apologists are spokespeople masquerading as scholars. They are like tobacco spokespeople, or alcohol industry lobbyists. Christian apologists entered the pseudo-academic world specifically to try and uphold their presuppositions. That is, they masquerade as historians and Bible scholars to try and maintain church tradition that is essential for them to make their rather serious claims.

Of course, orthodox Christians have completely identified with their faith. That is, they believe it to be who they are; they say “I am a Christian”, as if it defines some fundamental feature of their immortal soul. They unconsciously believe that if Christianity were to fall they would become less, perhaps even nothing. They believe they would lose hope of an afterlife, of divine justice and divine love. Hence, we need to promote accurate education of comparative spirituality.

Let us remember again that orthodox Christians are not simply trying to avoid persecution and live and let live (though they are certainly persecuted outside of the Western world). Rather, many of them wish to condemn and restrict other faiths, control the legal rights of the LGBTI community, restrict science education in schools and bring religion into foreign policy etc. Conservative Christians want to tell us that we will all be tortured for eternity because we deserve it, and they base it all upon a deeply flawed collection of texts we know as the Bible. Apologetics like Pitre’s “The Case for Jesus” are essential for their case. Unfortunately for them, whether it is Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, James Patrick Holding, Brante Pitre or anyone else, the arguments are the same, and the complete lack of quality is ubiquitous to the genre.

Let us be willing to see the worlds religious text’s as they really are, not how we wish them to be. Giving up the divine status of the Bible and giving up Christianity is not the end of spirituality. I would encourage Christians to accept the reality of the deeply flawed nature of their Scripture and faith as a whole, and look into other spiritual texts, sects and practices. For those that stay within the faith, can I suggest you look to reform it into a culturally specific form of the Perennial Philosophy, which should be vastly different to orthodox Christianity as we know it.  There are of course many liberal and universal Christian sects that have already moved significantly in this direction .