Sunday, January 29, 2006

Early Dates for Gospels

In a conversation the other day it was suggested to me that my views of the Gospels was somewhat dated. I have always felt that the gospels were written after 70CE. That is Mark first around 70CE and Luke and Matthew following the destruction of Jerusalem. John coming much later possibly into the second century. I feel that the sacking of Jerusalem was one of the trigger events for the writing of the gospels. Clearly the huge time gap would cast doubt on the reliability of the texts themselves and the accuracy of the accounts. Certainly I have never felt that the gospels themselves were eye witness accounts rather that they drew upon oral and earlier written sources (maybe).

If we allow for all Gospels to be written before the end of the first century and for the synoptics, before 70CE how does this change my view of the early church. TN Wright has actually called this disagreement over dating one of the big nonevents of biblical scholarship. The dates of the books don't effect whether or not they are reliable accounts.

Firstly we know for a fact that legends about individuals spread rapidly even whilst a person is alive. Look at the exploits of Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Pablo Escobar, Osama Bib Laden etc. We know many of the stories circulated are not true could not be so, yet the stories circulate and the legends grow in an age where instant communication is possible. So is it possible that stories about Jesus could be exaggerated and grow even a short time after his death, while eye witnesses were alive, yes it is.

Does this solve the problem of the identity of the Gospel writers or address the accuracy of the earliest texts, of course not. Why do I seem so hostile? The picture of the first century that has come down to us has been deliberately obscured. We now know that there were many gospels and many conflicting beliefs held by early Christians. We also know that once it had gained state recognition the "orthodox" (ie the strongest group) systematically destroyed all of their opponents writings and the opponents themselves. So do I trust the early church records, not a chance. At best what we have is a deliberately structured record that seeks to deny us the knowledge of the existence of any other views.

If we add to this a world of superstition in which miraculous events were an everyday occurrence and where an illiterate worker may never travel more than a few kilometers from where they born. Because it is in the poorly traveled uneducated classes that Christianity began. The more educated and traveled were not among the earliest Christians. Does it prove anything? No, but it does suggest that all is not rosy.

The real challenge is to paint a clearer picture of the church in the first century.

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