Early Dating of the Gospels – Part I

Our previous posts have laid out the case that a theistic God exists.  From the truth argument through the possibilities of miracles, each supports the existence of one spaceless, timeless, immaterial, intelligent, powerful, and personal entity that created all things.  The most plausible explanation is a monotheistic God.  Despite this, the question remains:  which God are we talking about?

Is this the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam (the 3 primary monotheistic world religions)?  These are the only real options in that each professes a monotheistic view of God.  So how do we determine which is accurate?  John Locke suggested that miracles are used by God to validate His messengers, so we will examine His messengers. 

We will focus primarily on examining Christianity for two primary reasons: 1) Islam doesn’t profess any miracles by Muhammad until much later in history.  The Quran even says that Muhammad refused to perform miracles.  2) If we prove the Christian view, as Frank Turek points out, we “get the Old Testament thrown in for free.”

In Part I, we will examine whether there is evidence to show that the Gospels, and other New Testament books, were written early enough to be considered historically accurate.  We will also compare the New Testament to other historical works to see how they compare to these accepted histories.

Part II will examine evidences that point to early authorship of the Gospel and the New Testament books.  Because early authorship doesn’t prove truthfulness, Part III will examine whether these accounts can be considered eyewitness accounts and whether they are trustworthy.

Why is early dating important?

Historians seek to find records as close to the events they are studying for a couple of reasons.  First, early accounts are more likely to be more accurate than accounts written hundreds of years later.  Eyewitness accounts typically provide the most accurate and detailed information on an event. 

Second, these early accounts typically haven’t developed exaggerated details of the event, as this type of legend usually develops over long periods of time. Over time memories fade, details are added, and legend begins to develop. Records written near the time of the event can also be challenged by witnesses should the author exaggerate the details of that event. 

How Does the New Testament Compare in Earliness?

When we compare the New Testament books with other ancient writings, we begin to see the superiority of these books in relation to other ancient texts.  For example, our first manuscripts detailing the events of Alexander the Great’s life were written 300-500 years after he lived (there are possibly fragments of two documents about 100 years after his death). 

The first copies of Homer’s Iliad are from about 500 years after Homer.  The earliest works regarding the life of Julius Caesar come from about 1,000 years after his death.  The works of Tacitus, one of ancient histories most respected historians, are from about 1,000 years after he wrote them.  Copies of the writings of Plato are about 1,200 years after he died.

So, how do New Testament books, especially the Gospels, stack up?  The John Ryland fragments which contain portions of John 18 were determined to have been written between 117 and 138 A.D.; at most about 100 years after Jesus’ death.  These fragments aren’t the originals, so the original would have been written at an earlier date.  Other fragments have been found that date as early or potentially earlier than the Ryland fragments. 

Our first copies of a complete New Testament are the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, both of which date to the mid-300’s A.D. 

Before this we have writings from early Church fathers (Clement, Ignatius, Papias, and Polycarp).  These writings quote the Gospels extensively, the earliest of which was Clement (died 99 A.D.).  The last of the four early Church fathers who quoted the Gospels was Polycarp who died about 155 A.D. 

The Didache, a text outlining early Church practices from around 100 A.D. quotes broadly from Matthew and Luke.  We also have the Muratorian Fragment, a text that quotes an earlier Greek text dating to 170 A.D.  What is interesting in dating the Gospels and New Testament is that it lists all the books of the New Testament with the exception of Hebrews, 3 John(?), 1 & 2 Peter, and James.

Contrary to some critic claims that the Gospels and other New Testament books weren’t written until the mid-200’s or later, we can see that there was extensive distribution of the Gospels by the late first century; less than 70 years after the Crucifixion.

How Does the New Testament Compare in Quantity?

How do the Gospels stack up in number of early manuscripts compared to the above-mentioned writings?  The history of Julius Caesar comes from 10 early manuscripts.  Seven manuscripts of Plato’s works survive.  There are about 650 early manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad.  Alexander the Great’s story comes from 123 codices that were written in the 800’s based on earlier sources.  The histories of Tacitus remain in only three extant manuscripts.

By contrast, Dr. Dan Wallace, director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, places the number of New Testament manuscripts at nearly 6,000 Greek manuscripts.  In addition, there are approximately 10,000 Latin texts and over a million manuscripts in various other languages.

The early dating of existing manuscripts, the large number of such manuscripts, and voluminous quoting of these early texts allow historians to use textual criticism to determine what the original texts said.  Textual criticism involves comparing various copies of the same text to determine the original text. 

Through this method and the large number of early manuscripts and quotes, scholars can determine nearly 98% of the original writings; all but 11 verses of the New Testament.  In fact, this technique has allowed us to identify certain passages that weren’t likely in the original texts; John 8:1-11, for example.

This short post can’t even scratch the surface of the vast amount of information available on the topic of New Testament manuscripts and dating.  Research and new discoveries continue in the area of early manuscripts. 

For more information go to the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts website.  You can also read J. Warner Wallace’s book “Cold Case Christianity”, Craig Blomberg’s “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels”, or Geisler and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist”.

Our next post will examine whether we can establish dates for the New Testament early enough to allow them to be eyewitness accounts. 

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