Early Dating of the Gospels – Part III

In Part I we showed that early Bible manuscript evidence far surpasses other ancient writings in both earliness of writing and number of manuscripts.  We showed through Gospel manuscripts and manuscripts of early Church fathers that most if not all New Testament books were written by the early second century.

In Part II an analysis of internal evidences places the authorship of at least three quarters of New Testament books earlier than 70 A.D.; with the rest likely being no later than 110 A.D.

The questions for Part III are; can these accounts be accepted as accurate eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus and the growth of the early Church?  Do these writings bear the hallmarks we expect from eyewitness accounts? Were there motivating factors that would have led the Gospel writers to lie about the story?

Appearance of Being Eyewitness Accounts

J. Warner Wallace is a retired cold case homicide detective.  He has reviewed thousands of eyewitness accounts and has been trained in forensic analysis of these eyewitness statements.  He applied the same techniques, as a skeptic, to the accounts of the Gospels.  His conclusion was that they were indeed eyewitness accounts.

Skeptics will often point to apparent discrepancies in the Gospels to claim they can’t be eyewitness accounts.  Detective Wallace sees these discrepancies as validation that they are true accounts.  We all know that if multiple witnesses tell the exact same story, without slight discrepancies, we suspect they likely colluded to make up their stories.

Wallace also points out that the disciples had nothing to gain by making up resurrection accounts.  According to Wallace crimes are typically motivated by one of three things: power, money, or sex.  The message the disciples preached included giving up worldly riches, serving others, and abstaining from sex outside the bounds of marriage. They were also ostracized from the temple, beaten, and killed for their beliefs.  The disciples gained nothing and lost nearly everything by sticking to their stories. 

Undesigned Coincidences

One of the most interesting areas for determining the veracity of New Testament books, especially the Gospels, is undesigned coincidences.  Unlike slight discrepancies of eyewitness statements, these are accounts that mention various details that in themselves seem incomplete; only to be clarified by seemingly incomplete details from another book.

This idea was originally put forward by J. J. Blunt in 1869 in “Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings of the Old & New Testament”.  This topic largely lay dormant until Lydia McGrew revived Blunt’s ideas in her 2017 book “Hidden in Plain View”.

One example is the accounts in Matthew and Mark of Herod’s discussion of Jesus following John the Baptist’s death.  Herod and his court were discussing Jesus and pondering if he could be Elijah or John the Baptist raised from the dead.  So how did the Gospel writers know what Herod said?

Luke provides the answer.  In Luke 8:3, Luke mentions someone named Chuza as being married to Joanna, a follower of Jesus.  He then gives Chuza’s occupation as “Herod’s household manager”; the only mention of Chuza in the Bible.

Critics may say Luke was simply cleaning up missing details from Matthew and Mark.  The problem is that mentioning Chuza appears to be random because Luke doesn’t mention Herod’s conversation. 

Another example comes from the accounts of Jesus being beaten by the Pharisees.  Matthew says that they spit on Jesus and beat him.  They then said “Prophesy to us, you Christ!  Who is it that struck you?”  This seems to be a strange request considering the people hitting Jesus were right in front of him.

In Mark, the guards covered Jesus’ face, spit on and struck him, and simply demand he “prophesy”.  Prophesy about what?  It is left uncertain in Mark’s account.

The answer again comes in Luke where we learn that the guards blindfolded Jesus, beat him, and demanded he prophesy who was hitting him. 

There are numerous other examples from all four Gospels.  There are also examples where incomplete details in the Gospels are answered in extra-biblical writings; such as Josephus.

Details Unknown to Later Writers

In our last post we discussed John mentioning the Pools of Bethesda and Siloam; believed to be invented until they were found by archeologists.

In both his gospel and Acts, Luke provides a wealth of historical, geographical, and governmental information that was unknown for centuries.  Luke repeatedly names officials and their correct titles, geographically correct place names, and customs that were long forgotten until discovered by archeologists.

Embarrassing Details

Historians often look at whether the writer includes embarrassing details when determining the accuracy of ancient accounts.  The idea is that a writer wouldn’t make up details that portray themselves in a bad light.  Most people will lie to make themselves look better, but won’t lie to make themselves worse.

There are several instances in the New Testament where embarrassing details aren’t hidden.  For example, Jesus’ brothers thought he was crazy and came to bring him home.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a Messiah.

We also see Jesus refer to Peter as Satan at one point.  If Peter was to be the leader of the early Church, that’s likely not something you would report.  Considering that most scholars believe the Gospel of Mark was written largely based on Peter’s testimony, it becomes even more unlikely to be an embellishment.

Another powerful example of embarrassing details is the post-Resurrection appearances to the women.  In First Century Israel, women’s testimony carried little to no weight.  Why make up the women as the first to see the risen Christ in this case?  The Gospels also report that the men were in hiding while the women openly went to the tomb.  Again, it is unlikely the writers would show the disciples, who would carry Jesus’ message forward, as cowering in fear of the Jews while the women boldly went to the tomb.

Enemy Attestation

Are there writings from opponents that validate the details of the text is another principle historians use to decide an ancient text’s reliability.  In our case we look for writings from opponents of Christianity that confirm the details of the Gospels.

We previously mentioned the works of Josephus.  We can find several points of confirmation from Josephus.  These include that Jesus was a holy man who performed miracles, spoke against the Jewish religious class, was crucified by the Romans at the urging of the Sanhedrin, and his disciples claimed his resurrection. Josephus also reports the conversion of Jesus’ brother, James, following Jesus’ death; James was a doubter and became the head of the Jerusalem church.

Another source that confirms the Gospels is Pliny the Younger; a persecutor of Christians.  In a letter to Emperor Trajan, he describes early Christian practices and their belief in a risen Jesus.

Scholars have identified at least eight other contemporary writers that confirm the Gospels.  One writer, Thallus in 52 A.D., reported a darkness at the time of the crucifixion that he attributed to an eclipse.  The interesting detail here is that we know the crucifixion occurred just prior to Passover.  Passover always occurs during a full moon.  From astronomy we know that a solar eclipse is impossible during a full moon due to the positioning of the earth, moon, and sun.

In Cold Case Christianity, J. Warner Wallace covers these topics and more.  You can also get more in-depth information from I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Athiest by Geisler and Turek.

Our past posts have outlined the reliability of the New Testament documents.  By any historical standard they meet or exceed the requirement for historical reliability.  Based on this reliability, we will next address the skeptics’ claim that Jesus never claimed to be God.

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