The Gospels Debate


#1

I am currently in a debate with a friend who claims that the gospels were most likely written in the 2nd to 3rd century and which would have given ample time for the so-called “myth” of Jesus’s miraculous feats to develop. He mentioned that the oldest fragment of the gospels, papyrus 52, was dated to the late 2nd century. Is there any solid evidence I could present to him in my rebuttal?


#2

Hi, YosefYosept!

This is a typical assault.

It’s the old “Jesus did not say that cause He was dead when they were written…”

Does anyone question the facts presented in a biography as “not the person’s own words?”

The Gospels are not Jesus actual spoken words. They are the Word of God Inspired by the Holy Spirit–still, we find in them that there was work done to offer the best possible collection of Christ’s Teachings:

**1 Seeing that many others have undertaken to draw up accounts of the events that have reached their fulfilment among us, 2 as these were handed down to us by those who from the outset were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3 I in my turn, after carefully going over the whole story from the beginning, have decided to write an ordered account for you, Theophilus, 4 so that your Excellency may learn how well founded the teaching is that you have received. ** (St. Luke 1:1-4)

Further, scribes needed to constantly copy any important text over and over as the medium used for holding information as quite fragile (in comparison to modern methods) and raiders (warring factions) would raze not only structures but also information (as well as the learned people) when they pillaged and conquered peoples and nations.

I doubt that there are many 1st century and pre-1st century originals that have survived into modernity.

Remember the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Didn’t the nay sayers not prophesied that they would turn the Christian world on its head and uncover all the flaws of the existing Scripture?

What people as your friend seem to ignore that not once has anyone offer a single book (text/compilation) of authentic 1st Century correction on those “myths” added to Scripture.

Maran atha!

Angel


#3

I hate to sound blunt/snarky here, but your friend is expressing a very extremist opinion. No one nowadays seriously believes the gospels were written THAT late.

And I think he doesn’t know how papyri works: it’s true that Papyrus 52 (our oldest SURVIVING NT fragment - who knows, there could have been earlier manuscripts now lost to us) does date from around that time, but he’s misreading the data. The fact that we have a 2nd century fragment of John means that the gospel would have been written and published somewhere BEFORE this manuscript was made. So a late 2nd century date for P52 doesn’t preclude an earlier date at least for John’s gospel. To put it simply: nobody believes that P52 is what we would call the original autograph (i.e. the copy the original author of the gospel would have penned) - that is now lost to us. It’s likely a copy of a copy , etc. of the original. So all the dating of P52 tells us about is when this particular manuscript was written, and that the LATEST possible date for John’s gospel is the 2nd century - BEFORE P52 was written.


#4

Here are the current majority dates on when the gospels were written (dating the gospels is a notoriously difficult job). Some scholars might date the gospels a decade or two earlier than the dates given below, and there’s still some disagreement about which gospel was actually written first (is it Matthew? Or maybe Mark? Perhaps Luke? What about John?), but nevertheless, they show that your friend’s claim of 2nd to 3rd century is way off the mark. At best, you could still argue for an early 2nd century date, but late 2nd to 3rd century is way too late.

Mark (ca. AD 65-80; maybe somewhere in between the late 60s or early 70s)
Matthew (ca. AD 80-100; maybe late 70s or 80s)
Luke (ca. AD 80-100; maybe somewhere around the mid-80s)
John (late 1st-early 2nd century; maybe somewhere around AD 90-100)

Not to mention that you have other early writings from the 2nd century which make possible allusions to one or more gospels. For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing around AD 110, already seems to allude to parts of Matthew’s gospel in his letters - which means that Matthew would have been written around or even earlier than the 100s. Marcion made his own version of the gospel of Luke around the AD 130s-140s; which might suggest Luke was written before that time.


#5

Thanks for the helpful information from both of you. Especially for the clarification on the gospels’ dating too, Patrick. I have another question though…

If most of the gospels were written down 40 to 50 years after the death of Christ, would this be a possible time frame for the “myth” to develop. My friend still holds the view that Christ’s miracles (especially the resurrection) were legendary exaggerations developed between the death of Christ and the writing of the gospels. Of course there was an orally transmitted gospel before the written ones, but my friend believes that the oral gospels were simply inspirational stories of a wise teacher who died. It wasn’t until “renegade” Christian disciples decided to turn the historical and factual story of Jesus into one of legend and myth.

One rebuttal that I think I could use is why would the majority of the apostles along with thousands of other early Christians suffer persecution, disembowelment, stoning, hanging, and crucifixion for a mere “inspirational story?” I mean I find Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates inspirational, wise, and (for the most part) morally righteous teachers but I don’t think I would go to my death in their names.


#6

Seems your friend is a supporter of the so-called ‘late high Christology’ view. (i.e. The exalted claims about Jesus did not rise until years or even centuries after His death.) I’d like to recommend you to the alternative view: early high Christology, which suggests that the first generations of Christians already exhibited devotion to and espoused exalted beliefs about Jesus. (I just made a thread about it earlier.) So even if we say that it was a ‘myth’, why not take the possibility that this belief erupted fairly early?


#7

YosefYosep #1
I am currently in a debate with a friend who claims that the gospels were most likely written in the 2nd to 3rd century and which would have given ample time for the so-called “myth” of Jesus’s miraculous feats to develop. He mentioned that the oldest fragment of the gospels, papyrus 52, was dated to the late 2nd century. Is there any solid evidence I could present to him in my rebuttal?

In 1911 the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued the decision that Matthew is the true author of the Gospel published under his name; the Gospel was originally written in Hebrew before the destruction of Jerusalem. [From *What Does The Church Really Say About The Bible, Edith Myers, The Wanderer Press, 1979].

Even Adolf von Harnack, a rationalist historian of high repute among Rationalist and Protestants, wrote that the Synoptic Gospels were written before 70 A.D. – before the fall of Jerusalem, and accepted the tradition that St Luke derived his information on the infancy of Jesus from Mary His Mother. Theologische Quartalsch, Tubingen 1929, IV, p 443-4].
[See Sheehan/Joseph,* Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, The Saint Austin Press, 2002, p 89, 93]

Not only are the facts of Jesus’ miracles recorded by His own Apostles who were present – Saints Matthew and John were companions of Christ, and Saints Mark and Luke lived in constant contact with His contemporaries.

Very revealing is The Hebrew Christ, Claude Tresmontant, Franciscan Herald Press, 1989, on the origins and dating of the Gospels. As Bishop John Charles Thomas writes in the foreword: “There is nothing in the least unscientific in postulating that there was only a brief period of oral transmission before some of the Gospel materials began to be set down.”

The majority of “scholars” fail again. See the works of Jean Carmignac, John A. T. Robinson, and Claude Tresmontant, who mainly date the NT books prior to A.D. 70, with some of them written in the 30s.

Tresmontant shows in 318 pages, that “all four of the Gospels, as well as some of the other New Testament books, were evidently translations into Greek from earlier texts originally composed in Hebrew.” (p 319). Others agreeing include Jean Carmignac, Greek linguist John Wenham, the earliest being Anglican Bishop John Robinson.

For Matthew, there is evidence from the early church to support an Aramaic original: Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Chrysostom, Epiphanius, Augustine.


#8

I agree with you Abu but of course others have different views.

Leaving the book of Revelation aside, I have still not heard any persuasive argument as to why any NT text HAS to be dated post A.D. 70 and why any of the synoptic gospels HAVE to be dated post A.D. 60 or even A.D. 50.

As one of your sources above (Robinson) has mentioned, when you go through all of the arguments of post A.D. 70 compositions you see very quickly that there are no strong arguments, simply preferences. If after more than 100 years of scholars preferring late compositions there is still no decent argument for late compositions, then maybe there is a reason for that.


#9

I agree with you Abu but of course others have different views.

Leaving the book of Revelation aside, I have still not heard any persuasive argument as to why any NT text HAS to be dated post A.D. 70 and why any of the synoptic gospels HAVE to be dated post A.D. 60 or even A.D. 50.

As one of your sources above (Robinson) has mentioned, when you go through all of the arguments of post A.D. 70 compositions you see very quickly that there are no strong arguments, simply preferences. If after more than 100 years of scholars preferring late compositions there is still no decent argument for late compositions, then maybe there is a reason for that.


#10

Hello Joseph,

is your friend an atheist? I say this because you mentioned his thinking about Jesus’ miraculous feats.

Sometimes an atheist will naturally gravitate to the ‘later composition’ thinking because of exactly what you have described. It is a way of explaining away ideas of the miraculous as developing legends.

If this is the case then your friend may be gravitating to the ‘later composition’ thinking more because of his philosophy on miracles than the evidence of composition.


#11

If you like, I have quoted an extract out of Timothy Keller’s book “Reason for belief” on the Historical Accuracy of the Gospels -

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

However, as I think I read from the Achbishop Fulton J. Sheen once, something like ‘Giving truth to someone who doesn’t want it only gives him more reasons for misinterpretation.’

Anyway, I hope I have helped. :slight_smile:

Thank you for reading
Josh


#12

Ah interesting. Yeah I most definitely hold an early high Christology view. If the first generations did in fact exalt Christ, then the “myth” or “legend” of Christ could have never developed. If there was a historical Jesus who was simply a wise teacher then the first generation of Christians (especially the apostles) would not exalt their belief in him, because they would have known that Christ was simply a wise teacher.

A first generation legend of Christ would have died off quickly because there would have been many contemporary witnesses who would have known that Christ was just a mere human teacher. It’s like if someone started spreading the story that my dead grandfather visited the moon when he was 65. This rumor would not flourish because so many contemporaries of his would oppose this ludicrous rumor and stomp it out. So in my opinion a high early Christology view sort of validates the divinity of Jesus.


#13

, Edith Myers, The Wanderer Press, 1979].

Even Adolf von Harnack, a rationalist historian of high repute among Rationalist and Protestants, wrote that the Synoptic Gospels were written before 70 A.D. – before the fall of Jerusalem, and accepted the tradition that St Luke derived his information on the infancy of Jesus from Mary His Mother. Theologische Quartalsch, Tubingen 1929, IV, p 443-4].
[See Sheehan/Joseph,* Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, The Saint Austin Press, 2002, p 89, 93]

Not only are the facts of Jesus’ miracles recorded by His own Apostles who were present – Saints Matthew and John were companions of Christ, and Saints Mark and Luke lived in constant contact with His contemporaries.

Very revealing is The Hebrew Christ, Claude Tresmontant, Franciscan Herald Press, 1989, on the origins and dating of the Gospels. As Bishop John Charles Thomas writes in the foreword: “There is nothing in the least unscientific in postulating that there was only a brief period of oral transmission before some of the Gospel materials began to be set down.”

The majority of “scholars” fail again. See the works of Jean Carmignac, John A. T. Robinson, and Claude Tresmontant, who mainly date the NT books prior to A.D. 70, with some of them written in the 30s.

Tresmontant shows in 318 pages, that “all four of the Gospels, as well as some of the other New Testament books, were evidently translations into Greek from earlier texts originally composed in Hebrew.” (p 319). Others agreeing include Jean Carmignac, Greek linguist John Wenham, the earliest being Anglican Bishop John Robinson.

For Matthew, there is evidence from the early church to support an Aramaic original: Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Chrysostom, Epiphanius, Augustine.

I suppose that when it comes to religious documents scholars will ultimately impose their judgmental views about miracles which will affect their overall work. If the New Testament wasn’t chock full of miracles, I would guess that many scholars wouldn’t hold a bias view towards it and probably even regard it as one of the most reliable sources in ancient literature. I mean for the first 500 years of its existence the Iliad had no complete manuscripts. And it was nearly 1800 years later until we actually had a full illiad. Now with the New Testament we have 20,000 ancient manuscripts with some tracing back to the first couple of centuries. Now scholars infrequently debate about the reliability or historicity of the Iliad but when it comes to the New Testament people go nuts!


#14

My friend is an agnostic atheist and holds a purely scientific view of “if science says so then it must be true.”


#15

Thanks for the links. At the moment I don’t have a whole lot of time to finish reading them but I will get to it soon.


#16

Early 2nd century, actually. And it is a fragment of what pretty much everyone agrees to have been the last Gospel written, and pretty clearly isn’t an autograph. In other words, John must have been written some time before this, and the other Gospels earlier yet.

The majority consensus is that John was written around the turn of the second century (either the 90s or the early 100s), Matthew and Luke sometime in the later decades of the first century, and Mark perhaps as early as the 60s. Some conservative scholars would push all of this up to earlier dates, but for apologetics purposes this is a good consensus position to argue from.

Edwin


#17

Is it even possible that a legend so profound as the resurrection could arise in a 40 to 50 year period?


#18

Unfortunately, it’s not science doing that talking, it’s scientists. As John Lennox say’s *“Careful not to confuse scientific statements with statements by scientists.” *When it comes to the scientific theory’s on the origin of life, anything other than a naturalistic/materialistic explanation is usually refused, even if it makes more sense and fits better with the evidence than the current theory. Until/if they can come up with a better naturalistic explanation, they will adamantly hold onto Darwin’s theory of evolution no matter how poorly it fits with the evidence.

There is a fantastic book I am reading atm called “Unseen - New Evidence” which goes into detail on the scientific results from 2 recent Eucharistic miracles (Argentina 1999 & Poland, Sokolka 2008) and the Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano 750 AD.

Furthermore, Darwin concluded that, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

In the book he notes "Into this heated debate comes the astonishing phenomena of the sudden existence of human heart tissue in Italy, Poland and Argentina (The Eucharistic Miracles). *They explicitly demonstrate that evolutionary biologists insisting on how the heart had to have come into existence are wrong. Not only were individual cells fully and instantaneously present as the tissue of a recognizable complex organ, a four chambered heart. Not only was that organ instantaneously ‘evolved’ but so too was the particular species to which it belongs, the most complex of all species, the human being. The cells clearly did not evolve in an ever increasing step-by-step process of gradual accumulated complexity. Neither did the heart. Neither did the human. This is an unequivocal demonstration that a complex organ exists, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications over billions of years. In the face of visible, not circumstantial, evidence and by his own admission, Darwin’s theory has absolutely broken down." *

And even without all this, the more biologists discover the sheer complexity of the human being, the more absurd Darwin’s theory becomes, but it doesn’t stop them from holding onto it, because it’s the only naturalistic explanation they have for the origin of life and the refuse to look at any evidence that may point to the contrary, in Richard Dawkins book he pretty much say’s that yes it’s extremely complex and astronomically improbable, but it must have happened that way because we are here.

Anyway, just spewing a few of my thoughts, :slight_smile: Hope I have helped

Thank you for reading
Josh

btw. the book is linked in my signature if you wish to purchase a copy. :slight_smile:


#19

Oops, it should be “Unfortunately, it’s not science doing* ‘the’ *talking” lol :slight_smile:


#20

Yes, I think it is. But still, as origin texts of a major religion go, the evidence for the NT is remarkably strong, including the evidence for the resurrection. Even the Jewish scholar Paula Fredriksen, who dismisses N. T. Wright’s arguments as apologetics rather than real scholarship, thinks that it’s clear that the earliest followers of Jesus really thought He had risen from the dead. And I think that raises a lot of questions for folks who don’t believe it really happened (like Fredriksen, presumably).

Edwin


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