Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Gospels and the Early Church

By Nathan Busenitz @

An artist's depiction of the day of PentecostThis is the next installment of our series regarding the trustworthiness of the New Testament. In past posts we have already considered four reasons why the NT gospels can be considered reliable witnesses to Jesus’ life.

Fifth, the early Christian community would have demanded an accurate record.

Throughout the book of Acts, the apostles emphasized the fact that they were eyewitnesses to the events of Christ’s life (cf. Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39). The apostle Paul similarly recorded that at least five hundred people had seen Jesus after His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6). This included Christian leaders such as Peter, the twelve disciples, and James the brother of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:5, 7). In addition to this, about three thousand others joined the church on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41), most of whom were familiar with the news about Jesus’ life and death and miracles (Luke 24:18; Acts 2:22; 26:26).

From the inception of the church, then, the truth about Jesus was validated by eyewitness testimony — testimony that included hundreds, if not thousands, of people. As Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote their respective gospels, they would have known that many in the church were already familiar with the basic facts of Jesus’ life. Those with firsthand information about Jesus would have known immediately if something in the gospel records was incorrect.

That the gospel writers were subject to such accountability is confirmed by the early dates of each of their accounts. All four gospels were written in the first century, as even many liberal scholars are willing to admit.[1] This, of course, is necessarily true if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the actual authors of the gospels (a point which has already been established). It is further supported by both the archeological and historical evidence. For example, Matthew is referenced in the writings of the church father Ignatius (who died around 110 A.D.), and fragments of the gospel have been found which date to the latter part of the first century.[2] The gospel of John is likewise attested by fragments from as early as 100 A.D. which quote from or allude to the gospel (P52 and Papyrus Egerton 2).

Most scholars date Mark around 65-70 AD with Luke, Matthew, and John writing later.[3] Others argue for earlier dates (in the 40s, 50s, and 60s), and with good reason.[4] But even if late-first century dates are accepted, “the Gospels were still written during the time when eyewitnesses who had seen Jesus and had experienced his ministry were alive. One would, therefore, still be on good historical grounds for treating them as solid historical sources.”[5] Even at the end of the first century, not enough time had elapsed for the historical facts of Jesus’ life to have been eclipsed by legend.

In this regard, A. N. Sherwin-White, a scholar of ancient Roman and Greek history at Oxford, has studied the rate at which legend accumulated in the ancient world, using the writings of Herodotus as a test case. He argues that even a span of two generations is not sufficient for legend to wipe out a solid core of historical facts. The picture of Jesus in the New Testament was established well within that length of time.[6]

A full discussion of the proposed dates for each of the gospels is outside the scope of our purposes here. But whatever first-century dates are assigned, one point remains: Based on the archaeological and historical evidence, “the New Testament proves to be in fact what is was formerly believed to be: the teaching of Christ and his immediate followers between cir. 25 and cir. 80 A.D.”[7]

This point is made even stronger when one considers the ethical standards upheld in the early church, where truthfulness and integrity were expected of those who followed Jesus (Acts 5:4; 26:25; 2 Cor. 4:2; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 John 2:21; 5:20). False teachers were not tolerated (cf. Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Tim. 3:8; Titus 1:14; 2 Pet. 2:1–21; Jude 1-16), and those who distorted the life and ministry of Jesus were openly condemned (cf. 1 John 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7). Even the apostles were not above being confronted when necessary (Gal. 2:11-15; cf. 1 Tim. 5:19-20). Thus, because any type of false witness about Jesus would have dishonored the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 15:15), it is unreasonable to think the earliest Christians would have quietly allowed it.

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[1] Josh McDowell, in The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 52-53, cites Kümmel and John A.T. Robinson as examples of non-evangelical scholars who believe all four gospels were written before 100 A.D.

[2] Boyd’s Handbook of Practical Apologetics, 233, notes that in early 1995 “three small papyrus fragments of Matthew stored in a library in England for decades, were reexamined. It was determined that they date to the latter part of the first century A.D.”

[3] Liberal scholars generally consider Matthew and John to have been the last two gospels written, meaning that Mark and Luke were written earlier. On the other hand, some conservative scholars consider Matthew to be the first gospel written. The Jesus Crisis, by Robert Thomas and F. David Farnell, defends that conservative view.

[4] Late dates do not adequately take into account factors such as the ending of Acts (which suggest a date for Luke-Acts in the 50s or 60s) or the seemingly absent awareness of the fall of Jerusalem, especially in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (suggesting they were all written before A.D. 70).

[5] J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 151. Church tradition suggests that the apostle John, for example, lived until around 100 A.D.

[6] Ibid., 156. Moreland references Sherwin-White’s volume, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 186-93.

[7] William F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity, 52-53.

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