(I've been putting up excerpts from my novels, and some short stories I have written, on this blog for awhile. Today is a change of pace, but it's a topic that is near and dear to my heart and VERY important to me!)
I have studied New Testament apologetics for my entire adult life. For those unfamiliar with the term, what "apologetics" refers to is defending the accuracy and authenticity of a literary or historical work. Specifically, my apologetics studies have focused on the four canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In general, there are three schools of thought when it comes to these four ancient books which give us the details of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. One is that they are historically accurate and divinely inspired histories, written by eyewitnesses or from eyewitness testimony, to give us a clear, defensible record of the life of the Son of God. This viewpoint also holds that the Gospels were written by the men whose names they bear and no others. The opposite viewpoint, held by a minority of extremely skeptical scholars, is that they are fairy tales which may or may not be based on a real historical person, written decades after the death of Jesus - if in fact He was a real person at all - and contain no accurate historical details about His life. This view holds that the Gospels were written generations later by anonymous authors and credited to the various apostles in order to "sell" them to the early church. The middle way, the interpretation followed by a majority of scholars, is that the Gospels contain a fair amount of accurate information about Jesus of Nazareth, along with a good deal of embellishment and legendary accretion, and were possibly written by the men whose names they bear, or perhaps were at least based on earlier writings/teachings from these men. So in order to discover the "historical Jesus," this middle group would say we have to sift through the Gospel narratives and separate myth and embellishment from fact. OK, with me so far?
So, in this great debate, the question of dating becomes all-important. The earlier the Gospels were written, the more likely it becomes that they were written by the traditionally ascribed authors - and, more importantly, the more actual eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry would still have been alive when they were written. This increases the probability of their preserving accurate accounts of Jesus' words and deeds. So it is no surprise that conservative scholars who believe the Gospels are historically accurate and were written by the men whose names they bear tend to assign an earlier date to the Gospels, while those who believe the Gospels are nothing but myth, legend, and wishful Christian thinking tend to date them much later, while others choose dates somewhere in between. The late dates allow time for the "real" Jesus to be forgotten and the "Christian" Jesus to spring up in His place. So if you are thinking about placing your faith in the Jesus of the Gospels, this issue of dates becomes much more than just a discussion about a group of ancient historical documents. It becomes critical to their credibility.
So what does the actual evidence say? First of all, the mainstream Christian church, from its earliest beginnings, recognized these four books and no others as authoritative. The various "Gnostic Gospels" written in the Second, Third, and Fourth century were never accepted as authoritative by the majority of church leaders, and in fact, the "Apostolic Fathers" - second and third generation Christians who led some of the larger congregations in the Roman Empire between 100 and 200 AD - condemned them as "spurious" as soon as they found out about them. On the other hand, there is not a single instance in which Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John were rejected or even questioned by the leaders of the early church! By the third century, Irenaeus of Lyons regarded them as foundational and sure as the "Four Corners of the Earth." By the 174 AD - around a century or less after they were written - Tertullian, an early church leader, was already composing a harmony of the four Gospels known as the Diatesseron - a sure indication that they were already recognized as uniquely authoritative by that point. The oldest actual physical fragment we have of one of the Gospels that is universally agreed upon is the Rylands Papyrus fragment, which contains several verses from John 18 and is dated about 125 AD. There have been claims of even earlier dates for some manuscripts - some say the Magdalene papyri (a few fragments from an ancient codex of Matthew) may date to 70 AD, and there is a recently discovered papyrus fragment from Mark that may also be around the same date, but both of those claims are hotly disputed among scholars. Three things worth noting out of this whole debate: First, all four Gospels were widely recognized as authoritative by the early church while a dozen or so counterfeit gospels composed by the Gnostics were just as widely rejected. Second, none of the four canonical Gospels have ever been referred to by any other name or attributed to any other author for as long as they have been in existence. Finally, both the anecdotal and manuscript evidence is much stronger for a First Century origin of the canonical Gospels than for a later origin.
After a lifetime of study, here's my strongest argument in favor of an early date for the Gospels - built around the remarkable narrative written by Luke, contained in his Gospel and in the Book of Acts. (I am leaving out John because virtually all the ancient sources and modern scholars agree that his book was written last of all, long after the other Gospels were completed.) First of all, Luke has a well-deserved reputation as the most historical and scholarly of all the Gospels. To cite one example, in these two books, Luke cites over forty various officials and their job titles in the various cities of the Roman Empire that figure into his narrative. In every case, he puts the right man with the right title in the right place at the right time, something even Roman historians didn't always get right! He also doesn't shy away from recording unpleasant truths - Peter's denial of Jesus, the deaths of James the brother of John and of Stephen, the first martyr. AND YET - here is the main point I'm driving at - the Book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial before Nero for allegedly inciting riot in Jerusalem. Luke never records the outcome of Paul's trial, or the deaths of Peter and Paul (which we know occurred around 66-68 AD), the great Jewish revolt against Rome in 66-70, or the destruction of the Temple in 70. If Luke was written around 80 AD, as the moderate school of thought suggests, why would he leave out such vitally important events that had a huge impact on the early church? That question looms even larger if we take the more radical, skeptical view that Luke was written around AD 96! There simply is no rational explanation for why the author would not record those events.
What does that leave us with? The most logical answer to the question of why Luke didn't tell us the outcome of Paul's trial is simple: the trial had not yet occurred when the end of Acts was written. That means that Acts had to be completed before 62 AD, which is when Paul arrived in Rome! Logically, that would place the Gospel of Luke even earlier, around 60 AD. The implications of this are huge, as Donald Trump would say! Why? Because virtually all scholars agree that Luke used the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as source material in composing his own Gospel. So if Luke's Gospel was complete by 60 AD, they also had to be completed before that date. That means all three of the so-called "Synoptic Gospels" were completed less than 30 years after Jesus was crucified. Many of his disciples would still have been alive, in other words. Jesus' brothers would still have been alive. Quite possibly, even his mother Mary might have lived to within a decade or less of the time these Gospels were composed. The Synoptic Gospels, then, were about as far removed from the events they record as we in 2016 are from the 1988 election! This is an enormous testament to the authenticity and accuracy of the books that form the core of our knowledge of the life of Jesus, and is one of the reasons why I firmly believe that the Gospels got it right - ALL OF IT.