Friday, 30 June 2017

Is the Testimonium Flavianum too short for Josephus’ writing? Does it even fit the context?

This post answers some common questions about things written concerning Jesus Christ in Book 18 of Josephus’ Antiquities. This book was published about 93AD. These things are some of the most analysed in any ancient Jewish text outside the Bible.


Question: Is the Testimonium Flavianum too short for Josephus’ writing?

Answer: We cannot assume too much about the length that Josephus goes to when writing about events. Sometimes he is much briefer that one might expect.

Consider what Josephus says about a terrible incident for the Jews in Egypt. He doesn’t say much, compared with the witness Philo. For Philo writes that the Romans in Alexandria (in Egypt) were…

·         “destroying the synagogues”
·         "issued a notice… allowing any one who was inclined to proceed to exterminate the Jews as prisoners of war"
·         "drove the Jews entirely out of four quarters, and crammed them all into a very small portion of one"
·         "slew them and thousands of others with all kinds of agony and tortures … wherever they met with or caught sight of a Jew, they stoned him, or beat him with sticks"
·         "the most merciless of all their persecutors in some instances burnt whole families, husbands with their wives, and infant children with their parents”
·         "those who did these things, mimicked the sufferers”

Now, in contrast, and look closely, this is how Josephus describes the violence:

·         “There was now a tumult arisen at Alexandria, between the Jewish inhabitants and the Greeks” (AJ 18:8)

And that’s it. Talk about brevity! That is all Josephus says on it. Blink and you would miss it. Josephus had his own agendas, and he wrote what he wanted to write. Which was often to make the Romans look better than they really were.

So, is the Testimonium Flavianum too short for Josephus’ writing? No, not necessarily. One cannot conclude anything firm from the brevity of it.

This is the case whether you have a shorter or longer version of the passage in question.


Question: Does it fit the context in Book 18? In other words, does it break the flow of the stories in Book 18?

Answer: The answer to this is simple, and well known to scholars. Why would it not fit the context? The answer is that it is simply because footnotes had not been invented in books in Josephus' day.

Therefore ancient texts, including by Josephus, are littered with breaks in the flow that often don’t fit the context. We are not used to this in modern history books, because authors now avoid that problem by writing footnotes. It is a matter of just getting used to how ancient texts read.


Yes, it does. It has to be handled with caution from a historical point of view. This is because the passage has in it some bits that weren’t written by Josephus but by later Christian scribes when making copies of Josephus. Anyone trained in evidence and analysis can tell you that this does not make the evidence of Josephus unusable. It just means it has to be used with more caution. That means using evidence analysis methods to strip out the bits added by Christians and only using the bits that are left, the bits likely to be by Josephus.

We don’t have to take heed of naysayers who say the whole thing is unusable and was entirely made up by Christians: that sort of thing usually comes in a package of denying every bit of ancient evidence about Jesus, and that for ideological reasons (trying to debunk Christianity) rather than for the painstaking work of writing history responsibly.


Josephus, who wrote in Greek, was a Jewish historian. He had good sources of information on the period in which Jesus lived. Born in the 30s of the first century, and having lived in Jerusalem, he was close to events of his home country in his century. (During a war with the Romans in Judea, he switched sides to join the winning side – the Romans.) He was not sympathetic to Jesus, calling him the so-called Christ. He was a contemporary of James, Jesus' brother. Josephus and James lived in Judea at the same time, and he knew of James' death in the 60s of the first century.


Sunday, 21 May 2017

Mark’s resurrection narrative: where is it?

I come to be writing about the story of Jesus’ resurrection in Mark’s Gospel in particular for one reason: the ending from Mark 16:9-20 which forms part of it, arguably shouldn’t be there at all. Some would argue that case by saying that all that should be included at the end of Mark’s Gospel are Mark’s own words, and that 16:9-20 are someone else’s words. Not Mark’s words. And so they should be dismissed. And so, I’ve heard it claimed, that leaves Mark’s Gospel without a resurrection account, or at least without mention of Jesus appearing to his disciples. But, I have to ask, is that true? And how do we know?

The question arises because in the most ancient manuscript evidence, Mark's Gospel ends at chapter 16:8. The signs are that extra verses were added later. Most modern bibles tell the reader so in the footnotes, so that the reader knows that Mark 16:9-20 was probably not originally part of Mark's Gospel. (There are other alternative endings too, but I'm trying to keep this simple.)

It matters not least because most experts would say that Mark’s Gospel is our oldest gospel. This means, if you listen to some internet voices especially, that the absence of a resurrection in the oldest gospel means that the resurrection story was somehow invented after Mark wrote his Gospel, with dire consequences for the truth of the resurrection and Christianity. in other words, so the claim goes, the first Christians didn’t believe in a real resurrection of Jesus at all, and the sceptics think so because they think the resurrection wasn't originally in the earliest gospel. (This view ignores that Paul, writing earlier than Mark, had already mentioned the resurrection, but that's for another post, and I am keeping things simple here. This post is just about what Mark says.)

For the purpose of this post, I am going to dismiss Mark 16:9-20 out of hand[1], simply in order to see what Mark really says without it. That is the test: if we only go by Mark’s words, we can ask what they say – if anything – about Jesus being resurrected.

So that leaves us only with Mark 16:1-8. This is what it says in its resurrection episode:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

And there it breaks off. If you were to add Mark 16:9-20 - and I won't do that here - then you get stories in which is told what happens during appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples. But we don’t have that here. Now, I am going to zoom in on what we do have here, in Mark 16:1-8, the words that are normally accepted by scholars as Mark's words. Some sceptics say there is no resurrection account here. But is that true? This is what we find in it.  

In verse 2, we have, early on the Sunday, three women visiting the tomb of Jesus.

In verse 4, the women witness that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb entrance.

In verse 5, the women witness a man, a messenger in effect, in the tomb.

In verse 6, this man tells them that Jesus, the one who had been crucified, now ‘has risen!’

They witness that the tomb is otherwise empty, as the man explains, “He is not here. See the place where they laid him.”

In verse 7, we learn where the resurrected Jesus will appear, to whom and when: it will be the disciples and especially Peter, it will be in Galilee after they arrive there. So resurrection appearance(s) are mentioned here, but not described.

The messenger’s promise to be conveyed to Peter and the others about what to expect in Galilee is, “There you will see him, just as he told you.” So the promised appearance in Galilee links to something Jesus said earlier to them. (Mark’s Gospel is actually laced with the promise and expectation of Jesus’ resurrection. See Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34 and especially Mark 14:28 about the promise of the risen Jesus going to Galilee.)

In verse 8, the women run from the tomb in fear, and, we are told, “They said nothing to anyone,” except of course that they obviously did tell, otherwise their great moment at the tomb would not be found here. So we are left anticipating the promised appearances of the risen Jesus in Galilee. In light of that story and promise, you can’t close the book there and say that Mark doesn’t believe that. Mark is clearly a believer and clearly believes that the appearances of the risen Jesus in Galilee are bona fide. But we don’t get to hear more, because that is where the text of Mark’s Gospel breaks off.

So after dismissing Mark 16:9-20, what do we have left here of the resurrection story in Mark? We have this:

  • when: Sunday morning
  • where: the empty tomb
  • who is there: the women and a messenger
  • what: Jesus has risen
  • why: it is as Jesus foretold
  • what Jesus is doing now: “He is going ahead of you into Galilee.”
  • what will happen: Jesus will appear
  • to whom he will appear: Peter and the disciples
  • where he will appear: Galilee
  • when he will appear: after they arrive in Galilee.

That seems to me to be the basics of the resurrection story. That is the story Mark tells. Mark in writing what he did clearly believed that the resurrection happened. To claim that there is no resurrection story in Mark is spurious.

What is absent is the cued-up Galilee scene, and that is the blank filled in by Mark 16:9-20. Without it, all you have is the basic resurrection story, the empty tomb witnessed by the women, the message that Jesus is resurrected, that Galilee is where the disciples will see the resurrected Jesus appear to them. As said, resurrection appearance(s) are thus mentioned in Mark's Gospel, but not actually described: Mark is not in doubt that resurrection appearances are part of the story. It is a resurrection narrative, plain and simple, without the extras. To deny this, as some sceptics do, borders on desperation.

If you would like to read more about the ending, NT Wright approaches it with a historian’s common sense. As does Ben Witherington.


As NT Wright observes, one place where we find Mark's promised appearances of Jesus in Galilee is in the ending of Matthew's Gospel. And since Matthew re-uses 95% of the material provided to him by Mark, then this makes it all the more likely that Matthew's description of the Galilean appearances are at least in part derived from Mark. In fact, it reads well if you tag onto the end of Mark some verses from Matthew 28. Taking a bare minimum, in fact, you would get this, where the material flows from Mark 16:8 seamlessly into the words from Matthew:

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”... Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations”.

I've minimised material taken from Matthew, just to show how it flows. I could have used more. It gives an impression of what the original ending of Mark could very possibly have looked like. I am not saying it was so, just that it could have been so, given that it flows naturally, and that this delivers what Mark promises, and that Matthew reuses 95% of Mark's material, so the wording in the latter paragraph above, which is found in Matthew, could have been derived from Mark's original ending.

[1] The argument that Mark 16:9-20 should be dismissed is actually a kind of fundamentalist version of scepticism. Its basic premise is that the Bible should exclude any additional material found to be attached to the ‘original’ version of a gospel. Quite why this should be so is never clear to me. The Bible itself is a compilation of different books. And Luke’s Gospel announces boldly at its start that it is a sort of compilation itself, making one long gospel from other writers’ shorter attempts. So the Bible itself announces in various ways that it is fine to be a compilation and still be an inspired religious text. Nevertheless, one finds this kind of fundamentalism that says compilation is not fine, that compilation is a kind of naughty tampering with the text, and so Mark 16:9-20 has no place in the Bible. But for the sake of this post, I am merely interested to see what the end of Mark’s Gospel looks like without Mark 16:9-20.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Arguments for Luke’s Gospel being written after 70AD: how do they rate?

In another post, I set out clear arguments for why Luke’s Gospel and his Book of Acts would have been written by about 62AD. However, most biblical scholars today take the view that Luke’s Gospel must have been written after 70AD. This post puts that opinion, and its best arguments, to the test. (NB: I am not trying to argue about all the gospels here. This post is only about Luke’s Gospel.) The boundary set by 70AD is simple: this is the year when the Roman army overran Jerusalem’s defences and destroyed the city and the temple. That is an undisputed historical fact. Which side of that line does Luke’s Gospel fall? Before or after? Does Luke show that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen, rather than its fall being something that Luke was waiting to happen?

A few words about method. Secular historians will look at an issue like this and seek naturalistic explanations for why a book was written and why it says what it does, an explanation that works in purely human terms. Their given task is to explain the world as if God didn’t exist. That is how their job is done in the modern era. This makes their work of little interest to many Christians, who don’t see the point of such work. But what I’m interested in is to ask whether the majority secular reading is even the best naturalistic reading.

First, for ease of reference, here are five key passages in Luke which are at the heart of scholars' arguments for a late date:

Luke 13:1-9 suggests the Jews still had time to repent:

‘Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (emphasis added)

Luke 13:33-35 is full of foreboding for Jerusalem, because it has rejected Jesus, without saying what will actually happen: ’”In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.”’ (This should not be assumed to be a reference to the temple, since it says 'your' house, not 'God's house' or 'my Father's house'. 'Your house' could just mean the nation of Israel, and the saying may mean that the spiritual state of Israel is hopeless.)

Luke 19:41-44 suggests time was running out: ‘As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.’ (emphasis added)

‘Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”’

‘“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.’ (emphasis added - note the mountains here are a positive image and in the next passage they are a negative image)

Luke 23:27-31: ‘A large crowd of people was following Jesus, including some women who were sad and crying for him. But Jesus turned and said to them, Women of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children. The time is coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the women who cannot have children and who have no babies to nurse.’ Then people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ And they will say to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”’ (emphasis added)

Clearly, the fall of Jerusalem was a big deal for Luke, more so than for the other gospels. But all the biblical gospels show a keen interest in the Jerusalem temple, repeatedly mention it, never forget it. This is unlike most apocryphal Christian literature of the following centuries which for most part show little or no interest in it.

Here are seven arguments assessed for a post-70AD dating of Luke’s Gospel.

1) Post-70AD arguments: stories of predictions coming true should be assumed to be fictional and after-the-fact

So the argument goes, the balance of probabilities is that people get predictions wrong most of the time, and so stories of people getting predictions right are suspect, especially if they have religious meaning. (Even more so if some people hold this to be so-called ‘prophecy’.) Therefore, in this case, it should be assumed that Jesus didn’t predict the fall of Jerusalem. That’s the argument. Therefore when Luke tells the story of Jesus predicting the fall of the temple, it should be assumed that this was made up after the temple fell, after 70AD. And so, Luke wrote about it after 70AD. That’s the case in brief.

Counter-argument 1: fallacy

This argument is fallacious because it applies the general to the specific indiscriminately. The odds have to be assessed rather differently when you weigh them as words of an up-and-coming Jewish prophet in first century Israel during a time of political unrest under enemy occupation, with strong views about the temple leadership and an interest in apocalyptic Jewish prophets (e.g. Jeremiah). That such a prophet should do as Jeremiah did and predict the fall of Jerusalem is not wholly unexpected. The likelihood of Jesus predicting disaster can’t be judged on the general principle that most predictions don’t come true, religious or otherwise. The balance of probabilities shifts dramatically when specifics come into view.

It is reasonable to think that a prediction about the temple falling could have been made before 70AD. Such warnings more clearly evoked Israel’s past rather than the future. Narratives of the 7th century BC fall of Jerusalem and its temple were hardwired into the Jewish psyche. Scars from the disastrous fall of centuries previous haunted the Jewish imagination. They were just the sort of dark memories you would invoke, as if modelling oneself on a Jeremiah, if you were to speak woes upon the country’s elite. And it’s not unlikely Jesus did exactly that.  

The fortunes of the temple were a big deal of national interest, and some Jews took particular interest in it. And Jesus in the gospels is clearly one of them. I go into the reasonableness of this prediction in another post here.

Counter-argument 2: doing history better

Expanding on that, I have two more particular points to make here.

 i) Is it prophecy?

I want straight away to dispense with the idea that Jesus’ words are meant to be some kind of supernatural prophecy. It is going beyond scripture to make any such claim, and ironically both conservatives and liberals err into judging the text on the flawed basis of a supposed ‘supernatural’ theme. This creates a huge distraction. Viewing readings here as a contest between naturalism versus supernaturalism is a mistake. It simply distorts readings of what the issues in this text are. Highly political warnings, that’s what Jesus’ words are. There is nothing obviously supernatural in Jesus’ words. After all, I hear dire predictions in mainstream media every day, some quite explicit, currently about the likely consequences of Brexit or the Trump Presidency; but I don’t need to interpret these media predictions as supernatural prophecies, and I won’t, even if some of them might come true. Ditto for Jesus’ warnings in this case. Set that distorting issue of supernatural prophecy aside, and the text is easier to read.

ii) Are we projecting our knowledge onto Luke?

Another distorting problem is that we can look at the text through our historically aware post-70AD viewpoint. We know that Jerusalem fell. But we shouldn’t rush to project that onto Luke as if we know that Luke was aware as we are.

2) Post-70AD arguments: Luke writes things that must have been written after 70AD, doesn’t he?

The cornerstone of this argument is to say that Luke shows his hand and gives away that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen already when he was writing. Those arguing this, to justify their position, cite the scriptures above. e.g. Some take Luke 23:27-31, interpreting it as something that would have been written only after 70AD when Jerusalem was destroyed, made up by the author, not spoken by Jesus.

In it, Jesus speaks on his way to die upon the cross. All scholars make a reasonable inference that these words comprise a warning of trouble and strife for Jerusalem especially: “Women of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children”. This shows us a Jesus (and a Luke) who took a personal interest in the waning fortunes of Israel and Jerusalem. Luke alone sees fit to include these words, unlike the other gospel writers. For that reason, sceptical scholars are apt to say that Luke was thinking about the fall of Jerusalem in a way that sets him apart from the other writers. Luke seems to make a bigger deal of the fate of Jerusalem that the other gospels do. From this, scholars infer that the author had something in mind more than was in the basic story he had received of the death of Jesus, the extra thing being that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen. But does this rather mysterious sounding and ambiguous passage really warrant dating the book post-70AD?

Counter-argument 1: “what will happen …?”

One problem for those who opt for later dating is Jesus’ question in it: “What will happen…?” Translated differently, you could put it, “what will become of the dry branch?”

What will cause the women’s sorrow? Jesus falls short of saying anything specific. It literally works as an open question. “What will happen…?” means “What will happen…?” It sounds like, “Be warned, be ready, wait and see.”

It shows no cleverness about events, and does not, on the face of it, mean “Look what happened!” It relies for meaning on its ambiguous ‘dry’ metaphor, not resembling factual reporting: “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will become of the dry branch?” It is deliberately ambiguous and open-ended about specifics. If “what will happen…?” alone were all we had to go on, we would lean towards it dating to before 70AD, not after 70AD.

Counter-argument 2: “what will happen …?” is typical of the vagueness

This stands or falls on whether you think the references are so descriptive of the fall of Jerusalem that they cannot have been written before 70AD. But the case for that is not overwhelming. Of the five passages, three are so vague that they could be about anything, if we were not projecting a particular perspective onto them. They are Luke 13:1-9, 13:33-35, and Luke 23:27-31 with its ‘dry branch’. The vague descriptions in Jesus’ words are insufficient evidence for supposing that Luke was writing with historical awareness of 70AD. Typically of these three passages, the “what will happen?” passage does not stipulate whether it refers to one particular event, or just more broadly a time of trouble and strife, in the shadow of the rejection of Jesus. Jesus is here talking in Old Testament language (e.g. Hosea 10:8), not describing some scene like a reporter might.  

The signs in the passages are that Jesus’ grim fate will bear grim consequences for Jerusalem. If issued pre-70AD, they serve as a shrill warning to Jerusalem (more on this later). Jesus’ words also give meaning to suffering. That is so, whether it is a suffering anticipated, or one that has happened by the time Luke was writing, or is unfolding at the time the Gospel was being written. Whichever it is, the words link trouble in Jerusalem with the rejection of Jesus. It is left ambiguous as to precisely what suffering Jesus’ words refer to in “what will happen?” but it is natural to associate it with the other passages. But trying to find particulars in this vagueness is not scientific. It is like trying to read tea leaves.

Conclusion: at best, you can say that this “what will happen?” passage could be argued either way, but it is insufficient to be determinative for early or late dating of Luke’s Gospel.

3) Post-70AD arguments: a siege is mentioned

So this boils down to two of the five passages: Luke 19:41-44 and Luke 21:5-6, 20-24. Late-daters think they have a smoking gun in that Luke’s outline bears some resemblance to what Titus did to Jerusalem in his siege of 70AD.

Counter-argument: there’s nothing unique about the siege in Luke

Again much of this is vague, a warning rather than factual reporting. Did the Judeans go to the mountains as Jesus advised? We don’t know. It is more Jeremiah than newsflash. In any case:

  • Yes, in Luke, we have mention of a siege of the city, but after all, what else would tackle a walled city but a siege?
  • And Luke’s Gospel predicts the city’s destruction at the hands of the Romans, but after all, who else would be conducting such a campaign but the Romans?
  • And Luke predicts the slaughter and capture of Jews, but really, what else would happen to those in a conquered walled city?

Quite what kind of imagined defeat of a walled city by the Romans would of necessity exclude those elements is never explained by late-daters, and as such this does not meet any reasonable test for dating the Gospel post-70AD. The skimpy outline detail in Luke is applicable to almost any conquest of a walled city in the near east in antiquity.

Luke’s description is also coated in the sort of religious language you find in the Old Testament, which did in fact influence how Luke wrote generally, rather than relevant detail.

Have sceptics really done comprehensive evidence analysis of Luke 21:5-36? Luke’s work shows no actual detailed knowledge of the who what when of 70AD and its preceding siege whatsoever. Luke seems blissfully unaware that the siege of 70AD began during the Jewish festival of Passover, which would have been replete with meaning for him. He seems unaware that during the siege, Jews committed atrocities against each other, which would have fitted the apocalyptic tone of judgment. It appears no-one told Luke that his description should be adjusted to reflect the fact that the temple was destroyed by fire. He seems clueless about the detail that it was preceded by a ruthless purge by the Romans of Jesus’ beloved Galilee. Why isn’t there more of a good fit? Where is the proper consideration of all these issues when late-daters assert that Luke’s knowledge is what makes the Gospel post-date 70AD?

4) Post-70AD arguments: historical-critical view

Some readers may be unfamiliar with the historical-critical approach. This is particularly to do with looking for a human explanation for a text, as if God does not exist. It is common for scholars to take the view that one of the reasons for the inclusion of material in a gospel is that its content mirrored the current experiences of the Christians who heard and read that gospel, making it particularly relevant to them at that moment in time. In other words, if we can match the tenor of the passage with another historical moment, that could help date the book. I’m not saying that the historical-critical approach is an exact science. (See Eta Linneman’s critique of it.) But it is worth asking a question: if this method is used, does scholars’ usual reading stand up as the most convincing result of applying this method?

By way of expanding the question, why was it relevant to speak of the rejection of Jesus and his message, by his fellow Jews, in such anguished and apocalyptic terms, waiting for Jerusalem to fall or looking back on its fall? What author or audience felt that way, at the time of its composition, such that the drama would resonate?

What would occasion Luke to include in his Gospel something (so dramatic) that the other gospels don’t include (other than the possible reason of Luke being the only one who knew the material)? Why was it special to Luke to speak of fall-out from the rejection of Jesus by his fellow Jews in such highly-charged terms? In short, what fresh moment gave the author the impetus to write it down?

Scholars who date the Gospel post-70AD infer that these verses are indicative of a post-70AD Christian audience who are interested in the theme of rejection. Since in this view there is nothing sure to anchor the date, scholars arbitrarily date the gospel anywhere between 70AD and 100AD. Here, the occasion post-70AD becomes very speculative. We should note that, for such a rejection by Jews in this era, there is scant evidence. We don’t have any strong evidence of rejection by Jews after 62AD (the death of James), except for tensions that manifest in second century Christian texts and third century rabbinic texts.

Sceptical scholars conjecture that unknown Christians were experiencing unknown rejection by unknown Jews in some unknown moment. I know I’m harshly characterising this view, but that is the essence of it.

Counter-argument 1: this is weak

This does not provide an identifiable impetus for writing these verses at all. That, unfortunately, is what comes of a priori dating post-70AD. Layer upon layer of inferences can become a house of cards. Why was the fall of Jerusalem a big deal for this Gospel’s audience, say, 20 or 30 years after it fell? It’s an important question. After all, we don’t see explicit anxiety over the fate of Jerusalem in any other Christian literature of the first hundred years of Christianity, only In Matthew, Mark and Luke. There is no good evidence base for the historical-critical approach to hang a hat on post-70AD, so it has to imagine one.  

Side-note: Dating the Gospel post-70AD of course drives further inferences. Either that Luke, the companion of Paul, was still alive post-70AD. Or that the Gospel was written by someone else who was not a companion of Paul and was living and writing post-70AD, and indeed some scholars really do make such an inference founded on the prior inferences, so that Luke and Paul are removed from any direct connection with the author of Acts (as well as the Gospel)! Actually, we know nothing at all of Luke’s life after the end of the narrative in Acts other than that he finished writing it up. We know so very little at all of church history post 62AD (where Acts breaks off) to the early second century – it is one of the least recorded in church history - that all assumptions about a post-70AD Gospel are awash with thinly grounded speculations, of which we should be cautious.  As thin as this is, it is attractive to some scholars who want the door of doubt pushed wider ajar so that they can march their own innovative historical narrative through it, with late dating and author-guessing and imagined situations: reconstructed histories are in vogue. But it is not wholly convincing as an occasion for the writing of the verses.

Counter-argument 2: what about a pre-70AD occasion?

Also undermining the force of the post-70AD case, the fact is that it was possible to be agitated about the fate of Jerusalem before or after its destruction, so what is to be determinative for dating?  

What if there is a clearer occasion that could have existed for the writing of these words? Let’s return to the historical-critical approach. Given that the passage is about Jesus being rejected and its consequences for Jerusalem, could it have appealed to the gospel’s first audience because they too, or Christians whom they knew, were – like Jesus - being rejected by powers in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was deserving of consequences? Such an occasion would be a harsh lived experience of Christians there. Do we know of such an occasion?

Yes, we know of one (more than one, actually) in Luke’s text. However highly or lowly we rate the historicity of Acts, there is a clear parallel of the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of Christians who, like Jesus, felt their message, and they themselves, got rejected by fellow Jews in Jerusalem. No mistake: Christians unquestionably saw it that way. Parallels in persecutions within Luke-Acts are a key theme on page after page.

This is promising ground for understanding the text better, if the historical-critical approach is valid. Our author Luke describes in Acts a significant Christian – one especially significant to him - who equated his own suffering with Jesus’ suffering. That is to say, his message was rejected in Jerusalem and he personally suffered harm for it. This was Paul. We know that he felt acutely grieved that Jewish people were not listening to him. (See for example Paul’s words in Romans on the gospel not being heeded by Jews. See also the similar message from the closing paragraphs of Acts. In particular, Paul is rejected in Jerusalem at its most holy site, the temple.)

Luke is able to use this for his own agenda. There is a scholarly consensus that Luke was writing with sympathy for Paul. According to Luke, his friend has been almost brutally murdered in the temple. So it’s little wonder that his Gospel bears more negative sentiment about the temple, and predicts its future more gloomily than the other gospels do. Rejections of Jesus and Paul are major focal points in Luke’s Gospel and Acts. The parallel is striking. As evidence of this, see Acts 21:10-14, where Paul is leaving Miletus fearing death in Jerusalem:

“After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”

The story has clear echoes of Jesus being handed over by Jews to Gentiles for execution in Jerusalem, after ignoring the pleadings of his disciples not to go there, with people weeping over his apparent fate. So this is just like the gospel story of Jesus. Paul says he is ready “to die in Jerusalem”. Like his hero, Jesus.

Clearly, Luke sees and draws out the parallel. And the fate of Jerusalem hangs in the balance in such moments according to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ dire warnings would have resonated strongly with Paul’s sympathisers, seeing their hero rejected like Jesus in Jerusalem.

So, if we forma view of the best historical-critical reading, was it the case that the occasion for the above verses being written was a time when the author’s ears were ringing from the sound of Paul’s anguish at the rejection of himself by his fellow Jews, and when the author was deeply affected by Paul being nearly murdered in the temple? Such an occasion fits all the facts. The implication here is that for rejection of Jesus and Paul, there will be bad consequences. Thus, we have a naturalistic explanation for the writing of the verses. That is, “Reject our man, who was sent by God, and see what will happen to you!”

Of course, the impact of that on dating Luke’s Gospel is that it tends it towards being an earlier Sitz im Leben – closer to the time of Paul’s anguish and pre-70AD - rather than later and further removed from Paul’s time.

Conclusion: at best, you can say that the historical-critical approach could be argued either way, but it is insufficient to be absolutely determinative for early or late dating of Luke’s Gospel. If anything, it is better provided with a literary context by a pre-70AD dating.

5) Post-70AD arguments: lack of attestation of Luke’s Gospel being read for decades after 70AD

From the fact that there is no direct attestation of Luke in other extant writings before the mid-second century, an argument from silence is made that the gospel was not written till then.

Counter-argument: tiny pool of witnesses

However, this is from a tiny pool of witnesses (basically fragments of Papias, one letter from each of Clement, Polycarp and Barnabas, and a few from Ignatius). It is nowhere near as powerful as the arguments from silence about what is not said within the text of Luke-Acts, regarding key events and details of persons of the 60s that are absent in Acts. What is not said in Acts particularly points to pre-70AD authorship.

6) Post-70AD arguments: writing after Josephus

An old argument for a later date is that Luke cribbed off Josephus’ Jewish War and his 93AD work Antiquities of the Jews, and thus can only have been writing much later than 70AD. Both of course were writing about events in first century Israel.

Counter-argument: it doesn’t look like Luke did

If Luke did copy Josephus, then why does he not get it ‘right’ when Luke tells of the same events as Josephus: his version of events has discrepancies compared to Josephus. The classic quote on this is from Emil Schurer back in 1876! “Either Luke had not read Josephus, or he had forgotten all about what he had read.” (Schurer, “Lucas und Josephus,” Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie 19, 582-83). It would be too much extra length for this post to be plunging deep into this pool of evidence and analysis, but, instead, relevant comments can be found here.

7) Post-70AD arguments: re-writing Marcion’s Gospel

Here’s another suggested argument for late dating. Second century church fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian understood that the heretic Marcion, in the first half of the second century, cut a copy of Luke’s Gospel into a shorter version for use in his church. (Marcion was a church leader whose heresy was that he rejected the Old Testament and its God.) The radical suggestion by revisionist scholars today is that the truth is the opposite of what the witnesses say, and that actually Luke’s Gospel is a rewrite of Marcion’s Gospel. And thus, Luke was written later, sometime in the second century. (A further implication of this is that the autobiographical first person ‘we’ passage in Acts would be fake, since Paul’s travelling companions could not feasibly be alive writing mid-second century.)

Counter-argument: proto-Luke

This is an interesting fringe view. It is one of those instances where scholars’ literary criticism is like the ‘art’ of reading tea-leaves and some of the conclusions that scholars try to draw are about as firm. Its primary problem is that it has no sound evidence base. Marcion’s gospel is lost to the ravages of time, and all we have is reconstructions of bits of it, and the reconstructions are based on quotes in Tertullian and Epiphanius which may have been done from memory inaccurately and from different versions of Marcion’s gospel. And it gets worse. With such an uncertain evidence base, scholars are unable to agree on just about anything. Some suggest that Marcion just cut bits from Luke’s Gospel (because Irenaeus and Tertullian say so and they lived in the same century as Marcion, so they should at least be given a hearing, and it’s an easy conclusion to jump to). Other scholars suggest that Luke’s Gospel is a second century expanded rewrite of Marcion’s (the fringe view stated above). Others suggest that both Luke and Marcion had common source(s).

Actually, this last suggestion seems to best fit the evidence, such as we have it. It is truthful to Luke’s statement (Luke 1:1-4) that other unfinished gospel materials were given to him and that he expanded/collated them (into our longest gospel), which allows us to say a couple of things: Luke says these versions were given to him but he never says they were destroyed – we might call part of this material ‘proto-Luke’. So proto-Luke was around as well as Luke’s Gospel, judging by Luke’s testimony. And it was proto-Luke that Marcion edited to be his own Gospel. This is not a million miles away from the witness of Irenaeus and Tertullian – i.e. Marcion edited more or less the same text that Luke had used before he did. It is easy to see why the church fathers looked at Marcion’s Gospel and thought “Ah! He’s used Luke!” So this is consistent with Luke’s witness and partly consistent with the church fathers’. It is also consistent with what some scholars today find. That is to say, some of Marcion’s Gospel happens to look like a deviation from Luke whereas sometimes Luke looks like a deviation from Marcion, but you can’t have it both ways, and a simpler solution is that both are probably deviations from proto-Luke. Again sometimes Luke’s differences seem unlike deviations from Marcion, and Marcion’s differences seem unlike deviations from Luke in all probability, but both could be deviations from proto-Luke. So, what is really happening is probably that both had been editing a version(s) of the first century text ‘proto-Luke’ which was still circulating, Luke in the first century according to his own witness and Marcion in the second century.

In this light, arguing a late date for Luke from this evidence is not robust.  

Side note: The earliest direct witness to the problem is Irenaeus who wrote that Marcion “mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke” (Irenaeus Against Heresies, I.27.2). And Tertullian: “Marcion seems to have singled out Luke for his mutilating process…” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, IV.2). Tertullian adds: “that Gospel of Luke which we are defending with all our might has stood its ground from its very first publication; whereas Marcion’s Gospel is not known to most people”.

In any case, problems with the theory of Marcion coming before Luke’s Gospel are myriad. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t really explain all the evidence, why on earth would Christians bother to rewrite Marcion’s gospel when they already had others of their own (e.g. Matthew, Mark and John)? If they wanted an anti-Marcion gospel (so some suggest), they had one in the form of Matthew (it is especially honouring of the Old Testament), so why not just use that? Why didn’t they just treat Marcion’s as an apocryphal gospel? Why not just dismiss it as they did other apocryphal gospels? If they rewrote this one, why didn’t they rewrite other apocryphal gospels too, if rewrites of them were a worthwhile cause? It’s a problematic base from which to argue for late dating of Luke.

Final reflections

Seven arguments for late dating have been assessed there. You might be forgiven if you got the impression that Luke’s Gospel has been subjected to sustained assaults to date it post-70AD. But none of these late-date arguments is determinative. None of them is able to bear the weight of late dating.

The most compelling data for dating, and this all points to a pre-70AD authorship, is that which provides dating for Luke’s Acts (the most compelling of this data is outlined in my post regarding dating of Acts). The majority of scholarship pays little attention to this data. Of course, dating Acts to pre-70AD entails a pre-70AD date for Luke’s Gospel too, since one author wrote both, Luke first, Acts second. (This sequence of authorship is more or less undisputed by scholars, but most are reluctant to ascribe pre-70AD dating to either.)

The state of affairs being as we have seen, you have to ask what else could be driving scholars to a late dating? Is it based on data, or is it that a preference for a naturalistic worldview – working for the cause of eschewing narratives about miracles as false - pushes scholars into trying to date the gospels as far away from the lifetime of Jesus (and the apostles) as they reasonably can? In other words, they don’t want the books written too close to the time of Jesus and the apostles because that would put the gospel miracles in a different light. Worldview has a good deal to do with it.

What strikes me is that it seems no Christian voices other than Jesus were predicting the fall of Jerusalem. No-one in the church seems to have stuck out their neck to say that, except by way of repeating Jesus. And only three biblical gospels highlight Jesus saying it (Matthew, Mark and Luke). It is virtually unique to the voice of Jesus in early Christian literature to agonise over the fate of Jerusalem specifically. You don’t see it in the epistles of Paul or other early Christian letters inside and outside the New Testament. This in itself suggests that it was of more concern to Jesus pre-70AD than to the broader church before or after 70AD. (That this was a preoccupation mainly of Jesus rather than of the church holds true whether or not a gospel was written before or after 70AD.)

This seems to make it all the more plausible to me that it is Jesus in particular we are hearing when we read predictions of the fall of Jerusalem.

It also seems to me that Luke, more than other gospel authors, is especially interested in waiting for the fall of Jerusalem. He links the crisis to the fatal rejection of Jesus which he clearly parallels to the near-fatal rejection of his friend Paul who was almost murdered in the temple. It is no surprise in that light that negative feeling to the temple is brought more to the surface in Luke’s Gospel than in other gospels. This all relates to pre-70AD situations. There is certainly nothing here to date Luke’s Gospel post-70AD unless we are a priori committed to that.

Late-daters sometimes say that the gospels were actually written to explain why Jerusalem was destroyed. But why then is there an absence of any other literature trying to make such an explanation in the whole first hundred years of Christianity? One has to explain why no-one else was trying to make such an explanation if they thought a Christian explanation ought to be published. Why is it only in the gospels? Why does such a message not come in the name of anyone in the church? Why is it only in Jesus’ voice? A simpler explanation is that Jesus predicted the fall and the gospels merely highlight it.

What to make of Jesus’ shrill words? Do they just give meaning to suffering, or are they also warnings? It is in situations of mortal danger rather than post-mortem situations that shrill warnings resound with more meaning. It is not necessary to be quite so shrill after a house has burned down as it is before it burns down. So the tone of it could be suggestive of a pre-70AD date as much as, if not more than, a post-70AD date. The shrill tone would be relevant to the atmosphere during the war of 66-70AD or even of the pre-66AD tension leading towards the war, just as much as, if not more than, the atmosphere after the war was over.

It is simple enough to read the verses as a fraught warning recorded in the tense atmosphere of the 60s of the first century with Christians having experienced decades of rejection and difficulty, and Jerusalem’s elite being problematic, a warning with a shrill tone that asks its audience to listen before it is too late.

On that basis, a good argument can be made that this warning was published to be heard while Jerusalem and its temple were still standing and its leaders were deaf to apocalyptic warnings.

A point oft-made but worth reiterating is that Luke makes a big deal of waiting for the temple to fall, but then does not capitalise on it. Writing post-70AD, an author at least might try to score the point about Jesus being right about trouble for Jerusalem by saying “and this came to pass when…” or else at least describe it with some meaningful detail to an audience who would be in the know as to what happened in 70AD: e.g. that the siege began during Passover, or that Jews committed atrocities against each other during it, or that it was preceded by a purge in Galilee. But Luke doesn’t do that. He doesn’t score the point. This is difficult for late-daters to explain away. If a gospel were post-70AD, you would expect it to either capitalise on the point or more or less just avoid the issue or prediction/fulfilment altogether. Notably, the one biblical gospel almost universally agreed to be post-70AD by a couple of decades – John’s Gospel – more or less just avoids the issue altogether. It shows virtually no explicit interest at all in the fall of Jerusalem and the temple – no prediction. So talking about the fall of Jerusalem was not intrinsically a feature of gospel-writing post-70AD. It would however seem intrinsic to pre-70AD gospel writing to make the point that they were waiting for the fall of Jerusalem.