Dedicated to getting to the truth of things. A Christian since 1984. (Just a Christian, without pigeon-holing into a denomination.) I like people to be free to ask their questions about Christianity and the church. I like to approach faith questions with my brain switched on. A qualified classicist and historian.
And I don't look like James Garner. Enough about me already.
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”
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'
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.
DOES THE PASSAGE INCLUDE SOME CHRISTIAN INTERPOLATIONS?
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
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.
WHO WAS JOSEPHUS ANYWAY?
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Luke 13:1-9 suggests the Jews still had time to
‘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 13:33-35is 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?”’
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.
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.
2: doing history better
Expanding on that, I have two more
particular points to make here.
i) Is it prophecy?
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
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?
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.
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.
arguments: a siege is
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.
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:
Luke, we have mention of a siege of the city, but after all, what else would
tackle a walled city but a siege?
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?
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
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 beenreplete 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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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”.
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
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