In his book Cold Case Christianity, J. Warner Wallace writes, “As a skeptic, I believed that the Gospels were penned in the second century and were similarly worthless. If they were written that late, they were not eyewitness accounts.” However, as J. Warner Wallace came to learn (as well as I during my own investigation), there are many reasons to believe that the gospels were written much earlier than the second century. The closer the date of their writing to the actual historical events, the more we can trust them as reliable.
Dinner Among Friends
This past weekend, I was laid up sick as a dog. For whatever reason, between sips of tea and soup, I thought back to a few months ago when I had dinner with a group of friends. During the dinner, one friend gently said to me, “I don’t believe in the Christian gospels because they were written hundreds of years after the events.”
Now, this is an objection that I’ve heard from time to time. Some older schools of thought did, in fact, place the gospel writings at a much later date. In fact, when I was an agnostic, I too, believed that the gospels were written much later even though I didn’t connect the later date with “unreliability”.
When I embarked on my own study of these things I learned that while many respectable skeptics still place the dates of the gospels much later for particular reasons (for example, some say that the gospels are later because none of the writers specifically claim authorship. Others say that the accounts have too many miraculous events and therefore show that they were “corrupted” by myths) many more are turning around on this and placing the gospels a lot earlier than previously thought.
While J. Warner Wallace is very thorough on this subject in his book, Cold Case Christianity, here are just a few of the good reasons to believe that the gospels were written earlier than previously believed.
1 Corinthians 15 Creed
The creed found in 1 Corinthians 15 proves that the central beliefs of the church were established too early to be a mere corruption. Not only that, the date of the authorship of Corinthians, pushes back the date of the gospels too. This article from CARM says:
“If the Crucifixion was in 30 A.D., Paul’s Conversion was as early as 34 A.D., and his first meeting in Jerusalem was around 37 A.D., then we could see that the time between the event of Christ’s crucifixion and Paul receiving the information about His death, burial, and resurrection (in Jerusalem) would be as short as seven years (five if we use the earlier date). That is a very short period of time and hardly long enough for legend to creep in and corrupt the story…Paul’s account agreed with the other Apostles’ account and Paul wrote it down in 1 Cor. 15 around the year 54.”
The piece goes on to say:
“So, since 1 Corinthians was written as early as A.D. 54, that would mean that from the event (Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection) to writing it down is 24 years. That is a very short period of time. Remember, there were plenty of Christians around who could have corrected the writings of Paul if he was in error. But we have no record at all any corrections or challenges to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ from anyone: Roman, Jew, or other Christians.”
In fact, Paul seems to quote Luke’s gospel in the Corinthian epistle. On the Last Supper he writes:
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
In Luke 22:19-20 it says:
“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”
As J. Warner Wallace points out, Luke’s gospel is the only one that quotes Jesus as saying, “do this in remembrance of Me.” As such, one can make the reasonable conclusion that the events were well known at the time and already in circulation prior to Paul’s letter.
Since Paul wrote 1 Corinthians as early as AD 54, Luke’s gospel had to come earlier than that.
The Destruction of the Temple
One of the most compelling arguments for me when I was investigating whether the gospels could be trusted, was the omission of the destruction of the Temple. Why is that important, one might ask? If the authors of the gospels were ‘making stuff up’, surely they would have included the fulfillment of one of Jesus’ predictions:
“Then, as some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and donations, He said, ‘These things which you see—the days will come in which not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down.’” Luke 21:5-6
J. Warner Wallace says,
“You might think this important detail would be included in the New Testament record, especially since this fact would corroborate Jesus’ prediction. But no gospel account records the destruction of the temple. In fact, no New Testament document mentions it at all, even though there are many occasions when a description of the temple’s destruction might have assisted in establishing a theological or historical point.”
The point is simple, so much in fact, that I didn’t catch it the first time I came upon the argument. If one were “making up a story”, why leave out the fulfillment of a prediction? It helps your case. You could easily say, “Hey! Our guy predicted the destruction of the temple. Follow our religion now.” Essentially, the best explanation for why a history-changing event like the destruction of the temple was omitted from the New Testament was because it hadn’t happened yet.
Since the destruction of the temple occurred in AD 70, one can reasonably infer the gospels were written earlier.
Luke Is Mute on The Deaths Of Peter And Paul
It’s believed that the Apostle Paul was martyred in Rome at AD 64. Peter was supposedly martyred not too long after that in AD 65. Many of us overlook an important feature of Luke’s writing; that is, he wrote about both Peter and Paul quite a bit but never mentions their deaths. As a matter of fact, at the end of Acts, Paul is still alive. The reasonable conclusion is that their deaths hadn’t occurred yet, placing Luke’s gospel (as well as the other gospels) earlier than that.
Canon Of Muratori
As I wrote in a previous piece on the reliability of the gospels, the work of Samuel P. Tregelles mentioned the Canon of Muratori which is an ancient fragment containing the earliest known list of the New Testament. In his work, Tregelles writes:
“The author of this list of books…mentions ‘the Shepherd, written very recently in our own time, in the city of Rome, by Hermas, while Pius, his brother, was bishop of the see of Rome.’
“This incidental remark supplies us with the date of the writer. Pius the first, bishop of Rome, died about the middle of the second century; he appears to have succeeded to the episcopate about the year 140. Thus, the list of New Testament books, which we have under consideration, cannot have been written at a much later period. And not only so, but as the writer speaks of the episcopate of Pius the first as being in his own days, his testimony reaches back as far and probably farther.
“We are thus able to trace back the lists of the New Testament books almost to the apostolic age: the author of the Canon in Muratori…lived in the days of some who had been in part contemporaries of the Apostle John.”
This means that the accepted list of canon New Testament books was known around the time of the Apostle John. As such, the gospels themselves had to have been written earlier.
The Most Reasonable Conclusion
Could there be other explanations for why the destruction of the temple was omitted from the New Testament or that the deaths of Peter and Paul were unmentioned by Luke? Sure. As I stated earlier, some say that the gospels are later because none of the writers specifically claim authorship. While some say that the accounts have too many miraculous events and therefore show that they were “corrupted” by myths.
However, the argument that the gospels were written earlier is much more logical, it fits the evidence better, and it’s more straightforward. As J. Warner Wallace would say, “…we can have confidence that we’ve arrived at the most reasonable explanation.” And that explanation is that the gospels were written much earlier than previously thought.
J. Warner Wallace explains why we know the gospels were written early in his Cold Case Christianity broadcast: