Anda di halaman 1dari 13

Dating Early Christian Gospels By Andrew Bernhard A remarkable number of ancient gospels not included in the New Testament

have been recovered during the past two centuries. In evaluating these gospels, scholars have come to astonishingly different conclusions about when they were written. Some scholars have assigned many of the newly recovered gospels to the first century of the Christian movement.1 Others have concluded that virtually all of these gospels were written during the middle or late second century.2 No scholarly consensus regarding the dates of these gospels seems likely anytime in the foreseeable future. Although there has been such vigorous debate about the dates of gospel origins, it may be that exact dates are not necessary for understanding the place of early gospels3 in the emergence of Christianity. Indeed, I will argue, they are counterproductive. Early gospels cannot and should not be dated to a specific year or decade. Dates of gospel origins cannot be assessed with such a high degree of precision because the gospels stem from a sparsely documented period in distant history. Dating gospels is a largely arbitrary

1 2

Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version (Sonoma: Polebridge, 1994), 6. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (3 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 19912001), 1:114-139. 3 Early gospels are written texts about Jesus that were certainly written before 200 C.E., as will be discussed below.

exercise that obscures the fact that all early gospels, canonical and non-canonical alike, are essentially the same kind of writings. Early Christian Gospels The texts under consideration in this essay have two defining characteristics. First, they are gospels. While the term gospel (Gk. euaggelion) has a long and varied history,4 it is here defined as a written text that has a primary focus of recounting the teachings and/or activities of Jesus; interactions between Jesus and his disciples in the context of his earthly ministry are a necessary characteristic. Thus, in this essay, the term does not refer to an oral proclamation of the Christian message (e.g., Pauls gospel; 1 Cor 5:1-5) or to an ancient homily (e.g., the Gospel of Truth). Second, the texts under consideration here are early. That is, they were indisputably written before the end of the second century (and presumably after the crucifixion of Jesus). At least one of two kinds of evidence is required to establish that a gospel is early.5 An early date for a gospel may be confirmed by an extant manuscript that was copied by around the end of the second century.6 Or, the gospel may be explicitly named in the works of an author who commenced his or her writing activities before the close of the second century. Significant descriptions or portions of twelve ancient texts that meet the criteria necessary to be considered an early gospel have been preserved from antiquity. Six early gospels are attested by manuscripts from the second century or shortly thereafter:
Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 1-40. 5 Helmut Koester, Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels, HTR 73 (1980): 107-112. Koester employs these two kinds of evidence, although he also recognizes other ways to identify early gospels. 6 Since there is some ambiguity in dating ancient manuscripts, those dated from the first quarter of the third century C.E. are regarded as evidence that a text had been written before 200 C.E.

Matthew (64, 67),7 Luke (4),8 John (52),9 Gospel of Thomas (P.Oxy. 1),10 Gospel of Peter (P.Oxy. 4009)11, and an Unknown Gospel (P.Egerton 2).12 Six additional early gospels are attested by patristic citations from the same time period: Mark (Irenaeus, Haer. 3.11.8), Secret Mark,13 Gospel of the Ebionites (Irenaeus, Haer. 1.26.2; 3.21.1), Gospel of the Nazareans (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.22.8), Gospel of the Hebrews (Clement, Strom. 2.9.45), and Marcions gospel (Irenaeus, Haer. 1.27.2). Dating Early Christian Gospels While some extraordinary claims have been made about precisely when early gospels (and parts of them) were written,14 it is impossible to determine the dates of gospel origins with much certainty. An absolute date can be assigned to an ancient text only if a clear relationship can be established between the text and another writing or event from a specific, known time. Unfortunately, such writings and events are almost entirely lacking from the time period when the gospels were written. Terminus post quem. Only two known events are helpful for determining how soon early gospels may have been written after the death of Jesus: the fall of Jerusalem (70 C.E.) and the martyrdom of Peter (ca. 64 C.E.). Yet, these events are useful for dating

Philip W. Comfort and David P. Barrett, eds., The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (rev. and enl. ed.; Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2001), 43-44. 8 Comfort and Barrett, Earliest New Testament, 43. 9 Comfort and Barrett, Earliest New Testament, 365. 10 Harold W. Attridge, Appendix: The Greek Fragments in Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2-7: Together with XIII, 2*, Brit. Lib. Or.4926(1), and P.OXY. 1, 654, 655 (ed. Bentley Layton; 2 vols.; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989), 1:96-97. 11 D. Luhrmann and P.J. Parsons, eds., 4009. Gospel of Peter? in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1994), 60:1-5. 12 H. Idris Bell and T.C. Skeat, eds., Fragments of an Unknown Gospel and Other Early Christian Papyri (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), 2. 13 Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 446-47. Clement describes Secret Mark in an otherwise unattested letter discovered by Smith. 14 John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 427-434

only two gospels and a portion of a third. Matthew and Luke must have been written after Titus siege of Jerusalem because they allude to it (Matt 22:7; Luke 19:43-44, 21:20-24), but it is not clear that Mark was aware of the event.15 John 21 must have been written after Peters death,16 but the final chapter may have been added to the gospel long after the rest had been written.17 There are no certain references to any datable historical events in John 1-20.18 The same is true for the eight non-canonical early gospels.19 On the basis of literary relationships, only one gospel must have been written after Matthew, Luke, or the datable portion of John: the Gospel of the Ebionites presupposes Matthew and Luke.20 The remainder lack the extensive verbal correspondence necessary to establish a literary relationship. It is not at all clear that the Gospel of Thomas,21 Gospel of Peter,22 or Unknown Gospel of P.Egerton 223 is dependent upon the canonical gospels for their material. The accusations of the church fathers do not establish that Marcion actually abridged (mutilated) Luke.24 Too few fragments of the Gospel of the Nazareans and Gospel of the Hebrews have been preserved to allow for a

Werner Georg Kmmel, Introduction to the New Testament (trans. A.J. Mattill; 14th ed.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1966), 71. 16 Klaus Berger and Christine Nord, Das neue Testament und frhchristliche Schriften (Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1999), 313. 17 Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (AB 29; Garden City: Doubleday, 1966-1970), 1080. 18 John A.T. Robinson, The Priority of John (ed. J.F. Coakley; London: Meyer-Stone, 1985), 79-81. Although it has often been asserted that John alludes to the formulation of the birkat ha-minim in the 90s C.E., Robinson rightly points out that there is no basis for believing that the Greek word aposynaggos (John 9:22, 12:42, 16:2) connotes a formal excommunication, such as the Jewish Benediction Against Heretics. See also: Evan Powell, The Unfinished Gospel: Notes on the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Westlake Village: Symposium Books, 1994), 130-136. 19 Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed.. New Testament Apocrypha (trans. R. McL. Wilson; 2 vols.; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), 1:97, 107, 113, 159, 169, 176, 215, 221, 385, 392. 20 Schneemelcher, Apocrypha, 1:169. 21 Stephen J. Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (Sonoma: Polebridge, 1993), 17-120. 22 Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (2d ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 184. 23 Jon B. Daniels, The Egerton Gospel: Its Place in Early Christianity (Ph.D. diss., The Claremont Graduate School, 1990), 27-138. 24 John Knox, Marcion and the New Testament: An Essay in the Early History of the Canon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), 97.


definitive judgment of their sources.25 It is not even possible to determine which came first: Mark or Secret Mark.26 Terminus ante quem. Trying to determine the latest possible dates for gospel origins is also a difficult task. Certainly, all early gospels were completed before the end of the second century, but how much earlier is unclear. On the basis of manuscript evidence alone, it is only possible to determine that two gospels were in circulation before the middle of the second century, one non-canonical gospel (Unknown Gospel, P.Egerton 2)27 and one canonical gospel (John, 52).28 All additional information about which gospels were in use by the early decades of the second century comes from ambiguous patristic testimonies. There are two writers who at first glance appear to be potentially useful for determining which (canonical)29 gospels were in circulation by the early second century. First, it appears possible that Ignatius of Antioch was familiar with Matthew when he wrote his letters around 110 C.E. In various passages, Ignatius seems to allude to the gospel, although he does not mention it explicitly.30 Most of these passages, however, are vague references at best and could easily be the result of oral tradition.31 Also, careful examination of the Matthew-Ignatius parallels reveals an interesting trend. Ignatius has

25 26

Schneemelcher, Gospels, 1:136. Meier, Marginal Jew, 1:121-122. 27 R. Alan Culpepper, John, The Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994), 108. The early date of P.Egerton 2 has recently been challenged; some scholars prefer to date the manuscript closer to 200 C.E. than 100 C.E. 28 Some imprecision in dating this tiny fragment must be accepted since it preserves less than 150 lettes. 29 One should not expect any evidence for the early existence of non-canonical gospels. The patristic sources that have been preserved were, of course, those that were valued by later Christians who recognized only four authoritative gospels. 30 douard Massaux, The Influence of the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Christian Literature Before Saint Irenaeus (trans. Norman J. Belval and Suzanne Hecht; Macon: Mercer University Press, 1986), 86-96. 31 Koester, Ancient, 315.

an overwhelming preference for material found in Matthew, but not the other synoptics.32 This excessive familiarity with special M material has suggested to some that Ignatius may have known a source of Matthew rather than the gospel itself.33 Second, Papias of Hierapolis mentioned writings by Matthew and Mark in his five volume Oracles of the Lord Explained around 130 C.E. However, his comments, known only second-hand through Eusebius, are not at all clear. His brief description of a writing of Matthew as logia in the Hebrew dialect is too vague to be a certain reference to the canonical text (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.16).34 Further ambiguity surrounds Papias comments about Mark. Papias states only that Mark wrote down notes of Peters preaching (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.15). Yet, it is difficult to believe that so carefully constructed a narrative as Mark could have been regarded as a mere chaotic collection of unordered notes.35 Further, Papias does not actually state that these notes were the canonical gospel (nor does Eusebius imply that he did).36 Thus, it is not certain that Papias was describing either canonical Matthew or Mark in the excerpts of Eusebius. All early gospels, then, were written sometime between the death of Jesus and the second half of the second century. Three gospels37 must have been written after 70 C.E.; how long after is anybodys guess. Two gospels38 must have been written before the end of the first half of the second century C.E.; how long before is anybodys guess. With such chronologically distant boundaries, it is little wonder that scholars have come up

Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliablity of the Gospels (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1987), 206207. 33 J. Smit Sibinga, Ignatius and Matthew, NovT 8 (1966): 263-283. 34 James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 74. Scholars have frequently speculated that the logia (sayings) may have been a sayings collection (like Q) rather than Matthew itself. 35 John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 114-115. 36 C. Clifton Black, Mark: Images of an Apostolic Interpreter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 90. 37 Matthew, Luke, and the Gospel of the Ebionites. 38 John and the Unknown Gospel of P.Egerton 2.

with such divergent dates of origins for early gospels. The dates are based on nothing more concrete than each scholars impression of precisely when small stories, sayings, or phrases might or might not have been meaningful to a particular writer or community. There is considerable room for differences of opinion with such subjective analysis.39 Conceptualizing Early Christian Gospels Clearly, there are reasons to be hesitant about assigning dates to early gospels. To begin with, there is little to be gained by assigning them. Speculations are not beneficial and possible dates of greater than half a century can hardly be of more than negligible interpretive value. Also, there is no way to appeal to a scholarly consensus to settle the matter with non-canonical gospels. Finally, there is a great deal to be lost by trying to date early gospels. When some gospels are located in the first century and others in the second, the implication is unavoidable: the earlier gospels are more original than their later, derivative counterparts. To steer clear of this unwarranted prioritization, all early gospels should be regarded simply as products of pre-canonical Christianity.40 All parts of all early gospels were likely written after the death of Jesus (ca. 30 C.E.), but before Irenaeus created a broad consensus that only four41 individual42 gospels could be regarded as authoritative scripture (ca. 180 C.E.). The period for the writing of the early gospels might reasonably be narrowed to something like 60-150 C.E., but the gospels should remain in a broad,


Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search For Jesus Lost Its Way (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 93. 40 In this essay, the pre-canonical period is designated as the time before there was agreement about any significant portion of the canon. While the earliest known list of the New Testament as it now stands in modern Bibles was not written until 367 C.E., the central role of the four gospels was never seriously challenged after the time of Irenaeus (ca. 180 C.E.). 41 Not one gospel, as Marcion would have liked. 42 Not a harmony of four gospels, as Tatian would have liked.

rather than narrow, context. This will make it easy to see that all early gospels are analogous developments of the Jesus tradition. They have a great deal in common. All early gospels have a common background. They come from an age when traditions about Jesus had not yet been fixed. Most these traditions, in fact, were still being circulated orally. In the unwritten tradition, various narratives about Jesus were being recounted along with parables and teachings attributed to him (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.9.11). The oral traditions were so abundant that, as one ancient writer put it, if every one of them were written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (John 21:25). All early gospels underwent a similar process of formation. Probably over considerable periods of time,43 the evangelists molded their gospels into their final forms by adapting traditional materials from various oral and written sources. Although so few Christian writings have survived from this time period, nothing is more certain than that traditions about Jesus were subject to constant revision. The lists of Jesus teachings that circulated during this time period44 were revised easily and often. For example, the few extant manuscripts of the Gospel of Thomas45 illustrate clearly46 how sayings were undoubtedly rearranged,47 expanded,48 contracted,49 or placed in interpretive contexts.50

43 44

Ron Cameron, Thomas, Gospel of, ABD 6:537. Robinson and Koester, Trajectories, 85-95. 45 Attridge, Greek Fragments in Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2-7, 1:98-109. Attridge has compiled a complete collection of patristic references to the Gospel of Thomas and also presents an exhaustive list of the differences between the complete Coptic manuscript and the Greek fragments of the text. 46 While the differences between the different manuscripts may have arisen after the close of the second century, they illuminate the process of revision that was undoubtedly at work earlier. 47 e.g., Coptic sayings 30 and 77b are found together in P.Oxy. 1.23-30. 48 e.g., Coptic saying 26 has been significantly expanded in P.Oxy. 655, col. i.1-17. 49 e.g. the portion he will become troubled portion of Coptic saying 2 has been omitted in P.Oxy. 654.7-8. 50 e.g., according to Hippolytus, Haer 5.7.20, the Naasenes modified the text of saying 4 to refer to their system of aeons.

Narratives gospels also were frequently, thoroughly reworked. Consider Mark. The material in this gospel51 was placed in at least seven radically different arrangements.52 All early gospels also share at least one more additional common characteristic: their reason for being written. By creating a gospel, every ancient author was trying to present his or her beliefs about Jesus in a way that would be helpful to his followers after the end of his physical life. The gospel writers may have drawn on oral traditions that, to the modern mind, seem to be of doubtful worth. They may have modified material in a way that we would regard as unjustified. Yet always, for each evangelist, the underlying motivation for writing was the same. Conclusion While it may be only natural to wonder exactly when significant ancient texts were written, some questions are better left unanswered. After nearly two millennia, the dates of gospel origins cannot be determined as precisely as we might like. Assigning speculative dates to early gospels does not contribute to our understanding of these texts, but inevitably prioritizes them. To avoid doing such injustice to these texts, the gospels should be located in the broad context of pre-canonical Christianity (ca. 60-150 C.E.). Then, it will be possible to appreciate all early Christian gospels for what they are: some


This presumes the two source solution to the synoptic problem, which perhaps should not be so casually accepted. For a brief summary of concerns about the validity of the two source hypothesis, see: E.P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1989), 112-19. 52 At least seven different versions of the core synoptic material are known from the first two centuries: 1. canonical Mark; 2. Secret Mark, a longer version of the canonical gospel that was valued by Clement of Alexandria; 3. Another longer version of the canonical gospel that Clement condemned as a false creation of the Carpocratians; 4. Matthew; 5. Luke; 6. Marcions gospel, a text that Irenaeus (Haer. 1.27.2) and Tertullian (Marc. 4.4) claimed was an abridgement (mutilation) of Luke; 7. Gospel of the Ebionites, a text that combined the material in Luke and Matthew. Interestingly, even with all these different versions, later writers still felt compelled to append three different endings to the canonical gospel.

of the first attempts ever made to articulate the meaning of the life of Jesus, sincere attempts made by people who revered him.


Bibliography Attridge, Harold W. Appendix: The Greek Fragments. Pages 96-128 in vol. 1 of Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2-7: Together with XIII, 2*, Brit. Lib. Or.4926(1), and P.OXY. 1, 654, 655. Edited by Bentley Layton. 2 vols. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989. Bell, H. Idris, and T.C. Skeat, eds. Fragments of an Unknown Gospel and Other Early Christian Papyri. London: Oxford University Press, 1935. Berger, Klaus, and Christine Nord. Das neue Testament und frhchristliche Schriften. Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1999. Bernhard, Andrew. Jesus of Nazareth in Early Christian Gospels. No pages. Cited 11 June 2001. Online: Black, C. Clifton. Mark: Images of an Apostolic Interpreter. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001. Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliablity of the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1987. Brown, Raymond. The Gospel According to John. Anchor Bible 29. Garden City: Doubleday, 1966-1970. Cameron, Ron. Thomas, Gospel of. Pages 535-540 in vol. 6 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1996. - - - . The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982. Comfort, Philip W., and David P. Barrett, eds. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. Rev. and enl. ed. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2001. Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.


Culpepper, R. Alan. John, The Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994. Daniels, Jon B. The Egerton Gospel: Its Place in Early Christianity. Ph.D. diss., The Claremont Graduate School, 1990. Ehrman, Bart. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. - - - . The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Elliott, J.K., ed. The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Holmes, Michael W., ed. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999. Jenkins, Philip. Hidden Gospels: How the Search For Jesus Lost Its Way. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Knox, John. Marcion and the New Testament: An Essay in the Early History of the Canon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942. Koester, Helmut. Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990. - - - . Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels. Harvard Theological Review 73 (1980): 105130. Kmmel, Werner Georg. Introduction to the New Testament. Translated by A.J. Mattill. 14th ed. Nashville: Abingdon, 1966. Luhrmann, D., and P.J. Parsons, eds. 4009. Gospel of Peter? Pages 1-5 in vol. 60 of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1994.


Massaux, douard. The Influence of the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Christian Literature Before Saint Irenaeus. Translated by Norman J. Belval and Suzanne Hecht. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1986. Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 3 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1991-2001. Miller, Robert J., ed. The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version. Sonoma: Polebridge, 1994. Patterson, Stephen J. The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus. Sonoma: Polebridge, 1993. Powell, Evan. The Unfinished Gospel: Notes on the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Westlake Village: Symposium Books, 1994. Roberts, Alexander, and James Donaldson, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. 1885-1887. 10 vols. Repr. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994. Robinson, James M., and Helmut Koester. Trajectories through Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971. Robinson, John A.T. Redating the New Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976. - - - . The Priority of John. Edited by J.F. Coakley. London: Meyer-Stone, 1985. Sanders, E.P., and Margaret Davies. Studying the Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1989. Schneemelcher, Wilhem, ed. New Testament Apocrypha. Translated by R. McL. Wilson. 2 vols. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991. Sibinga, J. Smit. Ignatius and Matthew. Novum Testamentum 8 (1966): 263-283. Smith, Morton. Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.