Dating the Synoptics
The dating problem should proceed from physical to literary evidence. For instance the earliest fragment of the Gospel of John (John Rylands Papyri, P52) can be dated to 125 C.E. Therefore we can conclude that the Gospel of John must have been written between the resurrection of Jesus and 125 C.E. For the synoptic gospels, no credible statement can be made with respect to the various known fragments. Therefore we must resort to literary considerations.
If an early Church father quoted from a book of the New Testament and that author can be dated conclusively, then we can establish the terminus ad quem. The latest possible date, in this instance is determined by writings that quote, reference or allude to the Synoptic Gospels. The earliest quotations from the New Testament come from an epistle written by Clement of Rome (1st Clement) that quotes from Matthew, Mark and several Pauline epistles. 1st Clement can be dated quite accurately to 95-96 C.E. The author of 2nd Clement clearly alludes to Luke 16:13, a saying which does not appear in Matthew or Mark. 2nd Clement was written between 120 and 140 C.E. Approximately 130 C.E., Marcion extensively modified the Gospel of Luke to his satisfaction. Polycarp of Smyrna wrote his Letter to the Philippians ca. 110-135 C.E. Polycarp quotes, references and alludes to every book of the New Testament. Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions 1.27-71 “is possibly the earliest commentary on Luke-Acts.” This text, according to James M. Scott “can possibly be dated to ca. 100-15, somewhere in the traditional land of Israel.”
Internal quotations, by one New Testament author of another, also provide important clues. A second internal consideration is whether the text makes any reference to a historical event, person, or group. For example, Acts 18:12 places Paul in Corinth when Gallio (51-52 C.E.) was proconsul. Dating an event in the text provides a date after which the text must have been composed, typically referred to by scholars as the terminus ante quam - the point before which a text must have been written - and the terminus post quam - the point after which a text must have been written.
With these principles in mind, consider the following:
25. Luke did not include the verse “False messiahs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” which appears in Matthew 24:23-25 and Mark 13:21-23 with minor variation; 72. Only Mark includes in his gospel Mk. 11:16: “and he would not allow any one to carry any vessels through the temple”; 84. There are no birth pangs in the Gospel of Luke; 56. The apocalypticism apparent in Matthew and Mark; and 11. Matthew and Mark use the phrase the “abomination of desolation.”
These five examples are datable events. Joel Marcus uses the false messiahs verse as one argument for dating the publication of the Gospel of Mark near the end of the Jewish War. The emergence of false prophets appear to reflect the circumstances from the mid-fifties C.E. to the end of the Jewish War as described by Josephus.
The second datable example is an allusion to the event of 66 C.E. that triggered the revolt. Florus ordered his men to enter the Temple at Jerusalem to remove silver coins to satisfy the tribute obligation owing Rome [BJ 2.300]. The Roman garrison is overrun by rebels who take control of the city and the temple. The daily sacrifices to the Roman Emperor are terminated. This event and the numerous signs and portents recorded by Josephus as occurring at this time elevated apocalyptic tensions. Mark is telling Rome that Jesus will stop the Romans from removing vessels of coins from the Temple.
The third datable example, “birth pangs” require a more detailed explanation. Birth pangs and labor pains signal destruction in sight with new beginnings promised from the ruins of that destruction. According to the War Scroll the final age was to be preceded by a period of tribulation or "birth pangs [of the Messiah]" (1QH 3:7-10), which "shall be a time of salvation for the People of God ..." (1QM 1)(B.C.E.). This 1st statement is best illustrated by three verses from the fourth chapter of Micah where the Prophet states:
9: Now why do you cry aloud? Is there no king in you? Has your counselor perished, that pangs have seized you like a woman in travail?
10: Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail; for now you shall go forth from the city and dwell in the open country; you shall go to Babylon. There you shall be rescued, there the LORD will redeem you from the hand of your enemies.
11: Now many nations are assembled against you, saying, “Let her be profaned, and let our eyes gaze upon Zion.”
With respect to verses 9-11 in Micah, Stephen L. Cook, The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism, writes: “New life will come for the people only after they have suffered the fall of Jerusalem to their enemies.”
Beginning in the mid-first century, we see the first reference to birth pangs in one of Paul’s earliest letters. In 1 Th. 5:3 we read: “When people say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape.” The emergence of false prophets appear to reflect the circumstances from the mid-fifties CE to the end of the Jewish War as described by Josephus. Both Matthew and Mark include “all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.” The calamities existing at the close of the present age and the beginning of the new age are said to present the birth-pangs of the new age.
The Greek word ἀρχὴ occupies the same role in Matthew and Mark as does the three instances of “now” in Micah. Cook writes: “Each passage begins with the word “now” followed by a vivid description of Jerusalem besieged by enemies. These descriptions of the contemporary suffering of Jerusalem, right “now,” use striking quotes and rhetorical questions, forcing Judah to realize that Jerusalem is vulnerable to defeat.”
But Luke has already announced the birth of the new age. Danker said: “All ceremonial requirement is shattered with this one piece of good news, for even unclean shepherds are welcomed in God’s presence.” I suspect that the title of Danker’s book, Jesus and the New Age, A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, explains why Luke does not include the birth-pangs. For Luke, the new age has already begun. “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.”
Matthew and Mark, by including the birth pangs, have postponed the arrival of the new age the beginning of which Jesus had already announced. Matthew and Mark have demonstrated their utter lack of understanding of the good news. This is particularly true with respect to Matthew who included the passage where Herod summoned the chief priests and scribes to ask them where the messiah would be born. Herod was told that the Messiah would be born “In Bethlehem of Judea for so it is written by the prophet.” Matthew has alluded to the Prophet Micah who prophesized in Micah 5:2, four verses after the birth pangs verses quoted above. In our next article, entitled Jutaposition we will discuss this further.
The fourth datable event is the apocalypticism apparent in Matthew and Mark. Judaism, as reflected in the Book of Jubilees and a number of other early Jewish writings, anticipated a period of deep trouble before the arrival of the kingdom of God. This feature appears in Isaiah 26:17, Jeremiah 22:23; Daniel 12:1; Hosea 13:13 and Micah 4:9. These troubles later became known as the “woes of the Messiah.” The calamities attendant upon the close of the present age and the beginning of the new age are identified as “the birth-pangs” of the new age. Matthew and Mark both include “this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”
The woes, in accord with Jewish teaching, are:
1) wars, earthquakes and famines, “the beginning of travail”;
2) the great tribulation;
3) commotions among the heavenly bodies.
Matthew and Mark introduced a number of passages consistent with the rising tensions of apocalyticism. The image of a people, harassed and helpless without a shepherd, present in Matthew 9:36; 25:32; 26:31; Mark 6:34 and 14:27 is absent from Luke. Consistent with this theme, both Matthew and Mark include “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” Matthew and Mark also added the verse “False messiahs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.”
As Marcus points out, the Gospel of Mark can be understood only against the backdrop of the apocalyptic atmosphere of the Jewish rebellions of 66-73 C.E., during which the Roman army destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem (70 C.E.). In agreement, Theißen stated: “Mark was composed around 70, since the Jewish-Roman war (66-74 C.E.) is clearly reflected in the Gospel.” Der historische Jesus, 43.
The apocalypticism apparent in Matthew and Mark is an event subsequent to publication of Luke and is a product of the emergence of false prophets reflecting the circumstances from the mid-fifties CE to the end of the Jewish War as described by Josephus.
The fifth datable event is the “abomination of desolation.” Many modern scholars conclude that Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14 are prophecies vaticinium ex eventu relating to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Matthew and Mark have used a Greek phrase which appears in 1 Macc. 1:54 pointing to the action of Antiochus Epiphanes who set up an altar and sacrificed swine on it around 167 B.C.E. If Matthew and Mark alluded to Maccabees and the conduct of Antiochus Epiphanes, then their prophecies of the “abomination of desolation” must have referred to its desecration by Titus' soldiers in sacrificing to their standards [Josephus, BJ 6.316.]. Whether Matthew and Mark are referring to the desecration by Titus' soldiers or the conduct of Florus or the conduct of the zealots in taking control of the Temple temporarily in 66 and permanently in 68, which Josephus speaks of in terms of its “pollution” (BJ 2.422-5; 4.147-92), is not important to the conclusion that Matthew and Mark are later than Luke.
Luke, because he is writing in the late 30s C.E., has not experienced the banditry, birth pangs, false messiahs and the abomination of desolation. Matthew included the birth pangs using Micah as his source. Matthew and Mark has experienced the banditry, false messiahs and the abomination of desolation and included the birth-pangs in his gospel These are datable events occurring subsequent to the publication of the Gospel of Luke. The followers of Jesus have already experienced new life. The kingdom of God has already arrived for them. They do not have to witness the fall of Jerusalem to experience the beginning of the new age.