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FIRST-PERSON (part 3): The problem of dating: When were the Gospels written?

EDITOR’S NOTE: With books such as “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus, Interrupted,” New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has taken his questioning of the authenticity of Scripture straight to the New York Times bestseller list. Ehrman’s background as an evangelical “believer” turned chief skeptic has also made him a favorite of the media. This is the third part in a five-part series on Ehrman.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Agnostic Bart Ehrman states with most biblical scholars that the New Testament Gospels were written 35-65 years after the events they purport to describe. Ehrman regards this time gap as too long, since historians desire sources that were written much closer to the events they describe.

He adds that this time between the events and when they are reported in the Gospels is similar to the distance in time between World War II and now. While that may be true of John’s Gospel, the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are closer to the distance in time between the Vietnam War and now. If the History Channel interviewed three veterans of that war about their combat experiences that occurred in 1974, should we regard their testimonies as untrustworthy given the distance in time between the events and their interview? Even the 65 years for John is not that long. If Ehrman truly believes what he’s saying, he should notify the History Channel that all documentaries that include recent interviews of World War II veterans are unreliable.

Let’s now consider an ancient example. Caesar Augustus is regarded as Rome’s greatest emperor and was ruling when Jesus was born. Historians rely on five chief sources to learn about Augustus’ adulthood: a funerary inscription that is around 4,000 words in length, an author who wrote around 90 years after Augustus’ death, and three others writing 100-200 years after his death. When we consider that this is what we have for the greatest Roman emperor, four biographies of Jesus written within 35-65 years of his death is pretty good. And when we consider that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony about Jesus, the matter of when the Gospels were written is not nearly as challenging as Ehrman would have his readers believe.

The error of Ehrman’s historical thinking does not stop here. He further claims that the stories about Jesus in the Gospels were carelessly passed from one Christian to another and that the stories became grossly distorted over the period of several decades’ time. This is surprising and reveals a naiveté on Ehrman’s part pertaining to how Jewish tradition was transmitted in antiquity.

For well over a decade, I trained in the Korean martial art of taekwondo, earning a second-degree black belt. From 1986-89 I had my own school where I trained a number of students to the black belt level, even winning an “instructor of the year” award in 1987. A component of traditional martial arts training is “the form,” a series of movements simulating a fight against multiple opponents. In some martial arts, the forms are very old, having been passed from instructor to student for centuries. Students are carefully trained to perfect the forms of their particular art in order to master various techniques. Sometimes the original interpretation of a particular move may no longer be known. One instructor may interpret a leap as being over the body of an imaginary opponent just disabled while another may assert one is jumping over a small creek. However, the movement itself remains unchanged. In the mid-1980s, I learned forms from an eighth-degree black belt who had received instruction from General Choi Hong Hi who founded the art of taekwondo in 1955. Given the emphasis on passing along the same form, I was confident that my instructor had passed along to me the same form he had received from General Choi, although it was three decades after the forms had originated.

In antiquity, much learning occurred by means of oral tradition, since only about 10 percent of the general population could read. When Paul communicated apostolic tradition concerning Jesus, he did not take liberties to alter it. And we can test him on the matter. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives his non-binding opinion, followed by a teaching of Jesus (i.e., Jesus’ tradition) which was binding, followed by Paul’s apostolic ruling which was also binding. It is noteworthy that Paul did not invent a teaching and place it on the lips of Jesus in order to answer a situation Jesus had not addressed, but instead made his own ruling as an apostle. The Jesus tradition was not to be touched but was instead to be passed along intact and unaltered. For this reason, non-narrative tradition was preserved in formulas, creeds and hymns for easy memorization. Paul wrote, “I passed along to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Corinthians 15:3). It is demonstrable that the early Christian practice of passing along the Jesus tradition more closely resembled the passing along of the forms in the martial arts than it did the game of telephone.

Paul had learned the Jesus tradition from those who had walked with Jesus. His letters contain oral traditions, peppered throughout, that are even earlier than the Gospels, and in some cases much earlier. Although Paul does not write a biography of Jesus, his letters reveal he is familiar with a number of details pertaining to the life of Jesus that had been communicated to him by the disciples and their colleagues. In Galatians 1:18, a letter certainly written by Paul, Paul tells us he visited with the Apostle Peter for 15 days. Noteworthy is the Greek term Paul uses for “visited”: “historesai,” from which we get the English term “history.” Paul had met with Peter and had inquired of him about the life of Jesus. So, Paul provides us with a few details about Jesus he had received from those who had known Jesus very well. We observe such traditions in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 and 15:3-7 that report details pertaining to the Last Supper with Jesus, His death and His resurrection. There are about a dozen references to Jesus’ teachings in Paul’s letters and about 30 additional possible echoes. Because Paul was well-acquainted with the life of Jesus, he is able to instruct the Corinthian believers to “imitate me just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). How could Paul imitate Christ if he knew nothing of Him?

In summary, although Ehrman contends that the Gospels were written too long after the events they purport to describe to be regarded as reliable accounts, we observed that this is simply not so. Moreover, his contention that the tradition about Jesus was changed dramatically during the 35-65 year period before it was put into writing is based on a naïve understanding of how oral tradition was preserved and passed along to others in the early Christian church.
Mike Licona is the apologetics coordinator at the North American Mission Board. For a better understanding of today’s world religions and for resources that will help you defend your faith, visit NAMB’s apologetics website at www.4truth.net.
A four-part video series featuring an interview with Mike Licona about Bart Ehrman accompanies this series. To view the videos, go to http://bit.ly/1oPRbA.

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  • Mike Licona