LOY Excursus: The Dates of the Synoptic Gospels

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Reassessing the dates of the Synoptic Gospels in light of Lindsey's hypothesis.

Robert Lindsey’s solution to the Synoptic Problem calls for reassessing the dates the Gospels are supposed to have been written.[1] Working from the assumption that the Gospel of Luke made use of the Gospel of Mark, most New Testament scholars date the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts sometime after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.[2] According to Lindsey’s hypothesis, on the other hand, the Mark-Luke relationship is just the opposite of what most scholars assume. Lindsey supposed that the author of Mark knew and used the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts when composing his Gospel.

Robert Lindsey’s Solution to the Synoptic Problem

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Luke-Acts

The Book of Acts reports events up to about 62-64 C.E.[3] It is therefore conceivable that the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were both completed prior to the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66 C.E.[4] The Gospel of Luke was completed somewhat earlier than the Book of Acts (see Acts 1:1), but how much earlier is difficult to say.

Images of Gospel writers are from the Codex Aureus Epternacensis (folio 2 verso) (ca. 1035-1040 C.E.), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mark

Whereas Luke’s writings do not betray awareness of the events that took place during the revolt or of the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E.,[5] the eschatological discourse in Mark 13 looks back retrospectively on the Temple’s destruction, describing it in apocalyptic terms as the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy (Mark 13:14) and as the most traumatic experience his community would ever endure (Mark 13:19). The author of Mark hints that he and his readers were living in the time between the Great Tribulation and the Son of Man’s imminent appearance, when the elect will be gathered from the four winds.[6] This suggests a date for Mark’s Gospel in the mid-70s to the 80s C.E.

Matthew

At certain points Matthew’s Gospel appears to be reacting to the emergence of rabbinic Judaism (cf. Matt. 23:8), especially the measures taken by Rabban Gamliel the Younger to exclude non-rabbinic Jews from the Jewish community. Matthew’s Gospel also displays strong affinities with the Didache, a document dated to around 100 C.E. Matthew’s Gospel could therefore have been completed in the late first or early second century C.E.[7]

The Hebrew Life of Yeshua

And what about the sources behind the Synoptic Gospels? In A Voice Crying, Comment to L22, we discussed reasons for supposing that the Hebrew Life of Yeshua was composed during the reign of Agrippa I between the years 37-44 C.E. We think a date in the late 30s C.E. is the most probable.

Greek Translation

If the Hebrew Life of Yeshua was composed for the nascent church in Jerusalem, as seems likely, it probably was not long before the Hebrew Life of Yeshua was translated into Greek. From its earliest days the fellowship of believers attracted Greek-speaking Jews (Acts 2:5-11),[8] and these Greek-speaking believers would have wanted access to the stories about Jesus and his teachings in their own language. Additionally, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Life of Yeshua would have been a useful evangelistic tool for spreading the message about Jesus to the Hellenistic Jews who frequented Jerusalem. A date for the Greek translation of the Hebrew Life of Yeshua around 40 C.E. does not seem too early.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Anthology

The reasons the Anthologizer set about rearranging the contents of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Life of Yeshua remain mysterious. Perhaps for the purposes of catechesis it was convenient to group together thematically-related sayings and to pare down stories to the essential actions without weighing them down with lengthy discourses. In the absence of any direct evidence we have dated the Anthology (Anth.) to 45-50 C.E.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

First Reconstruction

Like the Anthology, the origins of the First Reconstruction (FR) are shrouded in mystery. The First Reconstructor’s redaction of Jesus’ prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction and redemption (Luke 21:5-36), however, offers a clue as to the date of FR. Into Anth.’s version of the prophecy the First Reconstructor inserted additional sayings at various points mainly concerned with the hardships Jesus’ followers could expect to encounter. These hardships include the appearance of false prophets and messianic pretenders[9] and the persecution of believers as they bear witness to Jesus in synagogues. It also appears that the First Reconstructor was responsible for adding the warning that “those in Judea should flee to the hills” in Yerushalayim Besieged (Luke 21:21). These additions suggest that the First Reconstructor was writing at a time when there were numerous congregations of believers meeting throughout Judea that had recently experienced (or were currently experiencing) persecution. Conditions such as these appear to be described in Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians, when he wrote, “You, brothers, have become imitators of the churches…in Judea, since you have suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Judeans…” (1 Thess. 2:14).[10] 1 Thessalonians was composed around 50 C.E., and it is likely that Paul referred in this letter to recent events.[11] Dating FR to the early to mid-50s, therefore, seems appropriate.



The two videos above present an overview of how Robert Lindsey’s solution to the Synoptic Problem works and what his theory is able to explain.

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  • [1] For abbreviations and bibliographical references, see “Introduction to ‘The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction.’” The Intro. to LOY also provides an overview of Lindsey’s synoptic hypothesis. See Introduction to “The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction,” under the subheading “A New Approach to the Synoptic Gospels.”
  • [2] A date for Luke-Acts ca. 80-90 C.E. is frequently suggested. See Fitzmyer, 1:57; Bovon, 1:9; Wolter, 1:12. However, Nolland (Luke, 1:xxix) dated Luke’s Gospel from the late 60s to the late 70s C.E. Cf. Marshall, 35.
  • [3] See Fitzmyer, 1:54; Nolland, Luke, 1:xxxviii.
  • [4] For arguments in favor of a pre-70 C.E. date for Acts, see John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 86-92.
  • [5] This point is, of course, contested. Cf., e.g., Fitzmyer, 2:1343; Bovon, 2:115. However, neither the prophecy in Luke 19:41-44 nor the prophecy in Luke 21:20-24 contain details that only could have been known after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Both prophecies contain generic predictions that might describe almost any siege. None of the details specific to the siege of Jerusalem—the famine, the crucifixion of those attempting to escape, the conflagration of the Temple, or the Temple’s capture, contrary to popular expectations, before the capture of the lower and upper city—are reflected in Luke. Cf. Nolland, Luke, 3:1000; Wolter, 2:427.
  • [6] See Yerushalayim Besieged (forthcoming), under the subheading “Story Placement.”
  • [7] See Peter J. Tomson, “The Wars Against Rome, the Rise of Rabbinic Judaism and of Apostolic Christianity, and the Judaeo-Christians: Elements for a Synthesis,” in The Image of Judaeo-Christians in Ancient Jewish and Christian Literature (ed. Peter J. Tomson and Doris Lambers-Petry; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 1-31, esp. 8-14; idem, “The Didache, Matthew, and Barnabas as Sources for Early Second Century Jewish and Christian History,” in Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries: How to Write Their History (ed. Peter J. Tomson and Joshua Schwartz; Leiden: Brill, 2014), 348-382, esp. 363-370.
  • [8] Although the Greek language is not specifically mentioned in Acts 2:5-11, Greek was the lingua franca of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, so we may be assured that Greek-speaking Jews were included in the list of pilgrims from Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt and Cyrene. The Jewish community in Rome was also Greek-speaking, for which reason Paul’s Epistle to the Romans was composed in Greek, and even Josephus’ works, aimed at Roman and Jewish audiences, were composed in Greek. On Greek in first-century Jewish society, see G. Mussies, “Greek in Palestine and the Diaspora” (Safrai-Stern, 2:1040-1064). For an earlier period but with relevant information nonetheless, see James Barr, “Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in the Hellenistic Age,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism (8 vols.; ed. W. D. Davies et al.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984-2017), 2:79-114, esp. 98-110. On the limited use of Latin in first-century Jewish society, see Jonathan J. Price, “The Jews and the Latin Language in the Roman Empire,” in Jews and Gentiles in the Holy Land (ed. Menachem Mor, Aharon Oppenheimer, Jack Pastor, and Daniel R. Schwartz; Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2003), 165-180.
  • [9] Such events are known to have occurred by the mid-40s C.E. See Josephus’ report on the would-be prophet Theudas (Ant. 20:97-98), whose uprising was put down during Fadus’ term as the Judean governor from 44-46 C.E. Josephus also reports that two revolutionary leaders, Jacob and Simon, sons of Judas the Galilean, were crucified during the term of Tiberius Julius Alexander (46-48 C.E.; Ant. 20:102). It is possible that the family of Judas the Galilean entertained messianic ambitions.
  • [10] For an intriguing interpretation of the difficult passage in 1 Thess. 2:14-16, see Serge Ruzer, “Nascent Christianity Between Sectarianism and Broader Judaism: Lessons from the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls and Contemporary Culture: Proceedings of the International Conference held at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (July 6-8, 2008) (ed. Adolfo D. Roitman, Lawrence H. Schiffman, and Shani Tzoref; Leiden: Brill, 2011), 477-493, esp. 489.
  • [11] On evidence for a Judean persecution in 48-49 C.E., see Marcus Bockmuehl, “1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 and the Church in Jerusalem,” in Not in the Word Alone: The First Epistle to the Thessalonians (ed. Morna D. Hooker; Rome: Benedictina, 2003), 55-87, esp. 73-87.
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    David N. Bivin is founder and editor of Jerusalem Perspective. A native of Cleveland, Oklahoma, U.S.A., Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to Jerusalem on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to do postgraduate work at the Hebrew University. He studied at the Hebrew…
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    Joshua N. Tilton grew up in St. George, a small town on the coast of Maine. For his undergraduate degree he studied at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, where he earned a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies (2002). There he studied Biblical Hebrew and…
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