Dating the New Testament Based on What It Doesn’t Say
Historically, Christians have held that the books of the New Testament have come down to us as reliable records of true events. Skeptics say, no, they can’t be accurate historical documents because they were written long after the time in which the events occurred. The skeptics’ objection raises an important question, since, all other variables being equal, the earlier the books were written, the stronger is the case for their historical reliability. This is a standard tenet of critical scholarship for any ancient document. Can a good case be made for early dating of the New Testament?
Not Recorded: The Fall of Jerusalem
One helpful way to date an ancient writing is by paying attention to what is not recorded. If a key event is not mentioned, for example, it is reasonable to argue for a date before that event occurred. Take the fall of Jerusalem. The entire Jewish world was forever changed in the year AD 70, when the city of Jerusalem and the temple were utterly destroyed.
The Bible is, primarily, a narrative about the Jewish people and their relationship to their God, and the fall of Jerusalem literally changed their world. Jerusalem and the temple were part and parcel to being Jewish. Prior to AD 70, religious life centered on the temple, and it was a daily part of life for Jews. Jesus preached at the temple during the Jewish holy days. After his death, his Apostles preached on the temple grounds. Peter healed a crippled beggar on the temple steps. The temple was the center and heart of Jewish life. Everything changed drastically after it was destroyed.
Only when we take into account how the entire gospel story—Jesus’ ministry, his miracles, and his life with the disciples—occurred in a thoroughly Jewish context, can we truly appreciate the importance of this cataclysmic event. How is it, then, that nowhere in the New Testament is the destruction of the temple recorded? It was the most monumental event that took place since the Resurrection.
Furthermore, Jesus had foretold it nearly forty years before it happened. Referring to the temple, he had told his disciples that “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Yet, the New Testament never mentions that this happened, just as Jesus had predicted. That is a glaring omission if the New Testament was written after AD 70.
The Jewish historian Josephus records the fall of Jerusalem in great detail. He records the siege of Jerusalem, the death of more than a million Jews, and the destruction of the temple by fire. But despite the fact that Christianity was virtually “born” in Jerusalem, none of the New Testament authors mention any of this—no mention of the slaughter of more than a million of their families, friends, and relatives.
To overlook the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in a collection of books that comprise the history of the Jewish people and their Messiah would be like writing a history of New York City in the 21st century and failing to mention the attack of September 11th and the collapse of the World Trade Center. Actually, it would be worse than that. The attack on the World Trade Center left 3,000 people dead. Josephus records a death toll of 1.1 million. Why would the New Testament authors fail to record this world-changing event, especially considering that Jesus himself had prophesied that it would happen? The most reasonable explanation seems to be that it had not yet happened when these New Testament books were written.
Not Recorded: Key Martyrdoms
Similarly, if a key figure’s death is not mentioned, it is reasonable to argue for a date of writing before that key figure died. The New Testament records the death of Jesus Christ (of course). It also records the martyrdom of John the Baptist; the persecution and death of James, one of Jesus’ original 12 disciples; and the stoning of Stephen, an event to which the Apostle Paul was an eyewitness and participant. The point here is that these deaths of key figures are all recorded in the Bible.
The martyrdom of James, recorded in Acts 12, can be dated from extra-biblical sources to about AD 44. Thus, the book of Acts was written, at the earliest, after AD 44. But now, let’s take the Apostles Peter and Paul, two towering figures for the early Christian church. Both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome under Nero. Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded, but neither of their deaths is mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. Nero died in AD 68, so this means Peter and Paul both died sometime before AD 68.
These omissions are super-important because they help us to date the writing of the book of Acts. They suggest that Acts was completed before AD 68—a timeline that does not leave much room for legends to take root. This coincides with what Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:3–6)
Paul writes that many eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection were still alive when he wrote 1 Corinthians. The best explanation for all these omissions is that, at a minimum, the books of Acts and 1 Corinthians were completed before AD 70.
Dating Mark & Revelation
Briefly, let’s look at the dating of two other books, the Gospel of Mark and Revelation.
Many scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written, and that Mark primarily served as a scribe recording the eyewitness testimony of Peter, one of Jesus’ first and closest disciples. Since, as we have noted, it is believed that Peter was martyred under Emperor Nero at the latest by AD 68, we have good reason to believe that the book of Mark was written before the year 68.
Most also agree that Revelation was the last New Testament book written. Some believe it was written during the reign of Nero (AD 60s), others under Domitian (AD 90s). I argue for the earlier date, for the following reasons.
The Apostle John wrote Revelation while exiled on the island of Patmos. The main reason scholars attribute the later date to Revelation is because of a potentially misunderstood quote by the church father Irenaeus. Irenaeus wrote that John was exiled by Domitian, who was emperor in the 90s. But it’s entirely possible that Domitian ordered John’s exile while working for his father, General (later Caesar) Vespasian. That would date John’s exile and the writing of Revelation much earlier. Further, the later date would mean John was close to 100 years old when he returned to Ephesus, where he died. It seems unlikely that such an elderly man would survive exile and the return journey to Ephesus.
Dating the writings of the New Testament as early as possible to the events it records is important, because the dating can reflect on the accuracy of the writings. If the books were written during a time when many eyewitnesses to the actual events were still alive, we have good reason to conclude that the events they record did in fact take place as they said. Thus, we have good reason to believe that some, if not all, of the New Testament books were written before AD 70.Daniel Buttafuoco
is a board certified civil trial lawyer. An expert on analyzing evidence, he uses the same techniques he uses in court to analyze evidence for the Christian faith. He is the author of several publications and blogs about faith, law, and apologetics.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #66, Fall 2023 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo66/between-the-lines