Wenham will propose early dates for the Synoptic Gospels. This raises the question: why are the Gospels not explicitly referred to in the rest of the New Testament? For example, Paul’s Letters frequently echo the sayings of Jesus but only explicitly refer to Jesus’ words on three occasions (1 Cor. 7:10; 9:14; 11:24). Critics of Wenham’s dating may argue that this silence suggests a later date for the Gospels.
The first thing to notice is that this is an argument from silence. This silence about the Gospels stretches into the period of the apostolic fathers, a point in time when nearly all scholars agree the Gospels had been written by. The fallacy of the argument from silence is clearly seen in the Book of Acts. Its author knew of all the material from the Gospel of Luke but did not deem it necessary to refer back to it. I would add that the Johannine Epistles, which were probably written after the Gospel of John, further show the fallacy of the argument from silence. Despite the author knowing of the Gospel of John, he does not refer back to it explicitly.
M. B. Thompson offered some thoughts on this state of affairs in Paul’s Letters:
- Paul’s language usually echoes the gospels when he is giving exhortations, but exhortations do not require the citing of sources.
- The epistles were written to answer specific questions, not to provide the basics of the Jesus tradition.
- Paul’s primary concern is with Christ as he is (exalted) and not with Christ as he was.
- The death and resurrection of Christ was the ultimate illustration of Christ’s love, humility, and power. While the Jesus tradition set this event into context, it was not necessary to retell this tradition when giving exhortation to the readers.
- Christianity was built on Judaism and much of Paul’s thought would have been drawn from Judaism, not just the Jesus traditions.
The same points are relevant to the other NT epistles. Wenham also notes that 1 Tim. 5:18 does appear to quote Luke 10:7.
The author provides other reasons that militated against the establishment of specifically Christian written norms in the early church:
- It would be more natural for the first couple generations of Christians to appeal to the voice of the apostles rather than their written words. I would cite Papias’ desire for oral tradition even in the 2nd century as support for this claim.
- The church was a Jewish-Gentile body, with the proportion of Gentiles steadily increasing. Jewish education was based on verbatim knowledge of the written scriptures, but Gentiles did not have an analogous system. It would take time for them to adopt the ways of Jewish education.
- Before the common use of the codex in the 2nd century, it would have been easier to teach orally or from memory than to open a scroll and search through it.
- It probably took some time before the Gospels and Epistles were read regularly in the churches. This habit would cause the NT documents to take root in people’s minds as scripture.
- The development of the concept of apostolic authority to canonicity may have progressed slowly.
Unfortunately this chapter is brief. It would have been nice to see Wenham develop these thoughts a little further.