In this final chapter Wenham argues for the dates of the Synoptic Gospels. He believes Luke was written before 55, that Mark was written around 45, and that Matthew was written in about 40.
Before or After AD 70?
Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70. All three Synoptic Gospels tell of how Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction. Wenham notes that none of them tell the reader that this prophecy was fulfilled. In contrast, Luke states that the prophecy of famine by Agabus (Acts 11:28) was fulfilled. C. H. Dodd argues that Luke based his description of the destruction on the OT and not on a description of Titus’ capture of Jerusalem (which would require a date after 70).
I would note that, if the Synoptic Gospels were written after 70, it is conceivable that they did not mention Jesus’ prophecy had been fulfilled because it was so well-known as to not need comment. At the same time, I’m not convinced the Synoptics show signs of knowing Jerusalem had been destroyed either. This part of the argument is a wash for me.
The Date of Acts
In this section Wenham relies on C. J. Hemer’s The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History to argue for the historical accuracy and date of Acts. Wenham outlines a number of reasons to date Acts before 70:
- The ending of the book.
- The immediacy of the later chapters.
- There is no mention of the fall of Jerusalem.
- There is no hint of the outbreak of the Jewish War in 66.
- There is no hint of the Neronian persecution.
- Acts has an optimistic tone. I assume this is related to being written before persecution of Christians had begun.
- The author betrays no knowledge of Paul’s Letters. I take this to mean he did not base the narrative about Paul on Paul’s Letters.
- There is no mention of James’ death in 62.
- Gallio’s tolerant attitude to Paul (Acts 18:14-17) does not seem obsolete.
- The prominence of the Sadduccees belongs to the pre-70 era. I wonder whether this helps us date the book or just tells us Luke was trying to be historically accurate.
- The sympathetic attitude to the Pharisees also seems to indicate a pre-70 date. I would counter by stating that we don’t know the nature of the relations between Christians and Pharisees in the decades when Luke-Acts must have been written.
- The prominence of God-fearers in the synagogues points to a pre-70 date. I again ask whether this helps us date Acts or just shows its accuracy. Perhaps the idea is that God-fearers would stay away from the synagogues after the Jewish Revolt.
- The controversies over the Temple have more relevance pre-70 than post-70.
- The use of “Jesus” and “Christ” seem primitive. I’m skeptical of scholars who claim they can track the use of such terms with the relatively few documents we have.
All things considered, a date of around 62 is most likely for Acts in Wenham’s mind. The ending of Acts brings the story up to date from the author’s perspective.
Those who date Acts later must offer some explanation for its ending. A popular explanation is that the ending provides a fitting climax: the gospel has spread from Jerusalem to Rome. Wenham does not accept this explanation because the gospel clearly preceded Paul to Rome (Acts 28:14; Rom. 1:8). Other reasons for dating Acts later are based on the dating of Luke and Mark.
The Date of Luke
The same author wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. This does not mean the two books were written at the same time as a single work. The differences between Luke 24 and Acts 1 suggest two separate works are in view. A common suggestion is that Luke wrote his gospel during Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea between 57 and 59. This would have given Luke a long time to interview witnesses in Palestine. But Wenham argues for an even earlier date.
The brother whose praise is in the gospel
A strong tradition of the early church identifies the individual mentioned in 2 Cor. 8:18 as Luke (Origen, First Homily on Luke 6; Eusebius, HE 6.25.6; Ephraem, Commentary on Epistles of Paul 103; Chrysostom, Homily 18 on 2 Corinthians [although favoring Barnabas], Jerome, De Vir. Ill. 7). The subscription in most Byzantine-type manuscripts of 2 Corinthians mention Luke.
Identifying this brother as Luke requires Wenham to eliminate other possibilities. Some other church fathers identified the brother as Barnabas. Wenham rejects this because there is no evidence that Barnabas was with Paul at this time and he thinks Paul would have mentioned Barnabas by name (cf. 1 Cor. 9:6). There is no evidence that Mark was with Paul at this time so he’s eliminated. It’s unlikely to be Silas since he was already known to the Corinthians and mentioned earlier in the letter (2 Cor. 1:19). For the same reasons, Wenham does not think Timothy would have been referred to so cryptically. The fact that Timothy was the co-author also indicates he would not have delivered the letter.
The context of 2 Cor. 8:18 is about the collection for the relief of the poor saints in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:19-21). This leads Wenham to suggest the brother must be one of those who accompany Paul to Jerusalem in Acts 20:4. Acts 20:4 is one of the “we” passages where Luke is present. Acts 20:4 mentions four Macedonians (Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius). 2 Cor. 9:4 states that the Corinthians would be embarrassed if some Macedonians came and saw they were not ready for the collection. This implies that the brother in 2 Cor. 8:18 was not a Macedonian. Acts 20:4 mentions Trophimus but Wenham thinks he is too insignificant to be identified with the brother. Wenham thinks the Tychicus of Acts 20:4 is a stronger candidate (Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7; 2 Tim. 4:12; Tit. 3:12). The weight of tradition would seem to favor Luke over Tychicus (who could be the brother of 2 Cor. 8:22).
Another issue is the Greek behind 2 Cor. 8:18. There is disagreement on whether the “gospel” is the gospel-message or a gospel-book. Wenham thinks it is possible that this refers to a gospel-book. The Greek literally reads “in the gospel” despite the fact that most translations say something like “for his preaching of the gospel” or “for his services to the gospel.” Wenham does not think it means “for his preaching of the gospel” because this would be to compare him to Titus. He also doesn’t think a preacher could have been praised by all the churches since traveling from church to church was an arduous journey (even allowing for hyperbole). Likewise, Wenham thinks it unlikely that someone known for his services to the gospel would be so well known. However, if the brother is Luke then he was well known as the brother who had written a gospel. Why Paul did not use Luke’s name can’t be known.
If Wenham’s argument about 2 Cor. 8:18 is persuasive then Luke must have been written before 56, the approximate date of 2 Corinthians. And to give some time for Luke’s fame to spread his gospel was probably written at least a few years before that. Acts seems to leave a window between 50 and 55 for Luke to write when he was in Macedonia and Achaia. The Anti-Marcionite Prologue claims he wrote in Achaia.
Personally, I think it’s an intriguing hypothesis but not overly persuasive. The traditions seem later than some of the other traditions we have seen Wenham allude to and it is not unanimous. Sifting through the NT evidence is speculative. Merely dating Luke to before 62 seems to be on firmer ground.
The Date of Mark
Chapters 6 and 7 already covered the argument for dating Mark to about 45.
The Date of Matthew
The date of Matthew was previously argued to be about 40, when Matthew left Palestine.
The Witness of Irenaeus
It is often assumed that Irenaeus dated Matthew to a time in the 60s when Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1). But the context of the passage indicates that Irenaeus is explaining how the gospel tradition came down to his time and is not giving the exact dates of when the gospels were written. Eusebius, who quotes this passage from Irenaeus, dates Matthew to 41.
An objection to such an early date is the phrase “to this day” used in reference to the Field of Blood (Matt. 27:8) and the report that the disciples stole Jesus’ body (Matt. 28:15). This phrase is taken to mean some time had passed since Jesus’ ministry. But this is not decisive. It could just mean that the name had become attached to the field. Wenham quotes Birks as saying:
The fact that this gospel alone records the watch, and the report spread among the Jews, implies naturally that it was written earlier than the others, when the fact of the watch being set was most likely to confirm the evidence of the resurrection, from being familiarly known; and when the counter-explanation, being also well-known, would stand most in need of refutation by a simple, unadorned statement of the events themselves. (p. 243)
To recap, the argument in this book has been a cumulative one (p. 243):
- Verbal synoptic likenesses and differences are best explained by independent use of the primitive form of oral instruction.
- Genre and order are best explained by a literary relationship.
- In particular, Luke knew Mark’s gospel.
- Dates should be reckoned working back from Acts, the natural date of which is 62.
- Luke’s gospel was apparently well-known in the mid-50s.
- According to tradition Mark’s gospel gives Peter’s teaching in Rome.
- Peter’s first visit to Rome was probably 42-44 and Mark’s gospel was probably written about 45.
- The universal tradition of the early church puts Matthew first, which means a date around 40.