Yesterday I posted a lengthy but necessary rebuttal to pop-apologist Heather Schuldt’s bewildering piece on the Documentary Hypothesis. As I was poking around on her blog I noticed she had recently written another piece, this time attacking New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, entitled “5 Examples Why Bart Ehrman Is Not a Gospel Expert.“1 It is in many ways as bewildering as her post on the Documentary Hypothesis.
Schuldt’s post focuses on five areas where she believes Ehrman is wrong regarding the Gospel accounts.
As we will show in this post and the posts to come, Schuldt is hopelessly confused about so many things and it demonstrates just how little she knows about the New Testament generally and the Gospel accounts specifically. And since there is a lot of ground to cover, today we will cover only the dating of the Synoptic Gospels (and related issues).
DATING THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS
Schuldt alludes to but does not provide a link to a video wherein Ehrman discusses some of the aforementioned issues about which Schuldt thinks he is wrong. I have no interest in trying to track that video down and we don’t need to do so to assess Schuldt’s views on those issues. So let’s begin by quoting Schuldt and then offer some commentary.
Ehrman claimed that the (publication) dates of the gospels are a problem. No, the publication dates and writing dates are not a problem. The early dating of the four gospels add credibility and reliability to the text so much so that we can be certain that God preserved the original texts.
What Schuldt is discussing is the fact that the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars think the Gospels were written long after Jesus lived. There are a variety of reasons for thinking this which we will get into shortly. It suffices to say that when Schuldt claims that there is “early dating” for the four Gospels and that this “add[s] credibility and reliability to the text so much that we can be certain that God preserved the original texts” she is speaking out of turn. But let’s see if she can defend her position. She offers three arguments to rebut Ehrman.
The first argument Schuldt marshals has to do with the period in which she believes the Gospels were written. She writes,
First, can Ehrman bring more value to the fact that the publication process and writing process was vastly different back then? He completely overlooks the entire writing process that took place from 30 AD-70 AD. While qualified writers at that time were able to use certain materials to write down specific texts, the serious nature of some Jewish priests hating Jesus, being jealous of Jesus, and calling for his death made the writing process even more protective. It is quite amazing that the four gospels survived at all under terrible authority figures. Ehrman cannot expect to apply a writing process and a publication process from 2018 to a time so long ago. I would expect that the original was significantly protected, and the task of reproducing the original was also significantly protected, both tasks which are completely ignored by Ehrman.
It is difficult to assess Schuldt’s claim given she hasn’t provided context in the form of a link to the video. But nevertheless, we can examine this poorly worded paragraph.
For starters, to what is Schuldt referring when she speaks of “qualified writers”? What does that even mean? The ability to read in ancient times did not entail the ability to write and literacy rates in first century Palestine have been estimated at anywhere from just three percent of the population to ten percent.2 Among Palestinian Jews, learning to read was for the most part a wholly unnecessary exercise unless one planned to become a scribe or a priest as on the sabbath the Torah was read aloud for the benefit of the illiterate.3 In first century Palestine, the lingua franca of the common people was Aramaic, a language related to but distinct from Hebrew, and so Jesus himself as well as his earliest followers would have spoken Aramaic. This is attested to in the Gospels themselves (i.e. Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 11:9-10; 14:36; 15:22, 34, 42). And therein lies the problem: the Gospels weren’t written in Aramaic but Greek. This means that whoever wrote the Gospels had to have been educated since they wrote fairly decent Greek.
This is a problem for Schuldt since we have no indication that the disciples were multilingual or even educated. Take the Gospel of John, for example. Tradition ascribes its writing to the disciple John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee. But what was John doing before he was called by Jesus to become his disciple? He was a fisherman! (Mark 1:18-20) He wasn’t a priest and he wasn’t a scribe. He caught fish for a living, an activity that required no ability to read or write Aramaic, let alone Greek. Furthermore, in the book of Acts the author tells us that both Peter and John “were uneducated and ordinary men” (Acts 4:13). And yet John’s Gospel is written in Greek. Ehrman observes,
Did the apostles go back to school after Jesus died, overcome years of illiteracy by learning how to read and write at a relatively high level, become skilled in foreign composition, and then later pen the Gospels? Most scholars consider it somewhat unlikely.4
Schuldt is clearly confused on the authorship of the Gospels and the time period in which they were written.
Schuldt also discusses the survival of the New Testament Gospels but I have no idea why that is even important. It is unlikely any of the Gospels were written in Jerusalem where the Jewish religious authorities held the most sway. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest there was widespread persecution of Christians such that they sought to destroy Christian literature. Schuldt would need to provide evidential support if she wants to claim there was such a threat and that it did occur.
Confused on Q
Next Schuldt says in response to Ehrman,
Second, not only have the four gospels been dated to the lifetime of the author, biblical experts suggest that a fifth document most likely did exist, a document they often refer to as the Q document, which part of it may very well have been written during the life of Jesus, for example, soon after an event, sermon, or conversation occurred. Ehrman may be a leading expert in applying criticism to a text, but he is most definitely not a leading gospel expert by any means. He is not a biblical expert at all.
Let’s begin with the very first sentence. Schuldt presupposes without any warrant whatsoever that the Gospels were written by those men to which tradition ascribes them. She has made no case to support this.
More interesting is her comments on Q, the so-called “Sayings Source.” The great irony here is that she says that Ehrman is “not a biblical expert at all” and yet she exhibits absolutely zero understanding of what the Q source is or why scholars propose its existence. Let me explain.
Scholars have long noticed that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar. They tell many of the same stories and often in the same order. This is why they are referred to as the “Synoptic” Gospels. Early Christians believed that the first of the four Gospels to have been written was Matthew’s and that Mark and Luke wrote after Matthew’s Gospel had been circulated. Some believed that Mark utilized Matthew in his writing and was abbreviating his work. They also believed that Luke was using both Matthew and Mark to compose his narrative.5 This view on the order in which these books had been written as well as their literary relationship to one another held sway until the nineteenth century, at which time there was a shift away from Matthean priority (i.e. Matthew wrote first) to Markan priority (i.e. Mark wrote first).
With the reasonable assumption of Markan priority, scholars could see which passages were clearly Markan and which passages were not. For example, in Mark’s Gospel we read of the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4-8) which both Matthew (Matthew 3:4-6) and Luke (Luke 3:1-6) describe. However, both Matthew and Luke contain wording that didn’t come from Mark’s Gospel, specifically in Matthew 3:7-12 and Luke 3:7-9, 16-17. So where did these words come from if not from Mark? Well, their similarity led many scholars to suggest that a no longer extant source known as Q (German, Quelle – “source”) must have existed from which both Matthew and Luke got this bit of information. This source may have been one of the earliest written sources about Jesus to have been produced by early Christians, perhaps around 40 to 65 CE.6
The existence of Q is held by the majority of New Testament scholars today though it has been contested.7 Regardless, the purpose of Q was to account for passages not found in Mark but found in Matthew and Luke and this leads to a huge problem for Schuldt. The existence of Q is tied to the notion of Markan priority. Markan priority entails that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources in composing their narratives. But why would Matthew – an actual disciple of Jesus – need to use any source, especially Mark’s who wasn’t even a disciple? If Matthew was an eyewitness then there would have been no need to utilize Mark (let alone Q) as his source! Schuldt then has undermined the very position she was trying to promote!
And she says Ehrman isn’t an expert.
The Destruction of the Temple
Schuldt moves on to an area that is frequently discussed when dating the Synoptic Gospels: the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE. She writes,
Third, since there is no mention of the temple being destroyed in 70 AD, we have yet another clue as to the early dating of the gospels, placed before 70 AD, because at least one of the authors, if not all of the authors, would have included the major historical event in the New Testament texts.
The is an odd way to argue for the “early dating” of the Gospel accounts. The stories we read in the four Gospels are set in the historical context of Jesus’ day and since Jesus died forty years before the destruction of the temple it would have made no sense for them to mention its destruction explicitly. It would be like an author writing about the life of someone living in the Antebellum South but also throwing in explicit references to the battle of Gettysburg. It makes no sense to do that.
The Olivet Discourse and Dating Mark’s Gospel
So what does the destruction of the temple have to do with the dating of the Gospels? It largely has to do with the words of Jesus in what is commonly referred to as the “Olivet Discourse.” This discourse is found in Mark 13:1-37 (cf. Matthew 24:1-44; Luke 21:5-33). Jesus has just left the temple for the last time and as they are exiting the grounds one of his disciples points out the buildings of the temple complex: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1) To this Jesus responds with an ominous warning: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:2). In other words, the temple’s days are numbered. Jesus and the disciples then make their way to the Mount of Olives across from the temple where the disciples Peter, James, John, and Andrew inquire further: “Tell us, when will this [i.e. the destruction of the Temple] be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:3-4) Jesus then begins to explain what will take place before the temple’s destruction.
It is clear from Mark’s Gospel that the destruction of the temple is tied to “the end” (13:7), a term that implies the consummation of human history. In the context of Mark 13, the destruction of the temple is tied to the appearance of the Son of Man (13:24-27). And when will this all happen? According to Jesus, “[T]his generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (13:30). He even tells the religious authorities that they “‘will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven'” (14:62). In other words, the destruction of the temple and the end of the age is coming very soon. In fact, it would take place within a generation.
So what does this have to do with dating Mark’s Gospel? The language he uses seems to suggest that he is writing sometime during the Jewish War (66-73 CE). Because while Mark ties the destruction of the temple to the end of human history, he is careful to not make them synonymous. So there would be “wars and rumors of wars” (i.e. the Jewish War) but despite it and the ensuing destruction, “the end is still to come” (13:7). And “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” and there would be earthquakes and famines but these are only “the beginning of the birth pangs” (13:8). So then Mark is living in a time period wherein Rome has either begun to wage war against Jerusalem itself and destroyed the temple or not long after the destruction of the city and temple. Using Jesus’ metaphor of birth pangs, the labor has begun (i.e. conflicts) but the baby (i.e. the coming of the Son of Man) has not yet been born. This is one of the reasons that scholars date the Gospel of Mark to sometime around 70 CE.
Dating Matthew and Luke
The dating of Matthew and Luke is less complicated given Markan priority since they must have appeared after Mark had been written. Therefore the two Gospels are generally dated to sometime in the 70s or 80s CE. (though later dates for Luke have been proposed well into the second century). Therefore, these accounts were written after the destruction of the temple, rendering Schuldt’s point moot. But are there internal grounds upon which we can make that determination?
Within Matthew’s Gospel there are various hints that the text was written after the temple’s destruction. Recall that in Mark’s Gospel the disciples ask Jesus to tell them when the temple’s destruction would take place and what would be the signs it was about to happen. But in Matthew (Matthew 24:3) the disciples ask two distinct questions: “Tell us, when will this be [i.e. the destruction of the temple], and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Thus Matthew has made the issue of the temple’s destruction and the end of the age separate (though related) issues whereas Mark had intertwined the two. Furthermore, Matthew seems to allude to the destruction of Jerusalem in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:41) and the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (22:7).
Luke is far more explicit in his allusions to the destruction of Jerusalem. In his version of the Olivet Discourse, Luke discusses “wars and insurrections” instead of the Markan “wars and rumors of wars,” a nod to the Jewish War that was an insurrection against Rome (Luke 21:9). He also changes Mark’s reference to the “desolating sacrifice [to bdelygma tēs erēmōseōs]” that would be “set up where it ought not be” (Mark 13:14) to a desolating army: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation [hē erēmōsis autēs] has come near” (Luke 21:20). This reference to a siege makes sense if Luke had been writing after the fall of Jerusalem. Previous to this, following his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus weeps over the city and makes this ominous “prediction”:
Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God (Luke 19:43-44).
These are clearly very specific references to siege warfare that only make sense if Luke’s Gospel had been written after the destruction of Jerusalem.
As we’ve seen, Schuldt makes fundamental errors regarding Gospel authorship as it pertains to literacy and the disciples of Jesus who she believes wrote those Gospels. She has also misunderstood the Q source and undermines her own position on Gospel authorship in her discussion of Q, and, finally, she has misunderstood the issues surrounding the dating of the Synoptic Gospels and the relevance of the destruction of the temple.
How Schuldt ever came to the conclusion she was able to judge Ehrman’s expertise is a mystery to me.
1Heather M. Schuldt, “5 Examples Why Bart Ehrman Is Not a Gospel Expert” (10.17.18), Ladyapologist.com. Accessed 2 Nov 2018.
2L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 95.
3Paula Frederiksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (Vintage Books, 1999), 61.
4Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 93.
5For more, see my video “The Synoptic Problem: The Augustinian Hypothesis.”
6See the discussion on dating Q in Gerd Theissen, The New Testament: A Literary History (Fortress Press, 2012), 36-37.
7A recent episode of the fantastic podcast New Testament Review featured an episode discussing the work of Austin Farrar, a New Testament scholar who found the Q hypothesis to be unnecessary. Listen to it here.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.