Dating the Documents, part 1

There are some fundamental questions that need to be asked when one attempts a detailed study of any piece of Biblical literature, questions such as, "who wrote the book," "to whom was it written," "from where was it penned and under what circumstances," "why was it written and when did it originate." We realize that these questions have often spawned some in-depth, heavy-duty dissertations that sometimes windup being nothing more than prejudicial guesstimates. We also know that many conclusions drawn from "the science of higher criticism" and presented as full-proof have crumbled under closer scrutiny and objectivity. On the other hand, we have also seen considerable damage done by those who choose to dive directly into the text of the Bible without any concern whatsoever for these other matters. Far too many view such inquiries as speculative at best, frequently irrelevant and subsequently a waste of precious time, but such need not be the case. These questions can actually be dear friends of the historical text. After all, the text is rooted in history is it not?

The book of Revelation, for example, has been used to say just about anything and everything. There are many so-called expositors who are eager to proliferate their subjective interpretations of The Apocalypse. Men will continue to misinterpret John’s prophetic message as long as they start with the wrong premise. To best get a grip on the Revelation letter one needs to analytically and critically ask the who, what, when, where, and why questions. A whole host of would-be interpreters read John’s apocalyptic oracle as if it were written for us today (in the primary sense). That is a colossal faux pas and displays very poor scholarship to say the least. The Revelation was written by John to the seven churches of Asia regarding the fall of "Babylon" (a word that clearly seems to be a reference to Jerusalem – cf. Rev.17 & 18 and compare Rev.18:23-24 with Mt.23:34-38 in particular). It was a revelation of "things which must shortly take place" (Rev.1:1,3; 22:6,10,20). To divorce the book of Revelation from its first-century setting and to ignore that it has historical roots that confine it to a first-century, pre-70 A.D. date and audience is to engage in serious blundering. To assign such a book to another time zone and to subjectivize its design and message is to give birth to countless far-out and biblically unsound theories. Of course, this is precisely what has happened in our day (cf. Hal Lindsey as one example and most recently John Walvoord’s, Armageddon: Oil and The Middle-East Crisis).

In this essay and in the related ones to follow we hope to address the "when written" question as it pertains specifically to the writings of John: The Gospel, The Johannine Epistles and The Apocalypse (i.e., The Book of Revelation). We are working from the belief that these works possess a common author and that that author was John the Apostle. There is much good material available that supports such a conclusion. It appears to us that the New Testament itself assumes the same. Therefore our questions will concern the date of the book and not the authorship.

While a few other New Testament documents (e.g., the Gospel of Luke) have been dated after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D.70 by a few scholars here and there, by far the New Testament writings most often assigned a second-century date are those of John. Therefore, our focus in this series of studies will be to consider evidences that have a direct bearing on the supposed date for each document. Our last articles in this series will call attention to the work of the Holy Spirit and the time of the miraculous gifts (which included inspiration and guidance in writing the New Testament scrolls). The time span for the miraculous gifts (cf. Mk.16:17f; Mt.28:20; Jn.14:26; 16:13; Rom.12:6f; 1 Cor.12:4f & Eph.4:11f) has a definite connection to the whole question of dating the New Testament documents. If we can find a divinely-supplied terminus ad quem (a stopping point or consummation event — cf 1 Cor.13:10) for the special age-changing work of the Holy Spirit in the last days of the Jewish dispensation, then we will of necessity be restricted from going beyond that point in order to arrive at a date of origin. In other words, if the Spirit’s work stopped in A.D.70, then a book written after this date would be an uninspired work. We believe Acts 2:17-21 supplies a clearly delineated time frame and it will be considered later in our studies. Perhaps establishing the time period for the miraculous guidance of the Holy Spirit ought to be one’s starting place, however, lest someone accuse us of arguing a priori (and without careful examination), we shall save this discussion for the last. We hope to show that there is an abundance of good, solid research from scholars of every stripe that points to a pre-70 A.D. date for the writing of all of the New Testament books. Unfortunately John’s writings are simply assumed to be of late origin. We hope to show that the New Testament testimony itself and scholarship lead us to conclude otherwise.

Part 1 – John’s Gospel: When Was It Written?
"In modern writing it is usually held, by conservatives and radicals alike, that the Fourth Gospel must be late" (Leon Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, p.283). Robinson likewise admits, "the assumption that John was written probably in the last decade of the first century is today almost universally accepted" (Redating the New Testament, p. 261). However, as Robinson illustrates by referring to Kummel’s late-date assumption, "it is typical also that he does not advance a single positive reason why this late date…is the right one." C.C. Torrey dares to differ with the majority and writes, "as to the dating of the Gospel material: it is all distinctively early…there is not one word in any of the four books that might not have been written twenty years after the death of Jesus…No argument from silence could possibly be stronger than that which tends to show that all four Gospels were written before the year 70…certainly no one of the evangelists, when he wrote, could look back on the scenes which Josephus describes" (The Four Gospels, pp. 255-257).

Essentially what we find today is a plethora of "research" that simply regurgitates the mistaken conclusions of previous scholarship. In actuality, the number of commentators and scholars who have truly re-searched (i.e., examined afresh) the evidences on the date of origin are few and far between. Most are echoes of the past.

However, as Morris states, "in recent years some scholars have suggested that the date may perhaps be considerably earlier" (p. 286). Many of the arguments for a late date (A.D.90 and later) are open to debate and admittedly vulnerable. Indeed, they require assumption. Thankfully the last few decades have brought more and more in-depth study on this question. Cf. F. Lamar Cribbs, A Reassessment of the Date of Origin and the Destination of the Gospel of John, Journal of Biblical Literature 89 (March 1970) and Erwin R. Goodenough’s, John, A Primitive Gospel, Journal of Biblical Literature 64 (1945). Traditionally then we see the "fourth" gospel being assigned a late date (c.A.D.90-110). Most of the introductions, commentaries and class notes used in colleges, universities and seminaries reflect this assumption. This late-date view eventually finds its way into our Sunday School curriculum, study Bibles and pulpits until we become so saturated with this assumed late date that it is no longer even questioned. It is both rare and refreshing to read those who are willing to critique and challenge the late-date theories (e.g., Franklin Camp, The Work Of The Holy Spirit In Redemption, pgs. 58 & 181).

The arguments for a late date lean heavily upon the supposed extern
al evidence of Irenaeus. Irenaeus does state that, "the apostle John lived to a great age" (unto the reign of Trajan, c.98-117 A.D.)and also that "he was the last evangelist to write" (Adv. Haer.2.22.5; 33.4; 3.1.1.). But as Robinson points out, "…that he wrote as a very old man is an inference which only appears late and accompanied by other statements which show that it is secondary and unreliable" (Redating, p.257). A recent work that has as good a discussion of the Irenaeus issue as any we’ve seen is Kenneth Gentry’s, Before Jerusalem Fell. He concludes a chapter on Irenaeus by noting, "a bold ‘thus saith Irenaeus’ cannot be conclusive on the matter" (p.67).

The hackneyed argument that postulates that John knew of Mark’s Gospel and possibly Luke’s and Matthew’s and therefore would have to be later is now contested vigorously. Men such as P. Gardner-Smith and C. H. Dodd have shown convincingly that it is quite tenuous to contend that John had at his disposal the synoptic Gospels. "It is very difficult to cite any passage that gives much of a case for dependence" (Morris, p. 288). P. Gardner-Smith candidly observes, "…if once it is admitted that the evangelist shows no positive signs of acquaintance with the synoptic writers it can no longer be assumed that his is literally the ‘fourth’ gospel…John might as easily be the first as the fourth of the Gospels" (as quoted in Morris, p. 287). Here it would be wise to consider Robinson’s comment, "even if it could be shown that John could not have been written until after the publication of Mark, Luke or Matthew, we have already argued that there is no compelling reason to date these later than the early 60s (Redating, p. 262).

Another argument for a late date that is now being hotly debated is the assumption that John’s Gospel reflects a highly developed theology. This idea proposes an evolution in theological thought and teaching that can be charted from Mark to the other synoptic writers,

then to John and the second century non-biblical writings. While such an evolutionary chain might look impressive, it conflicts with the fact that the Pauline epistles (clearly pre-70 A.D. in origin) likewise depict a similarly highly developed theology. In fact, "the figure of Christ that emerges from the Pauline reference to Him is closer to that of John than to that of the Synoptists…If Romans and Colossians could have been written by the mid-fifties there seems no reason why John could not have been written just as early" (Morris, p. 287).

In the next installment of this series, we will attempt to give some positive testimony and evidence that support an early date for the writing of John’s Gospel. While this whole discussion may seem an exercise in speculation to some, the question is an important one. No doubt Donald Guthrie sees this to some extent in stating, "…it is clear that the earlier the date that can be attached to the Johannine material the greater will its claim to reliability tend to be" (New Testament Introduction, p. 287). While he has a good point the issue goes deeper than just proximity of time as we shall see.

Note: For those with a keen interest in this field of study (i.e., the who, what, when, where, and why questions) we would recommend the following works as being very helpful and thought-provoking:

Introduction To The New Testament, by Everett F. Harrison (Eerdmans)
New Testament Introduction, by Donald Guthrie (Inter-Varsity Press)
A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, by Gleason Archer (Moody Press)
Introduction To The Old Testament, by R. K. Harrison (Eerdmans)
An Introduction To The Old Testament, by Edward Young (Eerdmans)
A General Introduction To The Bible, by Norman Geisler and William Nix (Moody Press)
Redating The New Testament, by John A. T. Robinson (Westminster)