In a previous essay* we expressed our intention to examine the date of origin for the writings of John (the Gospel, the epistles and The Revelation). It is our contention that these materials have each been assigned late dates (c.A.D.90-110) without justification. In part 1, we looked at some reasons why the late date for the Gospel is now being reassessed. The foundations of the late-date theory are essentially threefold: the arguments from the external evidence of Irenaeus, the supposed dependence of John upon the synoptic writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the so-called highly-developed theology of the Johannine Gospel. Each of these contentions is shaky and all three of these long-held foundation pillars supporting a late date seem to erode under close scrutiny. Our aim in this essay will be to examine some positive reasons to assign an earlier date to the writing of John’s Gospel.
Seven Reasons For Dating John’s Gospel Early
When we speak of dating the gospel of John early we are not just suggesting any date in the late first century, rather we are pointing to a date that precedes the A.D.70 destruction of Jerusalem. Below are seven areas that support the notion that John’s Gospel predates Jerusalem’s fall.
(1) Ignorance Of Synoptic Tradition
This is the reverse of a line of reasoning that has long been in the forefront of the late-date theory. Leon Morris has provided some valuable research in arguing that the Synoptic and Johannine traditions are independent. (Studies In The Fourth Gospel, pgs.15ff & 288). In layman’s terms this simply means that John did not collaborate with Matthew, Mark, and Luke in authoring his Gospel – more precisely, that he did not borrow from their writings. Morris asserts that "ever since the work of Perry Gardner-Smith (Saint John and the Synoptic Gospels), it has been difficult to hold that John depended on the Synoptics. Any argument resting on such dependence must now be held to be dubious" (Morris, p.288). When one reads John’s Gospel alongside of Matthew, Mark, and Luke it does not appear that John is drawing from their documents in compiling his own narrative. As Morris notes, "John omits much that is in the Synoptic Gospels that would have been valuable for his purpose" (Morris, p.288). It is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that this oversight or absence of borrowing might be due to the fact that John had never seen these other works. Contrast Luke’s prologue (Lk.1:1-3) with John’s silence. Luke states, "inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us…" (Lk.1:1). If John shows no awareness of the other gospel accounts could it be because his work preceded theirs?
Research indicates that the three synoptics won acceptance rather quickly which makes John’s apparent unawareness of them even more perplexing. In view of this, is it not possible that John’s Gospel might, indeed, be the first instead of the fourth? On this matter Guthrie observes that it is difficult to imagine any historical situation at a relatively late date in which the Synoptic Gospels were unknown. He goes on to point out that this consideration has led some to postulate an early date for John (New Testament Introduction, p.299). Cf. E. R. Goodenough, John: A Primitive Gospel in Journal of Biblical Literature 64 (1945). These are admittedly thought-provoking questions: "If John is late, as is so often supposed, why does he not seem to have knowledge of the other gospels?" and "If he is familiar with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, then why does he not draw on their materials?" Perhaps it is time that we cease referring to John’s as the Fourth Gospel. Increasing research on this subject is providing some weighty evidence that seems to strongly testify just the opposite, that John’s was the first and earliest Gospel.
(2) Silence About The Holocaust
John A.T. Robinson has devoted an entire chapter to this subject. He persuasively states, "one of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period – the fall of Jerusalem in A.D.70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple – is never once mentioned as a past fact." He comments further saying, "…the silence is nevertheless as significant as the silence for Sherlock Holmes of the dog that did not bark" (Redating, p.13). Speaking more specifically of John’s Gospel, Robinson writes, "…there is nothing that suggests or presupposes that the temple is already destroyed or that Jerusalem is in ruins…" (ibid., p.275). So, one must ask, "if John is writing after Jerusalem’s fall, why the absence of commentary?" Without a doubt this is a baffling question. This argument is a powerful one especially when we contrast the great volume of discussion and attention given to the destruction of the city and temple that is found in other Jewish and Christian writings which originate in the period A.D.70-100.
(3) The Duration of the Age of Miracles
Closely allied to the matter of Jerusalem’s fall in A.D.70 is the realization that this event likewise signaled the "end of the age." The "gifts" of the Holy Spirit (which included New Testament revelation) were given for the last days (Acts 2:17f). The gifts were intended to impart divine instruction in the latter days of the Jewish dispensation (Mt.28:20; Mk.16:17-20; Jn.14:26; 16:13). One major purpose of the gifts was to confirm and establish the New Covenant aeon (Ro.1:11). Paul addressed the design and duration of the gifts when he wrote, "…the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of Our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor.1:6-8). We believe that Jerusalem’s demise in A.D.70 constituted the end of the Jewish age ("world"-KJV). Matthew 24:3ff clearly bears this out, as do many of the kingdom parables recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Hampden-Cook agrees with this basic idea and writes, "…there can be but little doubt that Christ’s advent at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem…terminated an altogether exceptional state of things which had prevailed since the day of Pentecost, and caused these abnormal miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit to cease." (The Christ Has Come, p.164). If the end of the age brought the cessation of the miraculous gifts then any document written after A.D.70 is a non-inspired work.
Another argument that could be easily overlooked but that also supports a pre-70 date for John’s Gospel is that of topography. A choice illustration can be seen in Jn.5:2 regarding the healing of the cripple. John tells of a pool by the sheep gate called Bethesda with five porches. This is a significant reference to topography which preceded Jerusalem’s fall. These porches at Bethesda were buried in the rubble when Jerusalem was leveled in A.D.70. John clearly states, "there is in Jerusalem…". Not there was but there is! If John were writing c.90-110 A.D., he would not have used the present tense. There are other examples that could be cited, but this will suffice in making a point. Cf. C.H. Dodd’s, Historical Tradition In The Fourth Gospel, for more study along this line.
Once again Morris dishes up some food for thought. He suggests that "the way John refers to the immediate followers of Jesus is worth noting. He does not speak of them as apostles but as disciples. This seems a mark of early tradition. Moreover he usually uses the expression His disciples rather than The disciples. The former term would be needed to distinguish Jesus’ disciples from those of other Rabbis. But in later times, for
Christians at any rate, Jesus’ disciples were The disciples" (Morris, p.289).
(6) Religious-Political Climate
John makes several statements depicting a religious and political climate that antedates the A.D.70 event. One prime example of this is the narration concerning the trial of Jesus. The delicate relations between the native and imperial authorities is clearly pictured. Additionally, the very mention of the claim to be "king of the Jews" stirred violent emotions. Such references as these do not accurately present the situation at the turn of the century. Others, such as the debate regarding circumcision (Jn.7:23), reveal the same. It is true that John could be writing c.100 A.D. and yet be depicting a climate pre-70. However, if such is the case, the question must be asked and adequately answered, "to whom was the gospel addressed – Jews or Gentiles?" John’s Gospel is addressed primarily to Jews. In his narrative he makes repeated usage of statements, allusions, arguments, etc., that appeal to the Jewish intellect. So much of his Gospel (i.e., the details and not the overall message) loses its real impact and veracity if it were written c.90-110. Drastic changes had occurred and things were not the same. As Robinson surmises, "There is a gap here which strains credibility". (Redating, p.267).
(7) Qumran Records
Finally, we see discoveries at the Qumran monastery (which was destroyed before A.D.70) having affinities with John’s Gospel. E. K. Lee believes the Qumran scrolls have shown that "the date of the gospel may be placed much earlier than used to be thought possible. (As quoted in Morris, p.289). For additional and more technical argumentation related to the Qumran manuscript evidence see Morris, p.290.
There is nothing in John’s Gospel that would require a date later than A.D.70. To the contrary, we seem to have a number of good reasons for a pre-70 date. These seven: ignorance of the synoptics, silence about the holocaust, the duration of the miraculous, topography, terminology, religious-political climate, and the Qumran writings all point to a date that precedes Jerusalem’s fall.