• Review: Late Revelations

    Late Revelations by M. David Litwa is a must have for anyone interested in gospel dating, and a firm, necessary corrective for the latest wave of attempts to argue for ‘radically early’ (pre-70) dates for the gospels. Litwa dates the tail-end of the Markan ‘wave’ later than I am comfortable with, but does a good job of crushing radically early (pre-70) dates for the gospels; even so there are still some strong reasons to consider a date well past 70 CE for Mark and other gospels.

    Litwa unveils the bias of New Testament studies towards dating the gospels as early as possible (often drawing the line at 70 CE for the dating of the first gospel, with some like Bernier arguing for radically early dates within years or a couple of decades after 30 CE). Which is not as a well reasoned conclusion from cold hard facts but instead comes from a ‘need’ for Christian belief: “If [the gospels] aren’t early, then they might not be true.”

    He’s hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly where the early dates come from and the real reason they are advocated (a few prominent exceptions will be discussed below). And while he spends most of the book arguing they aren’t early, I believe that the “early dates = true” is very much an oversimplification of the issue, and I will revisit this in detail later in the review.

    The Wave Model
    Litwa argues for the wave model, in which the gospels were constructed a little at a time, with some material composed as early as 30 CE and some composed as late as 130 CE. While I am sure John nicely fits the wave model with abundant evidence of extensive redaction from an original, Mark appears to be (at least largely) a de novo creation judging by the extensive use of chiastic structures therein (see Michael Turton’s Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, available online, or Richard Carrier’s commentary in On the Historicity of Jesus). That said, I would still not be surprised if the gospel went through different versions, I even think the original Mark said Jesus passed out on the cross but not die (see reference and discussion below).

    Does a pre-70 date for the gospels work?
    I think Litwa does a great job of smashing this one to pieces. The arguments for it just aren’t very good. Bernier and others say Acts must be pre-70 because it does not mention Paul’s death, Litwa could have shredded this contention even more by responding that it in fact does, Acts 23:11 “And the night following the Lord stood by [Paul] and said, Be of good cheer: for as thou hast testified concerning me at Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.”

    Does a second century date work?
    I did not find Litwa’s case for a date of 130 as the tail end of the Markan wave persuasive, and was disappointed that he did not mention two very firm arguments that place Mark after 70.

    The little apocalypse of Mark mentions earthquakes, other christs, that there will be wars and rumors of wars. All of which are sufficiently vague that I think connecting them to a specific time period (especially as late as 130, as Litwa does) is very doubtful, though admittedly possible. If the gospels are a glove and the date is a hand, 130 CE is definitely a hand that can fit the glove, but there are many hands that can fit the glove. Growing up in the 90’s, me and my friends thought the “wars and rumors of wars” spoke of Iraq, but a generation ago people could have thought it spoke of the Cold War, or World War Two. This is simply too characteristic of all periods of time, modern and ancient, to allow for any precise date to be derived. The same can be said of the prophecies of earthquakes and ‘other christs’ (which I will return to later).

    “Then there is the prophesied persecutions by governors and kings [Mark 13:9] Although early Christian memory imagines its great heroes (mainly Peter and Paul) standing before kings and emperors, these stories are probably fictional. Even if Paul was a Roman citizen, he would not earn a free transport to Rome and a trial before the emperor (Acts 26-28).”

    But there is a much earlier attestation of this: “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.” (2 Corinthians 11:32-33).

    So I do not think the persecutions from kings and governors is out of place in the first century.

    Litwa believes the prophecies of false Christs are more naturally situated in 130 CE and speaking of Bar Kokhba: “The rebel leaders mentioned by Josephus were quickly snuffed out. For actual messiah-figures who rule for any length of time we have to wait until Bar Kokhba.” However, false Christs in the plural is more naturally suited to the prior group than to the individual Bar Kokhba. That these ‘messianic’ figures did not rule for long is irrelevant as Mark 13 does not say that they would. Litwa observes that the rebels that Josephus speaks of were never specifically called messiahs, which is true, however, these figures were clearly trying to set themselves up as military leaders.

    Pauline and Josephan Dependance
    The two arguments that place Mark after 70 are Pauline dependence and Josephan dependance. Since the last of Paul’s letters were written in the late 50s, and since some amount of time must be posited for repeated copying and circulation so the author of Mark could read them and use them in the making of his gospel (which there is abundant evidence for, see Tom Dykstra, “Mark: Canonizer of Paul”) a date from at least the late 70s on seems reasonable.

    Josephan dependance is suggested by Theodore Weeden, who makes a powerful case that Mark borrowed from Josephus’ Jesus Ben Ananias story, with about twenty parallels between the two and which are all in the same order between the two documents, suggesting literary dependence.

    A second argument for Josephan dependance: Josephus’ proper name was Joseph bar Matthias, and Joseph of Arimathea looks to be a slightly changed version of the name. Josephus relates a story about having three men taken down from the cross, one of whom survived, just as in the gospels three men are crucified and one is taken down and continues life by resurrection (or alternately Jesus did not really die in the story but only swooned, see Robert M. Price, The Case Against Case for Christ, ch. 11). There’s basically two positions: those two stories have so many coincidences by chance or by a relationship. Chance does not seem believable, and astonishing coincidences inside the paltry amount of surviving ancient evidence is unlikely, even very unlikely. Besides, given other examples of crafting myths from the Old Testament and pagan gods literary emulation is already a plausible thesis. Once a relationship is acknowledged, either A caused B, B caused A, or A and B derive from a common ancestor C. It seems unlikely that Josephus would just so happen to have a name similar to a Christian myth, but the name Joseph of Arimathea could be another gospel creation, and could plausibly have a meaning inside the narrative (men like Josephus were the ‘best disciples’ of Christ; those who sought to help Israel, the earthly counterpart of Jesus). As far as “common ancestry” of the two stories this is possible but violates Ockham’s razor by theorizing a common source we do not have and have no explanatory need of. If true, not only is this another piece of the story that can be explained mythologically but it also most naturally leads to a date for Mark and the other gospels in 100 CE or later (allowing time between when Josephus first wrote for some manuscript copying and circulation before Mark got wind of it) or at the barest minimum a date after 80 CE.

    Litwa on Systematic Bias
    I was pleased to see that Litwa is aware of how much NT studies is a case of “the foxes guarding the henhouse.” Even many currently atheist or agnostic experts are not free from the pro-Christian biases inherited from their predecessors. Bart Ehrman (“Forged: Writing in the Name of God”) has forever vanquished the idea that later individuals writing in the name of Peter and Paul were doing something innocent to honor these men, on the contrary, this was forgery and was considered as dishonest in the ancient world as the modern one. But no less than atheist NT scholar Gerd Ludemann still believed this was an innocent phenomenon. This is a field that’s drunk on Christian faith assumptions, to a point where all of us have every right to be skeptical of its conclusions.

    Litwa discusses Mike Licona as an example of this systemic bias, and how Licona is honest enough to admit he comes from a biased perspective. Licona was exiled from an evangelical organization and fired from his job for suggesting that Matthew’s resurrection of the saints was mere apocalyptic imagery and not literally true. Thus, the bias in NT studies is even worse than Litwa described. Litwa himself was dismissed from his university position after his publication of “How the Gospels Became History.” It cannot be emphasized enough that NT studies is predominantly in the hands of the churches, and they fire anyone who doesn’t voice their predetermined “right answers.”

    Does “Early = True”?
    Early documents in no way guarantee accurate documents. Fiction about rulers (Esther, a historical novel about a fictional character written perhaps 50-100 years from its purported events) gods (Chariton’s Callirhoe, sometimes thought of as an early historical novel involving the providence of goddess Aphrodite saving the main character from crucifixion) etc. was common at the time, so common that it would never be out of the question for someone to write a fictionalized retelling of Jesus’ life even rapidly after 29 CE. To see this clearly: The cursing of the fig tree would not be any less fictional even if it was written down in the summer of 29 CE. It is still fiction.

    A second example: Jonathan Bernier dates Luke and John within 3 years of one another, both prior to 70 CE. Luke 16 presents Lazarus as a fictional character of a parable who dies but God refuses to resurrect because it would cause no one to believe whereas John 11 presents Lazarus as a real person whom God does resurrect which in turn does convince people to believe. Thus, Bernier’s chronology would actually necessitate rapid legendary embellishment and violent contradictions suddenly introduced into the material, with no “guardians of the tradition” to stop legendization so brazen that it is still perfectly evident to us now!

    There are even real experts who believe both in early dates and that the gospels are largely fiction. James Crossley is an atheist who thinks Mark was written 35-45 CE. Likewise, John A.T. Robinson, the father of the attempts to ‘Redate the New Testament,’ was an atheist.

    On the other hand, good history can be accomplished even at hundreds or thousands of years remove from the subject, assuming good sources and method. Indeed, ancient historians who had each of these (even if no longer available to us) are to be trusted. However, Matthew and Mark contain no explicit talk of their sources or method. Luke briefly quips that his material was ‘handed down’ from ‘eyewitnesses’ but never says who or how he knows (but does copy copious amounts of material from the previous two non-eyewitnesses). John alleges he obtained his gospel from the ‘Beloved Disciple’ (probably the fictional Lazarus); a less credible source citation has never been given in all history. Thus, the gospels can never be seen as analogous to sober histories of Alexander the Great that were written decades and decades later. To theorize hypothetical use of hypothetical prior sources (sources that might still be fictional or otherwise unreliable) by the gospel authors is obviously just so much groundless assertion, and even assuming the gospel authors really believed their own content, the fact of the matter is these documents weren’t demonstrably written down (even by the majority of experts’ opinions) before 70 CE, long enough that the story would have been very hard to verify or falsify by the vast majority of people living at the time.

    Precursors to our gospels could have been floating around before that time, but without knowing what precisely was in these precursors, knowing what material in our canonical gospels is long standing and what isn’t is frankly something we can never know with certainty. Second century dates (indeed, even Burton Mack’s post 80 date for Mark) mean that the story was virtually unverifiable and unfalsifiable from the moment it was written, with abundant time for all kinds of distortion and legendary growth in addition to whatever chance or risk of mythmaking in the 30’s CE. Dating and factuality are only loosely related at best and are often totally separable issues.

    Category: Uncategorized

    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."