Why the Wait? The Delay of the Written Gospels
from Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture
by J. Ed. Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace
The Gospels, by any reckoning, were written some decades after Jesus lived. Several skeptics consider this an embarrassment to the historical roots of the Christian faith and argue that during these decades of silence Christians were fomenting a conspiracy. Earl Doherty boldly claims, “When one looks behind the Gospel curtain, the mosaic of Jesus of Nazareth very quickly disintegrates into component pieces and unrecognizable antecedents.” The Jesus Seminar is even more to the point: “The Jesus of the gospels is an imaginative theological construct, into which has been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth—traces that cry out for recognition and liberation from the firm grip of those whose faith overpowered their memories. The search for the authentic Jesus is a search for the forgotten Jesus.”
At issue is what happened in the decades between the time Jesus lived and the writing of the Gospels. This issue involves two questions: Why was there such a delay in writing the Gospels? And, What happened in the interval between the life of Jesus and the written Gospels?
Many reasons could be given for the delay of the written Gospels, but even thinking about the question this way is perhaps looking at it from the wrong perspective. It might be better to ask, Why were the Gospels written at all? If we think in categories of delay, then this presupposes that the writing of the Gospels was in the minds of these authors from the beginning. However, that is almost certainly not the case. What was paramount in the apostles’ earliest motives was oral proclamation of the gospel. They wanted to disseminate the word as quickly as possible. Starting in Jerusalem, and traveling throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, the good news about Jesus Christ became known. When the Pharisee Paul became a Christian, the gospel then spread rapidly to other regions of the Mediterranean. By the time he got to Thessalonica in the late 40s, the Jews who op- posed his message complained to the city council that Paul and Silas had “stirred up trouble throughout the world” (Acts 17:6).
In the book of Acts a common refrain is that the gospel was spreading and the young church was growing rapidly (Acts 2:47; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 13:49; 16:5; 19:20; 28:31). Paul confirms this in his letters. He commends the Thessalonians for making known the gospel he preached to them (1 Thess. 1:8–10) and tells the Romans that their faith “is proclaimed throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8). We also see strong evidence of the spread of the gospel in other letters (e.g., James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; Jude 3).
In other words, the apostles and leaders of the young church were preoccupied with broadcasting the gospel orally. There was no need to think about a written gospel at this time. The remarkable speed with which the good news of Jesus Christ became known throughout the Roman Empire in the first few years of the church’s existence is testimony to the apostles’ success in the task of oral proclamation.
Scholars often point to two catalysts that prompted the writing of the Gospels. First, the apostles started to die off. And second, the Lord’s return was evidently not going to happen within the first few decades of the church’s existence. These two factors are often suggested as the main reasons why the Gospels began to be written.
However, if the Gospels were written because the apostles were dying off, we would expect them to be written to their communities. However, at least two of the four Gospels (Mark and Luke), and probably three (John), were written to Gentile Christians, and the principal apostle to the Gentiles was Paul, not one of the original Twelve. Paul was never in a position to write a Gospel in the first place because he did not know Jesus in his earthly existence. And if the Gospels were written before the Jewish War (66–70)—a possibility we will consider next—then thoughts about the delay of the Lord’s return might not have been as prominent. In reality, each one of the Gospels has its own reasons for being written when it was written and to whom. But the fundamental point that the oral proclamation of the gospel was of primary concern to the leaders of the church in the first few decades is vital to remember.
What kind of delay are we actually talking about? How long did it take for the four Gospels to be written? Most scholars regard Mark as the first Gospel, written no later than the 60s. If Jesus died in 30 or 33 (there is some debate between these two dates), then the first Gospel would have been written within four decades of the death of Jesus.
Even if Mark were written this late, there would have been plenty of eyewitnesses still living to confirm the truth of what he wrote. But there is significant evidence to suggest that he wrote earlier than this. The dating of the New Testament books can be rather involved. Without trying to make the matter too simplistic, we wish to high- light just a few points.
First, if Luke used Mark to write his Gospel (as most scholars believe), then Mark, of course, must have been written prior to Luke’s Gospel.
Second, Luke is in reality the first volume of a two-volume work; Acts is the second volume. And there is increasing evidence that Acts was written in the early 60s, prior to Paul’s trial in Rome. (After all, the book begins with a bang but ends with a whimper—dragging on for chapter after chapter in anticipation of the trial that never comes. But if Acts is meant, in part, as some sort of “trial brief,” then the reason it doesn’t get to the trial makes sense.)
Third, the Olivet discourse, in which Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, is found in Mark 13. Many scholars simply deny the possibility of true prophecy in the Bible and hence demand a date after 70 for Mark (as well as Matthew and Luke). But J. A. T. Robinson, in Redating the New Testament, made the interesting case that the prophecy in Mark 13 actually argues for a date prior to 66. He points out that the specifics of the Olivet discourse do not altogether match what we know of the Jewish War: “‘The abomination of desolation’ cannot itself refer to the destruction of the sanctuary in August 70 or to its desecration by Titus’ soldiers in sacrificing to their standards. [Furthermore,] by that time it was far too late for anyone in Judaea to take to the hills, which had been in enemy hands since the end of 67.” Yet in Mark 13:14, Jesus tells his disciples, “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” Robinson concludes, “I fail to see any motive for preserving, let alone inventing, prophecies long after the dust had settled in Judaea, unless it be to present Jesus as prognosticator of uncanny accuracy (in which case the evangelists have defeated the exercise by including palpably unfulfilled predictions).” Robinson is correct that the prophecy in Mark 13 was not fulfilled exactly as it was recorded. But whether the Jewish War is all that was envisioned in the prophecy is a different matter. Nevertheless, his fundamental point is solid, increasing the likelihood that Mark was written prior to 70.
What all this means for Matthew and Luke is simply that they too were most likely written before 70. Again, the two basic reasons to argue this are that (1) Luke is the first volume of Luke-Acts and Acts was most likely written in the early 60s; and (2) the argument that the Gospels must be written after 70 because predictive prophecy is impossible backfires in the Olivet discourse (recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels) since the prophecy was not completely fulfilled at that time.
 Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? (Ottawa: Age of Reason, 1999), 229.
 Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 4.
 It is sometimes alleged by fringe scholarship that Jesus did not really exist because if he had, Paul would have commented more on his life, quoted more of his sayings, and made other references relating to him. Such allegations miss two important pieces of data. First, Paul does allude to quite a few of Jesus’ sayings, some of which are not even found in the Gospels (see esp. David Wenham, Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995]). Second, that he does not speak very often about the life of Jesus no doubt is due to the fact that he was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ life. Birger Gerhardsson in Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) notes that since Paul was an eyewitness to the resurrected Christ, this is what he focuses on (see chap. 15: “The Evidence of Paul,” 262–323). Since his apostolic commission came later than that of the original apostles, he had to rely on their testimony about the words and deeds of Jesus. But he could say authoritatively that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, since he met the ascended Lord on the road to Damascus. Yet, even here, Paul speaks more of the life of Jesus than is sometimes recognized. Wenham, Paul, discusses this matter throughout.
 See John W. Mauck, Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity (Nashville: Nelson, 2001).
 J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: West- minster, 1976), 16.
 Ibid., 25 (emphasis added).
 For more on the dating of the Synoptic Gospels, see D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).
This post is an adaption from Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets. Subscribe to our newsletter and receive a free digital copy by clicking here!
The critical missing element in Christian mentoring today: the congregation
From the worldwide phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code to the national best-seller Misquoting Jesus, popular culture is being bombarded with radical skepticism about the uniqueness of Christ and the reliability of the New Testament. Reinventing Jesus cuts through the rhetoric of extreme doubt expressed by these and several other contemporary voices to reveal the profound credibility of historic Christianity. Meticulously researched, thoroughly documented, yet eminently readable, this book invites a wide audience to take a firsthand look at the solid, reasonable, and clearly defensible evidence for Christianity’s origins. Reinventing Jesus shows believers that it’s okay to think hard about Christianity, and shows hard thinkers that it’s okay to believe.
J. Ed Komoszewski (Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary) is founder and director of Christus Nexus and has taught biblical and theological studies at Northwestern College and served as the director of research for Josh McDowell Ministry.
Daniel B. Wallace (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, and senior New Testament editor of the NET Bible. He has written Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament.
M. James Sawyer (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) has taught Theology, Church History and Historical Theology for nearly thirty years. He currently serves as Professor of Theology at Pacific Islands Evangelical Seminary, Guam and as Director of “Sacred Saga” ministries (SacredSaga.org).