Would the Apostles Have Waited Decades to Write the Gospels?
A short critique of a widely held belief in New Testament scholarship
It is commonly believed that the original eye witnesses of Jesus’ ministry waited several decades before writing down any of their experiences, if they wrote anything at all. There are many reasons why scholars hold this view, however I want to put forward an objection to this belief that I don’t believe has been adequately addressed (though it may have been addressed and I’m just unaware). Namely, I believe this scholarly consensus contradicts what we would reasonably expect first century Jews to do in a situation like the one the apostles found themselves in.
Regardless of what you think about Mosaic authorship of the Torah, it cannot be doubted that first century Jews believed in it. Jesus explicitly affirms this in John 5:46 where He says that Moses “wrote about” him, and referred to the Torah as “his [Moses’] writings.” First century Jews believed that, as an eyewitness of Israel’s exodus and wilderness sojourn, Moses accurately recorded his and his people’s history with God in the five books ascribed to him. Likewise, Jews in Jesus’ day believed that the prophets, such as David (Acts 2:25, 29, 34), Isaiah (Jn 12:41, Lk 4:21), Micah (Matt 2:5-6), Daniel (Matt 24:15), and others, were the actual authors of the works that bear their names. Although this is just a passing detail in the New Testament, I think it’s one of the most important pieces of information to consider when attempting to date the Gospels. Because no matter what you believe about Israel’s history, we know for a fact that first century Jews believed themselves to have an ancient tradition of producing authoritative writings whenever God was doing a mighty work in their midst. The Jews of Jesus’ day believed that men like Moses, David, Isaiah, Micah, and Daniel all received revelations from God that were so important that they had to write them down and add them to the biblical canon. With this in mind, consider the words of Jesus in Luke 10:23-24:
Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
Notice that Jesus is not saying this to the large crowds who would often seek His teachings, rather He said this “privately” to His apostles, the eyewitnesses of His ministry. According to Jesus, these eyewitnesses were beholding the most important events in Israel’s history, events that the kings and prophets of old would have given anything to see. Now, if the apostles heard this, and grew up in a Jewish culture where it was believed that every significant event in their history was written down by eyewitnesses, why on earth would they wait years, let alone decades, to begin writing these things down? If a group of Jews believed that the fulfillment of the Scriptures was occurring in their midst, as Jesus claimed (Lk 4:21), would we not expect them to follow (what they believed was) their ancient tradition of producing scriptural writings that document what God is doing?
Indeed, throughout His ministry Jesus insisted on His disciples “remembering” His teachings. He wanted the apostles to memorize the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9, Lk 11:2 cf. Didache 8:1-11), and He rebuked them for not remembering and understanding the symbolism behind His feeding of the five thousand (Mk 8:17-21). In addition, John’s Gospel documents how the apostles “remembered” the words of Jesus after His resurrection just as they “remembered” the words of Psalm 69:9, explaining: “and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (Jn 2:17-22). Clearly, the apostles believed that Jesus’ words could be placed right alongside the words of the prophets, and they also believed that they were responsible for remembering and preserving those words. In light of ancient Judaism’s belief about its own literary history, I believe this should at least shift the burden of proof onto the “late daters.” If you want to maintain that the Gospels were not written until several decades after Jesus’ ministry, you must come up with a powerful explanation of why the eyewitnesses would have broken with their Jewish heritage and apostolic calling.