Parts 1&2 When Were The Gospels Written?

July 2016 David Read

In a book published earlier this year entitled “Jesus Before the Gospels,” agnostic scholar Bart D. Ehrman argues that the gospels are not accurate because human memory is too fallible. 

Jesus was crucified in 30 AD and, according to Ehrman, the first gospel to be written down, Mark, was not written until around 70 AD.  Hence, there was a period of about 40 years, or two generations, when the stories about Jesus of Nazareth were transmitted orally.  During this period of oral transmission, Ehrman argues, many of the facts about Jesus’ life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection were forgotten, misremembered, added to, or altered for ideological reasons.  

But was there really a gap of 40 years between Jesus’ death and the writing of the first gospel?  When were the gospels written? 

I hope, in the future, to respond more fully to the arguments Ehrman levels against the reliability of oral transmission of the gospel stories, but for now I will explore the evidence that the gospels were written before 70 AD.

 

The Significance of 70 AD

First, we should explore why 70 AD is such a crucial chronological marker.  All three synoptic gospels mention Jesus’ prophecy that Herod’s Temple would be destroyed (Mat. 24:1-2Mark 13:1-2Luke 21:5-6), yet none of the gospels mentions the dramatic fulfillment of that prophecy. 

Herod’s Temple was the greatest architectural marvel of its day.  It was constructed of snow white marble, decorated with gold leaf in various places, and the entire outer front wall was covered with blindingly brilliant gold plating: 

Now the outward face of the temple . . . was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white.  (Josephus, Jewish Wars, Book 5, chapter 5, number 6)

Jesus mentions the gold of the temple in Mat. 23:16-17: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?”

This astonishingly beautiful structure redounded to the glory of Rome, if part of Rome’s domain.  So Titus, when he besieged Jerusalem to crush the Jewish Revolt, wanted to preserve the temple if at all possible.  Titus begged the Jews not fight in its precincts, and also had Josephus make an appeal to the Jews, promising to preserve the temple if they would peacefully leave it.  But the Jewish zealots forced his hand.  The temple grounds had an outer courtyard and a divided inner courtyard; each of these three areas was very impressively walled, and thus separately defensible.  The zealots occupied the whole area and defended it so tenaciously that a great many Romans were killed trying to take it. 

Titus ordered that the gates to the courtyard be set afire to gain entry to the courtyard.  (Josephus, Jewish Wars, 6.4.1) He still wanted to preserve the temple itself, but a Roman soldier set it ablaze against orders. Immediately upon hearing this, Titus gave an order to extinguish the flames, but his legions were maddened by the long siege and the continued fanatical resistance from the inner courtyard; as Josephus sadly reports, “he was not able to contain the fury of his soldiers.”  (Jewish Wars, 6.4.7.  See also, White, Great Controversy, 32-34) The temple burned, and 10,000 Jews were slaughtered in its precincts.  (Jewish Wars, 6.5.1)

After capturing the remainder of the city, Titus ordered the destruction of what was left of the temple, such that “not one stone was left upon another.” (Jewish Wars, 7.1.1) Only the massive foundation platform, the result of expanding and squaring off the temple mount, remained.  One of the platform’s huge retaining walls, known as “the wailing wall,” is sacred to Jews to this day.

The destruction of the temple was an epochal catastrophe for the Jewish nation, comparable only to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC.  And yet there is no mention of it in the gospels, despite the fact that it was a most dramatic fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy. 

The gospel writers were not shy about pointing out fulfilled prophecy (Luke 24:44-8; Mark 15:34 [quoting Psalm 22]; Mark 14:27 [quoting Zech. 13:7]). Matthew, whose gospel was directed toward the Jews, was careful to note many fulfilled Messianic prophecies from the Old Testament (Mat. 1:22; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54-56; 27:9-10, 57-60). 

Surely, if any of the synoptic gospels had been reduced to writing after the destruction of the temple, that gospel would have mentioned the fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy.  So 70 AD marks an upper limit on the dating of the three synoptic gospels.

 

70 AD a Triple Fulfillment of Prophecy

The events surrounding 70 AD were a triple fulfillment of prophecy. 

First, Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple: “Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” (Mat. 24:2; Luke 21:5-6).  That prophecy was dramatically fulfilled in 70 AD.

Second, Jesus predicted that before Herod’s Temple should be destroyed, the Christians would face persecution.  “Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers.”  (Mat. 24:9) Jesus was saying that some of his followers would not live to see the destruction of the temple, because they would be martyred in prior persecutions.  As we will discuss below, James the brother of John (and son of Zebedee), James the brother of Jesus, Peter and Paul were all martyred before 70 AD.  This is a second fulfillment of prophecy.

Third, Jesus said that when Jerusalem was surrounded by armies, the Christians should flee: “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city.” (Luke 21:21-22)

But how were the Christians to flee Jerusalem if it was surrounded by armies?  The Jewish Revolt began in 66 AD.  Soon after the start of the revolt, a large Roman army under Gaius Cestius Gallus invaded Judea and surrounded Jerusalem.  But after a siege of only 9 days, and for reasons that remain obscure, Cestius Gallus retreated to the coast.  The rebels followed him and dealt him a serious mauling at Beth Horon; 6,000 Romans were killed and the Twelfth Legion’s eagle was lost. Ellen White tells that, because they knew Jesus’ prophecy, the Christians left Jerusalem after the zealots left to chase Gallus to the coast.  As a result, not one Christian died in Jerusalem when the siege was resumed by Titus some three years later.  (GC, p. 30) 

I would argue that even the first part of this triple fulfillment, Gallus’ lifting of the siege, was a dramatic enough fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that it certainly would have been included in the gospels, and pushes the writing of the gospels back to 66 AD, or before.    

 

Acts was Written in 62 AD, After the Gospel of Luke

The Book of Acts was written after the Gospel of Luke by the same author, the physician Luke (Acts 1:1-2):

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.

So Luke’s gospel was his “former book,” a book already written when he began to write the book of Acts.  Hence, if we can determine when Acts was written, that is an upper limit on the dating of the Gospel of Luke. 

The history of the early church related in Acts makes no mention of the martyrdom of several of the most important apostles, including James the brother of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, even though Dr. Luke discusses these men at length in several passages.  He does record the martyrdom of James the brother of John (Acts 12:1-3), so it is surprising that he does not record the martyrdom of Peter, Paul, and James the brother of Jesus.  Hence, we can reasonably conclude that Acts was written before these events occurred. 

Unanimous church tradition places the martyrdom of Peter and Paul at Rome, during Nero’s reign and persecution. Nero was emperor from 54 to 68 AD, but his persecution of Christians intensified in 64, after the Great Fire of Rome, which Nero falsely blamed on the Christians.  Church tradition places Peter’s death in 64 AD, and holds that he was crucified upside down at his own request. A modern archeologist has suggested that this took place on October 13, 64 AD, at the celebration of Nero’s first decade as emperor.  Paul was a Roman citizen and could not be tortured or executed in a way that, like crucifixion, involved torture. He was beheaded sometime after Peter’s martyrdom, probably in 67 AD.

But James, the brother of Jesus, who presided over the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15, was martyred even earlier.  According to several sources, including Josephus, James was martyred in Jerusalem in 62 AD.  So based upon the omission of the martyrdoms of James, Peter, and Paul, we would date the writing of Acts at about 62 AD.

We can confirm this date by an independent method.  The last chronological marker in Acts is when Porcius Festus replaced Felix as procurator of Judea (Acts 24:27).  Based upon a coin issued in Festus’ name in the fifth year of Nero’s reign as emperor, we believe this change was effected in 59 AD.  Acts tells that Paul left Caesarea for Rome very soon after Festus took over as procurator, but the voyage took several months, including three months wintering on Malta (Acts. 28:11).  The last thing mentioned in Acts is that Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years (Acts 28:30-31).  So if Paul left Caesarea in 59, arrived in Rome in 60, and spent two years under house arrest, his arrest ended in 62.  And since this is the very last event noted in the book, Luke probably wrote it in 62 AD. 

So we know that the Gospel of Luke, which was written before Acts, was written before 62 AD.

 

Luke Quoted by Paul in First Timothy

The dating of Luke as being from the early sixties, at the latest, is confirmed by the fact that Paul quotes Luke in his first letter to Timothy, Chapter 5, verse 18.  In stating that the elders who rule well should be compensated, Paul notes that:

“Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’”

The bit about muzzling the ox is from Deuteronomy 25:4, but in the second part, the worker being worthy of wages, Paul is quoting Christ, as per the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, verse 7.  Now, obviously, Paul could not have quoted a passage of Scripture that had not yet been written. And not only had Luke’s gospel been written, it was well known.  And not only was it well known, it had been accepted as “Scripture” on a par with Deuteronomy, which is part of the law of Moses, the Pentateuch. 

When did Paul write First Timothy?  Most conservative scholars believe that First Timothy was written after Paul’s house arrest in Rome (60-62) but before his final imprisonment, ca. 66 AD.  By this time, Luke’s gospel had not only been written, it had become “Scripture.” 

 

Luke Quoted in First Corinthians

But another Pauline epistle pushes Luke back much further in time.  Compare this passage:

For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:

And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.”

After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, “this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”  1 Cor. 11:23-25

To this one:

And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.”

Likewise, also the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.”  Luke 22:19-20

Paul is clearly quoting from the Gospel of Luke in his letter to the Corinthians.  Luke’s gospel is the only one that says, “This do in remembrance of me.”  Matthew and Mark do not include that phrase in their gospels (Mat. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25). 

Paul also appears to be referring to a written gospel, or gospels, when he says:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures . . .” (1 Cor. 15:3-4)

Here Paul is referring to a gospel story regarding the death, burial and resurrection of Christ that was written down and had become “Scripture” before Paul wrote First Corinthians.

When did Paul write First Corinthians?  The consensus among conservative scholars is that First Corinthians was written circa 53-56 AD. So now we know that Luke must have been written before 56 AD, possibly before 53 AD, just 23 years after the death of Christ.  Who was still alive then?  According to Paul, most of the 500 witnesses to the Resurrection:

. . . that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

But let us assume, just for purposes of argument, that Luke was not written until long after AD 70.  Let’s assume that both Paul and Luke quoted from an oral tradition about the communion supper—“this do in remembrance of me”—dating from 30 AD, that had been passed from person to person until Paul quoted it ca. 53-56 AD and Luke quoted it some years after 70 AD.  Was anything important about this oral tradition lost?  Was anything misremembered?  Was anything intentionally altered for ideological reasons?

Assuming Ehrman is correct about when the gospels were written, what does this say about the accuracy of oral transmission?  Is oral transmission as frail as Ehrman would have us believe?

 

Matthew and Mark Predate Luke

So we have now pushed the writing of the Gospel of Luke back before 56 AD—and perhaps even before 53 AD, depending upon when First Corinthians was written. 

The issue of priority and order among the three synoptic gospels is a thorny question addressed in many scholarly tomes.  And although it is by no means unanimous, most conservative scholars believe that Luke was written after Matthew and Mark.  Luke seems to be quoting liberally from both Mark (350 verses) and Matthew (250 verses), which obviously indicates that Matthew and Mark were already written when Luke wrote his gospel. 

If Luke was written by 53 AD, that means that Matthew and Mark were written even earlier, probably around 50, or even in the 40s. Thus, it is very reasonable to believe that Matthew and Mark were both written less than 20 years—less than one generation—after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in 30 AD.  How reasonable is it to suppose that the gospel message became hopelessly garbled and inaccurate in such a short period of oral transmission?


When Were the Gospels Written?  Part 2


In Part I of this series, we discussed the inferences from Scripture indicating that the gospels were written before 70 AD.  Based upon the fact that Luke wrote his gospel before he wrote Acts, and that Acts was written in 62 AD, we know that Luke’s gospel predates 62 AD.  Based upon the fact that Luke appears to have been quoted in First Corinthians, which was written ca 53-56 AD, we know that Luke was written in the early 50s, at the latest.  And based upon the fact that Matthew and Mark pre-date Luke, we would expect them to have been written possibly in the 40s. 

To further pin down a date for the writing of Mark, we are going to follow a chain of evidence that is based largely upon church tradition.

 

Origins of the Gospel of Mark

Although there is no way to rigorously prove it, conservative scholars generally agree that Mark the evangelist (or gospel-writer) is the “John Mark” mentioned several times in Acts (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37-40).  Luke tells us that John Mark’s mother was named Mary, and that the Jerusalem Christians would meet at her house (Acts 12:12).  Peter went to her house after angels released him from Herod’s prison (Acts 12:1-18).  Paul tells us that Mark was a cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10), which helps explain why Barnabas wanted to take Mark on a missionary journey, whereas Paul, recalling Mark’s abandonment of him on a previous trip (Acts 12:25; 13:13), did not want to take him.  So Barnabas and Mark journeyed separately from Paul and Silas (Acts 13:37-41).  Paul and Mark were later reconciled, and Paul states that Mark was “a help to him in his ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11).

Early church tradition connects Mark’s Gospel with the Apostle Peter, and holds that Mark was a traveling companion, helper and translator for Peter.  According to several of the church fathers, including Papias of Hierapolis (ca 70-163 AD), Irenæus (died AD 202), Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215), Tertullian (155-240 AD), and Origen (ca 185-254), Mark wrote his gospel based largely upon what he had heard from Peter.  Irenæus reports that, "Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on Peter’s preaching to us in written form." (Against Heresies [ca. 180 AD] Book III, Ch. 1, and III.10.6). Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260-340 AD), in his multi-volume work “Church History,”:

“And so greatly did the splendor of piety illumine the minds of Peter's hearers that they were not satisfied with hearing once only, and were not content with the unwritten teaching of the divine Gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, a follower of Peter, and the one whose Gospel is extant, that he would leave them a written monument of the doctrine which had been orally communicated to them. Nor did they cease until they had prevailed with the man, and had thus become the occasion of the written Gospel which bears the name of Mark.”  Eusebius, Church History, Book 2, Chapter 15.

Are these early sources correct?  Was Peter’s oral preaching the source of the Gospel of Mark?  Let’s look at the evidence.

 

Evidence that Peter was the Source of Mark’s Gospel

The first piece of biblical evidence that supports a close connection between Peter and Mark is that in First Peter, Peter refers to Mark as “my son.”  1 Peter 5:13. Obviously there was a close relationship between Peter and Mark. 

Second, there are several places where details recorded in other gospels about Peter—details that might have been awkward or embarrassing for Peter—were not included in Mark’s gospel. These include Peter’s reaction to the miraculous catch (Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11), Peter’s derisive response to Jesus’ question “who touched me?” (Mark 5:21-34; Luke 8:42-48), Peter walking on water with Jesus (Mark 6:45; Mat. 14:22-33), Peter’s statement that he had “left everything to follow” Christ (Mark 10:23-31; Mat. 19:23-30), and that Peter was the disciple who drew his sword and cut off Malchus’ ear in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:47; John 18:10). 

I hasten to add that not all facts embarrassing to Peter have been omitted.  Mark includes what we might call the Big Two: “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Mark 8:31-33), and, “before the cock crows twice, you will disown me thrice” (Mark 14:27-31).  Indeed, there is more detail in the story of Peter denying Christ in Mark than in the two other synoptic gospels. 

There are also passages in Mark that show Peter’s role in some events, such as that Peter led a search for Jesus (Mark 1:35-37), that Peter and Andrew owned the house in which Jesus stayed in Capernaum—so naturally Peter remembered that a hole was cut in the roof of his house (Mark 1:21, 29-31; 2:1-5 compared to Mat. 4:13-16), that Peter pointed out the fig tree that withered in fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy (Mark 11:20-21; Mat. 21:18-19), and that Peter was one of the disciples that asked Jesus when the temple would be destroyed. (Mark 13:1-4; Mat. 24:1-3)

So there is good reason to trust Eusebius and other early church sources when they tell us that Mark’s gospel reflects the eye-witness testimony of Peter, the most prominent of the twelve disciples, a man who was with Jesus almost every day during Jesus’ three years of earthly ministry.   

 

Mark’s Gospel was Written in Rome for the Roman Readers

The same early church writers who say that Peter was the source of Mark’s gospel also say that it was written in Rome for a Roman readership.  In a different volume of “Church History,” Eusebius quotes Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) as saying this:

Again, in the same books, Clement gives the tradition of the earliest elders, as to the order of the Gospels, in the following manner:  . . . The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion: As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it.  (Eusebius, Church History, Book 6, ch. 14)

So the same early church tradition that holds that Peter was the source of the stories in the Gospel of Mark also tells us that Mark was written in Rome at the behest of Peter’s Roman congregation.  What is the evidence that supports the idea that Mark was written in Rome for the gentile, Roman Christians?

 

Evidence that Mark was Written in Rome for the Romans

There is scriptural evidence that Peter and Mark were in Rome together.  Peter wrote in 1 Peter 5:13, “The church in Babylon [figurative Rome], chosen together with you, sends you greetings, as does my son Mark.”  So here we have Peter writing that the church in Rome, as well as Mark, who by implication was with Peter, send their greetings. 

There are also many things about Mark that indicate that this gospel was written for gentiles, not Jews.  First, Mark supplies no genealogy, nor is there a nativity story.  Instead, Mark begins with John’s baptism of Jesus.  The genealogies provided by both Matthew and Luke were critically important for showing the Jews how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies regarding the ancestry of the Messiah (1 Chron. 17:11-14; Isa. 9:6-7), and the nativity story also showed how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies (Mat. 1:22-23, compared to Isa. 7:14; Mat. 2:6 compared to Micah 5:2, etc.).  But the genealogy and the nativity story would have had little significance to Mark’s gentile Roman readers. 

Second, Mark explains Jewish customs that would have needed no explanation had his intended audience been Jewish (e.g., 7:3, 11; 14:12; 15:42-43).  Aramaic expressions are translated into Greek (e.g., 3:17; 5:41; 7:34; 9:43; 14:36; 15:22, 34), indicating that the intended audience was not the Aramaic-speaking Jews of the Levant. Mark refers to four watches of the night (6:48; 13:35), a Roman system that contrasts with the Jewish system of three night watches. 

Instead of finding a Greek equivalent, Mark transliterates Latin terms into Greek, by which I mean that he spells out the Latin word phonetically using Greek letters. Mark does this with military terms (legion in 5:9; speculatores [an army scout or spy] in 6:27; praetorium in 15:16; centurion in 15:39) and commercial terms (denarius in 12:15; quadrans [a quarter] in 12:42) among others. 

It is obvious from these examples that Mark, a native speaker of Aramaic, is trying to communicate with the Romans, whose native tongue was Latin, through their shared second language of Greek. 

 

When was Mark Written?

To summarize the foregoing, we have shown that there is ample evidence to support church tradition that Peter was the source of Mark’s gospel, and that it was written in Rome for a Roman audience.  Acts was likely written in 62 AD, and Luke before Acts.  Luke was likely written before First Corinthians (53-56 AD)—because of the quotation of Luke in that epistle—and because most scholars believe that Mark was written before Luke, we should be looking for Mark to have been written in the forties.

Accordingly, Peter’s final, fatal visit to Rome in the 60s—Peter was martyred in Rome, almost certainly sometime between 64 and 68 AD—is much too late to be the occasion for the writing of Mark’s gospel. Peter must have made a previous missionary journey to Rome.  The Book of Acts does not record such a journey, but it is silent about Peter for approximately six to eight years during the 40s.  Acts records Peter’s miraculous escape from the prison of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:1-19), circa 42 AD, and then notes that Peter was present at the Jerusalem Council, which was held circa 48 - 50 AD. It is difficult to believe that Peter would have been idle during this entire time.  For the first two years, until the death of Herod Agrippa in 44 AD, Peter would have been a fugitive, and ill-advised to stay around Judea, where Agrippa ruled. 

When Peter spoke at the Jerusalem Council, he stated that he had been chosen as the apostle to the gentiles:  “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.” (Acts 15:7) The implication is that Peter had been preaching to the gentiles during time between his escape from Herod Agrippa and the meeting of the Jerusalem Council.  

Another biblical clue is in Paul's letter to the Romans, where Paul says he prefers to preach the Gospel to those who have never heard it, so that he "would not be building on someone else's foundation" (Acts 15:20-24).  Conservative scholars believe Paul's epistle to the Romans was written in the 50s, probably between 51 and early 57.  So the foundation for the church in Rome had been laid before then, probably in the 40s. 

Who laid that foundation for the Roman Christians?  Eusebius tells us that during the reign of Claudius (r. 41 to 54 AD), Peter made a missionary journey to Rome, and that it was during this trip that the Romans asked Mark to write down the gospel they were hearing from Peter.  Eusebius, Church History, (2.14.6 through 15.2). 

Eusebius’ work "Chronology" places the writing of Mark’s gospel in the third year of Claudius, and since Claudius became emperor after the assassination of Caligula in late January, 41, his third year was 43 to early 44 AD.  It would be better if we could prove this date by chronological markers contained in Scripture.  But it was also Eusebius who reported the tradition that Peter was the source of Mark’s gospel, and that Mark was writing for a Roman audience, and both of these assertions are correct based upon internal scriptural evidence from the Gospel of Mark itself.    

Moreover, there appears to be corroboration for this early date among the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

 

Fragment 7Q5—Is it part of Mark’s Gospel?

Everyone has heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient documents found in a cluster of caves at Qumran, near the Dead Sea, about 13 miles east of Jerusalem.  Fragments of Greek writing were found in Cave 7, and based upon paleography—the science of dating manuscripts according to the form, or morphology, of the letters they contain—scholars concluded that these Greek fragments were written during a one-century window between 50 BC and 50 AD.  This paleographic analysis was done before anyone had a theory as to the identity of any of these fragments.

One of these fragments is known as 7Q5, the fifth fragment from the 7th cave at Qumran.  There is only one complete Greek word in the fragment, kai (“and”).  The fragment looked like this:

E
UTONE
E. KAI TI
NNES
THESA

In 1971, a scholar at the University of Barcelona, Fr. Jose O’Callaghan Martinez (1922-2001), began studying the fragment.  The combination “NNES” interested him because it is a rare combination in Greek.  At first he thought it might be EGENNESAN, a verbal cognate of “beget,” but he could not find any ancient Greek passages where that word would fit the other letters in fragment 7Q5.  Then he remembered the biblical name GENNESARET, an alternate name for the Sea of Galilee used in Matthew 14:34 and Mark 6:53.  Assuming that Gennesaret was the word, O’Callaghan found that the fragment would fit Mark 6:52-53.  Translated into English, the fragment would look like this, with letters appearing on 7Q5 in bold and supplied letters in brackets:

[UNDERSTOOD] A[BOUT THE LOAVES]
[BUT WERE O]F THEM [THEIR MINDS CLO-]
[SE]D AND F[INISHED THE CROSSING]
[THEY CAME TO GE]NNES[ARET AND THEY]
[MADE FAST ]WHE[RE AND GOT]

O’Callaghan’s identification remains controversial, but in later years it was championed by the German scholar Carsten Peter Thiede (1952-2004).  Thiede not only agreed with O’Callaghan about the fragment being from the Gospel of Mark, he pointed out another piece of evidence that supports that identification. 

Thiede noted that in the 1950s French archeologists excavating Cave 7 had found, very close to where fragment 7Q5 was found, a pottery jar designed to hold papyrus scrolls.  This jar was engraved in Hebrew with the word “Rome.” If you’ve come with me this far, you can appreciate how a jar designed to store scrolls, and labeled “Rome,” corroborates that 7Q5 is a fragment of Mark’s gospel: early church tradition insists that Mark’s gospel was written in Rome.  So what we have is a scroll-storage jar labeled “Rome” found next to a fragment of a scroll bearing a passage from Mark’s gospel, which was written in Rome. 

Recall that long before O’Callaghan had identified 7Q5 as a fragment of Mark’s gospel the Greek letters had been paleographically dated to no later than 50 AD.  Eusebius said that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome during the third year of the reign of Claudius, 43-44 AD. 

 

The Evidence Adds Up

So Eusebius tells us that Mark was written in the 40s in Rome.  A fragment found in a cave in Qumran near a jar labeled “Rome” is paleographically dated to no later than 50 AD.  Later, that fragment is shown to be from the Gospel of Mark.  It all adds up.  The pieces fit together logically and harmoniously. 

Mark was written only 14 years after the death of Christ.  Hundreds of witnesses to the life, teaching, death, and Resurrection of Jesus would still have been alive in 44 AD.  Is there really any point in worrying about the frailty of oral transmission, when the period of oral transmission was less than 20 years?

The Bible is an anvil that has worn out many hammers, and Bart Ehrman’s hammer will be no exception.