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New Boxes: Oral traditions and the Dates of the Gospels

For the sixth edition of my New Testament textbook I have written twelve new “boxes.”   These are side-line discussions of interesting and relevant (if a bit tangential) issues of some importance for various aspects of the study of the New Testament.   I will post several of these, including these two here.  If these generate any questions, let me know, and I can follow up on them.

The two are about the Gospels: the first has to do with the ongoing nature of oral traditions (which did not stop with the writing of the Gospels!) and the second with how scholars have determined the dates of the Gospels.


Box 5.2  Another Glimpse Into the Past

The Church Father Papias and the Ongoing Oral Tradition 

Oral traditions about Jesus did not cease to circulate as soon as the Gospels were written.  On the contrary, we have solid evidence that the traditions continued to thrive for a very long time indeed.  Hard evidence comes in the writings of a second-century Christian named Papias, the author of a five-volume work called “The Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord” written sometime between 120-40 CE.  The book no longer survives, except as it is occasionally quoted by later church writers.  In one of our surviving quotations, it is clear that Papias loved hearing oral accounts about Jesus from people who were expected to know the truth — more than reading books about him.   Notice the final line of this passage: rather than being interested in Gospels, Papias preferred orally-delivered reports from people who had been companions of the “elders,” who, in turn, had known the apostles.   Here is what he says:


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New Boxes on Jesus as God in the NT
What Is Different in My Textbook?



  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  October 27, 2014

    I’ve always thought Papias was interesting. I just Googled “Aristion” to see who that was and came across the wiki entry on Papias in which it says that “most modern scholars” date Papias’ lost books to 95-120 CE and then cite two books. I guess that qualifies as “most scholars” for them. Is the earlier date, as opposed to the 120-140 date that you cite, accepted widely?

    If a copy of Papias’ works were discovered and could be reliably dated VERY early (as in close to the 95-160 CE range) would his statements on the authorship of Mark and Matthew be taken any more reliably than they are now? I understand there are questions with how to interpret his words on their authorship so would discovery of his works, surely written within a time of living Elders, add anything more to the discussion?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2014

      The problem with his statements about Mark and Matthew is that they simply appear to be wrong. But he could have had wrong opinions about them a year after they were written as well as 50 years….

      I think the consensus of scholarship puts him probably 110-30. 95 sounds like wishful thinking….

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    bonnie43uk  October 27, 2014

    Oral tradition is a fascinating subject. I can well believe a good storyteller repeating a story over and over ( I’m sure it was one of the earliest forms of entertainment .. to be told a wonderful story by someone who could deliver it with great panache and charisma). Even today lots of children will want a favorite story read to them in bed before they go to sleep. I can also well imagine a good storyteller in times gone by with a good imagination adding his own little embellishments to make the story even better to excite the listening crowd. I’ve heard you mention the ending of Marks Gospel Bart, in that, early editions tended to finish at 16:8.. seemingly leaving the story hanging. The addition of 9 thru 20 is a much more satisfying ending. Do you think it’s possible that an orator came up with this “final piece of Marks jigsaw” to complete Chapter 16, or would it have been an unknown writer?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2014

      It appears to have been done by a scribe rather than an orator.

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    BobHicksHP  October 27, 2014

    I’ve recently read Marcus J. Borg’s Evolution of the Word, and was intrigued by his insistence that the majority scholarship now dates Luke and Acts after the Gospel of John, i.e., early first century. You still seem to be among the more traditional opinion. Is Borg wrong about the “majority” view?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2014

      Marcus loves to say that the majority of scholars supports his view (whatever his view is). I doubt if he’s right in this case, but there are a number of scholars now leaning in that way. I’d be amazed if it were the “majority”.

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      Steefen  October 28, 2014

      One thing for sure, that would be plenty of time for Acts of the Apostles to have been written after Luke’s Gospel and include how Paul died and a reference to the destruction of the Temple.

      The book of Acts has been most commonly dated to the second half of the 1st century. Norman Geisler dates it as early as between 60–62.

      Donald Guthrie, who dates the book between 62–64, notes that the absence of any mention of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 would be unlikely if the book were written later. He also suggested that since the book does not mention the death of Paul, a central character in the final chapters, it was probably penned before his death. Guthrie also saw traces of Acts in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians (written between 110–140) and one letter by Ignatius ( about 117) and thought that Acts probably was current in Antioch and Smyrna not later than c. 115, and perhaps in Rome as early as c. 96.

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      nichael  October 28, 2014

      To correct the statement above, Borg does _not_ claim (let alone “insist”) that this a “majority opinion”. In fact he says something rather different.

      Specifically, quoting pg 424 of “Evolution of the Word”:
      “…a **growing number** of scholars date [Luke and Acts] significantly later… Thus there is no consensus about the dating, though probably **at least a slight majority** still favor the late 80s or 90s … Dating [the books] later, as I do, is the **exception to the rule** that I have sought to follow, which is to reflect the consensus conclusion when possible and, when there is no consensus, to follow majority opinion”. [emphasis added]

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    Matilda  October 27, 2014

    Very interesting. I love your work, Bart. What I don’t understand is why folks of yore and now think it’s okay that God would spend so much time destroying and smiting??? If Jesus was/is supposed to be a God of love and mercy, and God the Father-well a father, I just don’t get the mindset. Basic reason and logic don’t seem to apply here. Is this a hang overt from the Old Testament where God was a complete monster? It seems the people of Biblical times were steeped in denial and rationalization!. Well I guess so are the people of today!

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    RonaldTaska  October 27, 2014

    Thanks for the review of how the Gospels are dated but I would like to know more about this subject.

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    Stephen  October 27, 2014

    Box 5.2

    So there were at least some early Christians who privileged oral traditions over literary. But we moderns are forced to privilege literary traditions since that’s all we have preserved for us. Does it follow that there might have been entire strands of tradition lost simply because no one ever wrote them down? Could we have a distorted view of early Christianity because of this? Do you see this as a significant problem and if so, are you going to deal with it in your new book?


    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2014

      I think strands of Xty were lost, indeed. I’m not sure yet if I’ll go into that in my book or not.

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    drdavid600  October 27, 2014

    Thank you for teaching me about Papias.

    I instantly wondered how he found books deficient, but my reaction might be the same as his. An oral historian can be interrogated with any conceivable question. Questioning books is harder, as it is to question Papias today.

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    Steefen  October 27, 2014

    I think the Temple destruction is associated with the rejection of the Jewish messiah, if Jesus even existed as a flesh and blood person in 30 C.E. For what other reason would the Temple need to be destroyed? God does things for reasons.

    Second, it’s highly unfortunate that Jesus prophesied in both directions: 1) God’s Jewish Son of Man will be rejected therefore the Jewish Temple is no longer needed for God’s right hand man; but, 2) the Kingdom of God is at hand and everything else Jesus said about the success of the Jewish Son of Man in his lifetime.

    Third, it is quite odd that Jesus does not agonize and sweat like he’s bleeding over the destruction of the Temple and everything that goes with that:

    50,000 killed in Galilee (fighting)
    750,000 killed/died in Jerusalem (fighting, starvation, sickness)
    Total 800,000 and the figure could be higher. Josephus says 1.1 million people died, not counting Romans.

    For Jesus to agonize more over himself than the people he loved is odd.

    So, the dating of the gospels are hinged at Jesus’ mention of the Temple’s destruction. If we take away the prophecy from 30-33 C.E. and say it didn’t exist, we can take away Jesus from 30-33 and say he didn’t exist. Why even support Jesus’ prophecy as historical at all? It seems God waited about 40 years before releasing the event tied to the rejection of the Jewish Son of Man. We have at least three Jesuses during the Jewish Revolt.

    If Jesus was a great prophet, then someone should have asked him to elaborate . If Jesus was a candidate for the Son of Man (he failed the election and it was won by Titus, Son of Vespasian; for, Titus as Son of Man got to destroy the Temple), the Temple priests should have asked/begged him to be a Moses and go into the wilderness or up a mountain to pray away the end of Temple Judaism.

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    Jim  October 27, 2014

    Although a minority view, what do you think is the strongest argument against an early second century date for Luke (and Acts)? Also, do you think the version of Luke that we have is Luke 2.0?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2014

      Well, now I’m a bit ticked at myself. About a month ago I came up with what I thought was a really important argument for Luke having to be written in the first century. And I didn’t write it down. And now I can’t remember it!!! I’ll give it more thought and see if I can dredge it up.

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    gabilaranjeira  October 28, 2014


    In regards to this statement of Papias, does it means that for him the Gospels are not inspired? Is it known when the Gospels were universaly considered to be the inspired word of God?


    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2014

      Good point — it does seem that that’s the case for him! The Gospels come to be thought of as inspired by the end of the second century with Irenaeus.

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    fishician  October 28, 2014

    It seems to me Luke was likely written after Matthew (and Mark, of course). When you consider what the Gospels have Jesus saying to the high priest at his trial, Mark and Matthew have him telling the high priest that he would you shall see “the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Luke tones it down, “the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” Sounds like “Luke” recognized that Jesus wasn’t coming back in their lifetime. Or was it just that Luke was written in a different context, different community rather than a different time?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2014

      Yes, I think with the passage of time, he saw the need to change Jesus’ predictions about when the end would come.

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    Steefen  October 28, 2014

    Regarding Box 5.2, one would think the real authors of the gospels were as interested in elders as Papias.

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    Jason  October 28, 2014

    I want to read the slavery one.

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    prestonp  October 28, 2014

    “…if anyone would have known about the existence of written accounts of Jesus’ life, it would have been him.” Dr Bart

    pure speculation

    “But when is a Christian author likely to record a prediction of Jesus in order to show that he predicted something accurately? Obviously, in order to show that Jesus knew what he was talking about, an author would want to write about these predictions only after they had been fulfilled. Otherwise the reader would be left hanging, not knowing if Jesus was a true prophet or not.” Dr Bart


    Nice thought but it bares zero resemblance to evidence.

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    RonaldTaska  October 28, 2014

    That the writing of the Gospels had to occur after the death of Paul, or Paul would have known about them and mentioned them, seems clear to me. However, the dating argument about the destruction of the temple seems less clear to me. In the 13th chapter of Mark, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple. If the destruction of the temple occurred in 70 C.E. why is the writing of Mark usually dated to be around 65 C.E. which means it would have been written prior to the destruction of the temple? Was the part of Mark which describes the destruction of the temple added by a later scribe?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2014

      Yes, this is why I’ve changed my mind recently, and decided to go with the broader consensus, that Mark is just after 70, not around 65.

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  October 31, 2014

        I’ve just read Stephen Patterson’s “The Lost Way” in which one of his points is that the NT is wartime literature, written during the Jewish Wars when being a Jew was to be under suspicion, harassed and persecuted. He thinks the martyrdom themes and emphasis on Jesus’ death and resurrection are reflections of this wartime experience of the Jewish people. He contrasts this with the Gospel of Thomas which he locates in Edessa and believes Thomas’ lack of martyrdom, death and resurrection ideas is due to being from a community outside the Roman empire. This implies the martyrdom themes may not reflect Jesus’ life as much as that of the community. I had never heard it expressed that way. Do you think “wartime literature” is a way to view the narrative NT and is this a reasonable line of reasoning?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 1, 2014

          Well, I don’t know anyone who thinks that the NT was entirely written between 66-70 CE. I’d be intersted in seeing his arguments for Mark, but they certainly wouldn’t apply to any of the other books of the NT, I should think.

          • Avatar
            Rosekeister  November 1, 2014

            I wasn’t very clear which isn’t unusual. He was referring to the period of the Jewish Wars 66-135 arguing that the gospels reflect this with martyrdom and persecution themes. Thomas however reflects the Edessa Jewish experience outside the Roman empire resulting in a gospel that emphasizes the life rather than the death in a community not under suspicion and being harassed. On the other hand, Patterson thinks that Q and Thomas also point back to a time before the emphasis on the death to a time when the emphasis was the life and teachings. He phrases it as the death and resurrection ideas were a choice of some communities for interpretation but that the life and teachings were the choice of other communities. I took choice to mean that the writings were reflecting the community experience rather than the actual historic life of Jesus.

        • Avatar
          gmmarcum  March 7, 2018

          “The Lost Way” was written in 2014, so I was curious does Patterson cite other works in this area where he uses “wartime literature”? Because I found a much earlier work that uses that term, see: Elaine Pagels,”The Origin of Satan” (New York, Random House, 1995) pg.8.

          In chapter 1, which she calls “The Gospel of Mark and The Jewish War”, she says “We cannot fully understand the NT gospels until we recognize that they are, in this sense, wartime literature. As noted before, the gospel we call Mark was written either during the war itself, perhaps during a temporary lull in the siege of Jerusalem, or immediately after the defeat, in 70 C.E. (14)” She goes on to cite 3 books: Hans Lietzmann’s Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (1968); Martin Dibelius’ From Tradition to Gospel (1965); and John R. Donahue’s Are You the Christ (1973).

    • Bethany
      Bethany  October 28, 2014

      Isn’t one reason the remark about the “desolating sacrilege” which is something that doesn’t seem to have actually happened? Or am I misremembering/mistaken?

      • Bart
        Bart  October 30, 2014

        It’s often though to refer to Caligula’s attempt to set up a statue of Zeus in the temple….

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    Hank_Z  October 28, 2014

    If Papias did talk to a number of people who had talked to some of the 12 disciples, that would seem to provide significant support for the existence of the historical Jesus. I read HJBG but don’t recall if you addressed this. Do you think that the surviving quotes from Papias constitute material support for Jesus’ existence?

  17. Robert
    Robert  October 28, 2014

    Why do you hold to early dates for the composition of Luke and John?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2014

      I would say “early” dates would put them before 70, as some have argued. My dates are pretty much run of the road in scholarship, dating them to 85-95 or so. I just don’t see any solid reason for thinking they were much later. I’m not convinced that the author of Acts (Luke) used Josephus, e.g.

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    Steefen  October 28, 2014

    By the same reason (hinging whether or not there is mention of the destruction of the Temple), Acts of the Apostles has a date range of 60 – 150 C.E. Acts doesn’t mention the destruction of the Temple and it doesn’t mention the death of Paul.

    Prof. Ehrman, how do you explain that the Gospel of Luke was written before Acts of the Apostles? If you say it had to be written after 80-85, then how do we get no mention of the destruction of the Temple and the death of Paul? Wouldn’t this discredit the hinge criterion of Jesus’ prophecy of the Temple’s destruction?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2014

      There are clear references to the destruction of the Temple in Luke; he didn’t want to narrate Paul’s death, in my opinion, because his entire *thesis* is that nothing could stop Paul and the preaching of his gospel. Narrating his death would have worked against his main point.

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    Scott  October 29, 2014

    In Box 6.1, it was not readily clear to me that Matthew 22:8 (The Parable of Wedding Banquet) is about God burning the city and killing its inhabitants. Might your readers have the same confusion?

    Also, is there a consensus concerning Mark 13:14 (The Abomination of Desolation) as a completed prophecy? Would this have worked in your box?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2014

      It should be Matt 22:7, where the “king” (i.e. God) destroys them and burns their city. I thought the Abomination of Desolation would take to long to explain in the short box I had.

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    richard  October 29, 2014

    “Obviously, in order to show that Jesus knew what he was talking about, an author would want to write about these predictions only after they had been fulfilled”

    Isnt there a scholar who said Jesus was wrong to tell his deciples to depart to the mountains?

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