Dating Matthew, 1

When might the Gospel according to Matthew have been written? Of course, any answer can only be speculation, but that does not mean we are reduced to groundless opinion.

In this series of articles I point the way to an approach different from the general consensus among scholars today which posits a late first century date for Matthew. The consensus assumes the priority of Mark, thought to have been written around AD 70. This means that there would have been a long period of oral tradition, about one generation, before the story of Jesus would have assumed written form. Some believe that the apostles thought Jesus would return within that generation, supposedly making written records seem unnecessary. Thus, their appearance was delayed until Christian leaders decided Jesus was probably not coming soon.

Also, there is an assumption among many that the predictions of Jerusalem’s destruction in the synoptic Gospels must have been written after the fact. Some would say not only that none of the Gospels could have been early but also that their real authors were probably not the men whose names have been associated with them.

That all of this flies in the face of early Church traditions goes without saying. But there is more than tradition that invites us to reconsider the scholarly consensus of the day. Liberal scholar John A. T. Robinson, for example, took upon himself the task of studying the question of the dating of the New Testament books. He says that his project began as “little more than a theological joke,” but he decided to test the hypothesis that the entire New Testament was written before AD 70. As his book, Redating the New Testament, makes clear, Robinson’s conclusion that the entire New Testament was completed before AD 70 did not provoke him to reconsider his liberal theology.

The “Envoi” to Robinson’s book is a letter from C. H. Dodd. Robinson had communicated some of his thoughts about redating the New Testament, but since Dodd had been seriously ill, he had not had opportunity to respond. In June of 1972, he gathered his strength and wrote a short letter to Robinson, which included the following.

“You are certainly justified in questioning the whole structure of the accepted ‘critical’ chronology of the NT writings, which avoids putting anything earlier than 70, so that none of them are available for anything like first-generation testimony. I should agree with you that much of this late dating is quite arbitrary, even wanton, the offspring not of any argument that can be presented, but rather of the critic’s prejudice that if he appears to assent to the traditional position of the early church he will be thought no better than a stick-in-the-mud. The whole business is due for radical reexamination, which demands argument to show, e.g., that Mark must be post-70 — or must be so because anything earlier than that could not present such a plain, straightforward story: that would be to neglect the findings of the fashionable Redaktionsgeschichte. It is surely significant that when historians of the ancient world treat the gospels, they are quite unaffected by the sophistications of Redaktionsgeschichte, and handle the documents as if they were what they professed to be (Sherwin-White, with all his limitations, is the latest instance). But if one approaches them in that way, does not the case for late dating collapse? I look forward therefore to your damaging assault on the system of late date.”

What kind of evidence did Robinson bring forth in his “assault”? To begin with, “one of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period — the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple — is never once mentioned as a past fact.” Why is this important? First, the centrality of the temple for Israel made it also important to the church. The apostles in Jerusalem continued to worship in the temple. Paul visited the temple to worship when he came to Jerusalem. So long as it was standing, it was still, in some sense, the house of God and Christian Jews treated it as such.

But Christians Jews also remembered that in the Old Testament, the destruction of the temple was a major theme of prophecy, especially in Ezekiel and Jeremiah. For God to abandon the temple meant the end of His covenant with Israel. Hosea depicts God’s judgment on His people as divorce.

What makes the AD 70 destruction of the temple most significant is Jesus prediction of it in his Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21), though there is an “anti-temple” undercurrent throughout the ministry of John the Baptizer and Jesus. The centrality of the temple for Israel had not changed from Old Testament times. Jesus came as a new Jeremiah and a new Ezekiel, predicting that God would judge His people and divorce them. The fulfillment of such a prophecy would hardly go unmentioned, especially because of its special meaning for Jesus and for the church. For Jesus did not merely predict that the Romans would destroy the temple, He spoke of it as the sign that He had ascended on high and was sitting at the right hand of God! In books that take note of fulfilled prophecy about numerous detailed matters related to Jesus, how could this be passed by?

For the church, too, the destruction of the temple meant public vindication. God made it clear that the true temple was the new Israel that was baptized by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The overlapping period between the establishment of the new Temple and the destruction of the old was a period of grace, giving opportunity for the old Israel to repent and turn to their Messiah. Many did. When the temple was finally judged, it was a public and open manifestation both that Jesus was the Messiah and that the church was the true Israel. These are not the kind of things one forgets to bring up in a conversation.

Robinson points to other examples of what must become, on the presupposition of late dates for the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, deafening silence (though I do not mean to suggest that his entire argument is about silence). For example, there is no mention of Nero’s persecution of the church, begun in AD 64. What makes this a significant silence? Paul, Peter, and John all predicted persecution and suffering for the church and Luke recorded some persecution in the book of Acts. But what the church experienced before Nero was persecution by Jews and protection by Rome. The war against the church that Nero initiated was strikingly new and severe. Even Tacitus recorded the persecution of Christians by “fearful tortures.” How could this go unmentioned in books by Christians supposedly written after AD 70?

There is no mention of the martyrdoms of James, the Lord’s brother, or of Peter, or of Paul. The book of Acts records the deaths of prominent Christian leaders like Stephen and the apostle James because they are following Christ. In paying the ultimate price for their faith, they set the example for thousands of Christians to come. If the books of the New Testament were written after AD 70, how could the death of Paul, the most prominent of the apostles and himself an attendant at the martyrdom of Stephen, and that of James, the leader of the church of Jerusalem, not be even noted? The absence of any mention of Peter’s death is most unusual. Jesus predicted Peter’s death (John 21:18-19), but neither John nor any other writer tells us that Jesus’ prediction was fulfilled, nor are we told that Peter was crucified, like the Master he once denied.

The Jewish revolt of AD 66, at least included within the larger picture of the Olivet Discourse, also goes without notice. All of these events, of momentous significance to the early Christian church, are passed over in complete silence, at the same time that the New Testament, both in the Gospels and the book of Acts records the history of the time in some detail where it is relevant to the early Christians. Paul’s letters, too, contain incidental information about the history of his day.

But the momentous events referred to above, event of world historical and profound ecclesiological significance are somehow not worthy of slightest note. How can this be? The best answer to the question of this profound silence is simply that the events had not yet happened. There is no better hypothesis on the market.

If the entire New Testament was written before AD 70, then Matthew’s Gospel was obviously written before AD 70. In the next installment of this series, I will argue that it was long before AD 70.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church in Tokyo, Japan.