Of Dates and Times

An elongated timeline between Jesus and the Gospels

By David Galston | 10.23.2017

When Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution first gained popularity, one criticism was that the natural process he described took time, lots of time. In the 1700’s Georges-Louis Leclerc estimated the earth was 75,000 years old. This was not enough time for evolution to produce all the life forms on our planet.

Darwin believed the earth had to be about 400 million years old. This was still too short a time. Lord Kelvin originally agreed with Darwin, but at the end of his life unconvincingly posed 40 million as the correct age. Through the late 19-century and into the 20th, the earth kept getting older. Today is pretty much certain that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old – plenty of time for natural evolution to take its course and to arrive at the multiple forms of life we experience every day.

There is in Biblical Studies a parallel to estimates about the age of the earth. The parallel consists of the increasing time between the life of Jesus and the writers of the Christian gospels. Since the late 19th-century, with various tweaks offered, the dates of the gospels felt secure. The Roman army under Vespasian and his son Titus destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in the years 70 to 73 C.E. The Gospel of Mark knows about this event, so Mark is given the date 70 to 75. Since Matthew and Luke use Mark as one of their sources, those gospels are usually dated in the decade of the 80’s. Then, there is the Q source (called the Q Sayings Gospel) that Matthew and Luke used independently of Mark. Because Q is a sayings and not narrative gospel, Q is dated in the 60’s. Only recently have all these dates been thrown up in the air.

Richard Pervo, who died this past May, was a Fellow of the Westar Institute and a supreme scholar of the book of Acts. He argued successfully that the writer of the Gospel of Luke and book of Acts knew the writings of Josephus the historian. It is not certain, by the way, that the writer of Luke and the writer of Acts are the same person, but these two documents are linked together. The argument that the author of Acts knew the writings of Josephus was originally made in the late 19-century and had been considered debunked, but Pervo was able to debunk the debunkers and indicate persuasively that indeed the argument is a good one.

If Pervo is right, the book of Acts needs to be dated about the year 110 C.E. if even later. This new, later date sets off a chain reaction. Potentially, it moves all the gospels into the 2nd-century and leaves only the authentic letters of Paul as textual witnesses to the mid-1st-century. If Pervo is taken seriously – and there does need to be a good debate about this question – the gap between the life of Jesus and the rise of the gospels is significantly wider than previously believed. The time for the evolution of emerging Christianity from a Jesus movement to a Christ cult is lengthened. As we read the gospels, rather than 40 to 60 we are likely 70 to 90 years removed from the death of Jesus. It may seem that historical dates do not matter, but thinking again, dates do matter because they change our understanding.

Due to scholarly work like that of Richard Pervo, how Christianity started is subject now to re-examination. Only Paul relays the fragments of developing beliefs, which include Jesus related to David (Roman 1:3), Jesus and the supper with the disciples (I Corinthians 11:23), and Jesus as the experience of an insight (revelation, I Corinthians 15:8). Paul gives us a glimpse into the 1st century where the authority to speak in the name of Jesus was based primarily on subjective experience. But experience alone, because it is subjective, is not a stable ground for developing a “religion” (religion as we use it was not a word at the time). Beyond experience, what is needed is authoritative beliefs. Acts and the Christian gospels are witnesses to the contentious issues of the 2nd-century that developed around the question of authority and who had it.

In the wake of this new question, three points for contemporary people interested in history and the rise of Christianity can be highlighted.

First, the distance between the Jesus of history and Jesus Christ of Christianity is more evident than ever. Today, we can easily repeat and strongly reaffirm the statement of Samuel Reimarus in 1778, “We are justified in drawing an absolute distinction between the teaching of the Apostles in their writing and what Jesus himself in his own lifetime proclaimed and taught.”

Second, it should be clearer, also now more than ever, that Christianity is the creation of Christians. It emerged out of the debate of Christ cults and the struggle to claim authority. This is actually good news. It means that Christianity can change.

Third, despite the despair over the state of the world today and the many times religions of the world have failed humanity, time and persistence are still the keys to change. Christianity took time to rise and more time than we previously thought to reach even its earliest forms. It took centuries for Christianity to define the contours of its dominating but now tired face. It will be centuries for that old face to change its countenance. Those who work for renewal and transformation, and who know the frustration of customs and establishments, might recognize that time has always been on the side of change.

It is not immediately apparent how the simple matter of changing dates can affect the evaluation of a religion as well as inspire the persistent call to change. The academic study of religion is often thought superfluous to what a religion has to teach. But in fact, many lessons in life are hidden in things we overlook. A simple matter of dates changed the persuasiveness of arguments for evolution. And now a simple matter of dates might change the future of the Christian religion. Just give it time.

Photo of David Galston

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

1 reply
  1. Chuck says:

    The creative power of time! The theory of evolution is advanced on the premise that there is no God. In essence, evolution denies that God is the creator and claims that time is the creator. The claim is that it takes a very, very, long time to complete the creation. My thought is that time is passive with no power at all. Time passes. The Bible in Genesis says that God created the heavens and the earth and everything including life within six days.
    Life is the real issue. Life exists because God exits. He created life from His own life. A selection of chemicals with added energy over time has no power to create life. Time passes. Life came from God. God is eternal with no beginning and no end. He exists outside of time. He is. In His own word, YHWH.

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