Critics have generally drawn their conclusions regarding the authenticity of the gospels and of the words of Jesus on the basic assumption that the New Testament is no more than the expression of the beliefs of the early church 50-80 years after Jesus' death. If this were the case then it would be quite natural for Hellenistic thought to have already affected the content of the gospel. But if it transpires that the gospels were put into the Greek form we know today as early as 50-60 AD and that their background too betrays a Hebrew draft stage, then the content of the gospels also receives a new trustworthiness. In this way the New Testament will present a picture of the "historical Jesus" and will transmit to us much more than "the faith of the early church" and that church's experience of the "redemption event".

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls caused a very radical but positive change in the 50's in the criticism of John's gospel, as we shall see. A similar about-turn in a positive direction is perceptible regarding the other gospels. About 25 years ago the then Bishop of Woolwich John A.T. Robinson caused an uproar when he wrote in quick succession two books which received wide circulation, Honest to God and The New Reformation. In those books he questioned all the fundamentals of the Christian faith, saying that:

    "There is a double pressure to discard the entire construction, and with it any belief in God at all," and that the "supranaturalistic legalism" evident in the commandments no longer had any relevance for "man come of age".64
However, ten years after these books, in 1976, he published a study "Redating the New Testament", once again creating something of a sensation with his open-minded approach. In this book of some 380 pages and 1300 lengthy footnotes he fires a broadside at theology's taboo-ridden exegesis and provides answers to the questions How? and When?65

Robinson wonders at the fact that there is not even a hint in the New Testament of Nero's persecutions after AD 64 or of the execution in AD 62 of James, the Lord's brother; there is not the slightest mention of the Jewish revolt against the Romans, which began in AD 66, or of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. In his opinion the gospels were written before Paul's first imprisonment of 57 - 60, and all the NT books before Jerusalem's destruction. Quoting a well-known scholar he says that his own researches are more "questions than final answers". If, however, it turns out that some of his conclusions are sound, they will have far-reaching implications, and "many an 'Introduction to the New Testament' will have to be rewritten".

The interpretation of Paul's letters and the time of their composition does not generally fluctuate much. For the sake of our study, therefore, since they represent an already "mature" Christology, it is important to be aware of their early date. Robinson dates them as follows:

1 Thessalonians 
2 Thessalonians 
1 Corinthians 
1 Timothy 
2 Corinthians 
Ephesians late 
2 Timothy 
Spring 50 
ca. 50-51 
Spring 55 
Autumn 55 
Spring 56 
Autumn 56 
Spring 57 
Autumn 57 
Summer 58 
Summer 58 
Summer 58 
Autumn 58 
To validate his thesis Robinson gives pretty extensive proof devoting, for example, approximately 60 pages and a couple of hundred footnotes to two of the NT's thorniest problems, the letters of Peter and Jude, concluding with fairly early datings for them too, a fact which also supports their authenticity. The rest of the NT letters he dates as follows:
2,3 and 1 John 
1 Peter 
ca. 47-48 
ca. 61-62 
ca. 61-62 
ca. 60-65 
Spring 65
In dating the gospels the tendency in Biblical criticism is to place them as originating only after the destruction of the Temple. One typical example of this dating is the "Exposition and Teaching of the Bible", edited by Rafael Gyllenberg and Esa Kivekäs,66 intended for teachers and church office bearers in Finland as a guide to Biblical interpretation. This book dates the earliest gospel, Mark, around AD 70, Matthew in the 80's and Luke ca. AD 90. John, they say, was written in the 90's but appeared only around 100 AD. The Finnish professor Aapeli Saarisalo dates the gospels as: Mark, written immediately after the death of Peter, ie. around AD 65-68; Matthew, between 60-70 and eg. John, in AD 90. Robinson dates them as follows:
between  45-60 
between  40-60+ 
apparently in the years  57-60+ 
possibly 40-65+ 
At the end of his study Robinson appends a letter of C.H. Dodd, the authority on the gospel of John, in which the latter, writing shortly before his death, says that he holds strong reservations regarding the early dating of John, even though it
    "sheds valuable light on the primitive church [and] even authentic information about the Jesus of history . . . It is true that Bultmann himself was prepared to date it early, but that was on his presupposition that Christianity began as a kind of gnosticism, and was only later 'Judaized' and historicized."
Reasoning of this kind is the product of a vivid imagination and contrary to the actual facts. Bultmann considered it not worth even trying to penetrate behind the kerygma or 'preaching'. This kind of "purging of the mythical element" is truly, as we have seen David Flusser say, "estrangement from reality", Entrealisierung. The historical nature of the gospel of John is beyond dispute.

Exegesis must ask itself nowadays: "What if the picture of Jesus given by the gospels is actually true?" Doubts at the professorial level are not necessarily always justified. One of the most pointed examples of this was the reply given on the radio by the professor of History in Helsinki University to the question, asked by some schoolchildren, "Did Jesus really live?" He reckoned that Jesus was "an invented being, comparable with the gods Apollo and Zeus of antiquity". The New Testament provides us with facts about Jesus recorded at such an early date that, in the time available, it is hardly conceivable that any interpolations could have crept into it.

The Jerusalem School's understanding of the gospel origins.

The question as to how the gospels were put together has occupied scholars for the past two hundred years. It is generally thought that the accounts of Jesus and his acts were transmitted orally until they were written down in Greek between the years 70-100 AD. This puts the gospel of John at an even later date. The Finnish Professor of Theology Heikki Räisänen states his conception of the structure of the first three gospels when he says that in the past hundred years it has become

    "more and more obvious that the 'dual-source hypothesis' is the closest to the correct solution. This states that the shortest of the gospels, Mark, is also the oldest, both Matthew and Luke using it as their sources. In addition they had another source in common, the collection of Jesus' sayings known as the 'Logia source' [from logia, 'words']. On the other hand no-one has proved that Matthew knew Luke or that Luke knew Matthew."67
These assumptions are certainly no more than working hypotheses by means of which attempts have been made to establish the relations of the gospels to one another. Augustine in his day concluded with the order Matthew, Mark and Luke, whereas the creator of the 'synoptic' concept, J.J. Griesbach considered Matthew to be the first, Luke second and Mark last of the three.68 But what conclusions have been reached by the 'Jerusalem school'? In answering this question, it must be borne in mind that the gospels were originally communicated orally to the people in Aramaic and even, it would appear, recorded in a written form in both Aramaic and Hebrew. The church fathers Papias, Irenaeus, Origen and Eusebius, leaning on tradition, record sayings to the effect that Matthew wrote his gospel initially in "Hebrew", "among Hebrews", "for those of the Jews who became Christians" and "in their mother-tongue".69 Critics often consider 'Hebrew' to mean 'Aramaic'. Comparative linguistic studies ought, however, to be capable of revealing which language's structure and concepts best correspond to the Greek phraseology.

About 30 years ago David Flusser of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem began with Robert Lindsey to study the syntactic peculiarities of the Greek New Testament. They observed that in hundreds of places the sentence structure betrayed Semitic influence and that it was easier to restore a possible Hebrew original than an Aramaic. No portions were found which could have been expressed only in Aramaic.

Lindsey was surprised to observe that Mark quoted Luke and not the other way round. Hundreds of proofs of this accumulated. In addition there appeared to be about 150 places in Mark which were the result of the influence of the Acts of the Apostles and some which showed that he knew the letters to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Romans, Colossians and the letter of James. On this basis Lindsey came to the conclusion that Mark had "amplified" Luke's accounts with information available to himself.

It is true that critics generally agree that Matthew and Luke had in common the so-called "Q" source (from the German Quelle, 'source') the origin of which is unknown. This conjectured collection of the words of Jesus may well have been originally in Aramaic. The antecedence of Luke with regard to Mark is also kept to the fore.70 W. Lockton in particular has collected around 600 evidences of the earlier date of Luke. He goes as far as to write, "Mark used Luke, which is the earliest of our gospels, and Matthew drew upon Luke and Mark."71

As a friend of Dr Lindsey I had the privilege of following the development of his theory and for some time I remained detached from his opinions. When I did, however, begin to examine his theories more closely their basic soundness became more and more apparent. Three things in particular seemed to me to be clear: a) If it is true that the shortest version of the gospels is to be considered the earliest, then the antecedence of Mark with regard to Luke falls, because Mark in particular is fond of the kind of ribuyim or 'amplification' typical of the Midrash literature -- even though Mark as a whole is the shortest his individual accounts are longer. This is apparent in, for example, the account, quoted by Räisänen, of Jesus and his near relatives in Matt. 12:46-50, Mark 3:21-35 and Luke 8:19-21. This also leads to the fancy, entertained, according to Räisänen, by the critic Pesch, that "half of the miracle narratives in Mark's gospel are complete fabrications; Mark received them from tradition and treated them with reverence".72 b) If it is true that Mark knew Acts and six of Paul's letters, and that seems quite possible, then again there is no doubt that he borrowed from Luke, as the Jerusalem school argue. c) Thirdly it must be said that the texts betray several written sources, on which basis there is good reason to reject immediately the fashionable idea of the compelling significance of oral tradition -- words quoted on the Talmud are applicable here too: "The assumption that the Talmud is founded principally on oral tradition is mere illusion; it is based on literature and it betrays literary origins".73

David Flusser points out that Lindsey's arguments can be studied only if the two following conditions are met: "Firstly the legitimacy of his conclusions must be studied in the light of all the relevant data, and secondly, the critic must know sufficient Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic to understand the premisses".74

200 years ago the originator of the "synoptic" concept, J.J. Griesbach, wrote that Mark used Matthew and Luke.75 W. Farmer and his followers have called attention to the same fact since the 1960's. The 'Jerusalem school' has made its conclusions independently and primarily through linguistic comparison.

A hint of the earliest written sources is already given by Luke's mention that, "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us". As is known, the "Q" source, which may have had an original Aramaic form, is reflected in Luke.76 Scholars sometimes even speak of two "Q" sources and of "Luke's special material", but what can we actually infer from all this about the origins of the gospels.

According to the Jerusalem school, some earlier stages of composition are dimly visible behind the gospels:

1. It would appear that by approximately five years after the death and resurrection of Christ most of his words and deeds had been committed to a simple written Hebrew form in which no attempt was made to define the chronological order of the events. Tradition attaches the name of Matthew to this compilation. It would seem to have contained preaching, parables, healing miracles and teaching concerned with the last days. The gospel we know today as "according to Matthew" may have had its main stimulus from this raw material.

2. In the second stage, about ten years later, this corpus of data was translated into a rough Greek version for the church's requirements. It may have been at this point that many variations came about, some of them being the "Q" sources.

3. Around the year 50 the original material was worked into a written Greek form and the events ordered both chronologically and by subject. Only at this stage, and in a relatively short time, were the 'synoptic' gospels composed because of the persecutions which were imminent. This was still, however, a time when details about the events could be verified with eye-witnesses.

Mark evidently knew Luke's gospel version, the Acts and some of Paul's letters, and so he would have no need to repeat Luke's account of the events surrounding Jesus' birth. Nevertheless, he would wish to add his own observations to individual narratives, amplifying them in the ribuyim style. John too must have known the work of the others, as he so scrupulously avoids repeating the things which have already been related by them. He aims his account at a Hellenistic audience, thus succeeding in preparing a Jewish midrash intelligible to a Greek reader. In actual fact none of the other gospels contain such abundant geographical information or description of Jewish customs as we find in John.

The diagram opposite may best outline the Jerusalem school's ideas:

The dimensions of each box approximate the size of the body of data.

I personally am of the opinion that the question as to whether Luke preceded Mark or vice versa is not of primary importance. The Jerusalem school intend to put their theory to a computer test, after which it ought to be possible to say something about the reliability of their conclusions. Above all we must acknowledge the Hebrew frame of reference behind the gospels and their obvious early written form. In addition it is instructive to see, expressed as percentages, the material common to each gospel and the extent of their independent contributions.


There is no need to regard the Jerusalem school's theory as a dictate of Sinai. It nevertheless challenges scholars to re-examine that which was formerly considered self-evident, and to study the Jewish roots of the gospels. It may well be that these ideas will change the theories of the gospel origins as radically as the Dead Sea Scroll discoveries changed attitudes regarding the Jewish character of the gospel of John. At the same time they make possible an early date for its composition. If the Greek form of the gospels originated within, as Robinson reckons, 10-30 years of Jesus' death, we can join with Paul when he exclaims: "This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance!"
64.    John A.T. Robinson, Honest to God, London SCM Press 1963, pp16, 117, and The New Reformation, SCM Press, 1965.
65.     John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, SCM Press 1976.
66.    Gyllenberg-Kivekäs, Raamatun Tulkinta ja Opetus, Kirjapaja 1979.
67.    Heikki Räisänen, Raamattunäkemystä etsimässä, p20.
68.    Eg. B.C. Butler, The Originality of ST. Matthew, Cambridge 1951.
69.    Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III 39,16; V 8,2; VI 25,4 and III 24,6.
70.    E.A. Abbot and W. Lockton with their schools.
71.    A.H. McNeile, Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, Oxford 1953, p64.
72.    See Räisänen, Op. cit. pp23 and 36.
73.    Julius Wellhausen, Israelitische und jdische Geschichte, 1894, p37; and F.W. Farrar, The Life of Christ II, p485.
74.    Robert Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, 2nd Ed., Jerusalem 1973, p2.
75.    J.J. Griesbach, Synopsis Evangeliorum 1774. This theory of his is from 1789.
76.    Eg. C.C. Torrey, The Gospels, A New Translation, 1933


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