The Limits of Apologetic Conspiracy and Required Hang Time on Gospel Dating

My mentor and I have been reading some recent literature making the case that the NT gospels should be dated fairly late – say, post-100 CE, as far out as 120 or 130, rather than the usual 65-100 CE range. I’m actually open to this idea, despite the fact that I have a book manuscript in review that assumes the usual range. I’m not convinced yet, though, and I thought I’d work out here what my two main objections are to late dating, especially for Mark, because the last time I had a conversation about this, I was not as articulate about it as I would have liked.

My first objection is something I’ve been calling ‘the limits of apologetic conspiracy.’ Namely, if the late-date folks are right, then most if not all of the early proto-orthodox apologists would have had to have known the gospels were recent because they were only one generation removed from their writing. So they either all do a fantastic job of hiding this knowledge, which I find unlikely, or, more likely, they were at least two or three generations removed from the gospels’ first appearance, in which case the origins of the text would have been beyond their grasp.

Working through the dates makes this clearer.

Justin Martyr, who has the first unequivocal quotes from the synoptic gospels in his work (1st Apology and Dialogue with Typho), lived roughly 103-165. The works in question are late in his life – 150-160, when he would have been late 40s-early 50s. As such, when he writes of the ‘memoirs of the apostles’ – almost certainly a harmony of the synoptics – we have to consider whether the text suggests a Mark-like gospel appeared first during his life, or earlier, especially since some time needed to pass for the need for a harmony to appear and be met.

As far as I know, there is nothing in his work that indicates the material he is referring to was new during his lifetime. He refers to them in the past tense, as written by the apostles themselves and their followers. Unless he thinks the apostles are still alive (unlikely) they would necessarily have to predate his own existence. And he references gospel material with similar authority to OT scripture. So either he’s participating in a huge textual conspiracy by knowingly concealing the fact this gospel appeared out of nowhere when he was alive, or he’s doing what he appears to be doing – quoting from a harmony that’s been around awhile, and would have had to have been constructed from at least three previous texts.

You can probably see where I’m going from this. Apply the same argument to Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, all 2nd century Christian authors known. Do they treat their textual mentions as ones that appeared in their lifetime, or something that predates their own existence? It even works for Ignatius. If you find none, then you’re left with arguing they were all part of a big apostolic cover-up despite their theological differences.

My second argument is something I call ‘required hang time.’ Namely, we can’t expect the gospels to have caught on immediately, especially if we’re going to hang on to the usual source-critical theories. So after Mark is written there must be some time for it to circulate and gain influence, enough influence to prompt a response(s) (Matthew, Luke, John), with indeterminate hang times between each, even if composed near-simultaneously as I sometimes think Q advocates want Matthew and Luke to have been written. And then there’s even more hang time after three or four are in good circulation, before harmonies can appear.

To put it bluntly, I don’t see all of this happening in Justin Martyr’s lifetime. He converted around 130, making him in his late twenties. I assume he knew how to count by then.  So I can safely assume the gospel harmony he’s citing has been in previous use for at least a generation before him. Assuming it is the first harmony (which I again seriously doubt), one generation back lands us at 110, and that’s about right if we assume the usual 65-100 range for all four gospels.

I’ll note this is also consistent with Ignatius’ almost-quoting of gospel bits around 110-115, assuming you think those seven letters aren’t pseudepigraphical. They’re being read in church, but the authority isn’t quite there yet.