Here are seven arguments assessed for a post-70AD dating of Luke’s Gospel. The first is the default position of most secular scholars, prior to any deeper examination of the texts.
That's not all. It's not unusual for a scholar (in virtually any field!) to have a further default position, which is not to entertain anything which disputes a default position! The default position is therefore in a double-lock. That tends to be the status quo until another scholar whom they respect has a go and has recently published something questioning the default with a new line of evidence analysis. Scholars might then be persuaded that there is evidence that merits re-opening the case.
Of course, if everyone in the field tried to cling onto a default position without any of them ever being willing to entertain new evidence analysis, then they could be forfeiting the claim to being scientific in their approach. Because it's not just that they are not inclined to change their minds; it can be that they are also inclined to think that there is nothing to research, nothing to consider. And closed minds limit the advancement of science.
It would be like saying that as we have Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, there is no value in measuring the earth’s gravitational ‘pull’ on the moon, because scholars agree that gravity is there, and it's not worth doing anything specifically new. That is unscientific. It would not do to say a consensus about gravity will suffice instead of testing earth's ‘pull’ on the moon, if that is the issue under investigation. If you care to know what’s there, you test on a case by case basis.
When one analyses evidence, the position can shift dramatically for or against the default.
- Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple [ναὸς] and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone corrupts God’s temple, God will corrupt that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 NIV adapted)
- Do you not know that your bodies are temples [ναὸς] of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God. (1 Corinthians 6:19 NIV)
- For we know that if the earthly tent [σκήνους] we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands [ἀχειροποίητον]. (2 Cor 5:1)
- the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands [χειροποιήτοις] (Acts 7:48)
Firstly, the odds of a prediction being made need to be assessed in a more balanced way when you weigh them as words of someone playing a part that did exist in Jewish literature at the time, as an up-and-coming Jewish prophet during a time of political unrest with strong views about the temple leadership, and a role-model in the apocalyptic Jewish prophets Jeremiah. Apocalyptic sayings tend to focus on the worst case scenario. It's a genre thing. For such a figure as Jesus to do as Jeremiah did centuries before, who had predicted the sixth century fall of Jerusalem according to Jewish literature, is not out of character if Jesus had such a role-model. To erase the possibility of a prediction is also effectively to erase the role-model status of the likes of Jeremiah - because once you accept that Jeremiah could be a role-model to an upcoming apocalyptic Jewish prophet, predicting the temple's fall comes with it, and if therefore if you can't allow the latter, then you can't allow the former.
Related to that, an a priori ruling out of such a prediction has the inadvertent side-effect of virtually hollowing out pre-70AD Jewish life of any reflection on the single most traumatic event of Israel's history - the 6th century BC destruction of the temple. Suddenly, reflection on this history is virtually erased from Jewish life until after 70AD. This is a thoroughly odd scenario for the academy to bequest to us.
Thirdly, that such a prediction should come true is hardly miraculous or entirely unpredictable in the circumstances. The odds of Jesus predicting disaster can’t be assessed solely on the general principle that most predictions don’t come true, religious or otherwise. The balance of probabilities shifts appreciably when the specific first century context of periodic unrest comes into view.
Fourthly, the odds of an author writing such a thing also have to be assessed differently if the author has animus, and reason to have animus, against the Jerusalem temple as he found it in his day. I mean Luke, and I mean that the prospect of the fall of the temple could have appealed to him. I will come back to that.
To be fair, scholars sometimes go further than merely assuming the default position. When pressed, they bolster it, although largely we find the default position reiterated one way or another.
Luke alone sees fit to include these words, unlike the other gospel writers. For that reason, sceptical scholars are apt to say that Luke was thinking about the fall of Jerusalem in a way that sets him apart from the other writers. Luke seems to make a bigger deal of the fate of Jerusalem that the other gospels do. From this, scholars infer that the author had something in mind more than was in the basic story he had received of the death of Jesus, the extra thing being that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen. But does this rather mysterious sounding and ambiguous passage really warrant dating the book post-70AD? There are counter arguments.
- Yes, in Luke, we have mention of a siege of the city, but after all, what else would tackle a walled city but a siege?
- And Luke’s Gospel predicts the city’s destruction at the hands of the Romans, but after all, who else would be conducting such a campaign but the Romans?
- And Luke predicts the slaughter and capture of Jews, but really, what else would happen to those in a conquered walled city?
So the a priori post AD dating is not bolstered convincingly in any way. But of course, to go against the a priori position needs justification. A Christian might simply read off the text that the Gospel says that Jesus made his prediction pre-70AD and that is good enough for the believer. But secular scholars approach ancient texts with caution and with methods for testing the text. One such method is to ask what occasion pre-70AD could possibly explain a prediction being written down before anyone knew that the temple had fallen. Scholars call this a Sitz in Leben. There is a solid case to be made, and this is both a good counter-argument to the above and a good case for a pre-70AD date.
Argument for a pre-70AD date: a pre-70AD occasion for writing
What is given too little attention by scholars is how the New Testament authors felt about the temple, not just what they thought about it. Sentiment, not just ideas, plays a huge part in the development of a movement. Sentiment about Israel's temple is a case in point. Jesus came to transform the nation, but once it had clearly rejected his message, how did sentiment in his movement change? One of the rising currents in sentiment was a bold demonstrative anger towards the temple elite. Once Jesus had done his very physical demonstration in the temple, turning over the tables of the money-changes, this surely released something in the disciples. All the gospels feature such a scene. It gave them licence to stop being respectful of the temple's elite, and to openly court conflict with it. We see that in Luke's Acts, where Peter and John wilfully ignore official instructions to stop preaching about Jesus within the temple. They stride around the temple as if they own it. We see similar courting of conflict when Stephen is killed for allegedly speaking out against the temple. Something had given them licence to speak and act disruptively against the temple's Jewish leaders, and the Gospels trace that attitude back to Jesus. His example authorised them to conduct a campaign of dissent against the temple elite. Every report in Luke-Acts of a word against the temple is a manifestation of that licence, such that they could now give vent to negative attitudes towards it that had previously been kept in check by Jewish social order. (By way of a comparison, in Britain in 2018, one might consider how there has been more strident anti-EU sentiment after the Brexit vote than before it, as if the vote gave licence to attitudes which many people previously did not feel free to express.) Their sentiment had turned against the temple elite who nevertheless were hanging on to power, whereas Jesus had been executed. We may see Luke's animus towards the temple similarly released by the near-death of his friend Paul in the temple, and he gives vent to that by foregrounding Jesus issuing dire warnings about the temple in his Gospel, and by giving prominence to the stories of Peter and John defiantly preaching Jesus' name in the temple, and Stephen's execution.
It is thus easy to see how a pre-70AD situation for the writing of Luke-Acts is entirely in tune with sentiment displayed in the text.
Aan early date is bolstered by the Sitz im Leben that I have argued for above.
Footnote: Is Luke 2:1 an anachronism?
Here is another question that is pertinent for dating Luke’s Gospel. (I overlooked this one when originally writing this post.)
The NIV translation of the Bible, among some others, takes the liberty of translating Luke 2:1 to the effect that a “census” was conducted across the Roman Empire. But did that really happen? And are there any implications if it never happened?
If we think that Luke 2:1 is claiming a census took place, then there could be implications for dating Luke’s Gospel. Here’s why. While there is a historical record of an Empire-wide census in 74AD, there isn’t of one earlier (although that is not in itself conclusive), unless you include Quirinius' undertaking within the definition of a census. Where could Luke have got the idea of such a census from? Does it mean that the 74AD census gave him the idea of imagining a census in the year of Jesus’ birth? Well, if so, that means that Luke wrote his Gospel sometime after 73AD. But there is already a heap of ‘ifs’ here. Let’s step back and unpick the overlapping issues.
The devil is in the detail, and the assumptions of translators. In Luke 2:1, the specific Greek words matter. These words report a decree to REGISTER i.e. “apographesthai” (not literally “census”, and there are alternatives) ALL THE WORLD i.e. “pasan ten oikoumenen” (not literally “the Roman Empire”). That’s all we have to go on in the verse. Let’s break this down, because this could simply be a mistranslation, and it wouldn't be the first time that an exegetical problem has been thrown up by a mistranslation or a misunderstanding.
Simply following the traditions of translators, and speculating on what “register” means, is problematic. Clearly, we can’t absolutely assume without evidence that “register” means “census” (NIV), or “pay taxes” (KJV), or “register loyalty to Augustus” (see this suggestion). Census, taxation and oath are all within the range of meaning of 'register'. Perhaps the safest translation is to leave it ambiguous as “register”, admitting that we can’t confirm what was meant by Luke to have been registered. For the purpose of this post, it ultimately has little bearing as it is inconclusive, which is why I have relegated it to a footnote. Even if were to suppose that Luke made an error in Luke 2:1 writing some decades after 6AD, nothing about dating Luke-Acts pre- or post-70AD is determined by it.
(By the way, in Acts 5:37, Luke again refers to a 'registration' which he associates with Judas the Galilean's troubles. In Luke 2:1, the same word is associated with Augustus and Quirinius' eras. Judas the Galilean and Quirinius fit to one registration, but Luke designates them differently in that way. That is one of the reasons for not leaping to the conclusion that they are all one and the same 'registration', especially as Luke also pins one of them to the era of Herod who died in 4BC.)
• “ALL THE WORLD”
The Greek word for ‘world’ here is oikoumenen. We can’t absolutely assume it means “the whole geographic world”, and similarly we can’t absolutely assume the NIV’s interpretation that it means all of “the Roman Empire”, or that it just means “all Judea”. The question is, whose “oikoumenen” is it in Luke’s mind, given that the only illustrative example he gives merely takes a single couple to Bethlehem? The safest translation is perhaps just “world”, admitting that we can’t nail down whose “world” is intended. But clearly, at least, Luke would not intend the literal whole physical world because he will have known that that went beyond Caesar’s jurisdiction.
CONCLUSION: All we are strictly left with as an accurate translation is “register all the world”. That’s how I would translate it, with a footnote to say that we don’t know what that means; and mentioning the notable suggestions of translators and exegetes. The ESV translates it more or less the same way: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered."
If there are three options, and we wanted for some reason to select something anachronistic (“census” being probably anachronistic), we need a good rationale for why we would select that in this specific case (NIV translators ought to take note!).
In short, if we were to start from the presumption that Luke has made a mistake, we would have to choose which mistake – a pre- or post-70AD mistake based on Luke misapplying an awareness of Imperial oaths or paying taxes, or a post-73AD mistake of Luke misapplying an awareness of an Empire-wide census.
Although it makes no real difference to the purpose of this post, if it is of interest to anyone my tentative conclusion would be that this registration is to do with making an oath to Augustus, as the best fit with the text and the historical period (with people being registered for this purpose in Judea and probably wider afield). If it is about an oath to Augustus, then Luke may be correct about it having happened. We know that this was a practice in the era of Jesus' birth. On that basis, I lean towards that, but I wouldn't press that too firmly.
A sceptic might still think, even if it is about an oath, that it is a mistake made by Luke pre- or post-70AD, but there would be no certain way of knowing which. So that does not help to date this gospel anyway.
I don’t think we can date Luke’s gospel from Luke 2:1 – we might try to, but we shouldn’t press our conclusions about it too firmly into service, when we don't even know the correct translation and meaning of it.