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I pray that someone may have some reliable sources that I would like to use when speaking to atheists.

What is the evidence that Matthew was written before or after AD 70?

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    @Hold To The Rod has provided a good summary of arguments pro and con. In terms of speaking to atheists, I advise showing basic familiarity with the synoptic problem that Rod describes and explaining that one's faith need not depend on when any particular gospel was written. Commented Mar 16 at 15:42

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The Gospel of Matthew does not come with a copyright date=); however, we can make some pretty reasonable inferences from the available data.

The budget answer is to say that Matthew was written post-70 because many New Testament scholars say that it was. Since the politics of scholarship can heavily influence which theories catch on (some examples in my video here), a much more interesting question is why some New Testament scholars advance this conclusion.

This post will identify the principal evidences used to argue for a date after/before AD 70, and make a summary case for before AD 70.


Post-70 Arguments


There are 2 principal arguments used to date Matthew post AD 70: naturalism, and the Synoptic Problem.

Naturalism

Matthew chapter 24 prophesies of the destruction of the temple (which occurred when Titus destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70). To those who presuppose naturalism prior to examining the evidence, this clearly indicates that the Gospel of Matthew must have been written after the fact, for nobody could have known about this in advance.

There are some fundamental problems with this assertion.

Presuppositions about prophecy

The Bible is a book that purports to be full of prophecy from beginning to end. In order to objectively evaluate a book about prophecy we cannot start out with the a priori assumption that all prophecy is real, or all prophecy is fake, because doing so restricts the possible solutions we can discover. We would only ever be able to find ideas that align with our worldview; anything outside that bubble (even things that happen to be true) would remain forever invisible to us.

To make an a priori assumption on the very topic under evaluation is to arbitrarily select a solution without even evaluating the evidence (not very scientific!). If we start with the premise that this book is a fraud, of course we’ll end up with a conclusion that this book is a fraud—it’s one of our premises! But that’s not an argument, it’s circular reasoning.

These are not the anachronisms you're looking for

It is possible to account for the Gospel passages on the destruction of the temple without appealing to prophecy. This isn’t to take a position on prophecy, rather, this is to point out that even in the absence of a belief in prophecy, it is possible to rationally believe that these documents were written before 70.

The language employed is not, as some have asserted, inconceivable pre-70; rather, it is drawn from the Old Testament and 1 Maccabees (see p.18 here). There’s nothing anachronistic about Jews citing the Old Testament and 1 Maccabees before AD 70. Furthermore, Josephus (Wars 6.5.3) also tells us of another prediction—pre 70—that the temple was going to be destroyed.

Might observers have realized in advance that the tensions between the Jews and the Romans were not going to end well?

Burning cities isn't as rare as you think

Many have suggested that the parable of the marriage of king’s son in Matthew 22 includes an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem.

The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city (verse 7)

This assertion would be more compelling if Jerusalem in AD 70 was the only time in history a city was burned. Rome itself burned twice between Easter and AD 70. If Matthew was written after the fact and made to look prophetic, the glaring absence of specific details of AD 70 is inexplicable.

A Prophecy Misread Could Have Been (yes that's a Yoda quote) =)

A common interpretation of the Olivet discourse is that Jesus is saying that the temple will be destroyed and He will return in glory within the lifetime of some who are present. That doesn’t make for a very impressive after-the-fact prophecy since He did not return in glory at that time. So either:

  • We are misinterpreting the prophecy OR
  • The Gospels recording this information were written before 70, including only the details they knew about and not the additional specifics that were only known after the fact OR
  • Both

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The Synoptic Problem

The Synoptic Problem examines the relationship among the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in order to identify how they are related to one another. Disclaimer - video links here are links to my own work on this subject.

Markan Priority -- the view that Mark was the first of the Synoptic Gospels to be written -- occupies a dominant position in New Testament scholarship today. Almost all adherents of Markan Priority believe that the author of Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as a source. The customary argument then proceeds as follows:

  • P1: Matthew was written after Mark
  • P2: Mark was written around AD 70
  • C: Matthew was written after AD 70

P2 is based almost entirely on the prophecy of the destruction of the temple, an argument which is just as circular when applied to Mark as it was when applied to Matthew

But was Matthew written after Mark? Having spent quite some time studying this question, I have come to the conclusion that the evidence clearly points in the opposite direction - Matthew was written before Mark. Some resources of interest:


Pre 70 Arguments


The Historical Context

This argument is explored more fully in Bernard Orchard's The Order of the Synoptics - Why Three Synoptic Gospels?.

The Gospel of Matthew speaks to a setting that existed in a very narrow slice of time and space. It is a remarkably Jewish document for a church which, within 2 generations of Easter, was overwhelmingly Gentile. It is not written to Gentiles--it is written to Jews. It is both thoroughly Jewish and thoroughly Christian, a shared identity which only existed for a few decades after Easter.

Matthew speaks to numerous groups, customs, and ideas which would have been familiar only to Jews--and specifically to Jews living near Jerusalem--without ever explaining them. E.g. the Gospel of Matthew expects it readers to be familiar with the views and customs of the groups named as the scribes, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees. The author never explains who these groups are—the audience is expected to already know.

Additionally, Matthew's focus on the Law of Moses and temple ritual is far greater than in any other Gospel. The audience of Jesus' message in Matthew is Israel.

If we didn't know any different, we would expect a Jewish-Christian document like this to be unfashionable and much less prominent in the Gentile-Christian church of the 2nd century (keep in mind, this is the Gospel which refers to Gentiles as "dogs" -- see Matthew 15:26). And yet we see exactly the opposite! The Gospel of Matthew is far and away the most prominent Gospel in the early church (see the evidence in Massaux's work here).

The early church treated Matthew as the primary text of the Christian movement. The simplest explanation -- by far -- is that they did this because it was the primary text of the Christian movement, and other Gospels, written to Gentiles, came later.

This is a document that fits within a clear time and place in history, when the Christian movement was still overwhelmingly Jewish, "Jew" & "Christian" were not distinct identities, Jerusalem was still the movement's "headquarters", a majority of Christians still observed Mosaic customs, and almost all church leaders were baptized Jews.

This is a succinct description of the AD 40s. The Gospel of Matthew is exactly the kind of document we would expect church leaders to endorse to provide guidance to the growing Christian movement, and leave a record of their testimonies, as they left the Jerusalem area in the 40s (see Acts chapter 12).

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Historical Records

All of the early historians who wrote on the subject put Matthew chronologically first among the Gospels, and all who provided a date (or range of dates) for its publication put it before 70. Eusebius, who is more detailed than most, put the publication of Matthew in the early 40s (see Historia Ecclesiastica 3.24).

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Hebrew Language

This is a larger topic than will be solved here, but there is quite some evidence pointing to an original composition of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew, and that the Greek is a later translation. A Gospel written in Hebrew makes sense very early on in a Jerusalem-centered church. It does not make sense when most Christians are Gentiles and Jerusalem has been reduced to ashes.

Evidence that Matthew was written in Hebrew can be found in the writings of Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, Epiphanius, Eusebius, Jerome, and others. Literary evidence for a Hebrew Matthew is discussed here. Evidence that Hebrew was not a dead language in Jesus' day is discussed here and on my channel here: What Languages Did Jesus Speak?.

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The Synoptic Problem

(Yes I actually see this is as significant evidence against a post-70 date).

Evidences for Matthean Priority (Matthew was first) are discussed in detail in my video series Reconstructing Matthean Priority, which shows Mark & Luke used Matthew as a source. They include:

  • The order of the pericopes in the Gospels only makes sense if Mark was written 3rd
  • Matthew--the most Jewish Gospel--was also the most popular Gospel in the Gentile church, which is very difficult to explain unless Matthew was the primary source
  • The early historians--who had access to numerous sources no longer available--all put Matthew first
  • The minor agreements between Matthew & Luke are best explained if Matthew came first
  • Mark appears to borrow far more of Matthew's favorite words & phrases than the other way around
  • Matthew & Luke share a great deal of "preaching" material -- Matthew's tends to be consolidated into major sermons and Luke's tends to be scattered about in other material. It is much easier to explain Luke fragmenting the teachings collected by Matthew than to explain Matthew building carefully constructed sermons out of fragments gathered across the Gospel of Luke. This is examined The Parable of the Stained Glass Window here.

Once we accept that Matthew came before Luke, and that Luke used Matthew as a source, the evidences that Luke & Acts were written no later than AD 62 put the date of Matthew in the 50s or earlier.

Once we accept that Mark used Matthew as a source, the evidences that Mark was written early in the reign of Nero (mid 50s) put the date of Matthew in the early 50s or earlier.

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Arguments from Prophecy

(Yes this one makes a better argument for pre-70 than post-70 as well)

Those using prophecy to argue for a late date for Matthew undermine their own argument.

One of the most evident characteristics of the author of Matthew is his penchant for calling out when a prophecy has been fulfilled--this is a core thematic emphasis of the Gospel of Matthew. It's very out of character for him not to do this (Look! The temple really was destroyed just like He said!!) in the context of the Olivet discourse...unless of course the fulfillment hadn't happened yet when he was writing.

(To show why this cannot be dismissed as an argument from silence, see Appendix 2 in my post here).

Since authorial tendency is at the heart of the analysis used by those who argue for a post-70 date for Matthew, prophecy-based arguments for a post-70 Matthew tend to be self-defeating.

On the other hand, the absence of such a narratorial insertion (Let the reader understand! This prophecy to which I devoted a full ~5% of my record was very plainly fulfilled and please go fact-check me if you don't believe it) is entirely consistent with the Gospel of Matthew being written pre-70.


Conclusion


The view that Matthew was written after 70 relies upon circular arguments. The view that Matthew was written before 70 is consistent with the historical and literary evidence.

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    +1 Excellently articulated with a good summary of the arguments on both sides along with supporting references! However, I disagree that Matthew was written in Hebrew. Check your sources for this. I've become convinced that Matthew was originally written in Aramaic, the language of the majority of people in the region (followed by Greek).
    – Dieter
    Commented Mar 16 at 15:33
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    A superb post, even though I do not agree with the idea that Mark used Matthew as a source. Commented Mar 16 at 15:36
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    Ditto to Dieter & Dan's comments above. Just to add that, if Matthew had written post-70, how could he have resisted the opportunity to exclaim about how it was only some 35 years after Jesus gave his strange instructions to flee Jerusalem when a particular (obscure) thing happened, that the Christians could suddenly escape with their lives? Only if Matthew wrote pre-70 could Jesus' prophecy read as unfulfilled at the time of writing.
    – Anne
    Commented Mar 16 at 15:50
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    @DanFefferman thanks for the kind words. I appreciate that this site gives us the chance to disagree without being disagreeable, and to discuss the merits of a variety of scholarly views. Commented Mar 16 at 15:51
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    @Anne thanks - I thought about including a similar thought but my post was getting so long =). Yes, Matthew LOVES to call out when a prophecy has been fulfilled. It's very out of character for him not to do this in the context of the Olivet discourse...unless of course the fulfillment hadn't happened yet when he was writing. Commented Mar 16 at 15:55
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Am glad to see that questions regarding the dating of Matthew, along with its original language, continue to be voiced. However, I don't suspect that you'll ever find sufficient "evidence" to convince atheists concerning the date of Matthew.

For me, it is far more important to provide evidence which would give Christians themselves more confidence in the early dating of Matthew--and that well before AD 70--in order that they might have confidence in the trustworthiness of the witness testimony provided by Matthew and the subsequent Gospels. One such piece of evidence is Paul's reference in Galatians 3:1 to something which was "previously written" (proegraphē) concerning Jesus's resurrection, which Paul put before the eyes of the Galatians when he visited them on his first missionary journey. This word (proegraphē) is traditionally translated as "publicly portrayed" in our English Bibles and generally treated as referring to some image which Paul conjured up during his oral preaching. However, this Greek word in both biblical and extra-biblical literature pretty consistently speaks of things which have been written, drawn, painted, etc. There are a few instances in the literature which are ambiguous, but I contend that even these could be understood as referring to something which was written (drawn, painted, etc.). In Galatians 3:1, Paul is chastising those whom he had recently visited for departing from the truths contained in the writings concerning Jesus, which he had laid before their eyes. If we assume that Galatians was written before the Jerusalem council, then this suggests that a Gospel was on the streets early in the life of the church. And according to the church fathers, that Gospel was undoubtedly Matthew's.

With regard to whether Matthew was first written in Hebrew, as is seemingly suggested by English translations of Irenaeus in his Against Heresies 3.1.1, I suggest that there are alternative ways to translate the datives present in this passage, such that Irenaeus can be understood as declaring that Matthew was written in Greek, not Hebrew. Remember, Irenaeus in this passage is trying to explain how it was that his generation had come to possess the four Gospels. His answer is pretty inadequate, if all he is doing is explaining the origins of some lost Hebrew version of Matthew; no, I believe he is explaining the origin of the Greek version.

Check out my web page and recent book for more on this topic: atrustworthygospel.com

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  • Nice website! I used to believe in Markan Priority and then I started asking questions...the data turned me 180 degrees. You might find interesting my videos Deconstructing Markan Priority and Reconstructing Matthean Priority. Commented Apr 18 at 2:02
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    Thanks. I've been working my way through your videos. Am very much on board with your argument that the Marcan priority arguments are circular or reversible.
    – Dan Moore
    Commented Apr 18 at 17:05

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