Arguments for a pre-70 CE Dating of Matthew's Gospel

matthewPre70

During my time of study under Craig Evans, he flirted with the idea of a pre-70 CE dating of Matthew's gospel at various times in class or in conversation. During my undergrad, I had for the most part come to follow the standard post-70 CE dating for most of the Gospels, with Mark being the only serious consideration of a pre-70 CE Gospel. During my dissertation work, I ran into this issue anew, particularly in the excellent Matthew commentaries by John Nolland (who was my external advisor) and Richard France. France in particular puts forth his case in his book Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher, which he regards as the fuller introduction to his NICNT commentary. Anyone who appreciates France's Matthew commentary should really have this prelude volume.

In reading the work of these scholars, I have become more persuaded that Matthew may indeed have been written before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. This has important ramifications for the dating of at least Mark, pushing it perhaps to the 50s or even the 40s (as Crossley has argued). In addition, I have in the last few months stumbled upon the work of Alan Garrow, who puts together an excellent case for what he called the Matthew Conflator Hypothesis. Garrow argues that Matthew was the last of the synoptics written, utilizing Mark, Luke, and Q. I highly encourage you to watch his video presentations on his website. If both of these things are true (Matthew is pre-70 CE and is the last synoptic gospel written), this pushes Luke into the 60s as well. But that is an issue for another day!

 

A Survey of Recent NT intros and Matthew Commentaries

When discussing the dating of Matthew, it is good to get a sense of what modern scholarship is saying on the subject. The following introductions & Bible dictionaries date Matthew as follows:

  • W. D. Davies (1969): 85 CE
  • Ralph Martin (1975): 80-90 CE
  • Ancho Yale Bible Dictionary (1992): 80-90 CE
  • McDonald & Porter (2000): 80-90 CE
  • Lea & Black (2003): pre-70 CE
  • DeSilva (2004): post-70 CE
  • Drane (2001): 80-100 CE
  • Ehrman (2008): 80-85 CE
  • Elwell & Yarbrough (2013): pre-70 CE
  • Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (2013): non-commital

A survey of the major commentaries on Matthew reveals similar diversity:

  • Carson (1984): 60s CE
  • Harrington (1991): 70s CE
  • Morris (1992): 50s-60s CE
  • Blomberg (1992): 58-69 CE
  • Gundry (1994): 65-67 CE
  • Hagner (1998): pre-70 CE
  • Davies & Allison (1998): 80-95 CE
  • Nolland (2005): pre-70 CE
  • France (2007): pre-70 CE
  • Luz (2007): early 80s CE
  • Turner (2008): 80s-90s CE
  • Keener (2009): late 70s CE
  • Evans (2012): 66-69 CE

This itself is interesting in that the NT introductory textbooks lean more to a late dating, with a majority of the commentaries leaning to an early dating. Obviously this is a sampling and not exhaustive lists. But I think it provides a solid sample of current discussion on the issue. Davies and Allison provide a thorough list of some of the older commentaries, and can be seen by clicking the image to the right.

 

Arguments for a Late Date

Without being too reductionistic, the main arguments for a late date of Matthew fall into 3 main points:

  1. The date of Mark's gospel being 65-70 CE. Because Matthew used Mark, we need to allow for some time to pass.
  2. Jewish-Christian Relations. The tension found in Matthew is thought to reflect a time closer to Jamnia (85-90 CE) and the  birkat ha-minim, a clause in the Eighteen Benedictions, attributed to the rabbis at the Jamnia council: “Let Nazarenes and heretics perish in a moment, let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and let them not be written with the righteous.” The counter this is, of course, the rest of the NT - namely Paul and the book of Acts. Tensions developed early on – there is no reason to push what we see in Matthew to after the temple's destruction.
  3. More Developed Theology. Matthew seemingly contains more developed theology that better fits into a later time period. The areas most mentioned are christology (Matt 24:29-31, Matt 25:31-46), Ecclesiology (Matt 16:18, Matt 18:17), and the trinitarian formula of Matt 28:19. The counter to this is again the apostle Paul. Christology developed early, as evidenced by Paul (like Phil 2:1-11), and we have a trinitarian formula in Paul as well (2 Cor 13:14; Tit 3:4-6; 1 Pet 1:2)
  4. Matthew 22:7: “the king was angry and sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city”. Scholars who argue for a late date point to this Matthean addition to the parable (compare Luke 14) as being reflective of the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. In my opinion, this is a poor argument, as it would therefore equates the king of the parable with Caesar, when it is very clearly God. There is a simple alternative: It is punitive military language drawn from the OT and similar to other Jewish literature.
  5. Olivet Discourse?? Notable by its relative absence in arguments for a late dating is Matthew's Olivet Discourse. If the destruction of the temple were to leave any residue on the text, surely it would be here. Hagner states: “Matthew’s redaction of the Markan eschatological discourse makes no attempt to disentangle the references to the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the age (chap. 24). Luke very deliberately does so in his redaction of Mark 13, and we might expect Matthew to do the same had it been written after 70.” (Hagner 1998, lxxiv)

 

Arguments for an Early Date

There are a number strong arguments from internal evidence that Matthew was written prior to the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. In this list, I will put them in the order of strongest to weakest arguments.

  1. Approving of the Temple Tax. Jesus in Matthew approves of the temple tax in Matt 17:24-27. While it is of course conceivable that Matthew is simply passing on Jesus tradition faithfully, the issue is that the temple tax after 70 CE became a tax for the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. Bob Gundry states: “The distinctive passage 17:24 – 27 teaches that Jewish Christians should not contribute to their fellow Jews rejection of the gospel by refusing to pay the Temple tax. This exhortation not only shows Matthews concern to win Jews. It specifically favors a date of writing before AD 70; for after the destruction of God’s temple in Jerusalem the Romans shifted the tax to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome (Josephus J.W. 7.6.6 §218; Dio Cassius 65.7; Suetonius Dom. 12), and m. Šeqal. 8.8 says that the laws concerning “the Shekel dues … apply only such time as the Temple stands.”  Surely Matthew does not include this passage to support upkeep of a pagan temple, for then the argument implies that the disciples are sons of the pagan god! Nor can we suppose that Matthew is urging Jewish Christians to support the school of pharisaical rabbis that formed in jam yet during the aftermath of the Jewish rebellion, for he excoriates the Pharisees throughout his Gospel. The argument from 17:24 – 27 for an early date gains further cogency from the evidence that Matthew himself composed the passage.” (Gundry 1994, 606).
  2. Swearing by the Temple. In a section unique to Matthew, Matt 23:16-22 talks about swearing by the altar and sanctuary. While again this may be a faithful passing on of Jesus material, it nonetheless becomes antiquated post-70 CE, and if Matthew was the composer, it would make even less sense.
  3. Gift at the Altar. Like the previous passage, Matt 5:23-24 is unique to Matthew and would be teaching of Jesus that could no longer be followed if it was passed on, and make little sense for Matthew to compose after 70 CE if he composed it.
  4. Den of Robbers. Matt 21:13 is a passage used from Mark 11:17, and paralleled in Luke 19:46. What is interesting about Matthew's version is that he makes a verb change to a present for the verb "saying,", making it a Historic Present that stands out. He then also edits Mark's verb "turning" to a present tense as well: "you are turning it into a den of robbers." This change to a historic present main verb and switch to a present in the reported speech may be to highlight the current situation - i.e. that the temple is still standing.
  5. Jewish Persecution. If Matt 23:34 is reflecting current Jewish persecution of Christians by the synagogue, the verse implies an authority to punish that Jewish leaders did not likely have after the temple destruction.
  6. Fleeing on the Sabbath. Jesus in Matt 24:20-21 tells his hearers that he hopes their flight in 70 CE won't be on a sabbath or in winter. Yet if Eusebius is trustworthy, we know what happened: “the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.” (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.5.3). If Matthew wrote after 70 CE, we could perhaps expect some revision to the words of Jesus to conform to historical reality.

To this internal evidence we can also add patristic evidence, as Irenaeus in Ag. Her. 3.1 states that Matthew wrote while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome (i.e. in the 60s).

 

Taken all together, I think there is more evidence for a pre-70 CE dating of Matthew, and as I said, this has implications for the dating of the other synoptic gospels. Have I missed any arguments for the late or early dating? Let me know in the comments!

Posted by Danny Zacharias.
Posted on August 16, 2016 and filed under Biblical Studies.