Did None of Jesus’ Disciples Live Long Enough to Write a Gospel?

Posted: February 22, 2012 in General

Dr. Craig Blomberg joined the faculty of Denver Seminary in 1986. He is currently a distinguished professor of New Testament. He completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. He received an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Augustana College.

[This article was originally posted in the famous New Testament Musings Blog (on August 29, 2011). It is re-posted here with permission from the author. Read below…]

“’You are not yet fifty years old,’ they said to him.” (John 8:57a NIV)

I’m not sure which is more disturbing:  the ridiculously specious arguments that some supposedly bona fide scholars put forth in their desperate efforts to undermine confidence in Scripture or the inability of rank-and-file Christians to see through them and the speed with which they allow their faith to be threatened.

Several people have contacted me recently about the apparently widely circulating claim that life expectancies were too low in Jesus’ day for any of the eyewitnesses of his life to have written the four New Testament Gospels on the standard liberal dates that place Mark in the 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 80s and John in the 90s.  Of course, evangelicals, more trusting of the testimony of the second-century Church Fathers, typically place Matthew, Mark and Luke all in the 60s but often accept that it’s likely that John was written in the 90s.  Some of these people have apparently been skeptics; others have apparently been Christians.  What’s frightening is their seeming inability to think of any way to address the question and smug comments or helpless fears that 2000-year-old claims have been suddenly disproved by “new evidence.”

Some of the forms of the attack on the traditional ascription of Gospel authorship claim that even the 60s are too late for apostolic authorship.  Seriously?  The claim boils down to this—the average life expectancy in Israel was about 40.  Jesus was said to be about thirty when he began his ministry (Luke 3:1).   Presumably his followers were about his age.  But even if some were as young as 20, they would have been at least in their fifties by the decade of the sixties.  Hence the traditional Christian claim is impossible.

When was the last time anyone reflected on the meaning of the word “average”?  The average age of Denver Seminary students in recent years has been about 29.  But we have oodles of people in their thirties, forties, fifties and even a few in their sixties.  How can this be?  Because the single biggest cluster of students, age-wise, are in their early to mid-twenties.  That’s how averages work.

So even if you didn’t know a whit of history about the first-century, you ought to recognize the argument fails right out of the gate.  But if you do realize from the study of any culture of any point in time prior to the twentieth-century West, that large numbers of children died in infancy or childhood, then you’d realize that an average life span of forty would mean more people significantly older than 40 than is true in the U.S. today when the average life span of people is late 70s and yet almost no one lives more than thirty years beyond that average.

Biblical illiteracy also comes into play here.   Can anyone tell me the age of anybody according to the New Testament?  And even if you don’t know, how about typing in to BibleWorks or Logos (or even google for that matter) or using a hard-copy concordance and looking up words like “thirty,” “forty,” “fifty,” “sixty,” etc.?

When Jesus claimed to have seen Abraham’s day, certain Jewish leaders responded with disbelief and outrage because, as they pointed out, he wasn’t even yet fifty (John 8:57).  They could have said he wasn’t even yet forty, but perhaps they weren’t sure of his age and were playing it safe.  Obviously it wouldn’t have been unusual for someone to have lived to fifty, or they wouldn’t have chosen the number.

How about the widows that Paul tells Timothy the church must take care if they meet a variety of qualifications.  One is that they are over sixty (1 Tim 5:9).  Obviously there had to be enough people of this age in Ephesus alone, where Timothy is pastoring, so that even after many of them are disqualified because they have younger family members to care for them (as almost all would have) there are still enough to make this a formal church roll call.

We really don’t have to go any further to see that the New Testament writers themselves knew that it was not implausible for lots of people to live into their fifties and sixties.  Even someone as old as Jesus could easily have written a Gospel in the 60s, while someone ten years younger than Jesus could have easily written a Gospel in the 70s.

But what about John in the 90s?  Here questions are more understandable.  The average person probably doesn’t have a quick way to answer for themselves if people in the first-century Roman empire lived into their eighties or nineties.  But hopefully many Christians who read and reread their Bibles will recall that Anna, the elderly prophet ministering in the temple when Jesus was born.  Luke 2:36 says that “she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four” (NIV).  It is even possible to translate the Greek here as saying that she had been a widow for eighty-four years (NIV mg)!  Jewish women often married at or soon after puberty, but even on a “youngest-case scenario”—say age 13 plus seven plus 84, this would have made her 104!  Although this is not as likely a rendering, it is not impossible.  The Mishnah, a compilation of older Jewish traditions, written down in about A.D. 200, gives a characterization in its tractate known as Pirke Aboth of what we might call stereotypes of people in each decade of life going all the way up to 100, at which point it says these people live as if they were already dead!

Interestingly, ancient Christian art regularly depicts John as the one disciple painted without facial hair.  Does this reflect knowledge that he was perhaps only a mid-teen when he followed Christ?  If so, he could have been fifteen years younger.  That would have meant he wouldn’t have turned 80 until the mid-90s.  Does any of this mean that lots of people lived to these ripe old ages in the first-century?  Not at all.  A far higher percentage of the population today does so than at any time in human history.  But no Christian ever claimed that more than one apostle wrote a Gospel at an old age.  No Gospel writer ever claimed that anyone else they knew lived to be as old as Anna.

Even if you dismiss every shred of evidence written by a Christian, wouldn’t you be curious to know what other historians said?  Anyone who’s ever studied an introduction to world civilization knows that we know the life spans of countless important people from the ancient Mediterranean world.  How about checking those lengths of time again?  For example, google “age of Roman emperors” and the first site listed will give you all the ages of the Roman emperors at the time they came to power and the years during which they reigned.  From that it’s a simple calculation to see those that lived into their sixties, seventies and beyond.  With a little creativity you can find a lot more evidence of ancient life spans.

Let’s start thinking clearly on topics like these.

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