Historical Champions

John Witherspoon and Your Family Bible

One of my goals with this web site is to impress on the reader that throughout the centuries there have been advocates of the view that Matthew was published within a decade of the resurrection. In this blog post, we look at one example of such.

1850 Bible with a table of dates.

If you have a family Bible from the 1800s, then it may well attest to the view that Matthew’s Gospel was published 6 years after the death of Christ and that the Gospels were published in the traditionally accepted order of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Indeed, many of the Bibles published in America during the 1800s included the same chart, entitled: “Account of the Dates or Time of Writing Books of the New Testament.” Accordingly, rank and file Christians across the country were widely exposed to both early Gospel dates and an affirmation of the traditional publication order—Matthew in AD 39, Mark in 43, Luke in 56, and John in 96.1 And this leads us to an interesting history lesson.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, the British Crown restricted “the publication of the King James Bible to the King’s printers.”2 However with the war, “the colonies were cut off from supplies of Scriptures from England,” and so American printers began printing New Testaments and then full Bibles.3 In 1791, a Bible was published which replaced the standard dedication, “To the Most High and Mighty Prince James,” with an introductory address, “To the Reader,” written by Dr. John Witherspoon—Presbyterian Minister, president of the College of New Jersey (the future Princeton), and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon is also credited with providing the above chart of NT publication dates.4 And because of the early practice of sharing printing plates, the chart was widely propagated by printers across the country, and then continued to be retained in later editions.5 I have images of this chart from Bibles printed by a variety of printers in 1809 and 1810 in Boston, 1815 in Philadelphia, 1817 in Boston, 1823 and 1828 in New York, 1834 in Boston, 1840 in NY, 1842 in Cincinnati, 1850 in Boston, 1852 in NY, 1862 in Philadelphia, and 1870 in Connecticut. This was the latest publication which I could find which contained the chart, as subsequent Bibles either offered alternative dates or no dates. For example, Bibles published by the American Bible Society during this era did not include dates.

As for alternative dates, an 1803 Bible lists dates which are credited to John Michaelis of AD 61, 61, 63 or 64, and 69 (while also listing alternative dates per Nathaniel Lardner for Matthew and Mark of AD 64).6 An 1847 Bible lists dates of AD 37, 65, 63 and 96, thus placing Luke before Mark. An 1881 Bible list dates of “uncertain” for Matthew, 63, 60, and 96.

In the United Kingdom, it was apparently not the general practice during this era to include dates for the Gospels and other NT books. However, there were some noteworthy exceptions. A 1785 Bible lists Bishop Wilson’s dates in the notes: Matthew within eight years after Christ’s ascension, Mark within ten years, and Luke within fifteen years.7 An 1808 Bible lists several sets of dates for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which are credited to various scholars—Lardner is said to prefer “about 64,” 64, 63 or 64, and 68; Henry Owen favors AD 38, 63, 53, and 69; and Thomas Townson simply determines that Matthew was first and early, Mark in 56 or 60, Luke next, and John after the destruction of Jerusalem.8

And if we return to the United States for a moment, it was in 1909 (and 1917) that C. I. Scofield published his reference Bible, which simply asserts that “no convincing reason has been given for discrediting the traditional date of AD 37,” though he does not cite his source.9

Scofield 1917

Scofield then places Mark between AD 57 and 63, Luke between 63 and 68, and John between 85 and 90.10

Unquestionably, a variety of opinions regarding publication dates were circulating in the 1800s. Regardless, my point is that within recent centuries there was widespread dissemination of the view that Matthew was published within a decade of the resurrection, largely due to the popular work of John Witherspoon and C. I. Scofield. Though modern academia has largely excluded this view from the present dialog over Gospel Origins, the view does have strong roots within Christendom, and particularly within the American church.

Copyright © 2024, Daniel B. Moore

  1. Above image is from The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments (Boston, MA: B. B. Mussey & Co., 1850). ↩︎
  2. Margaret T. Hills, ed., The English Bible in America: A Bibliography of Editions of the Bible & the New Testament Published in America 1777-1957 (New York, NY: New York American Bible Society and The New York Public Library, 1961), xv. ↩︎
  3. Ibid. ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 7. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., xvii. ↩︎
  6. Samuel Etheridge, ed., The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments (Charlestown, MA: Samuel Etheridge, 1803). ↩︎
  7. Clement Cruttwell, ed., The Holy Bible; Containing the Books of the Old and New Testaments, vol. 3, 3 vols. (Bath: R. Cruttwell, 1785). ↩︎
  8. William Newcome, trans., The New Testament, in an Improved Version (London: The London Society, 1808), xxv-xxvi. ↩︎
  9. C. I. Scofield, ed., The Scofield Reference Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1917), 993. Tillemont’s chronology identified Matthew as being written three years after the resurrection. Similarly, Thomas Horne subscribed to an AD 37 date. Claude Fleury and Louis-Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont, The Ecclesiastical History of M. l’abbé Fleury, with the Chronology of M. Tillemont, trans. H. Herbert, vol. 5, Histoire Ecclésiastique.English. (London: James Crokatt, 1727); Thomas Hartwell Horne, Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, 4th ed., vol. 4 (Philadelphia, PA: E. Littell, 1825), 232. ↩︎
  10. The New Scofield Reference Bible in 1967 subsequently abandoned Scofield’s dates, without explanation, and pushed Matthew out to AD 50, Mark to AD 68, Luke to 60, and John to 85-90. C. I. Scofield and E. Schuyler, eds., The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1967). ↩︎

One comment on “John Witherspoon and Your Family Bible

  1. A great start on a very attractive web site, and such a provocative subject, yet it is not surprising that this is what can be described as a minority report in today’s world. It is really quite clearly exposed in a number of surveys of Christian beliefs over the past several decades that there has been a measurable slippage in those who claim to be born again. Hence, of those holding to the belief by faith in the authority and accuracy of what we have received. Our authority is from the Omniscient Author and His co-author, the Apostle John:

    Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:5 NKJV)

    There is great value for the diligent student of the word of truth in looking up the Scripture references of a topic as they are listed on many pages of a textbook. But very often time pressure and the various types of inertia conspire against such good study habits by the reader. As well as overlooking the opportunity for the Omniscient Author and his co-authors to spiritually convict and enlighten the reader. This spiritual slippage described above is most advanced and apparent in the writings of the elite theological academies, less so in the Bible Institute School movement; with regards to the commonality [you and I] the more heterodox mainline churches are less obedient to the Holy Spirits authority and the only growing segment is the ‘Independent groups’.

    There is a rather close correspondence between the spread of Darwinism in the the theological academy of that time [1850’s — 1900’s] and its spread and modification of the theology through the mainstream church, and the disappearance of the Bible Date charts displayed in your example Bibles. A hundred and fifty years ago it was ‘the assured result of academic scholarship’ of the majority of German and English enlightenment theologians was that Moses was not literate ‘because there was no Hebrew language that long ago’. Sadly there were many doctorates issued by Cambridge, Oxford, and all of the others over the decades based upon that false modern thesis. So then this modernistic and unscholarly malady of a modernism framework was forced upon the ancients by the moderns, just as there are hermeneutics that tolerate the forcing of the interpreter viewpoint on their systematic theology.

    So also the theological academy has had to, over the past century and a half, progressively retreat from ‘the assured results of scholarly academic research,’ as the sophistication and power of archeology have grown more and more accurate. Every year now we read of this, that, and the other discovery forcing the academics to retreat from a third century, to a second century, then a late first century [todays majority position] to a more reasonable mid first century position. Dan’s work, across a very diverse field of facts, both in his new book and now in this web page demonstrates a strengthening argument that is reasonable and rational.

    Good Job and Well Done.
    David K. Austin

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