back to the future and me: understanding the timings of the Christian gospels

My kids are getting older, but they’re still not quite old enough to watch the Back to the Future trilogy. We were talking about Rube Goldberg machines, and the kids love to watch YouTube videos of the different machines that people have made.

I remember the start of Back to the Future, how Doc Brown has set up a machine to feed Einstein a fresh tin of dog food, and the next thing I know, we’re watching the opening titles for Back to the Future.

I first saw Back to the Future on the big screen with my Dad when the movie came out in late 1985: over 31 years ago. A lot has happened in my life since then, and I’ve interacted with that movie and its sequels a number of times over the years, and I still have a strong recollection of the events of the film.

And this wasn’t even a set of events I lived through: just a film I saw.

The back to the future trilogy is particularly interesting because it talks about 30-year intervals of time. The film is set in 1985, and involves journeys to 1955, and later to 2015. Watching the film again in 2015, I was struck by the sense of distance that comes from a 30-year period: just as I was watching a film that looked back to my childhood, my Dad would have been watching a film that looked back on his childhood.

30 years is a long time. And not a long time.

Which brings us to the gospels. As we head back to ancient times, the standards of document copying and reporting change significantly. It was not possible to photocopy the documents you would want to: indeed, it’s more expensive to write things down in general. And so people were better at remembering things they had been told, and tended to have a more formal process for memorisation, and – when something was important enough to write down – it was written in a way that tried to conserve space on the page.

If you date Jesus’ life from a birth in 4BC (should that be BCE?) and death in 33AD (should that be CE), then there’s a gap of some 30-35 years between Jesus’ death and the writing of the early gospels: there are a range of scholarly opinions around the dates of the gospels, but here’s a rough guide:

Mark: 65-70 AD, just before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Roman armies.
Matthew: 75-85 AD (though some say 60-70 AD).
Luke: 80-85 AD
John: 85-95 AD.

Source: Eric Hatfield, Were the gospels written al long time after the event?

I have a pretty good recollection of the Back to the Future films, and the events in them, and as much as I like them, I don’t think they are of eternal significance, nor have I spent a lot of repeated energy learning about them. The people who wrote down the gospels were motivated and well equipped to investigate the events of Jesus’ life, and would have done the best job possible. These documents could still be verified by people who were still alive at the time of circulating them – so there was a built-in fact-checking.

Can we trust the gospels? I think they’re a spectacularly good record of a long distant period of time.

What’s in the gospels? That’s for another post.

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