I'm a history buff. I love to learn about how and why things occurred and how they are related to the world we see today. One of my favorite time periods to study is World War II. I think my wife and I have visited the WWII Museum in New Orleans about 4 or 5 times over the years. Inevitably, when you study World War II, you think about Nazism. And when you think about the Nazi's, what comes to mind first is the Holocaust.
Director Steven Spielberg made a film in the mid 90's called Schindler's List which portrayed the actions of Oskar Schindler who rescued over 1,000 Jews from the Holocaust. About this same time, he got involved with The Shoah Foundation. The foundation records visual eyewitness accounts of survivors of the Holocaust for the sake of preserving the living testimony of the eyewitnesses. This is important due to the many Holocaust deniers that have been active since the end of World War II.
The reason their testimony is so important is because they were there. 100 years from now, someone will watch their accounts and be confident that what they described actually happened.
So this brings us to a very important point: Can we apply the same test to the Gospel accounts and the New Testament as a whole? And is early dating important? One component to any eyewitness testimony is that the person claiming to be an eyewitness was actually present at the events they describe. If it can be reasonably shown that the New Testament was written early - that is, in the lifetime of the eyewitnesses - then that is one confirmed test to establish the reliability of the eyewitness accounts of Jesus life, ministry, death, and resurrection.
Let's look at a set of 4 quick facts that can help us determine if an early dating is reasonable.
1. Paul's Martyrdom
Most scholars place Paul's death in the late 60's AD. This is based on some historical data and some tradition. Tradition states that Paul was beheaded. Some believe this to not be likely as it was the emperor Nero's practice to burn, crucify, or feed Christians to wild animals. However, Paul being a Roman citizen afforded him the right to be beheaded. This is further corroborated by the account in Acts where Paul used his Roman citizenship status to appeal to Caesar. There is good historical evidence, however, that Paul was indeed martyred regardless of the methodology.
As Sean McDowell, PhD noted "early evidences for the martyrdom of Paul can be found in Ignatius (Letter to the Ephesians 12:2), Polycarp (Letter to the Philippians 9:1-2), Dionysius of Corinth (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25.4), Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.1.1), The Acts of Paul, and Tertullian (Scorpiace 15:5-6)".
2. James Martyrdom
James, the brother of Jesus was martyred in Jerusalem in AD 62. We have extra-biblical, corroborative evidence for this from the writings of Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews.
The strongest evidence for the writing of the book of Acts is around the early 60's AD, though some skeptical scholars place it at AD 125-30 (well outside of Luke's lifetime) while others place it at around AD 80-90. A few possible reasons that the dating of the early 60's is likely is the lack of mention of the above martyrdoms (though Acts mentions the stoning of Stephen and the beheading of James, the brother of the apostle John). Also, there is no mention of the destruction of Herod's Temple in AD 70 by General Titus or the siege of Jerusalem by his father, Vespasian. One could make a comparison to this event to that of 9/11. This was such a catastrophic event in the Judaeo world that one could argue Luke would have included it if Acts had been written after.
4. The Epistles
It would seem obvious to conclude that the epistles would have been written prior to the author's death. If we take the agreed upon Pauline Epistles (Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians), these would have been written prior to his death in the late 60's. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, we have was is believed to be the earliest known creed in the church.
For I passed on to you as most important what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins
according to the Scriptures,
that He was buried,
that He was raised on the third day
according to the Scriptures,
and that He appeared to Cephas,
then to the Twelve.
Then He appeared to over 500 brothers at one time;
most of them are still alive,
but some have fallen asleep.
Then He appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one abnormally born,
He also appeared to me.
It's easy to see the cadence in this passage. While the original was written in Greek, the pattern is the same. This means that the high Christology of the Church existed prior to Paul's being converted and was the earliest teaching of the Church. This stands in contrast to the accusations of skeptics that the teaching of Jesus being deity only came later in the 4th century.