Jesus of Nazareth is the central figure in Christianity. And, according to Christian belief, the single most important person ever to have lived. There is some information about Jesus that can be gleaned from other Christian sources, including Paul. And there are a small handful of obscure secular references. But the four New Testament gospel accounts provide the bulk of what we know about him. And thus the reliability of these accounts is very important to Christians and to Christianity. So what do we know about the dating of the gospels as well as their authorship? Actually not nearly as much as we might like.
It would be really great if we could find a copy of the Gospel of John with a copyright page. A page that included the author and date of the first printing. Unfortunately, those kinds of clues are missing from the writings of that time. It would also be convenient if other writers in the first couple of centuries had believed in providing references for their quotes. There are plenty of short passages used in other writings that appear to come from one of the gospels. But they could just as easily come from another source. As a result, we have to use some more indirect methods to try and ascertain the dating and authorship of the gospels.
I have read from a variety of sources concerning the gospels. Some claim that the authors knew the geography of Israel as well as customs and titles common to the first half of the first century. And other sources make just the opposite claim. It is difficult for me to know just how to evaluate those conflicting claims, so I generally ignore them.
Some Benchmark Dates
There are a couple of dates that are fairly well established that can help us in dating the gospels. The first of these is the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. And the second is the death of the apostle Paul. Most sources place his death sometime between 64 and 68 AD.
These dates do not help us to place hard dates on the gospels, but they do allow for some boundaries. For instance, if something was written before the destruction of Jerusalem, then we can know that it was written prior to 70 AD.
The Destruction of Jerusalem
The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all record Jesus teaching about the destruction of Jerusalem. His disciples had expressed their awe at the temple structure. Jesus responded by telling them that this temple would be destroyed, with not one stone left standing on another. Naturally, his disciples asked him about this and when it would occur.
Jesus’ response to this question is one of his longer recorded discourses. And there are some challenges involved in understanding all that he is talking about. But most agree that at least some portion of his message to them was fulfilled a few years later, after Jerusalem rebelled against Rome, and the Roman armies captured and destroyed the city and its temple. This destruction occurred in 70 AD.
This then provides a potential upper boundary for dating these three gospels. Were they written before Jerusalem fell? With Jesus’ words being prophetic? Were they written after the fall of Jerusalem, and with a faithful rendering of what Jesus had said earlier? Or are they written after Jerusalem fell with words tailored to fit the actual event?
And the End of the Age
There is, at least to me, a certain amount of ambiguity in what Jesus said concerning Jerusalem’s destruction. Is this one event or two that he describes? Much of it appears to be describing events at the end of the age when he returns. And that is clearly distinct from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. But where that line is between the two is unclear; at least to me.
That is understandable if this was written before the events, by people who did not know where the line between them was. But it is much less understandable to me if the gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem At this time the line between the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the age would have been much more clearly known.
Establishing a Benchmark for Dating
So it seems most logical to me to date the gospels, at least the Synoptics, prior to 70 AD. Clearly, this cannot be known absolutely. But, based on the internal evidence, that does seem like a safe bet to me.
That leaves the gospel of John. And in this gospel, in John 5:2, you will find a reference to the Pool of Bethesda. John describes it as having current existence. Yet it was destroyed, along with Jerusalem, in 70 AD. This would give some indication that either John was unaware of its destruction. Or he had written prior to it.
The Death of Paul
The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are claimed to be written by the same author, and I know of no serious objection to that. The author of Acts also appears to be a sometimes traveling companion of Paul. There are three small sections in the latter part of Acts (16; 10-16; 20:6-21:17; 27:1-28:16) where the narrative changes from second and third-person to first-person plural. And in these sections, the level of detail goes up considerably. This would seem to indicate that the author had joined Paul on some sections of his travels.
The latter half of the book of Acts is almost exclusively about the travels of Paul, providing some information about the spread of the gospel through the northeast corner of the Mediterranean, from Turkey to Rome. And the account ends with Paul spending two years under Roman house arrest in Rome. Paul was been killed between 64 and 68 AD, yet Luke makes no reference to his death. Why? It would seem reasonable to me to assume that Paul was still alive when Acts was written. And if so, that would put its date prior to 68 AD. It is likely that the gospel of Luke, volume one of his works, preceded Acts by a couple of years, putting it into the early to mid-’60s.
And that would put Mark, which appears to be a common source for Matthew and Luke, even earlier.
Gospel Dates and Authors
Mark is likely the earliest gospel written, and a date in the late 50s would not be unreasonable. This gospel is anonymous. But early tradition attributes it to John Mark. He was a relative of Barnabas (Col. 4:10) and a one-time companion of Paul (Acts 13:5; 15:36-41). There is a tradition that he listened to the stories of Peter while in Rome and then crafted this account, but that is by no means certain. The curious reference in Mark 14:51-52 could well be Mark saying “I was there”.
Luke and Acts were likely written in the early to mid-’60s, see above. These accounts are also anonymous. But Acts appears to have been written by someone who spent at least some time with Paul. The author also claims that at the time of his writing, there were already a number of accounts of the life of Jesus circulating. And that he researched his account striving for accuracy. By tradition the author of this set is Luke.
Matthew is likely written sometime in the ’60s and, like Mark and Luke, is anonymous. Tradition attributes this gospel to Matthew, the tax collector who became a disciple of Jesus. But I do not think that is likely. If so, why would he draw so heavily from Mark rather than his own recollections?
John is traditionally dated to the end of the first century. But it seems more likely to me to also come prior to 70 AD and the fall of Jerusalem. The author of John is not identified by name. But John 21:24 seems to indicate that it is written by one of Jesus’ disciples, likely John who is the traditional author.
Two resources will provide an example of the datings that have been assigned to these 5 books. The first of these is from the website, Errant Skeptics (http://www.evidenceforjesuschrist.org/Pages/bible/dating-nt-chronological_order.htm). Unfortunately, this site is no longer available. But it provided a listing of the dates given by a variety of scholars, both liberal and conservative, for the writing of the New Testament books. The dates given below discard both the oldest and most recent estimates.
The second is from the book ‘Redating the New Testament’ by John A. T. Robinson, an often quoted book, although not universally accepted.
|Errant Skeptics||Redating the New Testament|
Some Other Thoughts
There are those who will argue that the gospels were written long after Jesus’ death. And that they did not actually come into their finished form until the 4th century. That they were the product of much editing and revision over the preceding centuries. And those are generally the same folks who will claim that the gospels are filled with contradictions and inconsistencies.
But is that not really a contradiction in itself? Think about it; if the gospels were edited for 200 to 300 years before reaching their final state, wouldn’t it seem like all of the inconsistencies and contradictions would have been edited out? I know I would have at least done something about the genealogies of Jesus presented in Matthew and Luke.
If, on the other hand, the gospels were written early, what would you expect to see? It could be that they would have been edited through the years. And if so, they should be consistent in all of their details. But they are not. This would indicate that little, if any, editing occurred. And it really would not be strange to see multiple accounts of Jesus’ ministry. Each with different focuses, with events in different orders and inconsistency in the numbers of people in some events.