Is it Possible to Date the Gospels? Maybe Not!

Image result for image of the gospel authors
The Four Evangelists


I have been challenged recently to provide evidence for the current scholarly consensus on the dating of the Gospels (Mark 65-75 CE, Matthew and Luke in the 70’s or 80’s, and John in the 90’s).  At first glance, it appears that the scholarly consensus is largely based on the belief that Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Mark is a clue that the author was writing after this event and put these words into the mouth of Jesus after the fact.  Christians complain that this dating is therefore biased:  It does not allow for the possibility that Jesus correctly prophesied this future event (or even that he made a lucky guess).

Christians on the other hand use the fact that Paul’s death is not mentioned in the Book of Acts as evidence that Acts was written prior to Paul’s death in circa 65 CE.  Since almost all scholars agree that Acts and Luke were written by the same author and that Luke was written before Acts, then Luke must have been written sometime in the early 60’s.  In addition, since scholars believe that Luke borrowed material from Mark, Mark must have been written even earlier, putting the dating of Mark in the mid to late 50’s.

So who is right?  We’ve read what conservative Christians say in our current review of Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Christianity.  Let’s now take a look at a couple of perspectives from skeptics:

Excerpt from Vridar: 

The first time we have secure and verifiable confidence of the existence of the Gospels is in the with the writings of Irenaeus.

Working back from that position we come to Justin in the mid second century and find some indirect hints that he may have known of the Gospels in a form not far removed from how we know them. Justin certainly speaks of quite a few things we find in the Synoptic Gospels. We sometimes find a phrase here and there in other works that we find likewise appear in the Gospels.

But we have no external basis at all to support our model that the narratives found in the Gospels are themselves historical or that they were composed within ear-shot of eyewitnesses of the events they narrate. The only rationale for this assumption is that the Gospels tell the story and sound like they are relating real events so we believe there narratives are derived from real history.

Some have attempted to justify this position by claiming that the only way we know of anything in the past is by the ancient works that speak of these events. But that position is really a common street understanding of how we gain our knowledge of the past. It is not scholarly. Any historian worth their salt evaluates the sources they use by firstly ascertaining their provenance, nature and reliability. Historians who have naively relied upon single sources without subjecting them to such tests have ended up with egg on their faces when others have come along and performed the tests that should have been done in the first place. See, for example, Liverani’s observations of early Hittite historians. But at least those Hittite historians did have a certain provenance for their source — a royal monumental stone — while for the Gospels we don’t even have anything comparable.

In the case of the Gospels we have only the self-testimony of their narratives and none of the additional resources we need to yield to us the answers we need in order to make judgements about the historical foundations of their narratives and when they were written. Even their genre is open to debate and it is genre that is an important (though not necessarily decisive) key to understanding the sorts of information their authors thought they were expressing.

The internal evidence of the Gospels gives us a start by date (terminus a quo). The external evidence gives us the finish by date (terminus ad quem).

The internal evidence is more than the Little Apocalypse, however. Synagogues and Pharisees as features of the Galilean life, and the sorts of characterisations of Pharisees we read about and the conflicts between Christianity and the rabbis we encounter in the Gospels, the beginnings of persecutions, not to mention the existence of Nazareth itself, are according to archaeological and other literary evidence very late first century or early second century developments.

Excerpt from Cross Examined:

The gospels themselves argue that the gospels were late. Luke begins, “Many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” The phrase “from the beginning” suggests a good amount of time has passed. And what about the reference to “many” prior accounts? Even with the hypothetical lost gospel of Q, the first century didn’t have many gospels (as far as we know). This sounds more like the second century, when “many” would accurately describe the number of gospels.

At the end of Matthew, we read, “So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (Matt. 28:15). This phrase also suggests a good amount of time, not shortly.
Gary:  I believe that the best we can say is this:  If one assumes the non-reality of the supernatural, it is probable that the first Gospel, Mark, was written after 70 CE; the author of Mark included this “prophesy” because he knew it had already occurred.  And in regards to the issue in the Book of Acts,  there are plenty of literary reasons why the author might not have included Paul’s death.  These literary reasons are more probable (in a non-supernatural world) than that Jesus correctly predicted an event or had a lucky guess.  However, if we must include the possibility of the supernatural, then we are forced to be much more non-specific as to the dating.
Probably the best answer to the question of the dating of the Gospels is given by respected New Testament scholar NT Wright:  “No one really knows!”  You can hear him say that with your own two ears in this video:

2 thoughts on “Is it Possible to Date the Gospels? Maybe Not!

  1. “If one assumes the non-reality of the supernatural, it is probable that the first Gospel, Mark, was written after 70 CE…”

    Granted. But I disagree. (see below)

    “However, if we must include the possibility of the supernatural, then we are forced to be much more non-specific as to the dating.”

    Quite true.

    My Disagreement with the first point: Note how vrider totally leaves out the possibility of Jesus simply having made an “informed, intuitive prediction”, as political analysts, stock analysts, insurance actuarial analysts, etc, do every day. Even MINUS a “supernatural”, there still exists the possibility that Mark was written before 70 AD. Given other information, such as “internal” textual info, the knowledge that *others* had said the same thing (warning of the destruction of the Temple), and so on, I’d have to rank the probability *higher* that Mark (and Luke, Matthew and Acts) were all written before 70 AD.

    But, this is all speculation, whether on the part of the skeptic or the believer. Nobody *knows* when the Gospels were written. That’s the answer.

    Some day, some new Gospel fragment or other archaeological info may turn up that answers the question. Until then, it’s everybody’s “guessing game”, and one can simply choose to believe what they wish.

    Liked by 1 person

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