When Were the Gospels Written?
The four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are the first four books of the New Testament section of the Bible. They chronicle the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. But when exactly were these accounts written? Determining when the Gospels were composed is important for understanding how close they were to the life of Jesus, and for assessing their historical reliability. Scholars have proposed various date ranges, but there is no consensus. Here is an overview of the evidence and theories regarding when the four Gospels were written:
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Mark is considered by most scholars to be the earliest Gospel written. Evidence for its early authorship includes:
– The early church fathers Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria claim that Mark wrote his Gospel based on the preaching of Peter. This suggests it was written while Peter was still alive. Since Peter died around AD 65, Mark was likely written before then.
– Mark does not mention the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, but does talk about a future destruction (Mark 13:2). If it had already occurred, Mark would presumably have mentioned it.
– Mark’s Gospel has a simple, unsophisticated Greek style and grammar, suggesting an early date closer to Jesus’ lifetime. The later Gospels exhibit more polished Greek.
Based on these factors, most scholars date the writing of Mark to the late 50s or early 60s AD. A specific year is not known, but a date between 55 and 65 is probable. This would place Mark about 30-40 years after the death of Jesus (around AD 30). Some more conservative scholars opt for an even earlier date in the 40s AD.
The Gospel of Matthew
Matthew is very similar to Mark in content and structure, suggesting Mark was a source for Matthew. Most scholars believe Matthew was composed between AD 80-90, since:
– It had to come after Mark was written in the 50s or 60s.
– It reflects concerns of the early church from the 80s onward, like conflicts with Pharisees and the growth of gentile missionary efforts.
– The destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70 is implied in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24).
– Like Luke, Matthew shows signs of more developed Christian theology and church structure than Mark.
Some conservative scholars argue Matthew was written earlier, in the 50s or 60s, but there are good reasons to favor the 80-90 date range:
– Matthew copies over 90% of Mark, so it’s unlikely he would not have used such an early source.
– An early date conflicts with the tradition of Matthean authorship, since the apostle Matthew would have been dead by the 60s.
The Gospel of Luke
Luke and its sequel, Acts, are addressed to a patron named Theophilus (Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1). Acts ends abruptly in the early 60s, so Luke was likely written sometime in the early to mid 60s. Evidence includes:
– Luke incorporates parts of Mark, so must be later than Mark.
– Luke does not mention the destruction of the temple or the deaths of Peter and Paul (Acts omits James’ death also), suggesting it was written before AD 70.
– Compared to Mark, Luke has a much broader outlook and shows more developed theology, consistent with a later date.
Most scholars conclude Luke was composed between 60-65 AD. An earlier date in the 50s is possible but less likely, while conservative scholars sometimes argue for a later date in the 70s or 80s. But Luke using Mark and ending Acts pre-AD 70 puts the balance of evidence in the early 60s.
The Gospel of John
John is very different from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in content, structure and theology, implying a late date of composition. The key evidence includes:
– John does not directly use any material from the Synoptics, suggesting it was written after they were already circulating.
– John reflects views of a developed Gnosticism, which flourished in the late 1st century.
– The Gospel has higher Christology than the Synoptics, implying later theological development.
– John assumes readers are familiar with Jewish customs, Palestinian geography, and the Synoptics.
Based on these factors, most scholars date John to between AD 90-110, with a possible range between AD 80-130. A minority argues for an earlier date in the 60s or 70s. But the differences from the Synoptics strongly suggest John was the last Gospel written.
Summary of Gospel Dates:
– Mark: Written ca. 55-65 AD
– Matthew: Written ca. 80-90 AD
– Luke: Written ca. 60-65 AD
– John: Written ca. 90-110 AD
In summary, the four Gospels were likely composed between 55 and 110 AD, with Mark as the earliest and John as the latest. There is some flexibility of a decade or so in either direction, but most fall within these date ranges. Mark drew from Peter’s preaching, Matthew expanded on Mark, Luke used both, while John offered a unique spiritual presentation of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Implications of the Dating
Dating when the Gospels were written has important implications:
1. It suggests how historically reliable they are. The earlier the date, the closer to Jesus’ lifetime and the less time for legends or fabrications to accumulate. Mark within 30-40 years is considered quite early and reliable.
2. It shows development of theology and church structure over time. The Gospels move from simple presentations of Jesus’ teachings to more reflective accounts of His divine nature.
3. It demonstrates that Jesus’ story circulated orally at first before being written down. The gap of a few decades was typical for figures from antiquity.
4. It establishes when the accounts attained their canonical form, which was essential for the early church.
5. It provides context for the mission of the apostles and growth of the church described in Acts, Paul’s epistles and other New Testament books.
While the precise years are uncertain, placing the Gospels between the 50s and 110s AD coheres with evidence from church history, their content and style, and citation by early Christian writers. So although not exact, these date ranges help situate when the life of Jesus was first put into writing through the Gospel narratives. This provides a historical foundation for understanding their origins and purpose.
Arguments for Early Dates
Some Christian scholars argue the Gospels were written much earlier, in the 40s, 50s or 60s AD. What is the evidence they cite for such early dates?
1. The ability of eyewitnesses to still be alive to consult. If dated too late, most eyewitnesses would have died.
2. The lack of referenced historical events after the 60s AD. If written later, major events like the fall of Jerusalem might be mentioned.
3. Tradition of authorship by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If too late, the apostles would not have still been living.
4. Lack of developed theology and church structure in the Gospels, suggesting an early origin.
5. Rapid spread of Christianity requiring Gospels to be written down soon after Jesus’ death. Oral transmission alone would be insufficient.
6. Persecution of Christians by the 60s, giving impetus to quickly record an account of Jesus’ life while the apostles were still able.
7. The ability for most of the New Testament canon to be established by the end of the first century. This requires the Gospels to have been composed much earlier.
8.Paul’s epistles (50s-60s AD) seeming to quote or allude to Gospel content, implying they were already written.
While these points suggest plausibility for early dates, they are generally considered insufficient to outweigh the evidence for later dating presented previously. But they spark lively scholarly debate on this complex issue. There are reasonable cases to be made across a range of dates.
Objections to a Late Gospel of John
The late date proposed by many scholars for the Gospel of John (up to 110 AD) is not without objections:
1. It assumes John would have incorporated material from the Synoptics if he was aware of them. But his omission of their content could simply indicate he did not view them as a necessary source.
2. John’s higher Christology does not necessitate a late date, since a high view of Christ could have originated early.
3. Apparent allusions and references to John in very early Christian writings challenge the view that it was written last.
4. If John’s author was aware of Synoptic Gospels, this assumes he valued their faithful preservation and transmission. But he may not have.
5. John’s focus on Jewish customs and Palestinian geography need not imply he was explaining them to distant Gentile readers unfamiliar with Judaism.
6. While John does not directly use the Synoptics as a source, he still seems knowledgeable about many of the same events and teachings they describe from Jesus’ ministry.
So some contend John should be dated closer to the Synoptics, in the 60s or 70s AD. However, while not foolproof, the case for a late first century date still appears stronger overall based on current evidence. But like the dating of all the Gospels, legitimate grounds for debate remain.
Dating the composition of the four New Testament Gospels is a complex challenge with no consensus. But based on available manuscript, historical and textual evidence, most scholars place Mark first in the 60s AD, followed by Matthew and Luke around 80-90 AD and John last in the 90-110 AD range. Plausible objections and opposition to these dates persist in some scholarly circles. But overall they continue to represent the most likely timeframe in which the Gospels were written based on careful analysis thus far, while remaining open to new evidence. Their early authorship supports the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts.