Despite the testimony of the early church Fathers, earlier in the 20th century it was commonly claimed that the gospels were not written until some 100 years after Christ. This view had gained fashionability as a result of the theories of higher criticism, which were only really plausible if one assumed a process of gradual development of the gospel stories. However, when the basis of these later datings is examined they prove to be extremely fragile; being based mostly upon the assumptions of the theory they are required to support.
Very late datings for the gospels may be dismissed fairly readily. Citations of Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts appear in the letter of Clement of Rome (died c. AD 102) to the Corinthians; a document dated around AD 95 and generally accepted as genuine. John is also cited by Ignatius, who died c. AD 117. Interestingly, until very recently it was John’s gospel, the last to be written, that had yielded the earliest extant manuscript – a fragment which has been dated to around AD 130 and is now in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, UK. The fact that this was found in Egypt indicates that the gospels were already widely circulated by this date.
The Destruction of the Temple
The principal and most frequently cited argument for a late dating of the gospels relates to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70. It was claimed that since all the synoptic gospels make reference to this event they must have been written afterwards.
But what is remarkable about the New Testament documents is that nowhere in the gospels or epistles is this destruction said to have already taken place.
On the contrary, the references are in the context of prophecies made by Jesus when the temple was still standing. This makes it all the more remarkable that none of the gospel writers make any comment about the fulfillment of this prophecy – because this is entirely out of keeping with their observed practice of pointing out where Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, or even his own predictions of his resurrection. Acts, which is clearly a sequel to Luke, makes no mention of this event even though there are plenty of references to Jerusalem; neither do any of the epistles. Only in Revelation, which may well have been written after AD 70, do we find what may be a veiled reference. Since this was the worst catastrophe to befall the Jews in living memory, and a clear vindication of Jesus’ words, this silence is deafening.
If the gospels had been written after the fall of Jerusalem there would have been no need to conceal this fact. (The Old Testament, for example, contains many evidences of later editorship, with expressions such as, ‘to this day’ occurring in many places.) Similarly in both Luke (1:1-4) and John (21:24) the writers are quite candid about the fact that they are compiling their gospels retrospectively, using eyewitness and documentary accounts.
Furthermore, the narrative of Acts (the sequel to Luke) ends with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (AD 60-22), making no mention of the fire of Rome and Nero’s resulting persecution of Christians in AD 64, or the beginning of the Jewish revolt in AD 66; so a date later than this is highly doubtful.
Consequently the logical conclusion, based on the internal evidence, is that the gospels predate the fall of Jerusalem and were based on the testimony of witnesses, supplemented by written notes (see below).
Historical Objections to Higher Criticism
The arguments of higher criticism are based upon the idea that the theology of the early church was gradually developed over a period of time in order to meet the needs of the early church. The main implication of this is the assumption that the miraculous elements of the gospels, including the resurrection, are later additions; and that the first generation of Christians had little, if any, interest in preserving an accurate historical account of the life of Christ. This requires that either:
- the gospel writers were aware that the accounts they were presenting were not factual,
- the gospels were not recorded in their present form until well after the event.
The obvious difficulty with both suggestions is that the gospel writers insist the details they record are factual (cf. Luke 1:1-4, John 19:35 and 21:24). If they are not, it is difficult to regard them as the work of honest men. Even the higher critics would generally stop short of suggesting a deliberate falsification. The Graeco-Roman culture in which early Christianity developed is radically different from the Palestine of Jesus’ day: so if the gospels are shown to accurately reflect conditions in first-century Palestine, then the higher critics’ claim for a later dating is discredited.
It is in precisely this area that the wealth of historical research over the last century has worked so strongly to re-establish confidence in the NT documents. Books such as the gospels and Acts contain a wealth of historical and cultural detail; and the more that is learned about the Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures of Jesus’ day, the more apparent it becomes that the accuracy and detail of the information given effectively rules out the possibility of later embellishment.
Here are a few serious verdicts on the subject (from sceptical scholars, not bible fundamentalists):
“Luke is a historian of the first rank … this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” (Sir William Ramsay, ‘The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament.’ Prior to his archaeological researches in Asia, Ramsay had believed that Luke was totally unreliable.)
“As a Western Scripture scholar I am inclined to doubt these stories, but as a historian I am obliged to take them as reliable” (Dr. Peter Stuhlmacher, ‘Time’ magazine, 15/8/88)
“The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.” (Sir Frededick Kenyon, director and principal librarian at the British Museum, ‘The Bible and Archaeology’)
Dr. John A.T. Robinson, of ‘Honest to God’ fame, in his book, ‘Redating the New Testament’ also concludes that the evidence now available shows that the whole of the New Testament was written before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
The Current Concensus on Dating
Until quite recently, the general scholarly concensus would have placed Mark first at AD 64-70, Matthew at AD 70-80, Luke c. AD 80, with Acts some time after this, and John c. AD 90. These datings were primarily based, as previously discussed, on the invalid argument concerning the destruction of the temple and the theories of higher criticism.
More recent publications now suggest that Mark should be dated c. AD 50, Matthew c. AD 55, Luke c. AD 59 and Acts c. AD 63. Not all scholars have embraced this position, of course. At present, the general concensus appears to be AD 63-70 for Luke and AD 60-ish for Mark. Datings of around AD 60 for the synoptic gospels fit in well with the available NT and other historical evidence. All these dates clearly place the gospels within the lifetimes of the first generation Christians and eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry.
John is still generally dated at around AD 90; although some scholars, including J.A.T. Robinson and Thiering are now arguing that it may even predate Mark.
These are not the only New Testament sources which are generally accepted as contemporaneous with the apostles; we also have the epistles.
- In particular, the following epistles of Paul are generally accepted as authentic even by sceptical scholars, and opinions on their dates are normally consistent to within a few years of the following:
- AD 51 I Thessalonians
- AD 52 II Thessalonians
- AD 53 Galatians
- AD 55 I Corinthians, II Corinthians
- AD 57 Romans
- AD 60 Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon
- AD 61 Philippians
All of these dates place the Gospels and Pauline epistles within the lifetimes of the Apostles and other eyewitnesses of these events: so that there is no sound historical basis to question their authenticity. Obviously, if the attributions of the other epistles are correct, then these must also be contemporaneous. I have, however, avoided citing them in order that an examination of the evidence for the resurrection can proceed upon a basis of general scholarly endorsement.