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Dear Theophilus: On the Gospels and Time

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By Jeff Jibben
Faculty, College of Theology

I was under the impression, from archeological evidence, that it was at least a century later when the Gospels were written. I’d be interested in the evidence which points to their writing within 20-30 years after the events.

Sincerely,

Theophilus

Dear Theophilus,

The Gospels are trustworthy. Because of the extraordinary expense of writing in the first century, the first thought of most people when relaying events of the time was to speak rather than write. When writing occurred, it was not only expensive but it took time before copies were made available to others. Because of this, it was the norm for events to be written down decades after the fact if not longer.

When scholars look at ancient writings, they look at both internal evidences and external evidences to establish a date of writing. For the Gospels the external evidences are rather extensive. To name just a few, Papias of Hierapolis in modern day Turkey, wrote between 95 A.D. and 120 A.D. of the background of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Ignatius of Antioch, also in modern day Turkey, quotes the gospel of Matthew in his letter to the Smyrnaeans written about 108 A.D. Clement of Rome quotes Mark in his first letter, 1 Clement, in 96 A.D. The Rylands Papyrus 457 from Egypt is a fragment of the Gospel of John that dates to about 130 A.D.

Given the nature of writing in antiquity and external evidence of the Gospels from Rome to Turkey to Egypt, the original writing of the Gospels must have been decades before and well into the first century. With just these alone, a date of the gospels between 45 A.D. and 80 A.D. is completely reasonable.

Scholars also look at internal evidences to establish a date of writing. The Gospels contain a great deal of very accurate historical details that reveal the influence of eyewitnesses of the time of Jesus in Israel, thus a very early date. Importantly, the book of Acts ends with Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome at about 62 A.D. Because of the way the book ends, this is likely the date the book was completed. The Book of Acts is Luke’s second volume (Acts 1:1-2) written after Luke’s Gospel. Therefore, the Gospel of Luke must have been written before then, between 55-62 A.D.

Luke obviously relies on the Gospel of Mark, quoting extensively from it. The Gospel of Mark must have been written before Luke and had time to become available to Luke. With this in mind, the Gospel of Mark is often dated between 45 A.D. and 55 A.D. Matthew was written after Mark and around the same time as Luke. Scholars have argued for a date of The Gospel of John anywhere from 45 A.D. to 90 A.D., though most place it later than the other Gospels at about 80 A.D. With this in mind it is reasonable to conclude that the first three Gospels were written between 45 A.D. to 60 A.D.

As you might guess, there is some scholarly debate about the dating of the Gospels. Some scholars point to Papias (130 A.D.) and Irenaeus (170 A.D.) implying that the Gospel of Mark was written after Peter’s death while Clement of Alexandria (195 A.D.) stated that the Gospel of Mark was written while Peter was still preaching. With this, some place the date of the Gospel of Mark at about 65 A.D. and the other Gospels after that. Further, some scholars have concern with Jesus predicting the destruction of the Temple in the Gospels (Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21) which occurred in 70 A.D.

Believing that this prediction must have been written after the Roman surge began, these scholars move the earliest date for the writing of the Gospels to 67 A.D. However, many scholars have no problem with Jesus truly predicting events. Regardless if you conclude that the dates of the Gospels were from 45 A.D. to 80 A.D. or from 70 A.D. to 90 A.D., they would have been written within the lifetimes of first generation Christians.

With the reliability of the Gospels, dear Theophilus, comes a responsibility. I encourage you to read the Gospels often, to apply the principles taught in the Gospels to your life and most importantly enter into a relationship with the risen Christ of the Gospels, Jesus, as your Savior and Lord.

Interested in having a question answered by Dear Theophilus writers? Send them all to cotblog@gcu.edu with “Dear Theophilus” in the subject line. You can learn more about GCU’s College of Theology by visiting our website or clicking the Request More Information button.

 

About Jeff Jibben
Jeff Jibben GCU
Faculty, College of Theology

Dr. Jibben teaches in the College of Theology at Grand Canyon University. A native of Minnesota, he studied biology and chemistry before earning an M.Div. in Biblical languages, MA in Biblical Literature and a D.Min. focused on the theology, theory and practice of leadership. His interests include the New Testament, transformational leadership and hiking. He and his wife Michelle have four sons.

Read more about Jeff Jibben