Dating the gospels is very important. If it can be established that the gospels were written early, say before the year A.D. 70, then we would have good reason for believing that they were written by the disciples of Jesus himself. If they were written by the disciples, then their reliability, authenticity, and accuracy are better substantiated. Also, if they were written early, this would mean that there would not have been enough time for myth to creep into the gospel accounts since it was the eyewitnesses to Christ's life that wrote them. Furthermore, those who were alive at the time of the events could have countered the gospel accounts; and since we have no contradictory writings to the gospels, their early authorship as well as apostolic authorship becomes even more critical.
Destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, Luke and Acts
None of the gospels mention the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70. This is significant because Jesus had prophesied concerning the temple when He said "As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down." (Luke 21:6, see also Matt. 24:1; Mark 13:1). This prophecy was fulfilled in A.D. 70 when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and burned the temple. The gold in the temple melted down between the stone walls; and the Romans took the walls apart, stone by stone, to get the gold. Such an obvious fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy most likely would have been recorded as such by the gospel writers who were fond of mentioning fulfillment of prophecy if they had been written after A.D. 70. Also, if the gospels were fabrications of mythical events, then anything to bolster the Messianic claims--such as the destruction of the temple as Jesus said--would surely have been included. But, it was not included suggesting that the gospels (at least Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written before A.D. 70.
Similarly, this argument is important when we consider the dating of the book of Acts which was written after the gospel of Luke and by Luke himself. Acts is a history of the Christian church right after Jesus' ascension. Acts also fails to mention the incredibly significant events of A.D. 70, which would have been extremely relevant and prophetically important and would require inclusion into Acts had it occurred before Acts was written. Remember, Acts is a book of history concerning the Christians and the Jews. The fact that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is not recorded is very strong evidence that Acts was written before A.D. 70. We add to this the fact that Acts does not include the accounts of "Nero's persecution of the Christians in A.D. 64 or the deaths of [the apostle] James (A.D. 62), Paul (A.D. 64), and Peter (A.D. 65),"1 and we have further evidence that it was written early.
If we look at Acts 1:1-2 it says, "The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen." Most scholars affirm that Acts was written by Luke and that Theophilus (Grk. "lover of God") "may have been Luke's patron who financed the writing of Luke and Acts."2 This means that the gospel of Luke was written before Acts.
- "At the earliest, Acts cannot have been written prior to the latest firm chronological marker recorded in the book - Festus's appointment as procurator (24:27), which, on the basis of independent sources, appears to have occurred between A.D. 55 and 59."3
- "It is increasingly admitted that the Logia [Q] was very early, before A.D.50, and Mark likewise if Luke wrote the Acts while Paul was still alive. Luke's Gospel comes (Acts 1:1) before the Acts. The date of Acts is still in dispute, but the early date (about A.D. 63) is gaining support constantly."4
For clarity, Q is supposedly one of the source documents used by both Matthew and Luke in writing their gospels. If Q actually existed, then that would push the first writings of Christ's words and deeds back even further lessening the available time for myth to creep in and adding to the validity and accuracy of the gospel accounts. If what is said of Acts is true, this would mean that Luke was written at least before A.D. 63 and possibly before 55 - 59 since Acts is the second in the series of writings by Luke. This means that the gospel of Luke was written within 30 years of Jesus' death.
The early church unanimously held that the gospel of Matthew was the first written gospel and was penned by the apostle of the same name (Matt. 10:2-4). Lately, the priority of Matthew as the first written gospel has come under suspicion with Mark being considered by many to be the first written gospel. The debate is far from over.
The historian Papias mentions that the gospel of Matthew was originally in Aramaic or Hebrew and attributes the gospel to Matthew the apostle.5
- "Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180) continued Papias's views about Matthew and Mark and added his belief that Luke, the follower of Paul, put down in a book the gospel preached by that apostle, and that John, the Beloved Disciple, published his Gospel while residing in Asia. By the time of Irenaeus, Acts was also linked with Luke, the companion of Paul."6
This would mean that if Matthew did write in Aramaic originally, that he may have used Mark as a map, adding and clarifying certain events as he remembered them. But, this is not known for sure.
The earliest quotation of Matthew is found in Ignatius who died around A.D. 115 A.D. Therefore, Matthew was in circulation well before Ignatius came on the scene. The various dates most widely held as possible writing dates of the Gospel are between A.D. 40 - 140. But Ignatius died around A.D. 115, and he quoted Matthew. Therefore Matthew had to be written before he died. Nevertheless, it is generally believed that Matthew was written before A.D. 70 and as early as A.D. 50.
Mark was not an eyewitness to the events of Jesus' life. He was a disciple of Peter and undoubtedly it was Peter who informed Mark of the life of Christ and guided him in writing the Gospel known by his name. "Papias claimed that Mark, the Evangelist, who had never heard Christ, was the interpreter of Peter, and that he carefully gave an account of everything he remembered from the preaching of Peter."7 Generally, Mark is said to be the earliest gospel with an authorship of between A.D. 55 to A.D. 70.
Luke was not an eyewitness of the life of Christ. He was a companion of Paul who also was not an eyewitness of Christ's life. But, both had ample opportunity to meet the disciples who knew Christ and learn the facts not only from them but from others in the area. Some might consider this damaging to the validity of the gospel but quite the contrary. Luke was a gentile convert to Christianity who was interested in the facts. He obviously had interviewed the eyewitnesses and written the Gospel account as well as Acts.
- "The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God." (Acts 1:1-3).
Notice how Luke speaks of "them," of those who had personal encounters with Christ. Luke is simply recounting the events from the disciples. Since Luke agrees with Matthew, Mark, and John and since there is no contradictory information coming from any of the disciples stating that Luke was inaccurate and since Luke has proven to be a very accurate historian, we can conclude that Luke's account is very accurate.
As far as dating the gospel goes, Luke was written before the book of Acts and Acts does not mention "Nero's persecution of the Christians in A.D. 64 or the deaths of James (A.D. 62), Paul (A.D. 64), and Peter (A.D. 65)."8 Therefore, we can conclude that Luke was written before A.D. 62. "Luke's Gospel comes (Acts 1:1) before the Acts. The date of Acts is still in dispute, but the early date (about A.D. 63) is gaining support constantly."9
The writer of the gospel of John was obviously an eyewitness of the events of Christ's life since he speaks from a perspective of having been there during many of the events of Jesus' ministry and displays a good knowledge of Israeli geography and customs.
The John Rylands papyrus fragment 52 of John's gospel dated in the year 135 contains portions of John 18, verses 31-33, 37-38. This fragment was found in Egypt, and a considerable amount of time is needed for the circulation of the gospel before it reached Egypt. It is the last of the gospels and appears to have been written in the 80's to 90's.
Of important note is the lack of mention of the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70. But this is understandable since John was not focusing on historical events. Instead, he focused on the theological aspect of the person of Christ and listed His miracles and words that affirmed Christ's deity.
Though there is still some debate on the dates of when the gospels were written, they were most assuredly completed before the close of the first century and written by eyewitnesses or under the direction of eyewitnesses.
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- 1. McDowell, Josh, A Ready Defense, Thomas Nelson Publishers; Nashville, Tenn., 1993, p. 80. The James spoken of here is not James the brother of John who was recorded as being executed in Acts 12:1-2. Rather, it is the James spoken of in Acts 15:13ff who is also mention in Gal. 1:19 as an apostle, the Lord's brother.
- 2. Walvoord, John F., and Zuck, Roy B., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc.) 1983, 1985.
- 3. Mays, James Luther, Ph.D., Editor, Harper's Bible Commentary, (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.) 1988.
- 4. Robertson, A.T., A Harmony of the Gospels, Harper & Row; New York 1950. pp. 255-256.
- 5. Douglas, J. D., Comfort, Philip W. & Mitchell, Donald, Editors, Who's Who in Christian History, Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; 1992.
- 6. Achtemeier, Paul J., Th.D., Harper's Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.; 1985).
- 7. Douglas, J. D., Comfort, Philip W. & Mitchell, Donald, Editors, Who's Who in Christian History, Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; 1992.
- 8. McDowell, 80.
- 9. Robertson, 255-256.