When were the Gospels written?
This is an important question in the discussion of the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was crucified in 30AD (Source). If our sources were written very late, after all the eyewitness of Jesus had died, they could have more easily altered and added to the historical account.
It’s important that these sources are early accounts of the events surrounding the Resurrection. With this in mind, let’s look at the information.
Before 100 AD
We know that all New Testament books were written before 100AD at the latest because early church fathers quoted them so many times in their writings between 95AD and 110AD. (Figure 2)
In fact, 25 of the 27 books of the New Testament are quoted by these early church fathers. (Barnett, 38-40) The only two that are not quoted, 2nd John and Jude, are incredibly short works so it is not surprising that they are not quoted. Allowing for time for these documents to have spread to the location these different authors were writing from, we can conservatively say that all of these books of the New Testament were written before 100AD.
Skeptical scholars often focus on the fact that Jesus prophesied about the destruction of the temple in Mark 13:1-2, 30,
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings! And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down…Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” – Mark 13:1-2, 30 (ESV)
The temple was destroyed in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Skeptics look at this and say that this prophecy must have been written after this occurred because no one can predict the future.
“I don’t believe in prophesy; therefore this could not be a prophesy.”
This line of reasoning does not consider any of the other evidence or the even the possibility that Jesus was who he said he was (God incarnate). Peter Williams states simply in his book Can We Trust the Gospels? that “If we allow that Jesus could predict future events, a major objection to earlier dates is removed.” (pg. 49)
But I’m not making my argument on the prophesy of Jesus being true. I’m saying let’s consider all the evidence and not write off the early dating of the Gospels because the prophesy written in Mark happened.
If we take the predictions of the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem out of the argument, we can easily see that there are many solid reasons to believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke (known as the Synoptic Gospels), as well as the book of Acts were all written before 70AD.
- None of these accounts mention that the temple is ever destroyed and treat the temple and Jerusalem like they are entirely intact. If the city had been destroyed and the “prophesy” had been fulfilled, why not mention it? They mentioned others that had been fulfilled such as John 2:19-22 and Acts 11:28.
- These accounts don’t mention the Siege of Jerusalem, which took place 67-70AD, although they do discuss other persecution and suffering.
- The language in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts point to having been written in a pre-persecution time. The persecution of the Christians by Rome (think being fed to lions in the circus kind) began in 64 AD. The book of Revelation, which was likely written after this time, is full of anti-Roman language, while the other books of the Bible are not. The Synoptic Gospels and Acts actually paint many Romans in a good light. (See Acts 21:28, Acts 27:3, Luke 7:1-10, Matthew 8:5-13, Mark 15:39).
These three facts all give us good reason to believe that the Synoptic Gospels and Acts were written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD.
A Case for Early Dates
Now that we’ve made a good case that the Synoptic Gospels and Acts were written before 70AD, we’re going to go into the information for the specific dates for each book. I know this kind of information can get confusing fast, so I’ve tried to make it as visual as possible with charts and tables.
Here’s the quick and dirty details in a snapshot summary first, and I’ll go more in depth into these descriptions below.
Acts: 62 AD
In 59AD, there was a change in leadership of Judea. Felix, the previous governor, was replaced by Festus. We have independent attestation of this in coins that were minted by Festus in 59AD. This change in leadership is mentioned in Acts 24:27. Paul had been imprisoned by the previous governor, Felix, who had left him in jail when Festus took over. Paul is sent to Rome by Festus and arrives in Rome in 60AD.
Acts ends with these verses about Paul’s imprisonment:
“He (Paul) lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” – Acts 28:30-21 (ESV)
Paul is still under house arrest in Rome two years after arriving. This would put the end of the accounts of Acts at 62AD. We know from Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy, that Paul was later released and continued to preach the gospel.
Why would the author of Acts leave out such a decisive victory for Christianity? That would be like ending the story while the hobbits are in the cave with Shelob, the giant spider. It’s like stopping the movie when Prince Erik is sailing away with the fake Ariel. It’s like pausing the show when Gordon Ramsey hasn’t tasted any of the dishes yet. You don’t usually end a story during the time of trial for one of its main characters. Why would the author of Acts do that?
One explanation, and I believe it is by far the most likely, is that the victorious moment simply hadn’t happened yet; that Paul was still in prison when the author of Acts wrote those last verses of the book.
Additionally, Acts mentions the deaths of two Christian martyrs: Stephen and James, the brother of John. It does not mention the deaths of the prominent church leaders: Paul (~66AD), Peter (~64AD) and James, the brother of Jesus (62AD). Their deaths would have been consistent with other persecution recorded in the book.
Why would their deaths be omitted? The best reasoning I have seen is that they were still alive when the book of Acts was completed.
For these two reasons, leaving Paul in prison and the lack of mention of prominent deaths, I believe we have strong evidence that the book of Acts was written in 62AD.
Luke: 61 AD or Earlier
Luke wrote down the eyewitness accounts in his gospel before he wrote the Book of Acts. We know this because Luke speaks clearly of his former book in the beginning of Acts:
“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when he was taken up…” – Acts 1:1-2 (ESV)
That alone is enough to date Luke to before 61AD.
Another piece of information strengthens this dating and the dating of Acts as well. In 1 Timothy, Paul says:
For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” – 1 Timothy 5:18 (ESV)
The first part of this is from Deuteronomy 25:4. The second is a quote from Jesus that is uniquely recorded in Luke. We know it was written down and not just shared orally because Paul names it as part of “Scripture.” 1 Timothy was written between 62 and 66AD, and this quotation underscores the early dating of Luke.
Matthew: 60AD or earlier
Although Luke has much material that is unique to his account, Luke also quotes frequently from both Matthew and Mark. Because of this, it is easy to assert that Matthew was written prior to Luke. We do not have a more specific date than this that can be shown confidently at the moment.
Because of what we know about the dating of Luke and that Luke used Matthew as a source, I would confidently assert that Matthew was written before 60AD.
Mark: 59AD or earlier
It is generally believed that Matthew also used Mark as a source, although that is not universally agreed upon. Early church tradition thought that Matthew had been written first and this is why the books are ordered that way in the New Testament. Today though, most scholars do believe Matthew used Mark as a source and that Mark was written first.
Assuming that Matthew used Mark as a source, and since we’ve shown Matthew can be dated at 60AD at the latest, we can date Mark at 59AD at the latest.
John: 66 -100AD
John is in a different category because this account does not use the other three as source material, so the dating of John is not dependent on the others.
Just 100 years ago, scholars had believed this account to be from the 2nd century, but that changed when a tiny post-it size fragment was discovered in 1934. This fragment, now known as Papyrus 52 (P52), is a copy and has John 18:31-33 on the front and John 18:37-38 on the back, and is the oldest fragment on the New Testament that we have examined to date. It has been dated between 90AD and 150AD, with most scholars leaning between 125AD and 150AD. (More Info)
This means that the original could have easily been written in the 1st century, after we account for the time it took for copies to be made and the documents to circulate and end up in Egypt.
According to early church tradition, John lived to a very old age and died after 98AD, and is the only disciple to have died peacefully. A hundred years of scholarship on the dating of John went out the window with the dating of Papyrus 52, and it is now completely reasonable that John the disciple could have written this document, as early church fathers state he did.
What’s the earliest the Gospel of John could have been written? It seems that Peter has already been martyred by the time John wrote his account. We see this clue in John:
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” – John 21:20-23 (ESV)
This is not incredibly clear, but it would make sense if Peter had already been martyred beforehand. It seems from this verse that some were saying that Jesus had prophesied that Peter would not die at all, which would definitely be a problem if Peter was killed. It may be that John was trying to clarify a misquoted statement of Jesus that was spreading.
Peter was martyred in about 64AD, so that could give us a tentative marker for the earliest possible dating for this account at about 66AD.
That’s a wide timeline, but until we have more information, it is difficult to narrow it down more than that. What is important for this dating is that the book was written within the lifetime of John, as shown by the dating of Papyrus 52. This seriously damages the idea that the Gospel of John was written in the second century and therefore not by an eyewitness to the events.
Early Creed: 33-36AD
A creed is a formal statement of beliefs and this one is simply incredible because of its content and that it is dated so early. It will be the basis for much of the evidence that I put forward later regarding the resurrection, so I thought it important to include in this post on dates for the sources.
Here is the creed that Paul shares in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” – 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (ESV)
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians between 54AD and 55AD. Paul says he is passing on to them what he also received. So when did he receive this creed?
There are a two main arguments and both of them are incredibly early.
Jesus was crucified in 30AD. Paul’s conversion happened on his way to Damascus in 33-34AD (Acts 9:3-9). It is very possible that he received the information in the creed in Damascus. It is also possible that Paul received the creed in Jerusalem three years later, while visiting and likely studying under Peter and James for 15 days (Galatians 1:18).
When dating this creed, it’s important to note that the information was circulating before Paul heard it. Obviously, there was no email or even a postal system at this time. Whatever the date for Paul learning the creed, we must date the information back further than that to allow for the time it took to spread from person to person.
Scholars are in near universal agreement on the early dating of this creed. This is not an area that is contested by scholars today, and even atheist skeptics agree.
Gerd Ludemann, a well known atheist professor of the New Testament at Gottingen states:
“The elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years… the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor. 15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.” ( pg. 171-72)
The dating of this creed is not controversial. It was created within 2-3 years of the crucifixion of Jesus at the latest, and is an incredible piece of evidence to consider when we come back to the historical evidence of the Resurrection.
Why Does All This Matter?
If you want to make up a lie about a person, the best case scenario is if that person and everyone who knew them during their life is dead. It’s very easy to make up falsities about someone’s life when there is no one to check them.
But that is not what the evidence points to with the Gospels and the life and death of Jesus. There is a strong case to be made for the dating of Acts in 62 and the rest of the Gospels can be dated prior to the book of Acts as well. The creed in Corinthians, which speaks of the death, resurrection and appearances of the risen Jesus, can be dated within 2-3 years of the crucifixion. The people who wrote these books, did so while the disciples, close friends and eyewitnesses of Jesus were alive and able to call them out, but we do not see this happen.
It matters that the Gospels were written early and within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. It is a key piece of evidence in building the case for the historical reliability of the Gospels, particularly as we look at the historical events of the Resurrection.
- Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? (Downers Grove Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 38-40
- F.F. Bruce Christianity Under Claudius, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 44 (March 1962): 317 (https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bjrl/claudius_bruce.pdf)
- Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus (Fortress Press, 1994), 171-72.
- Roy W. Hoover, The Acts of Jesus, (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1998), 466.
- Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, (Crossway, 2004), 236.
- Peter Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels?, (Crossway, 2018), 49.