The dates of the Gospels

It is often asked; when were the Gospels written? To this question we have to seek for both intrinsic evidence that we find in the Gospels themselves and extrinsic evidence which has been greatly developed with modern research.

In 1976, the eminent New Testament scholar, John A. T. Robinson, with his book: Redating the New Testament ( published by SCM Press ) maintained that there are no real grounds for putting any of the NT books later than 70 A.D. His main argument is that there is no clear reference in any of them to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple which occurred on September 26th of that year. This cataclysmic event brought to an end the sacrificial worship that was the center of the Jewish religion and it should have merited a mention in the NT books if they were written afterwards. In particular, one would have expected to find a reference to the event in the Epistle to the Hebrews, for it would have greatly strengthened the author’s argument that the Temple worship was now obsolete.Robinson dated the composition of Matthew from 40 to 60, using dots to indicate the traditions behind the text, dashes to indicate a first draft, and a continuous line to indicate writing and rewriting. Similarly, he dated Mark from 45 to 60, Luke from 55 to 62, and John from 40 to 65. Robinson decisively refutes the arguments brought forward to establish a later date, viz. the manner of referring to “the Jews,” and the reference to excommunication in chapter 9.15 He adds: “There is nothing in the Gospel that suggests or presupposes that the Temple is already destroyed or that Jerusalem is in ruins—signs of which calamity are inescapably present in any Jewish or Christian literature that can with any certainty be dated to the period 70-100.” (Ibid., p. 275)

Robinson also points out that John, when describing the cure of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, tells us that this pool “is surrounded by five porticos, or covered colonnades” (5:2). Since these porticos were destroyed in 70, John’s use of the present tense—“is”—seems to imply that the porticos were still in being when he wrote. “Too much weight,” he admits, “must not be put on this—though it is the only present tense in the context; and elsewhere (4:6; 11:18; 18:1; 19:41), John assimilates his topographical descriptions to the tense of the narrative.” (Ibid., p. 278).

St. Irenaeus, writing in 180, tells us that John lived until the reign of the Emperor Trajan, which began in 98. From this some have inferred that John wrote his Gospel in the 90s. But this inference is obviously fallacious. The majority of modern scholars do indeed date the Gospel in the 90s, but a growing number put it earlier, and Robinson mentions seventeen, including P. Gardner-Smith, R. M. Grant and Leon Morris, who favor a date before 70 AD. To them we could add Klaus Berger, of Heidelberg, who puts it in 66.

Robinson observes that in the Acts of there is not "any hint of the death of James the "Lord's brother" (meaning relation) in 62 A.D (Ibid., p. 89). It had not yet, therefore, taken place when Luke commpleted his work, otherwise he would have reported this assassination which took place at the hands of the Sanhedrin against the authority of Rome. Robinson emphasises that no incident have served Luke's apologetic purpose better, that it was the Jews and not the Romans who were the real enemies of the Gospel.

Saint Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome during Peter's lifetime and based on Peter’s preaching, but in his absence and at the request of his hearers who were "very many" as reported by Eusebius, who adds: "When the matter came to Peter's knowledge he neither strongly forbade it nor urged it forward". We are on the solid ground here of historical testimony, the value of which Robinson weighs carefully: Eusebius (256-340), corroborated by Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, who died about 130 A.D., tells us that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew, and Aramaic has made a good case for holding that the same is true of Mark. He found that this compelled him to put the composition of these Gospels much earlier than the dates proposed by the biblical establishment. He writes: “I increasingly came to realize the consequences of my work . . . . The latest dates that can be admitted for Mark (and the Collection of Discourses) is 50, and around 55 for the Completed Mark; around 55-60 for Matthew; between 58 and 60 for Luke. But the earliest dates are clearly more probable: Mark around 42; Completed Mark around 45; (Hebrew) Matthew around 50; (Greek) Luke a little after 50.” (J. Carmignac, The Birth of the Synoptics, (E. T. Michael J. Wrenn) Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago,).

Further Robinson adds that "it is Clement (of Alexandria) who links it (St. Marks Gospel) to a particular preaching mission in Rome, and to the production and distribution of a book to which Peter's reaction is recorded - clearly implying that Peter was still alive (though absent) at the time of its writting" (Ibid p. 108). St. Irenaeus comments that "After their departure [of Peter and Paul from earth], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter." - Against Heresies 3.1.1

The discovery of a fragment of St. Mark's Gospel in cave 7 of Qumran in Isreal has brought striking confirmation of the tradition.

The three Luxor fragments—the Jesus papyrus—came into the possession of the Reverend Charles Huleatt, the Anglican chaplain in that city, who sent them in 1901 to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he had graduated in 1888. They did not attract scholarly attention until in 1994, they came to the notice of C. P. Thiede, who suspected that they might be much older than Roberts thought. Examining them with a confocal laser scanning microscope, and comparing them with the script in a document dated July 24, 66, he came to the conclusion that the fragments should be dated as belonging to the middle of the first century.

The Qumran fragment is small—3.3 cm x 2.3 cm—an area that is slightly larger than a postage stamp. It contains twenty letters, on five lines, ten of the letters being damaged. It is fragment no. 5 from Cave 7 and it is designated 7Q5. A similar fragment from the same Cave—7Q2—has one more letter—twenty-one as against twenty, on five lines. The identification of this fragment as Baruch (or the Letter of Jeremiah) 6:43-44 has never been disputed. In 1972 the Spanish papyrologist José O’Callaghan published a controversial article, “¿Papiros neotestamentarios en la cueva 7 de Qumrân?” in which he argued that the fifth manuscript from the seventh cave of Qumran was a fragment from the Gospel of Mark (6:52-53). . This identification was widely questioned, but many papyrologists rallied to his support, and there are good reasons for thinking that O’Callaghan was right. Thiede writes: “In 1994, the last word on this particular identification seemed to have been uttered by one of the great papyrologists of our time, Orsolina Montevecchi, Honorary President of the International Papyrological Association. She summarized the results in a single unequivocal sentence: ‘I do not think there can be any doubt about the identification of 7Q5.’”(C. P. Thiede and M. d’Ancona, op. cit., p. 56).This implies that St. Marks’ Gospel was in being some time before the monastery at Qumran was destroyed by the Romans in 68. Further in 1972, In 1982 Carsten Peter Thiede, a German scholar, began to publish works in defense of the O’Callaghan hypothesis.

Those who object that texts of the Gospels could not have reached such out of the way places as Luxor or Qumran as early as the 60s of the first century do not realize how efficient the means of communication were in the Empire at that time. Luxor was even then a famous tourist attraction, and, with favorable winds a letter from Rome could reach Alexandria in three days. Nor was Qumran far from Jerusalem, and we know that the monks took a lively interest in the religious and intellectual movements of the time.

St. Matthews Gospel is the first Gospel. It goes back back to the first decade of the Church's expansion. Its influence can be discerned in the first epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians in the course of his second voyage (50-52 AD). Robinson is inclined to place it between 40 and 60 AD as there are hardly any signs in it of persecution or of a "falling away".

Luke was in Philippi from 49 to 55, and it was during this time that he produced the first draft of his Gospel, beginning with our present chapter 3, which records the preaching of John the Baptist. It was to this Gospel, Origen explained, that St. Paul was referring when, writing to the Corinthians in 56, he described Luke as “the brother whose fame in the gospel has gone through all the churches” (2 Cor. 8:18). The date of Luke’s Gospel is closely connected with that of Acts, its companion volume, for if Acts is early, then Luke will be earlier still.

We know that Luke was in Palestine when Paul was in custody in Caesarea (58-59 AD). He would have been able to move round Galilee, interviewing people who had known the Holy Family, and probably making the acquaintance of a draft in the Hebrew of the Infancy Narrative, and so gathering material for the first two chapters of the present Gospel. In the finished text he introduced this and the rest of the Gospel with the prologue in which he assures Theophilus that he intends to write history.

C. J. Hemer, in his magisterial work, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, which was published posthumously in 1989, gives fifteen general indications, of varying weight but cumulative in their force, which point to a date before 70. Indeed, many of these point to a date before 65, the year in which the Neroian persecution of the Church began (J. Wenham, op. cit., pp. 225-226).

However those who seek to distort the facts by dating the gospels later, do not even realize that by doing so the more definite is our Catholic basis for oral Tradition as a teaching.