Q&R – When were the Gospels written? Brad Jersak
When were the four Gospels written? And by whom? Some claim they were a late invention of the church, generations even after the apostles, discounting their reliability as trustworthy witnesses to the life and teachings of Christ. When I read them, is it just the religious fiction of people trying to make Jesus into a religion?
What I notice about those who set late dates for the Gospels and discount the authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John is an underlying bias toward skepticism that wants or even needs to discredit the Gospels. But far from bringing an objective analysis to their discipline, they betray themselves as out-of-date in their scholarship and sloppy in their use of the primary documents and of history. A prejudice toward Jesus, even questioning his obvious history-changing existence, is a poor entry point into academic study, however clever one might feel.
As for authorship and dates, vast volumes have been written on the topic, and the arguments are too involved to replay, so I’ll make a few assertions about how I see the Gospels, along with one internal (to the text) point of interest.
I believe that Matthew was written by Matthew, the disciple of Jesus. Early Christian allusions to Matthew (Papias, Irenaeus, etc.) always attribute it to him, although some suggest he may have written a first draft in Aramaic, before translating it into the final form we have in Greek. It’s possible that Matthew took initial notes in Aramaic, but if so, no manuscripts remain. What we have now is the Book of Matthew in its beautiful final form.
Biblical studies scholars note that both Matthew and Luke almost certainly use Mark’s Gospel as source material. That is, 45% of Matthew and 41% of Luke share material they appear to have borrowed from Mark or his source, suggesting that Mark is the first Gospel written. But then who is Mark’s source? Given the insider information we have on Peter within Mark’s gospel, it appears that Mark serves as a scribe for Peter’s story. I like to think of Mark’s Gospel as “the Gospel according to Peter, penned by Mark.”
Luke rounds out the three “Synoptic [in sync] Gospels,” so called because they share a lot of the same stories and teachings. Luke tells us that he compiled his collection from multiple eyewitness accounts, and the internal evidence shows he drew 2/3 of his material from Matthew and Luke. However, there is another 35% completely unique to Luke. Who else was he talking to? If you look at the birth narratives in Luke, much of the information there is exclusive to Mary’s knowledge, the mother of Jesus. So for at least that part of the story, I like referring to Luke’s distinctive account as “the Gospel according to Mary, penned by Luke.” Imagine Luke sitting with her and scribing those first chapters in detail.
John is such a different Gospel. Whereas a huge portion of the Synoptic Gospels recount Jesus’ ministry in Galilee or on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, John concentrates on Jesus’ time in Jerusalem, with half the book describing the final week leading up to his death and resurrection. The book claims to have been written by John the Beloved Disciple, which we often assume is John the Son of Zebedee, developed when John is an old man in the early 90s. A minority view, which interests me, is that John the Beloved is distinct from John of Zebedee, but in any case, he is the disciple who stands at the foot of the Cross alongside the women. Some think he wrote Revelation as well, while others see that John (the Elder) as still another John (a common name).
As you can see, my claim is that Matthew and John were written by eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry, from his Baptism until and including his resurrection. And that Mark and Luke are writing material from eyewitnesses, including Peter and Mary. I take these as reliable and see no good reason not to that doesn’t involve a decision against faith or the textual evidence that in any other sphere, would be regarded as decisive.
I have space only to make a brief observation that leads me to believe in early dating for the first three Gospels. If we start with Luke’s Gospel, remember that the Book of Acts is already Volume 2 in his two-part series. Acts is a historical account of the first church, and especially the ministries of Peter and Paul. The story line of Acts only takes us as far as Paul’s house arrest in Rome, after which he seems to have been released for a time (and maybe a journey to Spain), before his martyrdom under Nero, probably in either 64 or in 68 AD at the latest (the year of Nero’s death). Why would Luke never mention the all-important martyrdoms of Peter or Paul? Because they hadn’t occurred yet. That means Luke has completed writing Acts before 64 AD, and his Gospel had been completed (and was known) before that. And if Luke and Matthew are using Mark as a source, Mark (Peter’s voice) was written even earlier.
Yet when I do a search of the date when Mark is written, you see a range anywhere from the late 30’s to sometime AFTER AD 70. Why, based on the internal evidence, would any scholar imagine a post-AD 70 composition for the Synoptic Gospels? Some are willing to say so out loud: because in Mark 13, Jesus prophesies the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., and any enlightened scholar knows that Jesus couldn’t have predicted such events ahead of time. Thus, the dating of the Gospels ultimately boils down to whether Jesus had the capacity to prophesy future events. Do you see the problem?
P.S. Not “Postdiction”
While the Bible is not averse to recording prophecy after its fulfillment (a practice called “postdiction” – see Daniel, for example), in the case of the Gospels, this is not the case. The history of the Book of Acts, obviously written after Luke’s Gospel, but in print pre-70 AD, is evidence of the Synoptics’ early composition (regardless of the completion of its final form, which we simply don’t know).