The Dirty Little Secret About Dating the Gospels

The Dirty Little Secret About Dating the Gospels

CalendarThere is some debate when it comes to the dating of the Gospels. Some would like to date the Gospels in the 50s or 60s. There are others who will argue vehemently that the earliest Gospel must have been written after 70 AD.

The most popular dating of the Gospels puts Mark (as the earliest Gospel) at 70 AD or slightly before, Matthew and Luke in the mid-80s and John in the 90s. But let me tell you a secret.

We don’t really know.

So where do these dates come from?

The early dating of the Gospels is based on some backward calculating from events in Acts. Acts ends with Paul in Rome but still alive. Paul was executed around 65 AD during Nero’s reign. Assuming that Luke (who wrote Acts) would have described Paul’s death if it had already happen, Acts is then dated before 65. Luke’s Gospel is then dated before that. Since most scholars assume that Luke used Mark, that puts Mark fairly early.

However, we don’t know why Luke didn’t describe Paul’s death. It may be because it had not yet happened or he may have had some other literary or theological reason not to mention it. We don’t know.

The later dating of the Gospels revolves around a historical event in Jerusalem. It was in 70 AD that the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. The Synoptic Gospels include a prediction by Jesus of the destruction of this temple. Since it is impossible for people to predict the future, the Gospels must have been written after the destruction in 70 AD. Some scholars will let Mark be slightly before the event, when it was obvious that something like this would probably be happening.

Would the Gospels have to be dated after 70 AD? Since I’m a Christian, I don’t see it as impossible that Jesus could have made such a prophecy.

However, from a historical perspective I don’t think that the Gospels have to be dated after the destruction. From a purely human point-of-view, it is possible that Jesus could have successfully predicted the destruction of the temple. The tensions that led to the Jewish War of 67-70 were already present in Jesus’ day and it would not require divine sonship to predict that something was coming. In terms of the details of the prediction, Roman military practice was not a secret. Jerusalem was not the first rebellious city that the Romans destroyed. Jesus could have easily described what would happen to Jerusalem.

I appreciate the honesty of New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado in his commentary on Mark:

“For our purposes, we shall allow for the writing of Mark any time between A.D. 50 and 75, as I see no compelling basis for being more precise here.” (p. 8)

The truth is that we don’t know when the Gospels were written. We can place a beginning point as the last event described (death and resurrection around 30-33 AD) and an ending with our earliest manuscripts or quotations from these Gospels in other writings.




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6 thoughts on “The Dirty Little Secret About Dating the Gospels

  1. Gamaliel the Elder is thought to have died in 52 AD. He quoted the Gospel of Matthew twice in the Mishnah, which would put Matthew’s gospel significantly earlier than that date.

  2. The most important point to make about the gospels is that none of them were written by people who actually saw the events they describe. None of them were written by the apostles they are named for. They are all hearsay evidence of a kind that would never be admitted in a court of law. Very poor basis for religious belief!

  3. Mark knows that Jerusalem and the Temple have already been destroyed. This is really clear, and it doesn’t really matter if Jesus was going around prophesying the event c. 30 CE – there’s nothing to say that Jesus couldn’t have done it, but the fact is Mark makes such a big deal over it and has it as a key theme all throughout his gospel shows that the author knows that the destruction has already happened, and it has happened recently.

    There are several arguments about this, one of the more recent is Moon 2018 who argues that the concluding chapter of the gospel is an exoneration for Jesus about the persecution and destruction of the Jerusalem church. He has the young man deliver a message from Jesus to the female disciples to tell the others to leave Jerusalem and wait for Jesus to return in Galilee, but they fail to deliver this message and therefore a terrible fate befell their Jerusalem church in 70 CE. I don’t expect everyone to be persuaded by this argument, there is so much metaphor and imagery used in that chapter, but I do feel that any sensible reading has to take into account that this is the concluding episode of Mark and it was intentional to have the three women failing Jesus mirroring the failure of the inner-three Disciples back in the garden of Gethsemane.

    That was a more recent example, but there are plenty of really clear I would say indisputable examples of where Mark knows the Temple/Jerusalem church have been destroyed. The Parable of the Wicked Tennant, the Cursing of the Fig Tree, the temple’s curtain being torn, casting the Temple into a negative light, and connecting its destruction theologically with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Mark makes a big big deal about the Temple and its destruction. Paul, writing before Mark and before the siege of Jerusalem that destroyed the Second Temple, never says a bad word about the Temple. To Paul it is a place of great holiness (1 Cor 3:16-18). Paul is also very clear that Christ’s resurrection has already occurred (1 Cor 15) it is absolutely central to his teachings and theology (for example Romans 6:1-14), and it never has anything at all to do with the Jewish temple.

    So whether the historical Jesus prophesied the destruction of the temple or not doesn’t change the fact that Mark’s extensive theological use of the event shows that it has already happened, and that it has significant meaning for Mark. It appears to be written soon after the destruction, and that Mark has tried to make sense of this terrible event for the Jerusalem church.

    What does this mean for dating the gospels? Well it means the dirty secret is we can be reasonably certain that Mark was written around the year 75 CE and that it really does have to come after the Temple is destroyed and while it is a fresh, traumatic, memory for the author.

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