Early Dating of the Gospels – Part II

In Part I we discussed the early dating of the Gospels and New Testament books based on manuscript evidence and how the Bible compares to other ancient texts.  In Part II we will examine the evidences found within the New Testament that point to early authorship of these books. 

In order to begin determining just how early the books of the New Testament were likely written, we need to establish some known dates.  Using generally accepted dates, we can begin to narrow down potential dates for New Testament writings.

Establishing a Timeline

Some of the most accepted dates related to the Bible center on the Apostle Paul, his missionary travels, and his epistles.  Although there is disagreement on some of the exact years they are generally accepted within a small window of a few years.  For the sake of simplicity, we will use either the accepted year or the later of the date ranges.

The Apostle Paul had his conversion experience within two years of the Resurrection.  If we accept 30 A.D. as the date for the Resurrection, that places Paul conversion at 32 A.D.  In Galatians 1 we learn the early timeline of Paul. 

After three years in Arabia and Damascus (35 A.D.), Paul travelled to Jerusalem where he met with Peter and James, Jesus’ brother.  Paul then went to Syria and Cilicia to preach the Gospel.  Fourteen years later (49 A.D.) Paul returned to Jerusalem to confirm that the Gospel he was preaching still agreed with the Disciples.

Paul’s missionary journeys were from: 44-48 A.D., 49-52 A.D., and 53-57 A.D.  Paul was imprisoned from 58 to 60 A.D.; arriving in Rome that year.  He was held under house arrest until 62 A.D.  After a short stint of freedom, Paul was arrested again and executed between 62 and 64 A.D. (we’ll use 64 A.D.).

We know from Acts that James, John’s brother, was martyred in 44 A.D. by Herod Agrippa I.  We also know from Josephus that James, Jesus’ brother, was martyred in 62 A.D.  Peter’s death is generally accepted to have occurred in 64 A.D.

This gives us a good start to begin to narrow down when different books were written, but there are a couple more facts that may help even more.  We know from history that during the Jewish Revolt (66-70 A.D.), the Romans marched through and conquered Galilee in 67 A.D.  The Romans began the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and razed the city later that year.

The below chart lays out what we have covered so far.

How Early Are the Gospels?

Now that we have some reference dates, we can begin to make inferences to the dates of the New Testament books.

First, we look at the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D.  Neither of these events is recorded in any of the New Testament books.  This seems to suggest that all the books of the New Testament were written prior to this.  Why wouldn’t the authors include these events if they were written after 70 A.D.; especially in light of Jesus’ prophesy of their destruction (Luke 21:5-6, Mark 13:1-2, Matthew 24:1-2).  What better way to prove your Master’s claim to deity than to show a fulfilled prophesy?

We also have the interesting description by John of the Pool of Bethesda.  In John 5:2, he describes that “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.”  The use of “is’’ and “has” seems to indicate the pool still existed at the time of the writing.

This pool was believed by critics to be a Second or Third Century invention of a zealot who wrote the book of John.  In 1888 the pool, complete with five colonnades, was unearthed by archeologists. 

The Pool of Siloam (John 9:7) and its associated tower (Luke 13:4) were likewise believed to be myth until they were discovered during a construction project in 2004.

If we accept, as most critics do, that John was the last Gospel, we have a strong likelihood that all four Gospels were written prior to 70 A.D.  But can we move the dates of authorship earlier?

Most of the early disciples were from Galilee.  When Rome responded to the Jewish Revolt, Galilee was one of the first regions to suffer their wrath.  By the end of 67 A.D., Galilee had fallen to the Romans on their march to Jerusalem.  The same question as above applies to this event; is it likely that the writers of the New Testament books would overlook it?  If not, we now have a latest date for most New Testament books of 66 A.D.

We know that 1 Corinthians was written in 54 A.D. following Paul’s first trip to Corinth.  In 1 Corinthians 11:23–26 Paul quotes Luke 22:19–20 as Scripture.  This places the writing of Luke prior to 54 A.D.; approximately 30 years after the Resurrection.

Luke states in the opening of his Gospel that “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us,”.  This indicates that at least one account of Jesus’ life had already been written.  Most critics believe that Luke borrowed from both Mark and Matthew, likely placing them no later than 53 A.D.

Critics also believe that either Mark borrowed from Matthew or vice versa.  That would push one of these Gospels to no later than 52 A.D.  We now have at least one account no more than 22 years after the Resurrection; well within the lifetime of eyewitnesses.

How Early Are the Other New Testament Books?

The book of Acts follows the spread of the early Church; primarily focused on Peter and Paul.  If we look at the details of Acts, we see that, like the Gospels, the conquest of Galilee and destruction of Jerusalem go unmentioned.

The martyrdom of Peter and Paul (64 A.D.) also aren’t mentioned.  We have to ask ourselves how likely would it be that Luke would spend that much time detailing the events of Acts, but neglect to include the deaths of the most prominent Church leaders. 

When answering this question, we also have to consider that Luke didn’t include the martyrdom of James, Jesus’ brother, in 62 A.D.  These omissions seem odd in light of the fact he felt it important to include the deaths of both James, John’s brother, and Stephen, an early deacon.  This gives us a potential latest date for Acts of 62 A.D.

Peter is traditionally considered the author of 1 and 2 Peter; potentially through a ghost writer.  Early Church scholars like Origen and Justin Martyr attribute both books to the apostle.  This would mean both books were written prior to 64 A.D.

Paul’s epistles likewise would have a latest date of 64 A.D.  The dates of most of Paul’s epistles are undisputed, so we will simply acknowledge the earliest date is 49 A.D. (1 Thessalonians) and the latest is 2 Timothy (64 A.D.)

The chart below lays out our proposed dates for New Testament books prior to 70 A.D.

This gives us 21 of 27 books dated prior to 70 A.D.  The brevity of this forum doesn’t allow a full exposition of the remaining New Testament books.  We will simply present proposed dates without discussion; John 1, 2, and 3 (no later than 96 A.D.), Jude (80 A.D.), Hebrews (110 A.D.) and Revelation (69 or 96 A.D.).  A latter post may take up this topic or contact us for more information.

Part III will examine whether these accounts likely constitute eyewitness accounts and can be considered reliable accounts of historical events.

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