The dates of the Gospels
By George H. Duggan
When were the Gospels written? Or, to frame the question more precisely, when had the Gospels arrived at the state in which we now have them? The present text, we have reason to believe, was preceded by earlier drafts. If that is so, we could not say that the Gospel of St. Mark was written in 45, as we can say, for example, that Second Corinthians was written in 55 or 56.
If we accept the Gospels as the inspired word of God, does it really matter, one might ask, when they were written? In the days when everyone accepted the traditional dating,1 one could perhaps have dismissed the question as unimportant. But those days are long gone. Ever since Reimarus (1694-1768) sought to convict the evangelists of conscious fraud and innumerable contradictions, his rationalist followers have put the writing of the Gospels late, in order to lessen their value as sources of reliable information about the life of Christ and his teaching.
D. F. Strauss (1808-1874), in his Life of Jesus, (published in 1835-6), anticipated Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) in holding that the Gospels, although they contain some historical facts, were mainly mythology and were written late in the 2nd century. Similarly F. C. Baur (1792-1860), an Hegelian rationalist, held that the Gospels were written between 130 and 170. But Strauss, in the words of Giuseppe Ricciotti, “honestly confessed that his theory would collapse if the Gospels were composed during the first century.”2 If they were so early, there would not be enough time for the myths to develop. Moreover, it is plain that, the nearer a document is to the facts it narrates, the more likely it is that it will be factually accurate, just as an entry in a diary is more likely to be accurate than memoirs written forty or fifty years afterwards. John A. T. Robinson was therefore justified when he ended his book Redating the New Testament with the words: “Dates remain disturbingly fundamental data.”3
The current dating of the four Gospels, accepted by the biblical establishment, which includes scholars of every persuasion, is: Mark 65-70; Matthew and Luke in the 80s; John in the 90s. These dates are repeated by the columnists who write in our Catholic newspapers and the experts who draw up the curricula for religious education in our Catholic schools.
For much of this late dating there is little real evidence. This point was made by C. H. Dodd, arguably the greatest English-speaking biblical scholar of the century. In a letter that serves as an appendix to Robinson’s book Redating the New Testament, Dodd wrote: “I should agree with you that much of the late dating is quite arbitrary, even wanton, the offspring not of any argument that can be presented, but rather of the critic’s prejudice that, if he appears to assent to the traditional position of the early church, he will be thought no better than a stick-in-the-mud.”5
Many years earlier the same point was made by C. C. Torrey, professor of Semitic Languages at Yale from 1900 to 1932. He wrote: “I challenged my NT colleagues to designate one passage from any one of the four Gospels giving clear evidence of a date later than 50 A.D. . . . The challenge was not met, nor will it be, for there is no such passage.”6
In 1976, the eminent New Testament scholar, John A. T. Robinson, “put a cat among the pigeons” with his book Redating the New Testament, published by SCM Press. He 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’s book was the first comprehensive treatment of the dating of the NT books since Harnack’s Chronologie des altchristlichen Litteratur, published in 1897. It is a genuine work of scholarship by a man thoroughly versed in the NT text and the literature bearing on it. But it was not welcomed by the biblical establishment, and it was not refuted, but ignored. “German New Testament scholars,” Carsten Thiede has written, “all but ignored Redating the New Testament, and not until 1986, ten years later, did Robinson’s work appear in Germany, when a Catholic and an Evangelical publishing house joined forces to have it translated and put into print.”7
In 1987, the Franciscan Herald Press published The Birth of the Synoptics by Jean Carmignac, a scholar who for some years was a member of the team working on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He tells us he would have preferred “Twenty Years of Work on the Formation of the Synoptic Gospels” as a title for the book, but the publishers ruled this out as too long.
Carmignac is sure that Matthew and Mark were originally written in Hebrew. This would not have been the classical Hebrew of the Old Testament, nor that of the Mishnah (c. 200 A.D.) but an intermediate form of the language, such as the Qumran sectaries were using in the 1st century A.D.
Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, who died about 130 A.D., tells us that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew, and Carmignac 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.”8
On page 87 he sets out the provisional results (some certain, some probable, others possible) of his twenty years’ research and remarks that his conclusions almost square with those of J. W. Wenham.9
In 1992, Hodder and Stoughton published Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke by John Wenham, the author of a well-known grammar of New Testament Greek. Born in 1913, he is an Anglican scholar who has spent his life in academic and pastoral work. He tells us that his attention was drawn to the Synoptic Problem in 1937, when he read Dom John Chapman’s book Matthew, Mark and Luke. He has been grappling with the problem ever since and in this book he offers his solution of the problem; but his main concern is the dates of the Synoptics.
Wenham’s book received high praise from Michael Green, the editor of the series I Believe, which includes works by such well-known scholars as I. Howard Marsall and the late George Eldon Ladd. The book, Green writes, “is full of careful research, respect for evidence, brilliant inspiration and fearless judgement. It is a book no New Testament scholar will be able to neglect.”
Green may be too optimistic. Wenham will probably get the same treatment as Robinson: not a detailed refutation, but dismissed as not worthy of serious consideration.
Wenham puts the first draft of Matthew before 42. For twelve years (30-42) the Apostles had remained in Jerusalem, constituting, in words of the Swedish scholar B. Gerhardsson, a kind of Christian Sanhedrin, hoping to win over the Jewish people to faith in Christ. Matthew’s Gospel, written in Hebrew, would have had an apologetic purpose, endeavoring to convince the Jews, by citing various Old Testament texts, that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of David and the long-awaited Messiah.
The persecution of the Church in 42 by Herod Agrippa I, in which the Apostle James suffered martyrdom, put an end to those hopes. Peter, miraculously freed from prison, went, we are told “to another place” (Acts 12:17). There are grounds for thinking that this “other place” was Rome, where there was a big Jewish community and where he would be out of the reach of Herod Agrippa. There, using Matthew’s text, and amplifying it with personal reminiscences, he preached the gospel. When Agrippa died in 44, Peter was able to return to Palestine. After his departure from Rome, Mark produced the first draft of his Gospel, based on Peter’s preaching.
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.10 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).
We know that Luke was in Palestine when Paul was in custody in Caesarea (58-59). 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.
There are no grounds for putting Luke’s Gospel in the early 80s as R. F. Karris does,11 or, with Joseph Fitzmyer, placing it as “not earlier than 80-85.”12
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. In 1896, Harnack put Acts between 79 and 93, but by 1911 he had come to the conclusion that “it is the highest degree probable” that Acts is to be dated before 62. If Luke does not mention the outcome of the trial of Paul, it is, Harnack argued, because he did not know, for when Luke wrote, the trial had not yet taken place.
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.13
In 1996, Weidenfeld and Nicholson published The Jesus Papyrus by Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew d’Ancona. Thiede is Director of the Institute for Basic Epistemological Research in Paderborn, Germany, and a member of the International Papyrological Association. Matthew d’Ancona is a journalist and Deputy Editor of the Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper.
The book is about several papyrus fragments, and in particular three found in Luxor, Egypt, which contain passages from the Gospel of St. Matthew, and one found in Qumran, which contains twenty letters from the Gospel of St. Mark.
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 1953, when Colin H. Roberts examined them. He dated them as belonging to the late 2nd century. Then 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 Fr. JosĂ© O’Callaghan, S.J., a Spanish papyrologist, declared that the words on 7Q5 were from the Gospel of St. 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.'”14 This implies that St. Marks’ Gospel was in being some time before the monastery at Qumran was destroyed by the Romans in 68.
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-at least as quickly as an airmail letter in 1996. 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.
New Testament scholars dealing with the Synoptic Gospels will obviously have to take more notice of the findings of the papyrologists than they have so far been prepared to do, however painful it may be to discard received opinions.
When was St. John’s Gospel written?
That John, the son of Zebedee, and one of the Apostles, wrote the Gospel that bears his name, was established long ago, on the basis of external and internal evidence, by B. F. Westcott and M. J. Lagrange, O.P., and their view, though not universally accepted, has not really been shaken.
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. To them we could add Klaus Berger, of Heidelberg, who puts it in 66. Robinson decisively refutes the arguments brought forward by Raymond Brown and others 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.”16
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.”17
This article will have served its purpose if it has encouraged the reader to consider seriously the evidence for an early date for the Gospels, refusing to be overawed by such statements as that “the majority of modern biblical scholars hold” or that “there is now a consensus among modern biblical scholars” that the Gospels are to be dated from 65 to 90 A.D.
The account I have given of the writing of the Synoptic Gospels is categorical in style, but it is presented only as a likely scenario. However, it would seem to be more likely than one based on the assumption that among the Jews, a literate people, it was thirty years or more before anyone wrote a connected account of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.
“I do not wish,” C. S. Lewis once said to a group of divinity students, “to reduce the skeptical element in your minds. I am only suggesting that it need not be reserved exclusively for the New Testament and the Creeds. Try doubting something else.”18 This something else, I suggest could include the widely accepted view that the Gospels were written late.
It will be easier to do this if the reader is acquainted with the judgment of the eminent jurist, Sir Norman Anderson, who describes himself as “an academic from another discipline who has browsed widely in the writings of contemporary theologians and biblical scholars.” At times, he is, he tells us, “astonished by the way in which they handle their evidence, by the presuppositions and a priori convictions with which some of them clearly (and even, on occasion, on their own admission) approach the documents concerned, and by the positively staggering assurance with which they make categorical pronouncements on points which are, on any showing, open to question, and on which equally competent colleagues take a diametrically opposite view.”19
1 The traditional dating is given in the Douay-Rheims-Challoner version in its introductions to the Gospels: Matthew about 36; Mark about 40; Luke about 54; John about 93. 2 Ricciotti, The Life of Christ (E.T. Alba I. Zizzamia), Bruce, Milwaukee, 1944, p. 186. 3 Redating the New Testament, SCM Press, London, 1976, p. 358. 4 Thus in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1989, D. J. Harrington puts Mark before 70; B. T. Viviani, O.P., puts Matthew between 80 and 90; R. J. Karris, O.F.M., puts Luke 80-85; Pheme Perkins puts John in the 90s. 5 Redating the New Testament, p. 360. 6 Quoted in J. Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Hodder and Stoughton, London, p. 299 note 2. 7 C. P. Thiede and M. d’Ancona, The Jesus Papyrus, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1996, p. 45. 8 J. Carmignac, The Birth of the Synoptics, (E. T. Michael J. Wrenn)
Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1987, pp. 6, 61. 9 Ibid., p. 99 note 29. 10 Robinson suggests that this may be the case, op. cit. p. 282 note 142. 11 R. J. Karris, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 670. 12 Richard Dillon and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice-Hall International, London, 1968, Vol. 2, p. 165. 13 J. Wenham, op. cit., pp. 225-226. 14 C. P. Thiede and M. d’Ancona, op. cit., p. 56. 15 Robinson, op. cit., pp. 272-285. 16 Ibid., p. 275. 17 Ibid., p. 278. 18 “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” in Christian Reflections, Geoffrey Bles, London, 1967, p. 164. 19A Lawyer Among Theologians, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1973, p. 15.
Reverend George H. Duggan, S.M., is a New Zealander. After earning his S.T.D. at the Angelicum in Rome, he taught philosophy for fifteen years at the Marist seminary, Greenmeadows, and then was rector in turn of a university hall of residence and the Marist tertianship. He is now living in retirement at St. Patrick’s College, Silverstream. He is the author of Evolution and Philosophy (1949), Hans Kung and Reunion (1964), Teilhardism and the Faith (1968), and Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1987). His last article in HPR appeared in October 1992.