So How Early Are We Talking About Here?
How do we know what we know about Jesus? How can we be sure that we can trust what we have been told about Jesus? It’s important for us to determine whether or not the documents we know as the “gospels” are, in fact, true eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. If they are eyewitness accounts, we would expect them to appear in history very early; very near the actual life of the Messiah and within the lifetime of those who claimed to see and learn from Jesus. As it turns out, contrary to liberal scholarship that would like us to believe that Jesus is simply a myth or exaggeration created many decades (or even centuries) after the first century, there are many good reasons to believe that the gospels appeared very early in history. If this is the case, the gospels would be ancient enough to contain the claims of eyewitnesses rather than the exaggerations of myth makers, and the gospels would have been circulated at a time when other eyewitnesses would have been alive and able to correct any attempted exaggeration.
Let’s take a look at the historical and textual evidence related to the gospels and determine just how early they first appeared on the scene. As we “zero in” on the early dating of the gospels, remember that as we inch near the time of Jesus’ life with a particular piece of evidence, we build an even stronger case for the preceding piece of evidence offered. The cumulative case for early dating becomes stronger with each additional line of evidence:
Earlier Than 250AD
On November 19, 1931, the “Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri” were revealed to the world. This group of ancient papyri from Aphroditopolis contains eleven manuscripts, and three of them are fragments of the New Testament, including the four canonical gospels. They have been dated from 200-250AD. It’s clear from the existence of these papyri that the gospels appeared prior to their collection as part of this library. We can therefore conclude that the gospels appeared prior to 250AD.
Earlier Than 200AD
Another large group of ancient papyri were discovered in Egypt in 1952. The “Bodmer Papyri” were discovered at the headquarters of a Pachomian order of monks in Pabau near Dishna. The set of papyri contains a text of the Gospel of John, dated to the first part of the third century (circa 200-225AD). Given that John is accepted by scholars as the last written gospel, it is reasonable to conclude that the other gospels were in circulation by 200AD.
Earlier Than 180AD
Tatian the Assyrian was a Christian theologian who lived from 120 to 180AD. Perhaps his most important work was a text known as the “Diatessaron”; it is a paraphrase (or “harmony”) of the four gospels. This work became the standard text for the Syriac speaking Christian churches for nearly 500 years. It was obviously written prior to Tatian’s death in 180AD and demonstrates that the four gospels were already in circulation and well known by the time Tatian took on the task of harmonizing them.
Earlier Than 150AD
Many of the early Church Fathers were familiar with the gospels and quoted them in their own letters and writings. Justin Martyr, in his “First Apology” (150AD) quotes and alludes to the Gospel of John Chapter 3 (1 Apol. 61, 4-5). This is consistent with the fact that Justin was Tatian’s teacher and surely knew what Tatian knew about the existing gospels. Justin’s use of the Gospel of John pushes the dating back an additional 30 years to 150AD.
Earlier Than 130AD
According to Eusebius, Papias of Hierapolis mentioned writings by Matthew and Mark when he (Papias) wrote his five-volume “Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord” around 130AD. This is consistent with the fact that the famous “Ryland’s Papyri” contains a fragment of John’s gospel dating to the same period of time (130AD). The Ryland’s Papyri was discovered in Egypt and contained thousands of papyrus fragments. It is reasonable to conclude that the Gospel of John was completed long before 130AD given the fact that it was obviously written, copied and transmitted from Greece to Egypt over some period of time before it became part of this collection.
Earlier Than 120AD
Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John (or perhaps John the Evangelist) and later became the Bishop of Smyrna in the second century. He is regarded as one of the three foremost Apostolic Fathers and the only surviving work from Polycarp is a letter he wrote to the Philippian Church in 120AD. Polycarp quoted from the gospels and other letters of the New Testament in this document; it is therefore reasonable to conclude that the gospels were in existence and well known prior to 120AD.
Earlier Than 110AD
Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch in the late first / early second century. He wrote several letters around 110AD that quote or allude to the Gospel of Matthew. His letters to Ephesus, Smyrna and Polycarp quote or allude to Matthew 12:33, 19:12 and 10:16. It is clear that Matthew was already in circulation and well accepted by the time of these writings.
Earlier Than 100AD
In addition to this, the “Didache” or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” also quotes from Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer in Didache 8:1. The Didache was first discovered in a monastery in Constantinople and was clearly utilized by the earliest Christians. Athanasius described it as “appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of goodness”. The Didache is most recently dated at approximately 100AD; it is yet another evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was already in circulation and widely recognizable by this time.
Earlier Than 95AD
Clement is listed as either the second or third bishop at Rome (following Peter) and he wrote a letter to the Corinthian congregation that is known as 1 Clement. This letter is commonly dated to the end of the reign of Domitian in Rome (95 or 96AD). Clement utilized sections from Matthew’s gospel in 1 Clement 13:1-2, once again establishing that Matthew’s gospel was already in circulation and “quotable” as early as 95AD.
Earlier Than 70AD
Perhaps the most significant event of the first century, particularly in the minds of Jews and early Christian converts, was the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70AD. Rome dispatched an army to Jerusalem in response to the Jewish rebellion of 66AD. The Roman army (under the leadership of Titus) ultimately destroyed the temple in 70AD, just as Jesus had predicted in the Gospels. Yet no gospel account records the destruction of the temple. In fact, no New Testament document mentions or alludes to the temple’s destruction, even though there are many occasions when a description of the temple destruction might have assisted in establishing a theological or historical verification. The most reasonable explanation for silence related to the destruction of the temple is simply that all the New Testament documents, including the gospels, were written prior to 70AD.
Earlier Than 64AD
It is reasonable to conclude that the Book of Acts was completed prior to 64AD. Luke, the author of the text, says nothing about the Jewish war with the Romans that started in 66AD, and he says nothing about the destruction of the temple nor the persecution of the Church that occurred under the Roman army in the mid-60’s. Many of the expressions used by Luke in the Book of Acts are very early and primitive and fit well into the context of Palestine prior to the fall of the temple. In addition, Luke says nothing about the martyrdom of James (that occurred in 61AD), the martyrdom of Paul (that occurred in 64AD) or the martyrdom of Peter (that occurred in 65AD). In fact, Paul is still alive a the end of the Book of Acts. It is reasonable, therefore, to date the writing of Acts prior to 64AD.
Luke wrote both the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke. These two texts contain introductions that tie them together in history. In the introduction to the book of Acts, Luke refers to his ‘former book’ where he ‘wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven’. If it is reasonable to conclude that the Book of Acts was written prior to 64AD, it would also be reasonable to conclude that the Gospel of Luke was written in the years prior to this. Paul certainly knew that Luke’s Gospel was common knowledge in about 64AD when Paul penned his letter to Timothy. Note the following passage from his letter:
1 Timothy 5:17-18
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’
Paul quotes two passages as scripture here; one in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament. ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ refers to Deuteronomy 25:4 and ‘The worker deserves his wages’ refers to Luke 10:7. It’s clear that Luke’s gospel was already common knowledge and accepted as scripture by the time this letter was written. It’s therefore reasonable to assume that Luke’s gospel was written in the early 60’s.
Earlier Than 60AD
Like the Book of Acts, none of the gospels mention any of the aforementioned events that occurred following 61AD. The earliest of these gospels, Mark, is quoted repeatedly by Luke in the gospel he wrote prior to the Book of Acts. This shouldn’t surprise us; Luke told us that he was not an eyewitness but simply a good historian who was consulting the witnesses at the time:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
It’s reasonable to believe that Mark’s gospel was already in circulation prior to Luke’s investigation. If Luke is written in the Early 60’s, it’s reasonable to assume that Mark’s gospel was written just prior to that, placing it in the late 50’s.
Earlier Than 55AD
While liberal scholars are inclined to deny that Paul is the author of all the letters attributed to him in the Bible, even the most skeptical scholars agree that Paul is the author of the letters written to the Romans, the Corinthians and the Galatians, and that these letters were written in the period between 48AD and 60AD. The Letter to the Romans is typically dated at 50AD and reveals something important related to the early existence of the gospels. Paul begins the letter by proclaiming that Jesus is the resurrected “Son of God”; Paul already describes a “High Christology” in this letter. Jesus is not simply a humble prophet who was transformed into God through an evolution of mythology over hundreds of years. He is the Jesus of the gospels in Paul’s letters, just 17 years after the Resurrection. In fact, Paul’s outline of Jesus’ life matches that of the gospels. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul summarizes the gospel message and reinforces the idea that this message is the same one that was delivered to him by the apostles. In his Letter to the Galatians (written in the mid-50’s) Paul describes his interaction with these apostles (Peter and James) and says that the meeting occurred at least 14 years prior to the writing of the letter (Galatians 1:18, cf. 2:1). This means that Paul saw the risen Christ and learned about the gospel accounts from the eyewitnesses (Peter and James) within 5 years of the Crucifixion. This is why Paul was able to tell the Corinthians (in his letter written 53-57AD) that there were still many living eyewitnesses who could confirm the Resurrection accounts:
1 Corinthians 15: 3-7
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep ; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles
Paul’s description of Jesus never changes in the many years over which he wrote letters to the local churches. Paul remains steadfast in the manner in which he describes Jesus. There is no slow evolution of Jesus from man to God, even though Paul’s letters span 12 to 15 years. Paul is rooted in the gospel description of Jesus from his first meeting with the eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally. Paul also seems to be familiar with the Gospel of Luke as he writes his early letter to the Corinthian church. Notice the similarity between Paul’s description of Lord’s Supper and Luke’s gospel:
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread ; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood…”
And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”
Paul, writing from 53 – 57AD, appears to be quoting Luke’s gospel (as it is the only gospel that has Jesus saying that the disciples are to “do this in remembrance of me”). Luke was Paul’s traveling companion and it was Luke’s gospel that Paul quoted in 1 Timothy as well. Remember that Luke gathered his material from the available eyewitnesses, such as Mark, so it is once again reasonable to assume that Mark’s account was available very early in history in order to serve as the basis for details such as the information Paul is quoting about the Lord’s Supper.
This evidence for tracing the gospels to the 50’s may corroborate the controversial discovery of Jose O’Callaghan (an eminent Spanish Jesuit papyrologist). O’Callaghan examined a papyri fragment discovered at Qumran in Cave 7 (as part of the Dead Sea Scroll collection). O’Callaghan concluded that this fragment (called the ‘7Q5’) is actually a piece of Mark’s gospel (Mark 6:52-53). The fragment is dated at 50AD.
There are many good reasons to believe that the gospels were written very early and circulated by the early Christians who read them, quoted them and preserved them for later generations. We’ve assembled thirteen pieces of evidence that establish the early dating of the gospels and we’ve arranged them from most recent to most ancient for a reason. As we read down the list of evidences, we come to understand that the first piece of evidence from 250AD is further validated and supported by the second piece of evidence from 200AD. Each subsequent piece of evidence then continues to support the prior evidential claims. There is good reason, therefore, to believe that the gospels appeared within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses who claimed to write them.
Many Scholars Agree
There are a number of scholarly experts who happen to agree with the early dating of the gospels. Interestingly, some of these scholars come to the same conclusion on the basis of the historical and textual evidence that we’ve cited in this article. But others come to the same conclusions from very different lines of evidence. This robust and divergent approach to dating the gospels to within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses only strengthens our conclusions. You can access some of this scholarship for yourself to appreciate the strength of the argument for early dating:
Ricciotti was an Italian Bible scholar, archeologist and historian. He wrote extensively, including seminal works on the Life of Christ and Paul the Apostle. Ricciotti concluded that the gospels were written early on the basis of some of the same lines of internal textual evidence that we have cited in this article. He argued that the Gospel of Matthew was written from 50 to 55AD, that the Gospel of Mark was written from 55 to 60AD, that the Gospel of Luke was written near 60AD, and that the Gospel of John was written near 100AD.
John Arthur Thomas Robinson
Robinson was a former Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar who wrote “Redating the New Testament”. Although Robinson was known for his theological liberalism (revealed in his 1963 book entitled, “Honest to God”, he rejected the late dating of the liberal school of “form criticism”. He utilized an historical approach to his research (grounded primarily the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD) to conclude that the gospels were written early. He argued that the Gospel of Matthew was written from 40 to 60AD, that the Gospel of Mark was written from 45 to 60AD, that the Gospel of Luke was written from 57 to 60AD, and that the Gospel of John was written from 40 to 65AD.
John W. Wenham
Wenham was a Professor of New Testament Greek and Biblical scholar. He wrote “Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem” and concluded that the gospels were written early by comparing them to one another and examining their relationship to the early writings and traditions of Church Fathers from the first to third century. He concluded that the Gospel of Matthew was written near 40AD, that the Gospel of Mark was written near 45AD, and that the Gospel of Luke was written by the mid-50’s.
Gerhardsson is a Swedish Biblicist and and professor at Lund University. He wrote “The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition” and examined the Jewish oral and written tradition, particularly the teaching and memorization techniques of Jewish Rabbis in Jesus’ day. A similar approach to the evidence was also presented by Harald Riesenfeld (Sweden), Thorleif Boman (Norway). All these scholars conclude that the gospels are consistent with the teaching and memorization traditions of first century Rabbi’s. As a result, they conclude that the gospels should be dated very early.
Jousse is a Biblical scholar from France. He wrote “L’anthropologie du geste” and examined the Semitic nature and rhythm of Jesus’ statements in the gospels. He concluded that the gospels are consistent with the language and characteristics of first century rabbinical teaching. As a result, he also concluded that the gospels should be dated very early.
Carmignac is a French scholar who spent twenty years researching the Hebrew language as a backdrop to the writing of the gospels. He wrote “The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels” and concluded that one or more of the gospels had a Semitic origin (other scholars like Robert Lindsey, David Flusser, Pinchas Lapide and David Bivin agree). His work argued that the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) formed amidst the Jewish culture of the first half of the first century. He concluded that the Gospel of Mark was written from 42 to 55AD, that the Gospel of Matthew was written from 50 to 60AD, and that the Gospel of Luke was written from 50 to 60AD.
Rolland is a Biblical scholar from France. He wrote “Epitre aux Romains: Texte Grec Structure” among other works. He ultimately compared the language of several New Testament letters and the Book of Acts and formed the opinion that the Gospel of Matthew was first written in Hebrew near 40AD, then translated into Greek from 63 to 64AD along with the Gospel of Luke. He argued that the Gospel of Mark appeared in 66 or 67Ad and that the Gospel of John appeared near 100AD.
Carsten Peter Thiede
Theide was a German papyrologist, archaeologist and New Testament scholar. He wrote “The Jesus Papyri”. He examined three papyrus fragments of the Gospel of Matthew from Luxor Egypt (now housed at Magdalen College, Oxford) and concluded that they dated to 60AD.
There is more than sufficient evidence to believe that the gospels appeared very early in history, well within the lives of the original eyewitnesses who watched Jesus and learned at His feet. The internal manuscript evidence and the external historical evidence is significant and more than sufficient. We can have confidence that the gospel accounts can be traced back to the days of the eyewitnesses.
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