How the Gospels are most commonly dated (and why?)

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by Neil Godfrey

From Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 144-145 (number formatting is mine):

  1. Even though it is very hard to date the Gospels with precision, most scholars agree on the basic range of dates, for a variety of reasons . . . .
  2. I can say with relative certainty — from his own letters and from Acts — that Paul was writing during the fifties of the common era . . . .
  3. [H]e gives in his own writings absolutely no evidence of knowing about or ever having heard of the existence of any Gospels. From this it can be inferred that the Gospels probably were written after Paul’s day.
  4. It also appears that the Gospel writers know about certain later historical events, such as the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 ce . . . That implies that these Gospels were probably written after 70.
  5. There are reasons for thinking Mark was written first, so maybe he wrote around the time of the war with Rome, 70 ce.
  6. If Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source, they must have been composed after Mark’s Gospel circulated for a time outside its own originating community — say, ten or fifteen years later, in 80 to 85 ce.
  7. John seems to be the most theologically developed Gospel, and so it was probably written later still, nearer the end of the first century, around 90 to 95 ce.
  8. These are rough guesses, but most scholars agree on them.

Here we have in a convenient nutshell the basic reasons behind the widely accepted dates for the Gospels. Bart Ehrman explains he is not going into details here, and one can find in the literature more nuanced arguments for relative and other dates assigned to the gospels. But with these dot points we can say we are looking at the trunk of the tree.

Dating Paul

The grounds stated for dating Paul to the 50’s seems reasonable enough. The only problem is that there is no external attestation for Paul’s letters till the second century. Ditto for the book of Acts. It is unknown until Irenaeus cites it in the latter half of the second century. That leaves only the letters of Paul themselves. How certain can we be about a date that relies solely on the self-witness of the documents themselves? Especially when we know that at the time Paul’s letters do appear they are simultaneously embroiled in controversies over forgeries and interpolations. (Marcionites accused “orthodoxy” of interpolating Paul’s letters; the letters themselves warn of forgeries, and many scholars believe the Pastoral letters are forgeries.)

But the point here is that Ehrman does supply the reasons, the evidence, for dating Paul the way most do.

Dating Mark

Again with Mark’s gospel, Ehrman offers logical reasons, underlying evidence, for dating Mark after Paul, and some time from 70 c.e. onwards.

He does not delineate the reasons here for believing Mark was written before the other gospels, and that is fine. It would be too complex a discussion in this context, and it is enough that Ehrman has at least stated that there are “reasons” and it is not just a whimsy.

But the key point to notice is that Ehrman uses this relative date of Mark (relative to the other gospels) to assert that maybe he wrote around the time of the war with Rome, 70 ce. Ehrman is presenting the standard dating method found in most basic texts that treat the subject. The only grounds that are offered for dating Mark to “around 70 ce” are that it was written before Matthew and Luke.

Again, even the absolute (as opposed to relative) dates are not so certain as appears here, since it has been reasonably argued that the events in Mark’s “Olivet Prophecy/Little Apocalypse” echo more specifically the events of the Bar Kochba war in the early second century. (See an earlier post for details and links.)

Dating Matthew and Luke

Once more Ehrman gives reasons for assigning Matthew and Luke a decade or more subsequent to Mark.

No absolute dates (as for Paul in the 50’s, and knowledge of events that took place in 70 ce) are or can be independently determined here. The absolute dates cited (80-85 ce) are based solely on a hypothetical construct of gospel origins and on a placement relative to Mark.

Once more there are other reasons, not stated here, for questioning such a relative time gap anyway. The assumption that each gospel was written for and confined to a geographically based community before it became more widely known can be questioned. But that is another discussion. Several scholars, some through detailed textual analysis, have published reasons for dating Luke the last of the gospels, even after John.

Dating John

Again Ehrman gives a reason for dating John last of all.

A difficulty with this reason is indicated by the fact that the earliest gospel, Mark, has a far more highly developed theological understanding of the meaning of the death of Jesus than the much later Luke. Mark views Jesus’s death as a saving atonement for the sins of the world; Luke writes of it prosaically as “just another” death of a righteous martyr. So apparently more the level of sophistication of theological views are not necessarily determinants of relative chronology. Some scholars have argued John is the earliest gospel.

Dating the Gospels between 70 ce and 95 ce

We are told that most scholars agree on this range of dates. It was also explained at the outset that they did so for “a variety of reasons”.

But looking through the reasons given for the various dates, one notices something basic missing.

There are reasons given for the various relative datings of the gospels, and there reasons given for dating them some time after the 50s and 70 ce.

But there are no reasons, no reasons given at all, for assigning the gospel of Mark absolutely to “around 70 ce”.

One can maintain the same arguments and reasons for dating Mark ten to fifteen years prior to the other gospels, and there is no reason at all given for why Mark could not be dated as late as 80 ce, 90 ce, or even 130 ce.

Given the pointed emphasis in the above quotation from BE to showing readers that there are “reasons” for each step of the dating process, this omission demands an explanation.

I suggest that the reason is that the assumption of historicity underlying the gospel narrative, and its related model of ‘oral tradition’, demand as early a date as possible for the written gospels.  In other words, the absolute date range is ideologically or hypothetically grounded.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “How the Gospels are most commonly dated (and why?)”

  1. As I understand it, one of the reasons for dating Mark is due to the early date of the John Rylands papyrus of the gospel of John (P52). Since GJohn is considered the last gospel to be written based on its more “sophisticated christology and theology” (but you point to skepticism in that regard), and the earliest GJohn fragment (P52) is about 125 CE, which preceeded the Bar Kochba revolt in ~130 CE then Mark should be dated earlier, perhaps immediately after, or even prior to, the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.

    1. From Rylands Library Papyrus P52

      Although Rylands is generally accepted as the earliest extant record of a canonical New Testament text, the dating of the papyrus is by no means the subject of consensus among critical scholars. The style of the script is strongly Hadrianic, which would suggest a most probable date somewhere between 117 CE and 138 CE. But the difficulty of fixing the date of a fragment based solely on paleographic evidence allows a much wider range, potentially extending from before 100 CE past 150 CE.

      Paleography can only give us a start date. How long and among what sectors a particular style was used is something that brings other factors into the mix.

  2. I am currently discussing this issue with a conservative Christian. He accuses non-conservative scholars of bias in the dating of the Gospels saying that their only “evidence” is the prediction of the destruction of the Temple which he says is an unjustified bias against the supernatural. If Jesus correctly predicted or correctly guessed, the Gospel of Mark could have been written early (the 50’s).

    He and other conservatives use the fact that Acts does not mention Paul’s death as evidence that Acts was probably written in the early 60’s (prior to Paul’s death under Nero in circa 65 CE).

    Is that really all the evidence there is?

      1. I have been reading too much Sanday and Streeter. The British scholars of last century were absolutely thrilled about the first-person sections in Acts. They drooled over them as if they were diaries they had only just uncovered. My eyes are sore from rolling them back into my head.

    1. The “evidence” bia attestation in other works goes the other way. The early Church fathers never mention the Gospels in their writings. It’s not until the middle of the second Century that we have actual evidence for any of it.

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