When and By Whom Were the Gospels Written?

Skeptics often call into question the dating of the Gospels, making the claim that they were written by “anonymous” authors “decades” or even “centuries” after Jesus was crucified. Yet we have much evidence to discount such assertions.

Anonymous authors

The names of the Gospels to whom the Gospels are attributed include two apostles (Matthew and John), one man who is believed to be a friend of the apostles Paul and Peter (Mark) and another man who collected an orderly account for a person called Theophilus and traveled with the apostle Paul (Luke). Luke referred to himself in the first person starting in Acts 16 as he documented his travels with Paul. Paul also referred to Luke in Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24 and 2 Timothy 4:11. Paul referred to Mark in Philemon 24 (in his list of fellow workers), while Peter referred to Mark as his son in 1 Peter 5:13. Matthew is believed to be the former tax collector, while John is believed to be Jesus’ beloved apostle. Early Christian disciples had no reason to elevate two unknown men (Mark and Luke) to the status of authors as neither was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. If they were selecting names that would carry weight, it seems more logical that they would have selected two other apostles.

No one attributed the Gospels to anyone else in ancient history and we have early attributions in the 2nd century to the named authors. For example, around 180 A.D. in Against Heresies 3.1.1 and Church History 5.8.2, Irenaeus stated that Matthew wrote a Gospel for the Hebrews in their own language while Paul and Peter were in Rome sharing the Good News. Prior to that around 150 A.D., Justin Martyr referred to the Gospels as the “memoirs of the apostles.” And even prior to that around 130 A.D., the Bishop of Hierapolis, Papias (a disciple of the apostle John), referenced Mark and Matthew in his Expositions of the Logia of the Lord:

“The Elder also said this, “Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he remembered he wrote accurately, but not however in the order that these things were spoken or done by our Lord. For he neither heard the Lord, nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he was with Peter, who did not make a complete [or ordered] account of the Lord’s logia, but constructed his teachings according to chreiai. So Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single matters as he remembered them, for he gave special attention to one thing, of not passing by anything he heard, and not falsifying anything in these matters.”

“Concerning Mark, these things were related by the father [John the Elder]. Concerning Matthew these other things were said, “Therefore, Matthew set in order the logia (“divine oracles”) in a Hebrew dialect, and each interpreted them, as he was able.”

Other early support for the four named Gospel authors comes from Tertullian, Tatian, the Canon Muratorianus, and Origen.

Content validity

Furthermore, the core content of the Gospels is verified extra-biblically from non-Christians within 150 years of His resurrection. In other words, the names of the authors mean little when the content is verified by others, including people who were hostile to the Christian faith.

Extra-biblical secular evidence supports the core tenets of Christianity. We know that Jesus was born into humble circumstances to a poor woman who was married to a carpenter (Celsus). Christians believed He was born of a virgin (Celsus). He was considered wise and virtuous (Josephus) and a teacher and king (Mara Bar-Serapion). He was crucified and died under Pontius Pilate (Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian). On the day of His crucifixion, there appeared a “most fearful darkness” and an earthquake (Thallus) and a full eclipse of the sun (Phlegon).

Josephus reports that Jesus’ apostles did not abandon their discipleship and they reported that He was alive three days after His crucifixion. Early Christians suffered trials, persecution, and torture if they did not renounce Jesus (e.g., Pliny the Younger). Early Christians (of every age and both sexes) tried to live like Jesus, worshipping Him as Lord, singing hymns to Him, and refusing to betray trust or commit fraud, theft, or adultery (Pliny the Younger).

Age

To be included in the New Testament canon, the early church leaders required that the books or letters were composed by eyewitnesses or those who knew eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry or resurrection. For this reason, the Gnostics and writings from early church fathers such as Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Clement, Papias, Eusebius and Ignatius, which were written a hundred to hundreds of years later, were excluded. From their extra-biblical Christian writings, we can also validate the content of the New Testament. For example, from Clement we learn about Jesus’ teachings, miracles, fulfillment of Biblical prophecies, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection.

“The attestation of authorship is significant, early, and geographically diverse. We find it from all over, Tertullian in Carthage, Clement in Alexandria, Irenaeus in France, and Papias in Asia Minor. There is no rival tradition for the authorship of any of the gospels” (McGrew, 2012).

Skeptics agree that Paul’s letters were written prior to his martyrdom, which occurred sometime between 62 and 64 A.D., which is within the same generation of those living during Jesus’ lifetime. Note that Paul’s letters include 1 Corinthians 15, which is a creed believed (even by skeptics) to be written within five years of Jesus’ resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15 documents the very early beliefs of Christians and their beliefs in Jesus’ resurrection and divinity.

Why would all four Gospel authors exclude Nero’s great fire in Rome in 64 A.D. and his false attribution of the fire to Christians that followed if written after 64 A.D.? Why would all four Gospel authors exclude the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 if written after 70? Why wouldn’t they want to include a fulfilled prophecy, which offers even more support of Jesus’ divinity? They offered other fulfilled prophecies throughout their texts, such as when Jesus prophesied about His own resurrection.

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’” Mark 14:58

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” John 2:19

Skeptics usually claim the Gospels were written after 70 A.D. Why do they pick the year 70 A.D.? They pick that date because they realize that Jesus portended the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Mark 13, Luke 21), which occurred in 70, and they doubt He could have known that. They doubt His divinity. In other words, they’ve selected post 70 dating based on their own faulty presuppositions.

Yet internal evidence supports earlier dating. Why would Luke include the martyrdoms of Stephen (in 36 A.D.) and James (the Greater, son of Zebedee in 44 A.D.) but exclude the martyrdoms of Peter, James (Jesus ½ brother) and Paul in the book of Acts if Acts were written after their deaths? Peter, James and Paul were the main characters! Their martyrdoms are not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. Acts ends rather abruptly when Paul was waiting in prison in Rome in the early 60s.

Luke documented leaders during the early church years, ending with Festus, who oversaw the final trial of Paul (Acts 24:27). Festus was the procurator of Judea between 59 and 62. Since Josephus (Antiquities 20: 197-203) places the death of James (Jesus’ ½ brother) during the vacancy between the leadership of Festus and his successor Albinus, we can estimate that James was martyred in 62 A.D. Peter and Paul were martyred prior to 67 A.D. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to assume that Luke wrote the book of Acts prior to 62 A.D.

Note that Luke wrote Acts after he wrote Luke as he noted in the opening of Acts. About 50 percent of Mark’s content is found in Luke and about 90 percent of Mark’s content is found in Matthew, suggesting the authors had some collaboration. Some scholars use this information to date Mark prior to both Matthew and Luke. Taken together with the ending of Acts by 62 A.D., it seems reasonable to assume that Matthew, Mark and Luke were also written prior to 62 A.D. and quite possibly much earlier.

“Eusebius shares with his readers that before Matthew left for an extended leave from the Hebrews, most likely the Hebrew (Aramaic) speaking Jews in Jerusalem and the surrounding region, he wrote a gospel in Hebrew (Aramaic) and left it for them to have while he was gone. Therefore, Matthew’s first version/edition of his Gospel was written and published just before he left to spread the Gospel to other lands. This very likely was after the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. In Acts 15:6 Luke records the holding of the Jerusalem Council, ‘And the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.’ The apostles were not summoned from all over the world to attend this meeting. They were already there in Jerusalem. The decision was made that the Gospel given by Jesus Christ did not include embracing circumcision and the Law, but only faith in the Lord. Once this was settled, the mission to the Gentiles to the remotest part of the earth by the twelve apostles (minus James the son of Zebedee, the brother of John who had died) after 15 years or so of filling Judea and Samaria with the Gospel could begin. It is estimated by scholars that this council was about 49 or 50 C.E. Therefore, Matthew who soon departed to go to other lands would have published his first version of the Gospel in Hebrew to the Christian Jews in Judea before he left in 49 or 50 C.E.” (Jones, n.d.)

The choice of wording that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 mimics the wording Luke uses (22:19-20) in his Gospel, yet Paul stated that he received this information, while Luke recounted the event within the greater context of the passion narrative. Compare the following:

“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night 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, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” – 1 Corinthians 11:23-25.

“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’” Luke 22:19-20.

A final line of argument refers to Caiaphas, the high priest who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. Mark (14:53) referred to him as “the high priest,” while Matthew 26:57-75) said that he was “named Caiaphas,” the high priest. Since Caiaphas died in 36, this line of argument suggests that Mark may have been written when it would be known that the high priest was Caiaphas so he didn’t need to be named. If Matthew were written later, he would need to specify the particular high priest. John (11:49) also named Caiaphas. He said “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year.” This suggests that John was looking into the past when he wrote his book.

In conclusion, we have an abundance of reasons to support the validity of the Gospels and the New Testament, more generally. Earlier dating of the Synoptic Gospels and the names of the authors to whom all four Gospels are attributed are also evidenced in ancient writings.

References:

Hoehner, H.W. (1977). Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Corporation.

Jones, R. (n.d.). The Early Church Fathers on the Authorship of the NT Gospels: Historical Evidence for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Accessed November 8, 2019 at: https://www.academia.edu/9269890/Early_Church_Fathers_on_the_Authorship_of_the_NT_Gospels

McGrew, T. (2012). Who wrote the Gospels? Lecture. Apologetics 315.com. Referenced in Jones (n.d.)

Tribelhorn, T.B. (2015). Opening the Rabbinic Doors to the Gospels. Morgantown, PA: Masthof Press.

 

 

 

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