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How Do We Know When the Gospels Were Written?

Here is an important question that I have recently received.  It’s a tricky one!  But completely fundamental to the study of the New Testament.

 

QUESTION:

I now have your book “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings”. Great book/text! Something I haven’t figured out is how do scholars know when the original Gospels (not copies) were written since apparently none survived?

 

RESPONSE:

This is a great question, and one that I get asked a lot.  How do we actually know when the Gospels were written?   It is actually a difficult question to answer, but I’ll start at the beginning, with some basics that I think everyone can agree on.   (Well, OK, there is *nothing* that  absolutely everyone agrees on, as I’ve learned with some chagrin over the years…)

First, Jesus died around the year 30, so the Gospels were written after that.   The first really convincing quotations of the Gospels (there are probable allusions earlier than this, but these are the most certain ones) come in the writings of Justin Martyr, around the year 150.  Justin does not name the Gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but he does call certain books “The Memoirs of the Apostles,” he quotes them explicitly, and his quotations line up with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (it is debated whether he quotes John; but there are two quotations that certainly make it appear that he knows John).

This means, for starters, that the Gospels must have been written sometime between 30 and 150 CE.  And the question is how to narrow down the dates further.

If it is true that the Gospels are …

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    mannix  September 22, 2018

    Off the topic FYI for bloggers:

    I was in Black Mountain NC last week as a Florence evacuee (vacation in Southern Shores cut short by 3 days) and visited a bookstore there. I found a collection of Patristic writings, the first several volumes titled “Ante-Nicene Writings” and a larger number of “Nicene and Post Nicene Writings”; Origen, Tertullian, Justin, Augustine, etc. They were originally owned by a Mel Keiser (sp?) from Yale (? Divinity School) in 1960. It’s a 38 volume set, in good condition, selling for $500. If anyone’s interested, it’s Black Mountain Books, 103 Cherry St. Their phone is 828-669-8149. Also lookbooks@att.net

    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2018

      These are a terrific resource indeed, a standard tool for scholars. But I’m sure you can get them much cheaper online.

      • Avatar
        rburos  September 23, 2018

        Is this the Fathers of the Church Patristic Series?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 24, 2018

          No, it’s a different series, and is meant to be exhaustive (when it was produced in the 19th c.). Fathers of the Church give more modern translations, and better, but are spotty in coverage.

          • Avatar
            rburos  September 24, 2018

            Amazon has them pretty expensive. But then I found this link. . .is this the same?

            https://archive.org/details/TheEarlyChristianChurchFathers.38volumes

          • Bart
            Bart  September 25, 2018

            Wow, I looked and it *is* expensive. I’m surprised. But so it goes. yes, this is the same. Another option is just to buy the volumes you’re most interested in. Frankly, I spend the vast bulk of my time in the first three vol.s of he Ante-Nicene Fathers.

  2. Avatar
    gavriel  September 23, 2018

    Could you say something about the dating of Acts? There have been attempts to push to the date towards 110 or so, in the recent decades. If this is correct, it could have implications for gLuke/gMatt as well if those two must be held to be contemporaneous, and it is hard to believe that Luke the writer entered a 25 year hiatus.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2018

      I haven’t studied the scholarship extensively; it largely hinges on the question of whether the author of Acts knew and used the writings of Josephus. I’ve never been convinced by that, but as I said, I haven’t pursued it rigorously.

  3. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 23, 2018

    This is pure speculation and conjecture on my part, but I wonder since Paul died somewhere in the 60sCE and given his prolific writing and influence on the early Christian community; did his death create a void of Chrtians writings necessitating the oral traditions of the life of Jesus being written down? I just wonder why after 40 years of oral tradition was it decided to write a gospel down?

    Other questions that come to mind is did whomever wrote these gospels simply take it upon themselves to write a gospel, or were the authors chosen by some committee or to have a gospel written by a professional writer?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2018

      My own view is that we give Paul too much credit for being the guiding force of early Christianity; he was probably simply one of many voices, and not seen as “the most important person after Jesus” at the time. (Note: in all his letters he gives evidence of other Xns who think he is completely wrong)

  4. Avatar
    alexc  September 23, 2018

    Does Justin Martyr writing that Jesus was born in a cave (Dialogue with Trypho) show that he is using an earlier version of the Synoptic Gospels, with the implication that the Gospels were still in a state of flux around 150 CE.

    Another possibility is that he has access to the same Gospels as we do, but he could be quoting a Gospel harmony (Matthew, Lukes, James) that we no longer have?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2018

      Possibly — though the Gospels themselves don’t preclude it being a cave. matthew may assume it. It is a hard task to know what Gospel sources were available to Justin.

  5. Avatar
    rburos  September 23, 2018

    Thanks for the concise summary. Could you give us a summary of the geographical origins as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2018

      I”m afraid that ends up being a good deal of guesswork. People guess Matthew was in Antioch, Mark in Rome, John in Ephesus, e.g. But who knows?

  6. Avatar
    Lactantius  September 23, 2018

    I think the fact that Paul never mentions the Gospels of Jesus is significant for dating them after 60 CE., but what do I know. The known date of the destruction of the Temple and the passages in Mark pertaining to its destruction are also interesting. Thanks for answering the question.

  7. Avatar
    ftbond  September 24, 2018

    Dr Ehrman –

    If we date the gospels post 7OCE because “Jesus could’t have predicted the Temple destruction because there’s no such thing as ‘divine foreknowledge'” (nor such thing as an apocalyptic preacher spouting off a very-apocalyptic-sounding bit of rhetoric, not knowing whether it would come true or not – or – no such thing as somebody just making a plain “lucky guess”), then– When was 1 Clement written?

    Looking at the text of Clement, it is clear that it was written *after* the deaths of Peter and Paul (see Chpt 5).

    But, it also says, in very present-tense terms, “Not in every place, brethren, are the daily sacrifices offered… but in Jerusalem only. And even there …only at the altar before the temple, that which is offered being first carefully examined by the high priest…” (see Chpt 41).

    This would seemingly mean Clement was written *before* the Temples destruction, but *after* the deaths of Peter and Paul (sometime in the mid-60’s?).

    But, it’s already been decided that the gospels *must* have been written *after* the destruction of the Temple, YET, Clement very much appears to quote and/or to allude to a number of gospel passages:

    From Matthew – “for thus He spake ‘Have mercy, that ye may receive mercy: forgive, that it may be forgiven to you. As ye do, so shall it be done to you. As ye give, so shall it be given unto you. As ye judge, so shall ye be judged. As ye show kindness, so shall kindness be showed unto you. With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured withal to you.'” (see Ch13).

    Matt or Mark – “He saith…’This people honoreth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.'” (see Ch15)

    Allude to Matt or Luke “…for He said, ‘Woe unto that man; it were good for him if he had not been born, rather than that at he should offend one of Mine elect. It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about him, and be cast into the sea…etc’.” (see Chpt 46)

    My Question: If we found some document for which we had every possible reason to believe that it was written before 70CE, and yet, it quoted a couple of gospels, would we still have to date it post-70CE just to satisfy a bias regarding the gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2018

      I don’t date the texts after 70 CE because Jesus could *not* have predicted the destruction of the temple. I think in fact he did predict it. But the other things he is recorded as saying appear to know some specificity that we wouldn’t expect in a simple prediction of destruction. Also, a text that speaks of the temple functioning in the present tense does not indicate that hte temple is still functioning. Even the fifth-century Talmud does that!

      • Avatar
        ftbond  September 24, 2018

        Even Josephus switches to present tense (once or twice) when talking about certain things at the Temple. But, in context, it’s very clear he’s referring to the past. We do the same in English: A lawyer asks a witness “what happened then?”, and the witness might reply “well, then this guy comes in and says ‘where’s Micky’, and I say ‘I got no idea who Micky is’, and then the guy pulls out a gun and says blablabla…” But, in the *context*, it’s clear that the witness is talking about something that happened before.

        This is not at all the case with Clement. There is no indication whatsoever that he is using a present-tense in this fashion. And, while I haven’t checked out the Talmudic references, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to find exactly the same thing.

        But, you say “But the other things he is recorded as saying appear to know some specificity that we wouldn’t expect in a simple prediction of destruction”. Are you referring to a specificity in his Temple prediction? If so, then it’s still the same objection, only, we’re adding a descriptor: “Jesus couldn’t have predicted the destruction *with that specificity*”.

        So, it still doesn’t answer my question: If we were to find some document that was unquestionably from before the destruction of the Temple, and yet, contained quotes from the gospels, would we still have to say “post 70CE gospel dating” because of a bias regarding Jesus’ prediction of the Temple?

        It very much appears that no matter what is thrown in the evidence pool, the post-70CE dating is going to persist.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 25, 2018

          No, I’m not saying Jesus *could not* have made a specific prediction, but that it seems to me less *likely* that he did. I can say that I think Trump will not be president in 2021, and there’s nothing weird about it. But if I say that he will be impeached on October 23, 2019 — well, that’s quite different.

  8. Avatar
    Lactantius  September 25, 2018

    I stumbled onto a passage in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. “For what I have received I have passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised, on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve.” (NIV). If Paul never made any indication he knew the Gospels, what is he referencing here? It does not sound like a reference to Old Testament when he mentions the Scriptures.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      He’s referring to the heart of the Christian proclamation about the significance of Jesus death and resurrection. This message was proclaimed for many years before any Gospel writer wrote it down.

  9. Avatar
    brenmcg  September 30, 2018

    Paul in Romans 13 links the commandments – though shalt not commit adultery, murder, steal, bear false witness,covet with the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

    something only done elsewhere in matthew.

    he then describes love as “fullfillment” of the law.

    this suggests knowledge of and a response to Matthew.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 1, 2018

      That’s Mark, isn’t it? In the story of the rich young ruler, Matthew removes Mark’s love command.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  October 1, 2018

        No its matthew in the rich and Kingdom of god – it’s Mark and Luke that remove it
        Paul also mentions the wise builder and that the Lord will come like a thief in the night – both only found in matthew

        • Bart
          Bart  October 2, 2018

          Sorry, my bad, I was thinking of Mark’s “commandment” of “Do not defraud.” Still, Love your neighbor is not Stoic: it’s Leviticus 19:18.

          • Avatar
            brandon284  April 4, 2020

            What are your thoughts on this statement that Paul mentions the wise builder and that the Lord will come like a thief in the night? The two sayings that are also found in Matthew?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 5, 2020

            They mean something very different, of coruse, but yes, these were wide-spread ideas in the early yyears of Christianity, possibly because they were something Jesus himself talked about.

  10. Avatar
    RAhmed  November 5, 2018

    “outside of fundamentalists and very very conservative evangelicals”

    Are there any major differences between these two groups? I thought they were one and the same.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2018

      Lots of overlap. But fundamentalists are even farther to the right, in terms of their views of Scripture, e.g.

  11. Spencer Black
    Spencer Black  January 11, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, if one is ok with the idea of Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple (as in Mark 13) why not place the composition of Mark at c. 60 CE? What suggests a composition date closer to 70 CE vs early 60’s CE if Jesus did predict the temple’s destruction? A date of c. 60 CE would still allow for Paul not knowing any of the gospels.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2020

      Dating these things is a bit cmplicated, because there are so many strands of evidence that have to be tied together, e.g., allusions to historical events, presupposed socio-historical situations, time needed for traditions to develop and spread, theological assumptions — all sorts of things. It’s usually thought that even if Jesus said the temple would be destroyed, Mark actually knows about a war with Rome and the actual destruction of Jerusalem. My view is that even if Mark had been written before Paul died, there would be no reason he would have known about it. Without publicatoin and distribution mechanisms like we have today, most literature could not be widely known for years after it was first produced….

      • Spencer Black
        Spencer Black  January 11, 2020

        So if Mark knew about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, that would put the composition of Mark no earlier than 70 CE, correct? Since that’s when the temple was destroyed.

  12. Avatar
    markdeckard  April 4, 2020

    Is there any value in the connection between the Christian who fled the city of Jerusalem comporting with the widely held oral tradition of the saying of Jesus that would later appear in Matthew? Thus by seeing that the history of who died there and who escaped we have validation the words of Jesus may have been authentic rather than later ad hoc additions.
    Had Jesus warnings as they appeared in Matthew not been known to the Christians surely they would not have fled to the hills as ancient historians testify.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2020

      It’s often been argued that way, but it’s a bit hard to know…

  13. Avatar
    Ferrante83  April 21, 2020

    Dr.Ehrman, maybe I missed something about this and maybe you already wrote it on your blog. I would like to know:
    where were the gospels written? Rome? Antioch? Ephesus?
    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2020

      Unfortunately we don’t know. The guesses usually noised about (Mark in Rome; John in Ephesus; Matthew in Antioch) are educated guesses, but they really, at the end of the day, really are educated *GUESSES* based on factors that could just as well situate the Gospels in other places.

      • Avatar
        Ferrante83  April 22, 2020

        Which GUESSES? Why those cities and not others? Which are the clues? Which other places?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 24, 2020

          Mark uses Latinism; there were stories of John ministering and dying in Ephesus; Matthew seems to be written in a city not in Israel itself but with a very large pagan and jewish populations both. Etc. They are pretty weak clues, IMO

  14. Avatar
    Ferrante83  April 24, 2020

    What are the other cities where the Gospels may have been written? Other options? And why?

  15. Avatar
    BEAVER15  May 21, 2020

    If this has been asked, I’m Sorry ahead of time. In Luke 21:24 (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV 4th Edition) “they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
    Based on that passage it sounds like destruction of Jerusalem hasn’t happen yet (present tense)? Matthew 22:7 sounds past tense? Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2020

      It’s put in the future tense because it is portraying Jesus as predicting it. But it’s usually thought that the author himself know full well that it has happened, making the prediction more convincing. Matthew 22:7 is framed as a parable, not a prediction.

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