How do we know when the Gospels were written?  I have recently received two questions about this matter on the blog (from two different people, within minutes of each other!); I answered the questions as usual in the Comment section, but thought the issues were important enough to present as a post as well, both the questions/comments and my responses (which I’ve expanded a bit here).



QUESTION:  With all this discussion of the early non-canonical gospels, I need some clarification. By reading multiple scholars, I think I am confused. As far as the canonical gospels, I had thought that the earliest copies were from the late second and early third century. By copies I mean those that are recognizable as Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. I thought that scholars had dated them by indirect means to the last quarter of the first century.

How are the canonical gospels dated in this manner as most scholars claim? Do they have fragments with carbon dates from first century CE? Are there references by independent sources from the first century to the canonical gospels? If they are fragmentary as is one of Paul’s letters with only four verses from one of the books of Corinthians, how do we know that that fragment would have contained the rest of what came to be the accepted version of Corinthians?



Ah, good question.  There is a very important difference between deciding when a manuscript was produced and deciding when the writing found *in* the manuscript was composed (I *think* that’s what you’re asking).  Ancient manuscripts are *sometimes* dated by carbon 14, but rarely (since you have to destroy the specimen you date!).  They are normally dated by paleography, the analysis of ancient handwriting styles.

Based on that we can usually date a manuscript to

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