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Setting Dates for the Gospels

One of the questions I often get asked on the blog is how we know when the Gospels were written.   I’ve answer the question at some length before, and thought it might be useful to answer it again. Here’s what I said years ago, and looking at it, I’d say the same thing again.  In fact, I will.  Here:

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QUESTION:

How are the dates that the Gospels were composed determined? I’ve read that Mark is usually dated to 70 or later because of the reference to the destruction of the temple. Is this the only factor that leads scholars to conclude that it was composed in 70 CE or later or are there other factors?

I’ve heard that Luke and Matthew are likewise dated aroun 80-85 CE to give time for Mark to have been in circulation enough to be a source for them. Is this accurate?

How is John usually dated to around 95 CE (or whatever the correct period is) since it is usually described as independent of the other Gospels?

 

RESPONSE:

This is a great question, and one that is actually difficult to answer.  I’ll start on some basics that I think everyone can agree on.   (Well, OK, there is *nothing* that  absolutely everyone agrees on, as I continually re-learn with some chagrin).    First…

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    lawecon  November 26, 2019

    I understand that you are trying to raise money for important charitable purposes, but a broad perspective post on a central topic of interest (like this one) might better be open to the public. Don’t you think?

    In any case, please accept my gratitude for your scholarly endeavors. They have enriched all of our lives.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2019

      Yup, I know: I debate the matter with every post! But my sense is that if non-members see what seem to be really important posts that are not available to them, they will be more motivated to join…. It’s always a judgment call.

      • Barfo
        Barfo  November 26, 2019

        I don’t know if the scholarly input from my Zondervan NASB Study Bible editors are considered to be more fundamental rather than objective or not, (I suspect fundamentalists) but they do supply multiple suggested dates of authorship for the reader to consider. For example for Matthew it indicates that based on the “Jewish characteristics” some have argued that it was written in “early A.D. 50.” They also cover how “those who concluded” that Matthew and Luke drew from Mark date it later. With regard to Mark the editors state that it may have been written shortly before the “destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.” For the Gospel of John the editors report that some scholars have suggested that John was written as early as the 50’s and no later than 70 because “he wrote independently of the other Gospels.” But for me the most important learning experience I have gained from your books is the progression of the Gospel dates from earlier to later and how they, to put it simply, changed who Jesus was.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 27, 2019

          I’d say it’s not so much a matter of “objectivity” (since as subjective beings, it is probably impossible for us to know what is objective or not, since by nature we aer subjective) as of having an attitude toward the evidence that doesn’t slant it in light of one’s own personal beliefs about what they want to be true (I suppose that is what you mean by “objective”?). Yes, there is “evidence” of earlier dates for the Gospels, but htat evidence is almost universally seen to be very thin adn insubstantial — except among those of a particular religious persuasion.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  November 26, 2019

    One of your recent guest bloggers holds that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony of Jesus. I have a few issues with that. Why would the Gospel writers not cite their eyewitness sources if they are trying to convince people of what they wrote? Even Paul, although he mentions Peter, James and John, doesn’t quote anything said by them (or at least he doesn’t give them any credit!). You would think a wise god would anticipate all the scrutiny these writings would undergo, and give a little more substance to them, like names and dates (not calendar dates, but allusions to current events that would allow accurate dates). I guess I expect too much from our supreme being. Perhaps he enjoys watching us wrestle with these issues! And that’s OK with me, as long as he doesn’t condemn us for coming up with a sincerely wrong answer!

  3. Avatar
    godspell  November 26, 2019

    It doesn’t seem impossible to me that Jesus and others foresaw the possibility of the second temple being destroyed by a foreign power, since after all, the first one had been. So you look for specifics, and Mark doesn’t have any. And as we’ve discussed before, there are still stones standing on other stones, or there wouldn’t be a Wailing Wall. The gospel writers might not have been aware of that. And anyway it reads better to say not one stone left standing on another.

    I have no problem with Mark being written around the time of the rebellion, but that alone isn’t sufficient proof of it. And his sources, whatever they were, certainly dated from before that time.

  4. Avatar
    Gary  November 26, 2019

    I am an atheist but have to this point believed in the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Mythicists point out that Justin Martyr only mentions the Gospels as his sources of information about Jesus. We now know that two of these gospels borrowed heavily from the first gospel and at least 50% of scholars now believe that the author of the fourth gospel, John, was aware of the Synoptics and may have used them as a source for his gospel, in particular regarding the Passion Narrative.

    Scholars also suspect a Q source for sayings of Jesus shared by Matthew and Luke but absent in Mark.

    Josephus writing in the 90’s (?) mentions Jesus as a miracle worker and healer, but not much else.

    Christians point to other references from later Roman sources about a “Christ who was crucified by Pilate”.

    Maybe there was an obscure Galilean in the first century who preached an apocalyptic message and had a reputation as a minor miracle worker. No contemporary author, Christian, Jew, or Roman, mentioned a messiah pretender who stood Palestine on its head as the Gospels assert, So maybe the detailed stories and sayings we find in our Bible today were never told about this man during his lifetime. These stories and sayings were invented out of whole cloth by two authors: the author of Mark and Q for the purpose of evangelism. Isn’t that possible?

    Were all later references to Jesus based solely on stories told in the Gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 27, 2019

      No, we have numerous discussions of Jesus not based on the NT Gospels. For a collection of other narratives and collections of sayings, see the book I co-produced with Zlatko Plese: The Other Gospels.

      • Avatar
        Gary  November 27, 2019

        Are you saying that we have FIRST century accounts of alleged deeds or sayings of Jesus of Nazareth other than the four canonical gospels, Q, and Josephus? Please list one.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 29, 2019

          No, no other *first century* Gospels.

          • Avatar
            Gary  November 29, 2019

            Interesting. I’ll buy your book and check that out. Thank you.

          • Avatar
            Gary  December 3, 2019

            I misread your response. You agree with me that there are NO other first century accounts of Jesus other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Q, and possibly Josephus, correct?

            The reason I ask is that I purchased your book, “The Other Gospels” and noticed the first apocraphyl gospel presented, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which I assume you are listing as the oldest of the non-canonical Gospels, is assumed to have been written sometime between the first and sixth century. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the story of Jesus in Egypt and Jesus in the Temple at age 12, found in this “gospel”, were borrowed from the stories in the canonical Gospels.

            If this is true, my original hypothesis is still possible: the original Jesus story came from one source: Mark. All subsequent authors simply added more fictional material to Mark’s core story, which itself could be fictional. Do you see my point? Q, Matthew, Luke, and John used Mark’s original story to create their own stories or collection of sayings, adding new details and new stories, just as the author of the Infancy Narrative of Thomas seems to have done.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 6, 2019

            Well there are some “accounts” of Jesus in Paul (who mentions a few things) and obviously didn’t get them from Mark, since he was writing earlier. And Q isn’t dependent on Mark. And in my view John didn’t know any of them. So no, I don’t tihnk it all goes back to Mark.

        • Avatar
          Maglaw  November 29, 2019

          I’m surprised that Bart didn’t mention the “Gospel of Thomas” which consists of about 130 or so quotes in the form of “Jesus said:” It’s contained in the complete collection of “The Lost Gospels” which Dr, Ehrman edited and in my viewk, is the most fascinating and revelatory of all.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 1, 2019

            It’s 114 sayings of Jesus and probably dates to the early second century.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 26, 2019

    Great and clear post. Thanks

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  November 26, 2019

    A lot could happen in terms of legend growth in those (at least) 40 years. Just look at Herodotos’ tales of the Persian Invasion.

  7. Avatar
    Qadir  November 26, 2019

    Bart,

    There seem to be a big chasm between Jesus’ disciples who were illiterate, unilingual Aramaic-speaking peasants and the educated, Greek-speaking people from urban elites who eventually wrote the Gospels.

    I wonder how do you think all the oral traditions that ended up in the Gospels (and that’s a pretty large amount of information) and even the Christianity in general managed to spread from the former to the latter?

    Thanks a lot—love your work!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 27, 2019

      No, I think a lot of traditions were invented outside of Palestine but before the Gospel writers wrote. I discuss this at length in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

  8. Avatar
    lobe  November 26, 2019

    You said that the lack of Paul’s awareness of the Gospel is not the strongest piece of evidence for a date post-60. What would an example of a stronger piece of evidence be? Were you referring to the awareness (in Matthew & Luke, at least) of the Temple destruction?

  9. Avatar
    veritas  November 26, 2019

    In a couple of places in your post, near the middle and the end, you say most scholars agree except for fundamentalist and very, very conservative evangelists. A couple of questions, 1) These scholars you mention that agree, are they more liberal than conservative Christians in their thinking? 2) Considering all the scholars presumably have access to the same information, then how is it they come to different conclusions in the interpretations? Does it come down to just personal preference as to what the probability may be. Whenever I hear scholars giving a lecture or debating, ( your friend Dr. Licona being one), the most common statement is made by them, as you have made here, ” that most scholars agree” to whatever is being presented. Maybe, I suggest, a public list of worthy and notable scholars, liberal, conservatives, believers/non believers that most deem noteworthy would help.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 27, 2019

      Sometimes it’s personal preference, based on what they think is “common sense” or on what they think *has* to be given their religious veiws. But more often it’s a matter of weighing evidence differently. That’s true for every field of intellectual inquiry, though, from economic history, to military history, to the study of Shakespeare, to philosophy, and of course even into the sciences!

  10. Avatar
    doug  November 26, 2019

    Since the disciples believed the Kingdom of God would come soon after Jesus died, there was no reason to write the Gospels early on. But then the date drifted… and drifted… and… better start writing some of those things down.

  11. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  November 26, 2019

    Dr Bart erhman, thanks for your wonderful posts. My question is are there no record or report of people claiming to be messiah before Jesus himself?.if there are aany please mention

    • Bart
      Bart  November 27, 2019

      Oh yes. In the Old Testament, the Persian king Cyrus is called the “messiah.” the kings of Israel were “messiahs” Other Jews in Jesus’ day and after were called “messiah.” the term just means “anointed one” and refers, most commonly, to a king god has chosen to rule his people.

    • Avatar
      John Uzoigwe  November 27, 2019

      Dr Bart erhman, what i meant is that do we have anyone before Jesus claiming to be the saviour of the jews(like jesus)

      • Bart
        Bart  November 29, 2019

        “Savior” of the Jews almost always meant “leader who is going to get them out of their political, military, economic, and social crisis” i.e., a future king who would establish Israel as a sovereign state. Yes, there were people like that.

      • Avatar
        ShonaG  December 1, 2019

        look up the meaning of the name Joseph.

  12. Avatar
    AndrewB  November 26, 2019

    Hello, Dr. Ehrman,

    I’m looking at the New 5th Edition of the Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version and for the introduction to John, it depicts the argument over dates as ranging from late 1st century (90 C.E.) to early 2nd century. The 2nd century seems to be tied to when a later version of the gospel was completed.
    Would the later version be the suspected addition of chapter 21 at the end of John?

    Also, do you think it likely – or see any evidence – for the possibility that the gospel writers knew of Paul’s letters? (Prior to Luke writing Acts).

    • Bart
      Bart  November 27, 2019

      I’m not sure what they have in mind, but that’s a good guess.

      it’s much debated whether any of the Gospel writers (including, oddly, Luke) knew Paul’s letters. My view is that there is no good evidence they did.

  13. Avatar
    dominchowles@gmail.com  November 26, 2019

    Great post Bart, it helps to have clear reasons for what the perceived timeline is . It’s interesting that some people are really trying to bring the dates as early as possible but they never seem to be clear in their reasoning so it appears a bit arbitary.

  14. Avatar
    Brittonp  November 26, 2019

    Would Gospel passages claiming the imminent “End of the World” be suggestive of an earlier or later writing? They seem problematic for either a very early or very late dating.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 27, 2019

      Usually it’s thought that as time went on, Gospel writers stopped quoting *Jesus* as saying the end was imminent, even if they thought it was imminent in their own day. Mark has Jesus say it; Luke does not (but thinks it is imminent in his own time); John has a different view altogether (imminence has virtually disappeared); Thomas has Jesus come out *against* the idea.

  15. Avatar
    brenmcg  November 26, 2019

    Paul seems to have a chip on his shoulder about being compared unfavorably to the ‘super apostles’ who met Jesus.
    Although he spent 15 days with peter he claims he’s not reliant on the 12 for information – that he has also received a message direct from christ.
    He’ll let the 12 tell the biography of jesus but his job is to create the theology around the crucifixion and resurrection.

    I think that would explain why he never mentions or quotes the gospels, if they had been written early, in his letters.

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 27, 2019

      He talks about meeting Peter. Who didn’t write a gospel. Neither did any of the other disciples. I know you believe Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew (in the third person, giving himself no dialogue, mentioning himself only twice), so I can see why you’d need an explanation for Paul’s silence, but the real explanation is Paul never read any gospels.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  December 3, 2019

        Paul describes himself as the wise builder, talks about the day of the lord coming like a thief in the night, links five of ten commandments (no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness, honor your parents) with the command to love your neighbor, and talks about “fulfillment” of the law.

        All indicators of having read Matthew – this is unique to Matthew. They should, at the least, suggest Matthew being closer chronologically to Paul.

  16. Avatar
    vallancemjv@gmail.com  November 26, 2019

    Hi there, this may not have anything to do with the above but, Bart could you please settle the following debate for me.
    Concerning Jesus’ brother James.
    The Mythicists and others argue; “ brother simply means fellow colleague in the faith NOT sibling”
    Can you give me a solid answer to this?
    Robert Price and others seem so damn convincing in their arguments but, I remember you having a great argument too!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 27, 2019

      Yeah, I’ve talked about it at length on teh blog: just search for “brother of Jesus” and you’ll see the posts. I’m afraid their arguments are bogus, even though you’re right, they might seem convincing until someone points out their flaws.

  17. Avatar
    robbeasley  November 26, 2019

    In my reading, I noticed 2 patterns. 1st pattern – books like Isaiah, Daniel,Synoptics and Revelations all occurred shortly after major conflict. 2nd pattern – Prophecies like Daniel were written after the fact(falsified).

    Applying these patterns lead me to conclude that the Synoptics were created circa 70 AD.(Pattern #1)

    Using both Patterns , the Book of revelations was created after 136 AD following the third Jewish /Roman conflict (woe)known as the Bar Kokhba revolt (Pattern#1). The following quote comes from the book of revelations followed by a quote from the Jewish Talmud. Both relate to a third woe or War. (Pattern #2)

    Revelations 14:20 – The grapes were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress in a stream about 180 miles long and as high as a horse’s bridle.

    The Jerusalem Talmud relates that the number of dead in Betar was enormous, that the Romans “went on killing until their horses were submerged in blood to their nostrils.”[52]

  18. Avatar
    forthfading  November 26, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I recently watched three prominent evangelical scholars ( Craig Bloomberg, Ben Witherington, and Darrell Bock) discussing the dating of Paul’s letters. Craig and Ben are in agreement that Galatians was written first, and Darrell would not commit. I have never heard Galatians being thrusted to the forefront of Paul’s letters. Is this a new development among scholars to your knowledge, or has this conclusion been around for a while? Any idea why they would think this?
    Thanks and happy Thanksgiving

    • Bart
      Bart  November 27, 2019

      Before 1 Thessalonians? Interesting. The dating of the letters is very complicated and usually depends on a whole host of assumptions. My view is that 1 Thess was first, Romans last; Galatians was before Romans; 1 Corinthians was before 2 Corinthians. 2 Cor 10-13 was from a letter written before 2 Cor. 1-9. And apart from that, I really don’t know. And suspect no one else does iether.

      • Avatar
        forthfading  November 27, 2019

        Dr. Bloomberg is 100% convinced that Galatians is first. His dating is between 49 and 55. It must be a very minimalist view if you are not familiar with it, but it is his opinion. Thanks

        • Bart
          Bart  November 29, 2019

          It’s possible. I’m rarely confident of these dating schemes. But if it were, say, 54 CE, it surely is after 1 Thessalonians.

  19. Avatar
    Tempo1936  November 26, 2019

    An excellent, honest and very informative summary that even I could comprehend. Thanks

  20. Avatar
    mikezamjara  November 27, 2019

    Interesting Dr Ehrman.

    I have two questions.
    1. What bases do we have to affirm that Jesus died in the 30s.? I believe the main ones are the gospels themselves by referencing Pontius Pilate and Josephus and Tacitus who seem to mention Jesus and Pilate. Am I right?.
    2. Although the gospels were written after Paul, the sources for them were already circulating when Paul was traveling. I mean, the oral traditions and probably Q or M or L if they existed. What intrigues me is: how it is possible that Paul ignored them too?. And more intriguing is why is that the gospels which were written in a Christian environment that was already dominated by Paul’s teachings also ignored Paul?. I mean the gospels and Paul’s letter doesn’t seem to fit very well.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 27, 2019

      1. Yes, he certainly died during the time of Pontius Pilate, 26-36 CE. Other chronological issues are involved, including the timing of Paul’s conversion in light of what he says about what he did and when (e.g., in Galatians 1-2) 2. Probably Paul was not in any of the places where these earlier written Gospel sources were produced or circulated; I assume he heard stories about Jesus, but tehse were mainly circulating among established Chrsitain communities and most of the time (not all of it) Paul was off in non-Xn parts converting people, wehre there would not have been other stories. I don’t know if teh Gospels were written in places where Paul’s teachings were known (though Luke must have been to some extent, even if the author doesn’t seem to know Pual’s views in detail very well.)

      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  November 27, 2019

        very good. What about this: If we know more or less where and when Paul was teaching that could help to reduce to some places where or when the gospel or their sources were written probably by knowing where Paul’s teachings were not present. I don’t know if that could work to at least reduce the alternatives or in combination with other arguments find the place or date. Hasn’t it been done yet?.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 29, 2019

          Oh yes, people have thought about that for a very long time. One very big problem is that we don’t know wehre the Gospels were written or circulated.

      • Avatar
        gavriel  November 28, 2019

        The question of what Luke knew about Paul’s letters is an interesting one. Could you post on that?

      • Avatar
        RAhmed  December 2, 2019

        “I assume he heard stories about Jesus, but these were mainly circulating among established Christian communities”

        Do we have any idea how, when, and by whom these pre-Pauline Christian communities were founded? Were they founded directly by the actual apostles and the Jamesian community?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 3, 2019

          They weren’t necessarily founded before Paul; they could have been contemporaneous. We don’t know if they were founded by apostles or, more likely, simply travelers who had run into and converted to become followers of Jesus. But the spread of Xty suggests that there were various Christians spreading the faith, by word of mouth.

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