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So considering that the oldest copies of the gospels are dated to around 400 AD (I'm thinking of the Codex Sinaiticus), how do scholars go about estimating the date of composition of the gospels? I mean I'm sure there are some textual clues; I mean I assume the usage of Koine would probably change somewhat over 300+ years but are there other clues that scholars use to estimate the general time of composition?

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Are you looking for the general method as Jon describes or more specifics from internal clues of the books? For example, Luke shows an interest in this kind of events (he records them at X, Y, and Z). However, he does not record two similar events which would make his case well. We can thus infer that he wrote Acts before those events took place. –  Frank Luke Mar 12 '13 at 12:00
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2 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Manuscript Evidence

While the Codex Sinaiticus dates from the 4th century, other manuscript fragments date much earlier. The Greek unical codices provide important clues to the development of the Canon, but are less important as evidence of the date of composition. For instance, this is a fragment of the Gospel of John:

John Rylands Library Papyrus P52, recto

Dating the papyrus scrap is difficult, but based on the style of the script used, it's probably between 117 CE and 138 CE. (Slightly larger ranges are more-likely to include the actual date, but also begin to lose accuracy. Circa 125 CE is the standard single-point estimate.) Because the codex P52 came from was written in Alexandria and the gospel originated elsewhere, the gospel of John must go back to the 1st century.

The Synoptic Problem

If we can date John to the 1st century, we can have some confidence that the other gospels are at least as old. For one thing, there's evidence that the author of John was aware of the synoptic gospels. In addition, many scholars believe that Luke and Matthew had Mark available when they wrote their biographies of Jesus. They additionally might have had access to an even earlier source. For our purposes, the exact solution to the synoptic problem doesn't matter; what does matter is that the gospels where not written at the same time.

If we fix P52 at 125 CE and string the dependencies together, we get a timeline like this:

Jesus    <- Q  <- Mark <- Luke/Matthew <- John <- P52
30 or 33 <- t1 <- t2   <- t3           <- t4   <- c. 125 CE

So in the ~92 years between Jesus' life and P52 we need to fit in this sequence of development. There's certainly plenty of leeway here. Mark (t2) has been dated as late as 80 CE, which would bunch all the gospels to the end of the 1st and beginning of the 2nd century. On the other hand, the dates could be clustered nearer to the middle of the 1st century without straining the timeline or credibility.

70 CE

Finally, there is the critical question of how the gospels relate to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Internal evidence strongly suggests that Mark was written either while the Roman legions were moving toward the siege of Jerusalem or shortly afterward. It could very well be that the Great Revolt was a motivation for the composition of Mark as the Jerusalem church and its eyewitness tradition would have been in peril. If so, all gospels dependent on Mark (i.e., the other Synoptics) must originate from the decades following 70 CE.

Since Paul's undisputed letters can all be dated from 50 to 60 CE, the picture that emerges is a nearly continual stream of Christian writing from two decades after the crucifixion to today. Much of the New Testament seems to have been written in response to particular problems the nascent religion actually faced.

Linguistic Evidence

Unfortunately, Koine Greek, the trade language that the New Testament was written in, seems not to be useful for dating the text of the Gospels. Some have speculated that Matthew was originally an Aramaic text, but since the earliest manuscripts of Matthew are in Greek, that remains a speculation. If it could be shown that Matthew was originally written in the language Jesus likely spoke, we could date that gospel much earlier. As it is, the linguistic evidence is minimally useful, at best, when it comes to dating the New Testament.

Summary

Dating of ancient texts is as much an art as a science. Dating philosophy both derives from and informs hermeneutical assumptions, so an accurate timeline that is universally accepted seems impossible. (Though more manuscript discoveries might bring more certainty.) Therefore, I offer this as my personal best estimate:

Jesus    <- Q   <- Mark <- Luke/Matthew <- John <- P52
30 or 33 <- 40? <- 70?  <- 80?          <- 90?  <- c. 125 CE
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Thank you for such a thorough and well-considered answer. –  Onorio Catenacci Jun 7 '12 at 18:27
    
@Onorio: Thank you for the softball pitch. ;-) Over time, I'm collecting a good series of answers to justify the dating scheme I have in my mind. This was a useful piece. –  Jon Ericson Jun 7 '12 at 18:29
    
Well I had some notions about how dating may have been arrived at (e. g. other documents which could be dated mentioning the gospels) but I was wondering what other sorts of techniques may be employed. –  Onorio Catenacci Jun 7 '12 at 18:31
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As a preterist, I believe the entire canon was completed before the destruction of the Temple. Throughout the Old Testament, beginning with Noah's ark, the new house, the new Covenant "shelter," is always constructed before the destruction of the old. In fact, it is persecution from the old that generally tempers and humbles and proves the new. We see this is the houses of Saul and David, Herod and Christ. So the Firstfruits church (AD30-70) was a different entity to what followed, as different as firstfruits is from harvest. It was a result of the opening of the New Covenant scroll in heaven (AD30 - Rev. 4-5) and culminating in the little scroll of John, the final judgments against the Old Covenant order before its destruction. Judgment begins at the house of God.

Interestingly, the pattern of the Torah (Moses) being completed before the conquest of Canaan supports this idea. The entire Canon was completed by Greater Moses before a New Israel set out to conquer not the Land but the World.

If the Revelation was written prior to AD70, then the later epistles (final warnings to Jewish Christians) were written around the same time or earlier, especially Hebrews, which serves as a kind of New Covenant Deuteronomy. Before this, we have the epistles to Gentile cities, with many dealings with Judaizing doctrine and Judaistic false teachers (the first gnostics). It seems to me the synoptic gospels themselves were composed quite early. As my favourite theologian James Jordan observes, Judaism was not strictly an oral culture. When any great Covenantal event happened, their first response would be, "Where's the book?"

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy has some interesting observations in his book "Fruit of Lips." I have some comments on it here.

My main point of course is that we are not limited to mere documentary evidence, either internal or external, in dating the gospels. Being the "fourth testament" (with a break of hundreds of years between each deposit of Scripture), we can see that God works in consistent ways. This ties the New Testament books to historical events as a liturgical, even sacrificial process, recapitulating the same thing found many times over in Israel's history. Familiarity with that makes dating the gospels a lot easier.

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As it happens, I lean toward the preterist view myself. But that doesn't mean the books were completed before the temple was destroyed; it just means Jesus prophesied the destruction before it happened. Why none of the NT authors trumpeted the success of the prophesy is a mystery, however. I still need to update my answer to address that point. –  Jon Ericson Mar 12 '13 at 18:09
    
Thanks Jon. I think it would boil down to what one thinks is going on in the Revelation. Jordan sees it as a rundown of events from Acts to AD70, with a brief glimpse of the current age in Rev 20. Jesus ascends as Firstfruits Lamb (AD30) and opens the NC scroll. The seals broken are the apostolic witness, and the promise of vengeance for all the innocent blood from Abel. The final seal is actually the day of Pentecost. War between false and true Jews (Christians) ensues. The Trumpets are the final apostolic warnings, and the bowls are the destruction of the old order (seven sprinklings). –  Mike Bull Mar 12 '13 at 21:46
    
The saints sealed (as mini scrolls) in Rev 7 are slain and resurrected, and then put into government. So the apostolic church must be defined as a transitional body which ended with the Temple. This would support the idea that the giving of the canon by the Spirit was part of that initial, and now finished, generation. It also makes sense of the end of the apostolic gifts, which were a sign to Israel. –  Mike Bull Mar 12 '13 at 21:48
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