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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
There are 9 principal means by which the Gospels are dated.
(and perhaps a dozen less-utilized means—we’ll stick with the 9 for now)
1. Synoptic problem
If the synoptic problem can tell us the order of composition of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that would provide a relative dating among those 3 Gospels. Note that the synoptic problem is not useful for providing absolute dates unless you already have, through other means, an absolute date for one of the Gospels.
The thought usually goes that if Mark were first, and Matthew & Luke drew from Mark, we should allow maybe 10-15 years after Mark for the document to disseminate around the empire and for Matthew & Luke to be composed. Or vice-versa if Matthew was first and was used by Mark and Luke, etc. There are numerous proposed solutions to the synoptic problem, none of which are without difficulties.
One of the most widely accepted means of adducing a latest possible date for an ancient text is to see when it starts showing up in quotations by other authors. Though this is less useful for finding an earliest possible date for composition, it can at least provide the top of the range. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all quoted by the Apostolic Fathers. Of particular note are 1 Clement (written no later than 96), Ignatius (~107), Polycarp (~107).
Matthew: Quoted by Ignatius & Polycarp. Edouard Massaux argued effectively that Matthew is also quoted in 1 Clement, given exact correspondence in unusual Greek wording. (see pp. 21-24 here) Matthew is also quoted by the Didache, which may have been written in the 1st century. A passage from Matthew is found in the Epistle of Barnabas; the date of this epistle is uncertain, but Robinson (Redating the New Testament Ch. 10) makes a compelling argument that it was written in the 1st Century. Both the Farrer Hypothesis & the Two Gospel Hypothesis claim Matthew was quoted by Luke. The Two Gospel Hypothesis claims that Matthew was quoted by Mark as well.
Mark: Quoted by Polycarp. The Two Source Hypothesis and the Farrer Hypothesis claim Mark was quoted by Matthew and Luke.
Luke: Quoted by Ignatius, Polycarp, and 1 Timothy. May be used by 1 Clement as well.
John: No clear surviving quotations from the Apostolic Fathers. John’s Gospel appears to be known to Valentinus, and is definitely quoted by Justin & Irenaeus.
Details on these quotations are found here.
This pretty solidly puts the Synoptic Gospels in the 1st Century and, given the wide dispersion of authors Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna, it suggests at least Matthew (quoted by all 3) had already been around for quite some time.
If we can determine the audience the author is writing to, this may narrow the possible dates. For example, Luke is very much writing a Gentile-facing Gospel, suggesting to some that it must be written after the Jerusalem Conference (AD 49).
The argument from audience is most useful with respect to Matthew. Matthew is written to Jewish-Christians: people who consider themselves simultaneously Jewish & Christian. This was common in the early years after Easter and became less-so as time went on. Judaism & Christianity decisively separated into distinct religions in the Flavian era (70s-90s), providing an upper limit for when the audience presupposed by Matthew existed.
Furthermore, the Gospel of Matthew presupposes in-depth knowledge of late 2nd temple Judea on the part its audience (see pp. 233-234 here) pushing the date earlier still.
An interesting dilemma arises by combining #1 and #3. Matthew is the most quoted Gospel in the early church (see aforementioned work by Massaux). It is also the most Jewish Gospel. This is perplexing…why is the most Jewish Gospel the most popular Gospel in a Gentile church? Why should we expect that the Jewish Gospel of Matthew—the Gospel that refers to Gentiles as dogs—would spread like wildfire all over the empire via a Gentile church in only a few years (see dispersion of quoters of Matthew noted above).
We shouldn’t expect this.
Thus, the reasonable assumption is that Matthew was written earlier and had more time to spread. I have argued elsewhere for why these features of Matthew suggest an early date.
Rather than developing an imaginative reconstruction of history in which Matthew is written by an isolated community (for which we lack historical evidence) and then rapidly takes off to great prominence right at the time when Judaism & Christianity are painfully separating, a far and away simpler solution is that Matthew had already achieved a position of prominence in the church while the Christian movement was still predominantly Jewish.
4. The Temple
The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple had far-reaching consequences for Judaism & Christianity. It is an event of monumental importance never mentioned as a past occurrence in the New Testament. See Epistle of Barnabas 16:1-5 for what an after-the-fact statement looks like.
Matthew goes to great lengths to report when a prophecy has been fulfilled—that’s kind of his thing. To have recorded the prophecy of the destruction of the temple, and not followed it up with a big exclamation point – look it actually happened just like He said! – is quite inconsistent with the style of the author.
Mark & Luke also record details of this prophecy and make no mention of its fulfillment.
Matthew 17:24-27 provides a parable which makes sense if the temple is still standing—but would be extraordinarily offensive to Matthew’s audience if it was published after the temple was destroyed. (after 70 this temple tax was diverted to fund the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and the Jews were most displeased to be funding a pagan temple, see here)
Eminent New Testament scholar John AT Robinson argued extensively that the events of AD 70 are strong evidence that the Gospels were written before this time. His work is available here.
5. Context provided by Christian writings
Colin Hemer’s masterpiece "The book of Acts in the setting of Hellenistic history" provides numerous lines of evidence that the book of Acts, part two of Luke-Acts, was written right around AD 62. He considers the way Rome was thought of (still in a positive light pre-fire of Rome), the absence of the deaths of the main characters in Acts of James, Peter, and Paul, the glaring absence of the Jewish revolt and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem, the imminence of the last few chapters of Acts (as though they had just happened), and more. His book is well-worth the read for those interested in this topic.
A more concise review of similar topics was provided by Frank Luke on this site here.
This logically puts part one, the Gospel of Luke, no later than 62 either.
Other relevant early writings that have bearing on the dates of the Gospels include:
Eusebius puts Matthew in the early 40s and explains the purpose of its composition (see p. 143 here).
Irenaeus indicates that John composed his Gospel in Ephesus after the other three Gospels had been written; since Irenaeus also indicates that John was in Ephesus until the times of Trajan, that suggests the Gospel of John should be dated no later than the end of the first century. Note that Irenaeus is a particularly relevant source here, as he was a pupil of Polycarp who was a disciple of John.
Clement of Alexandria provides a number of details regarding the Gospel of Mark:
- The visit to Rome by Peter that led to Mark’s writing occurred either during or shortly after (depending on your interpretation, see pp.86-87 here) the reign of Claudius, who died in AD 54
- Peter was still alive when the Gospel of Mark was written (see p. 87 here)
- Peter was not present when the Gospel of Mark was written (see p. 87 here)
- Clement also notes that it was “Caesar’s knights”, presumably members of the equestrian order, who begged Mark for a written account of Peter’s preaching (see p. 101 here). Prominent Romans were unlikely to wish to associate themselves with Christian leaders whilst Nero was burning Christians for “hatred of the human race”.
Combining these pieces of evidence suggests the Gospel of Mark was written no later than the early part of Nero’s reign, and perhaps a number of years before that. Note that Clement was not only a very well-informed scholar, but he was a prominent member of the church claimed to have been founded by Mark. Clement’s connection to Mark through Alexandria and through Clement’s own teacher Pantaneus (see here pp. 226-227) suggest Clement is well-placed to convey accurate historical data about Mark.
6. Travels of the apostles
A number of attempts have been made to date the Gospel of Mark based on when Peter might have been in Rome. There are arguments that Peter went to Rome in the early 40s, that he was in Rome after visiting Corinth in the mid-50s, and it is quite well-established that he died there in the 60s. John Wenham explores this evidence in detail in “Redating Matthew Mark and Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem”.
The Gospel of Luke is associated with Paul from our earliest sources (Muratorian Fragment, Irenaeus), and the very early so-called Anti-Marcionite prologue puts its composition in Achaia. If these historical observations are accurate, we might look for a time period in which Paul & Luke were together in or near Achaia. Although the Book of Acts never explicitly puts Paul & Luke together in Achaia, per Acts 16:12 they are traveling together near Achaia in approximately AD 49-50, shortly before Paul goes to Corinth.
The aforementioned Wenham also argues that 2 Corinthians 8:18 is a reference to Luke and his Gospel. If so, that would put the Gospel of Luke prior to the composition of 2 Corinthians, which based on the travels of Paul would have been written in approximately AD 56.
7. Manuscript evidence
P52 is the earliest known surviving manuscript of the New Testament; it contains a portion of the Gospel of John. It was found in Egypt and dates to approximately the year 125. It would have taken some time for the Gospel of John to have made its way to Egypt, suggesting it was written well before that date.
There are 2nd century manuscripts of portions of Matthew & Luke as well, and possibly Mark. A nice summary of early manuscripts with links to greater to detail is available on Wikipedia
8. Olivet discourse
Some have suggested that the Olivet discourse demands that Matthew & Luke are writing about the destruction of the temple after the fact, and that Mark at the very least knows it is imminent.
If we assume nobody could have known this in advance, that puts Matthew & Luke post-70, right?
There are some fundamental problems with this assertion.
Presuppositions about prophecy
The Bible is a book that purports to be full of prophecy from beginning to end. In order to objectively evaluate a book about prophecy we cannot start out with the a priori assumption that all prophecy is real, or all prophecy is fake, because doing so restricts the possible solutions we can discover. If we inadvertently restrict the possible solutions to the exclusion of the truth, we will be ever learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth.
To make an a priori assumption on the very topic under evaluation is to arbitrarily select a solution without even evaluating the evidence (not very scientific!). If we start with the premise that this book is a fraud, of course we’ll end up with a conclusion that this book is a fraud—it’s one of our premises! But that’s not an argument, it’s circular reasoning.
These are not the anachronisms you're looking for
It is possible to account for the Matthean & Lukan verses on the destruction of the temple without appealing to prophecy. This isn’t to take a position on prophecy, rather, this is to point out that even in the absence of a belief in prophecy, it is possible to rationally believe that these documents were written before 70.
The language employed is not, as some have asserted, inconceivable pre-70; rather, it is drawn from the Old Testament and 1 Maccabees (see p.18 here). There’s nothing anachronistic about Jews citing the Old Testament and 1 Maccabees before AD 70. Furthermore, Josephus (Wars 6.5.3) also tells us of another prediction—pre 70—that the temple was going to be destroyed.
Might observers have realized in advance that the tensions between the Jews and the Romans were not going to end well?
Burning cities isn't as rare as you think
Many have suggested that the parable of the marriage of king’s son in Matthew 22 includes an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem.
“The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city”
This assertion would only work if Jerusalem in AD 70 was the only time in history a city was burned. Unfortunately this was all too common, and even Rome itself burned in 64. If Matthew was written after the fact and made to look prophetic, the glaring absence of specific details of AD 70 is inexplicable.
Oops I got the prophecy wrong
A common interpretation of the Olivet discourse is that Jesus is saying that the temple will be destroyed and He will return in glory within the lifetime of some who are present. That doesn’t make for a very impressive after-the-fact prophecy since He did not return in glory at that time. So either:
- We are misinterpreting the prophecy OR
- The Gospels recording this information were written before 70 OR
Conclusion: dating the Gospels post 70 via the Olivet discourse is a circular argument.
9. Theological development
Though popular, this argument is also circular. Over the years, New Testament scholarship has gone for some wild rides. One of them was the assumption that Christian beliefs at the end of the first century regarding who Jesus was were radically different from the beliefs held by the apostles in the early 30s. We can’t use this assumption to date the New Testament, because the New Testament is our principal source for Christian beliefs at this time.
The exercise in circular reasoning looks something like this:
- Let’s assume there was a roughly linear trend of theological development
- We’ll use that assumption to assign dates to New Testament documents
- People studying the New Testament notice that the books they’ve been told were written early have a simpler theology, and the books they’ve been told were written late have a more complex theology.
- These people are fascinated to have discovered a trend of theological development in the New Testament!
No, we haven’t discovered anything. Earlier scholars imposed a trend on the chronology and later students found the trend they put there.
If critical scholarship rests its case principally on #8 & #9 – both of which are circular – it may be time for critical scholarship to take a critical look at itself. A video discussing this further is found here (disclaimer--I made this video)
Not all of these arguments work well together, and so conclusions will vary based on which methods are prioritized.
Based upon my own research regarding the synoptic problem, the book of Acts, the writings of Clement of Alexandria, and the audience presupposed by the Gospel of Matthew, I suspect all 3 synoptic Gospels were written before AD 60. That isn’t a popular viewpoint today, and it’s not where I expected to land when I started my research on New Testament chronology. But if I follow the evidence, that’s where it leads me.
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.