When Were The Gospels Written?

When Were The Gospels Written?

Qumran Caves Garden of Gethsemane
When Were The Gospels Written

When Were The Gospels Written?

When were the Gospels written? Over the centuries, there's been much debate on this topic. Even today, many claim to know when the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written but few offer evidences beyond invitations to trust their 'expert' opinions, which range from a few decades to over a century after the events written about in the Gospels. The discussion below presents evidences that show the Gospels indeed were written just a few decades after Jesus walked on earth.

To start, imagine coming across a book about New York City which still mentions the World Trade Center towering over Lower Manhattan and whose pages indicating the date of publication have been ripped out. Even without those pages, you could safely deduce from the content that book was written before September 11, 2001, right?

In AD 70, Titus sacked Jerusalem. In AD 64, Emperor Nero set fire to Rome and blamed Christians to launch his persecution of the early church. In AD 62, Apostle Paul was martyred in Rome after two years of imprisonment. All three of these events were major milestones in the history of the early church.

The Book of Acts, which immediately follows the four Gospels in the Bible, records the history of the early church. Acts was written by a doctor named Luke who served as Paul's travel partner and secretary. Since Acts mentions none of the three milestones above and ends just after mentioning Paul's two year imprisonment in Rome, it must have been written just before Paul was martyred in AD 62.

The first chapter of Acts opens with the words, "The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen..." (Act 1:1-2)

The "former account" Luke mentions in Acts is what is called today the Gospel of Luke, also written to Theophilus: "Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed." (Luke 1:1-4)

The delivered eyewitness accounts that Luke mentions above are the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. The latter was written by Matthew, the tax collector who was one of Jesus' twelve Apostles, while the former was written by Mark, who accompanied Peter and recorded what he preached. Among the four Gospels, Mark's Gospel is generally considered to have been written first.

If we estimate a 3 year gap between Acts and the Gospel of Luke, this would mean that the Gospel of Luke was written in AD 59. If we estimate another 3 years between the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew, this would mean that the Gospel of Matthew was written in AD 56. And if we estimate another 3 years between the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark, this would mean that the Gospel of Mark was written in AD 53. In other words, three of the four Gospels could be deduced to have been written by Jesus' disciples or their secretaries only about 20 to 30 years after they last saw Jesus, and were read by people who had witnessed the events recorded and therefore could validate their details.

But are those details faithfully preserved in today's Bibles?

The New Testament was originally written in Greek, and the earliest Greek manuscripts discovered date to about AD 150, which is only about a century after Jesus. Moreover, the number of such ancient Greek manuscripts discovered to date exceeds 5,700.

Two points can be made.

First, our knowledge of the history of the early Roman Empire is based largely on The Annals of the Roman Empire, written by Tacitus, the Roman historian, in AD 116. Only two manuscripts of that in the original language exist today. One dates from the 9th century and the other from the 11th century. In other words, the details about the early Roman Empire relies on two manuscripts written about 10 centuries after the original, while the details about the life of Jesus stand on over 5,700 manuscripts that date from only about 1 century after the originals; there is far stronger evidence for the details of Jesus' life than for the history of the Roman Empire.

Second, these 5,700+ manuscripts were discovered over a huge area that stretches from the Middle East to North Africa to Western Europe. Imagine a primary school class playing a game of whisper phone. The teacher whispers, "Mary gave a crayon to Charlie" to two students, and they each whisper to two other students, and so on. If after five generations, the student at one corner of the classroom reports, "Mary gave a crayon to Charlie," while a student at another corner reports, "Mary and Charlie fought over a pencil," the class won’t know what the teacher had whispered originally. But if the two student at distant corners say exactly same thing, the original message can be deduced without having been heard by everyone.

What's the point?

The original manuscripts disintegrated long ago from having passed from hand to hand to be read and copied, but almost all (95-99%) of the 5,700+ manuscripts discovered to date all say in effect, "Mary gave a crayon to Charlie." So we can deduce that what was originally written is what is in those 5,700+ manuscripts, and today’s Gospels are translated directly from them.

For more on these types of details, read The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel.

(The photo above is from Yardenit, the supposed site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River. It quotes Gospel of Mark 1:9-11.)

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