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Dating the Gospels

Updated: May 6, 2023

In order to establish an unknown date, we must work from what we do know. We then must carefully use logic and forensic measures to determine what can be known based on the available data. Finally, we have only what is congruent and plausible rather than discordant or implausible to get us near the date for a writing of the gospels. Let's look at what we do know.

Paul died in 62-67 AD in Rome at the hand of the Roman government. Paul wrote 13 or 14 books of the New Testament (Hebrews is not known) Here is an excellent resource for exploring the evidence and experts’ opinion of the timing of Paul’s death.

70 AD and the destruction of the temple. In 66 AD The Jewish people revolted against Rome. Nero sent General Vespian to the battle. Vespian pushed the Jewish forces back into Jerusalem. BY 70AD Titus took command of the roman forces as Vespain became emperor. Josephus defects from the Jewish forces and tries to negotiate but fails. The Jewish people begin to starve under the siege and by August of 70 AD roman forces breach the defenses and destroy Jerusalem. Most of this information comes from Josephus who not only was an eyewitness but was deeply involved in these events himself.

From Josephus, Wars, Chapter 5 #7 Describing the burning of the temple and the Roman's motives: "their hatred of the Jews, and a certain vehement inclination to fight them too hard for them also. Moreover, the hope of plunder induced many to go on; as having this opinion, that all the places within were full of money: and as seeing that all round about it was made of gold."

In Josephus, book 7, Chapter 1 at 3.13-15: It states: "But Titus ordered those whose business it was, to read the list of all that had performed great exploits in this war, (14) whom he called to him by their names, and commended them before the company, and rejoiced in them in the same manner as a man would have rejoiced in his own exploits. He also put on their head’s crowns of gold and golden ornaments about their necks and gave them long spears of gold, and ensigns that were made of silver, (15) and removed every one of them to a higher rank; and besides this, he plentifully distributed among them, out of the spoils and the other items they had taken, silver and gold and garments”.

We know that the Jewish temple was dismantled brick by brick.

The problem many scholars have is that this is a forthright prophecy if it was written prior to 70 AD then this presents a very significant issue for non-believers. The reasoning is " Prophecy this accurate is impossible and makes little sense given Occam's razor. Do we look at this as someone telling the future or do we look at this as written after the event? Which one makes more sense to you?"

Here we will assume the premise given by the objection, that it was written later. We have further problems that this creates. Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21 are eschatological passages and have various interpretations. The clarifying passages in my viewpoint is a few things. Given revelations and the abomination that causes desolation we are certainly looking at the end of days here, just before the day of the Lord which is a very separate event from the Tribulation period. We know in 70 AD no one stood in the temple and proclaimed themselves God. (2 Thess 2:4) The temple had been destroyed and this was impossible as no one can stand in a temple when the temple no longer exists. It is further clarified by the parallel passage in Matthew 24 which is not only the most exhaustive, but also specific to what happens and when in comparison to other events. Here we have the longest exposition of this teaching. Within this exposition we also are given phrases such as "After this” “but the end is still to come" "these are the beginnings" & " At that time". When a comparison is given using these event sequences from Matthew it is obvious and inescapable that these eschatological events are not speaking to the destruction of the temple in AD 70. The conversation was far more an answer to the question and turns to "while we are on the subject of the destruction,..." where Jesus then lays out all of eschatology in a single teaching. Given the Books of Thessalonians, Zechariah, Revelations, Daniel, and others, this conclusion is the only one that provides a congruent timeline with Matthew 24. Thus, Jesus answers the question given to him from the disciples and after that teaches about the events from that point to the end of days. This is why so many are confused by the passage here. They somehow think that because the Messiah did not return immediately following the destruction of the temple that somehow Jesus was wrong. Jesus is not only describing the events of Roman sacking Jerusalem here but continues through all of time to the destruction of Earth. The correction of this timeline also precludes the idea that the prophecy Jesus is speaking about occurred in 70 AD. Alone but did start there.

In other words, the discourse laid out in Matthew 24, Mark 13, & Luke 21 are Jesus explaining the eschatological events beginning with the destruction of the temple and culminating in the Day of the Lord where God destroys Earth the second time. This evidence along with the Thessalonians verses concerning the rapture and the books of Revelations, Zechariah, & Daneil are the specific reasons I am a post tribulationalists as I see no alternative except that the 3 ½ weeks are separated by the events between the immediate resurrection of Christ and the end of the world. This is the reason for the separation of the weeks as spoke in Daniel.

The evidence for an early date is much stronger than this. We have the writings of 4 church fathers that knew the apostles and were instructed by them. Polycarp, Papias, Ignatius, and Clement. These persons lived during the late first century into the early second century and quoted from the Gospels and other New Testament books. This puts the latest possible dates of the Gospels before 90AD. Concerning dating Clement much earlier than 90AD we have some very good arguments being made here: It is entirely possible and even probable that clement dates to well before 90AD. Yet such evidence we will consider tertiary.

The strongest evidence is quite strong indeed and cannot be mistaken. All the accounts of the writings of the Gospels are in agreement and there is no discordant data. Some would like to refute this early data for various reasons however in doing so they are creating a strong indicator of bias as no other document in history with such contemporary and congruent data would be questioned much less dismissed. P52 is dated to no later than 125 AD. Many would like to use this to push the date to 125 AD however that is as improper as pushing the date to 90AD which is the earliest date for the papyrus. This is only one bias indicator and when we see this being used, we know immediately that this individual has revealed a bias.

The gospel of John provides an indicator of its dating. John 5:1-3 says "Sometime later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. “Pay attention here to the verb tenses used. Verse 1 is in the past tense in Greek Verse 2 is in the present tense, and 3 is in the past tense again. In verse one "went up" is ἀνέβη in Greek in the aorist indicative active tense. “The aorist tense is a secondary tense, and accordingly, in the indicative mood it indicates past action with completion" From New Testament Greek Studies. Verse 2 we have the words "There is" Ἔστιν" in the Present Indicative active tense. “Called" " ἐπιλεγομένη" Present Participle middle or passive tense; "having" "ἔχουσα" present Indicative active tense. Then verse 3 moves back to the past articles "were lying" κατέκειτο Indicative imperfect middle or passive Greek has more verb tenses than English does, meaning that we can understand the intent of the writer as well as the particulars of the writing itself better than we can in English. Consider also that John was written to the Jewish people living in Jerusalem at the time. These colonnades ceased to exist in 70AD when Rome destroyed the temple and burned Jerusalem. This evidence tells us that this pool and its five covered colonnades existed at the time of the writing of John's Gospel. John's Gospel had to be written before 70 AD, Had it not existed then the writing of this pool in this context would not make any sense at all. Considering the slaughter of the Jewish people at Jerusalem in 70AD the reminder of this event by using this out of context would only serve to remind the Hebrew people of the tragedy and loss of their loved ones. It would be equivalent to telling someone in Manhattan that the world trade center was still standing. We know all that is written here is true as today you may visit the excavation of the Pool of Bethesda.

As strong as this evidence is, it is still not the strongest.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the following facts. Paul died in 62-67 AD in Rome at the hand of the Roman government. Paul wrote 13 or 14 books of the New Testament (Hebrews is not known) The reason for this is that we have 1 Timothy 5:18 says 18 For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”

The reference to muzzling the ox comes from Deuteronomy 25:4 The reference to the worker deserving wages is from Luke 10:7Paul is quoting from Luke here and referring to Luke as scripture just the same as he does with Deuteronomy. It is a direct quote and is quoted verbatim. Ἄξιος ὁ ἐργάτης τοῦ μισθοῦ αὐτοῦ

Consider now that there are literally dozens of ways to write this phrase in Greek, but the wording is exact. This cannot be by mistake at all. This means that Paul quoted Luke before He died. However, this comes from 1 Timothy so this requires enough time for Paul to write 2 Timothy as well. 1 Timothy is generally dated to 62 AD. This means that Luke had to proceed 62 AD with enough time to be recognized as scripture by Timothy. We know that Luke was the third gospel written. Therefore, Matthew and Mark had to proceed Luke which must have been written at the latest by 60 AD placing Matthew and Mark in the 50s at the latest. That puts them within 25 years of the Resurrection of Christ.

Consider also that the book of Acts was written as a sequel to Luke. This recounts the travels of Paul and Peter. During this time Luke did travel with Paul for a time then left Paul only to join up with him again later. Dr. Craig Keener has written extensively about this which has come to be known as the “we chapters”. So now we have evidence that Acts was written during the lifetime of Paul as to write such detailed accounts of the journeys and experiences of Paul but to leave out his execution makes no sense. Therefore, if Paul was still alive at the writing of Acts, then he was surly alive at the time of the writing of Luke as Luke predates Acts. Given therefore that we have a Rome account of the date of Paul’s death we therefore must conclude that the Gospel of Luke was written much earlier than 64AD. Likewise peters death is not mentioned in Acts which has the same epistemological evidence as the death of Paul. The same evidence is considered concerning the death of James. All of these men are mentioned and central to the book of Acts and all died between 44- 67 AD and yet not one is mentioned as dying in the account. This unintended congruency is extremely powerful evidence as the easy and perfect way to show it false is simply mentioning any one of the three deaths before 67 AD which should have occurred if the book was written after this date but did not.

Likewise, it is strange that Luke mentions various persecutions in scattered places but fails to mention the persecution of Nero in 64 AD which dwarfed all other persecutions combined. However, this is another congruency which only makes sense if Acts was written earlier than 64 AD.

More to come in the next post concerning authorship of the gospels.

Spoiler: If Polycarp, Papias, Ignatius, and Irenaeus all tell us who wrote what gospels and include such details as where this one was written or where that one went after its writing or even what language it was written in and all agree, we have unanimous consensus among the eyewitnesses of the writings of the gospels as to who wrote what when and where.

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