When Were the Gospels Written? – Part 2

For completeness, I thought it might be helpful for me to write a second post on this subject since my earlier post focussed on the dating of St John’s gospel only. The reason for that was that I wanted to present hard evidence in the form of scholarly dating of extant manuscripts and it just so happens that the fragment (P52) of John’s Gospel is the earliest of such.

Dating of the other canonical gospels is based on a different type of evidence; what is generally referred to as internal evidence considering factors like chronology, style and theology. Biblical scholars are agreed that the gospels of Matthew and Luke were produced later than the gospel of Mark. Textual analysis of both of these gospels reveals that parts of Mark were included in them so, logically, they must have been written later.

Since St Luke records the destruction of the temple by the Romans (around 70 AD) in some detail, most scholars conclude the text must have been written sometime after that event; and that’s, largely, where the date of 80-90 AD comes from. Similarly, with Matthew’s Gospel, the description of the destruction suggests a date of later than 70 AD:

Luke – Most scholars argue 80–90 AD; some scholars 60-65 AD; a minority 37–41 AD

Matthew – Most scholars argue 70–100 AD; a minority argue for dates as early as 63 AD

Because Mark’s gospel is generally believed to have been written earlier than both of these gospels, scholars are generally agreed on a dating of Mark as between 65 AD – 72 AD.

Now the foregoing is all fact. It is simply a statement of what scholars believe based upon painstaking research of the texts themselves. Before I present what I personally believe which is just opinion, I wanted to make it plain that modern Biblical scholars do not believe the gospels were written hundreds of years after the death of the disciples. Far from it, they were all written at a time that does not preclude them being written or assembled by the authors to which they are traditionally ascribed.

That said, I would now like to present my own beliefs on the matter. Take them for what they are. I am not intending to prove anything; I am simply sharing personal opinions. My opinion as to when these gospels were written is based on internal evidence in the Gospel of St Luke and The Acts of the Apostles, and the generally accepted proposition that St Mark’s gospel was written first.

With regard to the names traditionally assigned to the gospels, we should understand that modern readers would properly wish to draw distinctions between the tasks of authoring, inscribing and assembling a text. However, when these texts were originally written, it was perfectly normal practice to utilise pre-existing works during composition. Indeed, this is something that Luke openly acknowledges in the opening of his gospel. Thus, when I say that I think the disciples/apostles actually wrote their respective gospels, I am using the term in the broader sense of its meaning to encompass the above.

So here is my case for an early dating of St Luke’s gospel. The Acts of the Apostles and The Gospel of St Luke were written by the same author and they are both addressed to Theophilus. It has always struck me that if we could identify this individual, then we would also have a very good basis on which to arrive at reliable dates, at least for Luke’s gospel.

Now, the Greek word ‘Theophilus’ literally means friend of God, so we should be aware that there are those who would argue that this address is not to a specific individual, but that the gospel is addressed simply to the Christian world i.e. that it is a generic title. Personally, I do not buy this argument because of the words ‘Most Excellent’ that precede it in Luke’s gospel. To me, this looks exactly like an address, not only to an individual, but to a notary.

If we could identify this individual, it seems we would have strong evidence for a dating of Luke’s gospel. Now, it turns out that, according to Josephus, the High Priest of Israel between AD 37 and AD 41 was a man named Theophilus ben Ananus and he was a member of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Judaea at the time.

For me, the above-named individual is a strong candidate. He has the right name, he is around at the right time and he would certainly warrant the form of address used in the opening of Luke’s gospel. Interestingly enough, the opening of the Acts – addressed to the same person – is addressed only to Theophilus i.e. the form of title previously used by Luke (Most Excellent), has been omitted. For me, this might indicate that Theopilus no longer held the official office when the Acts was written.

From these observations, I would propose a date of between 37 AD – 41 AD for the writing of Luke’s gospel, and sometime after 41 AD as a date for The Acts of the Apostles. Again, this dating is personal opinion, but as you can see, it is not without foundation.

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