Quite recently, a friend of mine asked me who I thought wrote the gospels and I replied that I believe they were written by the disciples/evangelists who’s names they bear. I could almost hear the internal sigh as he began to make the case that the gospels were probably written a few hundred years later, after the death of the disciples.
It is a criticism I have heard on quite a number of occasions, but it really is only an opinion and it is certainly flawed. Of course, you might equally argue that my belief is just an opinion and whilst that is indeed correct, it is not unfounded. In this post, I would like to look at the evidence for an early dating of John’s Gospel.
The fact is that we have a fragment of the Gospel of St John, which was found in Egypt in 1920 and is now in the Rylands Library; it is known as P52. This is the earliest piece of the New Testament we posses. Scholars are unified in their assessment of its authenticity, but they are not unified in their assessment of the date of origin.
The style of the script is strongly Hadrianic, which would suggest a most probable date somewhere between 117 CE and 138 CE. But the difficulty of fixing the date of a fragment based solely on paleographic evidence allows a much wider range, potentially extending from before 100 CE past 150 CE. – Wikkipedia
So, the fact is that scholars give us quite a wide range of possible dates for this fragment and that’s the best they can do from the surviving evidence.
Now this fragment is a copy and it was found in Egypt. These two facts are both significant because, if this fragment is a copy, then the original must have been written earlier; and, since John’s Gospel is believed to have been written in Ephesus (Modern Turkey), consideration must be given to the probable amount of time it would take for copies to proliferate into the wider world.
A further factor we should consider is that it is statistically unlikely that this surviving fragment is from the very earliest copy of John’s Gospel to have ever been produced. So, taking all these facts into consideration, it is entirely possible for The Gospel itself to have been written around the year 90 AD.
In case the significance of this dating has escaped you, let me state plainly that it is entirely possible that John’s Gospel was actually written by St John, the disciple of Jesus. Such a date would place the writing of the Gospel at the end of John’s life, which, to me, seems an entirely logical time for the disciple to have considered creating such a record.