How do we arrive at the dates of composition for the four gospels in the New Testament? This brief article attempts to answer this question through providing a general outline.
First, Jesus died around the year 30 CE and since the four gospels speak of his death they must then date after 30 CE at the very least.
Second, the first convincing quotations of the gospels are found in the writings of Justin Martyr around the year 150 CE, despite there being some earlier probable allusions. Although Justin does not name the gospels as we have them in our New Testament today, he does refer to certain books as “The Memoirs of the Apostles”. Justin quotes from these works and the quotations match Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. These two clues allow us to date the gospels sometime between 30 and 150 CE.
Third, the Apostle Paul, who was integral to the early Christian community and widely traveled between communities, was writing his letters around 50-60 CE. However, Paul does not appear to display knowledge of the gospels. It is possible that he knew of the gospels but chose to ignore them. But this seems unlikely. This suggests the gospels were not in circulation in the years 50 to 60 CE. This narrows the dates to 60 CE and later. So somewhere between 60 and 150 CE.
Fourth, there are good reasons for thinking the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel to be written. The question of Mark’s date concerns whether or not it was written after or before the Jewish War with Rome that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. Although debated, most scholars think it dates to 70 CE. This date is based on Mark 13:2 which is thought to reflect knowledge of the Jewish War that ended in 70 CE.
Fifth, the are good reasons to date Matthew and Luke later than Mark (70 CE). Both Matthew and Luke make much use of Mark’s gospel. Further, it is thought that both Matthew and Luke display knowledge of the destruction of Jerusalem (Matthew 22:7 and Luke 21:24). It is also suggested that Matthew and Luke needed some time, perhaps a few years, to develop their accounts. It has been argued, for example, that Matthew’s gospel must have been written sometime after 70 CE because he not only uses Mark, but he also has developed doctrine such as in his Christology (11:27-30), ecclesiology (16:18-19; 18:15-20), and trinitarian formula (28:19). So anywhere between 70 and 80 CE is reasonable for Matthew. The same can be said for Luke. Luke uses Mark’s gospel and reflects knowledge of the destruction of Jerusalem. Give or take a few years for Luke to develop, a date between 70 and 80 CE also seems reasonable.
Sixth, the final gospel is the Gospel of John that most scholars believe is the latest of the four. A date in the 90s CE is commonly accepted today. Scholars postulate a later date to the Gospel of John than to the synoptics because of its developed theological understanding of Jesus. Also particularly helpful is a papyrus fragment discovered in Egypt during the twentieth century that has helped to date this gospel. This fragment contains only the text of John 18:31-33 and 37-38, and has been dated between 100 and 150. Most scholars date the Gospel of John to the 90s CE because they argue that it would have taken some time for John’s gospel to make its way to Egypt from Ephesus in Asia Minor. Another reason to date John before 100 CE is that he does not engage Christological “heresies” that we find in later Christian writings (like Ignatius, for example) in the second century CE. A date earlier than Ignatius but after the synoptics (e.g. near the end of the first century) is posited.
As New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman reflects, such dates are “all probability judgments…” Indeed, we wish we could have greater certainty regarding the dates of the four gospels, but unless they can be reliably dated from other sources we have to estimate. It is therefore entirely possible that these dates can be disputed and debated.
Ehrman, Bart. 2012. Dates of the Gospels. Available.
Hagner, Donald. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Baker Books.