Light for the Last Days

When were the Gospels written?


In his book ‘26 Reasons why Jews don’t believe in Jesus’ (page 139) Asher Norman says: ‘The Epistles and the Gospels were not written by actual witnesses to the events they described.’ He claims that the Gospels were written by unknown men who took the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John up to 150 years after the events they describe. Putting a late date to the writing of the Gospels is a common device used by those who wish to reject the message of the Gospel. Because of the ‘late date’ of the writing they then imply that the Gospels are made up stories with no credibility.

Asher builds his case for this on a mixture of the liberal theology taught in many of our theological colleges and attacks on Christianity by atheists and those who claim that Jesus never existed. Based on such views he says that the Epistles were written first and that their authors did not know the Gospel accounts. The Gospels, he says, were written much later – Mark around 125 AD and Matthew, Luke and John around 175 AD.

An early date for the Gospels

The New Testament itself gives us some very good clues as to when it was written. If we take as a starting point the Book of Acts we have some events recorded there which can be checked against Roman history and the writings of Josephus. In chapters 24-25 Paul is taken before the Roman governors, Felix and Festus. We know from Josephus that Festus succeeded Felix in 59 AD and died in 62 AD. According to Acts 27 Festus granted Paul’s request to be tried in Rome. After surviving a storm at sea on the way, Paul arrived in Rome and stayed there for two years (Acts 28.30). This would take us up to around 62 AD. Acts ends quite abruptly without mentioning the fact that Paul was executed in Rome, something which took place around 65 AD. Luke does mention the death of James, the brother of John, in chapter 12. James plays a very minor part in the Book of Acts, so why does Luke not mention the death of Paul who is the main subject of the entire section from Acts 13-28? The most obvious answer is that he completed Acts before Paul was executed.

So the most likely date for writing Acts is around 62-65 AD. In the opening verses of Acts, Luke describes his former book in which he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach (i.e. the Gospel of Luke). So the Gospel of Luke must have been written before Acts. In the opening verses of his Gospel, Luke writes of those who had previously undertaken to write an account of the things ‘that have been fulfilled among us’ (i.e. the life of Jesus). The logical assumption from this is that the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were written before Luke.

Regarding the rest of the New Testament Paul’s letters must have been written before he died! 2 Peter 3.15 contains reference to Paul as someone still alive, so Peter’s letters were written before Paul died. Jude contains material very similar to 2 Peter so was probably written at about the same time. Hebrews must have been written before the destruction of the Temple, because it indicates that Temple sacrifices were still taking place. James, or Yacov to give him his proper name, wrote the letter which bears his name. He was the leader of the Jerusalem congregation, who according to Josephus was put to death in 62 AD. That has covered the entire NT apart from John’s writings.

John was the longest living of the Apostles, exiled to Patmos under the persecutions of Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD), so his books could have been written later. Early church tradition is that John wrote his Gospel after the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Liberal theologian John Robinson in his book ‘Redating the New Testament’ came to the conclusion that John’s Gospel was written before the destruction of the Temple. John 21.19 possibly implies that Peter was still alive at the time of writing John’s Gospel. By this method we have placed most of the New Testament being written before 70 AD.

In recent years many scholars have questioned the late dating of the Gospels. In 1976 John Robinson put forward the view that the whole of the New Testament was written before AD 70. He reasons that no book of the New Testament describes the fall of the Temple in AD 70 as an event that had already occurred: ‘One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to the single most datable and climactic event of the period – the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the Temple – is never once mentioned as a past fact’. (Page 13 ‘Redating the New Testament.’)

A number of other scholars today give reason to believe an early dating of the New Testament. John Wenham in his book ‘Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke’ put forward the following dating scheme for the books of the New Testament.

c 40 Matthew

c 45 Mark

c 48 Galatians

c 49 Jerusalem Council

50 1 and 2 Thessalonians

c 54 Luke

55 1 Corinthians

56 2 Corinthians

57 Romans

57-59 1 Timothy, Titus

60-61 Philippians, 2 Timothy

62 Acts.

Michael Phelan in his two volume book ‘The New Testament Received as Scripture’ published by Two Edged Sword has put together a great deal of information backing up the early dating of the New Testament. He quotes a number of early church figures who testify to the authorship of the Gospels. These are summed up in this passage in Eusebius which quotes Irenaeus, ‘The Ecclesiastical History’, translated by Oulton, Volume 2, page 47-49:

‘Matthew published among the Hebrews a written gospel also in their tongue … Mark also, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the things which were preached by Peter, and Luke also, who was a follower of Paul, put down in a book the gospel which was preached by him. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who had even rested on His breast, himself also gave forth the gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.’

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons around AD 180, wrote, ‘For as there are four quarters of the world in which we live and four universal winds, and as the Church is dispersed over all the earth, and the gospel is the pillar and the base of the Church and the breath of life, so it is natural that it should have four pillars, breathing immortality from every quarter and kindling the life of men anew. Whence it is manifest that the Word … has given us the gospel in fourfold form, but held together by one Spirit.’ (Against Heresies III). He goes on to affirm the Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the authentic accounts. (Evidence page 63-4).

There is an enormous amount of manuscript evidence for the New Testament, way beyond any other ancient document, including the Old Testament. There are more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today. No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. The world’s second best documented ancient book is Homer’s Iliad of which we have 643 manuscripts. The fact that there are so many manuscripts of the New Testament shows that it was widely circulated and accepted as an authentic document from early times in the history of Christianity.

Quotations from the New Testament in early Christian writings are so extensive that it could virtually be reconstructed from these writings without the use of New Testament manuscripts. There are no less than 36,289 quotations from the New Testament in the works of the early Christian writers Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Hippolytus and Eusebius. (Information from ‘Evidence that demands a verdict’ by Josh McDowell).


Asher Norman says that all this information was supplied by a later editor to make it look as though these books were written by contemporaries, but we then have some logical problems. What would be their motives? How would they get away with it? Would they be able to produce reasonably authentic information about the geography, history and social conditions of the time if they were inventing a story a hundred years or more later?

A number of passages in the New Testament make references to ‘eyewitnesses’ to the events that are being recorded. See Luke 1.1-4, John 19.35, Acts 2.22, Acts 26.24-6, 2 Peter 1.16-18, 1 John 1.1-4. The opening verses of Luke say:

‘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.

Luke says his information came from eyewitnesses. One of these was most likely to be Mary who gave him details of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus as recorded in his Gospel. Obviously he could not have gained such information 150 years after the event. If an impostor called Luke wrote the Gospel so long after the event, who would have believed him? Any logical person reading the first verses of his account would dismiss it straight away. ‘Eyewitnesses’ of events that took place nearly 150 years ago? ‘Having a perfect understanding of all things from the very first.’ Impossible. Why read any further?

Another issue is that it would have been extremely difficult for a later writer to put down information which would tally with the history, geography and customs of what they were writing about. With no Google searches or encyclopaedias available to refer, how would they have got their facts right? By the time Asher Norman says the Gospels were written, the Jewish world of Galilee and Judea that we encounter in the New Testament was no more. Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in 70 AD, and following the failed Bar Cochba revolt in 135 AD, the Romans operated a scorched earth policy in Israel, wiping out its Jewish identity and renaming the land ‘Palestina.’ They renamed Jerusalem ‘Aelia Capitolina’, which was made off limits to Jewish people. Most of its Jewish inhabitants were killed or sold into slavery and many of those who survived left the devastated land.

It would have been virtually impossible for a later writer to get his facts right about life in Judea in the period before these calamities occurred. FF Bruce testifies to the accuracy of New Testament historical details: ‘The place names, the geography, the titles of the various public figures are all remarkable in their accuracy and could only have been produced by someone who genuinely was an eye witness of the events, or who had access to those who were’. Sir William Ramsay, regarded as one of the greatest archaeologists, wrote of Luke: ‘Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians. Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.’

The Gospel writers showed knowledge of the geography, history and customs of the time and place which are accurate. The fraudulent Gospel of Barnabas, favoured by Muslims, which was written long after the event contains references which show its author was not an eyewitness. For example it states that Jesus was born when Pontius Pilate was governor (he did not become governor until 28-29AD) and that Jesus sailed in a boat into Nazareth (a bit hard as there is no sea or river at Nazareth). There are no such inaccuracies in the New Testament.

Epistles written before the Gospels?

Asher Norman says that the Epistles were written first and then the Gospels much later. He says the writers of the Epistles were unfamiliar with the text of the Gospels and did not quote or even refer to them. He says that Mark wrote the first Gospel and Matthew and Luke copied most of their material from Mark. In this he follows the conclusions of liberal Christian theologians whose critical works on the text of the whole Bible began in the 19 th century.

The Epistles were written mainly by Paul, also by Peter, James, John and Jude. Critics of Christianity like to claim that Paul invented a ‘Jesus’ who had no connection to the real Jesus. In a TV programme ‘The Real Jesus’ shown on Channel 4 in December 2000, Hyam Maccoby, author of ‘Revolution In Judea: Jesus And The Jewish Resistance’, claimed that Paul knew nothing about the real earthly Jesus and received all his information from his communications with a ‘heavenly Jesus.’

The accusation that Paul invented a different Jesus from the real one and is himself the true founder of Christianity is in no way supported by the New Testament. The fact that Paul does not write in detail about the life of Jesus recorded in the Gospels in his epistles is not significant. He was writing letters to Christians whom he assumed to be familiar with the Gospel story telling them how to apply their faith.

All that Paul does write about Jesus is in harmony with the Gospels. He writes that He was divinely pre-existent and yet also a real human being descended from Abraham and David; that He lived under Jewish law, was betrayed after eating the Passover meal with His disciples, endured the Roman penalty of crucifixion, was buried and rose again from the dead. He knew the disciples and was familiar with details of their lives, including the fact that Peter was married (1 Corinthians 9.5, Mark 1.30). His teaching is in harmony with the teaching of Jesus on all ethical matters.

Both Jesus and Paul lay great emphasis on personal integrity and speaking the truth. In Ephesians Paul writes, ‘We should no longer be children tossed to and from and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness by which they lie in wait to deceive, but speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into him who is the head – Christ’ (Ephesians 4.14-15).

However according to critics like Asher Norman and Hyam Maccoby, Paul himself was practicing trickery and deception, by inventing a false story and knowingly deceiving others with it. Paul’s own testimony is that his reward for spreading his message was not to be showered with honour and money, but beatings, perils, weariness, hunger and toil (2 Corinthians 11.23-33). Is it really likely that he would go through all this for a story, which he knew, was not true? He faced his coming execution with the confidence that ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord the righteous judge will give to me on that day and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing’ (2 Timothy 4.7-8). Could he have done this if he knew that he had spent his life spreading a lie?

There is internal evidence within the New Testament itself that the writers of the Epistles knew the Gospels. In 1 Timothy 5.18 Paul writes: ‘For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The labourer is worthy of his wages.’ Paul here quotes from both Deuteronomy 25.4 and Luke 10.7 and refers to both as ‘graphe’ – scripture. For this verse to make any sense he must have had a copy of the Gospel of Luke which must have been widely acknowledged as scripture. In addition to this we find that Paul follows virtually the same wording in 1 Corinthians 11.24-25 as we find in Luke 22.19-20 regarding the taking of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper.

We also have the interesting verse in 2 Corinthians 8.18-19: ‘And we have sent with him the brother whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches.’ The context here is bringing a gift to the poor believers in Jerusalem. Titus is named as taking the gift along with an unnamed brother ‘whose praise is in the Gospel.’ A widely held view of the early church was that this unnamed brother was Luke and that the Gospel that was praised throughout all the churches is not the Gospel message but a book, namely our third Gospel, which now bears Luke’s name. In this case Luke’s Gospel was written well before 2 Corinthians as time must be allowed for it to have circulated far and wide, and to have become recognised as a most praise-worthy book. Paul is unlikely to be referring to the Gospel message itself because the Lord alone can be praised for that. For more on this subject see ‘The New Testament as Received Scripture’ – Volume II, page 121 by Michael Phelan.

The writers of the four Gospels were all inspired by the Holy Spirit to give their four different, but complimentary accounts of the life of Jesus the Messiah. Any alleged contradictions can be explained to those willing to consider the claims of the Gospel, that Jesus is the promised Messiah and Saviour of the world. None of the Gospel writers wrote everything that could have been written on the subject as John explains: ‘And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. … And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.’ John 20.30-31, 21.25.

Tony Pearce

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