An earlier dating of the Gospels?


I have long wondered why scholars have dated the Gospels to AD 70 and beyond due to the amount of textual evidence we have from the early Church Fathers that the dating may be a bit too liberal. The biggest clue lies in the Acts of the Apostles. Acts was written by Luke as a sequel to his gospel, and the book ends after Paul’s first arrest in Rome sometime around AD 61-62. The book touches on the martyrdom of St. Stephen as well as St. James the brother of John. What it doesn’t touch on, however, are the martyrdoms of Peter, Paul, and James the brother of Jesus. We know that James was martyred sometime around AD 62 in Jerusalem and that Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome sometime between AD 64-67. It doesn’t even talk about Peter’s arrival in Rome! There is also no mention in Acts about the Siege of Jerusalem (AD 67-70).

All of these clues suggest that the Acts of the Apostles was most likely written in AD 62, which would date Luke’s gospel to sometime around AD 60. Church tradition tells us that both Matthew and Mark were written before Luke and the early Church Fathers were very clear on the fact that John wrote his gospel shortly before his death around AD 100. It seems to me that the later dating of the gospels is based around the hypothesis that Jesus wasn’t who he said he was, and that there was no way the gospel writers could have predicted the destruction of Solomon’s Temple.

What say you guys?


Each one of the four Gospels, in the form we know them today, grew and developed over a period of some years. Once you have said that Mark is almost certainly the earliest of the four and John the latest, with Matthew and Luke somewhere in the middle, there’s not much else you can say about the timing with any certainty at all. Academics write books advocating this date or that date, and one day, who knows, they may even reach a consensus. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Why doesn’t Luke say anything in Acts about the death of Paul? One possibility, as you say, is that Paul was still alive at the time of writing. Another possibility is that Luke deliberately left it out, because the death and resurrection of Jesus is the climax, the main event, the main focus, of his two-volume work, and he didn’t want to overshadow that with a second trial and execution. But both possibilities are no more than conjectures. We have no certain knowledge one way or the other.


Another thing is that communication was slow so it’s possible that they weren’t aware of the events happening at the same time. It may take months for information from Rome to make it to Jerusalem. Also considering the size of Jesus’s following at the time and the overall size of the Jewish population at the time, only a small amount would have cared about Paul, Stephen, James, let alone who they were.


There is a small piece of papyrus held at Magdalen College, Oxford, which is the oldest fragment of St. Matthew’s Gospel in existence today. The fragment contains disjointed segments of Matt. 26, but even more important than the writing style, which Thiede pinpointed to the time of Jesus’ life, is the use of KS, an abbreviated form of Kyrios, to refer to Jesus as Lord God- meaning that the ancient author believed that Jesus is divine. Thiede, a papyrologist, further more concludes that St. Matthew’s Gospel must have been the first Gospel written.


That’s very interesting, Dan. Are there any scholarly articles on the Magdalen College fragment?


There is a book: ‘Eyewitness To Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence About the Origin of the Gospel’ by Matthew D’Ancona and Carsten Thiede (1996).


The original article is I believe in German, and was published in “Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik,” you can find it using JSTOR that many libraries subscribe to (any college library will have a subscription). The book cited above is the layman’s version of the argument.

I should note, however, that I am not aware of ANY other scholar who accepts Thiede’s dating. The papyrus is fairly confidently dated to between 150 - 300 by virtually everyone except Thiede. The best recent article on the dating is Don Barker, “The Dating of New Testament Papyri,” in New Testament Studies 57 (2011) 571-582. Again you can find that with JSTOR fairly easily, and it’s in English!

Needless to say, dating papyri is difficult, but scholarly consensus - reached with centuries of debate and research - generally holds that the oldest New Testament fragments date from the second century. Unless new evidence surfaces there is little reason to expect the consensus to change much on the dating of the Gospels.

As @BartholomewB correctly notes, however, you should be careful about what it is you are dating. The Gospels were written over time, almost certainly by more than one individual (think a writer, and editors), and were based on previous documents and oral traditions. It’s truly fascinating stuff, but don’t expect any radical re-datings of the Gospels. I think we’re as close as we can ever get right now.


In his book The Case for Jesus, Brant Pitre makes the argument that you mention – that these “late Gospel” assertions proceed from two skeptical assumptions: first, there’s no way Jesus could have predicted the razing of the Jerusalem temple, and second, any references to such a prediction would have had to have been a later invention by an author or redactor of Scripture. Therefore, by that line of thought, you must place authorship later than the fall of Jerusalem (ca 70 AD). Well, sure… you must – if you think Jesus isn’t God. :wink:


As baffling as the dates are the authorship is just as baffling. By baffling I mean even scholars have different opinions on who the authors were. They even disagree if each of the Gospels were written by one person or several. How is a non scholar supposed to decide who the authors are when scholars can’t even agree? Some claim Matthew was written by the Apostle others say it wasn’t. Some say Mark was Peter’s secretary, some disagree, and so on. Maybe I’m looking for certainty where it’s not possible but it would be nice if at least one author could be definitively identified. The gentile physician Luke? A friend of Paul? John the same as the author of Revelation from Patmos or John the apostle?


Isn’t Acts generally considered to be written about the same time as the Gospel? I always thought of them as one longer work divided after the Ascension.


One additional piece of evidence that Mark was authored around 70ce is due to Mark 12:17 mentioning the denarius as payment of taxes in Judea. The coin evidence shows that the denarius was not a common coin in use during Jesus’s time and became common only after 69ce.

It proves nothing on its own but there are several scholarly reasons why Mark is dated as 70ce.


Are you sure it’s true that the denarius wasn’t in common use in Judea in Pilate’s day? It was my impression that Roman, Greek and other coins were all in circulation there at the same time, and that for everyday use, the denarius was considered as equivalent to the drachma, despite the drachma’s slightly larger silver content.


The wikipedia article on P64, known as the Magdalen Papyrus, opins “Thiede’s hypothesis has been viewed with skepticism by nearly all established Biblical scholars.”

Among the reasons suggested are that the script is similar to a late 2nd century script, other similarities to 2nd century works, use in a codex, etc.

The wiki article has some scholarly references and a photo of P64.


Here’s a link to where I heard of this…it’s toward the bottom of the article and links to the original research.


Thank you, @Pattylt. I didn’t realize I was asking you to do so much research for me! My apologies.

The point about the almost total absence of denarii in Judea earlier than 70 is striking, but I suspect that some of the commenters on that thread may be reading too much into it. This is not the only place in the Gospels where the Roman coinage is mentioned. The word denarius appears again in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Matt 20:8-16, where it occurs three times. This parable is found in Matthew alone. And the quadrans, the smallest of the Roman copper coins, is mentioned once or twice as well.

Of all the comments on that thread, the one I find most congenial to my way of thinking is this one, by Mark Shapiro:

The problems keep piling up. The author supposes Mark is writing in or around Galilee and is a Jew. (I believe the traditional view that he is writing in Rome, but he is a Jew writing on the basis of experience of Galilean Jewish practice – and thus periodically Jerusalem practice – before 70. Mark emerges ever stronger from the long history of attempts to show him incompetent on geography and points of halakhah). But if he is writing in Galilee shortly after the fiscus iudaicus is imposed, everyone knows that he will just be making it up that there was a similar tax forty years earlier. The fraud is too palpable. If, on the other hand, he is writing in and for a diaspora, the question of making payments to Rome has forever been solved in the affirmative.

Thanks again for your help!


They certainly were, especially in a cosmopolitan city like Jerusalem. The Greek text uses the word dēnarion, and it is usually thought that the coin was a Roman denarius with the head of Tiberius. It is this coin that is sold and collected as the “tribute penny,” and the Gospel story is an important factor in making this coin attractive to collectors.The inscription reads “Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs” (“Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”), claiming that Augustus was a god. The reverse shows a seated female, usually identified as Livia depicted as Pax.


Thank you but it really wasn’t a problem for me to find the information again…a quick search found it because I knew the name of the blog.

As I stated, I don’t think it really proves the dating of Mark but can be a piece of evidence used. The author of the blog is a post graduate student and is an atheist but is also usually very fair in his discussions which I appreciate. I don’t like to just be fed my biases!


And if that common understanding – which requires a literal interpretation – is mistaken? What if the reference is to a known expression, but isn’t a literal reference? If I said “in for a penny, in for a pound”, you would understand what I meant – even if we don’t use ‘pounds’ as a unit of currency… right? :wink:


I agree that is a possibility. But the Roman denarius was very much in circulation in cities across the Empire, Jerusalem would be no exception.


I think the Gospel of Mark was made from the speeches of Peter and distributed by his followers (probably Mark) as attested by early Christian sources. The assumption is that Peter’s speeches were given in Rome using the texts of Matthew and Luke as a base with shorthand scribes recording what Peter said.

So regarding the issue of the denarius, It is possible that when speaking to a Roman audience in Rome Peter would use the denarius in his description. Also it is possible that Peter didn’t say denarius but when the speech was translated from the shorthand to be distributed amongst Romans then the denarius description was used.

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