Many people who are skeptical of the claims of Christianity argue that the books which record the life of Christ, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were written decades or even a century or more after Jesus. Because of this time gap, they argue that the gospels cannot possibly be accurate records of the events which occurred in Jesus’ lifetime.
Jesus was crucified, died and rose again in AD 30. The closer the books of the New Testament were written to that date, the easier it is to accept them as accurate records of the events that took place during His time on earth. So, when were the Gospels written? Although estimates vary (with skeptics typically arguing for a later dating), mainstream scholars conservatively date the authorship of the four gospels as follows:
Matthew - AD 65-85
Mark - AD 60-75
Luke - AD 65-95
John - AD 95-100
Additionally, it is generally believed that the gospels (with the exception of John) were based upon written source materials known to scholars by names such as “M” and “Q”, etc. Like the autographs of the gospels, these documents are no longer in existence, but they would have pre-dated the gospels themselves by as much as decade or more.
In addition to this written pre-gospel material, the oral tradition and the testimonies of eyewitnesses who were still alive and able to speak about what they had seen and heard were available to the authors of the gospels. The existence of these two sources could push the dating of the gospel message back by many years – even to the days of the events themselves.
There are numerous pieces of evidence to support an earlier dating of the gospels.
*]The New Testament does not mention the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem which is known to have occurred in AD 70. Therefore, the gospels must have been written before AD 70.
*]The New Testament fails to mention the siege of Jerusalem which began before the Temple was destroyed. Therefore, the gospels must have been written before AD 68-69.
*]In the Book of Acts, Luke fails to mention the deaths of Paul and Peter which took place in AD 64 and AD 65 respectively. In fact, the Book of Acts, Luke’s follow-up to his gospel, ends with Paul still in prison. Therefore, the Book of Acts must have been written before AD 64.
*]In the Book of Acts, Luke fails to mention the death of the James, leader of the Church in Jerusalem, in AD 62. In contrast, Luke does record the stoning of Stephen and the death of James the brother of John and the mention of these two martyrdoms makes the absence of the martyrdom of James more conspicuous. Therefore, the Book of Acts must have been written before AD 62.
*]Luke’s Gospel predates his Book of Acts according to his own statement in Acts. Thus, if Acts was written before AD 62, the Gospel of Luke must have been written much earlier than AD 62.
*]Paul appears to have quoted a portion of the Gospel of Luke in his Letter to Timothy which is thought to have been written in AD 63-64. Therefore, this corroborates the idea that the Gospel of Luke must have been written before AD 63.
*]Paul’s letters echo the claims of the gospel writers about Jesus’ life and divinity, and these letters are typically thought by scholars to have been written between AD 48 and AD 64. Thus, the gospel message which Paul preached was firmly in place before AD 48-50.
*]Paul wrote his Letter to the Galatians around AD 50, and in this letter he mentions that after his conversion, he had spent three years in Arabia before going to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles there. Then after fourteen more years, he took a second trip to meet with the apostles in Jerusalem. Subtracting these seventeen years from AD 50 places the time of Paul’s conversion around AD 33 or within five years of the resurrection of Christ. This is why Paul was able to tell the Corinthians in his first letter to that church in AD 53-57 that they could verify his gospel by conferring with many of the people who had witnessed the resurrected Jesus and who were still alive.
*]Paul appears to have quoted Luke’s Gospel in the First Letter to the Corinthians which is thought to have been written approximately ten years before the Letter to Timothy. Therefore, the Gospel of Luke must have been written before AD 53.
*]Luke quoted Matthew and Mark repeatedly in his gospel. Therefore, either Matthew and Mark were both in existence before AD 53 or all three of these gospels relied on common source documents that were written before AD 53.
If correct, the dating of the earliest written record concerning the life of Jesus may have been produced as early as 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and this small gap is well-within the lifetime of many eyewitnesses who would have been able to correct any errors that were recorded by the gospel writers. Thus, it may be argued that contrary to the claims of skeptics, the gospels were produced early enough to be accurate in their accounts of all that Jesus said and did.