I was asked recently, in the comments section of another blog, about how long the gospels were written after the time of Jesus’ death. I said it wasn’t long by ancient standards, so I thought it might be worth outlining the facts on this matter.
When were the four gospels written?
The date of Jesus’ death is not known for certain, though 30 CE is the most accepted date. After his death, his followers believed they had met with him alive again, and so began to spread what they saw as good news.
And so it is natural and obvious that they told and repeated stories about him. Sometimes they would have been written down, other times they would have been memorised. (Scholars have found that some of Jesus’ teachings are in easily memorised forms.) For many years, some of his disciples, who had been with him during his public teaching, were around to provide first hand information.
The New Testament books we have today
The gospels aren’t the first writings about Jesus that we have. Paul’s letters, beginning with Galatians and 1 Thessalonians about 20 years after Jesus died.
Historians generally think that the gospels were written from the various oral and written stories that had been circulating for some time. Perhaps the first eye witnesses were getting thin on the ground; perhaps churches asked for more authoritative or complete accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching.
Maurice Casey and James Crossley believe this happened as early as 40 CE, the date they assign to Mark, but most scholars believe the gospels we have today weren’t written until later than that. The following are what seems to be the most accepted dates.
- Mark: 65-70 CE, just before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Roman armies.
- Matthew: 75-85 CE (though some say 60-70 CE).
- Luke: 80-85 CE.
- John: 85-95 CE.
Thus the four gospels were probably written 35-65 years after Jesus died.
Comparison with other ancient biographies and histories
To obtain this information, I did a lot of internet searching plus looked up a few books I had. I don’t pretend that this is complete, but it gives a fair picture.
The table below shows the composition dates of a number of histories/biographies of famous, and lesser known, Roman and Jewish historical figures around the same time as Jesus.
|Date of writing
|Years from death to writing
|4 BCE – 30 CE
|c 70 CE
c 80 CE
c 85 CE
c 90 CE
|c 150 CE
c 100 CE
c 50 BCE
c 50 CE
c 20 CE
|c 230 CE
c 300? CE
|Died 40 CE ?
|c 110 CE
c 75 CE
|Simon bar Kokhba
|Died 135 CE
|Personal letters ??
C 400 CE
c 230 CE
|110 BCE – 7 CE ?
It is clear that the gaps between events and writing of the gospels is in the lower part of the range of those shown here.
So is ancient history accurate?
We cannot know history to the same standard of certainty as we can most science, because history is not repeatable. (Some science e.g. some aspects of evolution, are likewise less certain.) But historians use objective methods to obtain reasonable probability on many matters. For a good summary of how this works, see Why History isn’t Scientific (And Why It Can Still Tell Us About the Past).
Like the gospels, most or all of the ancient histories mentioned in the table would have been based on eye witness reports handed down orally or in written form, but now lost – indeed many of them mention their sources.
Historians have more confidence in historical information if it is repeated in several independent sources. In the case of the gospels, large sections of Matthew and Luke appear to have been copied from Mark (albeit edited a little), but significant sections of Matthew and Luke, all of John and the references in Paul’s letters are all considered to be independent. Since the gospels were all written in different locations, the likelihood of each of the authors inventing the same important facts about the life of Jesus is very small. This allows historians to consider many aspects of Jesus’ life to be historical, although of course there are many details they cannot verify this way.
I will discuss the aspects of Jesus’ life which secular historians consider fairly certain in another post.
Read more on the historians’ conclusions on the gospels
Photo: John writing his gospel Flickr Creative Commons.