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The Dates of the Four NT Gospels

By Pastor Ron Jones, D.D. © The Titus Institute 2010


The most important issue to establish for the four NT Gospels is not to establish the dates when the gospels were published, but to establish who wrote them. Once it can be established that disciples contemporaneous with Jesus wrote the gospels, then we know that the gospels were published in the lifetime of those disciples and in the same generation as Jesus himself. They were written and published, therefore, in the first century A.D.

We have already shown that the historical literary evidence demonstrates that the four NT Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and published by them for the churches of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the gospels were published in their lifetimes in the first century.

The exact dates cannot be established and is not really that important, but we can give the general time periods indicated by the historical literary evidence. The authors of the gospels and the general time periods when the gospels were published were known by the church. However, their focus was always on the authors. This is what establishes their publication in the first century.

We will begin with the synoptic gospels and then give the general time period of John’s gospel which was written much later than the first three.

The dates of the publishing of the Synoptic Gospels as we shall see can be generally established by their connection with Peter and Paul’s ministry in Rome and their subsequent death at the hands of the Emporer Nero.

The historical literary evidence demonstrates that Matthew most likely issued his gospel originally in the Hebrew dialect in the 50’s A.D. for the Jewish Christians in Israel while Peter was in Rome ministering and then later sometime in the late 50’s or early 60’s he wrote his Greek version while Peter and Paul were ministering there. Then Mark published the private edition of his gospel for the church at Rome after Matthew’s. Luke then published his gospel. Mark then published a public edition of his gospel for the churches at large which was published after Peter and Paul subsequently left Rome or had been martyred. Later while John was living in Ephesus possibly in the late 80’s AD or early 90’s, he published his gospel.

This historical literary evidence comes from both secular and Christian sources.1

For a list of the early church fathers (Christian sources), who they were and when they lived, mentioned in this article, click here.


The Historical Circumstances Summarized

Peter was in Rome in the 50’s A.D. preaching and founding the church. Paul came to Rome in the early 60’s A.D. as a prisoner. Peter and Paul preached together in Rome, but probably only for a short time in the early 60’s. They often travelled to and from Rome on missionary journeys at different times during the 60’s. Luke and Mark were also in Rome in the 60’s A.D. with Paul and Peter.


The Historical Circumstances Explained

Peter first came to Rome in the reign of the Emperor Claudius (50’s AD)

Eusebius tells us that Peter came to Rome during the reign of Claudius to defend the faith against a heretic named Simon Magus. The reign of Claudius was from 41 A.D. – 54 A.D. Peter probably came to Rome in the early 50’s A.D.

Eusebius writes, in his Church History (2.14.4-6),

“Immediately the above-mentioned impostor [Simon Magus] was smitten in the eyes of his mind by a divine and miraculous flash, and after the evil deeds done by him had been first detected by the apostle Peter in Judea, he fled and made a great journey across the sea from the East to the West, thinking that only thus could he live according to his mind. And coming to the city of Rome, by the mighty co-operation of that power which was lying in wait there, he was in a short time so successful in his undertaking that those who dwelt there honored him as a god by the erection of a statue. But this did not last long. For immediately, during the reign of Claudius, the all-good and gracious Providence, which watches over all things, led Peter, that strongest and greatest of the apostles, and the one who on account of his virtue was the speaker for all the others, to Rome against this great corrupter of life. He like a noble commander of God, clad in divine armor, carried the costly merchandise of the light of the understanding from the East to those who dwelt in the West, proclaiming the light itself, and the word which brings salvation to souls, and preaching the kingdom of heaven.”1

Justin Martyr in his First Apology (26) also writes of Simon coming to Rome during the reign of Claudius,
“There was a Samaritan, Simon, a native of the village called Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius Caesar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic, by virtue of the art of the devils operating in him. He was considered a god, and as a god was honoured by you with a statue, which statue was erected on the river Tiber, between the two bridges, and bore this inscription, in the language of Rome, “Simoni Deo Sancto.”

If Peter came to Rome when Claudius was Emperor, it was most likely in the early 50’s A.D. rather than the 40’s. So Peter started his ministry in Rome in the 50’s A.D. The apostles were, by the nature of their ministry, travellers constantly going on missionary journeys no matter where they settled. So Peter would not have stayed in Rome for that whole period. That would have been his home base of operations.

Paul came to Rome as a prisoner around 60 A.D.

Most scholars estimate that Paul came to Rome around 60 A.D. as a prisoner. This approximate date is based on his interaction with the procurators in the Book of Acts.

In Acts 24-27, Paul first appears before Antonius Felix, the Roman Procurator and is confined for the last two years of Felix’ procuratorship. Then Porcius Festus takes over as procurator and Paul is brought before him soon after he takes office. Paul appeals to Caesar which gives Paul the right to plead his case before the Emporer as a Roman citizen. He sets sail for Rome in the first few months of Festus’ reign.

Since Festus was procurator from approximately 59 A.D. or 60 A.D. to his death in 62 A.D. Paul was most likely sent to Rome in the first year of Festus’ taking office which would have been around 59 or 60 A.D.

F.F. Bruce writes on the date of Festus’ procuratorship,

“Festus appears to have governed Judaea from A.D. 59 to his death in 62…A more reliable pointer to the date of Felix's replacement has been found in a change in the Judaean provincial coinage attested for Nero's fifth year (A.D. 58-59); this coin issue ‘is more likely to be the work of a new procurator than of an outgoing one who had already minted a large issue’ (E. M. Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule, SJLA 20 [Leiden, 1976], p. 269, n. 40). See F. W. Madden, History of Jewish Coinage (London, 1864), p. 153; A. Reifenberg, Ancient Jewish Coins (Jerusalem, 1947), p. 27; cf. also H. J. Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History (New York, 1955), p. 10; Scharer I, p. 255, n. 42.”

According to Lawrence Schiffman, in his book, From Text to Tradition: a History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, Porcius Festus ruled from 60A.D. to 62 A.D.2

Peter and Paul ministered in Rome during the same general time period.

Luke tells us in Acts 28:30-31 that for two years Paul was in Rome and was able to receive visitors and continue his preaching of the Gospel (and building a apostolic foundation of the church). This would then be from 60 A.D. to 62 A.D.

Paul was martyred sometime between 64 A.D. and 68 A.D. (See below) That leaves a period of two to six years that Paul was either in Rome or travelling from Rome or both. Eusebius tells us that Paul was released from prison, went on a missionary journey and later returned to Rome where he was martyred for the gospel.

Eusebius writes of this in his Church History (2.22.1-2),

“Festus was sent by Nero to be Felix’s successor. Under him Paul, having made his defense, was sent bound to Rome. Aristarchus was with him, whom he also somewhere in his epistles quite naturally calls his fellow-prisoner. And Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles brought his history to a close at this point, after stating that Paul spent two whole years at Rome as a prisoner at large, and preached the word of God without restraint. Thus after he had made his defense it is said that the apostle was sent again upon the ministry of preaching, and that upon coming to the same city a second time he suffered martyrdom.”

When Paul returned, he ministered in Rome until persecution broke out under Nero in 64 A.D. Paul was caught up in that persecution and was martyred sometime between 64 and 68 A.D.

Peter came to Rome during the reign of Claudius and eventually was martyred in Rome sometime between 64 A.D. and 68 A.D. as Paul was.

If Peter came to Rome in the early 50’s A.D., then he could have been in Rome during the period between 50 A.D. and 64-68 A.D. It is very likely that Peter did not stay in Rome for the whole period of time. His ministry as an apostle demanded that he travel and evangelize and establish churches in the faith.

The Testimony of Irenaeus

Irenaeus in his Against Heresies (3.3.2) implies that Peter and Paul were in Rome in the same general time period when he wrote that Peter and Paul founded the church in Rome.

He mentions “that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.”

Irenaeus is not saying that Peter and Paul started the church in Rome where there was none. In Acts 2:10-11 at Pentecost (30’s A.D.) there were “visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism).” Those who heard Peter preach and turned to Jesus Christ took their faith back to Rome and started a church. Also, Paul wrote to the Romans before he ever arrived there so the church had been formed. But what Peter and Paul did was to “found” in the sense of “build a foundation” of solid apostolic doctrine so that it became an apostolic church, one who been saturated with the Biblical teaching personally by apostles.

This “laying of the foundation of the church” most likely began with Peter coming to Rome before 54 A.D. and continued through the time Paul came to Rome around 60 A.D. through the time period they were in Rome together as they traveled back and forth from Rome until their martyrdom at Rome.

Peter and Paul were martyred at Rome between 64 A.D. and 68 A.D.

Eusebius tells us that that Peter and Paul were martyred at Rome under the Emporer Nero. In his Church History (2.25.1, 5-8), he states,

“When the government of Nero was now firmly established, he began to plunge into unholy pursuits, and armed himself even against the religion of the God of the universe…Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, he was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day. It is confirmed likewise by Caius, a member of the Church, who arose under Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome. He, in a published disputation with Proclus, the leader of the Phrygian heresy, speaks as follows concerning the places where the sacred corpses of the aforesaid apostles are laid: ‘But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.’ And that they both suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, in his epistle to the Romans, in the following words: ‘You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.’

Philip Schaff comments on the preposition “at” (“at the same time”) in the last sentence of the above statement which is in Greek “kata.” He writes,

“The ‘kata’ allows some margin in time and does not necessarily imply the same day.”3

So Eusebius tells us that Peter and Paul were martyred during the same time period of Nero’s persecution of the Christians. Nero reigned from 54 A.D. to 68 A.D. Most scholars agree that Nero’s persecution of the Christians began when Nero burned Rome and blamed the Christians in 64 A.D.

Phillip Schaff writes,

“We learn from Tacitus, Ann. XV. 39, that Nero was suspected to be the author of the great Roman conflagration, which took place in 64 A.D. (Pliny, H. N. XVII. I, Suetonius, 38, and Dion Cassius, LXII. 18, state directly that he was the author of it), and that to avert this suspicion from himself he accused the Christians of the deed, and the terrible Neronian persecution which Tacitus describes so fully was the result.”4

In the quote from Eusebius above, Peter and Paul were martyred during the persecution that broke out in 64 A.D.


The General Time Period of the Publishing of the Gospels

The previous discussion forms the background to understanding comments by Irenaeus regarding the origin of the gospels and the general time period he gives.


The three synoptic gospels were published between the late 50's and mid-60's A.D.

Irenaeus gives the general time period when the synoptic gospels were written in his Against Heresies (3.1.1), centered around the time that Peter and Paul were in Rome. He states,

“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”

“While Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the Church” definitely refers to a time period when both were in Rome around the same time which would have been between 60A.D. and 64-68 A.D. It could also refer to whole time period that began with Peter’s arrival in Rome in the early 50’s and ending with their death between 64-68 A.D.

Irenaeus shares that Matthew was written first. Irenaeus says that he issued his gospel first in the Hebrew (Hebrew-Aramaic) dialect. We know from other statements by Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius that Matthew also wrote the Greek version of his gospel. For more information on the two versions Matthew wrote go to our website www.hebrewgospel.com.

Most likely Matthew issued his gospel originally in the Hebrew dialect in the 50’s A.D. for the Jewish Christians in Israel while Peter was in Rome ministering and then later sometime in the late 50’s or early 60’s he wrote his Greek version while Peter and Paul were ministering there. For more details, go to “The Authorship and Publication of the Gospel of Matthew.”

Then Mark published his gospel after Matthew’s. In our article, "The Authorship and Publication of the Gospel of Mark”, we gave evidence for Mark publishing first a private edition for Christians at Rome who had requested it while Peter was away from Rome. When Peter returned he gave his approval for a public edition of the gospel for the churches at large, which was published after Peter and Paul subsequently left Rome or had been martyred.

Irenaeus, then states that Luke wrote his Gospel. Irenaeus does not give a time designation such as “then” regarding the publishing of Luke’s gospel. He does not indicate that Luke’s gospel was published after Mark’s. This is in agreement with other early evidence that Luke was published after the private edition of Mark’s Gospel, but before the public edition. For more information see our article “The Authorship and Publication of the Gospel of Luke.”

So, as we have seen from Irenaeus’ statement synthesized with other evidence from the early church fathers, Matthew’s Hebrew version was published in the 50’s with the Greek version being published in the late 50’s to early 60’s A.D. Mark and Luke were published in the 60’s A.D.


The Gospel of John was published after the synoptic gospels while John was living in Ephesus.

Irenaeus does not tell us exactly when John’s gospel was published, but he does tell us that it was published when John was a resident in Ephesus.

Ireneaus mentions the general time period of John’s death in “Against Heresies” (3.3.5),

“those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan.”

We can make an educated guess of sometime between 80 A.D. and 99 A.D. John was in Jerusalem at least up until the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. John probably left Jerusalem in the 60’s A.D. sometime before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. So he would have written it after 70 A.D. The Gospel had to be written before John died. John died during the reign of Trajan who ruled from 98-117 A.D. This gives us 70 A.D. to 99 A.D. However, the Gospel had to be written long enough after the fall of Jerusalem that John doesn’t even mention it. Perhaps it was a decade or more. So sometime between 80 A.D. and 99 A.D. is probable.

Isolating the exact date is not important. What is important is that it was written by John the apostle in the generation of the life of Jesus and the eye-witnesses of Jesus.

For more information on the Gospel of John see our article "The Authorship and Publication of the Gospel of John."

Conclusion:

The historical literary evidence can establish the general time periods of the publishing of the gospels, but it is not really that important. The authors of the gospels are what was important to the early church and what is important to present day Christians.

The four NT Gospels were collected by the church in the first century because they were written by the apostles Matthew and John, and by Mark, the close associate of the apostle Peter and by Luke, the close associate of the apostle Paul. No other gospel was collected because no other apostle or close associate of an apostle wrote a gospel. All other gospels came in the second century and were too late to have been written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle and thus were never accepted by the early church fathers and the apostolic churches because they were not written by apostles or their close associates.


END NOTES

1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from The Early Church Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, Reprint 2001 at CCEL Internet Library

2. Schiffman, Lawrence H., From text to tradition: a history of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1991, 148

3. Comment by Philip Schaff on 2.25.8 from The Early Church Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, Reprint 2001 at CCEL Internet Library

4. Comment by Philip Schaff on 2.25.4 from The Early Church Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, Reprint 2001 at CCEL Internet Library