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Dating the Synoptic Gospels

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Previous articles have argued for the traditional attribution of the Synoptic Gospels. That the
Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were, in fact, written by the men whose names adorn their
works. If the Gospels were written in the late first century AD, however, that raises serious doubts
as to traditional authorship. If they were compiled in the second century, there is simply no way the
Gospels could have been written by the men whose names adorn them. So, when were the Synoptic
Gospels written?
Do Late Dates Disprove Traditional Attribution?
Before we attempt to date the Gospels, it should be noted that a late dating of the actual composition
and circulation of the Gospels does not preclude the involvement of the traditional authors. One
possible explanation, along these lines, is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all wrote primitive Gospels
- rough draft accounts - which were later edited by their followers. This is after all one of the
primary explanations for mosaic authorship of the Torah - that Moses wrote the core of the Torah,
but it was later edited and polished by subsequent figures (including perhaps Joshua and other
Jewish scribes). Could this have been the case with the Synoptic Gospels?
Matthew, for example, may have written a Hebrew Gospel and/or the primitive source material
known as "Q." If so, later editors may have utilized these documents, along with the Gospel of Mark,
to compile the Gospel of Matthew we now have. Accordingly, Mark and Luke may have written draft
Gospels which were later edited and polished.
Before one latches onto this theory, however, we should explore when the Gospels were written. As
we shall see, there is no reason to believe that any of the Synoptics were written as late as the
second century. And, in fact, it's possible (if not likely) they were written much sooner than that.
Fixing the Outer Limits
Jesus was crucified no earlier than AD 30 (probably AD 33) and everyone agrees that all four
of the canonical Gospels were written after Jesus' crucifixion. Thus, we can rest assured that the
Synoptics (as well as the Gospel of John) were written no earlier than AD 30. Indeed, it is universally
accepted that they were written well after the mid-30s AD.
The outer limit dates vary from Gospel to Gospel. The earliest external reference to the Gospel of
Mark is Papias, dated to AD 130. Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, makes indirect references to
Matthew as early as AD 110. This implies rather strongly that Matthew was in circulation by that
year. Since the author of Matthew apparently utilized the Gospel of Mark, this would indicate that

Mark was also in circulation prior to AD 110. Accordingly, we can conclude that Matthew and Mark
were both compiled (in their present form) and in circulation prior to AD 110.
What about Luke? The first question to be confronted is whether the author of Luke is the same as
that of Acts. Wikipedia explains this likelihood as follows:
Although the author of Luke is generally considered to be anonymous, there is some suggestion that
the author of Luke also wrote the book of Acts. The most direct evidence comes from the prefaces of
each book. Both prefaces are addressed to Theophilus, the author's patron, and the preface of Acts
explicitly references "my former book" about the life of Jesus. Furthermore, there are linguistic and
theological similarities between the two works, suggesting that they have a common author.
Not all scholars agree that Luke-Acts is a two-volume work written by a single author, and this
divide typically breaks down along conservative and liberal lines. If the conservatives are right,
however, and the author of Luke and the author of Acts are same person, then it's rather obvious
that Luke was written before Acts. Thus, we can date Luke by dating Acts.
So, when was Acts written? First, Polycarp, a famous early church leader, quotes Acts (as well as
several other New Testament books) in a letter dated to about 110. Thus, we can conclude that both
Acts and Luke were written no later than 110. This conforms to the "outer limit" dates of Matthew
and Mark.
This can be narrowed down further by sheer common sense. Given the limitations of technology in
the ancient world, manuscripts had to be copied by hand and circulated by foot or camel or horse.
We can therefore assume that a New Testament work had to be in active circulation for a number of
years before quoted by early Christians in their correspondence.

It is therefore this article's conclusion that all three of the Synoptic Gospels were written during the
first century - no earlier than the mid-30s AD and no later than the mid-90s. This conclusion is
affirmed by the vast majority of New Testament scholars.
Our next article will see if we can narrow it down even further.
SOURCES include:

Is the New Testament Reliable? By Paul Barnett

" The Gospel of Luke" according to Wikipedia
" When Was the Gospel of Luke Written?"
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