When Were the Synoptic Gospels Written?

The modern student of the New Testament is presented with a wide variety of possibilities for dating the various books of the New Testament. The dates provided by scholars appear in textbooks and dictionaries as though they are based on concrete historical information; however, most readers of the New Testament would be surprised to learn how little is actually known about when the books of the New Testament were written.

Dating any text from antiquity should proceed from physical to literary evidence, with preference being given to such historical factors as location of the manuscript find, time needed for a text to circulate, and number of manuscripts found.

Surprisingly, one of the texts typically assigned the latest date in the New Testament-the Gospel of John-is the first physically attested book. The earliest fragment of the Gospel of John can be dated to A.D. 125 and was found in Egypt, indicating that the original text must have been written before that date. Therefore, we can conclude that the Gospel of John must have been written between the resurrection of Jesus around A.D. 30 and A.D. 125; for all other books of the New Testament, this time span is considerably greater.

Because no precise historical evidence exists that would date the books of the New Testament, scholars turn primarily to literary considerations for dating purposes. If, for example, an early church writer quoted from a book of the New Testament and if that author could be dated definitively, then a comparative date could be assigned to the text he is quoting.

The earliest quotations from the New Testament come from an epistle written by Clement of Rome (1 Clement) that quotes from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and several Pauline epistles, including Hebrews. This letter can be dated quite accurately to A.D. 95-96. Therefore, for several books of the New Testament, we can argue that they must have been composed before the last decade of the first century and also circulated as far west as Rome.

Internal quotations, those by one New Testament author of another, also provide important clues. Matthew and Luke quote the Gospel of Mark (Mark 12:1-12 was quoted and altered to reflect Jesus’ death outside the walls in Matthew 21:33-39 and Luke 20:9-15), and 2 Peter quotes the epistle of Jude (portions of Jude 1:6-13 are quoted in 2 Peter 2:1-22). This information can then be used to date the Gospels and epistles comparatively; Mark must precede Matthew and Luke, and Jude must have been written before Peter.

A second internal consideration is whether the text makes any reference to a historical event, person, or group. For example, Acts places Paul in Corinth when Gallio (A.D. 51-52) was governor (Acts 18:12); 1 John makes reference to a datable heresy called Docetism (c. A.D. 90); and Luke places the birth of Jesus Christ at the time of the census of Quirinus “Cyrenius” (Luke 2:2). 

Dating an event in the text provides a date after which the text must have been composed, typically referred to by scholars as the terminus ante quam—the point before which a text must have been written—and the terminus post quam—the point after which a text must have been written. Therefore, some scholars conclude that 1 John must be dated after A.D. 90 because of an internal historical reference.