When Were the Gospels Written? Digging Deeper for Context
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman
When were the Gospels written? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as straightforward as one might think. The simple answer is, during a period when Christian communities were spread throughout the Roman Empire.
Christians today usually begin their beliefs based on the content of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But interestingly, when the Gospels were written, their content was likely the product, not the source, of early Christianity.
The Gospels were not written as biographies of the life of Jesus but as evangelical narratives intended to inspire belief in the Good News of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, Christianity today tends to mash up all the Gospels by creating a single narrative from the four distinct offerings. Still, when the Gospels were written, they were not published simultaneously but independently of one another, with decades passing between each work.
Therefore, when the Gospels were written, the context of each writer was different.
when were the earliest of the gospels written? Context Matters
Unlike background, context is interactive. The authors lived in a particular time and place, and their circumstances and experiences within that time and place affected the telling of their version of Jesus’ story.
To put it into perspective, our background is fixed, but our context changes as we age and gain experience. Context influences how we think and how we act within our world. This is an important distinction because scholars have been able to cross-reference historical data with the authors’ writings in the Gospels, including their narratives about Jesus.
This helps establish a better frame of when the Gospels were ultimately written and the authors’ potential motives. But first, we must ask why they were writing and to whom their words were intended to reach.
Institutional Christianity produced the ubiquitous denominations and sects of today’s Christianity. But in the ancient world, particularly in the immediate decades following Jesus’ lifetime, no institution or denominations in his name were spreading across eastern Europe. There were, however, various small groups and communities.
Not all, but many Christians today treat the words of the New Testament as divinely transcending the historical context of the Biblical writers. Those who believe the Bible is “God’s infallible Word” often believe the Bible is, therefore, above and beyond reproach and not subject to questioning, let alone scrutiny and correction.
The Final Word of God vs. Historical Context
I encounter some Christians who cannot fathom interpreting the Bible based on the historical context of its writing. Instead, these folks take the totality of “God’s infallible Word” as the final word.
No matter how often the content contradicts itself, how many grammatical errors there are, or how utterly baffling the subject matter is, they are dead set that the New Testament is timeless. Its content is to be taken at face value even though almost no one today lives within the cultural norms Jesus challenged throughout the Gospels.
This is most certainly not my perspective! The way I understand, interpret, and derive meaning from these ancient texts is in alignment with scholars such as:
- Dr. Bart Ehrman
- John Shelby Spong
- Marcus Borg
- Brian McLaren
- Rob Bell
- John Dominic Crossan
- Elaine Pagels
- Amy Jill-Levine
… and many other incredibly learned and insightful historians of the ancient world. Their work provides incredible wisdom about the period from which the New Testament came into being.
The Gospel of Mark & The Return of Jesus
When the Gospel of Mark was written, the year was approximately 70 A.D. At this time, Jesus’ followers are a mix of Jewish and Gentiles.
This is a momentous time for Jews and early Christians. In the year 66, a revolt against Roman rule broke out, and Jewish revolutionaries initially succeeded in taking control of Jerusalem.
But by the year 70, Roman legions re-conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. This was the only place of Jewish sacrifice, thereby beginning a transformation within Judaism. The crushing defeat of the revolt was perhaps the most devastating event in ancient Jewish history. It was rivaled only by the Babylonian temple destruction some six centuries earlier.
The temple’s destruction was central to the historical context of Mark. It’s especially apparent in Mark 13 when discussing the “signs” indicating when “the end” will come and Jesus’ warning that the magnificence of the temple and its vast stones will be cast down.
When the Gospel of Mark was written, the author likely assumed the second coming of Jesus would be soon. It appears Mark’s words are motivated by the events in his midst concerning war and immense loss. His Jesus is rooted in urgency and the hope that the end makes everything new.
THe Gospel of Matthew & Increasing Hostility
The Gospel of Matthew was written a decade or two after Mark, in the 80s or early 90s A.D. The author of Matthew was likely writing during a time of growing hostility and conflict between Christian Jews, non-Christian Jews, and Jews toward the end of the first century.
The loss of Jewish lives during the Roman destruction of the temple decimated the population. “These circumstances naturally led to a greater emphasis on Jewish identity and the social boundaries that maintained that identity and distinguished Jews from non-Jews,” writes Marcus Borg in Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.
Christian Expulsion from the Synagogue
The survival instinct likely kicked into high gear, making Jewish and Gentile Christian interactions intense. In Matthew’s contextual circumstances, “expulsion from the synagogue” was on the table, a severe threat that eventually came to pass. The severing caused irreconcilable differences between Christian Jews, non-Christian Jews, and Jews.
The consequences of this divorce cannot be understated. This was a terrible time for Matthew and his community. While it does not legitimize nor justify the anti-semitic language often found in this Gospel, it does help us understand why it is there.
the Gospel of John, Sadness & Anger
The common consensus of the Gospel of John and its dating is around 90 A.D. An additional layer of mystique to this Gospel is that it seems to have two endings—one at the end of chapter 20 and again in the next chapter.
Regardless of when it became a cohesive narrative, the context of the 90s, when this Gospel hit the presses, is steeped in even deeper resentment toward “the Jews” than Matthew’s Gospel. It is believed this sentiment results from the expulsion above and exclusion from the synagogue.
John, a Jewish Christian, more than once articulates his sadness and anger about this divorce. One is left with the feelings expected from a moody teenager expressing dissatisfaction with his parent’s divorce. An event that would undoubtedly strain every good memory about the previous relationship up to that point.
When Were the Four Gospels Written, Dangerous Words That Require Context
Such language and vitriol toward Jews are dangerous when separated from the historical context. The most compelling piece of evidence supporting John’s anger about “the Jews” (which scholars think ought to be translated as “the Jewish authorities” or “the authorities”) is the healing story of the man born blind from John 9.
The author directly states those believing in Jesus as the Messiah were “put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22). “This verse is significant from a socio-historical perspective. We know there was no official policy against accepting Jesus as Messiah — or anyone else as the Messiah, for that matter — during his lifetime.
On the other hand, some Jewish synagogues did begin to exclude members who believed in Jesus’ Messiahship towards the end of the first century,” writes Dr. Ehrman in his blog.
The Gospel of Luke, 30% of the New Testament
The dating of the Gospel of Luke varies, with some placing it as early as the 80s and 90s and other scholars timestamping it around the year 120 A.D. Popular opinion still leans toward Luke’s Gospel being written a decade or two later than Mark’s.
However, the author of the Gospel of Luke is also the author of the book of Acts. This single work in two volumes complicates matters.
Luke writes more of the New Testament than anyone else. The Gospel of Luke and Acts comprise about 30 percent of the New Testament. Longer than the letters of Paul combined and 80 percent as long as Matthew, Mark, and John combined.
Second-century Christians identify Luke as a companion of Paul in the 50s. This strongly suggests the author was an eyewitness to some of what was narrated in Acts.
The Parting of the Ways Judaism & Christianity
Most modern scholars are skeptical of this dating rationale and place the unknown author’s context several decades later. Following on the heels of the Christian Jews’ expulsion from the synagogue, Luke’s Gospel appears to announce this in the opening scene of Jesus’ public activity in his hometown of Nazareth (4:16-30). The reaction to Jesus’ inclusion of the Gentiles is met with rejection and hostility.
This passage is one of at least a dozen others from the book of Acts which infer opposition from “the Jews” in one way or another.
Such hostility suggests that when Acts was written, “the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity was more than well underway–it had happened. The emphasis upon the rejection of Paul and his mission by “the Jews” suggests that the division into two different religions was occurring. Hence the relatively late date for Acts and thus also for Luke,” concludes Marcus Borg from Evolution of the Word.
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Conclusion: When Were the Gospels Written
When the Gospels were written is inextricably tied to who these authors were and what motivated them to write down the most retold story in the history of the world.
Where they lived, what events were happening in their midst, and how this affected their worldview are all on display for readers to ponder. The Gospels, when read independently, are four unique expressions of Christ and his impact on early Christians.
I believe we are better off letting the historical context inform our interpretation of scripture in our ministry today. We should not give in to the impulse to treat the four as a single volume. Cinematic works such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the multi-season series of the life of Jesus in The Chosen portray this early Palestinian Jewish rabbi as a martyr. While mashing all these works together might be entertaining and tempting, it ignores context.
I may be biased, but taken independently, the distinct differences create endless intrigue.
If the debate of when the Gospels were written captivates you as much as it does me, you are on the right path to unlocking even more knowledge through the work of New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman!
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