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How to date the Gospels?

  • November 25, 2019
  • By Ben van Noort
How to date the Gospels?

What do we know about the origins of the Gospels? Where and when did they come into being?

Where and When, Traditionally

It is generally supposed that the Gospels are local books. That means they originate from different places without necessarily connections between them (e.g. Galilee, Jerusalem, Antioch in Syria, Rome or other places).
Also one takes it that they are from different times, mostly between 70-90 AD, or earlier between 45-70 AD, and generally each researcher comes to a different year of origin. So there is no consensus, only estimates.

Most interesting is that the Documentation theory brings a total new view on these matters. There are specific biblical points that have been overlooked for ages. Let’ s take the biblical indications into consideration.

Hebrews 9:16-17

“16 For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.
17 For a testament is of force after men are dead : otherwise it is of no strength at all, while the testator liveth.”
(KJV etc., cursives mine)

After a rather long exposition about the new covenant, the author finishes in v. 15 with the result of it: eternal inheritance. This inheritance is a gift by the testator immediately after his death (v. 16-17).
(To avoid misunderstandings: Eternal life is not only later on in heaven. No, it starts here on earth for the believer, who has accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. John 1:12)

A Force-ful Testament

After speaking about eternal inheritance, the author gives two short statements to show that the foundation of the inheritance is a serious testament (v. 16-17).

  • There is a testament (document) of that inheritance.
  • There is also the death of the testator.

Two elements are absolutely necessary for the inheritance to be at work: (1) the death of a testator (Jesus), and (2) a document (testament) that becomes active after the death of the testator, as he cannot change anymore his will. This testament of the new covenant is the collection of Jesus’s teachings. This is also clear from Hebrews 2:3-4 (own translation):
3How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation that from the beginning was spoken by the Lord, was established by those who heard,
4while God also gave his testimony of signs and wonders, etc.”

The reports of the professionals that followed Jesus contained his teachings. And with their reports they arranged the Gospels, his testament.   In Hebrews 2:1 we are encouraged to take this testament seriously:
1Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.”

The intention of the author is: Don’t miss your testament. Let nobody take from you, what is yours.

Origin and Dating of the Gospels

What about the origins and the dating of the Gospels? Well, forget the yards of theological books that has been written the last 200 hundred years about the subject. They are only nice attempts. Of course the Gospels are not local books emerged somewhere and somehow in the long stream of the oral tradition, as theologians generally suppose. 

These books together form the testament of the great Christian family that emerged after Pentecost. Everybody in that family has a written right, since the death of Jesus Christ. In Jerusalem, the Gospels have been published by the apostles in the first year of their preaching (ca. 30 AD). They are not the reflection of the apostolic preaching. It is just the other way round, the Gospels formed the sources for the apostolic preaching (1 Timothy 6:3). Maybe in the beginning of their work, they only used copies of reports, but as soon as possible books with the reports about the Life of Jesus were necessary.

Publishers of the Gospels

The apostles published the Gospels right in the form of the different reports that had come into being, during Jesus’s ministry. Reports for dedicated disciples came into the Gospel of Matthew; reports about Jesus’s visits to Jerusalem came into the Gospel of John; reports for interested followers of Jesus came into the Gospel of Luke; and remnant reports came into the Gospel of Mark.

These men knew each other. John and Matthew were two of the twelve disciples of Jesus. Luke was one of the bystanders of the Jesus events (Luke 1:1), and Mark was certainly John, called Marc, the cousin of Barnabas (Acts 12:12, 13:5).

New Testament Evidence

Instead of books in which everything can be called into question, due to a so called oral tradition, we possess Gospels in which nothing is dubious, due to documentation. Theologians usually have doubts concerning the Gospels, as their belief in the oral tradition feeds their spiritual unbelief collectively and constantly. Nevertheless the promise of Eternal Life and the encounter with the Living Messiah is in every word of the Gospels. Why? A new covenant has necessarily a new document (testament). The Gospels form the Testament of Jesus, as we have seen. It is the written last will of Jesus, and it is unchangeable.

By Ben van Noort, November 25, 2019