Does St. Paul Offer Clues About the Dating of the Gospels?

Before trying to assign dates to particular Gospels, it can be helpful to try to identify a broader range of years in which they were composed.

Rembrandt, “Saint Paul in Prison”, 1627
Rembrandt, “Saint Paul in Prison”, 1627 (photo: Public Domain)

Skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman offers a brief look at how many Bible scholars estimate when the Gospels were written.

Let’s talk about that.


The Basic Summary

In the 6th edition of his textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Ehrman has a text box entitled “Establishing the Dates of the Gospels.”

In it, he notes that many scholars estimate the dates of the Gospels as follows:

  • Mark: written around A.D. 70
  • Matthew and Luke: written around A.D. 80-85
  • John: written around A.D. 90-95

These estimates are very popular, and not just among skeptical scholars. Many conservative scholars accept them as well.

My own view is that they are too late by a couple of decades, but Ehrman correctly reports their popularity in the scholarly community.

What’s interesting is that he also offers a brief account of the reasons scholars propose them.


Estimating an Earliest Likely Date

Before trying to assign dates to particular Gospels, it can be helpful to try to identify a broader range of years in which they were composed.

Concerning the earliest the Gospels might have been written, Ehrman writes:

To begin with, none of the Gospels appears to have been known to the apostle Paul, writing in the 50s.

Paul was an extraordinarily well-traveled and well-connected apostle, as we will see, and if anyone would have known about the existence of written accounts of Jesus’ life, it would have been him.

Probably they did not exist yet.

This point is largely fair. Many of Paul’s epistles were written in the 50s, and in those epistles, Paul does not quote from the Gospels.

He does echo a lot of things we find in the Gospels, but that could be due—and likely is due—to his use of oral tradition about Jesus. Without a direct quotation from the Gospels, we can’t show that he was aware of any of them.

He was very well-connected, and he would have been aware of the Gospels quickly after they began to be written, and the fact his epistles from the 50s don’t quote them suggests that they either weren’t in circulation or were only coming into circulation.

This isn’t a conclusive argument, because early Christians like Paul often relied on oral tradition rather than direct quotation from the New Testament, but the fact Paul’s epistles from the 50s never clearly refer to the Gospels is at least suggestive.


Some Exceptions?

I should note that there are some possible exceptions to the above.

First, in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25, Paul quotes Jesus’ words of institution for the Eucharist, and the form of words he uses is the one found in Luke 22:19-20, not the one found in Matthew 26:26-28 or Mark 14:22-24.

1 Corinthians was written around A.D. 53, but this passage probably is not a quotation from Luke’s Gospel.

If anything, it’s likely the reverse. Luke was a travelling companion of Paul (Acts 16:10-17, 20:5-15, 21:1-8, 27:1-28:16; cf. Col. 4:14, 2 Tim. 4:11, Philem. 24), and he would have heard Paul and others in his circle celebrate the Eucharist many times.

When it came time to write his Gospel, he likely used the Pauline version of the words of institution that he was familiar with.


“The Brother Whose Praise Is in the Gospel”

Second, Paul makes a mysterious reference in 2 Corinthians 8:18 to a “brother whose praise is in the gospel” (literal translation).

2 Corinthians was written around A.D. 54-55, and some have interpreted this passage as referring to the author of one of the written Gospels (if so, it would almost certainly be Mark).

However, the passage is ambiguous, and we can’t be confident of this.

In fact, the passage is normally taken as a reference to a brother Christian who was famous for preaching the gospel—not for having written a Gospel (some Bible versions even translate the verse that way).


“The Worker Is Worth His Wages”

Third, 1 Timothy 5:18 states:

[T]he scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 

The first quotation is found in Deuteronomy 25:4 and the second is found in Luke 10:7.

The fact “scripture” is being cited shows that a written document—not oral tradition—is being used, and that suggests the Gospel of Luke was in circulation at the time 1 Timothy was written.

Many authors think that 1 Timothy was actually written by one of Paul’s disciples, sometime after his death around A.D. 67.

But others—myself included—believe Paul wrote it and would place it near the end of his life, perhaps around A.D. 65.

This would suggest that the Gospel of Luke was in circulation in the A.D. 60s, but Ehrman’s point is still fair that Paul’s letters from the 50s don’t contain any clear references to the Gospels.


Estimating a Latest Likely Date

What about the other end of the general timeframe in which the Gospels were written? By what time do we know they were in circulation? Ehrman writes:

On the other hand, early non-canonical authors such as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna (see chapter 28) do seem to know some of the Gospels.

And so some or all of the Gospels were written before these authors produced their letters, around 110-15 CE.

This means that the Gospels probably date to somewhere between 60-115.

Can we be more precise?

Ehrman’s point about Ignatius and Polycarp is correct. I would adjust the timeframe to between 50 and 115, but other than that, I don’t have a problem with his logic to this point.

But as he tries to get more precise, things get more interesting.

That’s what we’ll talk about next time.