How Long Did the Gospels Take to "Spread"?

A couple of centuries ago it was becoming fashionable to date the gospels and other works of the New Testament very late, such as to the second half of the second century, more than a hundred years after the events they record.

This was due to an extreme skepticism regarding their reliability, coupled with various forms of flawed methodology.

As time has progressed, scholarship has pushed back the dates of the New Testament documents earlier and earlier, to the point that now almost all biblical scholars date them to the first century, with one or two possible exceptions (e.g., 2 Peter).

Some scholars, such as John A. T. Robinson date them to before A.D. 70—a view that I am inclined toward, personally.

Dates later in the first century, though, are still common. For example, it is common to date the Gospel of John to the A.D. 90s. This is quite a bit earlier than the older, more skeptical dating.

One of the things that pushed the dating back was the discovery of a small parchment fragment that is commonly called “the Rylands Papyrus” (pictured). It contains material from John 18, and based on the scribal penmanship it is written with, paleographers (experts in old writing) date it to the first half of the second century. More specifically, the penmanship the Rylands Papyrus uses most closely conforms to the styles that were in use during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138).

If we have a physical copy of part of the Gospel of John that dates to the first half of the second century then obviously it couldn’t have been written with one of the extravagantly late dates that used to be proposed for it.

But how early was it written?

One sometimes encounters an argument in this regard that I find particularly lame.

The idea is that the probable composition of the document was some years earlier because it took time for the work to “spread” to Egypt, where the papyrus fragment was discovered.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to see arguments for an early dating for John. In fact, I personally think it likely dates to between A.D. 64 and A.D. 70, but the “spread” argument is lame.

Why is that?

The Gospel of John is, obviously, attributed to an author named John, and it has been from the earliest records of it we have. There is some question about who this John was. Most have attributed it to St. John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee and the brother of James. However, there is an alternative view that links it to a different disciple of Jesus, not one of the Twelve, who was known as John the Elder or John the Presbyter. (Note: Pope Benedict links the Gospel of John with John the Elder in his book Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1.)

Whichever John is behind the gospel, there is a strong tradition linking the gospel and its author with the Roman province of Asia, which is in modern Turkey. Specifically: There is a tradition linking it with Ephesus, which is on the coast of Turkey, near the modern port of Kusadasi.

If the gospel was written at Ephesus, as many think likely, then it was composed at a port city on the northern coast near the east end of the Mediterranean Sea.

How might it get to Egypt?

The first large Christian community in Egypt was at Alexandria, which is a port city on the southern coast near the east end of the Mediterranean Sea.

Is it really hard to connect these dots?

All you have to do is sail down through the Greek islands and cross the Mediterranean, north-to-south (the short way). This is a journey of less than 500 miles, and at the time it took only 4-5 days by ship under favorable conditions.

In the first century there were well-established trade routes all over this part of the Mediterranean, with Ephesus and Alexandria both being major trade centers. So there were ships sailing in and out of the cities all the time.

They may not have had the Internet in the first century, but they did have the newly-built network of Roman roads, which allowed rapid over-land transportation as well. The Emperors were able to send and receive messages for and from distant parts of the empire and have them delivered in days.

Ordinary people used slaves or associated who were traveling to the desired locations and, though the process was slower in their case, they typically had their messages delivered in only a matter of days or weeks.

The idea that it would have taken years from an important Christian document to spread from one part of the eastern empire to another is just crazy.

We have rather striking proof of this in the New Testament itself: Paul’s letters.

When St. Paul wrote a letter from one community (say, Ephesus or Corinth) to another (say, Corinth or Rome), he would send it off and expect it to be received and read not in a period of years but of days or weeks.

The early Christians thus had the kind of communications infrastructure available to them to transport any document they wanted across the empire in a very short space of time. As St. Paul’s letters show, they could and did make use of this infrastructure.

The only question is: Would they want to in the case of a particular document?

One might argue that in the case of a letter written to a specific person or church, that this might indeed “spread” slowly through the Christian community. If it was addressed to a specific recipient, there might be only one copy of it, and it would be up to the recipient to decide whether to copy it further. It might then take time to spread broadly among Christians.

There is merit to this argument, as we have mentions in the writings of St. Paul of letters he wrote that at least appear to be lost (though there is some controversy about that). These could represent letters whose recipients either didn’t have them copied or didn’t have them copied widely enough that they became part of the canon.

On the other hand, there is also evidence in Paul’s epistles that he expected them—or some of them—to be read more broadly. For example, he tells the Colossians to get a copy of the letter he sent to the Laodiceans (a neighboring city with a Christian community) and to send the Laodiceans a copy of the letter he sent to them.

Whatever may have been the expectations for how broadly a Pauline letter was to be published, it can scarcely be imagined that a work like a gospel would be intended only for private use.

No disciple in the first century would have gone to the effort of writing a biography of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and intended for there to be only one copy of it. Such documents were too important, and they were clearly destined for public use in the churches. This is true even of St. Luke’s gospel, which appears to be dedicated to a single individual (who he calls Theophilus, though this may be a pseudonym to protect the dedicatee’s identity).

St. John’s gospel, in particular, is clearly intended for public use, with its passages stressing that it was composed so that the readers might believe based on the testimony of the eyewitness author.

One could suppose it would take years for a gospel to spread only if it were viewed as a private document intended by the author to only have a single copy or if it were viewed as an unimportant document that first century Christians wouldn’t care that much about and would take their time copying and circulating.

Neither of these is the case with a gospel.

Most likely, as soon as an evangelist finished a gospel, he would take it to a scribal service (the ancient equivalent of Kinko’s) and have multiple copies made. These would then be given to key individuals in the local church and sent to neighboring churches.

(In fact, it may be due to an accident at the scribal service that explains why the original ending of Mark’s gospel appears to be missing; only an accident with a very early edition could explain the omission if there was originally a longer ending.)

For something as important as a gospel, the recipients would almost certainly start making and distributing their own copies with zeal, and it is wholly unwarranted to suppose a period of years for a gospel to spread throughout the empire.

Sure, it could have taken years to get to some places, but jumping from one major Christian community (like Ephesus) to another (like Alexandria) could have been accomplished in mere days or weeks.