The four canonical Gospels are the chief sources we have on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Even apart from the fact that they are divinely inspired, they are reliable historical documents, and we should feel confident using them to gather historical information about Jesus.
The historical reliability of the Gospels is a point of contention between Christians and non-Christians. Because they are our chief sources, if they are demonstrated to be historically unreliable, says the non-Christian, then the Christian’s argument and worldview fall apart. Without the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus, he says, Christianity collapses.
Critics tend to zero in on the dating of the Gospels. If they were written too late after the Resurrection, then they start failing all manner of tests for historical reliability. They won’t have been written by their purported authors, for one, who would have died long before their publication, and then there’s room for all kinds of embellishments, amendments, and outright fabrications to creep in.
So when were the gospels written? It’s a remarkably difficult question to answer, and scholars differ greatly in approaching it. But if you do a simple internet search to find out, you’ll likely “learn” that they were written sometime after the year A.D. 70. In most cases, the assertion will not be explained or defended, but simply taken for granted. And many of the people making it use that year as an attempt to discredit Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Why do so many people say the Gospels had to have been written after A.D. 70? And is this accurate?
There are several reasons. None of them holds water, and each is demonstrably false or, at the very least, not necessarily true. As a matter of fact, once we break these contentions down, we see that there is actually a strong case to be made for the Gospels having been written prior to that date.
First off, some say St. Paul would have referred to the existence of written Gospels in his epistles if such Gospels existed. But this is by no means necessarily the case—Paul was communicating with particular communities about particular matters, including relating some episodes from the life of Christ. He did not mention every disciple who was out there preaching, and he would not necessarily mention written documents out there, even if he knew about them. We also know that the early Church did not see written Gospels as any more important than oral preaching: “so then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
Some also say the Gospels would not have been written while the apostles were still alive, because there would be no need to write it all down while eyewitnesses were still preaching. But this ignores at least two facts: 1) having a written Gospel meant that it could be copied and distributed to communities beyond where the disciples were physically, or left behind with a church they had founded, and 2) we know that the communities that sprang up around the apostles and other disciples of Christ would aid in the composition or compiling of the Gospel accounts (John 21:24: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.”).
In fact, Paul’s own letters tell episodes from the life of Christ (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:17-34), not to mention that he and others wrote documents to teach other Christians, so we know that the apostles and other disciples did not purely depend on word of mouth for preaching.
And then there’s the worst argument of all—the one that sets the year after which the Gospels must have been written. Many, many scholars insist that that year is A.D. 70. Why? Because Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple in the three synoptic Gospels (Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). The implication here is that Jesus could not possibly have actually predicted the destruction of the Temple; rather, the Gospel writers must be writing after the fact and inserting their knowledge of the past event into the narrative.
Maybe some Christians will be ready to find this line of reasoning persuasive, but not so fast. After all, it begs the secularist question, front-loading an implicit denial of the supernatural in order to disprove the supernatural. But if Jesus is God, then of course he would have had the supernatural knowledge to predict the Temple’s destruction. And when you think about it, it’s not as though the gift of prophecy was even necessary to predict that the Temple would be destroyed. So even if you’re willing to give the secular scholar more ground than he’s entitled to, Jesus could just have happened to be right in his prediction. So there’s no ground left to stand on to insist that the Gospels must have been written after the Temple’s destruction.
But there is ground to favor an early dating of the Gospels. As Jimmy Akin has shown, when we sort through the evidence—and, it’s worth adding, when we strip away the biases of modern scholars, who may or may be a little too eager to make a case against Christianity—we can reasonably put the Gospel of John anywhere from A.D. 59 to 65, with Luke bookending him on the early side in 59 and Matthew on the late side in 65. And Mark can precede all of them in 55!
This isn’t to say you must believe in the “early” years for the purposes of dating the Gospels. The point here is that you don’t have to buy the consensus that places them so much later. Indeed, in recent years, the weakness of the late-dating arguments has been increasingly acknowledged, which has led to a reassessment of the whole question. That’s why it is so important to prepare ourselves to critically assess—and especially not to take for granted—any of the assumptions of mainstream scholarship. In many cases, these assumptions are at odds with the Christian faith . . . and even with reason.