The general consensus is that Luke wrote the last of the synoptic gospels. I tend to agree with this notion (based on several factors but that is another blog post entirely) and for this reason, I have chosen to use this premise as a good starting point. By establishing when the last synoptic gospel was written we can then set a boundary for when the other two had to have been written. John’s gospel is a whole other can of worms and I will tackle that one later. Please note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive post on dating the Synoptic Gospels but a few good reasons I have for dating them prior to AD 70.
Luke Didn’t Just Write the Gospel
Luke didn’t just write his gospel he also wrote Act’s of the Apostles and maybe a few of Paul’s letters but for the sake of this discussion, let us focus on his gospel and Act’s. Luke wrote his gospel as the first of a two volume history to a man named Theophilus. Luke intended for his writings to confirm what Theophilus had been taught and that he would have an authoritative history of the Christian ministry thus far (Luke 1:3-4). Which leads us to our first clue about when Luke composed his gospel.
The most convincing clue I have found for Luke being written prior to AD 70 (and thus our starting point) has very little to do with Luke’s gospel but more to do with Act’s of the Apostles. Particularly I want to focus on the end of Acts. Acts of the Apostles ends rather abruptly with Paul being imprisoned awaiting trial in Rome, which leads to the question why would Luke end his story at this point? The simplest and to me the obvious answer is because the rest of the story had yet to unfold. Think about it for just a moment. If Luke had written Act’s of the Apostles sometime after AD 80 after he had written his Gospel as most scholars today propose, that means he wrote AFTER both Peter and Paul died glorious deaths as martyrs of the faith at the hands of Emperor Nero. Why would he not include these events in his history of Christianity? What logical reason would he have for leaving out the martyrdoms of the two most important men in Christianity? One of which he was a life long companion of? It just doesn’t make sense. The only logical conclusion is that Luke ended Act’s where he did because he had reached his present day around AD 60. It would then follow that Luke’s Gospel was written prior to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome since it was the first of the two volume set.
Prediction of the Destruction of the Temple
The most common argument I have heard from people that support dating the gospels after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in July/August of AD 70 is that Jesus’ predictions of the destruction of the temple were not actually predictions but details added after the destruction of the temple itself thus putting the composition of the gospels after AD 70. I, however, believe that this line of thinking is flawed. From my research on the subject, there is compelling evidence to actually turn this argument around and use it as a piece of the puzzle to dating the gospels prior to AD 70.
The first thing I would like to look at is the fact nowhere in the gospels is the destruction of the temple looked at as a past event. It would follow that if the temple had been destroyed the authors would make a reference to the event actually taking place. One would expect a line similar to “and so it happened in X year” but no such reference is made.
Secondly, the references to the destruction of the temple that do exist actually would not make sense had they been written AFTER the destruction of the temple. Brant Pitre in his book “The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ”, points out that Mark warns his audience to pray that the destruction of the temple does not occur in the winter (Mark 13:18), while Luke says not to enter into the city when the armies surround it (21:20-21), and Matthew adds to the warning to pray it doesn’t happen on the Sabbath (Matthew 24:20). None of these passages of scripture would make sense if the author was talking about a past event that had already occurred. They would know that the temple was destroyed in the summer and a warning to not enter the city when armies surrounded it would be obvious since it already occurred.
Then When Were They Written?
So now for the 64 million dollar question, when was the synoptic Gospels written? We have good reason to believe that Jesus was crucified in AD 33 so we have a starting point on the range. We also have established a couple of good reasons as to why the Synoptic Gospels could not be composed after AD 70. We also are operating under the assumption that Luke wrote his Synoptic Gospel last and since we know that Luke had to have written his Gospel before AD 62 before the end of Paul’s first imprisonment, we can establish a range of AD 33 to AD 62 for when the Synoptic Gospels were written. Can we narrow it down a little further? Possibly. Here is my (current) best stab at narrowing it down. Since Paul was imprisoned from AD 60 to AD 62 I believe it is likely Luke wrote his gospel during this time frame or maybe slightly before. So I will go with AD 59 to AD 62 for Luke’s Gospel. I believe Luke used Mark and Matthew’s gospel to write his own, Matthew used Mark, and Mark used Peter’s sermons for a primary source for his gospel. With that being said if Mark used Peter as his primary source for his gospel it would have been after he parted ways with Paul and became Peter’s interpreter. It is believed that this event occurred around AD 49. So for Mark, I will assign a range of AD 50 to AD 55 (leaning toward the middle of that range) and AD 56 to AD 59 for Matthew. Of course, someone could find an Aramaic version of Matthew’s Gospel dating from the AD 30’s or AD 40’s and my dates will just fly out the window but I’ll cross that bridge when/if it ever happens.
The next part of this series will focus on the Gospel of John. Stay Tuned and as always feel free to comment or write me with opinions. Even if you disagree with me, it’s good to hear other viewpoints.