I’ve been putting off this post on dating the Gospel of John for a while now but I feel like its time for me to try and tackle this subject. The man reason I have been putting it off is the sheer difficulty I have had in formulating my own opinion on exactly when the Gospel of John was written. On the dating of John’s Gospel, I have had two lines of thought that have been in a fairly even wrestling match in my mind for some time. The first is that John’s Gospel was written BEFORE AD 70 probably in the late AD 60’s around the time of Peters crucifixion and the second is John wrote his Gospel between AD 90 and AD 100 toward the end of his life. The second option is more widely accepted than the first and arguments can be made for both points. I have encountered arguments for an even LATER dating of John’s Gospel but I feel like those arguments are more motivated by sowing discourse within the Christian religion than actual good reasoning. With that being said I would like to present a few good reasons to believe John wrote his Gospel before AD 70.
Jerusalem, The Temple, and Peters Death
In Jimmy Akins book “A Daily Defense” he makes two observations that point to John being composed before AD 70. The first has to do with John 5:2 which states:
“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-za′tha, which has five porticoes.”
Akin correctly points out that Jerusalem was destroyed in the summer of AD 70 but here John clearly makes a reference toward architecture in Jerusalem as if it were still standing at the time of his writing.
The second observation that Akin makes is in John 21:19 which states:
(This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Akin points here to the underlying Greek that suggests a future tense of how Peter would die. This would seem to point to a dating of prior to AD 67 since we know that Peter was crucified upside down during the reign of Nero in AD 67. The argument here is that if John had written after Peter’s death he would have indicated that it was indeed how Peter died and not how he was going to die.
A third point I would like to introduce that falls in line with Jimmy’s observations is that at no point in John’s Gospel does he make reference to Jerusalems destruction and the destruction of the temple in the summer of AD 70. In fact, as we can see from Jimmy’s first observation John actually goes the other direction and indicates that the destruction of Jerusalem has not yet taken place. John A.T. Robinson points to another piece of evidence toward this argument in his book “Redating the New Testament”. Robinson quotes John 11:48-52 which states:
48 If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Ca′iaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; 50 you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
There are two key points to be made in these verses. First, we see that they are clearly worried about the Roman’s destroying Jerusalem if Jesus is allowed to continue and build support which is what eventually happened despite Jesus being crucified. Second, Caiaphas prophecy about Jesus is very significant and Robinson puts it best:
“It is not that the temple and nation would be swept away but that Jesus should die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed”.
The key to Robinson’s point is “rather than”. If John wrote after the destruction of the temple in AD 70 it would have changed the entire complexion of this passage. Instead of one man dying rather than the destruction of the whole nation it would have been he died and it was still destroyed.
One final point I want to make toward the destruction of Jerusalem being absent from John’s gospel. We have a strong tradition from the early church fathers that John wrote his gospel last of the four gospels. It is hard to make a convincing case that John wrote before Matthew, Mark, or Luke. With that being said it is a common theory that John wrote his gospel with the knowledge of what had already been recorded in the previous three gospels. The theory goes that since books (or scrolls in this case) were fairly limited to how much material could be put in them, John saw fit to tell aspects and stories of Jesus life that the other’s did not record for whatever reason. John even makes reference that he could not fit all of what Jesus did into his gospel. Thus we see such a divergence from the other gospels in the sense of what stories John chose to include in his gospel about Jesus. The significance of this theory is that John chose NOT to include several accounts of Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple. The destruction of the temple and the Jewish revolt would have been the biggest news in that period of the Jewish world and across the Roman empire. John being an eyewitness to Jesus prediction and its eventual completion would have made a HUGE oversight not to include such a prophecy that came true about a catastrophic event in a document that’s purpose was to convince an audience that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Let me use an example of modern day to illustrate my point better. If in 1990 I had claimed to be a prophet and predicted the tragic events of 9/11 and you were telling someone today that I was a true prophet wouldn’t you include the story of how I predicted probably the biggest event in our lifetime? Of course! Because it would be pretty hard evidence that I was indeed a true prophet! John knew this as well as anyone and even goes out of his way in his gospel to establish the fact that Jesus is God (John Chapter 1). It would then follow that the only reason John would leave out such concrete evidence is that the prophecy had NOT come true yet and thus could not be pointed to as evidence to the outside observer.
The absence of any indication of the destruction of the temple being a past event is a HUGE hole in the argument for a post AD 70 composition of John’s Gospel (that goes for the other gospels as well) and it demands explanation before we can move on to any argument for a post AD 70 composition.
Ok, So Why Is This Important?
It’s important to establish when John wrote his Gospel because skeptics point to how much time passed between Jesus life and the writing down of the gospels as a way of saying the Gospels are not a reliable source. Some skeptics will argue that John’s Gospel was written as late as the second century and make the claim that such a late writing could not have been written by an eyewitness or anyone that could substantiate the story would be alive at the time of the writing since so much time had passed.
So When Did John Write his Gospel?
If I was held down and forced to guess the exact year or give a range of when I thought John composed his Gospel I would say the latter half of AD 60’s. Just to cover all my bases I would put the range between AD 65 and AD 70. That range would put John’s Gospel only 32 years after the death of Jesus, well within the lifetime of John the Apostle and well within the lifetime of many of the witnesses of Jesus. Making John’s testament a very reliable source since many of the witnesses John mentions in his gospel would likely still be alive to collaborate his story.
Timeline of the Gospels
Here is my best guess for the timeline of all 4 gospels. This is subject to change as mentioned in my previous blog post about the syntopic gospels. The Mark vs Matthew debate could potentially throw a cog in my view.
Mark (AD 50 to AD 55)
Matthew (AD 56 to AD 59)
Luke (AD 59 to AD 62)
John (AD 65 to AD 70)
Want to Learn More?
Here are a few of the sources I have used in my research of this topic:
And a short post I wrote about dating the Synoptic Gospels