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The Early Gospel
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

In my review of the Gospel of Judas, I comment on the problem of authority, because this and other “Gnostic gospels” were written so much later than the writings that came to be accepted for the final “canon” of the New Testament.  I commented that the first “orthodox” Gospel writings date from about mid-1st century.

Another reader replied to my early review of this book on Amazon.Com with the following comment:

"This reviewer is off on his dates of the “gospels.”  John was written around 100 AD, Matthew between 70 AD-100 AD, and Mark between 60 AD-70 AD.  No gospel was written “a few years after Jesus' death.”  No “orthodox” gospel was written by any disciple."

Even the date this correspondent gives for Mark, 60-70 AD, qualifies within my general comment of “mid-1st century.”  He attempts to blur the issue, shifting focus with the irrelevant last sentence of this quote:  No “orthodox” gospel was written by any disciple.”  This is not even related to the topic.

When the texts were compiled is a totally different question from who wrote them.  I never address the question of authorship, only the time when gospel formulations were underway.  It is commonly understood that oral formulations from the time of Jesus were the starting point of what we know as good news writings (“Gospels”).  The whole world was an oral-relational world at that time.  Literacy was about 10%, according to many common sources.  Paul's writings present some components of that early corpus of oral tradition.  It is the general consensus that Paul's two letters to the Thessalonians were the earliest documents in the New Testament.*

I want to expand my thoughts on this to clarify what I had in mind.  This respondent expresses a valid concern and it might be useful to expand what I understand to be the factors in dating the New Testament writings, and the gospels.  Since I am not a specialist in this matter, my comments are very general.  I am stating considerations in the matter that may not have been apparent in my short, somewhat off-hand comment in the review of the Gospel of Judas.

Recent Findings
The dates this reader gives for the composition of the gospels is based on old concepts which have been revised in more recent studies.  Several scholars have written in the last two decades or so proposing earlier dates than previously proposed.  They take into account the recent findings of various disciplines giving us a much better picture of the social, literary and religious life of the peoples of the Roman Empire in the first century AD.

You can easily do a search of works addressing the dates of composition of the Gospels, so I won't go into that here.  It, of course, also depends on what sources you read, and how recently they were formulated.

Studies of the Qumran scrolls have generated numerous books, some of which shed light on the composition and themes of New Testament writings.  I review one that specifically proposes that portions of the New Testament are found in fragments of Qumran documents.  This would date them before AD 70.

Different Views
In reality there are differences of opinion on the time of writing of the Gospels suggested by different scholars.  No one knows who wrote any of the “orthodox” or “apocryphal” gospels or other extensive Christian and Jewish literature on the 1st and 2nd century CE.

My correspondent is right, according to most scholars, that none of the four canonical Gospels were likely written by the authors traditionally attributed to them by early sources, in the early 2nd century (100s CE).  The Gospel writings themselves do not give the name of an author.  So we are left to tradition, however early or late.

Wide Acceptance
This in itself, however, is irrelevant to the point of when they were actually written.  These writings became widely circulated, appearing in virtually all early lists of writings commonly used, and then they were included in the later formal collection of the Church at large.  The fact remains that recent analysis of the texts in their historical context and related studies, including phenomenology of religion, has tended to revise estimated times of writing of the “Four Gospels” to earlier decades of the first century.

The extant “orthodox” Four Gospels of the canon reflect awareness of the writings of Paul (Saul), which are the earliest known written record of teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  This puts the dates of early testimony to Jesus and his era within perhaps 10 to 20 years of the death of Jesus, in the presence of Paul in Jerusalem at the stoning of Stephen and in other associations with Christians in the Empire.  The date of the conversion of Saul (Paul) of Tarsus is uncertain.  Likewise the beginning date of his missionary activity.

Limited Acceptance
In regard to the Gnostic Gospels, the point is that none of these can be attested as being form even the latest date proposed for the canonical Gospels.  This is the point of view from which I expressed my judgement that the Gospel of Judas does not meet the standards that determined the choice of the writings that finally were collected into what we call the New Testament.  The circulation of the Gnostic Gospels was not as wide, and they never gained acceptance in the broader church.  They appear to be limited to a small geographical range or sect related to Christianity.

A Set of Four
By contrast I note that by about 175 AD there had already been at least two editions of a compilation drawing upon all four of the canonical gospels, merging them into one harmonious volume.  In our time this is commonly called a Harmony of the Gospels.  The most popular one and the earliest individually identified such volume is called the Diatessaron, and was compiled or edited by the Christian scholar Tatian.

Scholars have determined that he was drawing upon an even earlier harmony.  This is a clear testimony to the early and wide circulation and acceptance of the four canonical Gospels as authoritative and comparable in authority.  I don't know of any similar focus on the “Gnostic Gospels,” even the earliest.

Paul the Foundation
In regard to how early the written testimonies are, it is often overlooked that the Apostle Paul provides the earliest written attestation to the teachings and ministry of Jesus.

The New Testament book of Acts, which scholars have generally considered written by the author of the Gospel of Luke, reports Cyprus as the first place of outreach by Paul and Barnabas.  This outreach was initiated by the congregation in Antioch, one of the early communities associated with the disciples of Jesus.

Early Outreach
The Church of Cyprus claims the missionary visit by Paul and Barnabas to Barnabas' home land of Cyprus was about 45.  Western scholars put it later, perhaps 60-65.  It is possible Paul's early work in Asia Minor before this time, thought from Paul's own comments to be about three years, resulted in churches.  His actual early letters may have been written by around 50-60 CE, according to some estimates.  It is true that there are disputes of such early dates of writing.  A growing number of recent writings seem to be moving toward earlier dates than suggested a few years ago.

Last Gospel
There is a difference of opinion over whether Matthew or John was the last (canonical) Gospel written.  Traditionally Luke's gospel was thought to be last, due to the prologue making reference to other writings that seem to be what we call Gospels.  It is clear, however, that both Matthew and Luke incorporated major sections of Mark.  But the different geographical and cultural context of the writings leaves uncertain how familiar any one of them was with the other.  And the Gospel traditionally attributed to John appears to known Paul but not the other Gospels.

Matthew may represent a Greek version of an early Aramaic collection of Jesus' teachings and life, referred to by early Christian writes as “The Hebrew Gospel.” It is likely this was a prior informal collection, perhaps one of the common sources Luke and Matthew seem to have used.

There are extensive publications dealing in detail with these questions.  We don't know how early the first written records of Jesus' life and teachings go back.  Scholarship in recent years seems to present growing evidences that favor an earlier date for the writing of the documents we have.
*The following sources in the series Library of Early Christianity address the question of literacy and other social considerations in understanding the society and cultures of the Mediterranean at the time of Jesus:
    Cohen, Shaye, J.D.  From the Maccabees to the Mishnah.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1987.  251p.  on Amazon
    Grant, Robert M.  Gods and the One God.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1986.  on Amazon
    Verbin, John S Kloppenborg.  Excavating Q:  The History and Setting of the Sayings Gospel.  Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2000.  546p.  on Amazon
    Meeks, Wayne A.  The Moral World of the First Christians.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1986.  182p.  on Amazon
    Stambaugh, John E. and David L. Balch.  The New Testament in Its Social Environment.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1986.  204p.  on Amazon

The following source provides excellent detail on the role of “literature” in the oral cultures of antiquity:
    Kelber, Werner H.  The Oral Gospel and the Written Gospel.  Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana University Press, 1997.  254p.  on Amazon

In Paul, Thessalonica, and Early Christianity, Karl P. Donfried provides an excellent analysis of the writings of Paul in light of the state of the Empire and its cultures at that time.  He focuses on Thessalonians, the earliest writings that were incorporated into the collection that came to be known as The New Testament.

Also related:
[review] The Gospel of Judas – Is this Really Good News?
[review] Maturing Dead Sea Scrolls Scholarship
[review] More Oral than We Knew:  The Oral Nature of the Gospels
[review] Thessalonica, Qumran and the Cult of the Emperor

Related on the Internet:
Dating of the Gospels — Wikipedia
The Diatessaron and Early Christian Writings
Dating Early Christian Gospels — Journal of Biblical Studies Gospels, the External Evidence and Dating


Comments first written on Amazon.com discussion 23 April 2007
Revised 15 August 2007
Finalized as an article and posted on Thoughts and Resources 29 August 2007
Revised 30 September 2011
Last edited 31 January 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007, 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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