The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

Dating of the Synoptics

We have managed to come up with a rough order of the writing of the Synoptics: the gospel of Mark came first followed by Matthew and Luke, both of whom extensively used the material and the order of Mark. The quest now is to come up with some sort of rough estimate of the actual period of composition of these gospels. It is a pity that the gospels did not come with the date of its writing as modern books do. Without that we will have to make use of internal evidence within the books themselves to supply us with an approximate date.

The evidence shows that:

  • Mark was written after 70CE but before105CE.
  • Matthew was written after 90CE.
  • Luke was written after 95CE.


Let us start first with the gospel of Mark. We know Papias spoke about the gospel of Mark and its origin around 130 CE. This is the earliest direct historical reference to this gospel. Thus 130 CE sets the upper limit for Mark's date of composition.

The question now lies on the other end. What is the earliest possible time for the composition of that gospel? As the gospel contains account of the death of Jesus it obviously must be written after that. So our first approximation tells us that Mark was written sometime between 30 to 130 CE. Of this we can be certain. But a hundred year span as a possible time of composition is quite unsatisfactory.

As it turns out we can narrow down the span further. We have also quoted earlier Ireneaus, who around 180CE, told us that Mark wrote the gospel in Rome after the "departure" of Peter and Paul. Christian tradition held that Peter and Paul were in Rome together and both perished there during the Neronian persecution of Christians around 64 to 67 CE. [1] Thus the word "departure" is generally taken to mean the death of the two apostles. This would make the earliest date for the composition of Mark around 64 CE. Our span is getting narrower, the probable date of composition is now between 64 to 130 CE. In fact some scholars date the composition of Mark to around 65 CE, [2] assuming that Mark started work on his gospel immediately after Peter's death and that it took him a few months to complete the gospel. [3] 65 CE can be considered the "best case" scenario for Christians who prefer an early a date as possible for the gospel composition. (There are however some theologians who suggested even earlier dates! However their arguments do not hold water.)

However, we have noted earlier that the tradition of Mark's connection with Peter is dubious. There is actually some more evidence that favours an even later date than 65CE. First let us take a look at a passage from Mark.

Mark 13:1-2
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!" And Jesus said to him, "Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down."

The saying put into the mouth of Jesus by Mark [a] obviously refers to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. We know that the Jerusalem temple and, in fact, the whole city, was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE. If we take this utterance as a prophecy after the fact, this points to a date of composition of Mark after the fall of Jerusalem. [b] Taken singularly, it is not impossible that Jesus could have made this prediction about Jerusalem's fall [c], or even that Mark could have faithfully recorded Jesus' prediction before the event. The balance of probability, however, is clearly on the side of the skeptic. Which is more likely: that a devout (perhaps overzealous) redactor added prophecies after the event in his writings to enhance the status his spiritual master or that an obscure Galilean prophet actually predicted the destruction of Jerusalem?

There is another passage in Mark which, I believe, clinch the case for a post CE70 date of composition for this gospel. Given below is the passage:

Mark 12:1-9
He then began to speak to them in Parables: "A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. At harvest time he sent a servant to the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He still sent another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some they beat, others they killed. He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, "They will respect my son." But the tenants said to one another, "This is the heir. Come, lets kill him, and the inheritance will be ours." So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.

As this parable stands it makes very little sense. For example why would the owner keep risking his servants lives when previous ones which he sent had been either beaten or killed? Why would he risked the life of his son, given that so many of his servants were already killed? And why don't the tenants realize that they would still have to deal with the father after murdering his son? Clearly the parable, in its present from is an allegory. Every character is made to represent something else. Only when this allegorical correspondence is understood can the parable be deciphered. [4]

As D.E. Nineham noted, the parables of the Old Testament, the Jewish Rabbis and of Jewish culture in general including during the time of Jesus, were rarely, if ever in the form of allegories. The Jewish parable, or mashal, is a story which, unlike the above, is entirely self consistent and life like. There is no item by item correspondence between the events depicted and the "external" world. The story as a whole has a message to teach.

An example of the Jewish mashal is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-35). Here the parable is about a person who was robbed, and left for dead, on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest, and later a Levite, passed by and ignored him. However a Samaritan, someone who was not usually considered a friend by Jews, came pass and helped him. The question of the parable is then, who is the neighbor to the man?

Note that the parable above teaches that a man is a "neighbor" not due to his proximity to another but due to his actions. Note the story itself is self consistent and life like. Even without its final message, it makes sense. The people and events in the story did not stand for anything else: the robbers are robbers, the victim is the victim and the Samaritan is a Samaritan. It is this type of parable that is the exclusive norm during the time of Jesus. [5]

Now if we are to turn our attention back to the parable in Mark we can obviously see that it is of a different genre. Its meaning is made clear only if the correspondence of the people and events to the external world in the story are made clear. Thus it is obvious that the owner of the vineyard represents God, the tenants are the Jews, the servants are the prophets sent by God to the Jews and , transparently, the son refers to Jesus. The parable tells us that the Jews killed Jesus just like the way they rejected the earlier prophets. The killing of the tenants can only mean the destruction of Jerusalem. The renting of the vineyards to others can only mean the preaching of the good news to the Gentiles. [6]

Thus taking into consideration the form of the parable which makes it unlikely to have come from the historical Jesus, this allegory was written, or at least reached its final form, after the fall of Jerusalem. We now have shown two passages that dates the writing of Mark to after 70 CE. [7] Based on the singular evidence of Mark we can say with some certainty that it was written between 70 CEand 130CE. The upper limit here is actually too high. We will return to this after we look at the other two synoptic gospels.

Back to the top


The earliest historical reference (albeit indirect) to the gospel of Matthew is contained in the epistles of Ignatius (c37 to c110), Bishop of Antioch. We do not know much about Ignatius. We know that around 110CE he was taken under heavy guard from Syria to Rome where he was fed to wild animals in the Colosseum. We also know that along his way to Rome, he wrote at least seven letters to the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna and to Polycarp (c69-155), Bishop of Smyrna. In his letters we find references to the Star of Bethlehem and several sayings of Jesus that are to be found only in the gospel of Matthew (12:33; 15:13; 19:12). This is generally taken to mean that Ignatius had access to the gospel of Matthew; although there is no excluding the possibility that he had access to a tradition parallel to the one Matthew used. The former assumption, however, is more likely and we can conclude with some certainty that Matthew was written before 110CE. This date sets the upper limit for Matthew's composition. [8]

We also have in Matthew reference's to the fall of Jerusalem. One is a direct copy from Mark (Mark 13:12 = Matthew 24:1-2) about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Another direct copy is the Parable of the vineyard tenants which we saw above (Mark 12:1-9 = Matthew 21:33-41)

Another clear cut reference to the fall of Jerusalem is in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet:

Matthew 22:1-10
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who have been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, "Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet. "But they paid no attention and went off-one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to the servants, "Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find." So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Again this parable is in the form of an allegory. It makes no sense in itself. why would the invited guests have to kill the servants who were only asking them to attend a banquet? And why would the king burn the city of the invited guests just because they won't attend his wedding banquet. The allegory can only be understood when the reader knows what the figures in it stand for. The similarity with the Parable of the Vineyard Tenants could hardly be accidental. Matthew even placed both these parables one after another in his gospel. The meaning is the same. The king is God who had invited some selected guests, the Jews, to a wedding banquet. The rejection of the King's invitation resulted in the destruction of the city of the guests. This is another obvious allusion to the fall of Jerusalem: the Jews rejected Jesus and the destruction of the city was just punishment from God. The opening of the invitation to the other people obviously referred to the Gentiles who accepted Jesus' teaching. [9] Thus these passages show that Matthew too was written after 70CE. This is, of course, consistent with our earlier finding about the primacy of Mark; if Mark was written after 70CE, Matthew must be written after that as well.

In fact there are actually further internal evidence that Matthew much later than 70CE. Matthew's gospel contains some markedly anti-Jewish remarks. And it is worth noticing that the author refers to the Jewish place of worship as "their synagogues" (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 10:17; 12:9; 13:54) as though he wants to distinguish Jewish synagogues from the Christian places of worship. We know that the early Jewish Christians used the synagogue as their center of worship. They were only excluded around CE90 when the Jews inserted a "test clause" in their prayers. This strongly suggests that Matthew was written after Christians no longer used the synagogue as their place of worship, i.e. after 90CE. We have narrowed down the period of composition of Matthew to around 90 to 110CE. [10]

Back to the top


The gospel of Luke is also a post CE70 work. The earliest historical reference to Luke was by the heretic Marcion in 140CE who championed this gospel, albeit in an altered form. Thus the upper limit of Luke's composition is 140CE. There is, of course, references to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple copied from Mark (Mark 13:1-2 = Luke 21:5-7). Luke also modified an apocalyptic saying of Jesus, given in Mark chapter 13, to make the "prediction" of Jerusalem destruction more explicit. Let us look at two passages in Luke:

Luke 21:20-21,23-24
"But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it; ...For great distress shall be upon the earth and wrath upon this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. "

Luke 19:43-44
"For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you..."

As Kummel pointed out [11], these had to be formulated after the event of Jerusalem's destruction. Note the details which correspond exactly with contemporary accounts of the action of Titus on Jerusalem. We have the seige of Jerusalem ("when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies") the destruction of the city by the Romans ("Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles"), the slaughter of innumerable Jews ("they will fall by the edge of the sword"), the capture of many Jews ("taken away as captives among all nations") and the complete destruction of the city ("they will not leave you one stone upon another"). That Luke was written after 70 CE must be regarded as certain.

The fact that Luke was not mentioned by Papias (who talked only about Mark and Matthew) strongly suggests that Luke must be of a later composition than Matthew. We have further evidence to support this.

The evidence relates to the relationship between the writings of Josephus and the gospel of Luke. The evidence is strong that Luke used Josephus' major works as one of his sources for the secular history of Palestine during the time of Jesus and the apostles.

Now, we know that Josephus completed The Jewish War in 77 CE, Antiquities of the Jews in 93 CE and The Life of Flavius Josephus around 95 CE. [12] Thus Luke (and Acts) must have been written, or completed, after these books have been published. This means that Luke's works (the gospel and the book of Acts) were written after this time.

Other lines of evidence also converges upon the last decade of the first century as the earliest time possible for Luke to have been written.

  • There is no attestation of Luke in any extant writings until the mid second century CE. As mentioned above, Marcion, was the earliest attestation circa 140CE. The other early writings which featured quotations from Luke appeared in the works of Justin Martyr (c155CE) and the pious forgery, II Clement (before 170CE, but most likely between 120-140 CE). Helmut Koester, Professor of NT at Harvard Divinity School, dates Luke to the first decade of the second century due to this evidence.[13]

  • As many scholars have noted, internally, Luke's theological viewpoints fits that of a Christian who is at least two to three generations removed from the apostles. Due to this, Udo Schnelle, Professor of NT in the Theological Faculty at Halle in Wittenberg, dates the gospel of Luke to circa 90 CE.[14]

Thus the probable date of composition of Luke is between 95 to 140CE.

Back to the top

Summary of the Results

Turning back to Mark, its upper limit of 130CE should now be modified based on what we found the dating of the other gospel to be. If both Luke and Matthew composed their gospels independently, as was probably the case, the fact that they both used Mark must imply that this gospel must have been in circulation for some time. But how for how long. We don't know. But let us say that it takes at least five years for the gospel to be circulated before it first come into the notice of Matthew. Thus the latest possible date for Mark's composition would be around 105CE. Let us now list the date of composition of the synoptics which the evidence reveal:

: 70-105CE
: 90-110CE
: 95-140CE

Back to the top


a.For the devout lay Christian this will sound very strange, if not downright sacrilegious. Yes, I am saying that some utterances quoted as coming from the mouth of Jesus did not originally come from him. This is not merely an assumption on my part but a proven fact. As an example look at the statement by Jesus about divorce (Mark 10:11-12). I have used that to show that Mark could not have been knowledgeable about the Jewish law on divorce. Obviously the historical Jesus would not have committed that mistake. The statement in that passage on divorce, at least in the form as it appears in Mark's gospel could not have come from the historical Jesus.
b.I believe another explanation will be in order here. "Surely", the devout lay Christian will protest, "if Jesus was truly God he would have foreseen the destruction of the Temple and he would have been able quite easily to predict it 40 years before the fact." My reply to such a statement is simple. We have already noted that the Bible with its mistakes, contradictions and dubious claims of authorship cannot be separated from any other ancient document. Suppose that we are here discussing an ancient document from a long defunct religion, any form of prophecy it makes regarding events that we know actually happen would immediately be interpreted as predictions that were written down after the event had occurred and would correspondingly be used to date that document. If we are to study the Bible critically using accepted methods of documentary research, we must be allowed to make tentative conclusions of the sort we would have made on any other documents.
c.Predicting Jerusalem's ruin is an extremely popular pastime among the Old Testament prophets. See, for instance, Micah 3:12 and Jeremiah 26:18

Back to the top


1.Eusebius, The History of the Church: 2:25
2.Don Cuppitt & Peter Armstrong, Who Was Jesus?, BBC , London 1977: p41
3.Nineham, Saint Mark: p41
4.Ibid: p309
5.Ibid: p125-133, 309
6.Ibid: p309
7.Wells, Historical Evidence for Jesus: p107
8.Eusebius, The History of the Church: 2:34-36
9.Fenton, Saint Matthew: p11, 347
10.Ibid: p11
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p71
11.Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament: p150
12.Mason, Josephus and the New Testament: p58,73,84
13.Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: p334-335
14.Schnelle, The New Testament Writings: p243.

Back to the top

[Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
© Paul N. Tobin 2000

For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin