Dates of the Synoptic Gospels

Luke’s Gospel: There is strong internal evidence that Luke had written and was distributing copies of his gospel prior to 56 a.d.  This is the approximate date Paul wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia during his third missionary journey.  In it Paul wrote that Titus, who had just returned from Corinth with comforting news to the apostle (2Co 7:6) was returning there again, “and we have sent with him the (or “his”, as the Greek may also be translated; cf. 2Co 12:18) brother whose fame in the things of the gospel has spread through all the churches” (2Co 8:18).  That Paul by this statement was referring to Luke, who may well have been the brother of Titus, is probable for the following reasons:

  1. From the “we” section of Acts 16:8-17, which ends in 16:40, it is clear from Luke’s record that he joined Paul in Troas during his 2nd missionary journey around 50-51 a.d.  He then traveled with him to Philippi in Macedonia but did not continue on with him to Thessalonica, Berea, and Corinth.  It was in Troas that Paul had so confidently expected to find Titus after leaving Ephesus on his 3rd missionary journey (2Co 2:12-13) before continuing on to Macedonia where he did find him (2Co 7:5-6).  When the “we” section of Acts resumes in Acts 20:5-6 it is again in Philippi and Luke is accompanying Paul to Troas where they stayed a week and were clearly known to the people there.  This indicates a close association between Luke, Titus, Macedonia, and Troas.
  2. Paul wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia to prepare the Corinthian church for his soon arrival and assuage a strained relationship that had developed at a most inopportune time.  Because of the increasing hostility against Christ’s followers by the Jews as the gospel spread more and more to the Gentiles, Paul was taking up a collection from the Gentile churches to deliver to the poor saints in Judea as a demonstration of the sincerity of their faith (Rom 15:25-26, 1Co 16:1, 2Co 8-9).  At this same time, factious elements in the Corinthian church were pitting various “super-apostles” (2Co 11:5, 12:11) against Paul whom some viewed as “unskilled in speech” (2Co 10:10, 11:6).  Thus the evidence Paul had planned to present to the Jewish nation of the veracity of the gospel he preached to the Gentiles was in danger of unraveling.  It was for this reason that he sent along with Titus “the (or his[1]) brother whose fame in the things of the gospel has spread through all the churches,” indicating that he was a “heavyweight” of considerable importance whom they would respect and who would benefit Paul’s cause.
  3. Paul’s statement in 2Co 8:18 makes perfect sense in referring to Luke if Luke had in fact written his gospel and distributed copies of it to the churches: his praise or fame in the things of the gospel would have spread through all the churches.  On the other hand, if it doesn’t refer to Luke it is hard to imagine to whom it would refer, and yet it was clearly someone well-known among the churches Paul had planted.
  4. Paul continues about this brother that “not only this, but he has also been appointed by the churches to travel with us in this gracious work” (2Co 8:19), and from the “we” section of Acts it is clear that Luke did accompany Paul as he returned from his third missionary journey and traveled to Jerusalem with the “contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” taken up from those in “Macedonia and Achaia” (Rom 15:26; cf. Acts 20:5-6,13, 21:1,7,15,17, 24:17).
  5. Notice also in Acts 20:4 that Luke enumerates those who besides himself accompanied Paul to deliver the gift from the Gentile churches: Sopater representing the church in Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus representing the Thessalonians, Gaius and Timothy of Derbe representing the churches of Galatia, and Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia representing the churches around Ephesus where Paul had just ministered for three years.  Of these who accompanied Paul, Luke best fits the description of “the brother whose fame in the gospel has spread through all the churches”.  (Timothy was well known among the churches Paul had planted as his helper, but it is clear the brother referred to is distinct from Timothy, who is named in 2Co 1:1 & 19, and who would not have carried “heavyweight” status with the Corinthians as is clear from 1Co 16:10.)  Observe also that no representative of the Philippian church, one of Paul’s most faithful supporters (cf. Phil4:15-16), is listed in Acts 20:4.  And yet Paul, who was most likely writing 2 Corinthians from Philippi, speaks of him whom he was sending to the Corinthians as having “been appointed by the churches to travel with us”.  Since Luke did not enumerate himself in this list but did in fact travel with Paul, it is almost certain that he did so as a representative of the Philippian church and is who Paul refers to in 2Co 8:18-19.
  6. The book of Acts ends abruptly with Paul under house arrest during his first Roman imprisonment (Acts 28:30).  Since Luke is known to have been with Paul several years later during his second Roman imprisonment (2Ti 4:11) it is most reasonable to believe that he completed his Acts record at the point in time where it ends, around 62 a.d., otherwise he most certainly would have recorded Paul’s release and perhaps his additional ministry alluded to in the Pastoral epistles.  Since Acts was written by Luke as a sequel to his gospel (compare Acts 1:1-2 with Luke 1:1-4) his gospel must then have been written sometime prior to 62 a.d.  This accords well with a date somewhat prior to the writing of 2 Corinthians around 56 a.d., probably between 53 and 55 a.d.
  7. Titus is specifically mentioned as having earlier traveled with Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1) during their “relief visit” at which time Peter was delivered from prison by the angel of the Lord and the disciples were gathered at the home of Mark’s mother Mary (Acts 11:30, 12:12,25).  Since he is closely associated with Luke and may well have been his brother, besides Paul he was likely one of those “servants of the word” who handed down to Luke information that he wrote down “in consecutive order” so that we might “know the exact truth about the things [we] have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4).

Matthew’s Gospel: The nearly universal testimony of the early church was that Matthew was the first of the gospels to be written down, and for this reason it was placed first among the gospels in the canon.  This would indicate a date prior to the 53-55 a.d. date for Luke, perhaps in the late 40s or early 50s.  This agrees with the “sitz im leben” (setting in life) indicated by its contents that the Jews were becoming increasingly antagonistic toward the gospel and beginning to reject it in increasing numbers, especially as the Gentile controversy began brewing, c. 44-49 a.d., so that Matthew’s gospel was a timely apologia that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah.  It also fits with Matthew’s statements recorded in Mat 27:8 that the Potters field “has been called the Field of Blood to this day”, and again in Mat 28:15 that “this story was widely spread among the Jews and is to this day”.

Mark’s Gospel: As mentioned above, while Mark had likely written down records of Christ’s ministry from the eyewitness accounts he had heard as they were related in his home, he may not have composed his gospel as we know it until later when some particular circumstance and audience led him to compile his records into the form that has been preserved for us.  This may have been as late as the 60s when Paul and Peter were known to have been in Rome thus accounting for his explanation of Jewish customs, use of Latin terms instead of their Greek equivalents, and translation of Aramaic words.  However, this later date is by no means necessary and it is most likely that he composed his gospel as we know it much earlier.  For it is clear that Mark was traveling to Gentile lands at least as early as 47-48 a.d. when he returned with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch and then joined them on their first missionary journey.  Because his family was wealthy and had connections in Cyprus through his cousin Barnabas, he may also have had connections in other Gentile lands and even Rome itself[2].  There was also a Roman presence nearly everywhere, so Mark’s use of Latin terms in no way requires a strictly Roman audience and setting (cf. John 19:20).  Because it is unlikely that he would have written his shorter account after Matthew and Luke’s longer gospels had been in circulation and become known, it is most reasonable to assume that he wrote his gospel during the early period of ministry to the Gentiles.  This also accords with the fact that his gospel is the least polished and literary of the three Synoptics, thus indicating an earlier date.

Summary: To summarize then, it is not unreasonable to believe that Mark had by the early 40s gathered together and was sharing with others much of the material that would form the basis for his own gospel and also be used by Matthew and Luke in their accounts.  From this material he articulated what became known as his gospel for some Gentile audience as early as the late 40s when he was in Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.  Rather than being a complete biography of Christ’s life written for posterity, its purpose seems to have been to acquaint some specific audience to whom he was ministering with the basic facts regarding “the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1).  Around this same time, perhaps shortly before, Matthew made use of the materials Mark had been compiling and expanded upon them as an apologia to the Jews.  While his chronology closely parallels Mark’s, Matthew appears to have arranged his content somewhat thematically, presenting much of Jesus’ teaching in five great discourses, perhaps after the pattern of the Pentateuch in order to portray Christ as the successor of Moses and His gospel as the new Torah.  Not long after this Luke composed his gospel in order to document for his Gentile audience what he saw as the need for a more historically and chronologically complete account of Jesus’ life and ministry, which purpose is reflected in his introduction:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us (“most surely believed among us”, KJV), just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
Luke 1:1-4

Luke’s chronology closely parallels Matthew’s and Mark’s through Luke 9:51 where he records that Jesus resolutely set His face to go to Jerusalem.  Between this point in his gospel and the triumphal entry in Luke 19 we find a large portion of the material unique to Luke, which fills in additional details of Jesus’ ministry in the months prior to His death that are not found in Matthew and Mark.  This is perhaps significant because at that point in Jesus’ ministry it was clear that the religious leaders had largely rejected Jesus, even as it was clear by the time Luke wrote that the Jewish nation had largely rejected Him.  Hence not only was Luke providing a more complete account of Jesus ministry, but also including a wealth of teaching that didn’t fit the purposes of Matthew and Mark who had written previously.  As a final note, we should also observe that the order of the gospels in the canon may very well reflect the chronological order in which they were written down in the forms that have been preserved for us.

 


1. See for example Mat 9:9-13, esp. vs. 10, where the definite article is used to refer to his (i.e., Matthew’s) house; cf. Luk 5:27-32.

2. Consider Paul’s connections to Rome from Romans 16 though he had never visited there.

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