While teaching a recent Colson Center short course, I was asked about the dating of John’s gospel. This New Testament text is generally believed to have been written after the other gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). I think there are several good reasons to accept this claim, given the historical and textual evidence:
The Church Fathers Say John’s Gospel Came Last
The first-century bishop Clement of Rome, testified that John’s gospel was written after the other gospels (according to Eusebius’ “History of the Church,” Book 4, Chapter 14.7), and Irenaeus, the ancient Bishop of Lugdunum, also affirmed this to be the case (see “Against Heresies,” Book 3, Chapter 1). Later church fathers (like Origen and Jerome) repeated this claim.
John Wrote as though His Readers Already Knew the Apostles
In the Synoptic Gospels (the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, recounting events from a similar point of view), the disciples are named and described as they are first introduced in the narrative. John, on the other hand, seldom takes the time to provide any detail about each follower of Jesus as he introduces them in his account.
John Wrote as though His Readers Already Knew about John the Baptist
In a similar way, John wrote to his audience as though they already knew a great deal about John the Baptist. For example, the Apostle John simply writes that John the Baptist had “not yet been thrown in prison” (John 3:24, emphasis added), as though his readers were already familiar with the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist as recorded in the other gospels.
The Other Gospel Authors Don’t Seem to Know about John’s Gospel
While the Synoptic Gospels contain parallel pieces of information (as if they were aware of each other’s accounts), none of these texts contain information that appears to have come from the Gospel of John.
There are good reasons to accept the claim that John wrote his account after the other gospel accounts had already been written. But does this mean that it was written late in history? No. There are many good reasons to believe this gospel was written early:
John Fails to Describe the Olivet Discourse
John’s Gospel is missing the Olivet Discourse, the biblical passage (found in all the other gospels: Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21) in which Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple. If John was aware of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish Temple that occurred in A.D. 70, it makes sense he would have included Jesus’ predictions about these events as a point of emphasis.
John Fails to Mention the Destruction of the Temple
John also fails to mention the siege of Jerusalem, the sacking of the city, or the destruction of the Jewish Temple, all of which fulfilled the predictions of Jesus. Other ancient writers, known to have written after A.D. 70, include a description of the destruction of the Temple.
John Uses Primitive Terms and Titles
John uses words in his text that are consistent with the earliest years of Christianity. For example, John never calls the closest followers of Jesus “apostles” (like Luke does in the Book of Acts). Instead, John refers to them by the earlier term “disciples.”
John Refers to the Pool of Bethesda in a Particular Way
In chapter 5, verse 2, John wrote, “There is in Jerusalem, by the sheep-gate, a pool (the one called Bethesda in Hebrew) which has five porticoes.” John used the present tense word “is” (ἐστιν) when describing the existence of the pool, yet the pool was destroyed in A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans.
Papyrus Evidence Affirms an Early Date for John’s Gospel
In 1934, while examining uncatalogued papyrus fragments in the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester, British scholar C. H. Roberts discovered a papyrus containing portions of John chapter 18. New Testament scholars now date this fragment to approximately A.D. 125, and admit it would have taken several decades for the Gospel to have been written, copied, handed from one community to another, carried across the continent, and finally buried in Egypt. This would place the original authorship of the document several decades prior to A.D. 125.
Document Evidence Affirms an Early Date for John’s Gospel
Papyrus Egerton 2 is a collection of three papyrus fragments, dated at one time to approximately A.D. 150. These fragments describe events found in all four gospels, including a narrative resembling John 5:39-47. This would not be possible unless John’s gospel was written early enough to be available to the author(s) of this document.
John’s gospel most reasonably appears to have been written after the other gospels and prior to A.D. 70. While it may have been written after the other gospels, it was early enough to have been written by the Apostle himself, a man who saw the events firsthand and recorded them within the lifetime of those who would know if he was lying.
Note: For a more through discussion of these points, refer to J. Warner Wallace’s article at ColdCaseChristianity.com, from which this article was adapted.
Image courtesy of eric1513 at iStock by Getty Images.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, senior fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of “Cold-Case Christianity,” “Cold-Case Christianity for Kids,” “God’s Crime Scene,” and “Forensic Faith.”