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Date of Writing of the Gospel of John

By Edited Mar 24, 2016 0 0


Like many aspects of the gospel of John, the date when this gospel was penned is a point of contention. Suggestions for the date range from the time that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written to the second century of the Christian era (CE). Up until the late 1800s, a majority of scholars were adamant that the fourth gospel was written in the second half of the second century, a potent argument against Johannine authorship. Archeology has proven this dogma to be incorrect. In 1935, at the site of Oxyrhynchus (Behnesa), a city in Upper Egypt, archeologists discovered Papyrus 52, which contains four verses (18:31-33 and 18:37-38) of the fourth gospel, conclusively placing the date of composition before 100 CE. This archeological find shattered the long-held contention of a second century writing of the fourth gospel forcing scholars to evaluate the fourth gospel anew.

Research reveals that the language and writing style of Papyrus 52 is identical to Greek writing of the first century. We can “establish a rather firm upper limit for the writing of the gospel because Papyrus 52, dated from about A D. 130 and coming from Egypt, contains a portion of John 18. In addition to the time for a copy of the manuscript to make its way to where it was found in Egypt to account for the pre 100 CE date of writing. One must allow time for the gospel to have been written, to have traveled to Egypt, and to have been copied before A.D. 130.” [1] Given the time and place of the first century world, it is easily possible that it would take fifty or sixty years for the gospel manuscript to find its way from Ephesus or Antioch, the likely places where the Apostle John wrote the gospel, to where it was found in Egypt. The world at the time of Jesus was vastly different from that of today with many never traveling more than a few miles from their village of birth, especially for something whose contents require selective dissemination.

Another discovery affirming the first-century writing of this gospel is the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. These archeological treasures provide strong support for Johannine authorship due to the many similarities between the materials found at this community and John's gospel. The trove found at Qumran reveals the inhabitants of this community had similar vocabulary and common ideas with Jews in the Promised Land. Also found at Qumran were documents containing dualistic concepts of light and darkness, life and death, and word (logos), along with other similarities that collaborate the date of writing and some of the literary techniques in the gospel. “Both John and the men of  Qumran see the universe regarding sharply contrasted light and darkness, good and evil, truth and falsehood. But even if John appears to ‘draw from a common reservoir of terminology and ideas that were well-known to the Essenes,’ the new element in his use of these terms should not be overlooked.” [2] Studies of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their similarity to the gospel of John support the premise that the author of the gospel was a Galilean or Judean Jew, to which the Apostle John could claim. Other archeological discoveries that contain at least portions of the fourth gospel include Papyrus 45, which contains all the gospels and Acts (although it does not have the entirety of any single book); Papyrus 66, which contains most of chapters one through fourteen along with bits and pieces of the other chapters; and Papyrus 75, which includes most of Luke and John’s chapters one through eleven and parts of chapters twelve through fifteen.

One can make a persuasive argument for the time of the writing as early as 65 CE, before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, from the references to specific sites, such as the pool of Bethesda, and John’s theological insights into the Jewish feasts. “From such accuracy, the fourth gospel seems to reflect a knowledge of Palestine as it was before its destruction in A.D. 70 when some of the landmarks perished. This does not mean that the Johannine information about Jesus has been verified, but at least the setting of which Jesus is placed is authentic.” [3] Scholars who support the early date of writing include Leon Morris, John A. T. Robinson, and F. Lamar Cribbs. The historical fact of the completion of the Temple in 64 CE is the basis for the early date of 65 CE. In John 2:18-22, one of the accusations thrown at Jesus is that the Temple took forty-six years to complete, yet Jesus said He would rebuild it in three days. Since the Apostle John knew the time of completion of the Temple construction, he could specify the number of years it took to build the structure in this confrontation between the Jews and Jesus. If the Temple were complete in 64 CE, John could have written his gospel as early as 64 CE. This means he wrote the gospel before the Jewish rebellion against Rome and the resulting destruction of the Temple. The insertion of the number of years to build the temple (2:20) is somewhat suspect or an example of editorial license, but the point is the Temple took years to build and Jesus claimed to rebuild it, or so they assumed, in three days.

Some scholars place the date of writing before the Roman invasion of the Promised Land and the destruction of the Temple because of the references indicating the animosity between the Christian faith and Judaism and the lack of mention of the destruction of the Temple, which John surely would have mentioned had he written his gospel after 70 CE. Another mention in the gospel which tends to support an early date is where John refers to the pools of Bethesda (John 5:2) in the present tense. This tense indicates a time before the Romans virtually raze Jerusalem. Greek words are precise and incorporate the tense into the word itself rather than the English method of using modifiers and other supporting words. The present tense, as found in this and other verses in this gospel, helps determine the correct time of writing.

Another factor in an early date of writing according to Hendriksen is the Semitic tone of the gospel. Morris also notes some of the expressions in the Gospel appear to be early. For example, the twelve men of the inner circle are known as “His” disciples to distinguish them from disciples of other rabbis or religious leaders. Later writers refer to the inner circle as apostles, but John uses the term “disciples,” which to Morris implies an earlier date. Some notice John’s many references to the Jews and a higher sense of conflict or disagreement. This level of conflict would seem to be more appropriate before the destruction of the Temple and also suggests a time in which Judaism had more influence, and this is indicative of a time preceding the Roman-Jewish war.

Once the Romans defeated the Jews and destroyed the Temple, the power and influence of the Jews and Judaism shrank considerably, which suggests John wrote before the Jewish-Roman war. Robinson notes there is nothing in the gospel about the Jewish-Gentile controversy within the early church as in the book of Acts. This lack of a mention of this significant problem, “paralleled in the New Testament only by the Epistle of James, suggests that the gospel is either very early, or very late when this issue is supposed to have died down. Yet it did not die down from the area of Jerusalem as far as our evidence goes until well after the last possible date for the Gospel.” [4] This date would be 135 CE when Jewish Christians were cast out of the synagogue. The Gospel never mentions the Roman persecution of believers, which Emperor Nero began in 65 CE, only persecution by Jews. John's gospel reports nothing of the execution of James, the brother of John. There is nary a word of persecution of believers in Judea, the violent persecution by the Pharisee zealot Saul. No mention in the fourth gospel of the Damascus road experience or the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys. One would think that at least one of these facts would find mention, even indirectly, but there is none. Thus, a logical conclusion is this gospel was written around 65 CE, and probably closer to the earlier date. Carson notes that it is possible the gospel could have been written before 70 CE and has no objection to the Apostle John using both personal recollection and written or oral sources to write his gospel.

Another problem with the later time of writing is simple arithmetic and human life expectancy. Assuming John was the youngest of the apostles being about fourteen years old when he met Jesus, a date of writing around 85-90 CE would make him around ninety years old when he wrote the gospel. It seems unlikely he could have written such a work given his age with the normal accompanying diminishing physical and mental capacities. Admittedly, this argument of the fourth gospel being written before the destruction of the Temple is, in part, from silence, but the shrewd use of silence is often an effective method of communication. The timing of the writing has implications to the relationship between the fourth gospel and the other Gospels about the question of literary dependence and whether John supplements or supplants the others. For many years, scholars believed Matthew to have written his gospel first, and that Mark took the first gospel as one of his sources, with Luke drawing from both Matthew and Mark. However, research and the goal “to find the earliest source or sources for the life of Jesus and the more careful examination of the Synoptic parallels resulted in a crucial conclusion: that in and behind the other gospels lay not just one but two primary sources; Mark was the oldest of the three and was used by both Matthew and Luke; and Matthew and Luke also used a second source, consisting principally of sayings of Jesus.” [5] This second source has come to be known as “Q,” which stands for the German Quelle (source). H. J. Holtzmann, in 1863, is credited with establishing the “Q” source.

The broad consensus of contemporary scholarship agrees this is the correct sequence of the gospels; even the writing style and organization of Mark suggests an earlier time of writing than Matthew. We can also presume from the introduction of the gospel written by Luke that it was written later than Mark and Matthew. With all these points established, Mark is thought to have been written around 55 CE, Matthew and Luke around 65 CE. If these dates for the Synoptic gospels are accurate, the Apostle John likely had access to the Gospel of Mark since it had been in circulation for a period, but not necessarily Matthew and Luke, although it is likely, from his friendship and knowledge of Matthew and Luke, he could surmise the premises of their Gospels. Studies have shown that John and Mark, of all the Gospels, have enough in common to support this premise. If this early date of writing is, indeed, accurate, this renders impotent the discussions of whether the fourth gospel supplements or supplants Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This also negates the opinions of scholars such as Windisch, Gardner-Smith, Dodd, Bultmann, Fortna, and Brown, to name a few. It is interesting that all of these individuals took the approach of determining authorship of the fourth gospel using various literary analyses or various mysterious sources instead of accepting the testimony of historical figures. The logical conclusion is that John, while he may have had access to the gospel of Mark, wrote independently of Matthew and Luke, since he wrote at nearly the same time as these two other authors. There is nothing for the Apostle John to supplement or supplant.

Some argue for writing around 85 CE because the spiritual depths and insights of the gospel are such that it would not have been possible for John to have developed the themes if the fourth gospel had been written around 65 CE. This premise, while appealing, fails when we remember the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Romans about 58 CE with all of its incredible depths of spiritual wisdom; thus, John could have had similar spiritual insights to write the fourth Gospel in the same period. Another argument for a late date is the destruction of the Temple was well known and did not need to be referenced in the gospel. Since the event would have meant little to those who lived outside of the Promised Land, it would have had minimal impact to the overall message of his gospel. It is entirely possible to interpret the historical setting to support a later date for the writing of the gospel, but the early date seems more realistic. The conflicts noted several times with “Jewish opponents probably reflect the extreme tensions between Jewish leaders and Johannine Christians in John’s day.” [6] The gospel references the excommunication of believers from the synagogue in John 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2, which seems more indicative of the later first century than 65 CE. Historical accounts from sources outside the New Testament confirm the worsening relationship between Jews and Christians. This further verifies dating of the Gospel of John to the mid 60’s.


Copyright 2016 © Craig B. Manning. All Rights Reserved.



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