The Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Estimated dates they were written and approx. dates of the earliest fragments we have of them…
Matthew: written (70-110) / first fragment (150-200)
Mark: written (66-70) / first fragment (350)
Luke: written (80-100) / first fragment (175-250)
John: written (90-110) / first fragment (125-160)
General information about the source material
All of the authors wrote about events decades after the fact, allowing time for legends to grow in the telling before they were written. None of the authors were likely eyewitnesses to the events they report, and all the authors are anonymous.
The first fragments we have for Luke and Matthew are almost 100 years after they were written (more or less), for Mark it is almost 300 years. There is a shorter time for John, but that account is different and later (as far as when it was written) than the others, and is probably the least reliable (aside being further removed from the events when it was written, as well as different than the earlier ones, it appears significant sections were added because they don’t appear in the earliest copies).
Remember we are talking about the earliest fragments, not the earliest complete copies, and fragments are just that, a small piece of a page in many cases. The first complete copies don’t come until the 4th century, allowing plenty of time for copying mistakes and alterations.
It seems most Biblical textual scholars think that the anonymous author of Matthew lived in a Jewish-Christian community in Roman Syria, and there is evidence to indicate he wrote his book after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The author of Matthew doesn’t identify himself. Toward the end of the second century, a tradition arose that it was written by Matthew the tax collector. This tradition may have originated from comments made by Papias of Hierapolis (approx. 100-140 AD) about someone named Matthew (who he doesn’t identify beyond that) collecting Hebrew sayings and translating them “as best he could” (but he doesn’t relate this directly to what people refer to the Book of Matthew today). The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t show any signs of translation from another language, and most Biblical textual scholars think there were three sources: Mark, a hypothetical earlier source that is lost to us which is referred to as “Q,” and his own sources (or imagination).
Mark is considered to the oldest gospel by most scholars.
As with Matthew, the author of Mark doesn’t identify himself, and, once again, we have Papias of Hierapolis (writing in the early 2nd century) to thank for crediting it to someone. He credits it to John Mark, a companion of Peter. It seems that odds of association may be somewhat greater here than it was with Matthew, and the more traditional scholars still accept this view. Most modern scholars don’t however (partly because of the author’s use of varied sources), and they consider this book to be of anonymous authorship written in Syria around 66 AD. It does appear to be a major source for both Matthew and Luke.
Everything after Mark 16:8 seems to be highly questionable. Either the story ends with the empty tomb and a young man in a white robe telling Mary Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James), and Salome that Jesus has risen and is “going ahead of you to Galilee” (at which point it says that they “neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid” and that’s where it ends), or the original ending is lost. There are four different endings (additional text after 16:8) found in later transcripts, but there isn’t very good evidence any were original. They seem to be in a different style and use different words than the rest of Mark. It seems to be a question whether the ending at 16:8 is intentional or not, but it appears that some people had a problem with it ending there and decided to add something else on.
Once again, there isn’t enough evidence to say for sure who wrote Luke, so it must also be considered anonymous. Tradition is that it was written by Luke (the companion of Paul, or the sometime companion of Paul), who was not an eyewitness (and neither was Paul). Whoever wrote it also may have written the Acts of the Apostles, but this can become an argument against it being written by Luke the companion of Paul, since the Book of Acts contradicts the letters of Paul on several points. The sources seem to be Mark and the hypothetical Q source, as well as some sources of his own.
Like the others, the authorship of John is anonymous. The author claims to be the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” which could be intended to mean either Peter or John. Most modern scholars today don’t believe either John, Peter, or any other eyewitness wrote it. It appears to have been written in 2-3 different stages over time (possibly by more than one author), being completed around 90-95 AD (or later). It is very different than the first three gospels and shows how the myth grew. Most scholars think it is the least historically reliable and furthest removed in time from the events (the last gospel written), however it appears the version we have today may be the closest of all the gospels to the original document.