Of course you can’t really date St Luke. He’s dead, and anyway the tradition has it that he was celibate like Jesus and St Paul. We’re not sure about the end of Luke’s life. Some say he was martyred, but I think the prevailing tradition is that he died at the age of 84 in Greece.
What interests me more than the date of his death is the date of his gospel. I was brought up as an Evangelical fundamentalist and their approach to the Bible (or so it seemed to me) was very literalistic. Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the four gospels. They were inspired by the Holy Spirit which meant the Holy Ghost dictated the books to them. (That’s not really what the Evangelicals believed, but that’s what I thought they believed.)
So coming up through that system I went into seminary and learned about “the Synoptic Problem”. That is the industry which employs many Biblical scholars who write lots of books arguing with one another about who wrote the gospels and when. I listened and learned.
Wow! So maybe Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t really write the gospels after all! Maybe they were all written by other people much later and they added lots of mythological elements and so forth. So I learned to be skeptical of the fundamentalist Sunday school approach.
But then, having learned to be skeptical, I began to be skeptical of the skeptics.
The liberal Bible scholars were obviously working to an agenda. The later the gospels were and the more they could show that they were not really written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the more they could dismiss them as mythological fairy tales.
Furthermore, the whole industry of academic Biblical scholarship would support them as long as they adhered to the liberal consensus. As long as they ground out yet more articles and books and published journals telling everyone how the New Testament was full of errors and was composed very late by “the early church” the more they would get the university job they hankered, the promotion they coveted and the tenure in the ivy covered ivory towers that were so seductive.
So I began to be skeptical of the skeptics. Maybe its the Amish in me, but it all seemed very simple and the extravagant theories they came up with which were mutually contradictory seemed easily undercut by a bit of common sense and a little detective work.
So when were the gospels written? It all actually hinges on St Luke, but first we should look at Matthew. For a long time scholars said Mark’s was the first gospel because it is simplest and shortest. However, there is an increasingly popular view that Matthew’s gospel was first, but that the form of Matthew we now have is not the first.
Early church sources say Matthew was written in Aramaic or Hebrew. However, the version of Matthew we now have is in Greek. Therefore the present version is either a later edition or a translation of Matthew’s original. Mark was written using Matthew’s early collection of stories and sayings as well as the reminisces of Peter. Luke came next drawing on Matthew and Mark.
This is called the Augustinian Hypothesis. It is simple and relies on the ancient historical sources like Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius and others.
Now here’s where St Luke becomes important. When were the gospel written?
We can deduce an answer based on the end of Luke’s second book–The Acts of the Apostles. At the end of the Acts of the Apostles, St Paul is still alive. He’s living under house arrest in Rome. It is very important to realize that St Luke did not record the death of St Paul. He does record the martyrdom of St Stephen and St James, but he doesn’t record the death of Paul? Why not? Because by the time he completed Acts of the Apostles St Paul was still alive.
We know St Paul and St Peter were killed in Rome during the persecution by Nero in 65 AD. Therefore the Acts of the Apostles must have been written before 65 AD. That means Luke’s gospel must have been written before that. We can guess that it was written around 60-63 AD. If Luke’s gospel relied on Mark and Matthew, then those two gospels were written even earlier. We can place Mark’s gospel at around 55 AD and some scholars date Matthew’s early collection of stories and sayings as early as the mid 40s..just ten years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is a powerful, scholarly work that supports the thesis of the gospels not only being written within thirty years of Jesus death and resurrection, but also that they relied heavily on eyewitness accounts.
If you’re interested in Biblical history don’t forget my own book The Mystery of the Magi which uncovers the historical background of the three wise men.
Remember during the month of October new Donor Subscribers (and those who upgrade to the Premier level and above) can receive any one of my books as a free gift. Go here to learn more