Oxford-educated archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, embarking on a journey to investigate the historicity of the Gospel records and Acts, was skeptical. Taught by liberals and having adopted prevalent errors on the alleged late origin and supposed non-historicity of the Gospels and Acts, Sir William fully expected his own work to corroborate those liberal theories. Instead, to his utter amazement, after lifelong study on the Book of Acts, he wrote later, “Further study … showed that the book could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgment, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement.” Sir William was awarded a gold medal by His Holiness Pope Leo XIII and ended by becoming a Catholic.
Sir William said about Saint Luke in particular, author of Luke and the Acts to Theophilus (who may have been the high priest Theophilus ben Ananas), “You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian and they meet the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment.” Other scholars commenting on his work have agreed: “Ramsay, after a lifetime of research, ranks Luke as the greatest of all historians, ancient or modern. The Gospel stands the same test that the Acts has undergone. It is not only the most beautiful book in the world, but it is written with the utmost care and skill.” The Gospels are early historical records.
External Evidence from the Fathers for Matthean priority (St. Matthew writing first)
The first and most important dispute in Gospel studies between conservative and liberal scholars is whether (1) the Patristic Tradition, universally accepted for 1,800 years, of Matthean priority or (2) the recent theory, of Markan priority, requiring a lost Q document, which has no ancient historical attestation, is correct. This latter theory was promoted during the Kulturkampf in Germany by Otto von Bismarck for political reasons, as an anti-Catholic endeavor to reduce the authority of the papacy (which is especially evident in the Gospel of St. Matthew). Let’s examine where the evidence points.
External evidence is absolutely demonstrative that St. Matthew the Apostle himself wrote the Gospel of Matthew, wrote first, and wrote well before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This is attested to by Bishop Saint Papias, who knew St. John the Apostle; Tertullian in Africa; Saint Irenaeus, who was bishop of Lyons in Europe but well acquainted with the Tradition of the East, having spent a significant time in Asia; and several other witnesses. Thus we have the unanimous witness of three whole continents and virtually the entire early Christian world that Saint Matthew the Apostle is the first of the Evangelists and wrote his Gospel well before 70 A.D.
Saint Jerome had even seen the original Gospel of Saint Matthew — which had been carried by St. Bartholomew the Apostle to India — in the library of Caesarea, in the Hebrew dialect. “The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Cæsarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Berœa, a city of Syria, who use it” (De Virus Illustribus, 3, on Saint Matthew).
Saint Irenaeus records:
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (Adversus Haereses BIII, C1)
Since having an idea of when St. Peter preached and when he died would help in outlining dates for the first Gospel, and also the others, we can investigate when this took place. St. Jerome tells us on St. Peter:
Simon Peter the son of John, from the village of Bethsaida in the province of Galilee … pushed on to Rome in the second year of Claudius (A.D. 42) to overthrow Simon Magus, and held the sacerdotal chair there for twenty-five years until the last, that is the fourteenth, year of Nero (A.D. 67) … then too the Gospel according to Mark, who was his disciple and interpreter, is ascribed to him[.] … Buried at Rome in the Vatican near the triumphal way he is venerated by the whole world.
The time of St. Peter’s preaching being known, we can arrive at broad dates to begin with:
First Syllogism: (1) St. Matthew the Apostle wrote when St. Peter (and St. Paul) were preaching in Rome. (2) But St. Peter began to preach in Rome in 42 A.D., and St. Peter was martyred by 67 A.D. (with St. Paul). (3) Therefore, St. Matthew wrote the First Gospel between the years 42 and 67 A.D.
Can we narrow it down further? Yes, since St. Matthew wrote before St. Luke, we have, in addition:
Second Syllogism: (1) St. Matthew the Apostle wrote before St. Luke the disciple (one of the 72) and Evangelist, the disciple of St. Paul the Apostle. (2) But St. Luke wrote Acts before 61 A.D. and the Gospel of St. Luke before 55 A.D. (3) Therefore, St. Matthew wrote well before 55 A.D. as well.
The proof of premise 2 can read in the Catholic Encyclopedia on the Gospel of Saint Luke. Briefly, it may be summarized as follows: (i) St. Luke wrote Acts when St. Paul was still alive (thus before 67 A.D.) and almost certainly during his Roman imprisonment (thus the abrupt ending of Acts) (round A.D. 61), and (ii) the Gospel was certainly written before this time, therefore well before 61 A.D.
Next, can we arrive still further in our consideration of dates? Yes: St. Luke, so the Church Fathers tell us, and it is internally evident, is “the brother, whose praise is in the gospel through all the churches (2 Cor. 8:18). The secularist Encyclopedia Brittanica admits: “The Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (II Corinthians in the New Testament) was written from Macedonia in about 55 CE [sic].”
We conclude, therefore, that the Gospel of St. Luke was widely distributed already by this time.
Finally, a recent discovery, of an early papyrus of St. Mark’s Gospel, allows us to advance it further:
Third Syllogism: (1) St. Mark the Evangelist (also one of the 72), disciple and secretary of St. Peter the Apostle, on summarizing his preaching, manifestly wrote before 50 A.D., as we have the 7Q5 papyrus that shows us that his Gospel was written before that time. (2) But St. Matthew the Apostle, as the Fathers unanimously hand down the historical Tradition, wrote before St. Mark (3). Therefore, likewise, we can conclude as a certain historical truth that St. Matthew wrote well before even 50 A.D.
Likely Dates of the Synoptic Gospels
Gospel of St. Matthew: 42 A.D. (most likely). Possible range: 42–45 A.D., within about a decade of Christ’s resurrection, pre-dating the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 48 (Acts 15).
Gospel of St. Mark: 45 A.D. (most likely). Possible range: 44–48 A.D. (St. Peter’s preaching in Rome).
Gospel of St. Luke: 48 A.D. (most likely). Possible range: 48–52 A.D., with ample time for distribution, so that what St. Paul says in 2 Cor. 8:18 in 55 A.D. could have come about by then.
Since, in the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles began to lay greater emphasis on the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles also, it is likely that St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, with the other apostles, would have seen to it that this Gospel, written by his disciple, would be released then.
Image: The Calling of St. Matthew (1599–1600) by Caravaggio.
Nishant Xavier is a traditional Catholic from India due to begin seminary studies soon in Palyamkottai’s Priory of the Sacred Heart. He completed an MBA in finance from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Lucknow and worked in the Bank of New York Mellon for a couple of years, but his passion has always been sacred theology and Jesus and Mary. You can reach out of to him any time for comments or questions on the articles at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.