John’s Gospel May Have Been Last, But It Wasn’t Late

by J Warner Wallace

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, Eusebius, and Jerome) repeated this claim.

John Wrote As Though His Reader’s Already Knew the Apostles
In the “Synoptic Gospels,” (the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke re-counting 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. In John 6:67, for example, John writes about “the twelve” as a special subset of the larger group of disciples, but he does so without describing who precisely is part of this group or why they are unique related to the other followers. John writes as though this information is already available to his readers (in the gospels that preceded his).

John Wrote As Though His Reader’s 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 never refers to Jesus’ cousin as John “the Baptist”. Instead the apostle simply calls him “John” as if his readers would already know about Jesus’ cousin. In addition, the details surrounding John the Baptist’s death are never described. Instead, at one point in the narrative, the Apostle John simply writes that John the Baptist had “not yet been thrown in prison” (John 3:24) as though his readers were already familiar with the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist as recorded in the other gospels.

The Other Gospels 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. While it appears that Mark, Matthew and Luke consulted with one another, nothing in their accounts reveal any knowledge of John’s text. This makes sense if John’s Gospel was written after the other three.

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? Not many generations ago, skeptical scholars from the “Tubingen School” in Southern Germany argued that the Gospel of John was written in the latter part of the second century (ca. 175AD). If this is true, the gospel could not have been written by the Apostle John or anyone else who actually witnessed the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly, modern New Testament scholars are now nearly unanimous in dating John’s Gospel much earlier.

I also believe this gospel was written early; within the lifetime of people who witnessed the events it records. This is important, because the early dating of the Gospels helps to establish their reliability as eyewitness accounts. Here is a very brief summary of the evidence establishing the early dating of the Gospel of John…

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John’s Gospel May Have Been Last, But It Wasn’t Late | Cold Case Christianity