The core witnesses of the Christian faith are the Gospels. The early Church recognized Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the authoritative sources on the life of Jesus, for they represented the earliest works growing out of oral tradition. The impact of that spoken tradition is addressed in the "Dating of the Synoptics" and in studies relating to the Passion-Resurrection narrative and the "Q" source.


Most scholars agree the evangelist Mark wrote the first document concerning the life and death of Jesus from Nazareth at the beginning of the post-apostolic era (early 70's CE). He penned his narrative in response to the radical changes the Church underwent at the close of the apostolic-era. A set of small, communities began to lose a generation of eye witnesses. The Christian movement shifted from the countryside to the cities. And, along with that change, the number of Gentile converts overwhelmed the movement's Jewish core and the use of eastern Mediterranean's Koine Greek overtook the Aramaic of Palestine. Finally, the defeat of the uprising in the Great Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman forces reverberated throughout the Empire, causing many to believe they lived in the end times. In other words, Mark created his gospel to preserve the memories of eye witnesses and to present the Good News to a world still reeling from radical changes.


Representing almost twenty seven percent of the New Testament, Luke-Acts stood as a monumental work that testified to the life of Jesus and the activity of the early Church. Written in two parts, it encompassed early witness through the inclusions of Mark, the "Q" source (Gospel), oral tradition and even personal testimony (Acts). The evangelist we call Luke wrote in a elegant, flowing style, unlike the clunkier styles of Mark and John.

Scholars split on the dating of Luke-Acts due to the abrupt way the evangelist ended his work on the early Church's history. As I explained in "Dating the Synoptics," I do not believe the lack of mentioning later historical events interfered with later dating. And, while Luke employed Mark as a source, he cooled to the end times fervor found in other New Testament books such as the second letter to the Thessalonians and Revelation. Hence, I support the latter date theory of the early 80's CE, more likely the mid 90's to the early 100's CE.


At least a decade after Mark wrote his gospel, the evangelist we call Matthew penned his gospel to a distinctly Jewish-Christian audience. Drawing from Mark, the "Q" source and his own oral tradition, he molded various "bits and pieces" into structured passages that differed from the other Synoptic gospels. Unlike Luke, he felt free to move parts of Mark and the Q source to match his own theological vision.

As I mentioned above, Matthew had Jewish believers in mind. If we separate his Passion narrative, the rest of his gospel formed five units; each consisted of a narrative and a discourse. This arrangement mimicked the five books of the Torah. In addition, he cited about twenty specific references from the Hebrew Scriptures and many allusions from traditional passages. The structure and the citings, along with the cultural outlook found in the book, would appeal to followers of the Messiah from Palestine.

Matthew depended upon Mark as a source and it took at least ten years for the latter's dissemination. In addition, he wrote his gospel in an era when anger over the destruction of the Temple (70 CE) had cooled. Hence, we can reasonably date his publication at the earliest to the first part of the 80's CE.


Unlike the Synoptic authors, the evangelist we call John had not only a unique perspective; he, for the most part, relied on a different tradition. Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, John constructed his narrative around several visits of Jesus on Jewish holy days. He emphasized fewer miracles ("signs") but heightened their importance. Most significantly, he raised the status of Jesus to that of the divine with the use of the emphatic "I AM."

John barely stressed the immanence of the end times. Instead, he focused on its partially-realized nature. His disciples would miss the presence of Jesus yet, with the Spirit active in their lives, they could remain faithful to his teaching. The more immediate concern of the Johannine community was rejection by non-believing Jews. Indeed, the author recognized the challenge to defend the faith and to maintain the spirit of the community in the face of opposition. In this light, evangelization was a secondary issue.

Because of these factors, most scholars hold John wrote his document as the last of the canonical gospels. I estimate its publication between 90-110 CE.

Gospel of Thomas

The gospel of Thomas has been a controversial text from the time of the Church Fathers onward. Like most believers, I hold it was a heterodox work. So, why include it in this overview (even on the website at all)? Since the later part of the twentieth century, many scholars have asserted some of its sayings date back to the mid 40’s CE and, thus, provide an independent tradition for the Jesus movement. While I reject this assertion, I do believe the text in its Coptic form gives us a peek into the competing theologies that developed in the late post-apostolic era. And because of its popularity among scholars, I have included it and linked in the gospels.