Dating the Fourth Gospel

The idea that John Mark wrote a Gospel account is neither radical, nor a new idea; he has long been identified in tradition as the author of the Gospel of Mark. In an earlier chapter we looked in more detail at the provenance of Mark’s account.

There are two principle objections to the traditional assertion that John Mark and Stumpfinger (strictly speaking, Colobodactylus) are one and the same:

  1. Mark appears to have only a vague knowledge of Judean geography and a limited grasp of cultural Greek. Yet John Mark lived and grew up in Jerusalem, in the heart of Judea; 1
  2. Papias says that Mark “neither heard the Lord or accompanied him.” Yet it is at the very least probable, if not certain, that John Mark as a young man in Jerusalem would have been a first hand eye-witness of Jesus.

As we have already seen, the smoking gun linking John Mark to Ephesus, where the Fourth Gospel is said to have been written, is the letter of Ignatius of Antioch (circa 100AD) which refers to the ministry of Paul, John and Timothy at Ephesus.

This correlates seamlessly with the Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy (circa 67AD) in which he asks for John Mark to be sent to Rome from Ephesus. 2 Timothy 4:11

But is there any substantial evidence to demonstrate whether the Gospel of John was concluded during the lifetime of the Beloved Disciple, John Mark?

Unequivocally Yes.

Papyrus P52

In 1920 a collection of antique papyrii were acquired at an Egyptian market. Amongst them was a double-sided leaf of papyrus, referred to as Papyrus P52, which is understood to be the oldest extant fragment of New Testament scripture. Kept at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, it is dated between 117-138AD.

The Greek words on each side are from John 18:31-33 and John 18:37-38. Conveniently for us, this text records the very same discourse between Jesus and Pilate we have been considering.

Taken in combination with Papyrus P66 (circa 200AD) which is a near complete text of the whole of John’s Gospel, and Papyrus P90 (circa 150AD) containing John 18:36-19:7, we have the whole of the enquiry of Christ by the Roman Governor attested to in three corroborative texts still available for us to examine today.

Papyrus P66

The fact that Papyrus P52 was found in Egypt and is itself dated early in the 2nd century, despite the Fourth Gospel having apparently been composed in Ephesus — a fair trek around the Mediterranean basin from Egypt — leads scholars to conclude that the original Gospel was likely written at least a generation earlier; to allow time for it to be copied and disseminated.

Although not determinative, there are therefore grounds to suppose that the Fourth Gospel may have been written around the same time as that of Mark – between 65-70AD. Why?

  1. Because the failure to include information from Mark’s Gospel supporting the Christology developed in the Fourth Gospel (for example the account of the Transfiguration as seen in Mark Chapter 9) suggests the author was not familiar with the Second Gospel; despite this being so authorative that Matthew and Luke chose to adopt large portions of it.
  2. Because the author writes in the present tense when detailing “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades,”  despite this having been destroyed by the invading Roman army in 70AD. 2

Let’s unpick both points. If you, like John Mark, had reached the conclusion that Jesus was the Son of God because of what you had heard him teach and how you had witnessed both his death and found his empty grave clothes a few days later, in asserting your claim to his divinity, you would want to include the miraculous account of him having been visited by Moses and Elijah and gloriously transformed on a mountain top with a voice from heaven declaring “This is my beloved Son”.

But John Mark is completely silent about this. The most reasonable proposition for this is because he simply wasn’t aware of it, as a moment shared between only Jesus, Peter, James and John the Apostle — and only documented by Mark until 30 years or so later.

In fact we’re told that Jesus expressly directed Peter, James and John not to talk about what they had seen “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” More on that later.

Yet given we know that Mark’s gospel had made it from Rome to Ephesus within just a few years of it’s composition, and probably much sooner than that, either John Mark wasn’t familiar with it — doubtful — or the Gospel account hadn’t been written yet.

Turning to the second point. It seems an odd turn of phrase for John Mark to write about the Bethesda pool by the Sheep Gate in the present tense, located to the immediate north-east of the present day Temple Mount in Jerusalem, if in fact it had already been destroyed by the Romans, which it was in 70AD.

In John 5:1-9 we’re told that the blind, lame and paralysed would wait by the pool. One man, an invalid for 38 years, complained to Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Moments later, he was healed. The steps can be seen in the ruins pictured below.

The Sheep Gate pool at Bethesda

Josephus describes the Bethesda destruction in 70AD in this way:

“But now Cestius, observing that the disturbances that were begun among the Jews afforded him a proper opportunity to attack them, took his whole army along with him, and put the Jews to flight, and pursued them to Jerusalem… But when Cestius was come into the city, he set the part called Bezetha, which is called Cenopolis, [or the new city,] on fire; as he did also to the timber market; after which he came into the upper city, and pitched his camp over against the royal palace…”

Where does that leave us? That John’s Gospel was in circulation by the beginning of the 2nd Century, or within 70 or so years of the life of Jesus, is largely beyond sensible contention.

That it was authored by a man called John Mark who was a first hand eye-witness is, on balance, more likely than not.

That it boldly claims to be a record of events still within contemporaneous living memory and confirms the assertion of Roman historian Tacitus that Christus “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus” is indisputable.

So, to recap, over the last seven chapters we have demonstrated the historicity of Pilate’s encounter with Jesus — that the dialogue documented on the front of this book really did take place — by identifying two eye-witnesses of this exchange: Peter and John Mark; shown where their testimony is found in the 2nd and 4th Gospels; and noted when and where these accounts were written.

We have reached base camp, having ventured out from the foothills of the Himalayas. Now the journey proper begins in considering Pilate’s profound question “What is Truth?

1 For example, in describing the route from Jericho to Jerusalem, Mark notes that the journey went through Bethpage and Bethany in Mark 11:1, when in fact these two villages would have been reached in the reverse order.

2 The verb ἔστιν (estin) used in John 5:2 is the present active tense of the verb εἰμί meaning to be. Using the verb in the present implies that to the author’s knowledge, the Bethesda pool was still in situ at the time of writing.