Date of John’s Gospel

We recently re-posted Russell Grigg’s classic article John the Creation Evangelist, which is still as relevant now as it was when it was first published almost 20 years ago. But Kimbal B. from the USA took issue with the article’s assignment of a late date to John’s Gospel. CMI as a whole doesn’t take a position on this, yet we thought it right that Mr Grigg should defend the date he gave, which seems to be the majority view in conservative biblical scholarship.

Photo stock.xchng Bible

It is highly unlikely that John wrote this missive any later than 66 AD. There is not one New Testament book that notes the death of Paul or Peter or the fall of Jerusalem (70 AD), an event that shook the civilized world more than 9/11 did in the 21st century. The article has a good heart but it is almost impossible to defend such a late date for John’s writings. The early church fathers would not agree.

Kimbal B.

Greetings Kimbal.

Thank you for your email. The matter of when John wrote his Gospel is certainly an interesting one and has elicited quite a lot of comment from expositors.

The non-mention of the death of Paul or of the fall of Jerusalem is powerful evidence that the book of Acts was written before either of these events occurred, as Acts is all about the growth of the church and the ministry of Paul in particular in regard to this growth. But how does this relate to John: why doesn’t John mention them? One reason may be that these two events did not fit in to his reason for writing his Gospel, namely to prove that Jesus was the Son of God and that by believing we can have life in His name (John 20:31). One other reason may be that by AD 90 or thereabouts they were well-known events throughout the civilized world.

The effect of the fall of Jerusalem

The principal affect of the fall of Jerusalem on the church was in regard to its future locality. Well before this, the early Christians in Jerusalem had experienced “a great persecution” in which “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Perhaps this early dispersal of the Christians away from the capital city, with its Jewish temple and all this stood for, was one method God used to prepare His succeeding church there for the ultimate break with Judaism that would occur with the fall of Jerusalem. We know from Church History that later Jewish believers in Christ in Jerusalem heeded His warning in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, so that they left before AD 70, when they saw “the storm” approaching. Hebrew Christian scholar Arnold Fruchtenbaum said in his “Highlights of the Life of Christ” radio series:

“Fortunately we have three ancient writings which if we pool the information together; we do know how they responded. The first source is Josephus, a Jewish writer of the first century, an eyewitness of the events of 70 AD; the second man was Hegisippus, who was a Jewish believer of the second century; and then came Eusebius of Caesarea a Gentile Christian of the fourth century. By pooling the material on what they say happened in so far as Jewish believers are concerned, we are told that the Jewish believers did obey the book of Hebrews, and made their break from Judaism complete.

“And when the Jews revolted against Rome in 66 AD, the entire Jewish Christian community numbering in their thousands, left Jerusalem, left Israel, crossed to the east side of the Jordan River, and waited the war out on the east side of the Jordan in the town called Pella just south of the sea of Galilee on the east side of the river.

“Four years later the war ended. One million one hundred thousand Jews were killed in that Roman conflict. But we are told by these writers that not one single Jewish believer lost his life, because of his obedience to the letter to the Hebrews.”

During his ministry, Paul of course was the principal protagonist against heresy (e.g. his letter to the Galatians). So if we take the view that John wrote to combat further heresy, it would be logical for there to have been a time gap of a couple of decades or so after the death of Paul for these heresies to have arisen and to have become somewhat established, i.e. to have become worth refuting.

My chief source for the date of “AD 90 or thereabouts” was Prof. E.M. Blaiklock (1903–1983), an evangelical and conservative Christian who was Professor of Classics at Auckland University, and who taught us the Greek of John’s Gospel when I was a student at the NZ Bible Training Institute (later BCNZ), at a time when it was still thoroughly evangelical.

What the church fathers said

B.F. Westcott (1825–1901), Bishop of Durham, although not a modern commentator, is nevertheless probably one of the most erudite exponents of the Greek writings of the church fathers who has ever lived. He was also a staunch defender of biblical inspiration, the deity of Christ and His Resurrection. In his commentary The Gospel According to St John, he concludes that it was probably written “in the latter quarter of the 1st century.” In his Introduction, under the heading Occasion and Date, he cites Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius and Irenaeus, and says:

“ … the fourth Gospel met difficulties which had not been and could not be realised till after the fall of Jerusalem. In like manner it met difficulties which had not been and could not be felt till after the preaching of St Paul had moulded the Christian society in accordance with the law of freedom.” (p. xxxviii)

He continues:

“The internal indications of date entirely accord with the historical tradition, and lead to the conclusion that the composition of the Gospel must be placed late in the generation which followed the destruction of Jerusalem. The shock of that momentous revolution was over, and Christians had been enabled to interpret it. There is no evidence to determine the date exactly. St John, according to the Asiatic tradition, recorded by Irenaeus (II. 22, 5; III. 3. 4.) lived ‘till the times of Trajan’ (AD 98–170) and the writing of the Gospel must be placed at the close of his life.” (p. xl)

Irenaeus’ testimony is most significant, since he was a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John himself. Incidentally, Irenaeus used the historicity of Genesis 1:27 and 2:7 in his famous Adversus Haereses or Against Heresies (documented in Irenaeus and Genesis by Thomas Holsinger-Friesen, reviewed by CMI’s New Testament scholar Lita Sanders for a coming issue of Journal of Creation).

Photo courtesy of digbible.org There is in Jerusalem a pool called the Pool of Bethesda; this is what it looks like today. (To go in the para that says: The photo (left) shows how it looks today.)
There is in Jerusalem a pool called the Pool of Bethesda; this is what it looks like today.

So the suggestion that “The early church fathers would not agree” is not correct. The Church Fathers are most persuasive evidence for the date of John, and they unanimously ascribe a later date to John, written when he was a very old man. That it was an old man, not a younger impostor, is shown by clear familiarity with pre-Fall Jerusalem, e.g. the Pool of Bethesda with five covered porches (John 5:2). The Pool’s existence has been confirmed by archaeology; the photo shows how it looks today.

A more recent work, Introduction to the New Testament, by New Testament scholars Don Carson and Douglas Moo, says:

“During the past 150 years, suggestions as to the date of the fourth gospel have varied from before AD 70 to the final quarter of the second century. Dates in the second century are pretty well ruled out by manuscript discoveries. But apart from this limitation, none of the arguments is entirely convincing, and almost any date between 55 and 95 is possible. John 21:23 suggests it was probably nearer to the end of that period than the beginning.

“Some dates seem implausibly early. Probably the inference to be drawn from 21:19 is that Peter had by his death glorified God when chapter 21 was composed. Peter died in AD 64 or 65; dates earlier than that for the composition of the fourth Gospel seem unlikely. Those who hold to a date before 70 point to details of Palestine presented as if Jerusalem and its temple complex were still standing; for example, the evangelist writes: “Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool” (John 5:2). … The silence of the fourth Gospel on the destruction of the temple is considered powerful evidence for a pre-70 date by some authors. Arguments from silence, however, are tricky things. … If he wrote in, say, 80, he may have taken the destruction of the temple as a given and let this fact make its own contribution to his theological argument.”

Carson goes on to tentatively argue for a date 80–85. I would argue that it was written before Revelation (90s date for Revelation) and after everything else in the canon, except his epistles perhaps (definitely before 1 John which alludes to the prologue of the Gospel, but we don’t know if 1, 2, and 3 are in chronological order.)

In Christ,

Russell Grigg