Dating the New Testament





Overview and Timeline

Destruction of Jerusalem







1 and 2 Corinthians





1 and 2 Thessalonians

1 and 2 Timothy




The Epistle of James

1 and 2Peter

1, 2 and 3 John

1 and 2Peter



Church Fathers


Dating the Old Testament

The Gospel of John, the Letters of 1, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation

Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos by Hans Burgkmair

The writings of John are often assigned the latest dates of all New Testament literature, with some secular scholars placing them well into the second century A.D., and even most conservative scholars dating at least Revelation around 95 A.D., when John would have been over 80 years old. Of course John the son of Zebedee, the disciple of Jesus, could not have lived long enough to write anything much into the second century, so in this case establishing a date of writing should first involve establishing that John was in fact the author.

It would perhaps be best to first establish the case that the same author is responsible for all the books associated with John. The New Testament books of John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John and Revelation are sometimes called the Johannine literature and are traditionally assigned to John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. The attributions within these books are not at all clear on this point, since the Gospel of John and 1 John are anonymous, 2 John and 3 John are letters from “The Elder”, and the Revelation is given to simply “His servant John” (Rev 1:1). Still, there is reason to believe that the traditional understanding here is correct. The identification of John the son of Zebedee as the author of this material is dependent on a combination of the writings of early church fathers and indirect evidence within these books.

Holding John the son of Zebedee to be the author of Revelation are the second century church fathers Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, along with third century fathers Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian of Carthage, Origen of Alexandria, and Hippolytus of Rome. Ignatius (35-107), Papius, Iraneus and Origin (185-254) assigned John the son of Zebedee as the author of the Gospel of John. However, Papius identifies a separate John as the writer of the letters of John and Revelation, so there is some variance in early tradition as to authorship of the Johannine letters.

Unlike the other gospels, John the apostle is never named in the Gospel of John, though his name seems to be deliberately self-obscured by calling himself "another disciple" or the "disciple that Jesus loved" (John 13:23, 18:15-16, 19:26-27, 20:2-4, 20:8, 21:7, 21:20, 21:23-24). The "we" in John 1:14 indicates that the author, along with the other apostles, were eyewitnesses of Jesus.

There is little dispute as to a common author for the short letters of 2 John and 3 John. Both are written by a man calling himself “The Elder.” 2 John 1:12 says “Though I have many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face,” while 3 John 13-14 has the remarkably similar “I had many things to write to you, but I am not willing to write them to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we will speak face to face.” In both books the author rejoices over “children walking in truth.”

Having connected 2 and 3 John, let us now connect these books to the longer letter of 1 John. Despite the brevity of 2 and 3 John, many common ideas and phrases are obvious. Both 1 and 2 John speak of a “new commandment” (1 John 2:8, 2 John 5) of love. “Truth” is a key concept in all three (1 John 1:6, 1:8, 2:21, 3:19, 4:6, 5:6; 2 John 1, 2, 4; 3 John 1, 3, 4, 8, 12). 1 and 2 John warn of multiple antichrists (1 John 4:3, 2 John 7). 2 John 9, “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son,” is similar to multiple passages in 1 John. Although 1 John does not have an attribution of authorship, the author writes as an “elder,” addressing his readers as “little children” (1 John 2:1, 2:18, 2:28, 3:18, 4:4, 5:21).

Many of these themes in 1-3 John are also present in the Gospel of John. The subject of truth and the idea of a commandment of love is prominent in both books, along with the idea that God is light. "Eternal life" is a phrase that occurs with disproportionate freqency in John and 1 John. Common between the Gospel of John and Revelation are the ideas of Christ as the Lamb and the water of life. Christ is described by the Greek word "logos", meaning "word", in John 1:1, 14; 1 John 1:1, and Rev 19:13, but nowhere else in the Bible. Only Rev 1:7 and John 19:34 say Jesus was “pierced." The picture of Christ as a lamb is also prominent in both books. Finally, Rev 1:1-2, "...John, who bore record of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw", could be read as saying that the author of this book previously wrote the gospel as well.

Some scholars have argued for different authors for John and Revelation because of differences in how the Greek language is used in the two books. However, this can probably be explained by the circumstances of writing. John, the Galilean fisherman, would have learned Greek not as his mother tongue but as a second or third language. The Greek of Revelation is different and non-standard, probably because John wrote it as a letter without help. The Gospel of John, though clearly coming from John, looks like it was a collaberative effort. John 21:24 says: "This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true." The "he" in this verse at the end of the book is probably John, and the "we" is almost surely the Christian community working with him to put the book into its final form. A similar reference occurs in John 19:35. Also, one major point should be made about all the Johannine literature: it is very easy to read, much more so than anything by Peter, Paul, Luke or Hebrews (Ask a beginning Greek student!) This is understandable when one considers that Greek was not John's first language.

Identifying the apostle as the author of all the Johannine writings pulls their date of writing into the first century A.D. However, the perspective that the Gospel of John and Revelation have on the city of Jerusalem pulls their dates earlier still, as discussed in the page on the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Gospel of John

John 5 tells a story about a man Jesus heals by the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. Jesus says to the sick man, “Do you wish to get well?” The sick man replies “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me" (John 5:6-7). Now the problem with this passage is that it makes no sense to most of John’s readers; the sick man’s reply doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the question Jesus asked. However, to Jews familiar with Jerusalem, the reply did make sense, because they knew something the rest of John’s readers did not. They knew that there was a tradition that an angel would periodically stir the waters of the pool, and when this happened, the first one in the pool would be healed. One of the very early copiers of John’s gospel saw fit to include this explanation, and it is retained in John 5:3b-4 in some manuscripts. The point here is that John is doing something common in relating a story; he is caught up in the telling of the story, and he has forgotten for the moment that not all of his readers are familiar with Jerusalem. The fact that John sometimes forgets that his readers are not familiar with Jerusalem leads to another fairly obvious conclusion – John is familiar with Jerusalem. Yet if John speaks of Jerusalem with such familiarity, and the city was completely destroyed in 70 A.D., John cannot be writing much later than that. In fact, John is probably writing earlier than that.

John 5:2 says “Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes.” There is no ambiguity about the verb tense here; the Greek word "estin", translated “is”, is a present tense verb. However, what John writes is untrue now and has been untrue ever since 70 A.D. It was true only before 70. Furthermore, if John wrote to the generation living anytime around the fall of Jerusalem in 70, or even the Bar Kochba revolt around 135, what John said would not only have been untrue, it would also have been painful for a Jew to read. It would be similar to telling an American that there is a nice restaurant on the top flower of World Trade Center Tower 2 (there was before September 11, 2001). Even if John is the last of the four gospels written, as may well be true, this verse still points to it being written prior to 70.

So if John was written before 70, when was it written after? John 11:49 and 11:51 indicate that at the time of writing, Caiaphas was no longer High Priest. Caiaphas was High Priest from 18-37 A.D. Few indeed would date John prior to 37, but at least this is a definte initial marker. More can perhaps be learned by comparing John to the synoptic gospels. In some cases, John fills in material left out by the previous gospels, actually addressing some questions that might have been raised by the previous gospels. Examples include:

  • In Matthew and Mark, two false witnesses at the trial of Jesus claim that Jesus said “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.” (Matt 26:61, 27:40, Mark 14:58). Nowhere in the synoptic gospels does Jesus say anything like this, so those accounts by themselves might lead the church to believe this was an entirely false charge. However, in John Jesus says “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).
  • When Jesus is arrested, the synoptic gospels record that one of the people with Jesus drew a sword and slashed off the right ear of the High Priest’s servant (Matt 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:50). None of the synoptic gospels identify this individual. It is John who indicates that this person is Peter (John 18:10). The fact that the synoptic gospels do not identify Peter here is noteworthy – Peter is prominent in all the gospels, so why is his name not mentioned? It may be because what Peter has done here is highly illegal – he is violently resisting arrest, and could be charged with a crime. Peter was already a controversial figure in Jerusalem in the days of the early church – being arrested at least once. The gospel writers didn’t want to give the authorities a legitimate charge against Peter,so they didn’t write his name down in this story. Why did John include Peter’s name? Because John was written later, certainly after Peter had left Jerusalem and quite possibly after Peter had died.
  • The story of the resurrection of Lazarus is one of the most dramatic stories in the New Testament, and John presents this event as one of the final triggers that lead to the decision to have Jesus killed (John 11:45-57). If the story was so important, why then was it omitted from all the synoptic gospels? The reason is that those gospels were written while Lazarus was still alive. There was a plot to kill Lazarus at the time (John 12:9-11), and the synoptic gospels may not have mentioned Lazarus in order to protect him. When Luke tells the story of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, he not only does not mention Lazarus by name, he even omits the name of the village where they lived, Bethany (Luke 10:38-42). By the time John was written, Lazarus apparently had died (again), so now his story could be fully told.
  • John 7:42 John assumes his readers know Jesus was born in Bethlehem, assuming the Bethlehem account in either Matthew or Luke.
  • Finally, although the inference is not completely certain, the end of John seems to indicate that John knows about Peter's death and how he would die. (John 21:18-24), and that John would outlive Peter.

    One aspect of the gospel of John that is generally missed, since it has no relevance whatsoever for Christians today, is its attitude toward John the Baptist. Just as the author of Hebrews needed to warn his readers not to worship angels, when John was written some people were apparently inclined to worship John the Baptist. This can be seen by the unusual wording in John 1:19-20, “he [John the Baptist] confessed and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” The triple emphasis confessed – did not deny – but confessed, is unique in the book. Apparently there may have been a faction at that time that was inclined to believe that John the Baptist was the Messiah, and the author of the book needed to address this. John 1:21-37 continues with a witness in the Baptist’s own words to the superiority of Jesus and the inferiority of his own role. Even before the passage beginning in John 1:21, the author feels a need to introduce John the Baptist twice in the prologue of his book (1:6-8 and 1:15), each time emphasizing John’s subordination to Jesus and witness to Jesus. Yet this was still not enough for the author, because he comes back to it in John 3:23-36. There the Baptist has to affirm to his disciples that it was good for Jesus to baptize more than him, because “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Note also at the beginning of this passage that the author says “for John had not yet been thrown into prison.” This is another historical detail that the author assumes his readers already know, as the gospel of John says nothing about the story of how John was thrown into prison or met his death. This may be yet another indication that the gospel of John was written after the other gospels which tell this story, or it may be that John the Baptist was so prominent in the minds of some of his readers that no explanation was necessary.

    When in history was there a Jewish faction potentially inclined to consider John the Baptist as the Messiah? Certainly this was not a movement that endured for any significant length of time at all. Yet it appeared to be a serious consideration for some at the time this gospel was written. There is one hint of something like this elsewhere in the New Testament. In Acts 18:24-28, Apollos arrives in Ephesus, but Apollos “knew only the baptism of John”, and Aquila and Priscilla have to instruct him more thoroughly. In Acts 19:1-7, Paul encounters in Ephesus a group of “disciples” who had never heard of the Holy Spirit and had only been baptized “into John’s baptism”, and they also need to be instructed. John the son of Zebedee later in his life is associated with the churches in Asia Minor, and Ephesus in particular (Ephesus is the first church addressed in Revelation), so he may have been thinking of this same faction when he wrote. However, Paul’s encounter with the disciples of the Baptist at Ephesus was at the beginning of his third missionary journey, around 52 A.D. There is no other indication that a “John the Baptist faction” continued to exist later than that. Paul did not deal with it in his letter to the Ephesians, and it is not mentioned in the letter to the Ephesians in Revelation. The fact that the gospel of John feels a need to address it points to an early date for the book.

    We see therefore that there exists multiple reasons for dating John early, and certainly prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. On the other hand, John shows evidence of being written after the synoptic gospels. Given the developmental history of the synoptic gospels described on this web site, that could still be quite early. The best clue that pushes the date later is that John was probably written after the death of Peter in 64. A date of about 65 A.D. would seem reasonable.


    Revelation is assumed by most scholars, including very conservative scholars, to have been written during a period of persecution under Caesar Domitian in 95 A.D. Supporting this date under Domitian are the early church fathers Tertullian, Victorious, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, and Jerome. This should be considered as serious evidence, and the analysis that follows is the only instance on this web site in which the conclusions have deviated seriously from the tradition of the early church fathers.

    In Revelation the situation is complex because there are several very different schools of interpretation of the book. However, the date situation is problematic for all of them. In Rev 11:1-2, the author is asked to measure the temple but to leave out the court. This is an earthly temple in Jerusalem, as Rev 11:2 makes clear. Two witnesses with supernatural power then testify from Jerusalem for a time, until they are killed. The city of Jerusalem is called “Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” Then in Rev 11:13 there is an earthquake that destroys a tenth of the city, and 7000 people are killed. Now consider how strange this passage would be if written in 95 A.D. (a date often suggested for Revelation), when Jerusalem had been an uninhabited ruin for 25 years. Why would the author bother to criticize its spiritual condition, as in 11:8? What would be the significance of saying that a tenth of the city would be destroyed, when in fact the entire city had already been destroyed? 7000 people in Jerusalem are described as being killed in this earthquake, but no one lived in Jerusalem in 95 A.D. The best recourse that allows for a 95 A.D. date is to assume that the author knew all this, but was looking forward to a future time when Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and then these things would happen. This is not really possible with what is called a “preterit” interpretation of Revelation, which applies all of Revelation to the time it was written. The “futurist” interpretation of Revelation, which places much of the book in the future immediately prior to the Second Coming, could allow a 95 A.D. date, though even there a difficulty remains in that Revelation says nothing about Jerusalem being rebuilt – it just assumes it.

    Revelation looks to have been written before there was a clear break between Christians and Jews. Rev 2:9 and 3:9 refer to those "who say they are Jews but are not", while the 144,000 sealed in chapter 7 are from the twelve tribes of Israel. This joint association of Christians and Jews together disappears as the New Testament closes, as even the earliest church fathers address Christians and Jews with an "us and them" perspective.

    So if Revelation is prior to 70, what date is most likely? The apocalyptic nature of the book fits best in the late 60's. James, Peter and Paul had been martyred and the church in Rome was undergoing substantial persecution. Rome had been burned ( The multiple references to the burning of Babylon the great may call to mind the image of the great Roman fire). Nero has died, setting in motion a bitter and deadly power struggle that saw three different Caesars come and go within a year. And finally, Rome was locked in a death struggle with the Jews in the land of Israel. Since Nero died in June of 68, the year 69-70 seems most likely as a date of writing for Revelation, with the caveat that if it was written in 70 it was before July when Jerusalem was destroyed.

    1, 2 and 3 John

    So finally we are left with the letters of 1, 2 and 3 John. Here there is little to go on, but some conclusions can be made. John writes as an "elder" to his spiritual "children" (1 John 2:1, 2:12, 2:18, 2 John 1; 3 John 1, 4). Since John was apparently a youthful disciple, the younger brother of James, this implies that a good deal of time has passed since Jesus' earthly ministry. Also, John's warns against a gnostic influence (1 John 1:1 says he "handled" Jesus, 2 John 7 warns against those who denied Jesus had come "in the flesh"). One of the gnostic teachings was that Jeus was a spirit-man rather than a real human. This was not the earliest of heresies in the Christian church, and it also indicates that the letters of John are not early. In 2 John, there is an unusual level of intentional anonymity - "the elder", "the elect lady", "her children", "the children of your elect sister" (2 Jon 1, 13), and this might indicate a time of persecution. A date around of 65 A.D. for all three letters would seem appropriate, and there does not seem to be a clear way to designate a particular order for the three letters.