by J. W. Deardorff, 2011

With time progressing downwards, below is a timeline on the dating of early Christian writings that:

(a) show no definite awareness of any of the Gospels, in particular of Matthew; or
(b) show an awareness of Matthew, as by quoting from it, but do not mention the name of it or any other gospel; or
(c) show definite awareness of both Matthean text and its attributed name.

Rough estimates of the varying error bars are supplied. The primary reference used is the comprehensive study by Arthur J. Bellinzoni, “The Gospel of Matthew in the Second Century,” The Second Century (Journal), Winter, 1992, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 197-258. We start with Paul, and find no further Christian writings until about 95 CE.

Watch for (a) changing to (b), and (b) changing to (c). Shortly before (a) changes to (b) is logically when the first Gospel appeared. Shortly after (b) changes to (c) denotes the time period when it became feasible to assert, with theological conviction, that the Gospels were written by the names attributed to them..

55+/- 5 (a) Paul’s Epistles

95+/- 5 (a) 1 Clement (contains some oral tradition and a couple of later insertions from Matthew)

114+/- 3 (a) Ignatius (contains oral tradition and a later insertion from Matthew; also, Matthew may contain several quotes from Ignatius)
117+/-17 (a?b?) Epistle of Barnabas

125+/-25 (a) Letter from Mathetes to Diognetus
125+/- 5 (b) Aristides

130+/- 5 (b,c*) Papias: as relayed mainly by Eusebius, by which time it had long been heretical to believe that a Gospel was written by anyone other than the name attached to it.
130+/-10 (b) Gospel of Peter
130+/-30 (b) Didache
130+/-30 (b) Gospel of Thomas
135+/- 3 (b) Polycarp (Letter to Philippians)

140+/-10 (a?b?) The Shepherd of Hermas
140+/-10 (b) Gospel of the Nazoreans
143+/- 3 (b) Marcion (Antitheses)
145+/- 5 (b) Epistle of the Apostles

150+/-10 (b) 2 Clement
150+/-25 (b) Gospel of the Ebionites
150+/-20 (b) Gospel of Truth, Valentinus?
155+/- 5 (b) Justin

163+/-12 (b) Ptolemy (Letter to Flora)

170+/- 2 (b) Tatian (Diatesseron)
170+/-20 (b) Protevangelium of James
172+/- 2 (c) Apollinaris of Hierapolis
177+/- 1 (b) Athenagoras of Athens (Plea on Behalf of Christians)

182+/- 2 (b) Theophilus of Antioch
183+/- 5 (c) Irenaeus
185+/-15 (c) Muratorian Canon

Special discussion is needed on the entries of 1 Clement, Ignatius, and Papias. In my opinion there were two later insertions into 1 Clement: at 13:2 and 46:8. These quote quite closely from Matthew while in all other places the similarities between the two are not close enough to be deemed due to anything but oral tradition. Bellinzoni references Koester and Hagner to conclude that the writer of 1 Clement did not use any of the synoptic gospels.

Regarding Ignatius, it is at Smyrn. 1:1 // Mt 3:15 that the quotation from Matthew seems too close to be ascribable to oral tradition, and looks like a later addition (Bellinzoni suggested that it may represent “an Antiochian” revision – penned in Antioch where Ignatius had served as bishop). Furthermore, the late dating of the Gospels indicated here allows that the writer of Matthew had borrowed some from Ignatius's epistles; we infer that Mt 3.15 was later inserted into Smyrm. 1.1. 

In addressing Papias, I would first draw attention to the lack of any other mention of a Gospel by name until about 172 CE (by Apollinaris of Hierapolis), some 40 or 45 years after writings appeared that quoted from, or were aware of, the Gospel of Matthew. Nearly two generations! How could this happen, if circa 130 CE Papias had written and spoken of Matthew and Mark as being the authors of the respective writings attributed to them? And if Papias had been very influential, as stated by Eusebius? I have not come across any NT scholars who’ve addressed this question. The most obvious solution, however, is that in his writings Papias had included statements to the effect that the Gospels had not been written by the names ascribed to them. For several decades subsequent writers would already know this, and/or would believe Papias. Yet they would recognize great value in the Gospels and would wish to quote from them. So they utilized the Gospels but omitted their attributed names. However, by the time of Irenaeus, or the changeover from (b) to (c) above, it could be assumed that the Gospels first appeared so many decades earlier that it could be stated as Christian dogma that their authors had indeed been their namesakes of the first century. By this reasoning, Eusebius circa 300 CE was forced to extract sparingly and carefully from Papias’s voluminous writings, and edit them as heavily as necessary to preserve third century theological commitment.

It’s well known that Eusebius considered Papias to be a man of little intelligence, and apparently quoted from him that “things from books did not benefit me as much as the sayings of a living & abiding voice” (Hist. Eccles. 3.39.4). Both considerations together are consistent with the present hypothesis of Papias having been a “whistle blower” against those who might claim the Gospels were written by their namesakes. Whistle-blowers are often downgraded by those who maintain a cover-up of the truth.

In the above chronology, the changeover from (a) to (b) occurs around 120 CE. This strongly indicates that the first Gospel appeared around that time. And from the Apology of Aristides one infers it was Matthew. Although this date may seem late, it is the obvious conclusion, especially in view of the fact that, since the late 2nd century, theological commitment has continually tugged NT scholars towards belief in the earliest conceivable date for the first appearance of the Gospels.

A 120 date is consistent with the time expected of it judging from Eduard Meier’s “Epilogue and Explanation” section of the Talmud of Jmmanuel (TJ). It was circa 115 CE before the TJ (and a transcription of it) were delivered from the Kashmir area to the Mideast, after which it formed the basis for the first Gospel. But that is another story.