The New Testament is an integral part of the Christian faith. It contains stories and teachings of Jesus, who lived in the first century AD. Throughout history, many have wondered when the New Testament was actually written. To answer this question, it is important to look at the evidence that has been gathered over the centuries about its authorship and timeline. In this article, we will explore how it is structured, who wrote the different books and how it came to be able to assess when the New Testament was written.
The New Testament is structured in some main sections:
- 14 Epistles of Paul
- 4 Canonical Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John)
- The Acts of the Apostles
- 7 General Epistles
- The Book of Revelation
Many people must have been distributed by the popularity and strong influence that this small Judean sect gained from the farthest corner of the Roman Empire in the first century AD. Started out as a Jewish faith-driven evolution and later developed into its own dedicated religion. It gained strong momentum in the later centuries and became the state religion under Emperor Constantine. One man, in particular, was the true founder of Orthodox Christianity and had the most influence on building the ideological framework which we call now – the New Testament; this figure was Paul from Tarsus. His letters are the earliest accounts we have from early Orthodox Christianity. I say orthodox Christianity because we know from Pauls’s own letters that in the first, second and third centuries competing Christian nominations like the Ebonites and other branches of Christianity around and they were spreading their message throughout the Mediterranean. These groups were challenging Pauls’s vision of the Jesus movement. Paul himself was an educated, Hellenised Jew and not one of Jesus’s original disciples. Before he converted to the Jesus movement, he was a tax collector and prosecuted Christians. At some point in his life, he changed his views on religion and society and converted to this new Jewish belief system. Before diving into Pauls’s Epistles, we need to understand a very important historical event that let Judaism evolve, and both Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism were truly born. This event is the destruction of the 2nd Temple of Jerusalem. The graph underneath illustrates this:
70 AD serves as a timely marker of an upper bound for some of the New Testament texts because all three synoptic Gospels mentioned this event and scholars use these scripts to determine if these writings were created before or after this event. The Rabbis were focused on the Torah and worshipping God in synagogues while Christians centred their belief system on the fulfilled prophecy of the Messiah and the person Jesus. This is a simple illustration. In reality, the evolution of Christianity was much more complex. We know from many Christianties that I cover in my post about the Gnostic Christians. This is not all, I mentioned before the Ebonites but more sects like this existed like the Nazarenes who were more Jewish than Christian (like the Ebonites). These groups also believed in Jesus as the Saviour. Paul and many other Christian writers like Epiphanius of Cyprus were mentioning some of these groups in their writings.
After giving some important correlation of how scholars define the boundaries of dating the New Testament and its historical context. The New Testament is starting with the Gospels first but from a historical point we will begin with Pauls’s Epistles and work our way down in a chronological timely manner. Let’s dive into the scriptures of Paul.
The Epistles of the Apostle Paul
The New Testament is containing 21 epistles. The word epistles meaning “a letter”. 14 of these letters are attributed to the apostle Paul. Therefore these scripts are known as the Pauline epistles. The other 7 missives are works of different Christian authors which I will cover later. The Pauline letters were written in Greek (I am covering why was the New Testament written in Greek When was the New Testament written) which was the common language of the Roman Empire. Pauls’s letters were circulated among a very small sect or communities from the farthest corner of the Roman Empire. He is mentioned by other authors outside of his own letters and it is clear that he had a strong influence on later Christian thought. For example, Clement of Alexandria quotes Paul extensively in one of his works and refers to him as an apostle.
The earliest accounts we have about Christianity come from Paul himself through his letters. His letters were written between 50-63 AD and they circulated relatively rapidly throughout the Mediterranean region. Scholars believe that after his death, these letters were heavily edited and compiled into what we now call the New Testament. One way that scholars try to date these writings historically is by examining linguistic evidence found throughout Pauls’s writings which can help determine when a particular group spoke a certain language or dialect.
We can divide the Pauline letters into three categories:
- the first 9 letters are written to specific churches
- the next 4 are written to individuals
- The only letter which is left is Hebrews by its one. Experts are very sure this letter was not written by Paul.
The letters of Paul to the Christian churches
Did Paul write these letters or were they produced and edited in his name by later scribes? Most scholars think that Paul actually has written most of the letters. There is some disagreement regarding some of the letters. Later scribes made some errors here and there but most of the text seems to be genuine. How do scholars come to the conclusion that the letters are written by Paul? It comes down to the style in which the letters are written. The authentic letters share similar vocabulary, grammar and ideas. The writings that scholars are divided on differ from the rest. It could mean that Paul had an assistant who helped him or he wrote them at a later date or had a different mood. Possibly the other 3 letters were written by somebody who pretended to be Paul. This is not uncommon in classical antiquity.
The letters which seem authentic are:
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
The letters which are disputed (Apocrypha, meaning written many decades after Pauls’s death) are:
- 2 Thessalonians
The letters of Paul Individuals (Pastoral Epistles)
The Pastoral Epistles are made up of 4 letters which have the name Paul on it. These are:
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
but only Philemon is considered to be authentic in terms of being written by Paul. It matches the style of the previous six correspondences written to the cities and regions.
When was the Epistle of Hebrews written?
That leaves us with Hebrews which Christians Apologists think was attributed to their Apostle Paul. It seems very unlikely that this text was written by him. It doesn’t fit the style of writing. Even in the most conservative circles of scholarship. The Christian Churches would date the creation of the text at around the 60s AD but linguistic analysis and according to the majority of experts in the field (that is not a pass for the truth) would date the script after the temple of Jerusalem’s destruction which means after 70. The timeframe of creation would be 70-100s.
the letters of Paul Timeline
When Were the Gospels written?
Dating The Gospel Of Mark
The Gospel of Mark is widely considered to be the oldest and first written Gospel of the New Testament. It is the shortest of all of them. After the Pauline letters that would make the Gospel of Mark and therefore the originator of this script the second oldest Jesus Christ movement stuff we possess. Why do most scholars think that? Because it is more likely that people add something than take something away from the “holy text”. Can you imagine all the miracles and Jesus’ birth narrative would just be erased by pious early Christians? That would seem like blasphemy. The Gospel of Mark was properly written in the 70s AD.
Dating The Gospel Of Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew is the most Jewish-influenced text in the complete New Testament. Most modern scholars are convinced that Matthew has used the Gospel of Mark intensively and added his own take on the Jesus Christ story to it. It must have been written after Mark and therefore after the 2nd Jewish temple was shattered. Some unbiased experts are supporters like Professor James Tabor or Dr Dennis MacDonald of a so-called “Q” (German for Quellle, Source) document which the Author of Matthew has used to add up missing stories in Mark. Some other scholars like Dr Richard Carrier would argue that Matthew made the stories up. The current professional take when the Gospel of Matthew was written is between 80 – 90 AD.
Dating The Gospel Of Luke And The Acts Of The Apostles
Dating of the Gospel of Luke is still set in the 90 AD although more and more modern scholars (Marc Godacre, James Tabor, Dennis MacDonald) would date Luke in the 2nd century AD, which makes much more sense to me as the creator of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles seems to have the same originator. The linguistic style of how it was written is just too similar. It was already longly believed that Acts dates to around 110 to 130 AD. It would make sense to push back the date for the Gospel of Luke into this century. This is not the only logical assumption, there is good evidence too. Dr Jennifer Grace Bird would argue that in some sentences in Luke when he speaks about Paul would contradict or be absent in Pauls’s letters. Dr Paula Fredriksen thinks that the apocalyptic expectations of the early Christian communities and Luke’s more settled death-relating perspective is fitting the 2nd century better. We need to be aware that Paul thought the kingdom of heaven would come in his own lifetime and that obviously never happened. Dr Marc Godacre was more and more convinced that the creator of Luke and Acts has also used Josephus “The Antiquity of the Jews” (90 AD). These are “just” a few statements from scholars who think that Luke was late. I tend to accept that we should date both Luke and Acts to the time between 100 – 130 AD.
The following video with Dr David Littwa will illustrate in very interesting detail why Luke is late.
Dating The Gospel Of John
John was written probably at the beginning of the 2nd- century AD. In expert circles, it was and still is dated at the end of the 1st century AD. We have spoken about the Gospel of Luke and as claimed before, Luke was written before John almost all experts agree with this. Dating manuscripts is not easy carbon dating has a range of around 100 years and linguistic analysis has a similar range. We would rely on citations from other writers (Christian or even better contrary) and events which we know from history happened (my article about how to judge if something or somebody is historical would dive deeper). The author of John, the text is anonymous (it was just church tradition to call the text John, to give it more authority), invented new figures (like the beloved disciple) into the story and gave it a different spin. In former times mixing reality with fiction was quite a common way of writing. Like the many Roman, Greek and Mesopotamian texts (Iliad, Romulus, Gilgamesh sagas). When we accepted the more modern interpretation of modern scholars that Luke was written around 100-130 AD. We would date John around 110-140 AD.
The book of James was attributed to the brother of Jesus and the leader of the church of Jerusalem. It is believed by Christian apologists to have been written around 50-60 AD, which would make it one of the earliest books in the New Testament. However, most scholars argue that it was written much later, possibly in the 2nd century AD. The letter is addressed to Jewish Christians and emphasises the importance of faith and works as well as practical Christian living. The epistle of James almost didn’t make it into the New Testament. It seems that his letter is also one of the letters which can be classified as Pseudepigrapha (false teachings).
The authorship of 1 Peter is traditionally attributed to Peter himself, but many scholars dispute this claim. It is believed to have been written between in the 2nd. century AD during a time of persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire. The letter encourages Christians to remain steadfast in their faith despite suffering and persecution. It is highly unlikely that Peter who was a non-literate fisherman could read and write. It seems very unlikely that he would write it in Greek either. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t have learned it or somebody else could have written it for him but that seems very unlikely. We have to remember that 90 per cent of people at that time couldn’t read and write only a small portion of society had this privilege and only 1 per cent were very good at it. The writing style isn’t the only problem with this letter, it just doesn’t sound like the creator of the text has known Jesus Christ personally, which Peter did. It seems the originator of the text had expert knowledge of the Septuagint and other ancient classics.
The authorship of 2 Peter has been disputed since ancient times. It is believed to have been written around 100-150 AD, long after the death of Peter. According to church tradition, he was crucified in Rome and he wanted to be crucified with his head down as he saw himself as not worthy of being killed like his idol. The letter warns against false teachers. I have to mention that the two Peter letters are very likely written by two different authors. It seems the writer of 2nd. Peter has copied some bits from Jude.
The authorship of 1 John is traditionally attributed to John, one of Jesus’ disciples. It was likely written between 110-150 AD and addresses issues such as false teachings and love for fellow believers.
The authorship of 2 John is also traditionally attributed to John. It was likely written around the same time as 1 John (110-140 AD) and focuses on warning against deceivers who deny that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. It is pushing a certain narrative in which many Christian groups had different takes on who this Jesus guy was.
3rd John is a short letter attributed to John and likely written towards the end of his life (around 90-100 AD). It addresses issues within a specific church community and highlights hospitality towards travelling preachers. All 3 letters, which are attributed to the apostle John don’t start with the name of the sender. We don’t know who wrote them like many other texts which are in the New Testament. The Letter of John 2 and 3 only starts with the word “the elder”. It is possible that the men who wrote the Gospel of John also wrote these 3 letters of John. The style is similar enough to suspect that. He or she could have been a member of the hypothetical “Johannine” movement.
Jude was likely written by Jude, a brother or relative of James mentioned earlier in this article. It was probably composed around 110 – 130 AD and warns against false teachers who have infiltrated Christian communities. Like the epistle of James, Jude almost didn’t make the cut to be included in the Canon.
A final thought to the general Epistles
In conclusion, while there remains some debate among scholars regarding specific dates and authorship of certain books in the New Testament, most agree on general ranges and themes. The consent according to most scholars is that None of the general epistles are authentic and is classified as Pseudepigrapha.
The General Epistles were probably written over a span of several decades in the second century by various authors but they provide valuable insights into the early Christian movement as we don’t have as much of findings as we (humankind) would hope for.
The Book of Revelation
One of the most obscure and strangest texts in the New Testament is the Book of Revelation. It seems to be written by a guy called John of Patmos. Patmos is a small, greek island close to the shores of Turkey. The guy who wrote this script seems to be a survivor of the Jewish war and the traumatisation is present in his wording as he saw in “visions” a dragon, dark angels, monsters, war and death, a little child and a pregnant woman. Vulnerability and cruelty intervened and John tried to rationalise his beliefs, hopes and experiences with the world around him. It seems like he tried to express and work out his traumatising, empirical knowledge as an attempt to cope with reality. Granted, the ancient world was cruel and it may not have been the aftermath or effects of the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 but it looks like the writer was Jewish Christian. He would have needed to bring his beliefs that Jesus predicted the end of the world and the Roman victory on the other side into alignment with reality. How can it be that Jesus predicted the end but the kingdom of heaven didn’t come? Seeing the statue of emperor Domitian the son of Vespasian and his brother Titus who lead the campaign against the Jewish people and destroyed the temple of Jerusalem must have been just as humiliating as the cruelty which happened then. The Roman-Jewish war together with linguistic analysis is something scholars use as a marker to work out the date of many Christian texts when they were written, the same applies to the Book of Revelation. It is widely recognised that these stories were written between 81-96 AD. On a side note, the story told in the book of Revelation was so strange that it baffled Martin Luther and he suggested not including the text in a Canon.
Books which almost made it into the Canon
The Shepard Of Hermas
The Shepherd Of Hermas is an important work that provides valuable insights into the beliefs and practices of early Christians. It is composed of five visions, twelve commandments, and parables and similitudes that emphasize repentance, forgiveness, and the importance of doing good deeds. It also includes teachings on the nature of God and the Church, although the authorship of the book is unclear. It is believed to have been written in Rome around 140-150 AD, and while it was widely read and respected in the early Christian Church, it ultimately didn’t make it into the Canon of the Western World. However, it is part of the Ethiopian Bible and one of the oldest complete copies of the New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus, which can be seen in the British Library. Overall, these books which almost made it into the Canon provide valuable insights into the beliefs and practices of early Christians and are still studied and appreciated by scholars and laypeople alike for their historical and theological significance.
The Epistle Of Barnabas
One script which is also part of the Codex Sinaiticus is the Epistle of Barnabas. Barnabas was one of the travel companions of Paul as Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) has claimed. It is unclear who, when and for whom it was actually written to. The Epistle of Barnabas is a letter and a sermon. We don’t have an exact date when the text was written but certainly before or in the lifetime of Clement. The common guess of scholars is that the text was written in the second century AD, possibly around 130 AD, and most likely in Alexandria, Egypt. It made use of a strong allegorical interpretation of scripture. It has very severe anti-jewish rhetoric. Jewish and Christian sects were battling between them over the “right” way of interpretation of gods way.
The Didache is another interesting text that almost made it into the New Testament canon. It is also known as “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”. The text provides practical instructions for Christian living and church organization. It includes teachings on baptism, fasting, prayer, and the Eucharist. The Didache is believed to have been written in the late first century or early second century AD, making it one of the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament. It was widely used and respected by early Christians but fell out of favour later on. It wasn’t until 1873 when a Greek Orthodox bishop discovered a manuscript of the Didache in Istanbul that it gained renewed attention from scholars. Today, the Didache is recognized as an important historical document that sheds light on early Christian practices and beliefs.
Summary of when the New Testament was written
The New Testament is a collection of 27 books and letters written by various authors over about 100 years. The formation and recognition of the New Testament canon was a long process that took several centuries. Many different Christian texts were circulating in the early church, and it wasn’t until the end of the 4th century that the canon as we know it today was finalized. Even then, there were debates and disagreements over which books should be included. Other scripts like the Gospel of Thomas could have also been considered to be part of the New Testament. Despite this lengthy process, the New Testament remains one of the most important religious texts in history. It has had a profound impact on Western civilisation and continues to shape the beliefs and values of millions of people around the world.
The earliest text we have are the letter of Paul, written in the 50s AD.
Christian theology was a process which developed over many centuries and it was a political endeavour to bring many different Christian communities and belief systems together and unify them and one authority which we call nowadays the church. Even now, we have many nominations and churches that differ from each other. It can simply be subscribed as a natural human thinking process which involves and change over time.
No, Hebrew has already been replaced by Aramaic in Jesus’ times.
It could be, but we don’t have any kind of evidence of that. All evidence (archaeological, linguistical) points to it being written in Greek.