The Authorship and Dating of the New Testament[1]

    Before we can talk about what the New Testament says, we have to justify that what it says can be trusted. We must understand as much as we can about the authors of the New Testament and when they wrote it. The authors must have clear links to the eyewitnesses (or be eyewitnesses) to reduce the possibility of communication mistakes. We will learn that even in the most pessimistic, but rational, reading of the data, we come to the understanding that the authors of the New Testament are close enough to the events to be able to give an accurate picture of historical events. Much will be uncertain; but this we will know; and this is what we need in order to continue our investigation of scripture and Christian history.

    Much of the information we have about the authors of the New Testament comes from the church fathers, the leaders of the church in the post-apostolic age. There is an unbroken chain of writers discussing the New Testament that goes back to soon after the Gospels were written. The writings of the church fathers are referred to as "the tradition" or as "patristic sources" in most discussions of this subject. For my purposes I will look at the most relevant information from before A.D. 430. All information from after this time either depends on earlier available sources or is suspect because we are unable to determine what the earlier sources are.

    Unfortunately, the questions of New Testament authorship and dating are not cut and dried. The church fathers did not have the current understanding of history and authorship. They did not use footnotes or copyright dates. They rarely list their sources. There is substantial variation in the writings of the church fathers. To determine New Testament authorship as best we can, we use the earliest of the patristic sources augmented by the internal evidence of the New Testament.

    In order to be able to use the patristic traditions to glean information, we must have a clear understanding of how their traditions changed with time. At the origin of a tradition, there is the true story. This is what actually happened. Those who see or experience the events (eyewitnesses) tell others (second-hand witnesses) about it. The second-hand witnesses tell third-hand witnesses and so forth. Each retelling can be either oral or written.[2] With each retelling, there are a certain number of mistakes made. That is, the true story gets corrupted. Because each witness tells many of the next generation of witnesses, and each make different mistakes, there becomes many different, though related, traditions. The more important a tradition is, the more stable it is, because people are more careful when they give and receive it. The more people that know and agree on a tradition, the more stable it is, because they correct each other. Also, we must remember that not every tradition gets retold. If a tradition is not believed, or is considered unimportant, it will not be repeated. The traditions that get pruned will be those that are the least popular, but not necessarily the least true. In summary, over time traditions split and are pruned. The dominant tradition will then be subject to drift as traditions grow and split in one place and are pruned in another. Therefore, in order to keep the true story, it is critical that the tradition gets frozen before too much time has passed. When we have many traditions available, we can use this model to analyze the relevance of each tradition.

    Note that it is popular among certain Bible scholars to discount the patristic tradition as a matter of course and rely only on the biblical texts themselves to determine questions of authorship and dating. This is silly for several reasons. The Bible was not handed to us by God in A.D. 1800. Much can be learned from what has been written about it in the preceding millennia. Today's man is not so much more knowledgeable and less biased than ancient man. Especially for the ancient tradition, we can expect that the church fathers actually had information that is not available to us by virtue of how close they were to the events themselves. Textual criticism of the New Testament can be problematic because it lends itself very strongly to non-conclusive arguments that depend more on the assumptions of the critic than the text. There are exceptions to this, but those exceptions are uncommon. In general, I will take the position that the patristic tradition is authoritative, unless the tradition itself is murky or it is contradicted by a clear and convincing textual argument from the New Testament.

The Tradition

    Below are the most important church fathers with respect to the authorship and dating of the New Testament. For the most part, I will quote only these unless the record is thin or conflicting.

    Papias (late 1st cent. - mid 2nd cent.) was a bishop of Hierapolis. He wrote a five book series, Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord, which has now been lost except for quotations in later books, which are referred to as the fragments of Papias.

    The Muratorian Fragment (ca A.D. 170) is not a church father, exactly, but a document. It is the oldest list of the books of the New Testament. The document itself is in bad shape, so for the most part it is difficult to interpret the absence of a particular book from this list. A book being on the list is a fair indication that it was in widespread use, however. It is dated because the author refers to the recent episcopate of Pius I of Rome, who died in A.D. 157.

    Irenaeus (A.D. ca. 130 - ca. 202) was a bishop of Lyons. His preserved writings argue primarily against the Gnostics, a heretical splinter group. Because of the theme of this writing, he spent more time discussing sources than most writers of this era.

    Clement of Alexandria (A.D. ca. 150 - ca. 213) was the head of the catechetical school in Alexandria. He should not be confused with Clement of Rome, one of the first popes.

    Tertullian (A.D. ca. 160 - ca. 225) was primarily a writer of which many works are preserved. He converted to Christianity in middle life, but split away from the main church late in life largely because the church was not strict enough to suit him.

    Origen (A.D. ca. 185 - ca. 253) was the head of the catechetical school in Alexandria after Clement. He left there as a result of a conflict (more political than theological) with the local bishop, and founded a new school in Caesarea.

    Eusebius (A.D. 263-339) was bishop of Caesarea and the first true church historian. He preserved much of the tradition that would have been lost otherwise.

    Jerome (ca. A.D. 347-419 or 420) was a priest and ascetic who moved frequently and wrote on many topics relevant to the church. He was the primary creator of the Vulgate, a key Latin translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew sources.

    Augustine (A.D. 354-430) was a convert to Christianity and became bishop of Hippo. He was one of the great theologians of the church, and he also reported on historical details. In this time (and largely under the influence of Jerome and Augustine) there were several councils that ratified the contents of the current Roman Catholic Bible. As such, this is a natural time to end the discussion of the tradition. Practically speaking, the vast majority of the canon was accepted as soon as it was written, but there were several books with more controversial histories that took longer to accept or reject.

The Synoptic Gospels

    The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke show dramatic similarities. When displayed in three columns, with Matthew on the left, Mark in the middle, and Luke on the right (Gospel Parallels Throckmorton), it becomes apparent that there is a significant relationship between the Gospels. They frequently describe the same events, have events in the same order, and use the same wording in a way that implies written dependence rather than oral dependence. Understanding the source of these similarities is referred to as the synoptic problem. The dominant understanding is that Matthew and Luke both separately had access to Mark, but not to each other. Mark's language is awkward or problematic in many cases. Both Matthew and Luke fix this language, but often in different ways. Similarly, Matthew and Luke often modify the order of events in Mark, but not in the same way. That is to say, for passages that are in all three Gospels, Matthew agrees with Mark and Luke agrees with Mark much more than Matthew agrees with Luke against Mark.

    Both Matthew and Luke agree with each other, however, on content that is not in Mark. The understanding here is that there is another source, called Q by scholars, that both Matthew and Luke had. Q is primarily composed of sayings of Jesus. It is not expected that Matthew or Luke used each other because of the significant number of otherwise inexplicable omissions and conflicts between Matthew and Luke in how they use Mark and Q.

    Finally, there is material that is unique to Matthew and other material that is unique to Luke. These are referred to as M and L, respectively. What we have described is called the four source hypothesis, where Mark, Q, M, and L are the sources. It is also often referred to as the two source hypothesis, where Mark and Q are the sources, and M and L are assumed.

    Also apparent is that the author of John did not use the other Gospels as sources, and the other Gospels did not use John as a source. John almost never uses the same words to describe events and only occasionally describes the same events. It is likely that John was aware of the other Gospels, because his was the last written (see below). However, he was more concerned about recording what the others did not write about than what they did.

    Now let us look in more detail at each of the books themselves.

The Synoptic Gospels

The Gospel According to Mark, written by Mark, an associate of Peter (A.D. 55-70).

The Gospel According to Luke, written by Luke, an associate of Paul (A.D. 60-75), and The Acts of the Apostles A.D. 65-85), written by the same person.

The Gospel According to Matthew, written by an anonymous Jewish Christian (A.D. 60-85) and Q, written by Matthew the apostle (A.D. 45-70).

The Writings of John

The Gospel According to John, written by the Johannine community based on the testimony of John the apostle, (A.D. 95-115).

The Letters of John. The first was written by John the apostle, likely with the assistance of an amanuensis, (A.D. 60-100). The second and third were written by the presbyter, which may or may not have been John, (A.D. 45-130).

The Apocalypse, written by John the apostle, (A.D. 90-95).

The Letters of Paul

The Letters of Paul, written by Paul, (A.D. 49-67).

The Other Letters

The Other Letters, written by various persons, some apostles and some not, (A.D. 50-150).

    We now know that the entire New Testament was written by first-, second-, and third-hand witnesses, in the range of 20-120 years after the death of Jesus. The majority of the New Testament was written by second-hand witnesses from 30-55 years after the death of Jesus. This is a critical piece upon which the reliability of the New Testament rests. For the most part, later sections will rely on the Gospels because this is where almost all the sayings and actions of Jesus are, and Acts, because it focuses on the early history of the church. I included discussions of the letters because they give context and support to the Gospels, as well as demonstrate that Christianity existed as a movement by A.D. 50.


[1] My sources for this section and its subsections are Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, the 2003 version of the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the book The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F.F. Bruce, and the writings of the church fathers. I also used bits and pieces of various web sources, such as that of Glenn Davis and Mahlon H. Smith, to help fill out some of the details.

[2] In oral cultures, oral traditions are stable in a way that can be surprising to those who have not experienced such traditions. However, it is not as surprising when we realize that oral cultures contain the entire wisdom and history of their people in oral form, so much care is employed. See Bailey, K.E. "Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels," Themelios 20.2 (1995) for a fascinating and informative look into current middle-eastern oral culture.

This page was last changed on 2011/08/28