BibleThis post seeks to answer two questions regarding the documents that comprise the New Testament:

  • When were the New Testament documents written?
  • Who wrote the documents? Were they really eyewitnesses?

1. When were the New Testament documents written?

Although we cannot pinpoint exact dates for the New Testament books, we can use both internal evidence and external evidence to determine their approximate dating. (Most of the information in this section is adapted from Dr Paul Barnett's excellent book Is the New Testament Reliable?)

First, the external evidence. In the early church fathers we find many quotations of the New Testament. Three authors who wrote at the turn of the century (Clement in about 96AD, Ignatius in about 108AD, and Polycarp in about 110AD) all quote heavily from the New Testament. In summary, the only two books not quoted by these writers is 2 John and Jude. This of course does not mean that these two books were definitely not written by 100AD, but only that they were not specifically quoted by these three early writers. So on this basis, we can conclude that all (or nearly all) of the New Testament books were written before the end of the first century.

However, we can in many cases be more exact. In the case of Paul's letters, I'll quote Dr Barnett rather than try to reinterpret his already concise prose:

When Paul arrived in Corinth, he met Aquila and Priscilla who had recently "come from Italy … because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome" (Acts 18:2) This dovetails with the Roman historian Suetonius, who wrote that Claudius banished from Rome all Jews because they were continually making disturbances about Christ and Christianity (Claudius 25). Scholars of Roman history date this expulsion to c. AD 49. We conclude that Paul arrived in Corinth some time during AD 50. An inscription that fixes the beginning of Gallio's one-year appointment as proconsul in Achaia at July AD 51 confirms this, a detail that corresponds with the reference in Acts that "when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack upon Paul and brought him before the tribunal" (Acts 18:12) Since 1 Thessalonians, by common consent, was written from Corinth soon after Paul's arrival there (1 Thes 3:6 and Acts 18:5), we conclude that this letter was written in AD 50. This represents the earliest generally accepted extremity of the time frame. Few scholars dispute this date, although some may place Paul's letter to the Galatians earlier, about AD 48. (Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable?, 37-38)

So the earliest of Paul's letters was written approximately 20 years after Jesus' death. This fact is not generally disputed among scholars (Christian or not). The earliest of Paul's letters are in fact the earliest books of the New Testament. Barnett goes on to explain that the latest of Paul's letters would have been written at the end of the sixties (before AD 68 when Nero died).

Sunburst While 20 years may seem like a long time, this is much, much sooner than other historical documents we have that are considered reliable by all historians. However, we have even earlier material than this. In 1 Corinthians (written by Paul in about 54AD) chapter 15, verses 3-8 comprise an early church creed which is much earlier than 1 Corinthians itself. There are many reasons why scholars conclude this is an early creed (See Gary Habermas in Lee Strobel's book Case for Christ, 229):

  • Paul introduces it by using the words received and passed on. The original Greek words were rabbinic terms for passing on tradition.
  • The stylized structure of the passage indicates it's a creed. (It is similar to other known creeds.)
  • The creed uses words and phrases that Paul rarely or never uses himself.
  • It uses certain words that are similar to Hebrew ways of narration.
  • There is no copy of 1 Corinthians that lacks the creed.

The creed itself has been dated to within only a few years after Jesus' death! For comparison, this creed is at least 100 years earlier than the so-called "Gospel of Judas" which was recently made famous. This is the equivalent of a newsflash in ancient times. Here is what the creed, the earliest Christian testimony we have, affirms: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles …"

This of course does not prove the claim is true, merely that the Christian gospel claim was not made up many years later, but was in fact preached from the very beginning. For an analysis of this passage and the significance of its contents, see The Significance Of 1 Corinthians 15.

2. Who wrote the documents? Were they really eyewitnesses?

Doubting ThomasGiven that the New Testament documents were written within the timeframe that the eyewitnesses to Jesus were still alive (as per above) it is certainly possible that the documents were indeed written by eyewitnesses, as the authors themselves claim to be (ex. Luke 1:2, John 21:24, 1 John 1:3, 2 Peter 1:16). I have already written a brief post on Dr Richard Bauckham's excellent book (published just this year) Jesus and the Eyewitnesses which argues persuasively from (again) both internal and external evidence that the New Testament was indeed written by eyewitnesses.

If you are interested in this topic, here's a link to Bauckham's brief interview with Christianity Today magazine: They Really Saw Him: Richard Bauckham argues that the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony, not "anonymous community traditions." The key, he says, is in the names.

So in summary, we do have very good reasons to believe that the New Testament documents were both written extremely early (especially compared to all other ancient historical documents) and also were written by eyewitnesses as claimed by the authors themselves.