Expository Files 20.5 – May 2013
New Testament Documents – Date & Authorship — By Steve Wolfgang
“In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and the eighties of the first century (very probably sometime between about A.D. 50 and 75).” – William F. Albright, Johns Hopkins University (1963, p.4)
Almost a half-century ago, when I first began to think seriously about various controversies over the dating and authorship of New Testament documents, one of the first things I encountered was this then-newly-minted comment by one of the world’s leading archaeologists, William F. Albright. While that comment was made a few years before his death in an interview in the evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, it was by no means a spur-of-the moment interjection common in interviews. Albright had previously written, in light of archaeological discoveries (his area of scholarly expertise), that “[t]hanks to the Qumran discoveries [the Dead Sea Scrolls], the New Testament proves to be in fact what it was formerly believed to be: the teaching of Christ and his immediate followers between circa 25 and circa 80 A.D” (Albright, 1957, p. 23).
What I have learned since encountering Albright’s comment has only caused me to see more clearly why this accomplished archaeologist said what he did. Interestingly, Albright’s assessment is not unique among unlikely sources of such assessments. Possibly the most unlikely source is the staunch atheist and eugenics advocate H.G. Wells (unfortunately much more widely known and read than Albright), who also acknowledged that the four gospels “were certainly in existence a few decades after [Christ’s] death” (498). Unless one reads documents through the lens of a apriori assumptions, the evidence supports the conclusions that the historical accounts, letters, biography, and other genres found in the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses and other persons living in that historical period with access to written sources and persons knowledgeable about the events
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described. The New Testament is not the stuff of mythology or fiction, as the early and wide accessibility of the documents attest.
Background: Various Theories and Proposals
Obviously, the dates and time frames for the authorship of the various documents are significant issues in an apologetic argument for Christianity. Confidence in the historical accuracy of these documents depends partly on whether they were written by eyewitnesses and contemporaries to the events described, as many New Testament texts claim. Some critical scholars have attempted to strengthen their contentions by separating the actual events from the writings by as much time as possible. For this reason radical scholars (for example, the “Jesus Seminar”) argue for late first century or even second century dates for the original manuscripts. Invoking these dates barely opens the door to argue that the New Testament documents, especially the Gospels, are “mythological” and that the writers created the events contained in them, rather than simply reporting them. As Oxford historian A.N. Sherwin White has demonstrated, using documents from antiquity even less well-attested and with much wider composition-to-earliest-copy spans than the New Testament documents, “even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition” (Sherwin-White, 190).
In the 19th century, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860), founder of the “Tubingen School” of theology, maintained that the majority of the New Testament documents were pseudonymous works and gave little weight to the evidence of numerous citations provided by the early Christian writers (commonly known as “church fathers”). Proposing that the New Testament documents were written within a frame of perhaps120 years, his suggested dates ranged from ca. 50–60AD for Paul’s genuine letters (i.e., Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians) to about 170AD for the Gospel and letters of John. Baur’s proposal was remained influential for later attempts to date and identify authorship of the New Testament documents (Harris, 237, 248–62; Ellis, Appendix VI).
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More recent dating proposals have reflected the impact, among both “liberal” and “conservative” scholars, of various lines of evidence which indicate earlier dates for the New Testament documents. For example, the notorious “death-of-God” proponent John A.T. Robinson (1976) contended that all 27 documents were composed prior to 70AD. He proposed a compositional span of approximately 20 years: from about 47–48AD (Galatians) to late 68–70AD (Revelation; Redating, 352). He mainly based his argument on the fact that the New Testament documents do not reference the fall of Jerusalem (70AD; Redating, 13–30).
More recently, influential Roman Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown (1997) proposed a date range for the New Testament documents that spanned approximately 80 years: from 50–51AD for 1 Thessalonians, to 130AD for 2 Peter – although favoring a first-century date for almost all documents other than 2 Peter and 2 John (Introduction, 396, 457, 762).
Evangelical scholar E. Earle Ellis (1995), reflecting views accepted and espoused by many “conservative” Biblical writers, has proposed that the New Testament documents were the result of four streams of apostolic sources: Peter, James, John, and Paul. He dated all the New Testament documents within the first century: 49AD (for Galatians) to 85–95AD (Gospel of John), with the majority of the documents dated to the 50s and 60s (Making, 319), considering 70AD key for setting the upper limit dating for a majority of the New Testament documents.
Outer Limits – Manuscript Evidence and Quotations in early Christian Writers
The speculative efforts various negative critical scholars to “late-date” various New Testament documents are confronted by some “stubborn facts.” For example, every New Testament book is quoted by the “Apostolic Fathers” (as the early Christian writers down to 150AD are commonly known). Almost every book of the New Testament is explicitly cited as Scripture by these early writers. By around 300, nearly every verse in the New Testament was cited in one or more of over 36,000 citations found in the writings of the Church Fathers (Geisler and Nix 108, 155). The distribution of those writings are important evidence because of their early date, the wide geographic distribution of where these authors lived, where their recipients lived, and the large number of New Testament references
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they contain. Evidence from these early Christian writers is explored in greater detail in other articles in this series, providing external evidence that from the beginning, churches and Christians recognized the authority of the apostolic writings which were soon disseminated and widely known.
Given the amount and early dates of these extensive quotations of the New Testament documents, it is impossible to argue seriously for the sort of “late-dating” and alleged pseudonymous composition of the documents composing the corpus of the New Testament. This stream of evidence is, of course, in addition to the various manuscript copies in Greek (to say nothing of early translations) of the New Testament documents.
Among these are the John Rylands papyri (p52), the earliest undisputed manuscript of a New Testament book, dated from 117 to 138AD. This fragment of John’s Gospel survives from within a generation of composition. Furthermore, inasmuch as the book was composed in Asia Minor while this fragment was found in Egypt, some circulation time is demanded, which surely places the composition of John within the first century. Entire books (Bodmer Papyri) are available from about 200AD. The Chester Beatty Papyri, from 150 years after the New Testament was finished (ca. 250), include all the Gospels and most of the New Testament. It is beyond dispute that no other book from the ancient world has as small a time span between composition and earliest manuscript copies, as does the New Testament.
Indeed, as has often been noted by many who have spent their lives pondering ancient evidence pertaining to the Scripture, “No work from Graeco-Roman antiquity is so well attested by manuscript tradition as the New Testament. There are many more manuscripts of the New Testament than there are of any classical author, and the oldest extensive remains of it date only about two centuries after their original composition” (Albright 1971, 238). Those who would question the integrity of the New Testament texts, by the same token destroy confidence in the integrity of any ancient document which has been handed down through the copying process.
Specific Instances and Particulars
While it is not possible in this short article to include a detailed explication of the date and authorship of every New Testament book, some samples will have to
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suffice for the present. As these articles are expanded and collected for publication in book form, more details may be added to what originally appears here.
Luke and Acts. The Gospel of Luke was written by the same author as the Acts of the Apostles, who refers to Luke as the “former account” of “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). The style, vocabulary and recipient (Theophilus) of the two books betray a common author. Roman historian Colin Hemer has provided powerful evidence that Acts was written between 60AD and 62AD. This evidence includes these observations: There is no mention in Acts of the crucial event of the fall of Jerusalem in 70, or of the outbreak of the Jewish War in 66, and no hint of serious deterioration of relations between Romans and Jews before that time, nor of the deterioration of Christian relations with Rome during the Neronian persecution of the late 60s. There is no mention of the death of James at the hands of the Sanhedrin in ca. 62, as recorded by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews (220.127.116.11). Controversies described in Acts presume that the Temple was still standing; and the relative prominence and authority of the Sadducees in Acts reflects a pre-70 date, before the collapse of their political cooperation with Rome. Likewise, the prominence of “God-fearers” in the synagogues may point to a pre-70 date, after which there were few Gentile inquirers and converts to Judaism. Additionally, the confident “tone” of Acts seems unlikely during the Neronian persecution of Christians and the Jewish War with Rome during the late 60s.
If Acts was written in 62 or before, and the gospel according to Luke was written before Acts (possibly 60AD or even before), then Luke was written only about thirty years after the death of Jesus. This is obviously contemporary to the generation who witnessed the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – which precisely what Luke claims in the prologue to his Gospel:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent
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Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. [Luke 1:1–4]
While so far considering only Luke of the four gospels (due to Luke’s authorship of Acts as well), it is commonly accepted as factual by the preponderance of those who have examined the evidence in detail – whether “conservative” or “liberal” scholars – that other gospels, particularly Mark, were committed to writing even earlier. In all such deliberations, it is good to remember that, for believers, there is in reality one gospel, recalled and recorded by four different evangelists (“according to Matthew” etc.) as each was empowered by the Spirit to remember and reveal what God wishes for us to know, expressed as the Spirit moved them to do so.
First Corinthians. It is widely accepted by many “critical” and “conservative” scholars alike that 1 Corinthians was written by 55 or 56 – less than a quarter century after the crucifixion. Further, Paul speaks of most of a collection of 500 eyewitnesses to the resurrection who were still alive when he wrote (15:6) – including the apostles and James the brother of Jesus. Internal evidence is strong for this early date: the book repeatedly claims to be written by Paul (1:1, 12–17; 3:4, 6, 22; 16:21); there are significant parallels with the book of Acts; the contents harmonize with what has been learned about Corinth during that era.
There also is external evidence: Clement of Rome refers to it in his own Epistle to the Corinthians (chap. 47), as does The Epistle of Barnabas (allusion, chapter 4) and the Shepherd of Hermas (chapter 4). Furthermore, there are nearly 600 quotations of 1 Corinthians in Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian alone. It is one of the best attested books of any kind from the ancient world.
2 Corinthians and Galatians, along with 1 Corinthians, are well attested and early. All three reveal a historical interest in the events of Jesus’ life and give facts that agree with the Gospels. Paul speaks of Jesus’ virgin birth (Gal. 4:4), sinless life (2 Cor. 5:21), death on the cross (1 Cor. 15:3; Gal. 3:13); resurrection on the third day (1 Cor. 15:4), and post-resurrection appearances (1 Cor. 15:5–8). He mentions the hundreds of eyewitnesses who could verify the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6), grounding the truth of Christianity on the historicity of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12–19). Paul also gives historical details about Jesus’
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contemporaries, the apostles (1 Cor. 15:5–8), including his private encounters with Peter and the apostles (Gal. 1:18–2:14). Persons, places, and events relating to Christ’s birth are described as historical. Luke goes to great pains to note that Jesus was born during the days of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1) and was baptized in the fifteenth year of Tiberius. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee. Annas and Caiaphas were high priests (Luke 3:1–2).
New Testament authors write with a clear sense of historical perspective (see Gal 4:4; Heb 1:1–2). They wrote against the historical backdrop of a Mediterranean world immersed in Greco-Roman culture and ruled by Rome and Roman officials known from non-Biblical sources (though those sources are significantly less-well attested than the New Testament documents. While the authors of the New Testament documents do include important figures, places, and events, they do not demonstrate an interest in precise chronological detail. As a result, many of their references to historical realities were more of an incidental nature. And, as is common in historical writing, they use various sources, make various choices about what evidence to incorporate or omit, and arrange their evidence to tell the story they wish to record. That is what historians do, after all.
Antilegomena: Disputed Documents
The basic principle of whether a document was recognized as legitimately belonging to the New Covenant scriptures was its apostolic “pedigree” – was it of apostolic (or prophetic) origin, and thus revelation from God? Because of some questions about the authorship or apostolic origin of seven documents (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation) were sometimes challenged by various early Christians. Sometime referred to as antilegomena (“spoken against”), the very challenges these documents faced demonstrate ever more strongly that the ultimately test for whether these documents were recognized as divine revelation was: are they apostolic? Since Hebrews and 2-3 John are without authorial attribution, it is quite understandable that some might at first question their apostolic origin. Given the early martyrdom of James, the brother of John, understandable questions arose regarding the authorship of the epistle of James. The Apocalypse (Revelation) came under question later due to its wide usage by numerous heretics.
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Even 2 Peter, the most contested of the New Testament epistles, provides a benchmark of sorts for the standards necessary for a document to be recognized as the word of God. 2 Peter was questioned due to stylistic and vocabulary differences (it has the largest number of hapax legomena or unique words of any New Testament document) as well as parallels with the epistle of Jude. But as E.M.B Green points out, arguing on the basis of Westcott’s work, 2 Peter “has incomparably better support for its inclusion than the best attested of the rejected books” (p.5). Kostenberger and Kruger (73, 153-155) challenge modern examples of early and later documents unfairly grouped together, as though both are of equally legitimacy, by modern authors with their own agendas.
Kruger (645), among other conservative scholars, challenges the common notion that 2 Peter is non-apostolic, contending that “the case for its pseudonymity is simply too incomplete and insufficient to warrant the dogmatic conclusions issued by much of modern scholarship. Although 2 Peter has various difficulties that are still being explored, we have no reason to doubt the epistle’s own claims in regard to authorship.” A good discussion of many of these disputations is in Harrison (416-428).
Jesus Christ himself is obviously the center and circumference of the New Testament documents which record his life and works. The gospels present themselves to readers as calm and rational expositors of historical facts. Nearly all we know about Jesus comes from these source materials, written by those who had personal knowledge of the events they describe or their sources who had such firsthand, eyewitness knowledge. They record the claims of Jesus, but also indicate that he intended for this knowledge to be disseminated not by himself, but rather by men he selected and approved to carry his message to the world (John 16:13-14, 20:21-23; Matthew 10:20, 16:19, 18:18; Luke 22:30. That these appointed messengers did so effectively is attested by the widespread documentation, within a generation or two of the events themselves, of that proclamation, written down for succeeding generations to read and receive with confidence in their accuracy and veracity.
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Albright, William F., From the Stone Age to Christianity (2nd ed; New York: Anchor Books, 1957).
__________. The Archaeology of Palestine. Reprint; Gloucester MA: Peter Smith, 1971.
__________. “Toward a More Conservative View.” Christianity Today, January 18, 1963, p.4.
Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
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Carson, D.A., and Douglas Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
Ellis, E Earle. The Making of the New Testament Documents. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
Geisler, Norman L., and William E. Nix, From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible. 2nd ed.; Chicago: Moody Press, 2012.
Green, E.M.B. 2 Peter Reconsidered. London: Tyndale, 1961.
Harris, Horton. The Tübingen School: A Historical and Theological Investigation of the School of F.C. Baur. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Harrison, Everett F., Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971.
Hemer, Colin J. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Ed. Conrad H. Gempf. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990.
Kostenberger, Andreas J., and Michael J. Kruger. The Heresy of Orthodoxy. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.
Kruger, Michael J. “The Authenticity of 2 Peter,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42.4 (1999), 645-671.
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Robinson, John A.T. Redating the New Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.
Sherwin-White, Adrian Nicholas. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Wells, H.G. The Outline of History (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing, 1921).