Date and authenticity of the New Testament

In the early twentieth century, most scholars dated the New Testament documents as follows:

  • Matthew, A.D. 851
  • Mark, A.D. 60-652
  • Luke, A.D. 80-853
  • John, A.D. 90-954
  • Pauline Epistles, A.D. 48-645

For the four Gospels, these were the latest possible dates of authorship; there were excellent reasons for earlier dating. C. E. Raven wrote:

That Acts was written before St. Paul's trial at Rome seems a strong probability, and the case for a subsequent incorporation of Mark is not strong. The general habit of placing the Synoptic Gospels in the period A.D. 70-100 is inexplicable; for the evidence is weaker than the objections. They reflect a time before the scattering of the Palestinian Church and the dispersion of the local and conservative community, a time utterly unlike the age of experiment and syncretism which followed Nero's persecution and the sack of Jerusalem.6

Most scholars have considered Luke and Acts to be two parts of one document.7 Because the book of Acts gives a detailed account of the later portion of the life of the Apostle Paul, but ends abruptly in A.D. 63 with Paul's two years at Rome (Acts 28:30) without mentioning that he was tried in Rome and martyred under Nero,8 it would be reasonable to date the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts prior to A.D. 63 or 64.

Moreover, the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70, and the city was overtaken at that time.9 The Jews and the Palestinian church were scattered, causing conditions totally different from what one would expect during the time of the writing of these documents.

Because of these considerations and others, in the second half of the twentieth century there was a trend toward an earlier dating of the New Testament. For example, in a 1963 interview with Christianity Today magazine, William F. Albright (1891-1971) stated:

In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and eighties of the first century A.D. (very probably sometime between about 50 and 75 A.D.)10

Albright was one of the world's foremost biblical archaeologists.

He distinguished himself enough to have an article devoted to him in the 1966 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which stated that he "considerably influenced the development of biblical and related near eastern scholarship."11 His opinion was that of one who had taken into account all the considerations involved in making such a judgment. Because he was probably better informed of these considerations than almost anyone else at the time, and because he had first-hand knowledge of them, his opinion carried tremendous weight.

For this reason, other scholars later began to reconsider the matter. For example, John A. T. Robinson's book, Redating the New Testament, dates all of the New Testament documents between A.D. 47 and A.D. 70.12 It should be noted, however, that early tradition assigns a later date to the works of the apostle John, who wrote Revelation while in exile on the island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9) in the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Domitian (A.D. 96), according to Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 18. This is confirmed by an earlier source, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter XXX, section 3.

In the middle of the nineteenth century it had been confidently asserted by the very influential Tubingen school that the four Gospels and the book of Acts did not exist before the thirties of the second century A.D.13 Yet even at the time there was sufficient evidence to demonstrate that this assertion was completely unfounded as was shown by Lightfoot,14 Tregelles15 and Tischendorf,16 as well as others.17 The amount of evidence later increased to the degree that the Tubingen views were no longer held by scholars.18

The evidence for the New Testament writings has always been considerably greater than the evidence for most classical works, and historians have therefore protested vigorously against the excessive skepticism of theologians in dealing with the historical writings of the New Testament. Examples of such scholars include Eduard Meyer,19 A. T. Olmstead,20 William M. Ramsay21 and Henry J. Cadbury.22

There are in existence over 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, as well as 8,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate and 1,000 of other early versions.23 Some of the best and most important of the Greek New Testament go back to about A.D. 350. Two important manuscripts are the Codex Vaticanus in the Vatican Library in Rome and the Codex Sinaiticus in the British Museum.24

From the four hundreds A.D., we have the Codex Alexandrinus in the British Museum, and from a hundred years later, the Codex Bezae in the Cambridge University library, which contains the Gospels and Acts in both Greek and Latin.25

The textual advantage of the New Testament documents over all other ancient manuscripts is that, in no other case is the interval of time between date of authorship and date of earliest extant manuscripts so short.26 Furthermore, the number of extant manuscripts is far greater for the New Testament than for any other classical work.27 For other ancient works, manuscript attestation is poor in comparison. For example, we have, of the seven surviving plays of Sophocles, four manuscripts that are of any value, the earliest being written in the eleventh century, 1400 years after the poet's death.28 For Plato, we have eleven manuscripts, the earliest being written about 1250 years after his death.29 The History of Thucydides has eight manuscripts, the earliest being from the tenth century, 1300 years after his death,30 and Herodotus also has eight manuscripts, the earliest being from the tenth century, again 1300 years after his death.31

Yet there is no classical scholar who will doubt the authenticity of these works, despite the paucity of extant manuscripts and despite the gap of over 1,000 years between the time of authorship and the time the earliest extant manuscript was written.

Yet, in addition to the examples of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament documents that have been mentioned, we have the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, containing eleven papyrus codices, three of which contain most of the New Testament writings. The first contains the four Gospels and Acts and was copied between A.D. 200 and 250, the second contains the letters of Paul and Hebrews and was copied at about the same time, and the third, which includes the book of Revelation, was copied about 50 years later.32

Another discovery consists of some papyrus fragments dated not later than A.D. 150 by papyrological experts, which consists of fragments of an unknown gospel and other early Christian papyri.33

An earlier fragment, the John Rylands Fragment, dated on paleographical grounds around A.D. 130, is a papyrus codex containing John 18:31-33, 37-38, which was found in Egypt in 1917.34

The papyrus Bodmer II, written about A.D. 200, contains the first 14 chapters of John with the exception of 22 verses and portions of the last seven chapters.35

Frederic C. Kenyon, who was keeper of manuscripts in the British Museum, wrote:

But besides confirming the . . . authenticity of the canonical books, the new evidence tends to confirm the general integrity of the text as it has come down to us. . . . The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.36

In the writings of the early church fathers, we find extensive quotes from the New Testament. The letter of Barnabas, it is now agreed, could not be any later than A.D. 150 and might be as early as A.D. 70.37 This letter quotes from Romans, Ephesians, and Hebrews, and demonstrates a knowledge of eight other New Testament books.38 Although the dating for the Didache is not firmly established, there is good reason to believe that it was in circulation prior to A.D. 70.39 The Didache demonstrates a knowledge of Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, I Corinthians and I Peter, and possibly Hebrews and Jude.40 The Epistle to the Corinthians of Clement of Rome also had early circulation and popularity in the first century.41 This letter quotes from Romans, I Corinthians, Hebrews and possibly Acts. Extensive familiarity with nine other New Testament books is demonstrated.42 The letters of Ignatius of Antioch, all written before his death, which could not have been later than A.D. 117,43 refer to Matthew, John, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus, and possibly eleven other New Testament books.44 Polycarp's Letter to the Philippians, also written prior to A.D. 117,45 quotes John, Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians(?), II Thessalonians, I Timothy, II Timothy, Hebrews, James and I John.46 Other early Christian writings (such as The Shepherd of Hermas and II Clement) contain extensive quotations of the New Testament documents.47

From the writings of the Gnostic school of Valentinus which were recently discovered, we know that before A.D. 150 most of the books of the New Testament were well known among the people of this sect.48

A great deal of external evidence exists for the authenticity of the New Testament documents. Papias (A.D. 60- 130), bishop of Hierapolis, writes the following on the basis of information obtained from the "presbyter" John:

This also the Presbyter used to say, "When Mark became Peter's interpreter, he wrote down accurately, although not in order, all that he remembered of what was said or done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord nor followed Him, but later, as I have said, he did Peter, who made his teaching fit his needs without, as it were, making any arrangement of the Lord's oracles, so that Mark made no mistakes in thus writing some things down as he [Peter] remembered them. For to one thing he gave careful attention, to omit nothing of what he heard and to falsify nothing in this."

Now Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as he was able.49

Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, martyred in A.D. 156 after being a Christian for 86 years. Polycarp had been a disciple of the Apostle John himself. Irenaeus had often heard from Polycarp the eyewitness accounts of Jesus received from John and others who knew Jesus.50 In Adversus haerese, III. I (ca. 180), Irenaeus writes:

Now these, all and each of them alike having the Gospel of God,--Matthew for his part published also a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, whilst Peter and Paul were at Rome, preaching, and laying the foundation of the Church. And after their departure, Mark, Peter's disciple and interpreter, did himself also publish unto us in writing the things which were preached by Peter. And Luke too, the attendant of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards John the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on His Breast,--he again put forth his Gospel, while he abode in Ephesus is Asia.51

The high importance of this testimony of Irenaeus is demonstrated in the book, The Irenaeus Testimony to the Fourth Gospel: It's Extent, Meaning, and Value, by Frank Grant Lewis.52

1 Burnett Hillman Streeter, The Four Gospels, A Study of Origins (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1925), p. 487, and Vincent Taylor, The Gospels, A Short Introduction (London: Epworth Press, 1930), p. 96.

2 Streeter, p. 487, and Taylor, p. 59.

3 Taylor, p. 86.

4 Ibid., p. 99.

5The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1943), pp. 13, 14.

6 Charles E. Raven, Jesus and the Gospel of Love (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1931), p. 128.

7 Sir William M. Ramsay, Luke the Physician (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1908), p. 6. However, Luke may have written his Gospel earlier, while he was with Paul in Caesarea (Acts 23: 33-27:1), A.D. 58-60. See, for example, James Tate, The Horae Paulinae of William Paley (London, 1840), Appendix E, pp. 162- 165.

8 John Warwick Montgomery, History and Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), p. 35. Paul's martyrdom may have taken place in A.D. 67 or 68 after a release from his Roman imprisonment in A.D. 64, enabling him, in the interim, to travel to Philippi, Ephesus, Crete, Troas, Corinth and Miletus as indicated in Phil. 2:24, I Tim. 1:3, Tit. 1:5, and II Tim. 4:13,20.

9Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago: William Benton, 1966), XII, 1008.

10Christianity Today, VII, 359, January 18, 1963, "Toward a More Conservative View," interview with William F. Albright.

11 Ibid., I, 531.

12 John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), p. 352.

13 Albert Schwegler, Das nachapostolische Zeitalter in den Hauptmomenten seiner Entwicklung (Tubingen: Ludwig Friedrich Fues, 1846), Vol. II, pp. 115-123.

14 J. B. Lightfoot, Essays on the Work Entitled Supernatural Religion (London: Macmillan and Co., 1889).

15 Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, An Account of the Printed Text of the Greek New Testament with Remarks on its Revision upon Critical Principles (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1856).

16 Constantine Tischendorf, When were our Gospels Written? (New York: American Tract Society, 1866).

17 F. W. Farrar, The Life and Work of St. Paul (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1879), Vol. I, pp. 10ff.

18 Sir William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), p. 38.

19 Eduard Meyer, Ursprung Und Anfange Des Christentums (Stuttgart: J. G. Cottaishe, 1962).

20 A. T. Olmstead, Jesus in the Light of History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1942).

21 William Ramsay, Luke the Physician (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1908).

22 Henry J. Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955).

23 A. T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1925), p. 70; Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament/, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 32-33, 36, 76; Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), p. 285.

24 F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1960), p. 16.

25 Ibid., p. 16.

26 Frederic G. Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London: Macmillan and Co., 1901), p. 4.

27 Ibid., p. 4.

28 F. W. Hall, A Companion to Classical Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), pp. 270-271.

29 Ibid., pp. 259-260.

30 Ibid., pp. 279-280.

31 Ibid., pp. 237-238. See also Metzger, p. 34, and Geisler and Nix, p. 285.

32 Bruce, p. 17, and Metzger, pp. 37-38.

33 H. Idris Bell and T. C. Skeat, Fragments of an Unknown Gospel and Other Early Christian Papyri (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1935).

34 C. H. Roberts, An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel (Manchester University Press, 1935).

35 Bruce, p. 18; Metzger, pp. 39-40.

36 Sir Frederic Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940), pp. 288-289.

37 J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1978), p. 134.

38 Committee of the Oxford Historical Society of Historical Theology, The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), pp. 1-23.

39 Jean-Paul Audet, La Didache Instructions Des Apotres (Paris: Libraire Lecoffre, 1958), pp. 187-210.

40The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, pp. 24-36.

41 Glimm, p. 4.

42The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, pp. 37-62.

43 Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Apostolic Fathers (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950), p. 204. Ignatius was probably martyred c. A.D. 108-110.

44The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, pp. 63-83.

45 Lightfoot, p. 92.

46The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, pp. 84-104.

47 Ibid., pp. 105-136.

48 Bruce, p. 19.

49 This quotation from Papias is cited in Eusebius' Historica ecclesiastica, III. 39, reprinted in Roy J. Deferrari, Eusebius Pamphili Ecclesiastical History (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953), p. 329.

50 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 20, reprinted in Roy J. Deferrari, Eusebius Pamphili, Ecclesiastical History (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953), p. 329. Eusebius writes as follows:

In the letter to Florinus which we have mentioned above, Irenaeus again speaks of his association with Polycarp, saying: ". . . so that I can tell even the place where the blessed Polycarp sat and talked, his goings and comings, and manner of his life, and the appearance of his body, and the discourses which he gave to the multitude, and how he reported his living with John and with the rest of the Apostles who had seen the Lord, and how he remembered their words, and what the things were which he heard from them about the Lord, and about His teaching."

51Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 1, reprinted in John Keble, Five Books of S. Irenaeus Against Heresies (London: Rivingtons, 1877), p. 204.

52 Department of Biblical and Patristic Greek, University of Chicago, Historical and Linguistic Studies in Literature Related to the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1908), Vol. 1, pp. 451-514.

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