Can the Texts of the New Testament be Accurately Dated?
We have noticed that time-honoured acceptance of a text by most churches was one of the implied criteria for its inclusion in the New Testament. How far back can we now trace the existence and use of its individual books? In the fourth-century codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, we have actual Greek copies of all the books which now appear in our New Testament, as well as some which do not now form part of it, and from the third century CE we have actual Greek copies of the four gospels and Acts, and the Pauline epistles to communities in the Chester Beatty papyri. Fragments of New Testament texts in other papyri from Egypt have also survived. Dating these fragments is difficult but the following seem to date from the third century: P53 (Matthew and Acts), P92 (Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians), P20 (1 and 2 Thessalonians), P72 (1 and 2 Peter and Jude), P9 (1 John), P12 and P13 (Hebrews), and P18 (Revelation). Some other fragments seem to go back to the second century: P52, which may even go back to the first half of the second century, contains fragments of the Gospel according to John, as do the slightly later P66 and P90; P4, P64, and P67 seem to have formed parts of a single codex containing the gospels according to Matthew and Luke; P77 is part of another text of Matthew; and P32 is part of a text of the Paulines. That these papyri fragments have survived is due to the dry climate of Egypt, but they indicate that three of our four gospels and some of our Pauline epistles existed there during the second century, and this suggests that texts originally written and received among churches in one part of the Roman empire were circulated and accepted by churches in other parts of the empire by the second century CE. One of the most intriguing papyrus fragments to have survived from the first half of the second century, the Egerton papyrus, contains narratives reminiscent of some in our four gospels, perhaps written from memory either of those texts or of their sources.
References to texts now comprising our New Testament and some quotations from them also occur in the writings of Christian apologists and theologians from the second half of the second century. I have already mentioned Irenaeus' defence of our four gospels, and the Muratorian canon, an original version of which may go back to this period. Scholarly studies of the development of the Christian canon emphasize that, during this period, the activities of Marcion, a Christian teacher at Rome c.144 CE, were opposed by ‘orthodox’ bishops like Irenaeus, and that, since Marcion's activities included his promotion of his own versions of the Gospel according to Luke and the Pauline epistles, and his rejection of the Jewish scriptures, ‘orthodox’ bishops defended not only the Jewish scriptures and their versions of Luke and the Paulines, but also other Christian writings. Moreover, these ‘orthodox’ bishops also sought to refute the teachings of Gnostics like Valentinus and Basilides, whose followers preserved their or their disciples' writings.
When we move back to the beginning of the second century and the end of the first century, we have to rely on apparent quotations, allusions, or references to our New Testament books in other Christian literature as evidence of their existence, since, apart from P52's fragmentary text of John, no actual manuscripts have survived. Except for the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and Eusebius' much later claims to be quoting Papias' Expositions, all these Christian writings are epistles. In such literature, it is often impossible to decide whether reference to a saying of Jesus is an inexact quotation from one of our gospels or not. For example, Clement of Rome's epistle to the Corinthians 13: 2 (c.96 CE) cites ‘words of the Lord’ which could echo Matthew 5: 7; 6: 14–15; 7: 1–2, 12; Luke 6:31, 36–8; and 46: 7–8 could echo Mark 9: 42; Matthew 18: 6–7; Luke 17: 1–2 . In 24.5, a homily on 1 Corinthians 15: 36ff. seems to take up the imagery of the parable of the sower (Matt. 13: 3 ; parallels in Mark 4: 3, Luke 8: 5 ). With regard to 1 Corinthians, however, in ch. 47 Clement encourages his recipients to read the epistle which ‘the blessed apostle Paul' had sent them, assuming that they still had a copy and that Clement in Rome knew that epistle too. The epistles of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria, written on his journey to Rome where he was martyred in 110 CE, seem to echo phrases from the Pauline epistles, especially 1 Corinthians 15: 8–10 . There could also be allusions to the gospels according to Matthew and John, but none of these is a formal or exact quotation of our versions. In the Didache, the date of which is itself uncertain but it may come from this period, there are two quotations from Matthew, in 8.2 (Matt. 6: 5ff .) and 9.5 (Matt. 6: 6 ), together with other echoes of that book. Unfortunately, we have to rely on Eusebius' fourth-century versions of Papias' work, and I have already mentioned the connection made between Mark and the apostle Peter attributed to him. Eusebius also attributes the following statement about Matthew to Papias: ‘Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew dialect, and each one interpreted them as best he could’ (Church History, III. 39.16). This cannot be a description of our Matthaean Gospel which is written in Greek and is not a translation of a Hebrew or Aramaic original. Eusebius also mentions that Papias knew Revelation, 1 John, and 1 Peter (Church History, III. 39.6, 17). Given the paucity of evidence from this period, scholars have attempted to date each of the New Testament books on the basis of features in the texts themselves.
Let us begin with the Pauline epistles, arguably the earliest writings of our New Testament. We have noticed that Clement knew 1 Corinthians in Rome. Moreover, one of the Pauline epistles is not addressed to a single city but to ‘the churches of Galatia’ (Gal. 1:2 ), and there may have been more than one assembly of Christians in a single city addressed in other epistles. Also Colossians 4: 16 , an epistle which many scholars consider pseudonymous, requires recipients to ensure that it is read also by the church of the Laodiceans, and requires the Colossian church to read the Laodicean letter. Even if Colossians is pseudonymous, it is unlikely that it would invent an unheard- of practice. Was a single copy of an epistle received and then circulated? Would each church assembly make a copy before passing it on to another? We find each of the Pauline epistles difficult to understand when we have the text in front of us to read and re-read, whereas original recipients would have heard it read (cf. 2 Peter 3: 16 ). It is therefore likely that copies would have been retained by individual churches. But what would have encouraged wider circulation? In spite of their attention to specific concerns of churches in particular places, these epistles also explore issues of more general interest. I shall mention the most obvious. They seek to justify the admission of non-Jews into the church without their practising commands in the Jewish scriptures concerning circumcision and food regulations, and this practice prevailed in the centuries that followed; yet they also quote and interpret the Jewish scriptures as authoritative. They express eschatological expectations, including references to Jesus' resurrection and the hope of believers' future resurrection, even discussing the nature of eschatological existence. They provide a variety of interpretations of the significance of Jesus' crucifixion. They encourage believers to live from God's inspiration, and to welcome endowments which are understood as special charismatic gifts to individuals for the community's benefit; they explore believers' political relations with Roman power, and social relations within communities and with outsiders; they encourage recipients to follow Paul's example in suffering persecution without retaliation; and they repeatedly argue and state that Paul's work is the expression of God's call and that God sent him as a missionary apostle. All these matters remained important for subsequent generations of Christians. It would be surprising, therefore, had Pauline epistles not been circulated and collected. Nevertheless, Acts does not mention Paul's practice of writing letters and shows no knowledge of those that have survived.
The Pauline epistles suggest by their references to other followers of Jesus like Simon Peter, to problems like those concerned with Gentile admission into churches, and to events, that they originate from the 50s and 60s of the first century. Of course forgeries written later can adopt such features in order to mask their later origin, but the existence of forgeries themselves suggests both that Paul himself did write letters and that these were circulated. Most scholars agree that the following epistles are authentically Pauline: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. It is interesting that these amount to seven epistles. Apparently, not all of Paul's epistles have survived (e.g. 1 Cor. 5: 9 ), and, unfortunately, correspondence from communities to Paul (e.g. 1 Cor. 7: 1 ) and reactions to his preaching and writings can only be inferred from his own epistles. Once his epistles were more generally known, however, it was possible for others who wanted their own views to be taken seriously to write in his name. Scholars now agree, for example, that the epistle to the Laodiceans, 3 Corinthians, and the correspondence between Paul and Seneca are pseudonymous, but they disagree about the possible authenticity of the other epistles attributed to Paul in the New Testament. Colossians and Ephesians, which are related, are considered inauthentic by some, while others accept Colossians as authentic but regard Ephesians as pseudonymous, and still others accept the authenticity of both. Similarly, 2 Thessalonians is accepted as genuine by some but not by others. The majority of scholars now regard 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus as pseudonymous, and all scholars today regard Hebrews as non-Pauline. Accepting all of these brings the number of Paulines to fourteen.
Dating the New Testament gospels is more difficult since very general considerations are involved. When would it have been either necessary or expedient for accounts of Jesus' life, teachings, miracles, crucifixion, and resurrection to be written instead of, or as well as, preached orally, and why are they so short? If we possessed only the Pauline epistles, we would gather that Jesus was to be accepted as the Jewish messiah, who was crucified and resurrected, and who was expected to return at the eschaton, but we would learn very little of his teachings and nothing at all of his miracles. Even the preaching attributed to first-generation missionaries in Acts adds little but general references to his miracles. Scholars suggest, however, that the deaths of Jesus' original followers and the continuation of the churches into a second generation would have encouraged or necessitated the writing of accounts in order to preserve what was known of him. As mentioned earlier, the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke exhibit literary interrelations in Greek, but whether those literary relations suggest that Mark was used as a source by Matthew and Luke, or that Mark used both Matthew and Luke as sources; whether Matthew and Luke used another source (Q), now lost, or Luke used both Matthew and Mark; and whether only more complicated interrelations adequately account for the versions we have, are matters of continuing debate. The verbatim agreements among these three gospels, however, suggest that they seek to conserve what was available, and both their shortness and their use of the Greek language (rather than Aramaic) mark them as second-generation compositions.
The only other possible argument for a more definite dating concerns the question whether these narratives presuppose knowledge of the Jewish war against Rome which led to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. Jesus is presented prophesying the temple's destruction (Matt. 24: 2 ; parallel Mark 13: 2, and see Matt. 23.38 ; parallel Luke 21: 5 ) but the saying contains nothing about its destruction by fire as Josephus' eyewitness account does. The parable in Matthew 22: 7 , however, refers to the destruction and burning of ‘their city’, presumably Jerusalem. Moreover the apocalyptic discourse of Mark 13 and Matthew 24 predicts not only wars, but takes up the language of Daniel to refer to a desolating sacrilege, which the reader is to understand. This, however, could refer either to the temple's destruction or to the earlier threat posed by the emperor Caligula's sending his statue to be erected in the Jerusalem temple, instructions which were not carried out. The Lucan parallel section in chapter 21 does not include a reference to a desolating sacrifice but, in 21: 20–4 , provides a more graphic description of a foreign army's destroying Jerusalem which suggests it was written after that event. Whether these apocalyptic discourses are all to be understood as separating the destruction of Jerusalem from the eschaton is disputed. Those who argue that each of these gospels shows knowledge of the Jerusalem temple's destruction date all of them after 70 CE. Which of them is considered earlier and which later depends on whichever hypothesis about their literary relations is accepted. The conservative nature of these narratives may itself suggest that they could be preserving other Greek sources which are now lost, and the relative though not complete accuracy of their references to geographical and social features of Palestinian life during the most likely time of Jesus' public ministry, in the 20s and 30s of the first century, suggest that they draw on earlier written or oral sources. But we also notice that each differs from the others in details, and each creates its own distinct impression of Jesus for their churches, serving purposes that we can only tentatively infer from the narratives themselves and their interrelations.
Most scholars, but not all, regard the Gospel according to John as the latest of those included in the New Testament, and therefore date it at the end of the first century. Features of that gospel which make the hypothesis plausible are as follows. The speeches attributed to Jesus read like Christian meditations on his significance after his life, death, and resurrection, rather than the preaching of a prophet of the eschaton in parables, similes, and wisdom sayings like those in the other gospels. There are fewer distinctions among Jewish groups than in the other gospels, and often Jewish groups are called simply ‘the Jews’. The long farewell discourses attributed to Jesus at his last meal with his disciples in John 13–17 are distinctive and seem to be concerned with reassuring his followers that God's spirit, uniquely called the Paraclete or helper, would inspire them to remain faithful in the face of persecution during an unspecified period before the eschaton. Whether the gospel also expresses what is called a ‘high Christology’ which sets it later than the others depends, of course, on how the text itself is interpreted and what possible history of Christological perceptions is reconstructed. Those scholars who argue that the fourth gospel shows literary dependence on the other three consider it to be last for that reason.
The Acts of the Apostles is almost universally regarded as the second volume of the Gospel according to Luke, as the dedication which introduces each suggests. That this narrative relates a history of the early church which looks forward to its continuing into another generation (see the speech attributed to Paul in Acts 20 ) has led to its being dated at the end of the first century, in spite of its failure specifically to depict the death of Paul, though it can be read as hinting that he would die at Rome (Acts 20: 36–7; 21: 10–14 ). What source material was available to the author is unknown. Some scholars still attribute the work to a companion of Paul, interpeting the use of the first person plural ‘we’ and ‘us’ in some sections as a reflection of the author's experience, but others doubt that a companion of Paul could have remained completely ignorant both of his practice in writing to churches and of the contents of his letters.
Hebrews and the general epistles are the most difficult New Testament texts to date. Do their form and general address suggest that they presuppose knowledge of a collection of Pauline epistles, already valued outside the churches to which they were originally sent? The distinctively Pauline expression ‘in Christ’ seems to be imitated in 1 Peter (1 Peter 3: 16; 5: 11 ); James seems to counter an interpretation of the Pauline distinction between faith and works, even using the Pauline appeal to Abraham for different ends (James 2: 14–24); 2 Peter 3: 15–16 specifically refers to Paul's ‘difficult’ writings. Moreover, although these epistles and the Johannine epistles are attributed to Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians, they are written in competent Greek styles and use imagery and vocabulary which suggest that their authors benefited from a Hellenistic Greek education. Moreover, the style of 1 Peter is different from that of 2 Peter, and 2 Peter is closely related to Jude. Scholars dispute whether 1 John is written in a style sufficiently distinct from that of the fourth gospel to warrant attribution to a different author. We have noticed too that in later centuries the general epistles of James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude were not universally accepted and that their attributions were doubted: 2 Peter and Jude seem to oppose Christian teachers in the manner that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus do, but all these epistles refer to opponents in derogatory terms conventionally used in non-Christian Hellenistic philosophical writings' references to their opponents, so that these opponents' teaching cannot be reconstructed in detail and dated; 1 Peter refers to persecution, not only of Christian missionaries and leaders, but of whole communities ( 4: 12–19 ), but whether this persecution is to be identified with that which the Roman governor of Bithynia, Pliny, describes in his letter to the emperor Trajan (Epistle 96) in 112 CE, or to a purported earlier persecution of Christians in that area (see 1 Peter 1: 1 ) under the emperor Domitian in 96 CE is disputed. It is for these reasons that the general epistles are usually dated at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century and are regarded as pseudonymous.
The Revelation of John also pictures widespread violent persecution of Christians, but mainly, though not exclusively (see 2: 13 ), as an expectation for the future. The seven letters it contains are addressed to believers in Asia Minor. This work claims to be written by John (1: 1, 4) from the island of Patmos ( 1: 9 ), situated off the west coast of Asia Minor, but does not specifically say that this John was one of Jesus' disciples. John was a common name in the first centuries CE. The style is distinctive, not least because of its frequent use of Semitisms, and sufficiently so to make it impossible to attribute Revelation to the author(s) of the Johannine Gospel and epistles, in spite of some common imagery, especially the picture of Jesus as a slain lamb.
At the beginning of this chapter, I asked the questions: when, where, why, by whom, and for whom were the individual books of the New Testament written? Except in the case of the authentic Pauline epistles, these questions cannot be answered with confidence, and even trying to reconstruct Pauline addressees is a risky task, since inferring answers from the texts themselves, without reliable and detailed external evidence, is a procedure that can lead to no more than plausible hypotheses. That one of the implied criteria for including a book in the New Testament was apostolic authorship, and that scholars doubt the apostolic authorship of many New Testament texts, should not disturb us greatly. This was only one criterion among many. Another was that these books had been found useful to Christian life in the first centuries. Looking back and reading these texts after 2,000 years, we may regret certain of their features: their anti-Judaism, the insistence of some of them on the subordination of women to men, and the acceptance of the institution of slavery by some of them. Moreover, the process of defining the New Testament seems to have expressed desires to exclude what some literate male leaders disliked. Of even greater regret are the terrible cruelties perpetrated down the centuries by Christians who have appealed to these features for justification of their deeds. Christian cruelty can be opposed, however, not only by appeal to other parts of the Christian scriptures, but by the recognition that all written texts are open to interpretations and that interpreters are themselves responsible for their readings. Finally, Christianity, although honouring its scripture, is not strictly a religion of the book. Christians express belief in the creator God and the resurrected Jesus from whom they expect inspiration in the present.