One of the many difficulties the New Testament presents for scholars is dating and sequencing the books in order. Some of the books were written anonymously and did not specify an author. Dating of documents was also not undertaken. Using a range of textual clues, scholars have developed approximate dates for the books. While timelines can be found from a number of sources, I had trouble finding any that were annotated with other significant events of the period. Thus, the following timeline, which combines information from several resources.
The core timeline – which consisted of only the books and their dates – was drawn from Raymond E. Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament (RC); and I found it in a post by Jared Anderson at RationalFaiths.com (LDS). Other sources consulted are cited below. The following is a brief excerpt from Wikipedia on Raymond E. Brown:
- The Reverend Raymond Edward Brown, S.S. (May 22, 1928 – August 8, 1998), was an American Roman Catholic priest, a member of the Sulpician Fathers and a prominent Biblical scholar of his era.
- Brown was one of the first Roman Catholic scholars to apply historical-critical analysis to the Bible.
- He was regarded as occupying the center ground in the field of biblical studies, opposing the literalism found among many fundamentalist Christians while not carrying his conclusions as far as many other scholars.
When surveying the letters of Paul and the gospel accounts, it is interesting to note the development of historical claims, as outlined in the orange numbered callouts on the timeline.Different features, like the empty tomb and the virgin birth, emerged only in later documents – 35 years or more after the death of Jesus. Christology appears to have continually escalated as time went by, gradually filling in features of virgin birth, then divine conception, then incarnation and the range of “I am” statements finally found in John. Eschatology appears to have adapted and morphed, since Jesus did not return within the lifetime of “this generation”. Kingdom imagery gradually rotated from a horizontal this age-next age temporal expectations to a vertical earthly-heavenly orientation.
Age of Disciples
The age of the disciples was based on typical life expectancy during the classical Roman period. Nominal expectancy was 25-30 years, but this lengthened to 47 years for those who lived to be 10; hence, the 50-year timeframe shown here. To give the best benefit of the doubt, I have assumed the typical disciple was only 20 during Jesus’ ministry, giving an average year of death at about 50 AD. All four canonical gospels and half of the epistles were written after this time, and thus were very likely written by later followers.
Though conservatives will protest that the gospels were written by apostolic eyewitnesses, several key points undermine this assertion:
- The gospels declare no author and claim no date of writing, leaving us to do our best on both counts.
- The gospels do not claim eyewitness authorship.
- The gospels do not claim apostolic authorship.
In fact, the first testimony about who wrote the gospels does not come until 180 AD, when Irenaeus recorded the ascriptions apparently passed on by oral tradition. Undermining his views, the gospels were actually complex compositions written in Greek, which are unlikely to have been the product of un-educated Aramaic-speaking Galilean disciples. Per mainstream dating, all four gospels (in the final form we know) appear to have been written after the disciples’ lifetime. They may derive from earlier sources that go back to the disciples, though such sources are largely unidentified. And it is unclear what percentage of the content may go back to direct eyewitnesses and what percentage simply resulted from oral tradition.
Approximate Dating and Less-Approximate Sequencing
Although dating for all the books is approximate and may be shifted left or right somewhat, there are several sequential points to note. Paul’s seven undisputed epistles are generally conceded to have been written before the four gospels. Mark is generally considered the first gospel and John is generally considered to be the last. Matthew and Luke appear to replicate significant percentages of Mark and added their individual traditions to its content. Luke and Acts are considered to have the same author. Thus, even if some date shifting were to take place, the essential ordering would remain largely the same.
A number of the epistles are disputed as actually being written by their purported authors – i.e., they may be or likely are pseudepigraphic. By the time of canon formation, there were many pseudepigraphic works claiming apostolic authorship. These had to be sifted when determining which books were legitimate. The process of document selection/weeding-out appears to have been imperfect. Seven of Paul’s epistles are considered undisputed and authentic; three are contested; three are widely considered pseudepigraphic. Both letters of Peter are likely pseudepigraphic.
- Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. Yale University Press; 1 edition (October 13, 1997)
- Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). HarperOne, 2010.
- Borg, Marcus J. Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.HarperOne , 2012.
- Price, Robert M., John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James D.G. Dunn, and Darrel L. Bock. The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Edited by James K. Beilby, & Paul R. Eddy. IVP Academic, 2009.
- Thomas, Robert L, and Stanley N. Gundry. A Harmony of the Gospels, NASB. Harper Collins, 1978.