As I look ahead to some more controversial discussions of the New Testament, and having recently heard some rather inaccurate assertions and misconceptions about the nature of the text, I thought I’d like to first get everyone on the same page (so to speak) about its basic origins. Hopefully the following is not new to you. If it is, I trust you will do your own research and find that the information presented is relatively uncontroversial.
Of course, the New Testament is not a single work. The Protestant canon is an anthology of 27 (trinity to the trinity power) books and letters. Unlike the Old Testament, which was written in Hebrew, these documents were written in the common Greek spoken in the Roman empire. Most scholars agree that the earliest portions were written around 50 CE, with the later portions completed around 150 CE.
All of the first four books of the New Testament, those that tell the tale of Jesus of Nazareth, are anonymous works. The authors do not name themselves in the text, nor do any claim to be eyewitnesses to any of the events they describe. Attributing these books to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John began at some point in the second century. Third century scribes started using these official-sounding titles for the same reason modern versions use these titles… convention and tradition, not authorship belief.
While the early church tradition held that Matthew was written first, scholars in the 18th century undertook textual analysis of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and determined that Mark was not only the earliest written, but also a significant source of material for the other two. This is the prevailing view of modern Bible scholars.
Early church tradition says Mark was penned after the death of Peter, which happened in Rome around 64 CE according to those same traditions. This would line up with internal references in Mark 13 to the events of the First Jewish Revolt, which took place 66-70 CE. This puts the authorship of Mark at some point after 70 CE.
Factoring early church traditions, first external references and internal references to events of known dates, Matthew is estimated to have followed somewhere in 80 – 100 CE and Luke in 80 – 130 CE. While John is not of the Mark lineage, similar kinds of evidence places its writing at 90 – 120 CE.
The Pilate Stone discovered in 1961 is upheld by Christians as affirming the existence of the character of Pontius Pilate and would affix his career in the range of 26 – 36 CE, corroborating a traditional date of Jesus’ crucifixion around 30 CE.
With life expectancy in first century Rome at a mere 20 – 30 years (up to 47 for those who survived past age 10), the near-lifetime-long forty year gap between Jesus’ death and the earliest estimated authorship of Mark (several more decades for the other books) makes it clear that the authors were not first-hand witnesses to Jesus’ life, nor is it likely that they had access to any such contemporaries. Luke’s introduction affirms that the author was not an eyewitness, but relied on accounts handed down an untold number of times.
It should be noted that scholarship contends that Jesus’ native language would have been Aramaic. Our Greek-written gospels would contain, at best, translations of his words and not direct quotations.
Some notice that Mark, the closest to the events described, treats Jesus as least divine and features the fewest miracles. It is Matthew and Luke that layer in more and more supernatural claims as the tales had more time to grow, culminating in the most outlandish of all the gospels in late-to-the-party gospel of John.
Scholarship has not deviated much on this last New Testament narrative over the centuries. It is generally accepted that it was written by the same author who wrote Luke (i.e. neither are by Luke). The authorship date is between 80 – 130 CE, though apparent source usage of Antiquities of Josephus suggests one toward the end of that range.
Letters of Paul – The Real Ones
At the time the decision was made as to which books to include in the current New Testament canon, it was believed that 13 of the 27 were letters written by the apostle Paul. However, modern scholars agree that only 7 out of these 13 can be considered to be written by Paul.
The authorship of these epistles are so dubious that German scholars coined a word, Hauptbriefe, to refer to the mere four that are universally accepted as genuine — Romans, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and 2 Corinthians (that’s “Second Corinthians”, Mr. Trump). They are estimated to have been written between 50 and 60 CE.
Scholars generally lean toward Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon as likely authentic as well, though not unanimously.
These letters are important in the timeline because they are the first-written of the works in the New Testament… a decade or two before the writing of Mark. If one holds that the earliest writings would be the least likely to be distorted by time, these epistles should hold greater weight in their historical claims. (Spoiler – they don’t have many.)
Letters of Paul – The Fakes
Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus have been labeled pseudepigraphical works by most critical scholars. Put kindly, that means they are falsely attributed… but as they knowingly falsely claim authorship, the better word is forgery.
Because there are seven genuine letters to compare to, these deutero-Pauline texts can be analyzed on the basis of language and style, inter-dependence, external references and theological differences to rule out common authorship.
With all of the non-canonical gospels and letters that littered the landscape in the first three centuries, vying for acceptance and promotion of a particular pet view or another, forgeries like 2 Thessalonians were brazen enough to warn about other forgeries.
Marking these as anonymous texts will likely not bother believers, but the authors deliberately lied and deceived… a step beyond inerrancy, I’d say. Will that bother you the next time Timothy is used as a supporting text for the silencing of women in churches?
While the early church considered the book of Hebrews to be written by Paul, that’s no longer accepted. The author doesn’t identify himself, so it is merely anonymous. External references to this text puts the writing between 50 CE and 95 CE.
James and Jude – Fake Brothers, Where Art Thou?
The book of James, ostensibly by the brother of Jesus, is considered pseudepigraph due to evidence including a contrary-to-Jewish perspective, fluent Greek from a non-native (if ever) Greek speaker, lack of detail about Jesus, and more.
My research into Jude, also allegedly by a brother of Jesus, finds particularly dismissive tone among scholars. I’ll take them at their forgery conclusion, citing one example of Jude quoting an apocryphal book called Enoch. Check further, as interested.
1 and 2 Peter – Nope
The two canonical letters attributed to Peter are so stylistically different from each other that it is near consensus view that the two cannot both be by the same author. As the second letter borrows so liberally from Jude, it is generally the one discarded. However, both books contain references to the condition of Israel after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. As church tradition holds that Peter died during the reign of Nero in 64 CE, he could not be the author.
Beyond tradition, it seems unreasonable to say Peter wrote these letters as Acts 4:13 tells us that Peter was “agrammatoi, a Greek word that literally means ‘unlettered,’ that is, ‘illiterate'”, observed Dr. Bart Ehrman in his book “Forged”. Here he provides great historical detail into the literacy and Greek fluency of first-century Galilee fishermen, for anyone who would like to delve deeper.
The books of 1 John, 2 John, 3 John and Revelation were all, at one time or another, attributed to Jesus’s disciple John, the son of Zebedee — along with the fourth gospel. Though similarities exist, the differences in historical context and writing styles (have you read Revelation? trippy) are great enough to have ruled this out as far back as scholar Dionysius’ work in the third-century. The attributions continue only due to tradition.
Mark of the Divine
In summary, of the 27 New Testament books…
- 7 were written by Paul
- 10 are pseudepigraphical forgeries
- 10 are anonymous
If this concerns you as it did me, just recall the verse that says, “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” That is from 2 Timothy 3:16, one of the books that lied about being written by Paul.
Thank you for reading this far. This will serve as some baseline for future discussions. I tried to plow through the details quickly, so please investigate these claims on your own and let me know in the comments if I have made any errors.