How Do We Know the New Testament Books Are Genuine?
Ask Google, “When were the gospels written?,” and it will respond with the following quote from the Wikipedia entry for “Gospel”: “The Gospel of Mark probably dates from c. AD 66–70, Matthew and Luke around AD 85–90, and John AD 90–110.”
I tend to mistrust Wikipedia, but on this topic, it merely summarizes the consensus view among New Testament scholars (both liberal and some conservative). It is a question that scholarship must address, since the first editions didn’t come to us with publication dates.
Why, though, is this even an important question? Isn’t it enough to know when the events of the New Testament occurred? Who cares (apart from academics) when the books were written? To answer this question, first we need to cover some history of biblical studies.
History of Dating
The liberal Anglican clergyman John A. T. Robinson helpfully reviewed the history of thinking on this topic in his 1976 book, Redating the New Testament. He notes that in 1800 the dating of New Testament books was based largely on tradition, and ranged over a 50 year period from 50 to 100 AD.
By 1850, though, the influential F. C. Bauer in Tübingen, Germany, had pushed the New Testament’s completion well into the late second century. He drew this conclusion based on his assumption that early Christianity developed through a Hegelian process of “dialectical development,” meaning a struggle of differing, even opposing views, resolving into a common, shared view only gradually over time.
Although the Tübingen School’s influence peaked in the nineteenth century, aspects of their ideas remain to the present. Still, by 1900, J. B. Lightfoot at Cambridge and Adolf von Harnack in Germany had pulled back most of the New Testament books to the first century. Over the next fifty years, most scholarship again settled to the period 50 to 100 AD, which is where we find ourselves today.
Most of that work, however, remains wedded to prior philosophical assumptions, especially disbelief in prophecy and other miracles. This leads to a first answer to, “Why is this an important question?” Sometimes scholars’ answers come from philosophies they read into their work, not from historical evidence.
So again, who cares? We all should. Jesus’ resurrection was either in 30 or 33 AD. If the Gospels and Acts were written closer to 100 AD, rather than say, 60 AD, then there might have been enough time for legends to grow around Jesus and be included in the Gospels. Whole new theological perspectives could have been grafted in. So maybe Jesus didn’t really perform miracles or claim to be God on earth; maybe that was added in later. Living eyewitnesses to the purported events would be few and far between. Perhaps the authors based their accounts on little more than Christian lore passed down to them. If this were the case, then we would have reason to doubt Gospels’ historical reliability.
Liberal scholars reject the supernatural aspects of the New Testament. This biases them toward choosing late dates for its writing. Their view collapses, however, if it can be shown that the Gospels were written early. It also fails if the historical details can be confirmed.
Early or Late?
How can we decide between early and late dates for the writing of the New Testament books? Well, we don’t decide by first choosing our favorite theological development theory and then asking how much time was needed for it to happen. No, the obvious answer is to let the evidence speak for itself. We need to examine evidences both internal and external to the text of the New Testament.
The New Testament contains multiple details concerning people (and their titles), places, customs, and events. Several people from within its pages are also known from outside sources, including contemporary writers such as Josephus as well as archeology. The book of Acts, in particular, is rich in such details. Arguably, it is the most easily datable book.
But, what good is dating one book of the New Testament? Even if Acts were dated early, that doesn’t mean the other 26 books should be. That’s not quite true. The books of the New Testament are not completely independent accounts. Acts plays a unique role as serving as a kind of bridge between the Gospels and the epistles.
Acts is actually the companion volume to the Gospel of Luke. Virtually all scholars agree on this. We can link Luke to the other Gospels where they cover the same events. Going the other direction, we can link Acts to several of the letters of Paul, given his prominence in Acts. These links by themselves won’t always allow us to date the other books, but they do serve as helpful anchor points.
More To Come
You might have noticed that I didn’t answer the “early or late” question. This I intend to do in a series of forthcoming articles on the dating of the New Testament books. I will start with Acts and work my way through the Gospels and then perhaps one or two other books.
I won’t be breaking new ground in this series. I’ll merely summarize the best current scholarship and provide some helpful resources along the way. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that consensus isn’t always the best answer.
Guillermo Gonzalez received his Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Washington, Seattle in 1993. He has also held positions at The University of Texas at Austin, Iowa State University, Grove City College, and Ball State University. Dr. Gonzalez has published over 80 peer-reviewed research papers on topics related to astrobiology and quantitative stellar spectroscopy. He is co-author of the second edition of Observational Astronomy, a widely used undergraduate textbook. He is also co-author, with Jay W. Richards, of The Privileged Planet: How our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery.