The Composition of the New Testament
Born and bred as most of us have been in the Christian Faith, it has been usual in the past for us to accept the New Testament as the true basis of the religion, and to regard it as being above criticism, without giving the matter much thought. Thus, if an event or a saying has been quoted from one of the Gospels, we have assumed that it was authentic, and have quite overlooked the fact that the earliest Gospel was not compiled until at least seventy years after the birth of our Lord, while the New Testament as a whole contains material written down at various times over a period of perhaps more than a hundred years, and that, therefore, any such quotation ought first to be dated and textually scrutinised before it is used for historical purposes. No Biblical scholar of any standing today, whether he be a clergyman, a minister, or a layman, accepts the entire New Testament as authentic; and all admit, that many errors, misunderstandings, and absurdities have crept into the story of Christ’s life and other matters. Indeed, it is now generally acknowledged amongst students that the recognition of these mistakes, far from being the act of a heretic, is the first duty of the intelligent Christian.
The time is past when we could give our adherence to beliefs which have no sound historic foundation, and justify ourselves in so doing by saying that the New Testament is the infallible Word of God; for the answer of the critics is simply: “Who says it is?” – to which there is no reply other than a repetition of the statement that such is the Christian belief. Christian proofs must be submitted to the ordinary critical tests applied to other matters; and, indeed, no faith would be worth holding which could not confidently subject the documents on which it was founded to a keener and more penetrating criticism than any bestowed upon the writings.
Let me therefore briefly summarise the results of the labours of modern scholars in regard to the dates at which the books of the New Testament were written, so that the unprejudiced reader may judge of their historical value or liability to error by considering the length of time which elapsed between the days of Jesus and those of their composition. (1)
The earliest known Christian documents are the Epistles of Paul, who died, it would seem, about the year 64 A. D., and whose first letter was written at least a dozen years before that date, that is to say, some twenty years after the Crucifixion. Some of these Epistles have been regarded as not genuine Pauline writings, but the extreme views of Bauer and others in this regard have found little support; and it is now generally thought that the authenticity of Galatians, I and II Corinthians, and Romans, is questionable, and that Philippians and I Thessalonians are probably Pauline. Colossians, Ephesians, and II Thessalonians are thought to be more doubtful though the great critic, Dr. Rashdall, Dean of Carlisle, accepted them with reserve. (2)
Certain critics regard I Thessalonians as the earliest Epistle, and place its date at about 52 A. D., (Lightfoot) or even earlier (Harnack). It is important, however, to notice that nowhere in the Epistles is there any reference to written records of the life of Jesus; and it seems pretty certain, therefore, that nothing in the nature of a Gospel was then in existence – a fact which is not surprising, since His Second Coming and the end of the world were then believed to be imminent.
Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, who wrote in about the year 140, and who is quoted by Eusebius, (3) says that Mark, the interpreter and follower of Peter, wrote down all that he could remember of the words and acts of Jesus as related by Peter, although he had not himself known Jesus in the flesh. This document is said (4) to have been written soon after the death of Peter, which is thought to have taken place about the year 64; but the work is now lost in its original form, though the Gospel of St. Mark a we know have it is based upon it, and seems to have assumed more or less its present shape between 70 and 100 A. D., somewhere about 90 A. D., being the most probable date. It should be mentioned, however, that the last twelve verses (xvi. 9-20) are thought to have been written some years later to replace the proper ending, which had got lost.
With the exception of some thirty verses the whole of the Gospel of St. Mark is contained in the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew; but these two latter also contain material thought to have been obtained from some collection of our Lord’s sayings and deeds which was not known to the compilers of the Gospel of St. Mark, and which is now referred to by scholars as “Q.” This lost work is probably one also mentioned by Bishop Papias, who says that Matthew wrote in the Hebrew language certain sayings of Jesus which each teacher interpreted as best he could.
The Gospel of St. Luke as we now have it is generally regarded as the next oldest after that of St. Mark; but whether it was written by Luke, “the beloved physician” and fellow-worker with St. Paul, is not known, for the earliest mention of Luke as its author occurs in a statement made by Irenaeus about 180 A. D. It has been pointed out that the author of this Gospel seems to have had a knowledge of the Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, and in this case the book cannot be dated earlier than 93 A. D., but if this be not so, it might be dated as early as 80 A. D., though critics usually assign it to about 100 A. D. Its preface mentions the fact that there were then several written accounts of our Lord’s life and saying in existence; for the hope of an immediate Second Coming having by then begun to fade, there was need of a record of His teachings in regard to man’s duties on earth.
The Gospel of St. Matthew as it now appears in the New Testament is recognized as being later than that of St. Luke. The first known instance of Matthew’s name being attached to it occurs in a reference made to it by Iranaeus (180 A. D.); but it was probably compiled anonymously from the lost original work of Mark and from the lost collection of sayings made by Matthew, together with other sources now unknown. Later additions seems to have been made to it throughout the Second Century; but, apart from these, it is generally agreed that it was compiled between 100 and 110 A. D.
These three Gospels, now known as those of St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. Matthew, are called the Synoptic Gospels, owing to the fact that they admit of being regarded as presenting one general view of synopsis of the subject. But quite in another category stands the beautiful work now known as the Gospel of St. John. Its date is much disputed: some critics place it as early as 100 A. D., and some as late as 160, but recent opinion tends rather towards a date of about 105 A. D., though Bishop Papias, writing about 140 A. D., does not mention it, so far as we know from Eusebius, nor is there any indication that Marcion, who also wrote at that date, was acquainted with it. Justin Martyr uses it in his writing dating from 163 to 167; but he does so with reserve, as though the work were not regarded as authoritative, and, indeed, there is other evidence to show that it was not accepted as authentic even as late as the Third Century. Its author was certainly not John, the disciple of Jesus; but if its early date be accepted, he may have been John the Presbyter, who died about 100 A. D.
The work entitled The Acts of the Apostles is thought to have been written in its original form by the author of the Gospel of St. Luke, who may possibly have been Luke himself; and its date may perhaps be as early as 80 A. D.; though some critics think that it was not published until after 100 A. D.
The book known as The Revelations of St. John is thought to be the work of a student of the same school to which the author of the Gospel of St. John belonged; but it is an earlier book than the Gospel, and was probably written between 69 and 93 A. D. Andreas of Caesarea states that Bishop Papias knew the work; Justin Martyr accepted it as canonical; Marcion knew it but rejected it; Dionysius of Alexandria (255 A. D.) was doubtful whether to call it spurious or authentic Jerome, who died in 420 A. D., rejected it; but other Christian writers accepted it, and gradually the opinion became general that it should be received as canonical.
Finally, there are the non-Pauline epistles. Of these the First Epistle of St. Peter is generally thought to be a genuine letter of Peter, written between 59 and 64 A. D.; but the Second Epistle of St. Peter is by a later hand, and probably dates from about 150 A. D. The Epistles of St. John are thought to have been written between 90 and 110 A. D.; that of St. James between 95 and 120 A. D.; and that of St. Jude between 100 and 150 A. D.
Thus, the books of the New Testament may be placed in the following order: – The genuine Pauline Epistles, from 52 to 64 A. D.; the first Epistle of St. Peter, from 59 to 64 A. D.; Revelation, from 69 to 93 A. D.; the Gospel of St. Mark, from 70 to 100 A. D.; the Acts, from 80 to 100 A. D.; the Epistles of St. John, from 90 to 110 A. D.; the Epistles of St. James, from 95 to 120 A. D.; the Gospel of St. Luke, about 100 A. D.; the Gospel of St. Matthew, from 100 to 110 A. D.; the Epistle of St. Jude, from 100 to 150 A. D.; the Gospel of St John, from 100 to 160 A. D.; and the Second Epistle of St. Peter, about 150 A. D.
In the Twentieth Century it is astounding to hear Christian people declare that the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, says so-and-so, and that therefore it must be true. Do they not understand that the New Testament is a collection of books of varying credibility put together and accepted as canonical only in the Fourth Century A. D., by clergy having the limited mentality of that very uncritical age? In quoting from the New Testament the above-mentioned dates should always be kept in mind; and in regard to the gospels it should be remembered that St. Matthew and St. John are the least trustworthy, so many years having elapsed in which errors may have crept in. Nevertheless, when the element of the incredibly supernatural is removed, these canonical book provide us with a literature which is of first-rate historical importance.
- Amongst the extensive literature on this subject mention may be made of the following works:- Moffatt, Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament; Burkitt, Gospel History and its Transmission; Loisy, Les evangiles synoptiques; Giran, Jesus of Nazereth; The Encyclopedia Britannica articles.
- Rashdall, Idea of Atonement, p. 84, note.
- Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. Iii. 39.
- Irenaeus, Haer. Iii. i. 2.