It seems like an easy question to answer – clearly, if roughly half of the New Testament was written by the Apostle Paul, then it follows logically that the New Testament, or at least most of it, was written during the first century. Scholars debate the exact dates; some question the authorship of a few of the books or letters. The New Testament as we know it now wasn’t actually canonized until the 4th century.
Now, there are those who place the writing of the New Testament text much later, even into the 3rd and 4th centuries. This is usually done by those who doubt and promote doubt in the authenticity of the Scriptures. If you are reading this hoping to find support for that position, let me save you the trouble. You are on the wrong web site.
The order of the canon of the New Testament is logically explained. It naturally begins with the Gospel accounts of Yeshua, followed by the historical record in The Acts of The Apostles. Since Acts ends with more than half of the book detailing the life of Paul, it seems appropriate to put his letters next, followed by letters from various other authors. The New Testament ends with The Apocalypse, or Revelation, showing us the end of all temporal things and the everlasting Kingdom of God. Chronologically, it is a logical progression.
That makes sense, and that’s the way I’ve always read it. But let me explore a couple of other thoughts and then come back to this. Maybe I’ve missed something.
Let’s Define Some Terms
Before we get started, let me clarify what I mean by certain terms.
Old Testament – I am using this term to describe the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh (an acronym meaning Torah Neviim Ketuvim, or the Law, the Prophets and the Writings).
New Testament – When I use this term, I mean the 27 books of the Christian New Testament consisting of Four Gospels and Acts, the Letters of Paul, other General Letters, and the Apocalypse (Revelation).
Gospels – These are the first four books of the New Testament describing the life of Yeshua – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Synoptic Gospels – These are the first three books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark and Luke. They tell the story of Yeshua in a very similar way, covering many of the same events using both similar chronology and similar words. This has led many Biblical scholars to conclude that they share one of the same sources, a gospel “Q” that is no longer extant. The word Synoptic comes from the Greek word synoptikos meaning “able to be seen together.” The Gospel of John is very different in it’s presentation of Yeshua, focusing more on his divinity.
Law – Here I will use this term to mean the instructions of the Torah. This is often the meaning of the word when you read it in the New Testament.
Antinomian – We’ll just take this definition from Webster’s Dictionary (1828). “One of a sect who maintain, that, under the gospel dispensation, the law is of no use or obligation; or who hold doctrines which supersede the necessity of good works and a virtuous life. ” This word is made up of two Greek words, anit- (against) and -nomos (law).
Who Was Marcion?
I’ve heard a few Messianic teachers mention Marcion, usually associating him with antinomianism. I didn’t know much about him, so I wondered – what did he believe? Why was he called a heretic? Are any of his ideas still present in churches today?
In a nutshell, which doesn’t do the topic justice, Marcion believed the deities of the Old Testament and the New Testament were not the same. He rejected the judgmental Hebrew God and believed the loving New Testament God, the Father of Yeshua, was the true God. According to the church father Irenaeus in Against Heresies, “Marcion, therefore, himself, by dividing God into two, maintaining one to be good and the other judicial, does in fact, on both sides, put an end to deity.”
Marcion of Sinope as he was known, lived in the generation after the books of the New Testament was written. Regarding a canon of Scripture, he held to his own Gospel and to a select number – ten – of Paul’s letters, including one written to the Laodiceans. That was it, nothing else.
Irenaeus in Against Heresies describes the Gospel of Marcion as a “mutilated” Gospel of Luke. Simply put, he edited out the parts that did not fit his theology. Against Heresies then makes reference to the Marcionites “who allege that Paul alone knew the truth.” Looking back, then, from our day it might appear that he created his desired foundation in a “gospel” upon which the later letters of Paul could be understood. Chronologically this is, again, a logical progression.
The Books of Moses
As I write this, we are in Genesis in the early parts of the annual Torah reading cycle. The group I meet with on Sabbath has been discussing the perspective from which what we are reading was written. It isn’t exactly the way I had always pictured it.
Moses is telling the historical accounts in Genesis many generations after they have happened. In fact, according to Bishop Usher’s chronology, Moses is writing about 2500 years after the creation of the world, and around 400 to 500 years since the Abram left Ur of the Chaldees. Moses is looking back, writing about things that have happened so that his contemporaries and their descendants will know what led up to where they are now. He uses terms and names that weren’t even known at the time the events took place.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis cover 2000 years of history. There isn’t a lot of detail; there is only what is needed to set the stage for the call of Abram, soon to be renamed Abraham. The rest of the book tells us of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons. But all of that is being written down after the instructions of the Torah – how to live before a Holy God – have been given. More than likely, the people already knew many of the stories, but they weren’t preserved in writing. And when something is repeated orally several times by several people, it doesn’t always come out the same. Moses is setting the record straight, writing it down so that the facts can be preserved.
In a modern literature parallel, Genesis is a prequel. Israel has left Egypt, the “Law” has been given from Mount Sinai, and now Moses is writing down the first part of the story. We are going to read it all more-or-less chronologically from creation to the threshold of the Promised Land, but that probably isn’t the order in which it was written.
The entire Hebrew Bible, The Old Testament, was composed over a period of around 1100 years – from approximately 1500 BCE to 400 BCE. The entire New Testament was likely written in just the last half of the first century CE.
The Letters of Paul and the Gospels
Most Bible scholars believe that the letters of Paul, composed during his ministry and missionary journeys, were the first of the New Testament books to be written, with the probable exception of the letter from James. Of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul, eight or nine of them are considered to be genuinely written by him. The others may have been composed by someone close to him writing under his name and accurately reflecting what Paul believed and taught. They aren’t forgeries, but they may not be directly from the hand of Paul.
The “genuine” letters are thought to have been written between 48 and 62 CE. And according to most timelines, they were all written before any of the Gospels. This is from a list at biblestudytools.com. Whether or not the dates are correct, it does reflect the likely order New Testament books were written:
- James – 50 CE
- First Thessalonians – 52-53 CE
- Second Thessalonians – 52-53 CE
- Galatians – 55 CE
- First Corinthians – 57 CE
- Second Corinthians – 57 CE
- Romans – 57-58 CE
- Philippians – 62-63 CE
- Colossians – 62-63 CE
- Philemon – 62-63 CE
- Ephesians – 62-63 CE
And from this same list, here are the four Gospels and Acts:
- Luke – 63
- Acts – 64
- Mark – 66
- Matthew – 67
- John – 85
There are variations to this list. Some will order Mark as the first of the three synoptic Gospels, and also reference a no longer extant “Q” as a source for these writers. Because there is extensive evidence that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, the most likely scenario is that Matthew (an eye-witness and disciple of Yeshua) wrote first in Hebrew, then the other Gospels were written based partly on Matthew, and later Matthew was translated into the Greek we have today.
It is often suggested that Paul did not consider his writing to be Holy Scripture, and would have been shocked to find them canonized as part of our Bible. He did, however, intend for at least some of them to be circulated among more than one congregation:
When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea (Colossians 4:16).
I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren (1 Thessalonians 5:27).
And see that this epistle is read to the Colossians, and that of the Colossians to you (Laodiceans 20, non-canonical and considered by many to be a Marcionite forgery).
We have Paul’s letters mostly without context. Beyond what little can be gleaned by comparing them and a few things from the historical account in Acts , we don’t really know much about what prompted their writing or what other correspondence has taken place. Without this context, much of Christianity has interpreted the words of Paul, who proclaims himself a Pharisee steeped not only in all aspects of the Torah but also in Jewish tradition, to somehow be antinomian – against the Law of God that made up his heritage.
Reading Paul in an antinomian way is pretty easy to do, given the lack of context. In fact, simply reading his letters by themselves, he can appear very confused – both antinomian and very committed to the Torah. But a reading of his actions, including his participation in festivals, vows and Temple activities, show us he didn’t depart from the traditions of his Jewish heritage.
Peter, or a student of Peter writing in his name, warned of this many years later:
Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:14-16).
Correcting the Record
So with these early letters of Paul, in particular Galatians in 55 CE and Romans in 57 CE, being circulated among non-Jewish believers in Yeshua, the fast spreading message was at risk of being corrupted. It may be that this was a catalyst for the writing of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. Were the Gospels written to re-affirm Torah in light of how Paul was being understood? They tell us of the life of Yeshua, rejecting religious pretense yet living fully as a Torah-observant Jew.
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).
While the order and dates for the Synoptic Gospels varies among Bible scholars, nearly all place them after the Pauline letters. The names of the authors are never given within the text. Tradition ascribes them to Matthew (Levi), the disciple of Yeshua; John Mark, a student of Peter and on-and-off travelling companion of Paul; and Luke, a travelling companion of Paul, also the author of Acts. I believe these Gospels were composed before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, since an account of the destruction of the Temple, prophesied by Yeshua, is never mentioned.
This may be the setting that led to the teachings of Marcion. If a course correction via the Gospels was necessary because the message of Paul’s letters had been distorted as antinomian, those who favored the distortion might find it necessary to adjust – or mutilate – the correction.
We shouldn’t be surprised at similar misunderstandings today, and in some ways we perpetuate them. Perhaps you will remember being taught how to “lead someone to Christ” using the Romans Road. We begin with the writings of Paul, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), without explaining the true concept of sin: “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4 KJV). We stay in Paul’s letter to the Romans until they pray the “sinner’s prayer” (sorry, no Scripture reference available for that one), then we tell them to go read the Book of John, undoubtedly the most difficult of the Gospels to comprehend.
Ultimately, the order in which any of the Books of the New Testament were written is of little consequence. We can use common sense to determine that the way they are arranged in most all Bibles is, for the most part, the best way they should be read. Here are some concluding observations:
- Before reading or studying what Paul and other Apostles have written about Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ), you should first read and study the historical accounts in the Gospels. Get to know Yeshua before letting someone else like Paul or John (in his letters) take you deeper. Not doing so would be like studying Advanced Surgical Techniques without ever studying Anatomy.
- Because there is just as much in Paul’s writings regarding Torah, you should also first read and study the Old Testament, especially the first five books, before delving into Paul. Yes, that goes against what most of us have been told. And sadly, that requires us to unlearn some of what we think we know and do a reset.
- Consider something like a Chronological Study Bible. This will intertwine the Book of Acts with letters at the approximate time in history when they were written. Again, scholars don’t all agree on the timelines, but this does help to provide a historical setting.
Unless marked otherwise, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation