Infographic – Timeline of the New Testament Books

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.

My hope is that this may serve as a fairly rich “info-graphic” to help outline the development of Christology and “historical” information about Jesus as contained in the gospels. (please do advise if you find any errors)

New Testament Timeline - JerichoBrisance

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.

Theological Evolution

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.

Gospel Authorship

Though conservatives will protest that the gospels were written by apostolic eyewitnesses, several key points undermine this assertion:

(1) The gospels declare no author and claim no date of writing, leaving us to do our best on both counts.

(2) The gospels do not claim eyewitness authorship.

(3) 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.

Pseudepigraphy (Forgeries)

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.

Sources

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. Yale University Press; 1 edition (October 13, 1997)

http://rationalfaiths.com/a-brief-history-of-the-bible-part-iii-new-testament-timeline/

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.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorship_of_the_Bible

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_testament

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_the_Just

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irenaeus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_the_Apostle

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Peter

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascension_of_Jesus#Other_possible_references

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(70)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empty_tomb

Comments

  1. Superb! This is going straight into my “All That’s Important” file

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  2. Blane says:

    Excellent graphic–I really need stuff like that to help get my mind wrapped around problems like this. Also wanted to mention: the recent book, intended for a popular audience, which received some high level attention in the media thanks to a disastrous Fox news interview with the author is actually VERY good: Zealot: The LIfe and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. I highly recommend it.

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    • Blane, hey thanks much. As one of our beloved Korean engineering profs used to say in school, “engineer draw picture.” Always been visual. Until I have a clear mental picture, I don’t stop reading. Its a metric. 🙂

      I saw that interview: disaster. I wonder, does Reza have a Ph.D.? 🙂 … I actually saw that book at Barnes today and thought of it again.I know a lot of the mainstream guys like Ehrman haven’t been too impressed by it. But I may have to check it out.

      I’ll tell you one book I’m looking forward to, and that is the upcoming Carrier book. I’ll be interested to read it in a few months when it goes to print (Feb 2014 I think), and I’ll be interested in the critical review of it. He wrote it specifically to bring the more marginalized myther group into a legitimate and peer-reviewed class of scholarship. I don’t go for the myther stuff myself, but I think Carrier has encyclopedic insights on mythology, which certainly colored Christological development.

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  3. This is impressive! Well done! I’ll be referring to this frequently from here on out.

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  4. Reblogged this on Finding Truth and commented:
    This is a must-see! Check it out!

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  5. Reblogged this on Left Christianity.

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  6. Thanks for this. I found your article via re-blog of someone that I follow. I skimmed through your Journey section as well. I couldn’t conclude wha your beliefs are and if you are still questioning. And if so I wanted to point you to RZIM. I wonder if you’ve studied post modernism.

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  7. A very informative chart ! Great work ! Of course it will need to be peer reviewed by unkleE. 🙂

    I intend to use this often. (with full and clear credit going to you of course)

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  8. This graphic is awesome! Found your blog by way of Nate’s blog and glad I did. I’ll be using this graphic often as a reference.

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  9. First: Fantastic infographics — incredibly helpful. And solid research and support. I will add this document to my go-to when trying to remember the chronicity. Superb job!

    Curious:

    (1) Why did you choose Jared Anderson’s RationalFaiths.com — a Mormon site — for your source?

    Interestingly it is based on Raymond Brown’s book. Brown (1928-1998) was a Roman Catholic priest who taught for decades at a Presbyterian seminary (Union) — first Catholic to get tenure there and one of the first Catholics to use historical-critical analysis of the Bible.

    Mormons look at the NT as corrupted, so perhaps they are comfortable with Brown’s approach.

    (2) What software did you use to make this timeline?

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    • Sabio, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your comments.

      (1) Sources:

      I was looking for a clear, concise timeline that reflected middle-road dating for the various books. Anderson posted Brown’s timeline and a corresponding one on the O.T. as well.

      Anderson actually studied under Ehrman at Chapel Hill: https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent?id=uuid:97c239c6-8d75-4429-b56d-6e99dd75bf4f&ds=DATA_FILE, so he represents an interesting hybrid. I include the reference to him and his site for posterity and completeness, not because I’m a fan of Anderson.

      However, Brown seems to be a good source. I added a bit more on him to the post above, per Wiki, for the other readers (you’ve obviously looked him up already!).

      I have other datings from gents like Borg, but those push the dates even farther into the future.

      The dates per Brown reflect pretty well the information that folks can find on Wiki for the various books.

      The sequence of the Pauline epistles and gospels does not appear controversial, and that was the center-core of the infographic. So again, it seemed like a decent moderate view on datings.

      (2) Software…

      PowerPoint!

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  10. I appreciate the choice of taking the middle ground in choosing the dates. That’s the approach I typically employ on such matters. That said, I’m wondering if you have come across any good resources which explain how the date estimates were formulated. I’ve had difficulty finding good explanations and there are some interesting arguments for early dates, namely:
    1) None of the documents explicitly mention the destruction of the temple in 70. You would think that an event which did away with a central piece in the “old way” of interacting with God would have been widely heralded by the proponents of the “new way”.
    2) The book of Acts, specifically, seems to end on the assumption that Paul is still alive.
    3) A key component of the dating is the theological development, which leads to a chicken and egg problem. How do you know that you’re not creating the theological development over time by assigning dates based on the extraction of theological differences?

    The assignment of dates seems like it might be a pretty subjective process but I would really be interested in getting a better handle on the rationales behind these things. If you’ve come across any good, balanced explanations I would be interested to know where those are. I’d also be interested in knowing whether you’ve seen any discussion on why the three arguments above aren’t generally considered persuasive enough to shift the consensus dates.

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    • Hey Travis,

      I’m afraid I can only give an approximate response, as I haven’t been through any detailed tomes on the subject. Its complicated, and there is latitude in conclusions, to be sure. Borg’s book might be most helpful. He gives all the books in what he believes is the most likely order of writing, and he presents the reasons why/why not and the major alternate dates that others choose. Some factors that play into it (and I’m going from memory here)…

      – Word use, which I *think* was one of the reasons for dating 2 Peter as it was. Anachronisms if memory serves.

      – References to the temple destruction. Jesus, as you may recall, is recorded as saying that not a stone would be left upon another. But anyone can go to Jerusalem today and still see the landmark that disconfirms at least the extent of this statement, if it was a prophecy. One explanation, and still the best I’ve heard, is that the account was written in a different region by those who had heard accounts of the destruction that said as much. Regional news was far more approximate at the time. The prophecy was written in terms that matched what was understood to be the case. Hence, a good explanation was that the account was written after the Temple destruction and in a different locale.

      – There appear to be direct allusions to Josephus’ works in some of the books, and he can be well dated at ~94AD.

      – References to Jewish expulsion of Christians from synagogues may not have happened until later in time than previously thought. They seem to have kept company for some time, with broad anti-Christian sentiments only showing up later. There are records (I think I’m right here) on the Jewish side to when the policy change happened. Traces of anti-Jewish, us-them mentality show up very clearly in some works. So there is reason to think that the general antagonism may not have been as early or as widespread as we thought (perhaps more regional), and that books containing emphasis here date to after the roads diverged more.

      As to your numbered questions:

      1. Yep, you’re right. They all talk about it in future tense, prophetically. But the gospels and Acts were set to cover a period that ended well before, and it was clear that they wanted to only speak about in future tense. A good reason for this is that the gospels likely really did go back to at least some percentage of original material that was written early. The best guesses are that Mark, John, and maybe the others, emerged from a complicated multi-stage process. Not the work of a single set of hands. The final versions of all four documents are very complex, and written in Greek, and clearly with other elements that came in. But they do seem to have wanted to remain with the period. I don’t know much about them, but my understanding is that even the second century fake gospels do likewise. So, I think there may be three reasons: (1) continuity with earlier material, (2) appearance of early-written credibility on prophetic content, and (3) their designed scope was to stick with the life of Jesus and the apostles.

      2. Acts gets talked about a lot, exactly per your observation. There are good arguments against deducing that it was written before his death though. It is a complex and orchestrated document that has clear literary structure – not just narrative. It deliberately selects from who and what it covers throughout, focusing on just a few stars; it really doesn’t tell us what became of most of the disciples in the end. Comparing with Mark – that was a work that ended with the women finding the empty tomb, running away, and not saying anything to anybody about what they saw. No post-resurrection sitings, no ascension, etc. It ends with a haunting cliff-hanger… Jesus is alive and loose in the world! This was quite deliberate, and Acts may have been doing exactly the same. The literary effect of leaving Paul in Rome has been discussed quite a bit, so I’ll leave you to check that out. Point is, the deduction of pre-Temple and pre-Paul-martyrdom doesn’t necessarily hold. And further, there are references that might even place it post-Josephus (not on my timeline though).

      3. I agree with you 100% on this one. I spent a really long time really staring at it for that reason. The supposed development could be a chimera. I spent a lot of time with the texts, and a lot of time with a Harmony of the Gospels. I can tell you that I did finally arrive at one fixed point that allowed me to come down on the side of development over time, and that was John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus. I can find no reasonable model to explain how an event of such magnitude – and such publicity – could have been ignored by the other three gospel writers. We would have to assume that they felt the incident was somehow ancillary. Not important enough to record. The longer one looks at John, the more the content does not make sense as contemporary or preceding the other gospels. Jesus doesn’t talk about himself much in the other gospels at all; very different message. In John, that’s all Jesus talks about. All seven “I am” statements are particular to John… and again, it is very hard to argue that a responsible gospel writer could leave these out – much less 3 such writers. But to go to the epistles, its very similar with the eschatological development. So I suppose I’m boiling it to two major categories – eschatology and Christology. But again, in some epistles, I recall additional anachronistic markers (which escape me at the moment).

      Anyway, I realize this is a crummy and approximate explanation. Sorry about that. I have no doubt that I’ve erred on some of the details. But the issues are at least live, and maybe that gives some context to the factors involved.

      Borg is a decent start, and a good writer. Interesting read. 🙂

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      • Wow, thanks for the detailed response. I was really just looking for recommendations, but I’ll take the brain dump as well. It’s interesting that I’ve had such difficulty finding the methodology behind the consensus dates. Usually that type of stuff is pretty easy to find online. I guess I’ll have to rely on the books, though I’d like to keep it balanced and include something on the other side of Borg. Have you looked at Redating the New Testament by John Robinson?

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        • I guess to add a bit, I’ve found lots of lesser references to the same issues here and there, like in Ehrman, and other Historical Jesus references. None stand out really strong as being a focused discussion on it though.

          I’ve consulted Wiki, of course, which is always pretty good for a general sense of some of the issues. On the multi-source complexities for Mark, it has the following…

          “Some modern scholars believe that the gospel was written in Syria by an unknown Christian no earlier than AD 70, using various sources including a passion narrative (probably written), collections of miracles stories (oral or written), apocalyptic traditions (probably written), and disputations and didactic sayings (some possibly written). Some of the material in Mark, however, goes back a very long way, representing an important source for historical information about Jesus.”

          The entry on Acts gives both sides – arguments for earlier and later. Here is the excerpt on the Josephus connection that would make it later…

          “Parallels between Acts and Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews (written in 75-80) and Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94) have long been argued.[30] Several scholars have argued that Acts used material from both of Josephus’ works, rather than the other way around, which would indicate that Acts was written around the year 100 or later.[31][32] Three points of contact with Josephus in particular are cited: (1) The circumstances attending the death of Agrippa I in 44. Here Acts 12:21-23 is largely parallel to Antiquities 19.8.2; (2) the cause of the Egyptian pseudo-prophet in Acts 21:37f and in Josephus (War 2.13.5; Antiquities 20.8.6); (3) the curious resemblance as to the order in which Theudas and Judas of Galilee are referred to in both (Acts 5:36f; Antiquities 20.5.1).”

          If I speculate, it may be a good idea to just get an evangelical/fundamentalist text to counter-balance Borg’s book. At the same time, I will say that Borg generally gave the basic description of why some people date it differently than he does, and then gave his reasons. And I should also point out that I don’t recall Borg coming across as really dogmatic in his positions. He was fairly open about saying when a date was clearly approximate or could go another way, and whether it mattered much in the end.

          I have not read Robinson, but looking at Amazon, it sounds *very* interesting. His a priori bias makes it fascinating. In one of the reviewer comments, I saw this… “For want of data, absolute proof of Robinson’s thesis is impossible, and the weight of his arguments varies – from overwhelming in the case of the Epistle to the Hebrews through powerful (the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles of John) to merely strong (the Pastoral Epistles, the non-Johannine Catholic Epistles and Revelation).”

          That phrase – “for want of data” – seems to simply saturate biblical discussions. I have wondered long and hard why the books and letters weren’t simply dated. Perhaps that’s just another discriminator between gospels and histories. I’m curious – didn’t the historians from that period date their works, like Josephus with his? I’ve assumed that more rigorous scholars would do so, but I have no data on that. I think he did… Wiki singles out the one work that did not have a date.

          At any rate, the lack of clear (1) authorship claims and (2) date claims just hasn’t been good for posterity. Same thing from the Pentateuch forward. Works that stand for thousands of years… basic metadata simply absent. Who, when, where. As I mentioned, it leaves us to do the best we can.

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  11. Thanks again for the time and effort you put into the response. I think I’ll probably end up looking at both Borg and Robinson to get a sense for where these dates are coming from. By the way, if you want an interesting take on the relationship between the Lazarus story and John, look at Ben Witherington’s proposal for the identity of the beloved disciple.

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    • Yes, I’ve heard that hypothesis on the beloved disciple. Haven’t actually read Witherington on it though. I read his book on the Quest though. Something about his style is kinda wearisome.

      It would have been great, IMHO, if the writer of John had just told us his name outright. In probably expecting too much. 🙂

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  12. great post, glad you put this together

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  13. Just what I was looking for. You are a champion.

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  14. American Ruth says:

    Is it possible that you’ve got 2 Tim and 2 Thes swapped in your chart?

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  15. (subscribing for comment alerts.)

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Trackbacks

  1. […] and indeed, after the promise had fallen through. (Estimated at 130 A.D., see prior post on Timeline of the NT Books). Early followers really did think Jesus was coming back in the first generation. Jesus himself may […]

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  2. […] gospels. For that, we need the parallel church traditions about these texts. As discussed on the Timeline of NT Books infographic, Irenaeus gives us our first record of who wrote the gospels, late in the second century […]

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  3. […] It is hard to call out a favorite, though I would have to include the posts on dinosaur blood, the New Testament timeline, Justin Martyr, and Pontius Pilate as strong […]

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  4. […] then that affects the credibility of Jesus the divine and Paul the apostle.  Read here and here about the lack of credibility with the […]

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  5. […] Also See: Infographic for New Testament Timeline […]

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