Dating The Books Of The New Testament

From Part I, Chapter 5, of: Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine
by Archbishop M. Sheehan, revised. by Rev. Peter Joseph, St Austin Press, (London 2001)

In this updated material taken from the new edition of Sheehan’s Apologetics, Fr Peter Joseph, affirms the reliability of the New Testament literature and questions the conventional theories about late dating. Fr. Joseph lectured at St John Vianney Seminary, Wagga Wagga, NSW.
Existing manuscripts and codices. Codex Sinaiticus of the mid 4th century contains the entire New Testament. Codex Vaticanus of the same period contains all the Gospels and most of the rest of the New Testament. Codex Alexandrinus of the early 5th century contains almost all the New Testament. Codex Bezae of the 5th century contains, inter alia, the four Gospels. Another codex of the 5th century contains three-fifths of the N.T., and another of the 4-5th century contains the four Gospels. The reliability of these earliest complete copies of books is indicated by the fact that they closely correspond to earlier portions of books.Discoveries of fragments and portions. We do not have the original manuscripts, but the earlier manuscripts from which our complete texts are descended have not perished without a trace. Since 1890, some 60 fragments and portions of N.T. books, dating from the 2nd-4th century, have been discovered in Egypt. They correspond closely to our texts listed above, and it is a fair inference that the missing portions would show the same correspondence. We now have 76 manuscripts of portions of the New Testament going back to the 4th century or earlier. In 1935, a small fragment—four verses of St John’s Gospel, chapter 18—came to light; it is true to our text, and it is dated c. 125 A.D. Another 2nd century fragment contains Jn 18:36-19:7. We also possess, dated c. 200 A.D.: portions of 19 verses of St Matthew; papyri of St John’s Gospel containing twelve complete chapters and portions of the other nine; 86 leaves of a codex containing portions of St Paul’s letters. From the early 3rd century we have: portions of 30 leaves with parts of the Gospels and Acts; a papyrus codex containing eight complete chapters of St Luke and five complete chapters of St John. From the 3rd century: two leaves of a codex with some of the text of chapters 1, 16 and 20 of John. It is now regarded as practically established that the four Gospels as we know them were circulating in Egypt as separate books within the first half of the second century.

Comparison with Classical Texts. Looking at the table below, we can see that the oldest manuscripts of certain major works of Plato, Caesar, Cicero and Horace date from the 9th century; of Thucydides, Herodotus, Sophocles and Aristotle from the 10th; of Tacitus from the 11th—yet no one doubts that these manuscripts, though ever so many centuries later than their authors’ day, are, substantially, the uncorrupted descendants of the originals. No one would ever have thought of questioning the integrity of the Gospel texts, but for the fact that they contain a Divine Law of belief and conduct, irksome to the irreligious. Whoever would dismiss the New Testament must logically reject all written sources of ancient history and literature.

Author Work Date of writing Earliest complete copy Time span No. of early mss., complete or partial
Horace Satires 35 B.C. 9th cent. 850 years 17
Cicero De Senectute 44 B.C. 9th 900 16
Caesar Gallic Wars 52 B.C. 9th 950 11
Plato Republic 375 B.C. 9th 1300 7
Thucydides Pelopon. War 411 B.C. 10th 1300 13
Aristotle Poetics 334 B.C. 10th 1300 2
Herodotus History 440-425 B.C. 10th 1350 11
Sophocles Antigone 441 B.C. 10th 1550 4
Tacitus Annals 110 A.D. 11th 1000 34
Evangelists, St Paul, etc. New Testament 50-100 A.D. 4th century 350 years 263 in Greek up to 9th cent.

In the entire range of ancient literature, the Iliad of Homer, committed to writing possibly in the 7th century B.C., is second to the New Testament in terms of the number of ancient manuscripts: we have 372 portions of papyri from the 3rd century B.C. to the 7th cent. A.D., which together give us about 90% of the text. We also have five major manuscripts from the 10th cent. A.D. onward, and about 200 later manuscripts of complete or partial copies of the Iliad—but the earliest near complete manuscript is of the 10th cent. A.D.


In the 19th century it became standard for haughty Rationalists to scoff at Christianity and say that the Gospels were mere mythical stories, only loosely based on history, and not written until one hundred years or more after the original events. But the discovery of earlier and earlier fragments of manuscripts, the confirmation of the New Testament furnished by archaeological research, as well as the citation of the New Testament writings by Fathers of the early 1st century A.D., pushed their successors closer and closer to those dates which traditionally were ascribed to the four Gospels and the Epistles of St Paul.

German church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), a rationalist scholar of high repute among Protestants and Rationalists, said that the Synoptic Gospels were written before 70 A.D. (i.e., before the fall of Jerusalem). After many years of doubt or denial on the question, he concluded that the Gospel of St John is by him and can be dated 80-118. He placed the Gospels of Mark and Luke before the year 60, and Acts in the year 62. Shortly before his death, he signified his acceptance of the tradition that St Luke derived his information on the infancy of Jesus from Mary His Mother.

Early dating of the books of the New Testament is held by numerous modern scholars. Modern research adduces several complementary arguments for the credibility and early dating of the Gospels, Acts, and letters of St Paul:

(1) Argument from internal indications of dating. Italian Biblical scholar and Orientalist, Giuseppe Ricciotti, takes as his starting point the conclusion of the Acts of the Apostles. Acts concludes with St Paul in prison, before his trial had taken place and before the general persecution of Christians under Nero, which began in 64. It was written about 62 or 63, therefore. St Luke wrote Acts after his Gospel, as he states at the start of Acts. His Gospel, therefore, cannot be dated after 60, and tradition places it third in the list of Gospels, something confirmed by the Gospel’s prologue, which refers to “many others” who have also written narratives of Christ, among whom would certainly be Matthew and Mark. This dating puts Matthew and Mark no later than 60. Ricciotti argues for the following dates: Matthew 50-55; Mark 55-60; Luke c. 60; John c. 100.

(2) Argument from history. Anglican bishop J.A.T. Robinson, well-known for the theological liberalism of his book Honest to God (1963), in an epoch-making work Redating the New Testament, came to the conclusion that the late dating of the Gospels by the school of ‘form criticism’ is totally dependent upon “the manifold tyranny of unexamined assumptions.” Robinson begins his study by noting that in the entire New Testament, “the single most datable and climactic event of the period—the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple—is never once mentioned as a past fact.” He proposes the following dates: Matthew 40-60; Mark 45-60; Luke 57-60; John 40-65; and indeed he dates the entire New Testament before the year 70.

(3) Argument from early patristic tradition combined with internal comparison of the Gospels. Anglican canon, and Professor of New Testament Greek, John Wenham, arguing from the likenesses and differences between the Synoptic Gospels, and early tradition regarding their order and place of writing, concludes that the Gospel of St Matthew was written around 40, St Mark about 45, St Luke by the mid-50s, and Acts of the Apostles in 62. Early Fathers and writers are unanimous in asserting that St Matthew wrote first, and in Hebrew. Those who say so include Papias, Irenaeus, Pantaenus, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Cyril of Jerusalem. Later writers say the same: St Gregory Nazianzus, St John Chrysostom, St Augustine, St Jerome.

(4) Argument from Jewish oral and written tradition. Swedish Biblicist, Birger Gerhardsson, demonstrates the reliability of the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels from the teaching and memorisation methods of the Jewish rabbis and disciples at the time of Christ. “Turning to Jesus’ oral teaching, we must reckon with the fact that he used a method similar to that of Jewish—and Hellenistic—teachers: the scheme of text and interpretation. He must have made his disciples learn sayings off by heart; if he taught, he must have required his disciples to memorize.” The same evidence has been presented by Harald Riesenfeld, also of Sweden, and Thorleif Boman of Norway. French scholar Marcel Jousse in his own studies demonstrated the Semitic characteristics and rhythm of the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Other scholars point also to the wide use of shorthand and the carrying of notebooks in the Graeco-Roman world, the practice in schools of circulating lecture notes, and the common practice among the disciples of rabbis to make notes of their sayings.

(5) Argument from Hebrew basis of the texts. French scholar Jean Carmignac was struck by the Semitisms (Hebrew or Semitic way of writing and speaking) of the Greek text of St Mark’s Gospel when in 1963 he began to translate it into Hebrew. His work The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels summarises twenty years of research on the Hebrew language background to the Gospels. Carmignac names forty-nine scholars who uphold the Semitic origin of one or other of the Gospels. He adduces multiple examples of Semitisms, and divides them into nine categories: Semitisms of borrowing, imitation, thought, vocabulary, syntax, style, composition, transmission, and translation. In essence, he demonstrates that the Synoptic Gospels can only have taken shape in the Jewish culture of the first half of the 1st century A.D., and thus they evince the authenticity of their content and origin. “In short, the latest dates that can be admitted are around 50 for Mark, … around 55 for Completed Mark; around 55-60 for Matthew; between 58 and 60 for Luke. But the earliest dates are clearly more probable: Mark around 42; Completed Mark around 45; (Hebrew) Matthew around 50; (Greek) Luke a little after 50.” Based upon the same arguments, French philosopher and specialist in Hebrew thought Claude Tresmontant proposes the following dates: Matthew before 36, Mark 50-60, and Luke 40-60.

The Hebrew origins of our Greek manuscripts have been studied by scholars in Jerusalem such as Robert Lindsey, David Flusser, Pinchas Lapide and David Bivin. Lindsey comments, “My own encounter with the strong Hebraism of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke came several years ago when I had occasion to attempt the translation of the Gospel of Mark to Hebrew. What first caught my attention was the very Hebraic word order of the Greek text of Mark. Usually I only needed to find the correct Hebrew equivalents to the Greek words in order to give good sense and understanding to the text. In other words, the syntax or word relationships were just such as one would expect in Hebrew.” The Greek text reads like a word-for-word translation of a Hebrew text. At times, obscure phrases in Greek can be understood by translating back into Hebrew, thus arriving at a Hebrew idiom or term or saying whose meaning was lost in translation. St Jerome says that he himself made a copy of the Hebrew original of a ‘Gospel according to the Hebrews’—a work, now lost, which scholars judge to be akin to St Matthew’s Gospel. Other ancient writers, Clement, Origen, Eusebius and Epiphanius, attest to the same or a similar work.

(6) Argument from internal comparison of language. French Biblical scholar Philippe Rolland argues, as Ricciotti, for the early dating of Acts and contends that falsification of the facts by Luke was completely impossible, given that many readers and listeners to Acts were eyewitnesses to the events described therein. He accepts the basic argument of J. Robinson regarding the fall of Jerusalem. He then demonstrates the similarity of language between the discourses of St Peter in the Acts of the Apostles and the two epistles by him. He demonstrates likewise the similarity of language between the discourses of St Paul in the Acts of the Apostles and the several epistles by him. He proposes the following dates: Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew, A.D. 40; Greek translation of Matthew, and Gospel of Luke, 63 or 64; Mark, 66 or 67; John, towards 100. These dates are accepted and proposed by Italian Biblical, Oriental and Patristic scholar, Tommaso Federici.

(7) Argument from dating of papyri. German papyrologist Carsten Peter Thiede examined three papyrus fragments of the Gospel of St Matthew—acquired in 1901 in Luxor, Egypt, and now kept at Magdalen College, Oxford—and concluded that they can be dated to about the year 60 A.D.


Cf. Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1970, vol. 2, p.581.
Cf. K. & B. Aland, The Text of the New Testament, W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1989, p.81.
Aland, op. cit., p.57
Listed in Aland, op. cit., pp.96-102.
mss. = manuscripts. This does not include fragments. All manuscript statistics of the ancient classics are taken from the introductions to the critical editions of these texts published by Société d’Édition Les Belles Lettres, Paris.
Aland, op. cit., p.106. This figure does not include the even more numerous early manuscripts of translations into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopian, Gothic, Old Church Slavonic and other languages.
P. Mazon, Introduction à l’Iliade, Société d’Édition Les Belles Lettres, Paris 1959, pp.7-65.
Neue Untersuchungen zur Apostelgesch. und zur Abfassung. der Syn. Evang., 1911; The Date of Acts and the Synoptic Gospels, Williams & Norgate, London, and Putnam, N.Y., 1911.
Theologische Quartalsch., Tübingen 1929, IV, pp.443-4
See a list of fifteen scholars in J. Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1991, p.299.
The Life of Christ, Bruce, Milwaukee 1947, pp.98-141
Redating the New Testament, SCM Press, London 1976, p.345
Idem, p.13
Idem, p.352
Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, op. cit., London 1991
Memory and Manuscript. Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity, Gleerup, Uppsala, Sweden 1961; Préhistoire des Évangiles, Cerf, Paris 1981; The Gospel Tradition, Gleerup, Lund 1986
Memory and Manuscript, op. cit., p.328
The Gospel Tradition, Blackwell, Oxford 1970
R.H. Gundry, The Use of the Old Testament in St Matthew’s Gospel, Brill, Leiden 1967; E.J. Goodspeed, Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, Winston, Philadelphia 1959; R. Riesner, Jesus als Lehrer, Mohr, Tübingen 1988
The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago 1987, p.61
The Hebrew Christ. Language in the Age of the Gospels, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago 1989, p.324
A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, 2nd. ed., Jerusalem 1973
Foreword to D. Bivin & R. Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights from a Hebraic Perspective, Rev. ed., Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, Dayton, Ohio 1994

De Vir. Illustr. c. 3
References given in W. Schneemelcher (ed.), New Testament Apocrypha, vol. I, Westminster, Kentucky 1991, pp.134-78. Cf. J.N.D. Kelly, Jerome, Duckworth, London 1975, pp.65, 223; J. Quasten, Patrology, Vol. I, p.111-2.
L’origine et la date des évangiles, Éditions Saint-Paul, Paris 1994, pp.163-4
Resuscitò Cristo, Eparchia di Piana d. albanesi, Palermo 1996, pp.166-7
C.P. Thiede & M. d’Ancona, Eyewitness to Jesus, Doubleday, N.Y. 1996; The Jesus Papyrus, Phoenix, London 1997