The dating of the New Testament documents is a common issue in apologetics, and an interesting question in general. This is because, if the documents were very late, then they’re not as trustworthy, but if very early, then they give us a good account of Jesus’ life and the Early Church. I was recently asked which book was the earliest out of the 27 books of the New Testament. While definitely a good question, it has an annoying answer… it depends… Some of the books we can date quite well, and there’s little argument over it, and others are highly debated. There’s even a lot of debate over the authorship of the books, even though the authors for nearly all the books were unanimously assumed throughout the entire history of the Church, up until about the 1800s. In order to answer which of the books is the earliest, we have to look at a few of the books, and the reasons why people date them the way they do.
Generally speaking, even the most skeptical scholars have a good view of Paul. This was because Paul was an academic, and his life and travels are more well documented than many others of the same time period. Because of this, we can date many of his books quite easily. For example, 1 Corinthians is pretty well assumed as being written between 53-54ad. It’s also generally granted that 1 Thessalonians was written roughly 50ad. To get even earlier, Galatians is thought to have been written before 49ad. This is because in Galatians Paul discusses whether gentiles should be circumcised, which was an issue that was discussed at the Jerusalem council. If Paul was writing on this issue after the council, he would have obviously referred to the decision of the council as part of his argument, since that would have definitely been incredibly helpful. Since he does not do this in his letter, he must have written it before the council. Because the council took place in roughly 49ad, many scholars put the dating of Galatians at about 48ad. This makes Galatians the earliest text in the New Testament, if we go dates that are not too controversial. That in an of itself is incredibly impressive, because this means we have a piece of Christian writing discussing theological which was written only about 15 years after Jesus was crucified. That said, we can actually go even earlier.
The debate surrounding the dating of the books of the Bible is mostly focused on the Gospels. The Gospels were always understood to be early texts, written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There was no debate about the authorship, or how early they were, until roughly the 1800s. During this time period, skeptics started to cast a lot of issues into doubt, not because some new pieces of evidence had arisen, but simply because doubt was becoming increasingly more “allowed”. Because of this, the dating of the texts started to get pushed back as far as possible. It got to a ridiculous point, where skeptics were even claiming the Gospels were written in the second century, but in the past few decades this has begun to be overturned. Today, skeptics typically try to push the dating of the Gospels to roughly 70-90ad. However, there are very good reasons to think the Gospels are earlier than the skeptics think. For example, John is understood as the latest Gospel, with scholars mostly dating it in the 90s ad. However, even with John, the latest Gospel, we see evidence it was written in the 60s ad. “He refers to things in Jerusalem as still standing that would have been devastated in A.D. 70 (cf. John 5:2), and in the literal Greek of John 21:19 he speaks of Peter’s death—which took place in A.D. 67—as still in the future (“This he said to show by what death he [Peter] will glorify God”—future tense in the Greek). (jimmyakin.com) There’s also the fact that the Gospel of John clearly states that it was written by the eyewitness in the recounting it gives of the resurrection (John 21:24). So even in the latest of the Gospels, it seems quite plausible that it was written in the 60s ad at the latest.
Luke is considered to be later than Matthew and Mark, and skeptics typically try to place it in the 70s or 80s ad. However, in 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul quotes from Luke 10:7. So if 1 Timothy is written by Paul (which skeptics still debate, even though Paul declares himself the author, and it was never questioned), then 1 Timothy must have been written before Paul died in the early 60s ad. And if 1 Timothy quoted from Luke, then Luke would have been written before this, at the latest around 60ad, but possibly even before that. Furthermore, once again Mark is universally considered earlier than Luke, since Luke used Mark as a source, so that places it even earlier than this, at the latest in the late 50s ad. Some scholars even argue that Mark could have been written very shortly after the cross, as a sort of “breaking news”, because of the way it was written. Mark is quick and to the point, as though his only goal was to get the word out as fast as possible. There is a manuscript called codex Cyprius, and it dates Matthew, Mark, and Luke as 8, 10, and 15 years after Jesus’ ascension. While this dating is so early that skeptics would laugh at it, and it gives a different order of composition, it still gives us a precedence for people putting early dates on the Gospels. In this case, we could put Mark, and maybe even Matthew, as soon as 41-43 ad. If this sounds ridiculous (which it does to a skeptic), then you can read more about the fact that the Gospels were eyewitness testimonies, which gives credibility to the idea that they were written early.
The only real reason the Gospels get pushed back so much is because in them Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple, which happened in 70ad. To a skeptic, the only way the writers would know about the destruction of the temple is if it had already happened, because in their minds prophecy can’t be legitimate. In other words, the skeptics beg the question in favor of an anti-supernatural understanding of Scripture. If Jesus was who He said He was, then His accurate prophecy can be real, which means we don’t need the Gospels to be later than 70ad in order to accommodate a secular worldview. Instead, the evidence for them being early can be appreciated, rather than ignored. Even when reading passages like Mark 13 that refer to the destruction of the temple, they are written in a way that it was a future event that hadn’t happened yet. If Mark was late, and the temple had been destroyed by the time of its composition, then it would make sense for the writer of the Gospel to mention that, to try and give Jesus’ prophecy credibility. The fact that he doesn’t mention this gives further reason to think it was written before the destruction.
All this considered, at the very least, Mark is likely the earliest Gospel, with the late 50s ad being the latest it could be written. However, it could also possibly be the earliest text in general, since we have no good reason to think it’s later, and some good reasons to think it was more of a news bulletin. A last text we should examine is a specific passage within 1 Corinthians. As I mentioned, 1 Corinthians was like written 53-54ad. However, in 1 Corinthians 15 we find a reference to an early creed the Church had. Paul states that he had given the church in Corinth this creed before, and that he had received it from others prior to that. In other words, this was an oral tradition that was passed around the Christian community, which stated the basics of the Christian faith. It focused on the fact that Jesus died for our sins, was resurrected, that there are many witnesses to these events, and that this was prophesied in the Old Testament. If you’re interested in more on this creed, I go into more detail in episode 25 of my podcast (Click this Link to Listen to the Podcast Here!). The point here being, this creed is usually dated within just a couple of years, or possibly even less than a year, after Jesus’ crucifixion. If our goal is to find the earliest piece of Christian tradition that took on written form, then this creed found in 1 Corinthians 15 is likely our best candidate, dating at roughly 35ad.
There are a few possibilities as to what the earliest text of the New Testament is, and it also depends on what exactly you’ll allow, and where you fall in certain debates. It could be Galatians, with an approximate date of 48ad, which isn’t really too hotly contested. Or the earliest text might be Mark (or even Matthew) with a possible early date of 41-43ad. Lastly, the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 is likely the earliest piece of Christian tradition that we have, dating to roughly 35ad. Regardless of where you fall in these debates, a good point to reflect on is the fact that even the latest of these dates is still incredibly early. The New Testament documents go right back to the time just after Jesus’ life, and many of the eyewitnesses would have still been living. This gives us excellent reason to think the books of the New Testament give us accurate information that can be trusted.