Home » Religion and Me, or How I Became an Agnostic Atheist » New Testament Authorship

I fre­quent­ly find the fol­low­ing infor­ma­tion to be impor­tant in dis­cus­sions, and I got tired of look­ing it up and writ­ing it out, so I final­ly decid­ed to turn it into an arti­cle here. This mate­r­i­al began as a short­er arti­cle, which was orig­i­nal­ly post­ed to the files sec­tion of a Face­book group. I am using the Protes­tant canon, although I may add more lat­er.

One thing of note: very few of the books of the New Tes­ta­ment were writ­ten by those to whom they are tra­di­tion­al­ly attrib­uted, or even with­in the life­times of those peo­ple. That fact is a seri­ous blow to the cred­i­bil­i­ty of those doc­u­ments.

Attrib­uted to Mark
The Gospel of Mark is usu­al­ly thought to have been the ear­li­est of the four gospels includ­ed in the West­ern canon (Ray­mond E. Brown, Intro­duc­tion to the New Tes­ta­ment), writ­ten around 70 CE (Stephen L. Har­ris, Under­stand­ing the Bible). Because it was writ­ten to gen­tiles, the author explains Jew­ish cus­toms. There is an argu­ment that it was used as a source for Matthew and Luke, accord­ing to most New Tes­ta­ment schol­ars (Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Sem­i­nar, The Five Gospels). Church tra­di­tion holds that Mark the Evan­ge­list wrote it, based on Simon Peter’s accounts. That tra­di­tion is based on some­thing that Euse­bius of Cae­sarea quot­ed from an ear­ly church bish­op, Papias of Hier­apo­lis (whose writ­ings did not sur­vive the ages). Papias cred­its his infor­ma­tion to John the Pres­byter. (Michael William Holmes, The Apos­tolic Fathers in Eng­lish). Most schol­ars now agree, though, that the author was an anony­mous per­son in Syr­ia who used mul­ti­ple sources, oral and writ­ten (Gerd Theis­sen and Annette Merz, The His­tor­i­cal Jesus: A Com­pre­hen­sive Guide). The old­est extant man­u­scripts end with chap­ter 16, verse 8.

Attrib­uted to Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew is thought by most schol­ars to have been com­posed between 80 and 90CE, although we know it was between 70 and 110CE for sure (Den­nis C. Dul­ing, “The Gospel of Matthew,” The Black­well Com­pan­ion to the New Tes­ta­ment, edit­ed by David E. Aune). The “accord­ing to Matthew” was NOT part of the ear­li­est edi­tions (Daniel J. Har­ring­ton, The Gospel of Matthew). The tra­di­tion that Matthew the Apos­tle wrote it began with Papias (David L. Turn­er, Matthew). The author, pos­si­bly a scribe from Anti­och in Syr­ia (Dul­ing), seems to have been a well-edu­cat­ed Jew writ­ing for Jews, as he nev­er both­ers to explain Jew­ish tra­di­tions and gives Jesus’ ances­try back to Abra­ham, instead of Adam. (Dul­ing). He drew on the “Q” source as well as the Gospel of Mark, and added some unique mate­r­i­al that is referred to as “M” (Del­bert Bur­kett, An Intro­duc­tion to the New Tes­ta­ment and the Ori­gins of Chris­tian­i­ty). Alan Bar­ber and some oth­ers argue for Mattheian pri­ma­cy, say­ing that there are signs that the orig­i­nal Gospel of Matthew was writ­ten in Hebrew. There are def­i­nite­ly rea­sons to believe that the Gospel of Matthew that Papias knew is NOT the book that we have today, and if any of that book remains, changes (dele­tions, addi­tions, edits, etc.) have def­i­nite­ly been made over the cen­turies.

Attrib­uted to Luke
Luke-Acts were essen­tial­ly two parts of one whole, so we’ll con­sid­er them togeth­er. They are tra­di­tion­al­ly cred­it­ed to Luke the Evan­ge­list, a com­pan­ion of Paul. How­ev­er the the­ol­o­gy dif­fers from Paul’s in ways which make it like­ly that the author was not inti­mate­ly famil­iar with Paul, but more like­ly with the pas­toral epis­tles, which are pseude­pigrapha dat­ed after Paul’s death (Schuyler Brown, The Ori­gins of Chris­tian­i­ty: a His­tor­i­cal Intro­duc­tion to the New Tes­ta­ment). Accord­ing to P. Viel­hauer in “On the ‘Paulin­ism’ of Acts,” the books’ pre­sen­ta­tion of Paul’s atti­tudes regard­ing nat­ur­al the­ol­o­gy, Jew­ish law, chris­tol­ogy, and escha­tol­ogy con­tra­dict Paul’s own let­ters (L.E. Keck and J.L. Mar­tin, eds., Stud­ies in Luke-Acts, pp. 33 – 50). The Gospel of Luke con­tains the clear­est pre­dic­tion by Jesus of the destruc­tion of the Tem­ple in 21:5 – 30, and that pas­sage is part of what gives schol­ars rea­son to date it between 75 and 100 CE (Brown, p. 24). They are writ­ten in Koine Greek and addressed to the author’s patron, “Most Excel­lent Theophilus” — pos­si­bly a high­ly ranked Roman offi­cial. They are def­i­nite­ly writ­ten to a gen­tile audi­ence, por­tray­ing Jesus in a pos­i­tive light to Romans. (“Gospel Accord­ing to St. Matthew,” The Oxford Dic­tio­nary of the Chris­t­ian Church, edit­ed by F.L. Cross). Most schol­ars agree that the gospel was based on the “Q” doc­u­ment and the Gospel of Mark, and may also have drawn from oth­er writ­ten records (Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Sem­i­nar).

Attrib­uted to John
The Gospel of John is tra­di­tion­al­ly attrib­uted to the Apos­tle of the same name. “Although ancient tra­di­tions attrib­uted to the Apos­tle John the Fourth Gospel, the Book of Rev­e­la­tion, and the three Epis­tles of John, mod­ern schol­ars believe that he wrote none of them.” (Stephen L. Har­ris, Under­stand­ing the Bible). The text itself nev­er names the author, and the tra­di­tion that it was John dates back to the 2nd cen­tu­ry. It is unlike­ly that the book was writ­ten by any one per­son, but is con­sid­ered to have devel­oped over time, in three stages, com­plet­ed between 90 and 100CE (Har­ris). Cur­rent schol­ars believe that it was based on a “Signs” gospel, which could have been writ­ten by an eye­wit­ness, and a doc­u­ment con­tain­ing the­o­log­i­cal dis­cours­es (David E. Aune, The New Tes­ta­ment in Its Lit­er­ary Envi­ron­ment).

Now for the Johan­nine Epis­tles. Many schol­ars attribute the 1 John to the same author as the Gospel of John (Amos Wilder, “Intro­duc­tion to the First, Sec­ond, and Third Epis­tles of John” in Nolan Harmon’s The Interpreter’s Bible, p. 214.), while main­tain­ing that a dif­fer­ent author wrote 2 John and 3 John. How­ev­er, the all three are very sim­i­lar in style, vocab­u­lary, and spelling to each oth­er and the Gospel of John, so it’s pos­si­ble that a John the Elder may have writ­ten all four books. Euse­bius stat­ed that John the Elder was not John the Apos­tle. All four books were writ­ten around Eph­esus between 90 and 110 CE.

Often referred to as sim­ply Rev­e­la­tion, or even the Apoc­a­lypse, this book was includ­ed in the New Tes­ta­ment because of claims that it was writ­ten by John the Apos­tle. There were ques­tions regard­ing its apos­tolic prove­nance from the 2nd cen­tu­ry (Stephen Pat­te­more, The Peo­ple of God in the Apoc­a­lypse, p. 1) for­ward, though. Euse­bius even went to some trou­ble in The His­to­ry of the Church to estab­lish the fact that there was no gen­er­al con­sen­sus that John the Apos­tle had writ­ten Rev­e­la­tion. The author is referred to as John of Pat­mos, tak­en to be a whol­ly dif­fer­ent indi­vid­ual than John the Apos­tle. (Bart D. Ehrman, The New Tes­ta­ment: A His­tor­i­cal Intro­duc­tion to the Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Writ­ings, p. 468)

Due to the con­tro­ver­sy, it was added to the canon much lat­er than any oth­er book, either at the Coun­cil of Carthage in 397 or the Syn­od of Carthage in 419 (sources dif­fer). While a few schol­ars argue that the book was writ­ten dur­ing the reign of Nero or short­ly after­wards (60−69 CE), most mod­ern schol­ars con­sid­er it more like­ly that the book was writ­ten around 95 CE, near the end of Domitian’s reign, which match­es ear­ly church tra­di­tion (Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Rev­e­la­tion, pp. 15 – 16). It must have been fin­ished after 92 CE, because it men­tions the death of Bish­op Antipas, who was killed by the Emper­or Domit­ian in that year. 

P98 is the old­est sur­viv­ing frag­ment of Rev­e­la­tion, dat­ed to 100 — 200 CE.

Attrib­uted to James

As for James, there were two apos­tles who bore that name. The first is James, son of Zebedee, broth­er of John, some­times called “James the Great.” The sec­ond is referred to as James the Less, called the son of Alphaeus. There is also a James, son of Clopas and Mary of Clopas, who might be James the Less — it depends on your source. Then there is James the Just, broth­er of Jesus. James the Less is occa­sion­al­ly iden­ti­fied with James the Just, but it is more like­ly that they were dif­fer­ent peo­ple. So there are four Bib­li­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties if we assume that a Bib­li­cal char­ac­ter wrote it.

Church tra­di­tion attrib­ut­es the Epis­tle of James to James the Just, who was mar­tyred in 62 CE accord­ing to Jose­phus (or 69 CE if we use Hege­sip­pus’ account). The epis­tle itself, how­ev­er, is dat­ed to the late first cen­tu­ry or even ear­ly sec­ond, which means that James the Just could not have writ­ten it. The author does not claim that iden­ti­ty at all, in fact, and the the­ol­o­gy of the epis­tle is con­tra­dic­to­ry to what is known of James, who was a Judaiz­er. See Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Writ­ings for more details on why the tra­di­tion­al attri­bu­tion is con­sid­ered incor­rect. Who did write it? We don’t know.

Attrib­uted to Peter
Regard­ing Peter, the great major­i­ty of mod­ern schol­ars agree that nei­ther of the two epis­tles that bear his name were writ­ten by him, and that they were actu­al­ly writ­ten by two dif­fer­ent peo­ple. (Steve Moyise, The Old Tes­ta­ment in the New, p. 116) Stephen L. Har­ris states that, “Most schol­ars believe that 1 Peter is pseu­do­ny­mous (writ­ten anony­mous­ly in the name of a well-known fig­ure) and was pro­duced dur­ing postapos­tolic times.” (Under­stand­ing the Bible, p. 352) He lat­er con­tin­ues, “Vir­tu­al­ly no author­i­ties defend the Petrine author­ship of 2 Peter, which is believed to have been writ­ten by an anony­mous church­man in Rome about 150 C.E.” (ibid, p. 354) Dates for 1 Peter are var­i­ous­ly giv­en between 70 and 112 CE.

Attrib­uted to Jude
There is con­fu­sion regard­ing which Jude wrote the Epis­tle of Jude. He might have been the apos­tle Jude, and/​or the broth­er of Jesus. He might have been the broth­er of James the Less — the author refers to him­self as the broth­er of James, but doesn’t say which James, assum­ing the intend­ed audi­ence already knows that. At least one schol­ar thinks that the apos­tle Jude wrote it, but oth­ers say oth­er­wise. The only thing schol­ars seem to agree on, from what I can deter­mine, is that the author was not Judas Iscar­i­ot.

Attrib­uted to Paul

Here we divide things into three groups: sev­en books we can be pret­ty sure Paul wrote, four almost all the crit­i­cal schol­ars agree he didn’t write, two on which schol­ars are sharply divid­ed, and Hebrews.

While we have a gen­er­al con­sen­sus that Paul wrote The Epis­tle of Paul to the Romans, The First Epis­tle of Paul to the Corinthi­ans, The Sec­ond Epis­tle of Paul to the Corinthi­ans, The Epis­tle of Paul to the Gala­tians, The Epis­tle of Paul to the Philip­pi­ans, The First Epis­tle of Paul to the Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans, and The Epis­tle of Paul to Phile­mon, dat­ing them presents an issue. Almost every eas­i­ly acces­si­ble ref­er­ence read goes about dat­ing them by rely­ing upon Acts, but as shown above, the author of Acts was not “Luke, Paul’s com­pan­ion.” Obvi­ous­ly there are oth­er ways to date them, and I’m sure seri­ous crit­i­cal schol­ars use those meth­ods, but I don’t have access to most of them. So please under­stand that these dates are sub­ject to change as I get bet­ter infor­ma­tion.

Any­way, these are bor­ing so I won’t spend much time on them. 1 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans was writ­ten around 50 CE, as well as Gala­tians. 2 Corinthi­ans is a com­bi­na­tion of at least three let­ters, usu­al­ly divid­ed as chap­ters 1 – 7, 8 – 9, and 10 – 13, writ­ten between 52 and 57 CE. Then we have 1 Corinthi­ans writ­ten around 54 CE. Phile­mon comes along in the mid-50’s CE, as does Philip­pi­ans. And 58 CE gives us Romans.

Now we get to the forg­eries. Yes, I say forg­eries, because the authors of these let­ters wrote them claim­ing to be Paul, rely­ing on Paul’s author­i­ty.

The let­ter to the Eph­esians claims to have been writ­ten to the “saints in Eph­esus.” The ear­li­est man­u­scripts leave out the words “in Eph­esus.” It is con­sid­ered a forgery by crit­i­cal schol­ars, and dat­ed between 70 – 80 CE (Markus Barth, Eph­esians: Intro­duc­tion, Trans­la­tion, and Com­men­tary on Chap­ters 1 – 3, pp. 50 – 51).

Colos­sae was a small Phry­gian city about 100 miles from Eph­esus in Asia Minor. The let­ter to the Colos­sians is so sim­i­lar to the Let­ter to the Eph­esians that the two are con­sid­ered like­ly to have been writ­ten by the same per­son, an ear­ly fol­low­er of Paul’s, or one was used as a source by who­ev­er wrote the oth­er, think­ing it was a legit­i­mate let­ter by Paul. Because they are so sim­i­lar and were writ­ten around the same time, I am address­ing them togeth­er. It is gen­er­al­ly dat­ed around 80 CE. (Bur­ton L Mack, Who Wrote the New Tes­ta­ment?)

The sen­tence struc­ture in Eph­esians and Colos­sians runs far longer and more com­plex that most of Paul’s writ­ing. For instance, Eph­esians 1:3 – 14 is all one sen­tence, high­ly atyp­i­cal for Paul. Colos­sians 1:3 – 8 is all one sen­tence as well. Almost ten per­cent of the sen­tences in Eph­esians are more than fifty words long, which is not the norm for Paul’s undis­put­ed works. Philip­pi­ans is the same length and has only one sen­tence of that length, and while Gala­tians is a much longer let­ter, it has only one sen­tence of that length. (Vic­tor Paul Fur­nish, “Epis­tle to the Eph­esians,” Anchor Bible Dic­tio­nary, vol­ume 2, pp. 535 – 42, D. N. Freed­man, edi­tor.)

Also, the author(s) of Ephesians/​Colossians and Paul dis­agree regard­ing bap­tism. Paul thor­ough­ly explored his the­ol­o­gy of bap­tism in the Epis­tle to the Romans. Accord­ing to him, those believ­ers who had been bap­tized had “died with Christ” but had not yet been “raised with him.” That wouldn’t hap­pen until Christ’s return, when there would be a phys­i­cal res­ur­rec­tion. He always insists that the res­ur­rec­tion is a phys­i­cal event that is yet to come, not a spir­i­tu­al res­ur­rec­tion that has already hap­pened.

For if we have been unit­ed with him in a death like his, we will cer­tain­ly be unit­ed with him in a res­ur­rec­tion like his; … if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also be raised with him. (Romans 5:5, 8)

Yet Colos­sians says:

When you were buried with him in bap­tism you were also raised with him through faith in the pow­er of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colos­sians 2:13)

Paul wrote 1 Corinthi­ans just to oppose the view tak­en in Colos­sians.

“Eph­esians is even more emphat­ic than Colos­sians. In speak­ing about the past spir­i­tu­al res­ur­rec­tion, the author says, in con­trast to Paul, ‘God…made us alive togeth­er with Christ…and raised us up with him and seat­ed us with him in the heav­en­ly places in Christ Jesus’ (Eph­esians 2:5 – 6). All this has already hap­pened. Believ­ers are already rul­ing with Christ. This is what some of the con­verts of Paul in Corinth and the authors of Colos­sians and Eph­esians — also mem­bers of Paul’s church­es — got wrong.” (Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Inter­rupt­ed: Reveal­ing the Hid­den Con­tra­dic­tions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (p. 129).)

The ear­li­est extant copies of both let­ters are in Papyrus 46, which is thought to be dat­ed between 175 – 225 CE. It con­tains a com­plete copy of each.

The Sec­ond Epis­tle of Paul to the Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans is large­ly con­sid­ered a forgery because of how It stands next to 1 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans. Styl­is­ti­cal­ly, it is so sim­i­lar that it seems to have been writ­ten by some­one who was delib­er­ate­ly attempt­ing to copy the style of the first let­ter, which makes sense. Eschat­a­log­i­cal­ly, though, the let­ter con­tra­dicts Paul’s own views as expressed in that first let­ter, par­tic­u­lar­ly with regards to the sec­ond com­ing (Ernest Best, The First and Sec­ond Epis­tles to the Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans, p. 37) The pur­pose of the let­ter would appear to be to com­bat the mis­con­cep­tion that “the day of the Lord is already here.” (2:2) The author of the let­ter claims that before Christ returns, some sort of anti-Christ will appear, mis­lead­ing the peo­ple with mir­a­cles and won­ders (2:1 – 12). There will be oth­er obvi­ous signs as well for Chris­tians who know what to watch for. How­ev­er, in 1 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans 5:2, Paul him­self said that Jesus would come “like a thief in the night” and that his return would bring “sud­den destruc­tion” (1 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans 5:3), so they must be pre­pared at all times. “It may be that the height­ened expec­ta­tions of Chris­tians toward the end of the first cen­tu­ry led some unknown author in Paul’s church­es to write 2 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans in order to calm them down a bit, to let them know that yes, the end was going to come, but it was not com­ing right away. Some things had to hap­pen first.” (Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Inter­rupt­ed: Reveal­ing the Hid­den Con­tra­dic­tions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (p. 126)) 

The schol­ars who con­sid­er the let­ter a forgery date it towards the end of the first cen­tu­ry (Ray­mond Brown, An Intro­duc­tion to the New Tes­ta­ment, p. 595). The ear­li­est sur­viv­ing man­u­script con­tain­ing any of 2 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans is P92, dat­ed c. 300CE.

The Pas­toral let­ters (The First Epis­tle of Paul to Tim­o­thy, The Sec­ond Epis­tle of Paul to Tim­o­thy, and The Epis­tle of Paul to Titus) are con­sid­ered to have been writ­ten by the same unknown author between 60 and 100 CE. “Among crit­i­cal schol­ars teach­ing in North Amer­i­ca, the Unit­ed King­dom, and west­ern Europe — the lead­ing areas of bib­li­cal research — the con­sen­sus of opin­ion for many years has been that Paul did not write these books. … It is gen­er­al­ly agreed that the three let­ters all come from the same per­son. When you read 1 Tim­o­thy and Titus, that will be fair­ly clear: they deal with many of the same themes, often using the same or sim­i­lar lan­guage. The book of 2 Tim­o­thy is dif­fer­ent in many ways, but if you com­pare the open­ing lines with the open­ing of 1 Tim­o­thy, it, too, looks almost iden­ti­cal. ” (Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Inter­rupt­ed: Reveal­ing the Hid­den Con­tra­dic­tions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (pp. 129 – 130).)

The writ­ing style and vocab­u­lary of the let­ters is also marked­ly dif­fer­ent from that of Paul. “For one thing, some­times this author uses the same words as Paul , but means some­thing dif­fer­ent by them. The term ‘faith’ was of supreme impor­tance to Paul. In books such as Romans and Gala­tians faith refers to the trust a per­son has in Christ to bring about sal­va­tion through his death. In oth­er words, the term describes a rela­tion­ship with anoth­er; faith is trust ‘in’ Christ. The author of the Pas­torals also uses the term ‘faith.’ But here it is not about a rela­tion­ship with Christ; faith now means the body of teach­ing that makes up the Chris­t­ian reli­gion. That is ‘the faith’ (see Titus 1: 13). Same word, dif­fer­ent mean­ing. So too with oth­er key terms, such as ‘right­eous­ness.’” (Bart D. Ehrman, Forged: Writ­ing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (p. 99).)

There are oth­er the­o­log­i­cal and usage dif­fer­ences, such as the fact that when Paul refers to “works,” he is speak­ing of the require­ments of Mosa­ic law – cir­cum­ci­sion, keep­ing kosher, etc. The author of the Pas­toral let­ters nev­er even address­es issues of Mosa­ic law, and uses “works” to mean “doing good deeds for oth­er peo­ple.”

In 1 Corinthi­ans 7:1 – 9, Paul stat­ed that it was bet­ter for peo­ple to stay unmar­ried if pos­si­ble, but if not, “it is bet­ter to mar­ry than to burn with pas­sion.” But the author of the Pas­torals says in 1 Tim­o­thy that church lead­ers must be mar­ried, con­tra­dict­ing Paul. Paul repeat­ed­ly says that only path to sal­va­tion is the death and res­ur­rec­tion of Jesus, but in 1 Tim­o­thy 2:15 we read that “…women will be saved through child­bear­ing…”

In Paul’s time, there was no hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture in the church­es. That is why he does not address his let­ters to the lead­ers of the church­es – there were none. How­ev­er, as time went on and the sec­ond com­ing did not hap­pen, hier­ar­chies evolved. The Pas­toral let­ters are addressed to the lead­ers in these hier­ar­chies, who would not have exist­ed in Paul’s time. These let­ters were writ­ten well after Paul’s life­time, by some­one who was address­ing issues that could not have arisen dur­ing Paul’s time, and who did not under­stand Paul’s the­ol­o­gy.

The old­est copies of 1 and 2 Tim­o­thy we have are in the Codex Sinaiti­cus, dat­ed between 325 and 360 CE. P32, dat­ed c. 200 CE, is the old­est evi­dence of Titus.

The Epis­tle to the Hebrews
While it was tra­di­tion­al­ly attrib­uted to Paul, Euse­bius wrote, “It is not indeed right to over­look the fact that some have reject­ed the Epis­tle to the Hebrews, say­ing that it is dis­put­ed by the church of Rome, on the ground that it was not writ­ten by Paul.” (Church His­to­ry, Life of Con­stan­tine, Ora­tion in Praise of Con­stan­tine 3.3.5). Ter­tul­lian attrib­uted it to Barn­abas (De Pudic, 20) and Hip­poly­tus to Clement of Rome. Who­ev­er wrote it, it almost cer­tain­ly wasn’t Paul. It is gen­er­al­ly thought to have been writ­ten around 63 – 66 CE. 

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