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. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep all of my research notes. I have cited sources where I did note them.
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 (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 W. 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 90 CE, although we know it was between 70 and 110 CE 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, Sacra Pagina: 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 the M source (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, editors, Studies in Luke-Acts, pp. 33–50). The Gospel of Luke contains the clearest prediction by Jesus of the destruction of the Temple in verses 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 (The Jesus Seminar).
Attributed to John
The Gospel of 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 100 CE (Harris). Current scholars believe that it was based on a Signs gospel, which might possibly have been written by an eyewitness, and a document containing theological discourses (David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment).
The Johannine Epistles
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 to each other in style, vocabulary, and spelling, as well as being similar to 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 Church History 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, Revelation 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 mperor Domitian in that year.
Papyrus 98 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 around 100 CE. 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.
If one assumes that the author was one of Jesus’ brothers, there’s a problem. Jesus supposedly came from a family of poor laborers who spoke Aramaic and were very unlikely to be literate. Jude was written in Koine Greek.
The only thing scholars seem to definitely agree on, from what I can determine, is that the author was not Judas Iscariot.
Attributed to Paul
Here we divide things into four 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 I 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 and Galatians were written around 50 CE. 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.
The Pauline Forgeries
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 Debated Letters
Whether Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians is still a matter of some debate. They are not considered authentically Pauline by a great many scholars.
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, such as an early follower of Paul’s. It is also possible that one letter 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. Colossians 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 genuine 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 Papyrus 92, dated c. 300 CE.
The Pastoral Letters
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 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.