The first generation of Christians was sluggish to write down the life, death and teachings of Jesus. For the most part, the first faithful followers believed Jesus’ second coming would likely occur in their lifetime. So, understandably, preserving their savior’s words in writing was not their first priority. As the years continued to roll on, however, Christians finally began to write about their religion. Nevertheless, by the time the bulk of the New Testament was being written, multiple decades had elapsed since the time of the crucifixion and many of Jesus’ apostles had also passed away.
The apostle, Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, wrote the earliest texts of the New Testament. His letters to the numerous local churches he had a hand in creating were written in the decades preceding his death—as Paul (along with the apostles Peter and James) died in the 60s CE, it is safe to assume that the letters of Paul were written prior to, or during, that decade. Of the canonical gospels of the New Testament, the Gospel of Mark is the oldest—it is thought to have been written around 70 CE. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke came next, both thought to have been written in the 80s CE. The last of the gospels was the Gospel of John, which was written in the 90s CE, the decade in which John the Evangelist is believed to have died.
Though most of the books and letters contained in the New Testament are thought to have been written in the 1st century CE, it took much longer for the early church fathers to decide what should be included and excluded in the Bible. As far as historians and archeologists know, it took until the 4th century CE for the ancient Catholic Church to decide on a final list of New Testament books. In 367 CE, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote the oldest known list (in his Easter Letter) to contain the twenty-seven books eventually recognized by the ancient Catholic Church to be the canonical books of the New Testament.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Early Christianity: A Brief History by Joseph H. Lynch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.