Hello Dr Oakes. I am taking an early Judaism and Christianity course in university and I have a question about the Bible. My teacher is very critical towards the New Testament writers and writings (as most are in the department of religion) and he told us in class the other day that the first complete New Testament didn’t show up until 356 CE, over 300 years after Jesus. He talked briefly about how spread out the gap is (concluding that his disciples could have written what they wanted about him to make him look better than he was). Is this date of 356 true? I did my own research and came across dates that were much earlier than 356. I had one at 110 AD.
I will have to say that I have very little patience for this kind of bogus pseudo-scholarly statement which is so common coming from teachers of the Bible at our colleges and universities. It is downright unprofessional and borderline unethical for a person who sets himself up as a sort of expert on the Bible to make such outrageous statements to young and open minds, especially at a university where students naturally assume that what they are hearing is the truth.
Bottom line, what your professor said is either pusposeful misinformation or it is evidence of incompetence on his part. For someone who had had little education or who does not put him or herself out there as an expert, to say something like this is dubious, but at least understandable, given the amount of misinformation out there, but for a professor who obviosly knows that this is simply not true…. What can I say.
So, let me respond. First of all, we have entire manuscripts of the New Testament, in Greek, from before the date this person mentions. There are the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, for example, which come from before 356 AD. Then there are the many dozens of manuscripts, such as the Bodmer Papyri or the Washington Manuscript or the Chester Beatty Papyri, which include significant fragments and entire books of the New Testament from the second and third centuries. We have even earlier fragments from John, the Rylands papyrus from about AD 125 and a more recent fragment of Mark from about AD 90. Add to that, there is the fact that there are literally thousands of quotes from the New Testament from the second and third centuries–sufficient that we could reconstruct virtually the entire New Testament from these quotes. Then there are the lists of the New Testament books, including the Muratorian Fragment from the mid-second century, as well as the lists of Origen, who just after AD 200 gave a list of New Testament books identical to the one we use today. Others listed the books in the late second and third centuries, in either exact agreement or with very minor differences. At the Council of Nicaea the assembled bishops confirmed what had already been in place for nearly two hundred years, which is the exact New Testament we use today.
Then there is the matter of the date of the writing of the New Testament books. This is a big topic and a lot can be said, but let me give a summary. Even liberal scholars who are honest with the data will admit that the entire New Testament comes from original manuscripts in the first century. The most common opinion is that the Book of Revelation is the last of the books to be written–probably in the 90s, but possibly earlier. Where is this big “gap” your professor is talking about? Most of the New Testament was written by AD 75 and much of it was written by AD 65. That is 35 years after Jesus died. I have been a Christian for 36 years and my memories of what happened 36 years ago are pretty reliable. There were many thousands of people who knew Jesus personally still alive when the New Testament was being written, and many of them read the gospels when they were written. Would they not have spoken if the writers were making things up? This proposal of your professor that the writers of the New Testament made most of the story up is not consistent with the facts. Memories may fade in 100 years, but certainly not in 30 or 40 years. The Viet Nam war was fifty years ago. Does anyone think that people could invent fictious accounts of the war at this date and noone would notice the lie? I have friends who served in that war who can testify exactly what happened. Fifty years is not a long time in terms of wrting a story to people who took part in that story.
Here is what the evidence implies: The four gospels were all written and circulating as a group, probably by AD 100 but almost certainly by AD 110, based on quotes from these books. By 150 AD Justin Martyr already referred to the gosples as the four pillars of the truth, implying that there had been no doubt about the four for more than a generation. A group of Paul’s letters (but probably not a complete collection) was circulating by AD 90, most likely, but almost certainly by AD 110, based on the quotes from these books by the early church writers. By AD 150 the canon of the New Testament was more or less finalized, but there was some question about Hebrews, 2,3 John, 2 Peter and Revelation. Even about these there was a building consensus. By AD 200 the canon was, for all practical purposes set and the New Testament as an entire unit was being used. This is more than one hundred and fifty years before the date your professor gave you. Was there some debate in the 3rd century? Yes there was, but consensus had been reached long before that, and, besides, the Church had been using all these books already for more than a century as inspired books and been quoting them for all that time as inspired. Your professor’s statement is wrong. There are two possibilities. Either he is not well-informed on the topic, in which case your university ought to find a competent instructor for the course, or he is being dishonest with the data in front of the students, which would be even worse. Feel free to share this letter with your instructor if you feel it is academically safe for you to do so. By the way, I address this topic in some detail in my book Reasons for Belief, which is available at www.ipibooks.com