Can we be sure that the NT documents were writte prior to AD 100? What is the evidence?
I wanted to ask you how do we know that the New Testament epistles, books, and sermon(s) were written prior to 100 A.D.? I looked on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dating_the_Bible) and the majority of the oldest fragments of some of the N.T. documents are from the 2nd to the 3rd century. How do we know for sure that these documents were written prior to 100 A.D.? And how do we know the order of which they were written? Is it just pure speculation?
We a class on this topic Sept 10, 17 in San Diego. You should come down for one or both days if you can. Especially Sept 10, as we will cover NT documents that day. You will find an article about the class at the web site or contact Jan at firstname.lastname@example.org 858-505-8841.
But back to your question. We cannot "prove" as in physical proof that any of the New Testament books were written before AD 100. None of the copies of the books currently in our possession have been dated to the first century. The oldest well-supported date for an actual manuscript is the Rylands Papyrus, in Manchester England, which has been dated to about AD 125. We cannot provide physical proof in the form of an actual copy of the New Testament documents this old. Bear in mind that we have vastly better manuscript evidence for the New Testament than literally any other ancient document. There is no comparison. However, the evidence for the first century date of composition of the books is not as direct as the evidence from the second century.
The evidence that Mark, 1 Corinthians, Acts and so forth were written in the first century is from several sources. First, there is the fact that some of these books are quoted by authors as early as AD 95. The Didache, the Letter of Clement of Rome, and the Epistle of Barnabas all come from the 90s or the first decade of the 100s. We know this because of the context of the writing and other evidence. The authors of each of these books quote from a number of New Testament writings. This proves two things. First, and most obviously, they were written during, or much more likely, before the 90s. Second, from the context of these three writings, the New Testament letters being quoted are clearly being used as accepted, inspired scripture. This seems to imply that these works had been in existence, circulated widely, and accepted by the church as a whole as inspired already in the 90s. This implies that almost certainly they were written in the 80s or earlier.
More evidence for an earlier date is that it is clear that all along the church accepted that Luke and Acts were written by Luke, 1 Thessalonians and Galatians were written by Paul. This puts these letters even earlier. It can be argued that just because these books were accepted to have been written by Paul or Luke (more examples could be given) does not prove that they were, but the fact that this was accepted within 20 years or so of the date of writing is fairly strong evidence that they were in fact the writers. We cannot be as confident of the author of every New Testament book. Scholars are not as confident of the identity of the author of some NT books, such as Hebrews, Revelation, 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John. However, for the majority of the books, the fact that we are fairly confident who wrote them also clearly places them in the first century.
From the quotes of early church writers, we can conclude with great confidence that by AD 100 the four gospels were circulating as a group and a group of Paul’s letters (not necessarily all of those now attributed to him) was also circulating as a group before AD 100. As to the order that the books were written, we have some information, but the data is not sufficient to give a really strong conclusion for many of the books. To give a definite order would require a lot of speculation! For example, it is generally conceded that Galatians and 1 Thessalonians were written in the very late 40s or early 50s. 1 and 2 Timothy were certainly written later. The evidence that Mark preceded Matthew and Luke is fairly solid, but not proved absolutely. That John came after the other three gospels is fairly well established by the content itself. Beyond this sketch, a firm date for each book, sufficient to establish the order all were written is not possible. It is not clear why we need to know the exact order in which the books were written, but the fact is that there is some uncertainty. What we can say with great certainty is that almost the entire New Testament was completed by AD 80 and all of it was written before AD 100.