Virtually every historian accepted Jesus’ existence as a reality until the 18th century when two French skeptics, Volney and Dupuis, argued that he was a compilation of ancient mythological deities.¹
Later in the 19th century, German theologian Bruno Bauer expanded the argument against Jesus’ existence based upon a three-fold argument which became known as the Christ-Myth theory.²
The first pillar of Bauer’s theory is that the New Testament was written in the 2nd century by unknown authors, not by eyewitnesses as it alleges.
Let’s see how this first claim of the Christ-myth theory holds up to the evidence. Bauer and other skeptics believed the New Testament was written in the 2nd century after all eyewitnesses would have been dead. A late New Testament contradicts John’s gospel, which claims that those who wrote of Jesus were eyewitnesses:
We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him.³
In Peter’s second New Testament letter to churches, the writer also claims that he and the other apostles saw Jesus with their own eyes.
We were not making up clever stories when we told you about the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and his coming again. We have seen his majestic splendor with our own eyes.4
The apostle Peter died during Nero’s persecution, between A. D. 64-67. John most likely died around the beginning of the 2nd century.5
Neither could have been eyewitnesses if these accounts were written later in the 2nd century. So what does the evidence tell us about when the New Testament was written?
The discovery of New Testament papyri in Egypt in the early 20th century stunned scholars. It included a fragment of the Gospel of John (specifically, P52: John 18:31-33) dated to roughly 25 years after John wrote the original.6
Bruce Metzger from Princeton notes that this fragment overturns the thinking of skeptics like Bauer who thought the New Testament was written much later.7
Another, much larger portion of John’s Gospel (Bodmer Papyrus II), dated slightly later, was published in 1956. Other early 2nd century manuscripts as well as a manuscript fragment of Mark’s gospel, dated by some to the 1st century, point to a New Testament written during the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses.8
The renowned biblical archaeologist William Albright concluded on the basis of his research that all the New Testament books were written while most of the apostles were still alive. He wrote,
We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book after about 80 A.D.9
The early dating of the New Testament is now accepted by a large number of scholars.10 Historian Paul Johnson notes that the discovery of early New Testament manuscripts has provided forensic evidence for its early composition.
The late nineteenth century notion that the New Testament was a collection of late and highly imaginative records can no longer be seriously held. No one now doubts that Paul’s epistles, the earliest Christian records, are authentic or dates them later than the A.D. 50s. Most scholars now date the earliest gospel not later than about 50 A.D.11
(For more on New Testament reliability read the Y-Jesus article Are the Gospels True? ).
3 1 John 1:1, NCV
4 2 Peter 1:16, NLT.
6 Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 38-39.
9 William F. Albright, Recent Discoveries in Biblical Lands (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1955), 136.
11 Paul Johnson, “A Historian Looks at Jesus,” speech to Dallas Seminary, 1986.