The Writing of the Two Testaments: A Consideration

This is an update of an previous post. 

An interesting phenomenon in regard to the reading of the Old Testament and the New is the respective chronologies of the authorship of the canons.  Whereas the Old Testament was written over a period of approximately 1,300 years – taking Job as the earliest book (c.1750 B.C.) and Malachi as the last book (c. 450 B.C.), the New Testament was written within one average human lifetime.  This represents a vast difference which ought to be given more consideration than it has.

The Writing of the OT

If we consider the span of years for the writing of the Old Testament we get something like this (citing representative examples):

Job – 18th Century B.C.

The Pentateuch – Mid 15th Century B.C.

Many Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles – 10th Century B.C.

Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah – 8th Century B.C.

Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk – 8th to 7th Century B.C.

Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, 1 & 2 Kings – 6th Century B.C.

Zechariah, Ezra/Nehemiah, Malachi – 5th Century B.C.

During that time history witnessed the beginning of the nation of Israel under Moses, and the dominance and eventual waning of Egyptian and Babylonian dynasties, plus the Hittite, Assyrian, Persian empires, and the onset of the Greek empire.  Israel rose to become a powerful state in the days of David and Solomon; then split into two kingdoms until some centuries later both parts of those kingdoms went into captivity.

The story of Israel dominates the Old Testament, yet that book also includes the account of creation and fall.  It speaks of the world before the great flood – a world that is buried beneath the rocks and stones and seas.  The flood came some 2,500 years before the call of Abraham (although no one can date the flood precisely), which itself was around 500 years prior to the Exodus and the writing of the books of the Pentateuch.  That is to say that the Old Testament was not only written over a very long time period, but the history it records covers a far greater expanse of time than that.  Accordingly, there is a great mass of data that must be collocated and explained, and that is without introducing all of the prophetic content within the Hebrew Bible.

What this amounts to for progressive revelation is that if a person is going to truly track the development of God’s word chronologically he must situate himself within the various biblical milieus which pass before his eyes.  He will have to try to match the voice of the protagonist being described (e.g. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, etc) with what is being revealed about them and their times.  Moreover, since prophecy is such a significant part of that revelation any study of the progress of revelation will need to incorporate the cumulative impact of the prophetic word as it makes its transit through the different eras.

The Writing of the NT

But when we arrive in the New Testament we are up against a phenomenon that is much different; a decidedly condensed time-frame in which God discloses His Apostolic word.  For my part I believe that the Gospel of Matthew is very early: written in the 40’s A.D.  That was the view of the early Church.  I am not going to mount a defense of the date of Matthew here, but I believe John Wenham made a brilliant defense of Matthaen priority in his book Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke which I strongly recommend.  Here are the approximate datings of the NT books:

Matthew – 41-45 A.D.

James – 45-47 A.D.

Galatians – 48-50 A.D.

1 & 2 Thessalonians – 49-52 A.D.

Mark – 50-53 A.D.

Romans – 56 A.D.

Luke/Acts, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians – 60-62 A.D.

Hebrews, 2 Peter – 65-67 A.D.

John – 80-90 A.D.

Revelation – 94-96 A.D.  

So if we start with a date of circa 41 A.D. for Matthew and end with the writing of John’s Revelation at circa 94-96 A.D., we get about a 55 year difference, although most of the NT books are packed into a 25 year window from Matthew to 2 Timothy (c. 65-67 A.D.).  When this 55 year timespan is brought alongside of the 1,300 year gap between the first and last books of the Old Testament the contrast is striking indeed.  There was plenty of time for the gradual unveiling of God’s revelation in the Hebrew Bible, but nothing comparable for the NT; this despite the sterling efforts of men like T. D. Bernard and his classic The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament.

That there is doctrinal development from the Gospels and Acts to the Revelation is indisputable, and Bernard shows that the order of the NT books was not accidental.  But for the most part the progress is muted in comparison with the OT.  And just as the time covered by the Old Testament is longer than the time in which it was written (circa 3,500 years at least), so it is with the New Testament.  But the variance in time span is not nearly so pronounced.  The birth of Jesus was around 6 B.C. and John wrote Revelation in 95 or 96 A.D.  This means that the total time covered in the New Testament narrative is a mere century.  When progressive revelation is thought about within a window of 100 years, as opposed to 3,500 years, we again see huge disparity.  Whereas the Old Testament period allows for a prolonged progression, this is not the case with the New Testament.

Progressive revelation is either accelerated in the New Testament, or else it continues at about the same pace, or is slower than in the Old Testament.  As it turns out, I think a case can be made for all three ways, although an accelerated pace seems preferable.  If one looks at doctrines such as the deity of Christ, miracles, the birth, identity, and makeup of the Christian Church, and the coming of Christ again in power; all these things are crammed together in a relatively few pages and compounded in a brief span of time.

To sharpen the focus, a perusal of even the earlier writings of the New Testament: the Thessalonian Epistles (c. 49-52 A.D.), the Corinthian Letters (c. 52 & 56 A.D.), Romans (c. 56 A.D.), Ephesians and Colossians (c. 60-62 A.D.) speak to many of these things in a mature and profound way.  And this is all packed into a mere 15 years!

The Life of Jesus

There is one area where the emergence of doctrine must be emphasized, and that is in the Life of Jesus recorded in the Gospels and the overspill of that Life in the earliest chapters of the Book of Acts.

In the Gospels, the Synoptics especially, the onus is on Israel and its Messiah.  The annunciation passages in Matthew and Luke are borne out of the cumulative expectations created by the Prophets.  The fact that a messenger from heaven reinforces that expectation must not be glossed over by a hasty reading of the early chapters from the perspective of the Church.  This is true also of places such as the kingdom parables in Matthew 13, the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 (Mark 13), and the teaching in Luke 19, 21, and Acts 1 through 3.  Even though it is heavily dependent upon the cross-work of Christ, the Book of Hebrews might be very profitably interpreted within the same general atmosphere as these important chapters in the Gospels.

The doctrines of the Church are compressed within a very small time-frame.  It should not be assumed therefore that the last book of the Bible deals with only that short time-frame and the revelation it contains.  Since the Revelation alludes to the Old Testament more than the other New Testament book (although Hebrews quotes the OT more), it seems reasonable to think that it falls into line with those Old Testament books and the expectations raised in them.

The upshot of all this is that when considering things like the covenantal outlook highlighted in the Old Testament and bringing it alongside the chronological compression of data in the New, one should not carelessly use the latter too snuff out the expectations that were accumulated over many centuries by the various writers of the Old Testament.

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