Bible Q&A: Why were the books of the New Testament written so long after the events?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question:

Why were the books of the New Testament written so long after the events?​

Answer:

The other day, someone pulled up in a brand-new Tesla. It stood out, not just because of its sleek shape and immaculate sheen; it stood out in a car park crammed with CO2-spouting, planet-heating fuel guzzlers.

In New Testament times, a piece of writing was a bit like an e-car: rather rare. Outside the New Testament we know of two important, 1st-century, Jewish authors whose works have survived: Josephus and Philo. Two authors in an entire century. Compare that to the 200,000 titles published last year in the UK alone.

The first Christians lived in what’s known as an oral culture. Only a few per cent of the population, such as Jerusalem’s scholars and scribes, were literate in our sense; many of the  peasants of Galilee, on the other hand, could barely read and write, if at all. The default way, therefore, of transmitting the message of Jesus had to be word of mouth.

People who had met Jesus told others about him. People who had met people who had met Jesus told others. And so on. To avoid stories and sayings being corrupted, the earliest Christian congregations recited Jesus’ deeds and teachings in their worship services, treasuring what they had heard from the Master’s lips or received from one of his disciples or another eyewitness. In other words, in an oral culture, memory played a key part as people told and heard, rather than wrote and read, the Jesus story.

That said, there are clues in the New Testament that some individuals began to write things down, well before the Gospel writers put stylus to parchment. Luke, for instance, explicitly states that he based his narrative on both (oral) eyewitness testimony and existing written accounts – Mark’s Gospel presumably being one of them.

As the message spread across the known world and those who had met Jesus in person died, preserving the Good News in writing eventually became a necessity. Significantly though, no text made it into the New Testament, unless it was directly or indirectly based on apostolic witness. Therefore, while the texts that make up the New Testament were composed decades after Jesus, they all draw on the very earliest sources.

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