#9 Post of 2013 – What Are the Earliest Christian Writings?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Perhaps you’ve read or heard that the New Testament (NT) books were produced at the same time as other Christian writings, and that these other writings were unfairly  and unceremoniously kicked out of the NT canon. Is this true?

New Testament professor Michael J. Kruger says no. In his blog post, “Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize: #1: “The New Testament Books are the Earliest Christian Writings We Possess,” Kruger reminds us of some critical facts.

First, why is it important that the NT books are the earliest? For the simple fact that earlier dates “bring us the closest to the historical Jesus and to the earliest church.   If we want to find out what authentic Christianity was really like, then we should rely on the writings that are the nearest to that time period.”

Most of us consider the four gospels to be the most important books in the NT, so were they the first gospels written? Kruger explains that the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,

are the only gospel accounts that derive from the first century.  Sure, there are a few scholars have attempted to put the Gospel of Thomas in the first century, but this has not met with much success.  After all the scholarly dust has settled, even critics agree that these four are the earliest accounts of Jesus that we possess.

Virtually all of the other letters/books contained in the NT were written in the first century and pre-date all other extant Christian writings. Kruger does raise a couple of qualifications. A few of the NT books are disputed with regard to their dates of origin. Kruger points out that

some critical scholars have argued that some New Testament books are forgeries written in the second century.  Meanwhile, other scholars have defended the authenticity (and first-century date) of these books.  This is a debate that we cannot delve into here. However, even if these debated books are left aside in our discussions, we can still affirm that the vast majority of the New Testament writings (including the four gospels) still remain the earliest Christian writings we possess.

Further, there is the issue of 1 Clement, which is a Christian writing that dates to the first century, but is not in the NT canon. Kruger responds:

True, but the consensus date for 1 Clement is c.96 A.D.  This date is later than all our New Testament books.  The only possible exception is Revelation which is dated, at the latest, around 95-96 A.D.   But, some date Revelation earlier.  Even so, this does not affect the macro point we are making here.

Why is it important that most, if not all, the NT books are the earliest Christians writings? Because, as Kruger argues, “it seems that the books included in the New Testament are not as arbitrary as some would have us believe.  On the contrary, it seems that these are precisely the books we would include if we wanted to have access to authentic Christianity.”

6 thoughts on “#9 Post of 2013 – What Are the Earliest Christian Writings?”

  1. The argument is not that the gospels did not use pre-existing sources. They obviously did. The argument is that of the extant writings we have available to us today that claim to be Christian writings about the life of Jesus, the earliest are those found in the New Testament.

  2. In your post you posed the question “[S]o were they the first gospels written?” It is not at all clear from what you wrote that the answer is “No.”

  3. I would also note the first question in your post: Is it true that the New Testament books were produced at the same time as other Christian writings which were unfairly excluded from the canon? The answer to that would seem to be “Yes, there were other books, but we have no way to judge the basis on which they were excluded from the canon.”

  4. What other extant books were written at the same time as the NT books that were unfairly excluded from the canon?

    If you mean the sources for the gospels, that is a very strange conclusion. First of all, they are not extant as stand-alone writings. Second, what we know of their surmised contents comes completely from the NT books. Third, in effect they were included in the canon through the NT books themselves, which use them as sources.

  5. Perhaps for the sake of accuracy you should change the title of your post to “What Are the Earliest Extant Christian Writings?”

    Since they are not extant, we have no way to determine whether they were unfairly excluded from the canon. Nor can we determine whether they might give us a different picture of early Christianity than those writings that were preserved.

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