"Jude," she [Sue Bridehead] said brightly, when he had finished and come back to her; "will you let me make you a new New Testament, like the one I made for myself at Christminster?"
"Oh yes. How was that made?"
"I altered my old one by cutting up all the Epistles and Gospels into separate brochures, and rearranging them in chronological order as written, beginning the book with Thessalonians, following on with the Epistles, and putting the Gospels much further on. Then I had the volume rebound. My university friend Mr. ---- --but never mind his name, poor boy-- said it was an excellent idea. I know that reading it afterwards made it twice as interesting as before, and twice as understandable."
"H'm!" said Jude, with a sense of sacrilege.
from Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
I wish Sue Bridehead would assemble a new New Testament for me. Growing up JW, I accepted the “Table of the Books of the Bible” in the back of the New World Translation (NWT) as gospel. Judging from what I’ve read lately, the NWT does not agree with current scholarship, neither regarding dates nor authors.
According to the NWT, Matthew was written first in around 41. Then followed Thessalonians and Galatians in the early 50s; Luke around 56; then Corinthians, Romans, Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon in the mid-50s and early 60s; then Mark somewhere between 60-65. Acts and Paul’s other epistles came next, and the John books and Revelation came last, around 98.
As a side note, I noticed that in my green NWT copyrighted in 1961, second printing, the dates given for the time covered by Genesis are 46,026–1657 B.C.E. This reflects the old understanding of the Society that each creative day was 7,000 years long. In my newer reference NWT, last copyrighted in 1984, this dating has been changed to from “In the beginning” to 1657 B.C.E. Alas, I digress.
Piecing together the story from books I have here at home, it appears that nothing began to be written about Jesus until about 20 years after his death. Until then, his sayings and the stories about him were probably passed around orally. Considering the 2000 years that separates us from Jesus’ life, 20 years doesn’t sound like much. Still, I can’t help but wonder how much was garbled during those 20 years. I think of my closest friends in 1981, or the most vivid personality I knew then. I can’t remember exactly what any of them said. I think back to assemblies I attended in 1981. I can’t remember exactly what was said. If the JW information had not been written down, I would probably distrust my own vague memories and would believe that what they are teaching now has always been so.
The scholarly consensus seems to be that Paul began writing first in the early 50s. 1 Thessalonians was written c. 50-51, Galatians from 52-54, and 1 Corinthians from 54-56. Acts was probably not written until 40-50 years later. The gospels probably came about 20 years after Paul began to write.
Some of the books attributed to Paul may not have been written by him. Among those whose authorship are disputed are 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Hebrews, Timothy, and Titus.
Much has been written lately about the gospels themselves, especially about what is called “the synoptic problem.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called “synoptic” gospels because they present a “common view” of Jesus. Theoretically, you should be able to take the three apart and piece them back together into a cohesive whole. However, the synoptic gospels aren’t always in agreement as to order of events, detail, or exactly what Jesus said.
Most scholars have concluded that Matthew and Luke utilized Mark as the basis of their gospels, to which they added other materials. They have also found that Matthew and Luke have striking verbal agreements in passages where Mark offers nothing. A German scholar hypothesized that there once existed a source document, which he referred to as a Quelle, which in German means “source,” from which Matthew and Luke drew material. The abbreviation “Q” is now commonly used to designate this source.
To add to the fun, in 1945 a Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas was found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Thomas contains one hundred and fourteen sayings and parables ascribed to Jesus; it has no narrative framework; no account of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection; no birth or childhood stories; and no narrated account of his public ministry in Galilee and Judea. Because of this, it is termed a "Sayings Gospel," the same sort of gospel Q is theorized to be. Thomas has forty-seven parallels to Mark, forty parallels to Q, seventeen to Matthew, four to Luke, and five to John. It was probably written about the same time as Q, while Paul was doing his writing. Mark came next, then Matthew and Luke.
I recently bought The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar. There are five gospels because they see no reason to exclude the Gospel of Thomas. I have found this book fascinating, and there is much from it I’d like to share. If others are interested in this topic, I will add some of my favorite parts to this thread.