March 02, 2023

How Do We Know When Books of the Bible Were Written?

Nathan W. Bingham & Stephen Nichols
How Do We Know When Books of the Bible Were Written?

The Bible is not a lofty tale of far-off lands. God’s Word contains verifiable records of real people and places in time. Today, Stephen Nichols shows us how the historical roadmap of Scripture helps us date its contents.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Joining me today on the Ask Ligonier podcast is Dr. Stephen Nichols. Dr. Nichols is the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer here at Ligonier. He’s also the host of the 5 Minutes in Church History podcast. Dr. Nichols, how do we know when books of the Bible were written?

DR. STEPHEN NICHOLS: One of the most beautiful things about the Bible is its ordinariness. Now, that seems counterintuitive. You’d think a beautiful piece of literature has artifice and has exquisite structure—and that’s true. The Bible has that. It’s beautiful literature. But one of the things that’s fascinating about the Bible—and I think it actually is one of the things that demonstrates the truthfulness of the Bible—is its ordinariness. Now, what we mean by that is the Bible takes place in space and time. The Bible references historical figures, it references kings, it references historical peoples and geographical places and place holders, moments, and events and world history.

And so, one of the ways we can date Scripture is, well, we know the Assyrian kings and we know the Egyptian pharaohs and we know the dates of the Israelite kings. And so, we can plot all these dates of the kings out, and then we can see where this particular biblical book references an event or this prophet says whatever king they are under. And so, now, we can line up the writing of the biblical book alongside of where it occurs in history because we have this historical timeline laid out and we just sort of fit the biblical books in there.

When it comes to the New Testament, same thing. We can chart out Paul’s chronology. He gives us his chronology, and so we can chart out his chronology. We can chart out his missionary trips. And now, we can go back in using the book of Acts and slot in those epistles of Paul into that chronology. Now there’s some debate over the order of the Gospels, and there’s the camp that sees Matthew as first or Mark as first, but there too, we can just see where they are in terms of the author’s lifespan. And with relative certainty, we can then plug the Gospels into those dates.

And then, of course, we get outside of the Gospels and we get outside of Paul. We have the latter New Testament Epistles and the same thing there: we can look at events that are in Acts, or events that we know of in the early church, and even events that we know that are happening in first-century Greco-Roman culture. And now we can fit in those latter New Testament Epistles, and right up to the book of Revelation itself.

So, this is all the work of biblical scholars and historians who know the ancient world and know the Greco-Roman world. And they can look at these biblical texts and look at the content of Scripture and crop and chart out for us these books as they occur. And so, you can open your Reformation Study Bible and you can go to the intro of a book and read the date, right? And there it is, a date for a given biblical book. And usually there’s an explanation: “This book mentions this event, and this occurred at such and such a time, and so this book is written at this date or within this range of date.”

Again, I want to go back to what we said at the beginning. I think this is very important. It’s an apologetic for the Bible itself to be reminded that this is not like the Book of Mormon that’s occurring sort of off camera, if you will, and is even written in some kind of angelic language that you need some decoder tablets to be able to understand it. The Bible’s not like the Book of Mormon. The Bible is not like the Quran. Every single text of the Bible is not a prophet going into a trance and then dictating what this revelation is from God. The Bible has a unique ordinariness to it. It records real people who were acting in real time in real places. Well, actually it records God acting in the lives of real people in real places and real times. And so, we can have confidence as we come to Scripture, seeing this as a unique revelation, knowing that this is indeed the only revelation of God: the Bible. And we can study it, and we can know that it is true and we can count on it.