It's surprising, but with a little sleuthing, we can get good estimates of when the authors of the New Testament were born.
Let's put on our detective hats and see what we can learn about Paul and his circle of New Testament authors.
(Yesterday we looked at the Twelve and the brethren of Jesus.)
We first meet Paul in Acts 7:58, at the stoning of Stephen, where Luke describes him as “a young man named Saul.”
Since the Jewish authorities were imposing the death penalty on Steven—something they were normally forbidden by the Roman authorities to do (cf. John 18:30), this event likely occurred during the period immediately after Pontius Pilate’s dismissal as governor in A.D. 36, before the new governor arrived.
Someone described as “a young man” is likely between 20 and 30, with an average age of 25. However, given the leadership role that Paul was granted in persecuting the early Church, we will assume he was 28. If Paul was that age in A.D. 36 then he would have been born around A.D. 8.
This becomes a key date for helping us determine the ages of Paul’s companions.
We first hear of John Mark in Acts 12, which takes place in A.D. 43. At the end of this chapter, Mark accompanies Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, and he subsequently became their junior travelling companion on the First Missionary Journey (cf. Acts 13:5), though he soon left their company and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).
Based on our estimate of Paul’s year of birth, he would have been around 35 in A.D. 43, and Mark would have certainly been younger.
How much younger is hard to say, but we may have something of an analog in Timothy—the junior companion of Paul whose age we can most closely estimate.
As we will see below, Timothy began travelling with Paul when he was very young. It is probable that he was around 17 years old at the time.
This is probably unusually young for a Pauline traveling companion, but it indicates the kind of age that Paul’s junior companions could have at the beginning of their travels.
Mark was probably a bit older than this, though still a young man. We will assume that he was 23 when he first began travelling with Paul and Barnabas, in which case he would have been born around A.D. 20.
Although Luke was a travelling companion of Paul, he was a different kind of companion. The evidence we have indicates that he was more independent than Paul’s unmistakably junior companions (Mark, Timothy, Titus).
One line of evidence that indicates this is that he is not always with Paul in Acts. There are some passages—known as the “we” passages, where he uses the word “we” to describe the movements of Paul’s party. In these passages, he is present, but the “we” passages are interspersed with other passages where the party’s movements are described in the third person. Luke thus does not seem to have been with Paul on those occasions.
Also, unlike the unmistakably junior companions, we don’t have his absence explained by statements that Paul sent him on a mission (cf. Acts 19:22, 1 Tim. 1:3, Tit. 1:5). It thus seems that Luke may have made more of his own decisions about travel.
This is consistent with Paul’s description of Luke as “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14). Physicians commanded more respect than junior associates who had no other career, and Paul was probably reluctant to give Luke commands the way he did other companions.
Physicians also tended to be older. Even in the ancient world, becoming a doctor would have required a comparatively lengthy apprenticeship, and Luke would have acquired his profession and practiced for some time before becoming Paul’s companion.
All of this speaks to Luke being more of a contemporary of Paul rather than a junior companion. Since he was still young enough to travel extensively (and amid conditions of hardship; cf. 2 Cor. 11:23-27), and since he was a subordinate, if somewhat independent companion, he probably wasn’t notably older than Paul.
We will therefore assume that they were approximately the same age.
We first encounter Luke in Acts 16:10, when Paul is in Troas and the first “we” passage begins. This appears to have taken place in A.D. 49, when Paul—and by extension Luke—would have been around 41 years old.
We thus estimate that Luke would have been born around A.D. 8.
Unusually for writers in the ancient world, Paul lists three individuals—Sosthenes, Silvanus, and Timothy—as co-authors of some of his letters. Though people seldom think of these men in this light, they therefore count as New Testament authors, and so we will estimate their ages.
The most mysterious of the co-authors is Sosthenes. Paul lists him as having helped in writing 1 Corinthians, which he penned around A.D. 53 from Ephesus, during the period referred to in Acts 19:10.
Scholars have debated whether he is the same Sosthenes mentioned in Acts 18:17, who Luke describes as “a ruler of the synagogue” in Corinth and who was beaten by a crowd.
This is possible, but it is not certain. Unfortunately, Luke does not give us enough detail about this Sosthenes, and it is not even clear if he is a Christian or a non-Christian Jew.
It is possible, if he were not a Christian at the time, that he later became one and relocated to Ephesus (perhaps due to further persecution in Corinth), and so Paul decided to include him as a co-author since the Corinthians already knew him.
Since “Sosthenes” was an uncommon Greek name and since Paul introduces him to the Corinthians in a way that suggests he is familiar to them (referring to him simply as “our brother”; lit., “the brother”), we will assume that he is the same person.
The ruler of a synagogue would not be young, and the crowd would presumably not beat an elderly man. It is thus probable that Sosthenes was between 40 and 60 at the time. We will assume that he was 50 at the time of the beating, which would have taken place in A.D. 51.
We thus assume that Sosthenes was born around A.D. 1.
We first hear of Silas (aka Silvanus) in Acts 15:22, where he is describe as one of the “leading men among the brethren” in Jerusalem. He, along with Judas Barsabbas, is sent from the Jerusalem Council to take a letter with the council’s results to Antioch.
The council took place in A.D. 49, and the fact Silas was then a leading man in Jerusalem means that he was not a young man. Also, Luke tends to note it when he introduces a young man (cf. Luke 7:14, Acts 7:58, 20:9, 23:17-18, 22), though not always (see below).
Silas was not too old to travel, though. Indeed, he was still able to travel in the mid-A.D. 60s, because he was the letter carrier for 2 Peter (1 Pet. 5:12).
He was also willing to accept a subordinate position to Paul on the Second Missionary Journey (Acts 15:36-18:22), so he probably was not significantly older than Paul.
All of this suggests that he was approximately Paul’s contemporary, so we will place his birth in A.D. 8, making him 41 at the time of the Jerusalem Council.
We first meet Timothy in Acts 16:1, when Paul visits Lystra. Unusually, Luke does not introduce Timothy as a young man, though he must have been, for in 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul tells Timothy, “Let no one despise your youth.”
Acts 16:1 took place in A.D. 49, and 1 Timothy was written around A.D. 65—sixteen years later! For Timothy to still be described as young at that point means he must have been very young when he became Paul’s travelling companion.
The fact he is listed as a co-author after Silvanus in 1 Thessalonians 1:1 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1 also suggests he was younger than Silvanus.
A man of 40, or even a man near 40, would not have been despised for his youth, and so Timothy must have been in his early-to-mid 30s in A.D. 65, making him a teenager when he joined Paul.
We will assume that he was around 17 in A.D. 49, which would place his birth around A.D. 32.
John the Elder
There is a final figure we need to consider. Although John son of Zebedee is traditionally regarded as the author of the Johannine literature in the New Testament (i.e., John, 1-3 John, Revelation), there is reason to think that another figure—who the Church Fathers refer to as “John the Elder” or “John the Presbyter”—was responsible for at least some of it.
Thus St. Jerome and Pope Benedict XVI held John the Elder to have been the author at least of 2 and 3 John (both of which are addressed as being by “the Elder”). It is thought he may have had a role in other Johannine books also.
If he was responsible for any of these books, when he would have been born?
This is difficult to determine. The patristic evidence indicates that John the Elder was an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, making him at least a contemporary of he apostles.
The fact he is referred to as “the Elder” also suggests he was not a young man when he was in his literary prime. If he wrote 2 and 3 John, he was probably in his late 50s or 60s at the youngest.
Unfortunately, without knowing more it is hard to establish any firm date, so we will assume that he was a rough contemporary of the apostles and would have been born around A.D. 4.
From the above, we can establish the approximate birth years of the traditional authors of the New Testament as follows:
- Matthew: A.D. 4
- Mark: A.D. 20
- Luke: A.D. 8
- John: A.D. 7
- Paul: A.D. 8
- Sosthenes: A.D. 1
- Silas: A.D. 8
- Timothy: A.D. 32
- James: 25 B.C.
- Peter: A.D. 1
- John the Elder: A.D. 4
- Jude: 13 B.C.
Or, to put them in chronological order:
- 25 B.C.: James the Just
- 13 B.C.: Jude
- A.D. 1: Peter and Sosthenes
- A.D. 4: Matthew and John the Elder
- A.D. 7: John son of Zebedee
- A.D. 8: Paul, Luke, and Silas
- A.D. 20: Mark
- A.D. 32: Timothy
Bear in mind that these are only approximations. People in the ancient world did not keep track of birth years as rigorously as we do, and we have very incomplete evidence. The actual years undoubtedly vary somewhat from these.
However, the estimates provide a starting point for answering questions like, “Could the traditional authors of the New Testament have written the books attributed to them?”
That’s a subject we’ll talk about soon.
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