The New Testament in Order
Begin reading through the New Testament and, in addition to the grand story, you will eventually notice a few things. For one thing, the story of Jesus gets repeated four times, then you hear the story of the early church, and then you begin to read letters that don’t seem to be in any sort of coherent order. Why is the New Testament organized how it is, and not some other way? Why is the New Testament canon laid out in the order that it is? Why is the New Testament not arranged in order of its events? Or, to ask yet a slightly different question, why is the New Testament not arranged in the order in which it was written?
In this article, we will look at the major orders in which the New Testament can appear. First, we will consider canonical order: the order in which the writings of the New Testament appear in modern, published Bibles. Second, we will consider chronological order: the order in which the events of the New Testament are portrayed. And finally, we will consider several different proposals for the compositional order: the order in which New Testament writings were actually written down.
As one final prolegomenological note, let me foreground my belief that each of these orders provides insights into the meaning and message of the New Testament. Context matters a great deal—in fact, it governs the meaning of everything. While we often pay close attention to historical context when it comes to questions about the ordering and understanding of the New Testament, literary context also matters. In short, where you find a particular book or passage in the collection known as the New Testament makes a difference to and influences the interpretation of that book or passage. Thus, canonical order, chronological order, and compositional order each cast (and recast) the writings of the New Testament in ways that are fruitful for faithful and critical readings of the text.
First, let us consider canonical order: the order of New Testament books that appears in modern published Bibles. Before diving in, let me first note that not every edition of the New Testament has included precisely the 27 books modern readers are familiar with, nor have those books always been in exactly the order in which we are used to them appearing.
To cite one historical example, Codex Sinaiticus (one of the oldest full copies of the New Testament) uses the following order: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Acts, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas. There are obviously a few key differences there, as well as some familiar patterns.
That said, there are two primary reasons why the New Testament appears in the order it does today. First, the New Testament largely follows the organizational pattern of the Old Testament, with the core story (Torah for the OT, Gospels for the NT), followed by historical accounts and other writings. Obviously, the pattern does not match entirely, but it’s relatively easy to notice a three-fold pattern of organization in both testaments.
But a second reason the New Testament looks like it does is because collections of now-New Testament writings circulated in the ancient world centuries before they found their way into the canon of the New Testament. Based on evidence from early Christian writers known as the Apostolic Fathers, it seems that collections of writings were beginning to circulate by the last first century. While we are not 100% certain what these collections initially would have looked like, by the late-second and early-third centuries, several clear groupings had emerged:
- Gospels (often, but not always in the order of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and sometimes including a Luke-Acts collection)
- Pauline Epistles (often, but not always arranged largest to smallest, Romans to Pastorals, sometimes including Hebrews and sometimes not)
- General Epistles (typically James to Jude)
There was no uniform standard in the earliest years of these collections, as usefulness and accessibility often governed what an early Christian community might have in their growing collection of scriptura. The Gospels were the most commonly circulated, followed by the works of Paul. Everything else enjoyed a pattern of usage that sometimes varied by geography. Finally, in the early fourth century, we begin to see evidence of the New Testament canon as we have it today:
- Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John1
- Pauline Epistles: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon3
- General Epistles: Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude4
This order was popularized by the time of Athanasius of Alexandria’s Festal Letter 39 and eventually became the standard ordering of the New Testament canon.
A chronological ordering of the New Testament is arranged a little differently, with the main difference being that many New Testament letters find themselves superimposed into the narrative of Acts. Without digging too much into the minutia, it probably looks something like this:
- Acts 1-14
- James / Galatians7
- Acts 15-18.18
- 1 Thessalonians
- 2 Thessalonians
- Acts 18.19-19
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Acts 20.1-3
- Acts 20.4-24
- Colossians, Philemon & Laodicians8
- Acts 25-28.29
- 1 Timothy
- 1 Peter
- Acts 28.30-31
- 2 Timothy
- 2 Peter
- Revelation 1-3
- 1 John
- 2 John
- 3 John
- Revelation 4-22
There’s plenty of debate about some of this, but based on what events are described or assumed to be contemporaneous with these writings and passages, this is a basic outline of a chronological reading of the New Testament.
A final way to think about the ordering of the New Testament is in the order in which these documents were written. At first, you might imagine that this would parallel the chronological ordering, but that’s not quite correct. Most scholars believe that either 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, or James was the first New Testament document written, all of which speak to events chronologically later than the Gospels. This is largely due to the fact that the Gospels are not media reports or live tweets about Jesus: they are literary biographies, composed by followers of Jesus to tell the story of Jesus as the first generation of Christians got older.
The order in which the writings of the New Testament were composed is a topic of much scholarly debate. On the one hand, many contemporary scholars push the writing of certain documents well into the second century and speak extensively about anonymous and pseudonymous authorship of certain writings. On the other hand, there are plenty of scholars who advocate for much earlier (and more traditional) datings, with some scholars even suggesting that the contents of the New Testament were written before the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple by Rome in 70 CE.9
Consider Marcus Borg’s listing of the New Testament books in the order they were written in The Evolution of the Word (including his likely dates10):
- 1 Thessalonians (50 CE)
- Galatians (50 CE)
- 1 Corinthians (50 CE)
- Philemon (mid-50s CE)
- Philippians (mid-50s CE)
- 2 Corinthians (mid-50s)
- Romans (58 CE)
- Mark (70 CE)
- James (70-80 CE)
- Colossians (80s CE)
- Matthew (80-90 CE)
- Hebrews (80-90 CE)
- John (90 CE)
- Ephesians (90s CE)
- Revelation (90s CE)
- Jude (90s CE)
- 1 John (100 CE)
- 2 John (100 CE)
- 3 John (100 CE)
- Luke (100 CE)
- Acts (100 CE)
- 2 Thessalonians (100 CE)
- 1 Peter (100 CE)
- 1 Timothy (100-110 CE)
- 2 Timothy (100-110 CE)
- Titus (100-110 CE)
- 2 Peter (120-150 CE)
Likewise, consider the “consensus dates”11 that are often used as a benchmark by New Testament scholars for discussing when the writings of the New Testament were composed:
- Galatians (48 CE)
- 1 Thessalonians (51 CE)
- 2 Thessalonians (51 CE)
- 1 Corinthians (53-57 CE)
- Philippians (54-55 CE)
- Philemon (54-55 CE)
- 2 Corinthians (55-58 CE)
- Romans (57-58 CE)
- Jude (60-110 CE)
- Colossians (62-70 CE)
- Mark (65-73 CE)
- James (65-85 CE)
- 1 Peter (75-90 CE)
- Matthew (80-90 CE)
- Luke (80-90 CE)
- Acts (80-90 CE)
- Hebrews (80-90 CE)
- Ephesians (80-90 CE)
- John (90-110 CE)
- 1 John (90-110 CE)
- 2 John (90-110 CE)
- 3 John (90-110 CE)
- Revelation (95 CE)
- 1 Timothy (100 CE)
- 2 Timothy (100 CE)
- Titus (100 CE)
- 2 Peter (110 CE)
One Final Proposal
Alternatively, my own research suggests a much tighter window of writing:
- Galatians (48-49 CE)
- James (48-49 CE)
- Jerusalem Council (50 CE)
- Mark (50-60 CE)
- Jude (50-60 CE)
- 1 Thessalonians (51-52 CE)
- 2 Thessalonians (51-52 CE)
- 1 Corinthians (54 CE)
- 2 Corinthians (56 CE)
- Romans (56-59 CE)
- Colossians (58 or 61 CE)
- Philemon (58 or 61 CE)
- Laodicians (58 or 61 CE)
- Matthew (~60 CE)
- Luke (60-62 CE)
- Philippians (61-62 CE)
- Ephesians (61-62 CE)
- 1 Timothy (62 CE)
- Titus (62 CE)
- Acts (62-64 CE)
- 2 Timothy (64 CE)
- Death of Paul (64 CE)
- 1 Peter (64-66 CE)
- Hebrews (64-70 CE)
- 2 Peter (66-68 CE)
- Death of Peter (68 CE)
- Revelation (68-70 CE)
- Destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE)
- John (70-80 CE)
- 1 John (70-80 CE)
- 2 John (80-100 CE)
- 3 John (80-100 CE)
There are two driving ideas behind this proposal. First, I find generally compelling Robinson’s argument in Redating the New Testament (since echoed and expanded upon by countless scholars) that the implications of the destruction of Jerusalem should be noticeable in early Christian writings after its occurrence. Particularly in New Testament writings written for a Jewish audience, the lack of clear signals about this event is extremely telling. The detailed arguments in Hebrews, for example, make little sense if they had been written after Jerusalem has fallen; in that case, why not simply spell out the disastrous implications of Judaism, as later anti-Jewish Christian writers would?12
The second driving idea behind my proposal is that early Christian writing occurs around events. That is, for a missional and eschatological movement such as early Christianity, there needed to be some clear impetus for taking the time to write something down and then preserve it. Religious movements that expect an imminent end do not typically write much down for posterity’s sake. There need to be certain developments, debates, or deaths to drive such a shift. In my thinking, the chart below indicates some of the influences that were likely at work in the composition of New Testament texts.
|Galatians (48-49 CE)||Debate (Gentile Controversy, pre-council)|
|James (48-49 CE)||Debate (Gentile Controversy, pre-council)|
|Jerusalem Council (50 CE)|
|Mark (50-60 CE)||Debate (Gentile Controversy, post-council)|
|Jude (50-60 CE)||Debate (Gentile Controversy, post-council)|
|1 Thessalonians (51-52 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)|
|2 Thessalonians (51-52 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)|
|1 Corinthians (54 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)|
|2 Corinthians (56 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)|
|Romans (56-59 CE)||Development (theological questions, pre-visit)13|
|Colossians (58, 61 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)|
|Philemon (58, 61 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)|
|Laodicians (58, 61 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)|
|Matthew (~60 CE)||Development (generation shift and/or commenting/building on Mark)|
|Luke (60-62 CE)||Development (generation shift and/or commenting/building on Matthew and Mark)|
|Philippians (61-62 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)|
|Ephesians (61-62 CE)||Development (theological questions, pre-visit)14|
|1 Timothy (62 CE)||Death (Paul’s pastoral reflections pre-death)|
|Titus (62 CE)||Death (Paul’s pastoral reflections pre-death)|
|Acts (62-64 CE)||Development (generation shift and/or continuation of Luke)|
|2 Timothy (64 CE)||Death (Paul’s pastoral reflections pre-death)|
|Death of Paul (64 CE)|
|1 Peter (64-66 CE)||Death (Peter’s pastoral reflections post-Paul)|
|Hebrews (64-70 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)15|
|2 Peter (66-68 CE)||Death (Peter’s pastoral reflections pre-death)|
|Death of Peter (68 CE)|
|Revelation (68-70 CE)||Development (theological questions and apocalyptic warning, post-visit)|
|Destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE)|
|John (70-80 CE)||Development (generation shift and/or commenting/building on Synoptics)|
|1 John (70-80 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)16|
|2 John (80-100 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)|
|3 John (80-100 CE)||Development (theological questions, post-visit)|
Why does the New Testament appear in the order it does? For a variety of reasons, perhaps including reasons influenced by chronology of events or order of composition, but not limited to those factors. Considering alternative orders to the New Testament—especially the chronological and compositional—does provide a useful lens for considering what the New Testament says and means. In fact, there is much to be learned from considering alternative orders. As we take up and read, therefore, let us be aware of how literary context shapes and influences how we engage the Scriptures.
1 The canonical order has traditionally been explained as the order in which the gospels were written, though this was brought into question as seemingly early as Papias and Origen. See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.25 and Augustine, The Harmony of the Gospels, I.2.4
2 As Luke Part II, Acts was never seriously doubted as part of the canon, though it’s specifical placement in the canon varied quite dramatically in early canons.
3 The Pauline canon follows two orderings: epistles to churches and epistles to people (also known as pastorals), and longest to shortest (the exception being Ephesians, which is a little longer than Galatians).
4 The general (or catholic) epistles likewise are arranged in a roughly longest to shortest, with Hebrews bridging the gap between Paul and non-Pauline writers.
5 Technically, Revelation falls into at least two genres: letters to churches (chapters 1-3) and apocalypse (chapters 4-22, though some interpreters divide these chapters into apocalypse and prophecy sections).
6 In parallel for long sections of course. For an example of what a parallel ordering of the gospels might look like, consider this guide.
7 Presuming that these letters are both about the Gentile controversy addressed in Acts 15 by the Council of Jerusalem.
8 Paul’s authentic letter to the Laodicians remains lost, although Paul clearly mentions the letter in Colossians 4:16 and at least some pseudonymous editions appear to have circulated in the ancient world, including (according to Tertullian) in Marcion of Sinope’s canon.
9 The most influential advocate of this position is John A.T. Robinson, whose Redating of the New Testament continues to provide fodder for scholarly conversations about the dating of New Testament documents.
10 Dating ranges are notoriously fickle and circumspect, with most published pieces including appropriate notations that all such dating estimates are necessarily circa given the realities of accurately describing history.
11 There’s really no such thing as a “scholarly consensus” about such things, let alone a fixed consensus. Scholars are constantly going back and forth about when NT documents were written and how we might know. That said, it remains common in the field to talk about consensus, if only as a foil for whatever proposal or project one is working on.
12 This is one reason why I find post-70 CE datings of Johannine literature compelling. In contrast to every other New Testament writing, John’s use of the Jews indicates not a formal parting of the ways (which other historical sources reveal was a centuries-long process), but a differentiation of the Way from the Jewish rebels who have just suffered defeat at the hands of Rome.
13 Romans stands out among Paul’s letters not only for its length and theological heft, but also as one of the few surviving letters (if not only letter) to have been written to a church prior to Paul’s presence there.
14 Based on an understanding of Ephesians as an encyclical to the wider area of churches around Ephesus and not to the urban Ephesian church itself, which Paul would have been quite familiar with by this point.
15 Hebrews is probably an edited sermon, sent as theological encouragement to area churches.
16 1 John is probably an edited sermon, sent as theological encouragement to area churches.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia.