We have discovered that Bible students sometimes have a difficult time understanding the behavior, or response, of the early Christians because of our difficultly of placing ourselves in their historical context. We have this desire to study the New Testament documents from our perspective today. As an even greater handicap in our modern age of shallow Bible study, we often have a very difficult time of getting beyond favorite passages, which passages are often taken out of the context of the whole text of the Scriptures. But more specifically, scripture statements are too many times taken out of their historical context. Extracting favorite statements of Scriptures from the text of the Bible does not encourage people to consider the whole text of the Bible. It does not encourage people today to study the Spirit-inspired documents that were initially written to encourage people in the first century.
The Holy Spirit wrote the following statement for the exhortation of everyone who would seek to study the Bible: “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, so that we through patience and encouragement of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rm 15:4). This is learning far beyond favorite passages. Focusing only on favorite passages often leads us into a shallow understanding of the word of God. If we extract favorite passages from their historical context, then we will end up with a very limited understanding of the Bible as a whole. In doing such, the Bible often becomes a catechism of legal doctrines that must be obeyed without any motivational background.
If one does not place himself or herself in the historical context of the events that were revealed through the incarnation and ministry of the Son of God, then it will be somewhat difficult to understand the reaction of those who initially experienced the revelation of the gospel. We must be encouraged to learn from their response to the gospel in order that the gospel come alive in our own lives. The initial documents of the New Testament were written in the historical context of the first recipients. The better we understand their historical context, the better we will understand what was written to them.
When we turn to the documents of the New Testament, it is imperative that we understand why and when these documents were written. In order to understand the full impact of the message that the Holy Spirit wanted to communicate to us today, we must first consider the possible dates that the Spirit inspired the New Testament documents to be written. Knowing these dates helps us understand better the historical environment in which the early recipients lived. And when we understand the unique trials through which they were going, we will enhance our appreciation of the New Testament Scriptures. It is not necessary to understand the historical background of the New Testament documents that is outside the recorded history of the documents themselves. However, it is certainly in our interest to better understand the context in which the early disciples were living when they initially received these letters from the Holy Spirit.
If we can place some possible date of writing on a particular letter, then we can better understand the purpose of the document, as well as the response of those who initially received the document. For this reason, therefore, we offer some possible dates for the writing of the New Testament documents that fit into the historical context of the times. Though these dates can never be substantiated to be precise, at least they are accurate enough to give us some understanding of why the documents were first written.
Our understanding of the “timing” of the writing of the New Testament documents is predicated on a very important statement that Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians. He wrote in the context of division and confusion in the organic function of the body of Christ in the province of Achaia.
“Love never fails. But where there are [the miraculous gifts of] prophecies, they will be abolished. Where there are [the miraculous gifts of] languages, they will cease. Where there is [the miraculous gift of] knowledge, it will vanish away. For we [at this time] know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is complete [perfect] has come, then that which is in part will be done away” (1 Co 13:8-10).
There has been too much debate over this statement that Paul made to the saints in Achaia. Nevertheless, if we keep in mind that both 1 & 2 Corinthians were written to all the saints in the province of Achaia, not just to those who lived in the city of Corinth, then we will begin to understand the historical context of the statement (See 2 Co 1:1).
Paul’s explanation to what he had in mind as the “complete” or perfect, is explained by the illustration of his growth out of childhood. “When I was a child I spoke as a child. I understood as a child. I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Co 13:11).
Some have suggested that the imperfect, or incomplete, about which he wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 referred to love. But this does not fit his illustration of maturing from childhood. Love is an emotional attitude. But in 1 Corinthians 13:11 he speaks of the actions of mental processes: “spoke,” “understood,” and “thought.” He was not speaking of “loving” as a child, and then growing into a “complete” love. On the contrary, he was speaking of childish mental actions that he put away when he matured. His speaking as a child, understanding as a child, and thinking as a child were put away when he grew up. In other words, when he was a child, his mental processes and speech were as a child. But when he matured, the immature thinking and behavior of his childhood had to give way to his adulthood.
In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul clarified that about which he was speaking: “For now [at this time when he was writing] we dimly see in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know [the mind of God] just as I also am known [by God].” This surely is not referring to loving one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. In using the third person plural pronoun “we,” he was referring to all of us as the whole body, not to individual members of the body.
Some individual members of the body in Corinth, as the household of Stephanas, had grown in great love immediately upon their obedience to the gospel (See 1 Co 16:15,16). Growing to a “complete” (perfect) love would seem to be ignoring the loving service of these first converts in Corinth who exercised great love as soon as they came out of the waters of baptism. There was something more significant about the coming “perfect” than simply growing in their love for one another, which growth is actually a lifetime process (See 1 Th 1:3).
This brings us to the context of how the gospel was first revealed on the Pentecost of A.D. 30, and subsequently preached throughout the Roman world by the time Paul wrote the statement of Colossians 1:23 in A.D. 61,62. At that time Paul exhorted the disciples in Colosse that they not be “moved away from the hope of the gospel that you [Colossians] have heard, which was preached to every creature that is under heaven.”
From A.D. 30, to the time when Paul wrote Colossians 1:23 in A.D. 61,62, the gospel had been fully revealed and verbally preached “to every creature that is under heaven.” At the very time Paul wrote this statement, that which was verbally preached was now being written as Scripture, both by Paul and the other New Testament writers. Once all that which was first verbally preached had been written concerning the gospel, copied and circulated throughout the first century world, then there was no more a need for the miraculous gift of prophecy to verbally preach the gospel. This would also be true in reference to the prophets continuing their instruction of the church in the word of God. When all the truth of the word was recorded, then the prophets lost the reason for their inspiration to both speak and write the truth of the gospel. If anyone wanted to know the gospel, then he or she simply needed to study the written word of God.
When the perfect word of the gospel was written, then there was no more a need for prophets to receive and preach the gospel verbally. When the last person died on whom a Christ-sent apostle had laid hands to receive the gift of prophecy (teaching), then the written record of the gospel took the church from there unto this day. The “imperfect gap” had been closed with the complete recording of the word of God by the end of national Israel in A.D. 70. It was during the few years leading up to the close of the ministry of the miraculous gifts that the Holy Spirit reminded everyone:
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, or correction, for instruction in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tm 3:16,17).
In this statement, the Holy Spirit went beyond the recording of the message of the gospel. He took those as Timothy into accepting all instruction in reference to gospel living. This was “Scripture,” which was able to take the church unto the time that Jesus would come at the end of time.
2 Timothy 3:16,17 was written about three to five years before the consummation of national Israel in A.D. 70. We believe that this statement to Timothy is significant in that the Holy Spirit, through the hand of Paul, wanted all the disciples, especially those as Timothy who were gifted with prophecy, to understand that they needed to turn their attention from individuals who imparted the word of God verbally, to the written word of God itself. So about three years before the end of national Israel, the Holy Spirit, through Peter, once again reminded everyone: “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who has called us to glory and virtue” (2 Pt 1:3). There was finality in the revelation of the truth of God to man. At the same time Peter wrote the letter of 2 Peter, Jude also concurred that his readers “earnestly contend for the faith [of the gospel] that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jd 3).
Notice from the following chart the possible dates when the documents of 1 & 2 Corinthians were written. The dates are at least twenty years after the revelation of the gospel in A.D. 30. The Corinthians were at least five years in the faith at the time of writing. Though their relationships with one another were not yet perfect in love, their growth in love was a work in progress.
But in the context of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14, the function of the body in reference to the miraculous gifts was under consideration. Function in reference to the miraculous gifts was the problem when those in Achaia came together in a common assembly in the city of Corinth (See 1 Co 11:18). Some of the gifted disciples were competing with one another in reference to the use of their gifts. Paul wanted to remind them that that over which divided them, and were in competition with one another, would pass away as the complete revelation of the word of God was recorded and distributed throughout the church of the first century.
Those gifts over which they competed with one another would soon be gone. They would be gone because the recording of all the information concerning the gospel, as well as all truth that God desired should be revealed. Within a little over a decade after the time he wrote, the written word would supplant that which was used to communicate the truth in the gap between the initial revelation of the gospel in A.D. 30 and the recording of the last New Testament document. That over which they competed with one another (prophecy and languages) would soon pass away. The “vehicle” by which the gospel was preached and the church was edified, would give way to the necessity of their study of the inspired letters of the word of God. These letters were that at the time being copied and circulated among the churches. Once all the letters were written, this would mean the termination of the miraculous gifts.
The chart on this page gives a visual interpretation of the age of the function of the miraculous gifts (“the imperfect”) that would give way to the communication of the Spirit through the inspired New Testament documents that were completed a little over a decade before A.D. 70. We understand the dating of the New Testament documents in view of the consummation of national Israel in A.D. 70. In view of the decade of their writing before A.D. 70, we assume that the Holy Spirit wanted to terminate the ministry of the miraculous gifts by A.D. 70. At the same time, He wanted to prepare the Jewish disciples for the consummation of their Jewish heritage.
Following the suggested dates on the chart of the documents of the New Testament gives some general reason for the writing of each particular letter in the context of the lives of those to whom the letters were first written. Regardless of any exact date for the writing of each New Testament document, one thing if obviously clear. The writing of all the New Testament books, with possibly the exception of Revelation, took place within about a decade before the historical event of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. There was a gap of at least twenty-five years from the time of the revelation of the gospel to the apostles on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30 and the fifteen years within which the New Testament documents were finalized before A.D. 70. It was during this twenty-five year gap that the word of the gospel went forth verbally until the time when the Holy Spirit deemed it necessary to begin the inscription of the New Testament documents. This leaves little doubt that the gap was the time of the “in part” about which Paul wrote to the Corinthians and the “complete” (perfect) that would be consummated in the completion of the canon of New Testament documents by A.D. 70.
(Appendix study from Master Volume VI)