Timeline, from 1 until 300 C.E.
The coming of first John the Baptist and then Jesus, both with the same reforming agenda, saw the origin of the Sermon during Jesus ministry. Following Jesus death at Passover, his resurrection galvanized his supporters into action. Events at Pentecost brought the good news (‘gospel’ in Greek) to an international audience. Evidence, from the new testament letters and the testimony of early churchmen, suggest that the Sermon existed in written form at a relatively early stage. The gospel’s spread throughout the Roman Empire saw Jesus’ teaching become established and early churchmen beginning to quote from the Sermon.
A word about dates
As certain dates seem carefully fixed, and relative periods from them are then stated, there may seem no excuse for a lack of precision in the dating of certain biblical events. However, the dates of these significant reference points may vary according to the assumptions with which a scholar works. An example is the dating of the start of John the Baptist’s ministry. Luke seems to locate this event precisely when he states: “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1-2 WEB). Yet most of these reigns spanned a long period, leaving the regnal year of Tiberius offering the greatest hope for precision (Donfried 1996, 1013). Donfried notes that dates in 11, 12 and 14 C.E. have all been suggested for the death of Tiberius’ predecessor, Augustus (Donfried 1996, 1013). To add to the possibility of ambiguity, there are further unknowns: does this date from the start of Tiberius co-regency or the date of his predecessor’s death; what calendar Luke was using; was the accession year included in the count or excluded (Donfried 1996, 1013). Therefore, the date could be anywhere within the period 25-29 C.E.
The remainder of this page will suggest the author’s current preference for dates, but then seek to briefly acknowledge some of the alternate views. For more detail on this period see the gospel harmony.
Selection of events
Before 18 C.E.
The death of Herod Archelaus leaves Israel without a dynastic ruler and Jerusalem under direct rule from Rome.
About 27 C.E.
John the Baptist (ca. 5 B.C.E. – ca. 28 C.E.) began to establish the Way of Righteousness in the wilderness. Acting as a prophet, he called people to repent and join him. Such penitential preparation was characteristic of the festivals of the seventh month. As Jesus accepted John’s baptism, God affirmed Jesus status and the prophet identified Jesus as his lord. The duration of Jesus’ subsequent ministry is debated, but, once you understand how his agenda was driven by case-law precedents in the Hebrew Bible, it is possible to harmonize all four canonical gospels around the feast periods within a two-and-a-half year ministry period (see Chapter 27 of the Emmaus View).
Alternate views on the dating of this event are discussed above, but suggest the period 25-29 C.E. Donfield (1996, 1013) notes considerable academic support for a one year ministry, but concludes that none of the arguments exclude a longer period. He rejects the use of John’s Gospel to establish a three-passover based sequential chronology, preferring a one to two year period (Donfried 1996, 1015).
About 28 C.E.
Jesus’ authority is rejected in Jerusalem at Passover (John 2:13-16), prompting the authorities to arrest John the Baptist and Jesus to retreat into the wilderness. Returning to Galilee through Samaria, Jesus went to Capernaum and began to gather a group of John’s former supporters as his disciples. The Sermon on the Mount was delivered at Pentecost to rally support, to establish an agenda for his followers, and to warn the authorities of the consequences, should they continue to reject him (for a more detailed argument for this chronology see Chapter 27 of the Emmaus View).
On the basis of the the Temple build having been started in 20-19 B.C.E. and in progress for 46 years (John 2:18), Donfriend (1996, 1013) suggests 28 C.E.
Between 28 C.E. and 30 C.E.
The Sermon on the Plain, found in Luke’s Gospel, looks much like an abbreviated account of the Sermon on the Mount, but given a different setting. Examination of the parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain, suggests that the speech recorded in Luke was a separate event and took place after the Sermon on the Mount.
About 30 C.E.
Jesus was crucified, confirmed to be dead in accord with the normal Roman procedures, and then buried in a sealed tomb. However, then came reports of his resurrection from the dead and a series of encounters with this risen Saviour. In one such meeting Jesus entrusted his followers with continuing his mission. The next feast, Pentecost, provided the opportunity, and many were persuaded to join the movement (Acts 2:14, 37-47), which thereafter grew rapidly. Amongst the influx of new believers were many priests (Acts 6:7), men who would have needed the sort of Jewish and legal perspective on the gospel that the Gospel of Matthew provides.
The variations between the Essene and Sadducee calenders provide the most elegant explanation of apparent discrepancies between the gospel accounts concerning the fall of passover in Jesus’ passion year. However, calendrical analysis suggests that only in the years 27 and 30 C.E. did these calendars align in such a way as to create the circumstances described (Bibarch 2009, n.p.). On other evidence Donfried (1996, 1016) suggests 30 C.E.
About 33 C.E.
Likely date for the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, aka. the apostle Paul (ca. 5 - ca. 67), given by working back from his second visit to Jerusalem (see below).
Donfriend (1996, 1016) suggests that this is typically dated to 33 C.E.
About 34 C.E.
Epiphanius (ca. 310–320 – 403), Bishop of Salami, claimed that Matthew wrote a gospel in Hebrew, at the bidding of the Apostles and in the same year that they considered dispersing to go to the gentiles, that being four years after Jesus death (Epiphanius, Panarion 51). It was reputed later, when Matthew’s account was found in India, that it had been taken there by the hand of the apostle Bartholomew and that it was a copy of this Hebrew version (Eusabius, Hist. eccl. 5:10). Epiphanus reference to going to the gentiles at such an early stage may possibly best be understood as visiting Jewish diaspora to check on the the progress of those who had accepted Jesus as Messiah whilst visiting Jerusalem. If Epiphanius evidence be accepted, then the Sermon on the Mount existed in written form within seven years of its original delivery (for other traditions see below).
About 43 C.E.
Paul makes his first journey to Jerusalem as a Christian.
Betz (1996, 191), working with the assumption that Herod Agrippa killed James (Acts 12:2), dates this to 43/44 C.E.
About 46 C.E.
Seventeen years after his conversion, the apostle Paul visited Jerusalem a second time (Gal 2:1-10; Acts 12:17; Betz 1996, 191), leading to the so-called Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:6) and James’ ruling on what should be expected of gentile believers in terms of obeying Jewish law. The period of his first visit, during which Paul’s teaching on grace was more likely to have been misunderstood, is a likely setting for the Epistle of James (Wessel 2002, 965), a book which shares many of its themes with the Sermon on the Mount.
The early missionary journeys
Although Jesus also ministered to those outside of Israel, his mission was to primarily to his own people (Matt 10:5-6, 15:22-28). His earliest disciples were drawn from that same pool, so the earliest Church, though from the outset including many from outside Palestine (cf. Acts 2:9-10), was comprised almost entirely of individuals who shared their Semitic background, both ethnic Jews and their proselytes. As such, those who believed Jesus was the Christ tended to be considered a sect of Judaism, known as The Way (Acts 24:14).
The earliest outreach was primarily to those with a background in Judaism, only later, and under divine instruction (Acts 10:1,10-17, 34-35, 44-45, 47, 11:1-2, 17-18), did the Church begin to accept gentiles in its ranks.
It is about the apostle Paul’s activities that we know the most. After a dramatic conversion experience, Paul spent years coming to terms with the revelation he had received before being taken under the wing of Barnabas. The pair were then appointed to visit the Jewish diaspora, a work which Paul would eventually continue on his own. This early phase of mission to far flung Jewish communities is a likely period of origin for Matthew’s Gospel, a document clearly intended for an ethnic Jewish audience and providing a written source for the benefit of those with limited physical access to the apostles’ teaching.
Where he met rejection from his fellow Israelites, Paul followed Elijah’s model by offering the gospel to the gentiles instead, many of whom accepted it. That practice, together with Peter’s acceptance of Cornelius, began to alter the emphasis of the early Church’s missionary activities. The predominance of ethnic Jews within the church began to wane with the influx of gentile converts. Then, as The Way drew in increasing numbers of Syrians, Greeks, Samaritans and the like, this produced escalating friction with other branches of Judaism (e.g. Pharisees, Sadducees).
Around 51-53 C.E.
Likely period during which Paul visited Corinth and stayed for over a year (Acts 18:11–17; Betz 1996, 191). This visit subsequently led to the apostle’s first letter to the Corinthians, dated about 53-55 C.E. (Betz & Miller 1996, 1140) , a letter containing themes that echo some of the Beatitudes (1 Cor 4:5, 8; Matt 5:6, 3; Grant 1978, 216).
Donfriend (1996, 1013) suggests that this is typically
dated to 56 C.E. However, Betz (1996, 191) notes that Junius Gallio (? - 65 C.E.), whose proconsulship
in Achaea, mentioned in Acts 18:11-17 as overlapping Paul’s period in Corinth, is now fixed by archaeological evidence to the years 51/52 or
52/53. An alternate date of 41 C.E. has also been suggested, on the basis of Acts 18:1-2 (Betz &
Miller 1996, 1140).
About 57 C.E.
Approximate start date of Paul’s two year imprisonment and the latest event mentioned in the account provided by the Apostle Luke (in Luke's Gospel & the Acts of the Apostles). It is possible that Luke/Acts, with its maternal genealogy that avoids an overt claim to kingship, its less-subversive nativity account (compatible with Matthew’s but complementing it by taking a priestly perspective), its selective reporting of the Sermon on the Plain in preference to the Sermon on the Mount, and its emphasis on Paul’s various trials and acquittals, was produce as part of Paul’s defense at his trial in Rome. The apparent termination of Acts at around this point, coupled with Acts' internal testimony that Luke wrote his gospel before it, makes this the likely latest date for the composition of Luke's gospel, and, given the relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain, also for the existence of the Sermon.
Traditional date of the martyrdom of Barnabas (Cross and Livingstone 2005, 160). According to a much later tradition, preserved in the seventeenth century Acta Sanctorum, “The relics of Barnabas the Apostle were found in Cyprus under a cherry tree, having upon his breast the Gospel of St. Matthew copied by Barnabas’ own hand” (Acta Sanctorum, Jun II, p. 422. Polak). The lengthy period that had elapsed before these remains were found (around four centuries), together with the even longer period before the incident was recorded, calls into question the accuracy of the statements. However, should there be some truth behind them, and Barnabas indeed possessed his own copy of Matthew’s Gospel, then that raises interesting questions concerning the synoptic problem, for Barnabas was John Mark’s cousin (Col 4:10) and advocate (Acts 15:37-39), and John Mark spent time with Luke (Col 4:10, 14, Phil 24).
About 62 C.E.
Traditional date for the martyrdom of James the Lord’s half-brother/cousin, the most likely author of the canonical Epistle of James (Keener 1993, Introduction to James). The Epistle of James clearly demonstrates its author’s awareness of the teaching found in the Sermon on the Mount and provides some early candidates for quotations from it (e.g. see the notes on the beatitudes).
In 66 C.E. the Jews revolted against Roman authority, beginning the war that precipitated the Siege of Jerusalem in 68 C.E. Three years later the city fell, with the destruction of Herod’s temple. The early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 C.E.) saw in this the fulfillment of certain prophecies concerning Jerusalem that are recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (Maier 1999, 100-101).
Following the fall of Jerusalem, a learned center at Jabneh replaced the Sanhedrin. Its first leader was Johanan ben Zakkai (30 -90 C.E.), who was then succeeded by Rabbi Gamaliel II (Gamaliel of Yavneh, grandson of Gamaliel the Elder). Gamaliel II continued to be highly influential throughout roughly the period 90-110 C.E. (Lukyn 1921, n.p., footnote 1 on I.1) The Talmud reports an incident in which he sets a trap for a corrupt Christian judge (see Notes on Matthew 5:14-16), the details of which provides an early Jewish testimony to the existence of sections of the Sermon on the Mount within a book that was clearly widely known.
The later part of the first century represents the likely period for the composition of the Didache (or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles). This document, which was used for the instruction of converts in the basics of faith, contains one of the first non-scriptural references to the Lord’s Prayer (Knoll 1997, 45-46).
The period 70-100 C.E. represents the earliest period to which a manuscript fragment of the the Gospel of Matthew has been dated, though this dating remains controversial (Head 1995, n.p.).
The earliest closely-datable evidence of quotations of material found in Matthew’s Gospel from outside the bible seems to be in a letter, written around 95-98 C.E., from Clement of Rome to the Corinthian church. It comprises just a couple of verses.
First half of the second century
Likely era during which Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, who died about 130 C.E., was posed a question by an enquirer, “When salt loses its flavour, how can it be made salty again?” (b. Bek. 8b). His response portrays both a knowledge of the question’s source and the negative outlook toward Christians within other sections of Judaism that intensified during this period (see Notes on Matt 5:13).
Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (martyred ca. 155 C.E.), produced his five book Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord. This survives today only as a few references in the works of other early authors, but Papias claimed to have collected apostolic sayings obtained at second and, in a few cases, first hand. It is likely to have contained at least some parts of the Sermon. Papias implies that written sources of these sayings already existed, but that he preferred to go to human sources (Maier 1999, 127).
Death of Ignatius of Antioch, who appears to have borrowed many phrases from Matthew’s Gospel.
About 144 C.E.
Marcion of Sinope (ca. 85-160 C.E.) travelled to Rome from Asia Minor and there claimed to establish a definitive canon of scripture concerning Christ (Knoll 1997, 35-36). Although the idea of producing an approved list was a positive development, Marcion’s theology was far from mainstream. He postulated that the God of the Hebrew Bible differed from the God of the New Testament and therefore sought to reject all three synoptic gospels, and with them the Sermon on the Mount.
Later part of the second century
Marcion died about 160 C.E., but not before his heresy had gained ground. Attempts to legislate often arise only once authorities are confronted with excess, which was certainly the case with Marcion’s errors. The popularity of his teaching prompted a robust defence of the historical status of the Synoptic Gospels, whilst his attempts to define the acceptability or otherwise of scriptures led others to produce alternative lists (Knoll 1997, 36). The Muratorian Canon, the earliest such list to have survived from this period, includes all four Synoptic Gospels.
Death of Justin Martyr (103–165 C.E.), who was converted in 130 C.E. Justin went on to quote many passages found in Matthew’s Gospel.
About this time the Christian apologist Tatian (ca. 120–180) produced his Diatessaron, the core of which is a harmony of the four canonical gospels (Peterson 1996, 189). Tatian’s choice to include these gospels provides evidence for their acceptance as the de-facto primary corpus for the life of Jesus. Tatian’s de-duplication exercise saw him attempt to merge the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49), fostering the idea that they represented the same event.
About this time Pantaenus of Alexandria (died ca. 200) travelled to India, where he found the Hebrew version of Matthew’s account, reputedly taken there by Bartholomew (Eusabius, Hist. eccl. 5:10).
About 200 C.E.
By the end of the second century, the canon of the New Testament was effectively established, and, securely housed in Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount was part of it.
From around 200 C.E. come the earliest fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic gospel, that contains many parallels with sections of the Sermon on the Mount, but is decidedly more Greek than Hebrew in its emphases.
About 232 C.E.
The noted intellectual Origen (c185-c253) came to Caesarea in Palestine. Origen was later (in 553) held to be a heretic, but he founded a theological school, built up a library and wrote a Commentary on Matthew.
Betz,Hans Deiter. 1996. “Paul (Person).” Pages 186-201 in Vol. 5 of ABD.
Betz,Hans Deiter and Margaret M. Miller. 1996. “Corinthians, First Epistle to the.” Pages 1139-1148 in Vol. 1 of ABD.
Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. 2005. "Barnabas, St.” Page 160 in F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Donfried, Karl P. 1996. “Chronology: New Testament” Pages 1011-1022 in Vol. 1 of ABD.
Head, Peter M. 1995. The Date of the Magdalene Papyrus of Matthew (P. Magd. Gr. 17 = P64): A response to C.P. Thiede. Tyndale Bulletin 46: 251-285. Cited: 22 Dec 2008. Online:http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/Tyndale/staff/Head/P64TB.htm.
Kirby, Peter. 2007. Gospel of Matthew. n.p. Cited 7 Feb 2007. Online:http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/matthew.html.
Peterson, William L. 1996. Diatessaron. Pages 189-90 in vol. 2 of ABD.