When the Bible Was Written

In discussions about the NT, I often get asked about when the different books were written. It helps, for example, to know that the gospels were written at least 35 years after Jesus’s death, and that some of the letters were much later still.

Dating biblical books is very difficult. If you browse around, you’ll get contradictory numbers. Many sites and study bibles have this tendentious need to pretend that the books of the bible were written by the people who’s names are on them. And this gives totally improbable datings. Even sites that reflect the scholarly consensus on authorship vary wildly. (Wikipedia, for example, gives totally different dates on individual books that it does on its summary Dating of the Bible page) In a future post I will talk about how we date books: the kinds of criteria we use, and where they apply. These criteria often contradict one another, making dating even harder.

Still, in there interests of doing more than just waving my hands, here is my list of dates. Bear in mind that all of these dates are likely to be wrong. I haven’t put the ‘circa’ on everything, but it should be everywhere. In general I’ve tried to give as small a range as I can, or one date, even if there are good reasons to doubt that, but in many cases there is just no good reason to pick any particular date within the range.

Date Book Very Brief Notes
33 Possible date of Jesus’s crucifixion.
50‑52  1 Thessalonians  Shows signs of immaturity in theology and in form compared to Paul’s later letters.
50‑55  Galatians  A few scholars put Galatians as the first epistle, because of the impossibility of reconciling its chronology with that in Acts.
53‑57  1 Corinthians  Dating depends on the Acts chronology for when Paul is in Ephesus.
55‑57  2 Corinthians  Probably 2 letters combined — Paul is still in Ephesus but follows 1 Corinthians.
55‑58  Romans  Again depends on the Acts chronology for when Paul is in Corinth.
62  Philemon  Assuming Paul’s mentioned emprisonment is at Rome.
62  Philippians  A complex and therefore fragile line of reasoning gives this date.
68‑70  Hebrews  A book about priesthood and priestly duties, but doesn’t mention the destruction of the temple in 70.
70  Mark  During the First Jewish War, before the destruction of the temple.
80‑85  Matthew  Uses Mark, but shows many theological and mythic developments.
85‑90  Luke  I’m guessing that Luke had access to at least a proto-Matthew (my synoptic thoughts are worth a separate post).
85‑90  Acts  I suspect that Acts may have been written in an initial form well before Luke (maybe c. 70) and was tweaked into its final form as the ‘second volume’ to Luke later. If not, then it was most likely written around these dates.
80‑100  Colossians  80-100 is the catch-all for books that were forged in Paul’s name, we have almost no independent way of dating them, except that we know that some of them were being quoted in the early C2.
80‑100  2 Thessalonians  If 2 Thess is authentically by Paul (I suspect not, but it isn’t that clear), then it is 52-54.
80‑100  2 Timothy  Very likely to be by a different person than 1 Timothy, seems to have more knowledge of Paul the man, so likely earlier. Could just perhaps be authentic (c.60-65).
80‑100  1 Peter  Another forged letter that is therefore difficult to anchor.
85‑100  Ephesians  Depends on Colossians, and is therefore later. Probably by another different author.
95  Revelation  Date based on the assumption that it alludes to Domitian.
90‑100  1-3 John  All three seem to have been written by the same person, difficult to separate.
95‑100  John  This date allows theological development, and is traditionally attested.
70‑150  James  There seems to me to be very few good arguments that can narrow these dates down.
100‑120  1 Timothy  Seems to be written in a C2 theological context, is probably used by Polycarp in c. 130.
100‑120  Titus  1 Timothy and Titus seem to be dependent, but isn’t clear in which direction.
90‑150  Jude  To small to contain many clues, but seems to depend on the apocrypha, and seems to have a dependency relationship with 2 Peter 2.
100‑150  2 Peter  Probably depends on Jude. Seems to be written to a C2 church context.

Comments, arguments or corrections are welcome.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “When the Bible Was Written

  1. Thank you for this list!

    (1) I’d love if you could add authors for each book, maybe in brackets. Use “fake” if it is a forged name: [Paul], [fake-Paul], [fake-John] [fake-Peter], [fake-John], [fake-1Timmy], [fake-2Timmy]. And you could do a whole different post explaining your decisions on this. [in your spare time]

    (2) Concerning Acts, you wrote, “was tweaked into its final form as the ‘second volume’ to Luke later.
    does that mean something like this:
    “Thus, the first edition (70 AD) was later tweaked into its final form (at least its 2nd edition, 85-90 AD) so as to be a comfortable sequel to the Gospel According to Luke.”

    (3) You said, “1 Thessalonians Shows signs of immaturity in theology and in form compared to Paul’s later letters. Did you write on this somewhere else yet? I’ve love to read a “1 Thess: The Missing & The Altered” post.

  2. (4) You wrote: “… I often get asked about when the different books were written. ”
    Do you get asked in your Sunday School class? I forgot, do you teach a class or participate in a class as a student?
    Do you then direct those folks to this blog?

  3. Ian

    Thanks Sabio – I am planning a ‘why’ post, yes. And the authorship is such a good idea, I think I’ll do something specifically on that. The basic logic is that we know who wrote the first seven (Paul), but none of the others.

    2. Yes, something like that. Again things are very loose and certainties are very low, but I do find it surprising that Acts of all books seems to be written from a perspective when Jerusalem hasn’t just been routed by Romans and Paul hasn’t been martyred. There are good counter-arguments, and on odd-numbered days I probably find them persuasive. But assuming I’m right (and it is a minority position, but not a tiny minority position), then the problem is that Acts also clearly shows signs of being harmonized with Luke. So the hypothesis is that there was an early draft, which later got an editing pass to make it volume 2 of Luke. All very handwavey! The alternate view is just that Acts was first written about the dates I say, so either way those dates are probably good. The view that Acts in its final form was much earlier doesn’t persuade me.

    3. I don’t think there’s evidence of missing or altered stuff. Just that in 1 Thess you get the sense of Paul the proud evangelist, writing back to his churches: the letter is quite personal, and quite pleasant. A contrast to the later letters (which we date later on a number of grounds) where those churches have become embroiled in bitter arguments and Paul is all about sorting out the theology and banging heads together.

    4. Yes, this usually in conversations with Christians. It is surprising how often basic biblical knowledge is news to lifelong Christians. In a discussion about the claims about Jesus in Mark, someone quoted John and I said “oh that’s *much* later” (i.e. it represents a later form of early Christianity), which came as a surprise. I take part in a bible study, yes. At the moment the study is looking at baptist history and theology, so the local baptist minister is leading. Prior to that I lead the group through Mark. I do refer people here, and the aforementioned minister has posted quite a few comments here and I know has referred members of his congregation here, especially those who feel the simple answers have lost credibility.

  4. Well, you are certainly brave to put up a nailing jelly to the wall post. It’s only fair to give an “I’d nail the jelly to the wall differently” comment (and apologies in advance for its length).

    A lot of the time a relative chronology seems more useful than an absolute one. I doubt that many people (at least non-fundies) would arrange Colossians, Ephesians, James, Jude, and 2 Peter in a different order (or at least not a radically different one). So to some extent it therefore doesn’t particularly matter if one calls a date, say, “80” or “100” (although it does of course matter that it’s not 50 or 200).

    Hebrews inevitably relies on whether one reads 9:8 as supposing that the Second Temple had not been destroyed or knowing full well that it had. Certainly the whole Tabernacle language is odd (it shouldn’t really apply to the *Second* Temple anyway, and there seems to be some sort of playing on Amos 9:11-end and 2 Maccabees 2 here). And then there’s the whole question of some sort of relationship with Luke-Acts — there is a credible case to be made (not that I’m sure I’d buy it) that Hebrews relies on Acts at least. I’d probably be happiest to stick the date issue on Hebrews into the “we don’t know” category, which seems to be the answer for most other questions to do with that not-an-epistle.

    So with the possible exception of Hebrews, I agree with you on all of the epistles (and for that matter on the Apocalypse of John of Patmos). So with a certain inevitability, it’s the Gospels and Acts where I think there’s a case for a slightly different nailing of the jelly. So going through them one-by-one:

    MARK. I agree about Marcan priority. I’m less than convinced that his blunders about the destruction of the Temple are evidence of anything more than his ignorance of the Near East, as exemplified by his geographical gaffes, his Latinisms (the tradition that Mark was written in Rome seems utterly plausible), and the procedural issues with his depiction of the Sanhedrin trial. Indeed, 13:9 could be read as a rather hyperbolic reference to the Birkat ha-Minim, which would recommend a post-80 date if it had already happened, or a circa-80 date if Mark is referring to the social context in which the Birkat ha-Minim would be deemed necessary.

    MATTHEW. Once more, I suspect we are in agreement (presumably right down to his major sources being Mark, Q, and (probably his own) expositions on the LXX). Obviously, if Mark is shifted later, Matthew has to shift later by a similar amount.

    LUKE-ACTS. This one comes down to whether one finds the argument that Luke-Acts is dependent on Josephus’ Antiquities convincing. If so (and this is presumably where we differ), then 95-130 becomes the likely date range (he has to predate Marcion — the arguments otherwise seem extremely silly and contrived). I would actually favour a date in the earlier part of that range, as I agree with the idea (first proposed by Vincent Taylor, as far as I know) that two sources underlie Mark 14, and that the strange order of Luke 22:14-20 is down to the preservation of the source called “A” in full at that point, along with replacing “B” at that point with an extract from 1 Corinthians; clearly Luke cannot be too late if he still had access to Passion Narrative “A”. (As a total aside, the Pascha/pathein pun is a dead giveaway as to the original language of “A” being Greek.)

    I am curious about your argument that Acts predates Luke. Is there a list of proposed harmonizations in Acts somewhere (it’s not exactly the easiest thing to Google)?

    JOHN. People have certainly been prepared to jettison John through the ages, from Church fathers (Clement of Alexandria, if my memory serves me right) describing it as “pneumatic” to 19th-century scholarship throwing words such as “late” and “unreliable” at it (with the clear subtext that the Synoptics must be early and reliable). The claim that John is somehow more theologically “advanced” seems to betray nothing more than our familiarity with the theology of the Synoptics and a pre-Qumran assumption about a rather low degree of Hellenization in 1st-century Judaea. I would argue that the separation of John from the Synoptics has rather more to do with geography than time: we have to account for John’s far superior knowledge of the geography and climate of the Holy Land, and for his apparent ignorance of Mark and “B” (a feature shared with the Didache; but his apparent use of “A”) and for his seemingly incomplete awareness of the Pauline epistles. The best solution seems to me to be the Gardner-Smith one, viz that John predates Matthew (as Matthew is predicated on Mark’s being available in a place traditionally identified as Antioch). Early dates for John are absurd seeing as he seems to be writing after the Birkat ha-Minim; so the argument must be rather for a late Matthew and a late (or poorly-circulated) Mark.

    I am tempted to argue along the lines that if John were significantly later than the Synoptics, it would have been easiest for the early Church simply to drop it (as seems to have happened to the Egerton Gospel), but the “this is how people must have behaved in Antiquity” argument is fallacious and usually unhelpful.

    One final proposed relationship that I am aware of (but don’t find remotely convincing) is Thomas Brodie’s John depends on Ephesians one. It seems rather more likely to evidence a much later Lutheran interpretation of both works, rather than any real commonality between them, and if anything, the Ephesians parallels seem to be an elaboration on John (maybe that was part of Pseudo-Paul’s modus operandi).

    So my (totally unoriginal — similar schemata have been floating around for at least 65 years) jelly-nailing comes down to:
    Mark c.80 (in Italy)
    John c.85 (in Judaea)
    Matthew c.90 (in West Syria)
    Luke c.100 (in Greece)

    There are all sorts of ways that one could go from there: early Christianity was not a monolithic orthodoxy; Mark’s bad Greek is not evidence of a theology that is somehow less developed even than Paul; John should be taken seriously, but the Evangelicals’ interpretations of scattergun half-verse citations from John should be seen for what they are; the division in the scholarly community between people who do the Synoptics and people who do John is very unhelpful; and so on. But probably the most important thing is that nailing down the Gospels is peculiarly messy, save for the fact that the traditionalists’ dates are hopelessly hopelessly wrong.

  5. Ian

    Oh that’s *really* annoying. I just got an email to notify me that a drive-by hate monger had posted on another post, but I didn’t get one, *two weeks ago* to say, you’d posted this. Grr.

    First off, thanks *so much* for detailing all this James. I really appreciate your perspective. You go into much more detail than I did in the post on your views, and its cool to spark that conversation.

    I 100% agree about the relative dating of the epistles being more important than the absolute dating (in fact the same is true across the NT, I think.).

    You’re right, I don’t find a literary link from Luke to Josephus particularly convincing, and that’s why my Luke-Acts is earlier. Although I kindof felt I needed to do some Jelly nailing, I tend to find arguments about literary links quite tricky generally. I did some work looking at statistical linguistic properties in the synoptics, to try to distinguish A->B vs C->A, C->B structures. Turns out to be really very difficult and always has massive margins for error. So I’m even rather skeptical that we have enough information to say there was a written Q source. My Jelly is held to the wall with insubstantial nails at that point.

    My allusion to an earlier acts is another argument from silence on the temple destruction. I am rather persuaded by the idea that Acts reads as if Paul is not dead, and Jerusalem still exists. Now, clearly (to me) Acts fits with Luke too much to break that link, and my reasons for a later Luke I think are not easily sunk by an argument from silence. So the idea (which is not original to me, by any means) that Acts is a re-telling of an earlier work is a good one I think. I’m inclined to think that Luke’s primary skill is in cherry picking narratives to wind together. That he does so with (at least) Mark and Q (if not Matthew) is obvious, because we have other witnesses to that. That he did so with Acts seems very likely.

    Last paragraph – amen!

    Sorry again for ignoring you for two weeks!

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