When the Bible Was Written – Criteria

I posted this weekend on the dates of authorship of the NT books. I mentioned that I would follow up with a description of the criteria used to come up with those dates.

Manuscript Dating

We can often date manuscripts to within a couple of decades, sometimes to an even smaller range, using techniques such as paleography, context (where a manuscript is found with others that can be dated) or even radiometric dating (though that is typically not very accurate that far back). Obviously if you have a date for a manuscript, the text it contains must have been written no later than that.

Manuscript Divergence

A minor criteria: if we have a set of manuscripts of a book that vary widely into distinct text traditions, the book is more likely to have been in circulation longer, to accumulate those differences. I’m not aware of any book in the NT where this criteria is very helpful, however. Potentially it could be with more early manuscript discoveries, however.

Quotations

NT texts are often quoted. Both in other NT texts and in the hundreds of other early Christian writings. If a text is quoted it must predate the quotation. We then use the idea that texts had to be copied individually by hand, and distributed along slow trade routes. So if one document is quoted by another, we assume there’s at least a couple of years in between.

Literary Dependencies

Often quotations aren’t clear and explicit. We have some NT texts that are clearly quoting from one another, but it isn’t obvious which direction. Once an educated guess is made as to the direction (and there are a bunch of criteria for making that guess), then the same logic applies: a quotation must be later than the work it quotes.

Forgery

Several documents in the NT are forged in the name of others. For this to work the forgery obviously has to follow the period when the other person came to prominence. We also guess that it probably follows the person’s death (otherwise you’re in danger of being found-out as a forger).

The First Jewish War

For Judea, the defining moment in the first century is the Jewish revolt against the Romans, which culminated in a vicious backlash and the destruction of the temple in 70AD. None of the NT texts mention this explicitly, but it does show in prophecy in Matthew, for example. Texts that would clearly benefit from mentioning the fall of the temple (Hebrews for example) can be therefore dated before this point, or before the news of it spread. Texts that seem to predict it can be placed after. Mark is a special case – he appears to predict something, but gets the specifics wrong. This is a major reason why Mark is dated to just before the fall of the temple: he knows a cataclysm is coming, so gives Jesus a prophecy on that, but he doesn’t know what the details are, so his prophecy is wrong.

The Acts Chronology

When dating Paul’s letters, we can get a reasonable set of dates if we base the chronology on the story of Paul in Acts. There are a handful of chronologies of Acts, which give us date ranges for the letters. It is notoriously tricky to figure where to start the clock ticking on the Acts chronology, however. To do this, you have to rely on Paul’s own chronology in Galatians, even though this contradicts the bits of the Acts chronology that overlap. I suspect far too much weight is put in the Acts chronology, but I confess I’m nowhere near expert enough to do better.

The Pauline Synthetic Chronology

It is possible to create a tenuous synthetic chronology from Paul’s writings alone. Several mention snippets of Paul’s chronology, what letters he wrote before, where he’s going, where he spent time, who he wants greetings sent to. Though these are usually linked with the Acts chronology, it is possible to use some of this information to give relative dates. So from this, for example, we know 2 Corinthians is a later letter than 1 Corinthians (the 1 and 2 numbers aren’t reliable, 2 Timothy is probably earlier than 1 Timothy, for example).

Theological Development

It is possible to chart changing theological views over the early church and to place books in that framework. This is one criteria used to put John’s gospel relatively much later than Mark or Luke, for example. Of course, it is possible that the theological differences were regional, or just individual. But when there is a pattern (such as increasingly elaborate Christology), it is useful.

Ecclesiastical Development

Similarly to theological development, we can trace the changes in church concerns over time and look at the way letters seek to address this. 2 Peter is not by any C1 church leader for this reason. The pastoral epistles don’t reflect the church we think existed in Paul’s lifetime. Attitudes towards the second coming, towards families, towards church governance, and so on, all change in this period.

Observations

  • This is very messy, and often these criteria contradict one another. Scholars have to take a best guess.
  • Almost none of the criteria actually anchor to any particular date, most are relative: saying what order things happened, rather than when. If the order is even slightly wrong, the dates may then be well out.
  • We don’t have many early texts, so the first two criteria don’t help much.
  • The Acts Chronology is the backbone of lots of the Pauline dating, but despite scholars using it, they freely admit it is likely to be very unreliable.
  • The only other absolute date in all of this (The Jewish War) is only applicable via an argument from silence.

These problems are why my dating is likely to be all wrong. But the general bits of evidence are not so empty as to be completely worthless. We can usefully talk about the order of certain books, and talk about the likely gaps between them, as long as we don’t try to make the specific dates hold much water.

As with all these posts, please provide corrections, additions or feel free to dispute anything here.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “When the Bible Was Written – Criteria

  1. Guesswork, yes. Personally speaking, I can’t discount a scholar’s bias – either sympathetic to or against the Christian tradition – when examining their guesswork. Come to think of it, what relevance would this question of dating of the New Testament writings have apart from confirming or disconfirming Christian tradition?

  2. Ian

    Thanks Doug.

    Yes, bias is important. For example, if you are biased towards believing the bible is authoritative, it can be hard to admit that many of the NT books are forgeries. In that case, you might opt for much earlier dating, when the claimed authors are alive. For those of us who are biased towards believing that the NT shows a development of theology from its Jewish roots, rather than a distinct emergence of a new faith, we might spread dates out more than is reasonable. From my gradualist presuppositions, I am surprised, for example, when I look at how early some of these beliefs arose (such as worship of Jesus).

    What relevance? What relevance does any biblical study have? I suspect its primary relevance is to inform Christian understanding of their own religious history. For a historian it is just interesting stuff, that potentially informs other issues (relative dating is quite important for the mythicism discussions, for example). Beyond that? No, I don’t think it matters much.

  3. A well-written summary. Thank you, as always. This is important stuff to help understand all sorts of literature and methods to guard the foibles of human thinking.

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