WHEN was the New Testament written? This is a question that the outsider might be forgiven for thinking that the experts must by now have settled. Yet, as in archaeology, datings that seem agreed in the textbooks can suddenly appear much less secure than the consensus would suggest. For both in archaeology and in New Testament chronology one is dealing with a combination of absolute and relative datings. There are a limited number of more or less fixed points, and between them phenomena to be accounted for are strung along at intervals like beads on a string according to the supposed requirements of dependence, diffusion and development. New absolute dates will force reconsideration of relative dates, and the intervals will contract or expand with the years available. In the process long-held assumptions about the pattern of dependence, diffusion and development may be upset, and patterns that the textbooks have taken for granted become subjected to radical questioning.
The parallel with
what of late has been happening in archaeology is interesting.
The story can be followed in a recent book by Colin Renfrew. As he presents it, there was in modern times up to about the middle of this century a more or less agreed pattern of the origins and development of European civilization. The time scale was set by cross-dating finds in Crete and Greece with the established chronology of the Egyptian dynasties, and the evidence from Western Europe was then plotted by supposing a gradual diffusion of culture from this nodal point of Aegean civilization, to the remotest, and therefore the most recent, areas of Iberia, France, Britain and Scandinavia. Then in 1949 came the first radio-carbon revolution, which made possible the absolute dating of prehistoric materials for the first time. The immediate effect was greatly to extend the time span. Renfrew sums up the impact thus :
The succession of cultures which had previously been squeezed into 500 years now occupied more than 1,500. This implies more than the alteration of a few dates: it changes the entire pace and nature of the cultural development. But ... it did not greatly affect the relative chronology for the different regions of Europe: the megalithic tombs of Britain, for instance, were still later than those further south. ... None of the changes ... challenged in any way the conventional view that the significant advances in the European neolithic and bronze age were brought by influences from the Near East. It simply put these influences much earlier.
There were indeed uncomfortable exceptions, but these could be put down to minor inconsistencies that later work would tidy up. Then in 1966 came a second revolution, the calibration of the radio-carbon darings by dendrochronology, or the evidence of tree-rings, in particular of the incredibly long-lived Californian bristle-cone pine. This showed that the radiocarbon datings had to be corrected in an upward (i.e. older) direction, and that from about 2000 bc backwards the magnitude of the correction rose steeply, necessitating adjustments of up to 1000 years. The effect of this was not merely to shift all the dates back once more: it was to introduce a fundamental change in the pattern of relationships, making it impossible for the supposed diffusion to have taken place. For what should have been dependent turned out to be earlier.
The basic links of the traditional chronology are snapped and Europe is no longer directly linked, either chronologically or culturally, with the early civilizations of the Near East.
The whole diffusionist framework collapses, and with it the assumptions which sustained prehistoric archaeology for nearly a century.
This is a greatly oversimplified account, which would doubtless also be challenged by other archaeologists. Nothing so dramatic has happened or is likely to happen on the much smaller scale of New Testament chronology. But it provides an instructive parallel for the way in which the reigning assumptions of scientific scholarship can, and from rime to time do, get challenged for the assumptions they are. For, much more than is generally recognized, the chronology of the New Testament rests on presuppositions rather than facts. It is not that in this case new facts have appeared, new absolute datings which cannot be contested - they are still extraordinarily scarce. It is that certain obstinate questionings have led me to ask just what basis there really is for certain assumptions which the prevailing consensus of critical orthodoxy would seem to make it hazardous or even impertinent to question. Yet one takes heart as one watches, in one's own field or in any other, the way in which established positions can suddenly, or subtly, come to be seen as the precarious constructions they are. What seemed to be firm datings based on scientific evidence are revealed to rest on deductions from deductions. The pattern is self-consistent but circular. Question some of the inbuilt assumptions and the entire edifice looks much less secure.
The way in which
this can happen, and has happened, in New Testament scholarship may best
be seen by taking some sample dips into the story of the subject.
no intention of inflicting on the reader a history of the chronology of the
New Testament, even if I were competent to do so.
Let me just cut some cross-sections
at fifty-year intervals to show how the span of time over which the
New Testament is thought to have been written has expanded and contracted
We may start at the year 1800. For till then, with isolated exceptions, the historical study of the New Testament as we know it had scarcely begun. Dating was dependent on authorship, and the authorship of the various New Testament books rested on the traditions incorporated in their titles in the Authorized Version - the Gospel according to St Matthew, the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Ephesians, the Revelation of St John the Divine, and so on. All were by apostles or followers of the apostles and the period of the New Testament closed with the death of the last apostle, St John, who by tradition survived into the reign of the Emperor Trajan, c. 100 ad. At the other end the earliest Christian writing could be calculated roughly to about the year 50. This was done by combining the history of the early church provided in Acts with the information supplied by St Paul in Gal. 1.13-2.1 of an interval of up to seventeen 'silent' years following his conversion, which itself had to be set a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus in c. 30. The span of time for the composition of the New Testament was therefore about fifty years -from 50 to 100.
By 1850 the picture looked very different. The scene was dominated by the school of F. C. Baur, Professor of Church History and Dogmatics at Tubingen from 1826 to 1860. He questioned the traditional attribution of all but five of the New Testament books. Romans, I and II Corinthians and Galatians he allowed were by Paul, and Revelation by the apostle John. These he set in the 50s and late 60s respectively. The rest, including Acts and Mark (for him the last of the synoptists, 'reconciling' the Jewish gospel of Matthew and the Gentile gospel of Luke), were composed up to or beyond 150 ad, to effect the mediation of what Baur saw as the fundamental and all-pervasive conflict between the narrow Jewish Christianity of Jesus' original disciples, represented by Peter and John, and the universalistic message preached by Paul. Only a closing of the church's ranks in face of threats from the gnostic and Montanist movements of the second century produced the via media of early Catholicism. The entire construction was dominated by the Hegelian pattern of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis, and the span of time was determined more by the intervals supposedly required for this to work itself out than by any objective chronological criteria. The fact that the gospels and other New Testament books were quoted by Irenaeus and other church fathers towards the end of the second century alone set an upper limit. The end-term of the process was still the gospel of John, which was dated c. 160-70. The span of composition was therefore more than doubled to well over a hundred years - from 50+ to 160+.
1900 this schema had in turn been fairly drastically modified.
The dialectical pattern of development had come to be recognized as the imposition
it was .
A major factor in the correction
of Baur's picture of history was the work of J.B. Lightfoot, who was appointed
a professor at Cambridge in 1861, the year following Baur's death .
By the most careful historical investigation he succeeded in establish-ing the authenticity of the first epistle of Clement, which he dated at 95-6, and of the seven genuine epistles of lgnatius, between no and 115. In each of these both Peter and Paul are celebrated in the same breath without a trace of rivalry , and he demonstrated how ground-less were Baur's second-century datings. This achievement was acknowledged by the great German scholar Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), who in 1897 published as the second volume of a massive history of early Christian literature his Chronologic der altchristlichen Litteratur bis Eusebius. Harnack's survey, which has never been repeated on so comprehensive a scale , gives a good indication of where critical opinion stood at the turn of the century. It still carried many of the marks of the Tiibingen period and continued to operate with a span of well over a hundred years. Isolating the canonical books of the New Testament (for Harnack covered all the early Christian writings, a number of which he placed before the later parts of the New Testament), we have the following summary (ignoring qualifications and alternative datings at this point as irrelevant to the broad picture):
|48-9||I and II Thessalonians|
|53||I and II Corinthians, Galatians (?)|
|57-9||Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians (if genuine), Philippians|
|59-64||Pauline fragments of the Pastoral Epistles|
|81-96||('under Domitian') I Peter, Hebrews|
|80-110||John, I-111 John|
|90-110||I and II Timothy, Titus|
It is to be observed that the gospel of John has reverted to somewhere around the turn of the first century and no longer represents the terminus ad quem. Mark and Acts have been set much further back, and Harnack was subsequently to put them a good deal earlier still.
A similar but slightly more contracted scheme is to be found in the article on New Testament chronology by H. von Soden in the contemporary Encyclopaedia Biblica. His summary dates are:
|50-60+||the Pauline epistles|
|93-6||Hebrews, I Peter, Revelation|
|-100||Ephesians, Luke, Acts, John, I-III John|
|100-33||Jude, Matthew, the Pastoral Epistles, James, II Peter|
The individual articles in the same Encyclopaedia reveal however how volatile opinion was at that time. Acts is still put well into the second century and John shortly before 140. No date for II Peter is given, but even I Peter is put at 130-40. Above all, while I and II Corinthians are set in the mid-50s, Romans and Philippians are put in 120 and 125! But the articles on the latter two were written by the Dutch scholar W. C. van Manen (1842-1905), who regarded all the Pauline epistles (and indeed the rest of the New Testament literature) as pseudonymous, or written under false names.
Yet while the radical
critics were still oscillating wildly, conserva-tive, yet still critical,
opinion of the period was content to settle for a span of composition between
50 and 100+, with the single exception of II Peter at c. 150.
This was true
both of English scholarship reflected in Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible
By 1950 the gap between radical and conservative had narrowed considerably, and we find a remarkable degree of consensus. There is still marginal variation at the upper limit, but the span of composition has settled down to a period from about 50 to 100 or no, with the single exception again of II Peter (c. 150). This generalization holds of all the major introductions and comparable surveys, English, American and Continental, Protestant and Catholic, published over the twenty years following i950. top
|50-1||I and II Thessalonians,|
|53-6||Galatians, Philippians, I and II Corinthians, Romans|
|90-5||I Peter, Revelation|
|100+||I and II Timothy, Titus|
In this relatively fixed firmament the only 'wandering stars' are Ephesians, I Peter, Hebrews and James (and occasionally the Pastorals and Jude), which conservatives wish to put earlier, and Colossians and II Thessalonians, which radicals wish to put later. So once more the span (with one exception) is back to little more than fifty years.
But before closing this survey I would draw attention to the latest assessment of all, Norman Perrin's The New Testament: An Introduction , since it could suggest a return to a wider spread. His approximate datings are:
|50-60||I Thessalonians, Galatians, I and II Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, Romans|
|70-90||II Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts, Hebrews|
|90-140||I Peter, James, Pastoral Epistles, Jude, II Peter|
Perrin represents the standpoint of redaction criticism, which goes on from source criticism (dealing with documentary origins) and form criticism (analysing the formative processes of the oral tradition) to emphasize the theological contribution of the evangelists as editors. There is no necessary reason why its perspective should lead to later darings. Indeed other representatives of the same viewpoint who have written New Testament introductions, Marxsen and Fuller, have taken over their precursors' darings. Moreover, the gospels, with which the redaction critics have been most concerned, all remain, including the fourth, within what Perrin calls 'the middle period of New Testament Christianity', 'the twenty-five years or so that followed the fall of Jerusalem'. Yet subsequent to this period he sees a further stage, extending into the middle of the second century, in which the New Testament church is 'on the way to becoming an institution'. If we ask why it is only then becoming an institution, the answer is bound up with his 'theological history of New Testament Christianity'. The course of this he traces from 'Palestinian Jewish Christianity', through 'Hellenistic Jewish Mission Christianity', 'Gentile Christianity' and 'the apostle Paul', to 'the middle period', and finally into 'emergent Catholicism'. Yet these categories, taken over from Rudolf Bultmann and his successors, have of late come in for some stringent criticism not only from England but from Ger-many itself , none of which Perrin acknowledges. The entire developmental schema (closely parallel to the 'diffusionist framework' in archaeology), together with the time it is assumed to require, begins to look as if it may be imposed upon the material as arbitrarily as the earlier one of the Tiibingen school. It is premature to judge. But certainly it cannot itself be used to determine the darings which are inferred from it. It must first be submitted to a more rigorous scrutiny in the light of the independent data.
Indeed what one looks for in vain in much recent scholarship is any serious wrestling with the external or internal evidence for the daring of individual books (such as marked the writings of men like Lightfoot and Harnack and Zahn), rather than an a priori pattern of theological development into which they are then made to fit.In fact ever since the form critics assumed the basic solutions of the source critics (particularly with regard to the synoptic problem) and the redaction critics assumed the work of the form critics, the chronology of the New Testament documents has scarcely been subjected to fresh examination. No one since Harnack has really gone back to look at it for its own sake or to examine the presuppositions on which the current consensus rests. It is only when one pauses to do this that one realizes how thin is the foundation for some of the textbook answers and how circular the arguments for many of the relative datings. Disturb the position of one major piece and the pattern starts disconcertingly to dissolve.
That major piece was for me the gospel of John. I have long been convinced that John contains primitive and reliable historical tradition, and that conviction has been reinforced by numerous studies in recent years. But in reinforcing it these same studies have the more insistently provoked the question in my mind whether the traditional dating of the gospel, alike by conservatives and (now) by radicals, towards the end of the first century, is either credible or necessary. Need it have been written anything like so late? As the arguments requiring it to be set at a considerable distance both in place and time from the events it records began one by one to be knocked away (by growing recognition of its independence of the synoptists and, since 1947 by linguistic parallels from the Dead Sea Scrolls), I have wondered more and more whether it does not belong much nearer to the Palestinian scene prior to the Jewish revolt of 66-70.
But one cannot redate
John without raising the whole question of its place in the development of
New Testament Christianity.
If this is early, what about the other gospels?
Is it necessarily the last in time?
Indeed does it actually become the first? - or are they earlier too? And, if so, how then do the gospels stand in relation to the epistles? Were all the Pauline letters penned, as has been supposed, before any of the gospels? Moreover, if John no longer belongs to the end of the century, what of the Johannine epistles and the other so-called Catholic Epistles which have tended to be dated with them? And what about the book of Revelation, which, whatever its connection with the other Johannine writings, everyone seems nowadays to set in the same decade as the gospel?
It was at this point that I began to ask myself just why any of the books of the New Testament needed to be put after the fall of Jerusalem in 70. As one began to look at them, and in particular the epistle to the Hebrews, Acts and the Apocalypse, was it not strange that this cataclysmic event was never once mentioned or apparently hinted at? And what about those predictions of it in the gospels - were they really the prophecies after the event that our critical education had taught us to believe? So, as little more than a theological joke, I thought I would see how far one could get with the hypothesis that the whole of the New Testament was written before 70. And the only way to try out such a hypothesis was to push it to its limits, and beyond, to discover what these limits were. Naturally, there were bound to be exceptions - II Peter was an obvious starter, and presumably the Pastorals - but it would be an interesting exercise.
But what began as a joke became in the process a serious pre-occupation, and I convinced myself that the hypothesis must be tested in greater detail than the seminar-paper with which it started would allow. The result is that I have found myself driven to look again at the evidence for all the accepted New Testament datings. But so far from forcing it to a new Procrustean bed of my own making, I have tried to keep an open mind. I deliberately left the treatment of the fourth gospel to the last (though increasingly persuaded that it should never be treated in isolation from the other three, or they from it) so as not to let my initial judgment on it mould the rest of the pattern to it. Moreover, I have changed my mind many times in the course of the work, and come through to datings which were not at all what I expected when I began. Indeed I would wish to claim nothing fixed or final about the results. Once one starts on an investigation like this one could go on for years. Problems that one supposed in one's own mind were more or less settled (e.g. the synoptic problem) become opened up again; and almost all the books or articles that have been written on the New Testament (and many too on ancient history) threaten to become relevant. But one has to stop somewhere. I am much more aware of what I have not read. But this will have to do as a stone to drop into the pond, to see what happens.
Naturally if one presumes to challenge the scientific establishment in any field one must be prepared to substantiate one's case in some detail. So I have tried to give the evidence and provide the references for those who wish to follow them up. However, short of making it one's life's work (and frankly chronology is not mine), one must delimit the task. I have not attempted to go into the theoretical basis of chronology itself or to get involved in astronomical calculations or the complex correlation of ancient dating systems.These things are too high for one who finds himself confused even when changing to summer time or crossing time zones! Nor have I entered the contentious area of the chronology of the birth, ministry and death of Jesus, since it does not seriously affect the dating of the books of the New Testament. Nor have I found it necessary to be drawn into the history of the canon of the New Testament, since, unless one has reason to suppose that the books were written very late, how long an interval elapsed before they became collected or acknowledged as scripture is but marginally relevant. Above all, I have not ventured into the vast field of the non-canonical literature of the sub-apostolic age, except to the extent that this is directly relevant to the dating of the New Testament books themselves. Without attempting to survey this literature, both Jewish and Christian, for its own sake (which would have taken me far beyond my competence), I have simply devoted a postscript to it, in so far as by comparison and contrast it can help to check or confirm the conclusions arrived at from the study of the New Testament.
Finally, in a closing chapter I have sketched some of the conclusions and corollaries to be drawn - and not to be drawn - from such a study. My position will probably seem surprisingly conservative - especially to those who judge me radical on other issues. But I trust it will give no comfort to those who would view with suspicion the application of critical tools to biblical study - for it is reached by the application of those tools. I claim no great originality - almost every individual conclusion will be found to have been argued previously by someone, often indeed by great and forgotten men – though I think the overall pattern is new and I trust coherent. Least of all do I wish to close any discussion. Indeed I am happy to prefix to my work the words with which Niels Bohr is said to have begun his lecture-courses: 'Every sentence I utter should be taken by you not as a statement but as a question. top