The Gallio inscription

Scripture: NT Dating Sucks

Before turning to Blunt’s chapter 3, I need to rant about how scholarship attempts to date the various books of the New Testament.

The honest truth is that dating the writings of the NT is really, really, hard. We have no solid external evidence about when they were written. Church tradition (i.e., whatever scraps Eusebius collected in the 4th century from 2nd/3rd century sources) assigns authors but little in the way of dates, and in a couple of key cases (looking at you, Matthew), those externals go against the much stronger internal evidence. Additionally, there is very little internal evidence, because the writers were—largely—not intentionally writing for posterity, but were giving specific advice to specific communities around the growing Christian world! We have no “In the year that King Uzziah died” a la Isaiah for any of the NT writings.

What we are able to do is to peg the Synoptic Gospels using Mark 13 and its parallels in Matthew and Luke. The situation described in Mark 13 seems to describe the Roman armies massing around Jerusalem shortly before the destruction of the Temple but it hasn’t happened yet; Matt 24 and Luke 21 seem to describe the situation after. That’s the best we’ve got for the Gospels… Internally, we can say definitively from the Greek that there was direct literary borrowing with Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The vast majority of scholars agree that Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke used him. My own perspective is that Luke used both Matthew and Mark, and I’m not sure that we need to theorize a hypothetical document (Q) that Matthew and Luke knew but Mark didn’t.

We’re better off with Paul because we do have external evidence nailing down one particular point in time. Acts 18:12 tells us that the events described occurred “when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia.” This Gallio was Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus, brother of the Stoic author Seneca, and was proconsul across the years 51-2. Thus, trusting the Acts narrative and using 51 as a date around which to revolve, we can assign some general dates to Paul’s letters.

When it comes to 1 Peter, 1 John, James, etc. we’re pretty much in the dark. These authors are completely uninterested in giving us any information that we can use for dates.

In the absence of actual evidence, various schemes of guesswork have been constructed following a variety of scholarly theories. Unfortunately, these are usually communicated as far more solid and factual than they actually are. Furthermore, the origins of this industry was not a neutral one. NT Studies began in Germany, spearheaded by Lutheran scholars guided by an anti-Catholic agenda. One of their primary early concerns was to “scientifically” foreground what they considered the heart of the Pauline writings due to emphasis on “justification by grace through faith” (Romans, Galatians, Corinthians) over and against parts less focused on that message (Colossians, Ephesians, the Pastorals). This program of Sachkritik (content criticism) led to the uber-parsing of Paul that gives us the category of the Deutero-Pauline designation. That is, the notion that some of the Pauline letters—oddly, the ones the Lutherans thought were squishy—are not actually by Paul and therefore(?) less important/useful/Bible.

The older I’ve gotten, the less compelling I find the Deutero-Pauline arguments. The problem is that most of the arguments tend to assume two things: 1) a single author writes within a single form or genre, and 2) a writer uses vocabulary and theme consistently throughout their writing career. Looking across my own publications, I feel quite certain that any one of these classical Pauline scholars would be able to definitively prove that the author of Inwardly Digest could not possibly be the author of Honey of Souls and that it’s obvious (obvious!) that the sanctoral section in chapter 2 is a clumsy insertion by a later author. [Clumsy, I’ll grant, but not “later” as I was there when it happened…]. The idea that Paul “couldn’t” have used terms differently across works and genres (i.e., a specifically directed occasional letter like Galatians vs. a general letter like Colossians) does not ring true to me.

One of the related, and more pernicious, dating ideas is that the Christian message started simple and got more complex over time. Therefore, simpler writings must be earlier and more complex ones must be later. This fit a Lutheran model of a simple proclamation of justification by faith that was overcome and overburdened by the descent into “early Catholicism”—which is the Hegelian model put forth by F. C. Baur (writing in the early 1800’s) who determined that the only “real” Pauline letters were 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians, and that all of the others were part of a “catholicizing” tendency that trailed through the 2nd century.

One of the popular forms of this argument that I’ve found floating around the Episcopal Church is the idea that the idea of the Trinity is a “late” development, and that anything Trinitarian must be either late or an addition.

Here’s the key problem. Everyone agrees that the earliest writings we can accurately date are Paul’s letters, written in the 50’s. Read Romans. Read Galatians. Then come back and tell me that this faith was just a simple set of beliefs that would get complexified only later. Read the start of Romans 5 and tell me with a straight face that the Trinity is a late, 2nd century development. Same with the end of Romans 15.

Now—we’ve been talking about Paul, the one guy for whom we have dates. You can see the evidence and dating difficulties when we have a large collection of letters and a biography of the author (Acts). Now imagine cases when we have none of those things—and you have the rest of the NT epistles. When was 1 Peter written? Or James? Really hard to say. We can say that 2 Peter does quote Jude and likely references a scene from a written gospel in 1:17-18. Revelation does appear to be speaking from the time of Domitian (d. 96). But other than that, there’s a lot of guesswork involved, to the point that you’re working with a dartboard helpfully labelled with decade names.

4 thoughts on “Scripture: NT Dating Sucks

  1. PatrickC

    In Constructing Paul, vol. 1, Luke Timothy Johnson has what I found to be solid rebuttals of the Pauline/deutero-pauline distinction. I tend to agree that while one can’t prove Paul himself wrote them all (and no doubt he had assistants for some), one can’t prove he didn’t on the basis of stylistic or thematic variations. In his book on Paul, Douglas Campbell still maintains the Pastoral letters come from a later period, but he has good arguments for treating all the others as Pauline.

  2. Derek A. Olsen Post author

    I myself am quite biased toward LTJ’s position, but I think it’s even more helpful to think of the Pauline Missionary Organization. The whole point of Romans 16 is to demonstrate that number of people working with Paul and the social connections he already has with the congregation in Rome. This was not just one guy on his own. Furthermore, while it may be distasteful from a modern perspective, I do think that a productive way to read Philemon is a Major Gift ask; a “useful” slave was a helpful asset in Paul’s work, so Paul’s appeal for clemency on behalf of Onesimus is as a request to get to keep him to help out (likely a successful one based on how you read Col 4:9!).

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