8 Tips for Dating Early Christian Texts

Before I say anything else, I want to extend a heartfelt THANK YOU to the 7,000+ people who visited the blog last week to read the Spring 2015 Meeting reports. Who knew so many people could get excited about Paul?

This new post comes from a place of frustration. I came up with these 8 tips for dating early Christian texts after I tried searching online for advice on how to figure out when early biblical and other Christian texts were written. Guess what all the top results were? Sites that shall go unnamed because they jumped straight from a few surface-level observations to “let me tell you about our Lord and Savior.”

I’m as willing as the next person to entertain spiritual conversations, but the need for a neutral, informational article about this struck me as obvious and important. If you know of another good resource, by all means, share it in the comments below. You can also jump to the end of this post for some more in-depth resources.

1. Does the writer refer to any historical figures and events?

If somebody talks about the Jerusalem Temple being torn down stone by stone, odds are they are writing during or after but certainly not before the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce. If they make a big fuss about a group of people called “Pharisees,” they’re writing during or after but certainly not before the emergence of the Pharisee movement (by which I mean the precursors to rabbinic Judaism, not just a bunch of hypocrites).

The catch here is not to blindly trust the context in which the historical reference occurs. Read it critically. Why might the author be vested in mentioning a historical person or event in just this way? Although the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple is “predicted” in Matthew 24:1–2, it is more likely that the writer of this text already knew about the destruction of the Temple.

Jesus was leaving the temple area on his way out, when his disciples came to him and called his attention to the sacred buildings. In response he said to them, “Yes, take a good look at all this! Let me tell you, not one single stone will be left on top of another! Every last one will be knocked down!”

The writer of Matthew chose to tuck his reference to the destruction of the Temple in a prophecy. That doesn’t mean the writer first learned of it that way. Perhaps his community lived through the destruction of the Temple and/or the painful aftermath. What we do know is that the writer found it helpful to refer to the destruction of the Temple as a way to explain who Jesus was and why he was significant, because the passage that immediately follows this one is a long, detailed description of what the writer expected to happen next.

2. What other texts does the writer know and refer to?

If somebody quotes or alludes to Shakespeare, they’re writing after Shakespeare. Likewise, if somebody is quoting the apostle Paul, they are writing after Paul. Sometimes writers quote an important and respected text in order to borrow from the original text’s prestige or influence, or to solve a problem related to the original. This happens frequently in the New Testament: the writers regularly quote Hebrew scriptures to back their claims about Jesus. Westar Fellow Dennis MacDonald, among others, has pointed out the influence on Christian writings of such Greco-Roman writings as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, Euripides’ Bacchae, and even popular novels.

What counts as a quote or an allusion? I remember sitting in a seminar once where Dennis MacDonald reminded everybody that an allusion really only works if you can recognize the source. An author who quotes the Hebrew scriptures or Greco-Roman literature is counting on listeners to notice so that he or she can borrow from the rich influence of that other text. Even though we may have forgotten what we learned about classical literature in our high school English classes, that literature was more immediate and familiar to people who lived in the Roman Empire a couple thousand years ago.

3. What is the earliest known reference to this text in other sources?

If tips #1 & #2 help you narrow down the earliest date when a text could have been written, this strategy helps you close off the latest possible date. We know Mark comes before Matthew and Luke because those gospels quote Mark, often word-for-word. The later you push back Mark’s date, the later you have to also push back Matthew and Luke. No way around it.

This can create some real conundrums for scholars and force them to rethink their whole timeline of early Christian history. For instance, when Westar’s Acts Seminar determined that Acts was written in the early second century instead of the late first, they were left with a real problem: if the same person wrote Luke and Acts, does that mean Luke is an early second-century text, too? A year later, when Westar Fellow Jason BeDuhn published his reconstruction of the earliest known New Testament, he found that the original version of the Gospel of Luke was significantly shorter than the one we have today. Maybe a second-century writer picked up that shorter version and converted it into the two-part Luke-Acts volume that made it into modern Bibles. Maybe the same writer went back and crafted a much longer version later to serve a new purpose. These are new questions without definitive answers yet.

When an enormous collection of early Christian texts was found at Nag Hammadi in 1945, many scholars’ first instinct was to date the texts after all the biblical ones. They assumed that the texts came later simply because they were so different from the ones that made it into Bible. Yet that assumption has since been called into question thanks to the work of Karen King, Michael Williams, David Brakke, and others. Who knows? Maybe some biblical texts actually quote these non-biblical ones and we just haven’t noticed it yet!

Codex IV found at Nag Hammadi. Photo credit: History of Information

4. Does the text contain special terms or words that changed in meaning from one era to another?

I’m not an expert at Greek linguistics so I won’t pretend to be, but I can give you a modern example: what does the word “gay” mean? If you go back sixty, seventy years, “gay” means happy, but today it can also mean homosexual (often but not always homosexual male). You can probably think of other examples where the meaning of a word changed from one historical era to another. In the same way, we can trace the development of certain words and phrases in the history of Christianity to begin to place texts.

A fairly straightforward biblical example I can give of this comes from comparing Paul’s authentic letters to the book of Acts and the Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus). One of the reasons we can suggest Acts was written much later than Paul’s letters and that Paul didn’t write the Pastorals is because these non-Pauline texts use a lot of formal church language that wasn’t in place during Paul’s lifetime. This language only developed as the Jesus movement became more established.

5. Does the text copy the mistakes or variations of other, earlier texts?

Have you ever tried finding “the original Bible”? If such a Bible existed, you can be sure the library, museum, or church that owned it would be a major pilgrimage site. No such luck. Bits and pieces of biblical texts are scattered quite literally across the whole world. Modern Bibles are composed and translated based on whichever bits and pieces are judged to be the oldest and/or most reliable. Interestingly, it’s possible to trace back these individual bits and pieces to manuscript “families” based on mistakes and variations in the text that persist as scribes copied one another’s work over the years.

Suppose Scribe A1 started out with a shorter version of the ending of the Gospel of Mark. Then Scribe B1 copies his version, then Scribe C1, Scribe D1, and so on and so forth over the years. Meanwhile Scribe A2 copies the longer version, followed by Scribes B2, C2, D2, and so on. Maybe we only have a handful of manuscripts left over from these two different “families” or “traditions,” but we know they belong together because they all end Mark the same way. The more examples we have of a particular family, the easier it becomes to identify the way a given manuscript was shared, copied, and sent to new locations. Knowing this can help us trace the history of a particular manuscript tradition and discover tantalizing clues about when and where the original was written.

This is another topic that, if you try to research it online, is mostly dominated by faith-based explanations (mostly defenses of the inerrancy of the Bible). If you’ve found a neutral explanation somewhere online, please share!

6. Is the text concerned with questions or themes that were also popular in other texts of a certain historical period?

The sayings and writings associated with the earliest generations of the Jesus movement share common themes with other Greco-Roman movements and associations. They weren’t plagiarizing or poaching from these other movements so much as simply sharing an environment that led naturally to shared concerns. David Galston in Embracing the Human Jesus draws on the research of Burton Mack to observe that the Jesus movement could share similarities with the Cynics, for instance, without at the same time concluding that Jesus was a Cynic or that he deliberately copied a teaching style from Greek cynicism. "We need only imagine the common setting of the ancient imperial culture" (94). Among the concerns shared by Jesus-followers and Cynics are their preference for poverty over wealth, the natural world over urban life, and simplicity over the artificial constraints of social convention (94–96).

7. What genre is this text? Is it a letter, a gospel, an apocalypse? In what sorts of wider contexts was this style of writing useful and popular?

I’m sometimes caught off-guard by the passion with which biblical scholars will debate the genre (category) of a text. Try explaining the difference between a gospel and an epic, an apocalypse and a prophecy, a gnostic text and an orthodox one. Genre is really useful for patrons of modern bookstores who are looking for the sorts of books they enjoy reading, but genre is also useful to scholars who are looking for patterns or trends in historical eras. As long as we remember that we’re coming up with these loose categories to answer our own questions, it can be helpful to ask, “What other kinds of writing follow the same patterns as this one?”

Today the word “gospel” almost immediately makes people think of Jesus even though the direct translation of that word isn’t connected to him at all: it simply means “good news.” Westar Fellow Brandon Scott reminds readers in The Real Paul that this was actually imperial language before it was Jesus language. We know Paul and other early followers of Jesus were steeped in the world of the Roman Empire because they borrowed the Empire’s own language and style to make a subversive statement about a man crucified by that very Empire.

8. Is there any archaeological, socio-cultural, or paleographic research to back up your best guess?

We can make a lot of claims about a text based on internal evidence alone, but when it comes down to it, where does this text fit in the bigger picture? The work of Westar Fellow and archaeologist Jodi Magness offers a great example of checking the claims made by texts over against the material evidence of a given region through her ongoing excavation of a synagogue in Huqoq. Writers of these texts (and the scholars who study them) may claim certain things are true, but it doesn’t mean those facts line up with the physical artifacts left behind!

Looking for a more in-depth understanding of dating methods used by biblical studies scholars? Some good keywords to start your resource hunt are form criticism, textual criticism, source criticism, and paleography. For more general information on historical research methods, try historiography. I’ll also offer a shameless plug for a couple recent Polebridge books that in my opinion model this kind of detective work very well: Jason BeDuhn’s The First New Testament and Acts and Christian Beginnings edited by Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson. A good book for actually breaking down and practicing historical-critical methods for beginners is The New Testament: An Analytical Approach.

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Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

5 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    A compelling and helpful summary of research methods, Cassandra, really good job, thank you! The Five Gospels(1993) and Acts of Jesus (1998) also have quite clear statements about the Jesus Seminar methodology.

    Regarding two of the points made, Paul’s imperial language and the use of archeological findings, I’d like to remind all the readers of Crossan and Reed’s In Search of Paul (2004), in which we have a NT scholar and an archeologist combining their skills. The front cover of the book even has this subtitle: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. And in the second paragraph of the Preface we find, “At least one of us has been to every place we discuss, and both of us have been several times to certain places.”

    It would be interesting to read a comparison of this text and Scott’s The Real Paul. It seems like a lot is being made of the “cutting edge” character of Scott’s work, so I’m wondering in what ways it differs from a text only eleven years older which claims to be “new in both form and content” (Preface), and is indeed about as good as a scholarly read gets.

    Speaking of The Real Paul I’ve attempted to sign up to hear the two interviews of the author; I’ve followed the steps but for some reason I’ve not been able to make it happen. The site states that hundreds have listened.

  2. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Particularly, I like Richard Pervo’s summary of the techniques used to date texts found on p. 12 – 14 of Dating Acts. Then, he used these techniques to show that Acts was probably a second century product. I also like the approach of Thomas Thompson, who dates the Hebrew biblical tradition later than commonly found.

    NT scholarship is hindered by a bias that doesn’t treat all the literature the same. Certain writings are considered sacrosanct, thus it is “scholarly heresy” to even challenge the usual dates.

  3. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Applying these rules to Galatians, I get this:
    1. Does the writer refer to any historical figures and events? In a probably interpolated text not attested in Tertullian or Marcion, a James is called “brother of the Lord.” The author refers to Peter, James and John (in the Marcion and Tertullian versions, canonical having Cephas). These, also found together in the Transfiguration, seem to be Markan, especially the view he has of Peter in chapter two, frightened, even vilified by the author as a hypocrite.
    2. What other texts does the writer know and refer to? Hebrew scripture, primarily the Torah from the Septuagint. Probably Mark.
    3. What is the earliest known reference to this text in other sources? In Christianity, Irenaeus, late second century, Tertullian around the third century.
    4. Does the text contain special terms or words that changed in meaning from one era to another? Gospel and law.
    5. Does the text copy the mistakes or variations of other, earlier texts? The Marcionite text is quite a bit shorter than the canonical version. According to Tertullian, Marcion found the text. The shorter is probably the earlier.
    6. Is the text concerned with questions or themes that were also popular in other texts of a certain historical period? Circumcision questions go to the general questions of Christianity toward Judaism, a second century concern. By far, the religions of Gentiles those days had initiation and ceremonial rituals that would make circumcision seem like trimming one’s fingernails!
    7. What genre is this text? Is it a letter, a gospel, an apocalypse? In what sorts of wider contexts was this style of writing useful and popular? Though it claims to be a letter, it is doubtful it was sent to anyone. At over 2000 words, mainly a tirade against Jewish parochial practices, it is longer than ancient letters tended to be. The hateful language in it would have convinced no one. The references to various characters of Judaism would have probably fallen flat in many portions of Galatia.
    8. Is there any archaeological, socio-cultural, or paleographic research to back up your best guess? When Galatia was visited in the fourth century Jerome commented on how they still used their “native” tongue, calling them foolish and slow of understanding. I doubt the imagery in Galatians was headed there!
    Based on 1, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8, I would place the earliest date it could have been written around 80 – 100 ce, the latest date at between 110 – 140, depending on when one dates Marcion, the canonical version probably third century.

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