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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The catch here is not to blindly trust the context in which the historical reference occurs.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 Quick & Dirty Rules for Interpreting Paul

The Real PaulBernard Brandon Scott, author of The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Voice, kicked off a daylong series of lectures at the Westar Spring 2015 national meeting with a story about two women missing from the cover of his book—a reworking of an image of Paul from a 4th-century grotto outside Ephesus (pictured below). “The book cover becomes a larger parable of the whole problem of studying Paul,” Scott explains. “We tend to focus in on this one thing, and forget the whole context that’s there.” He goes on:

If you’re going to interpret Paul’s words, you’ve got to put them in a context. This is the problem with literalism. People say, “I want to interpret the Bible literally.” That’s nonsense. That means they want to put it in their context. … Words mean what they say in the context you put them in. You’ve got to step back and put the words in a larger frame.

As a corrective to this problem, Scott proposed these 5 “quick & dirty rules” for interpreting Paul—a discipline of sorts to check ourselves before leaping to conclusions about who the apostle Paul was and what he was trying to say.

A couple notes before we get underway:

  • A FREE podcast with Brandon Scott about The Real Paul is now available from AuthorTalk radio. Have a listen!
  • Brandon Scott frequently refers to the Scholars Version (SV) translation of Paul found in The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge, 2011). Find it here.

Thekla listens to Paul from inside her home (left), while Thekla’s mother Theokleia (right) teaches alongside Paul (center). Is Theokleia Paul’s opponent in this image, as she is in the written version of the story, or does this image stand for a different story in which Theokleia is an apostle with Paul? Photo Credit: Oliver’s Site

#1. Set Acts of the Apostles aside.

The Westar Acts Seminar reached consensus (even against their own initial assumptions!) that the Acts of the Apostles is not a first-century historical document but rather an early second-century “founding myth” of orthodox Christianity. It paints an idyllic picture of the early church led by apostles who always cooperated with one another. But should good historians—or, let’s face it, good theologians—treat Acts as the definitive story of Christian origins? What would happen if we let other voices from the earliest generations of the Jesus movement put the experience in their own words?

As it turns out, one of the earliest voices to be systematically ignored by Acts is Paul himself! There are major differences between Acts and the undisputed letters of Paul, the letters considered by most biblical studies scholars to be written by Paul (1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Galatians, Romans, Philemon) rather than by others in his name (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians).

Unlike Acts, Paul in his authentic letters never calls himself a Roman citizen, never expresses regret or apologizes for persecuting followers of Jesus, and never claims to have left his ancestral religion. We should prioritize the very best evidence, and that means putting what Paul says about himself in his letters ahead of what Acts claims about him.

#2. Paul was not a Christian.

Paul was not a Christian. This point is indebted to the work of Pamela Eisenbaum, author of the book by the same title. Traditionally, Paul is understood as a Jew who converted to Christianity, from one religion to the other. In his own letters Paul describes himself as “called” in the same way all Jewish prophets are called by God. He lived in the era before the Temple was destroyed. Temple Judaism still had a place—the place?—in the spiritual, religious, and public life of the people of Israel and the Jewish community scattered across the empire. When traumatic events pushed Paul to think about things in a new light, he found himself embracing not a new religion but a new vision, one that brought the non-Jewish nations into God’s covenant. This strongly suggests he understood himself not as leaving his tradition but as fulfilling an important role within it.

Scott recommended that we follow the rule-of-thumb offered by John Gager in Reinventing Paul:

Any statement that begins with the words, “How could a Jew like Paul say X, Y, Z about the law…” must be regarded as misguided.

Paul was a Jew, so sometimes we need to stop and rethink (or rediscover) the wider context of Paul’s words. One test case here is Paul’s confrontation with fellow leaders in the Jesus movement, Cephas and James, which Paul describes in his letter to the Galatians 2:12–14.

Before representatives of James came to Antioch, Cephas would eat with those from the nations. But when they arrived, he avoided and kept his distance from those people because he feared those who were advocating circumcision. In turn, the rest of the Jewish followers also began to waffle, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their duplicity. But when I saw they were behaving in a way that was inconsistent with the meaning of God’s world-transforming message, I challenged Cephas in front of the whole group. (SV)

Jews had a legal exemption from participating in imperial libations, but members of “the nations” (more on this term below) did not. In a place like Jerusalem, where the majority population was Jewish, this was perhaps less of a risk than in a predominantly Roman city like Antioch. Traditionally, this story is described as a debate between Christians and Jews, but it makes more sense to view it as intra-Jewish. In an unsafe environment like Antioch, what conditions should be placed on members of the nations and/or the Jews who wish to share meals with them? Their options appear to be as follows:

  • All participants or at least members of the nations cave to imperial demands and make libations to the emperor
  • Members of the nations become fully Jewish by accepting circumcision
  • Jews withdraw from fellowship (the choice ultimately made by Cephas and James)

While the choice of Cephas and James is clearly a prudent one in terms of risk management, Paul has a real problem with it largely because it returns the nations to a state of idolatry. For more on this issue and its residual problems, see chapter 7 of The Real Paul, “Showdown in Antioch.”

#3. Paul was addressing the nations.

In Christian and Western culture the standard view of Paul is of a theologian speaking universally about all humanity where in reality when he says “we,” he means Jews. “You” refers to the nations. English translations unfortunately often obscure this point, especially translations in the era following the highly influential work of theologian Karl Barth (see rule #5 below). In most English dictionaries, the word “gentile” is associated with “Christian,” so the use of the term “gentiles” instead of “nations” for ta ethnē (Hebrew gôyîm) is problematic and reveals itself to be a fallout effect of thinking of Paul as Christian for so long. As Scott writes in The Real Paul, “The singular does not refer to a gentile, that is, a non-Jewish individual, but to a nation” (58). Importantly, “nation” is not a religious term.

This leads to another problem. Borders are artificial, and land can be claimed by a nation even without a shared border. A nation is formed around a mythos, a shared story. When Paul sets out as a prophet to the nations, which nations are they? These nations, of course, belong to Rome, and Paul is claiming them for God. Paul’s opponent is not the Jews but the Roman Empire. The figure who stands opposite the crucified Christ is another “son of God”—the emperor. Hence, Paul confronted the Pax Romana, the Roman “peace,” for the sake of God’s empire and God’s peace.

Jump ahead to the 4th century, to the Emperor Constantine, and you find that the God’s Empire now is Rome’s Empire. Clearly, Paul’s voice got lost somewhere in the intervening years.

#4. An apocalyptic scenario underlies Paul’s understanding.

In Paul’s eyes Rome committed the ultimate blasphemy when it crucified God’s son Jesus. Like a good rabbi, Paul interprets this through the lens of his Jewish scriptures. He draws a parallel between the birth of Israel (through Isaac) from Abraham and Sarah, both devastatingly old-aged and barren up until that point, with the birth of the nations through Jesus on the cross. Life out of death.

Interestingly, Paul’s apocalyptic scenario may not be violent. God is life-giving and faithful in his promises, as Paul’s reliance on the story of Abraham reveals. Jesus, the Abraham of the nations, demonstrates his faithfulness to God by dying on the cross. As God’s son, he could have come down and gotten even, but there was no need for revenge. Instead a new age is ushered in, an age in which the nations are grafted onto the people of God.

#5. Read Paul’s letters in the Greek.

Asking us all to learn Greek may be too much to expect, but the problems with Paul often boil down to translation. Which translators do the best job of staying true to Paul’s own words, even where Paul doesn’t make good sense? Translation can deeply affect meaning. Most popular modern translations inherit even the logic behind their chapter divisions from Augustine and Luther. Sometimes this has the unfortunate effect of creating a visual break between two connected themes or arguments.

Another facet of the translation issue has to do with a sea change in theology between 1950 and the late 1970s—the rise of Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy. This becomes visible when you compare the red phrases in the translations below of Romans 3:25–26:

King James Version (1611): Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

Revised Standard Version (1952): … whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

New International Version (1980): God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

New Revised Standard Version (1989): … whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Scholars Version/Authentic Paul (2011): … whom God presented publicly as the one who conciliates through his unconditional confidence in God at the cost of his life, in order to show God’s reliability by overlooking, by divine restraint, how we messed up. This shows God’s reliability at this decisive time, namely, that God is reliable and approves the one who lives on the basis of Jesus’ unconditional confidence in God.

The NIV and NRSV reflect the influence of the Barthian movement. The Scholars Version in The Authentic Letters of Paul avoids that and returns to a translation that is more similar to the years prior, including the well-loved KJV translation. The exact meaning implied by each translation is up for debate and goes beyond the scope of this report, so I won’t get into that here, but the side-by-side comparison at least shows how cultural and theological movements can leave their stamp on translations.

Let us then all take care in our reading to second-guess ourselves and our received knowledge, and move forward with a very different—dare I call him exciting?—Paul.

Featured on AuthorTalkWant to know more? Listen to the AuthorTalk interview with Bernard Brandon Scott and read ongoing reports from Westar's Christianity Seminar, of which Brandon is the chair. You can also browse all the Spring 2015 Meeting reports.

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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. 

When Was Acts Written? Not in the First Century.

Scholars Study Book of Acts as Second-Century Myth of Christian Origins

Press Release November 1, 2013

Polebridge Press recently released the final report of a decade-long study on the biblical book of Acts carried out by the Acts Seminar, a collaborative research effort led by scholars affiliated with the Westar Institute. Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report was launched at Westar Institute’s “Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies?” Conference in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, October 25th. Members of the Acts Seminar were present to comment on the report. The Acts Seminar scholars set out to answer the questions, "When was Acts written? What historically can Acts tell us about Christian origins?"

Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report

Available from Polebridge Press

The dominant view in Acts scholarship places Acts around 85 CE, not because of any special event linking the book of Acts to that date but as a compromise between scholars who believe it was written by an eye-witness to the early Jesus movement and those who don’t. Acts and Christian Beginnings argues for a more rigorous approach to the evidence. The Acts Seminar concluded that Acts was written around 115 CE and used literary models like Homer for inspiration, even exact words and phrases from popular stories. “Among the top ten accomplishments of the Acts Seminar was the formation of a new methodology for Acts,” editors Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson explained. “The author of Acts is in complete control of his material. He felt no obligation to stick to the sources. He makes them say what he wants them to say.”

The Acts Seminar demonstrated that the author of Acts used a collection of Paul’s letters to create a believable itinerary for Paul’s journeys throughout the Mediterranean. Previously, scholars saw the correspondence between Paul’s letters and Acts as proof that they were written in the same era. In fact, the reverse is true. Acts used Paul’s letters as a source while shying away from Pauline theology, which lost popularity in the second century.

“It’s tempting to ask, why bother reading a book we can demonstrate is not historically what it claims to be?” Tyson said. Yet Acts remains important as a window into the world of early second-century Christianity. Acts succeeded in creating a “charter myth,” a narrative constitution for the young Jesus movement. “Acts offered a major reinterpretation of Paul so powerful it hasn’t been undone until this century,” Tyson explained. “Narrative is so powerful, so effective,” Smith added. “Luke benefits from following this model. It’s good storytelling.”

Dennis Smith

Editor Dennis Smith Discusses the New Acts Seminar Report