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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The catch here is not to blindly trust the context in which the historical reference occurs.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. 

“Where Have You Laid Him?” An Appeal to Study Christian Origins

Revelations about the historical Jesus, Christian origins, and related topics can come as a shock. To cite a few common surprises, often the first to startle people into historical consciousness, consider these: Matthew and Luke relied on Mark to write their gospels. Furthermore, since the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were assigned to gospels by believers, not appended to the manuscript as in modern times, we don’t really know who wrote the gospels. The Apostle Paul certainly wrote some of the letters attributed to him, but some letters are almost universally rejected: 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, for example. Likewise, the Jesus Seminar is famous for pointing out that Jesus didn’t say every word attributed to him in the New Testament.

Such information might not be upsetting to someone who sees the Bible as literature or as a collection of texts. But for those of us who were raised within the Christian tradition, or surrounded by it in our culture, we can be left reeling. As one person asked recently at a Westar event, “What am I supposed to take home from this?”

In other words, is there nothing left? Does Christianity disintegrate under a withering historical lens? At the Fall 2013 Meeting, Westar Fellows Dennis E. Smith and Dennis MacDonald discussed this topic with attendees. You can hear their thoughts in the audio clip below.

This topic has come up before. Last October Tara Isabella Burton made an appeal to study theology in this article for The Atlantic. She writes, “If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the ‘outside,’ the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events ‘from within’: an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today.”

Alana Burton soon responded in Religion Dispatches, “Burton is right to implore non-theists to ‘engage with the great questions—and questioners—of history on their own terms.’ But to discuss the great questions and questioners in the past tense is to suggest that the most important theological questions have already been asked and answered. Theological inquiry has present and pressing applications in the world and we would be wise not to leave all the fun to historians and the clergy.”

Is it unfair to challenge our assumptions about early Christian history? In his book A Scandalous Jesus, Westar Fellow Joseph Bessler defends professors’ right to challenge their students to think critically. “Can one also imagine, I wonder, the gall of professors in other graduate departments, in physics, for example, or psychology, or cultural anthropology ‘forcing’ their students to learn a methodology: How outrageous!” In The Craft of History and the Study of New Testament, Beth M. Sheppard expresses concern for the lack of historical consciousness sometimes present in biblical studies. But she also points out that a historical approach can still be flexible and doesn’t necessarily lead to a single conclusion. “History is the arena in which we explore the past. Not every historian will come to the same conclusions or find the same insights about a single episode that happened days, decades, or centuries ago.”

Applying this to the historical Jesus, Joseph Bessler observes that we often reach for the historical information that helps us interpret the problems of today. Quests for the historical Jesus, for example, matter deeply to theology because “they have, in their differing ways, sought to argue that the central figure of the Christian faith continues to hold open the horizons of religious and cultural life.”

So what do we take home? As Dennis E. Smith suggested in the context of his work with the Acts Seminar, when we accept stories uncritically, we can be tempted to see what we have as inevitable. We may think it was the only possible outcome. Paying attention to history can serve as a corrective, or at minimum a caution, against oversimplifying what it means to be Christian, to follow Jesus, or—and this is especially relevant with the rise of secularism—to be religious at all.

Consider this an appeal to study Christian origins in spite of discouragement and frustrations along the way. Is it difficult to explore alternate versions of the story of Christian origins? Yes. Is it worthwhile? Definitively, yes.