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The catch here is not to blindly trust the context in which the historical reference occurs.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

Redeeming Gnosticism? Scholars Weigh the Pros and Cons

A mixture of long-time supporters of Westar, new and inquiring members of the public, students, and faculty gathered in the ballroom of the San Diego Convention Center Friday, November 21st, 2014, at the Westar Christianity Seminar to discuss a troublesome little word you won't hear much in everyday conversations, even ones about Christianity—gnosticism.

One reason you may not have heard this term much is that gnosticism has become a catch-all in biblical studies for communities, texts and ideas that don't deserve much attention. "As soon as you put the label gnosticism on something, it's bound to be misunderstood," said Michael Williams (University of Washington), who has worked with such texts for five decades. Texts labeled "gnostic" are often excluded from stories of Christian history. They don't appear in the New Testament, so people tend to look right past them, as though their absence automatically makes them unimportant.

The Secret Revelation of John by Karen L. King

Karen King's The Secret Revelation of John attempted to place this text alongside books inside and outside the New Testament without giving priority to one versus the other.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that the average person hasn't heard much about gnosticism, any more than they've heard of or read texts like the Secret Revelation of John, Gospel of Thomas, or more than fifty other texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Rather than being read alongside New Testament texts, which belong to the same historical period, they are relegated to the sidelines in stories about Christian origins.

It's tempting to say that this is a publicity problem and not a scholarly problem, but this issue has deep roots in the discipline. "Scholarly bias and preconceptions about gnosticism, mostly derived from polemicists"—that is, early leaders in the Jesus movement who first labeled certain groups and practices as heresy—"are a serious problem today," remarked Stephen Patterson of Willamette University in his opening comments. "The study of early Christianities is fraught for everyone. We must be attentive to unsensed tendencies in our work."

Before Nag Hammadi, some of the best historical resources available were "catalogues" of what certain ancient people considered "wrong" or "flawed" teaching. Unfortunately, scholars consciously or unconsciously took up the biases of these catalogues along with the content. To give a modern equivalent, imagine basing your entire opinion of groups like the Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, or People's Temple on anti-cult pamphlets. No matter what you might think of these groups if you were able to observe them in practice, your understanding of them would be seriously skewed through the narrow lens of their most virulent opponents. All of this builds to the question of the hour: Is redeeming gnosticism possible anymore?

To answer this question, scholars had to cover a lot of territory and brainstorm about other possible models. The reason walking away from gnosticism isn't as simple as it appears is that, as Maia Kotrosits of Denison University warned, the term gnosticism is bound up with the term Christianity. The two terms often operate as foils of one another in biblical studies. What is Christianity? Whatever gnosticism is not. What is gnosticism? Whatever Christianity is not. What if we were to walk away from Christianity, too? Is it possible to jump ship entirely, perhaps appeal to other streams of literature from the same era, like diaspora discourse? We know that many people experienced loss in what several scholars have described as the "casual violence" of the Roman Empire. Are the texts we have better understood as responses to this violence, longing for a different reality, mourning what was lost? Remember that ancient people didn't see religion as separate from the rest of our lives. Religion, too, is a category, and a very modern one at that.

Madame Blavatsky

Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) was a leading figure in the theosophy movement. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Denise Buell made a critical observation that the rise of gnosticism in scholarly discourse took place in the midst of appropriation of the term by highly popular 19th-century spiritualist and theosophist movements. Some of the critiques leveled at gnosticism reveal themselves to be veiled critiques instead of these contemporary movements, not critiques of actual ancient groups.

David Brakke of The Ohio State University advocated for freeing even the polemicists from their traditional groupings. After all, some of them were eventually labeled heretics themselves, or defected to groups they once maligned. Such men did not belong to a unified group anymore than their opponents did. Brakke's more fundamental point, in spite of this, was that categories can have value. "One nice thing about categories is that we rethink them as we use them," he said. Texts are associated with communities and their practices. To deny them a place by refusing to group them runs the risk of denying them rituals, habits of life, and the visions or dreams that brought them together. We're already concerned that alternative visions of Christianity have been erased from history. As Arthur Dewey of Xavier University put it, we cannot be so afraid of freezing categories that we forget their interpretive or heuristic value.

King, reflecting on her original thesis from What Is Gnosticism?, questioned whether her own feelings had changed. "A challenge for me over the past ten years has been to ask, 'Is there really no way to talk about these things as a group?'" She suggested that perhaps gnosticism could be redeemed by tying it to Christianity, such as referring to particular strands of tradition as "gnostic Christian" in nature the way we would refer to others as "Pauline Christian." Bernard Brandon Scott, borrowing from the scientific theory of evolution, asked whether we might step away from essentialist definitions and talk in terms of variety in populations. Rather than labeling groups and expecting them to conform to set boundaries, what if we mapped features or tendencies of this ancient population that birthed Christianity?

It is not possible to do justice to all the comments of scholars in this brief report, except to end on a strong note of appreciation for the organizers of this particular seminar session, which created a space for participants to apologize to one another for past disagreements, question their own assumptions, and change their minds. Suffice it to say that I have left out far more than I have reported here.

The Christianity Seminar closed with voting on 31 statements, the results of which will appear in a future issue of The Fourth R magazine and on the project page at a later date. Here are a few sample statements from the ballot:

  • Scholarship now needs a less blunt tool/analytical category than gnosticism for examination of the Jesus/Christ(ian) literature of the second and third centuries.
  • The essentializing influence of Plato inhibits in major ways conscientious re-thinking of the history of early Christianity.
  • The category of “diasporic literature” is a more analytically helpful term for The Secret Revelation of John than the categories of “Christian,” “Gnostic,” or “Jewish.”
  • To be even considered as a possible phenomenon related to something called gnostic or gnosticism, ancient groups must have called themselves gnostikos.
  • Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and company should be liberated from “proto-orthodoxy” and allowed to be their own idiosyncratic selves.
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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. 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.