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The catch here is not to blindly trust the context in which the historical reference occurs.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

Restoring Books Excluded from the New Testament

Why were certain books excluded from the New Testament? “The stunning truth is that we have hardly any evidence of the process of how the canon was made. By and large, we don’t even have evidence for the character of the debate,” explains Westar Fellow Hal Taussig, who presented A New New Testament November 23rd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center as part of the Westar Institute Fall 2014 national meeting. “The most we have is an individual scholar [in the second through fifth centuries] saying, ‘I like this book; I don’t like that one.’”

Why did those in power decide to “close” the canon, or collection, of texts that now appear in modern Bibles? Was the decision experienced as oppressive, as foisting certain groups of people like the Valentinians out of the fold? Or did the people who made these decisions actually seek to protect a certain amount of diversity, such as by keeping the Synoptic Gospels Mark, Matthew, and Luke alongside the Gospel of John, or Paul’s Corinthian correspondence alongside the pseudo-Pauline Pastoral Letters 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus? It’s difficult to know.

Even today there is no one ultimate collection of “Christian” books. It’s even possible that the New Testament didn’t truly narrow the playing field—and biblical literalism didn’t truly have a leg to stand on—until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. After all, even the best scribe can’t hand-copy verbatim every time. Notes with corrections appear in the margins at the very least, and the entire discipline of textual criticism in biblical studies involves grouping manuscripts into families based on inherited variations in the texts.

Incidentally, should it be of interest to you, scholars of Islam are also fascinated by the question of accuracy but (1) tend to focus on the life of Mohammed rather than the text of the Qur’an, and (2) as a result, must work largely with oral traditions. This is called isnad, the chain of transmission that accompanies stories and sayings of the prophet Mohammed. The classification system is complex and accounts for issues such as broken or unreliable transmission, and closeness to the source. Reader beware: as with the study of early Christianity, the study of Muslim isnad is riddled with theologically motivated logic, so seek out a reputable scholar.

A New New Testament

Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Back to the subject at hand. Hal Taussig is the editor a twenty-first-century Bible  called A New New Testament (ANNT) that combines traditional and newly discovered texts. The new texts were selected by a council of nineteen religious leaders and scholars. Many of the new texts came from a remarkable collection found in 1945 in upper Egypt, popularly known as the Nag Hammadi library. This discovery revolutionized studies of early Christian history but has not achieved the same level of public recognition as the equally outstanding discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One audience member at Taussig’s presentation asked, “How much of the squirreling away of Nag Hammadi texts is political, and what can we do to bring these texts into public view?”

“What I would call Christian fear and scholarly timidity is political,” Taussig responded. “By and large, churches haven’t needed to act against these discoveries because scholars have already done that so well. The public has both creative and commercial force to put behind these new materials. Let’s get to know the texts as a public. Let’s allow sophisticated, complicated discussions to take place around them.” On this blog we’ve been reading Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? and discussing some of the political and ideological issues related to the study of the Nag Hammadi texts, so I won’t get into those issues here. The gist of it is the creep of theological ideas into historical research. Many researchers who perhaps embrace Christian beliefs personally or at least are heavily steeped in Christian traditions have continued to give the canonical texts first place in any story of Christian origins. Anything that didn’t make it into the Bible is automatically treated as secondary, suspect, or impure.

Maybe the best thing to do to honor Taussig’s presentation, then, is to share a sampling of these texts here. Of the many Nag Hammadi texts Taussig introduced, let’s look at one: The Thunder, Perfect Mind. Here’s a translation of the full text, but I also quote it below.

The Thunder, Perfect Mind is an extended poem known as an aretalogy—the divine being who self-reveals, who talks about himself or herself. This was a popular form in the ancient world. Here is an example of an aretalogy of the goddess Isis dated to the second to first centuries BCE. It opens with the writer explaining his/her reason for daring to write in the name of the god, then launches into aretalogical language:

Taking heart, I proceed to what remains, knowing that this encomium is written not only by the hand of a man, but also by the mind of a god. And first I shall come to your family, making as the beginning of my praises the earliest beginnings of your family. They say that Ge (Earth) was the mother of all: you were born a daughter to her first. You took Sarapis to live with you, and, when you had made your marriage together, the world, provided with eyes, was lit up by means of your faces, Helios (Sun) and Selene (Moon). So you are two but have many designations among men. For you are the only ones whom everyday life knows as gods. (Trans. G. H. R. Horsely)

This sort of language probably sounds familiar because it also occurs in both Hebrew Bible and New Testament texts like the Gospel of John. What makes Thunder, Perfect Mind unique over against traditional early Christian texts is the presence of a predominantly feminine voice. For a sense of the conversations this can open up, try comparing verses from Thunder and John.

The Thunder, Perfect Mind (1:1, 5–7; 2:1–2)

I was sent out from power
I came to those pondering me
And I was found among those seeking me…
I am the first and the last
I am she who is honored and she who is mocked
I am the whore and the holy woman
I am he the mother and the daughter
I am the limbs of my mother
I am the sterile woman and she has many children
I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband
… I am the silence never found
And the idea infinitely recalled
I am the voice with countless sounds
And the thousand guises of the word
I am the speaking of my name…

The Gospel of John (1:4–5, 11–13)

That which came into being in the Word was life
and the life was the light of humanity
and the light shines in the darkness
and the darkness never overpowered it.
… He came to his own—yet his own did not receive him.
But to all who did receive him he gave power to become children of God—
to those who trust his name,
not through blood nor through will of the flesh, nor through the desires of men
but through birth from God…

As the Christianity Seminar also urged people to do, we need to read these new texts alongside traditional texts to begin to visualize what kinds of conversations were happening in Christianity before it became the religion of the Roman Empire. Separating them into arbitrary groups doesn’t help. Thunder and John, especially when read in full, share several themes, including the following at minimum:

  • A being, sent out from power/God, comes to those who seek and are open to receiving
  • This being takes the form of Word—the name of God or a personification of God
  • This being, though divine, shares the full gamut of human experience, both honor and mockery/humiliation
  • The speaker uses paradox to convey a sense of vastness within this single divine being and at the same time encourages the human seekers to share in that feeling (or even recreate it)

“Besides the Gospel of John’s Jesus and Thunder, no other ancient (or modern) divine voice presents itself as simultaneously both so glorious and so humiliated,” writes Taussig in ANNT (180). Virginia Burrus, the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion at Syracuse University, sees this kind of writing not as a sign of a “personal crisis” in which Jews became alienated with their tradition—one reigning explanation for the existence of “gnostic” texts—so much as a response to the powerful Roman empire:

[Hans] Jonas’ (suspiciously orientalizing) syncretism and alienation are pointing toward what might be reframed as hybridity and ambivalent resistance to empire/colonization, characteristics which arguably mark all products of early Roman (and earlier) Hellenism, yet differently and to different degrees.” (personal communication quoted in King, What Is Gnosticism? 189)

My own response to this text is startled acknowledgment that the writer knew Paul’s letters. When I was working with the editors of the Acts Seminar Report, I learned that in order for an historian to claim that one author is alluding to another, by definition enough of the original has to be carried into the new work to give itself away. That happens in Thunder. “Why then do you hate me, you Greeks? Because I am a barbarian among barbarians?” (Thunder 3:3) alludes to 1 Corinthians 9:20 and Romans 1:14–15. In some ways the whole poem is a meditation on Paul’s statements like this. “Advance toward childhood; Do not hate it because it is small and insignificant” (Thunder 4:5).

The malleability of the speaker, speaking for the divine, also suggests s/he is emulating Paul, with one crucial difference that I find fascinating: Paul doesn’t mention sayings of Jesus much, but the writer of Thunder draws on both Paul’s letters and Jesus’ empire of God sayings. “Do not stare at me in the shit pile, leaving me discarded; you will find me in the kingdoms … In my weakness do not strip me bare; Do not be afraid of my power” (Thunder 2:13, 17). The poetry that resulted is beautiful, but its very difference is a strong reminder that in the study of history we need to leave room for creativity and spontaneity, too.

What texts have you read outside the standard New Testament ones, and what did you discover? Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below

[divider style=”hr-dotted”] 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.