Dates and Data

WHEN WAS THE New Testament written? This is a question that the outsider might be forgiven for thinking that the experts must by now have settled. Yet, as in archaeology, datings that seem agreed in the textbooks can suddenly appear much less secure than the consensus would suggest. For both in archaeology and in New Testament chronology one is dealing with a combination of absolute and relative datings. There are a limited number of more or less fixed points, and between them phenomena to be accounted for are strung along at intervals like beads on a string according to the supposed requirements of dependence, diffusion and development. New absolute dates will force reconsideration of relative dates, and the intervals will contract or expand with the years available. In the process long-held assumptions about the pattern of dependence, diffusion and development may be upset, and patterns that the textbooks have taken for granted become subjected to radical questioning.

The parallel with what of late has been happening in archaeology is interesting. The story can be followed in a recent book by Colin Renfrew. [C. Renfrew, Before Civilization: the Radiocarbon Revolution and Prehistoric Europe, 1973.] As he presents it, there was in modern times up to about the middle of this century a more or less agreed pattern of the origins and development of European civilization. The time scale was set by cross-dating finds in Crete and Greece with the established chronology of the Egyptian dynasties, and the evidence from Western Europe was then plotted by supposing a gradual diffusion of culture from this nodal point of Aegean civilization, to the remotest, and therefore the most recent, areas of Iberia, France, Britain and Scandinavia. Then in 1949 came the first radio-carbon revolution, which made possible the absolute dating of prehistoric materials for the first time. The immediate effect was greatly to extend the time span. Renfrew sums up the impact thus [Ibid., 65f.]:

The succession of cultures which had previously been squeezed into 500 years now occupied more than 1,500. This implies more than the alteration of a few dates: it changes the entire pace and nature of the cultural development. But ... it did not greatly affect the relative chronology for the different regions of Europe: the megalithic tombs of Britain, for instance, were still later than those further south. ... None of the changes ... challenged in any way the conventional view that the significant advances in the European neolithic and bronze age were brought by influences from the Near East. It simply put these influences much earlier.

There were indeed uncomfortable exceptions, but these could be put down to minor inconsistencies that later work would tidy up. Then in 1966 came a second revolution, the calibration of the radiocarbon datings by dendrochronology, or the evidence of tree-rings, in particular of the incredibly long-lived Californian bristle-cone pine. This showed that the radiocarbon datings had to be corrected in an upward (i.e. older) direction, and that from about 2000 bc backwards the magnitude of the correction rose steeply, necessitating adjustments of up to 1000 years. The effect of this was not merely to shift all the dates back once more: it was to introduce a fundamental change in the pattern of relationships, making it impossible for the supposed diffusion to have taken place. For what should have been dependent turned out to be earlier.

The basic links of the traditional chronology are snapped and Europe is no longer directly linked, either chronologically or culturally, with the early civilizations of the Near East. [Ibid., 105.]

The whole diffusionist framework collapses, and with it the assumptions which sustained prehistoric archaeology for nearly a century. [Ibid., 85.]

This is a greatly oversimplified account, which would doubtless also be challenged by other archaeologists. Nothing so dramatic has happened or is likely to happen on the much smaller scale of New Testament chronology. But it provides an instructive parallel for the way in which the reigning assumptions of scientific scholarship can, and from rime to time do, get challenged for the assumptions they are. For, much more than is generally recognized, the chronology of the New Testament rests on presuppositions rather than facts. It is not that in this case new facts have appeared, new absolute datings which cannot be contested - they are still extraordinarily scarce. It is that certain obstinate questionings have led me to ask just what basis there really is for certain assumptions which the prevailing consensus of critical orthodoxy would seem to make it hazardous or even impertinent to question. Yet one takes heart as one watches, in one's own field or in any other, the way in which established positions can suddenly, or subtly, come to be seen as the precarious constructions they are. What seemed to be firm datings based on scientific evidence are revealed to rest on deductions from deductions. The pattern is self-consistent but circular. Question some of the inbuilt assumptions and the entire edifice looks much less secure.

The way in which this can happen, and has happened, in New Testament scholarship may best be seen by taking some sample dips into the story of the subject. I have no intention of inflicting on the reader a history of the chronology of the New Testament, even if I were competent to do so. Let me just cut some cross-sections at fifty-year intervals to show how the span of time over which the New Testament is thought to have been written has expanded and contracted with fashion.

We may start at the year 1800. For till then, with isolated exceptions, the historical study of the New Testament as we know it had scarcely begun. Dating was dependent on authorship, and the authorship of the various New Testament books rested on the traditions incorporated in their titles in the Authorized Version - the Gospel according to St Matthew, the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Ephesians, the Revelation of St John the Divine, and so on. All were by apostles or followers of the apostles and the period of the New Testament closed with the death of the last apostle, St John, who by tradition survived into the reign of the Emperor Trajan, c. 100 ad. At the other end the earliest Christian writing could be calculated roughly to about the year 50. This was done by combining the history of the early church provided in Acts with the information supplied by St Paul in Gal. 1.13-2.1 of an interval of up to seventeen 'silent' years following his conversion, which itself had to be set a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus in c. 30. The span of time for the composition of the New Testament was therefore about fifty years - from 50 to 100.

By 1850 the picture looked very different. The scene was dominated by the school of F. C. Baur, Professor of Church History and Dogmatics at Tübingen from 1826 to 1860. He questioned the traditional attribution of all but five of the New Testament books. Romans, I and II Corinthians and Galatians he allowed were by Paul, and Revelation by the apostle John. These he set in the 50s and late 60s respectively. The rest, including Acts and Mark (for him the last of the synoptists, 'reconciling' the Jewish gospel of Matthew and the Gentile gospel of Luke), were composed up to or beyond 150 ad, to effect the mediation of what Baur saw as the fundamental and all-pervasive conflict between the narrow Jewish Christianity of Jesus' original disciples, represented by Peter and John, and the universalistic message preached by Paul. Only a closing of the church's ranks in face of threats from the Gnostic and Montanist movements of the second century produced the via media of early Catholicism. The entire construction was dominated by the Hegelian pattern of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and the span of time was determined more by the intervals supposedly required for this to work itself out than by any objective chronological criteria. The fact that the gospels and other New Testament books were quoted by Irenaeus and other church fathers towards the end of the second century alone set an upper limit. The end-term of the process was still the gospel of John, which was dated c. 160-70. The span of composition was therefore more than doubled to well over a hundred years - from 50+ to 160+.

By 1900 this schema had in turn been fairly drastically modified. The dialectical pattern of development had come to be recognized as the imposition it was [For the story, cf. W. G. Kummel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of its Problems, ET 1973, 162-84.]. A major factor in the correction of Baur's picture of history was the work of J.B. Lightfoot, who was appointed a professor at Cambridge in 1861, the year following Baur's death [Lightfoot's achievement is particularly well brought out by S. C. Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1961, Oxford 1964, 33-60.]. By the most careful historical investigation he succeeded in establishing the authenticity of the first epistle of Clement, which he dated at 95-6, and of the seven genuine epistles of lgnatius, between no and 115. In each of these both Peter and Paul are celebrated in the same breath without a trace of rivalry [I Clem. 5; Ignatius, Rom. 4.3.], and he demonstrated how groundless were Baur's second-century datings. This achievement was acknowledged by the great German scholar Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), who in 1897 published as the second volume of a massive history of early Christian literature [A. Harnack, Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur bis Eusehius, Leipzig 1893-7, vol. II (cited hereafter as Chron.).] his Chronologic der altchristlichen Litteratur bis Eusebius. Harnack's survey, which has never been repeated on so comprehensive a scale [For a survey of surveys, cf. 0. Stahlin in W. Schmid and 0. Stahlin (cdd.), Geschichte der griechische Literatur, Munich 1961, 11.2, esp. 1112—1121.], gives a good indication of where critical opinion stood at the turn of the century. It still carried many of the marks of the Tiibingen period and continued to operate with a span of well over a hundred years. Isolating the canonical books of the New Testament (for Harnack covered all the early Christian writings, a number of which he placed before the later parts of the New Testament), we have the following summary [Chron.717-22. A comparable picture is to be found a few years earlier in A. Julicher's Einleitung in das neue Testament, Tubingen 1894, though he put Mark after 70 and the Pastoral Epistles (I and II Timothy and Titus) at I25+.] (ignoring qualifications and alternative datings at this point as irrelevant to the broad picture):

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