One who identifies himself as an Irish Anglican here has asked me if I would like to address the arguments of John A. T. Robinson in Redating the New Testament. While I have had such an exercise on my list of “to-do” items for some time, it is unlikely that I will get around to doing anything in depth for quite some time. I would have thought, from the fact that Robinson’s arguments for early dates seem to have made little significant impact on mainstream scholarship, we can see the arguments have not been overwhelmingly persuasive — apart from the more apologetically inclined who have a theological interest in seeing the gospels dated as early as possible to the events they narrate. (But not being a part of academia I might be misinformed on this point.)
As if the narrative is itself some external historical reality and not, indeed, just a lot of creative words making up the theological parable or story. Sound historical method, at least as found practiced outside the sheltered ranks of historical Jesus studies, and as well recognized by the likes of Albert Schweitzer himself, requires that there be some indisputable reference point or control that is external to the narrative itself before one can rightfully assume any narrative has some historical basis. But Schweitzer lost that battle and it appears that today many mainstream believers in the historical Jesus can only respond with insult in place of reasoned argument when challenged with this basic premise. That’s understandable. There is no reasoned rebuttal available to them.
Well, let’s see. I’m digressing. Back to dating the gospels.
There is one simple reason John A. T. Robinson’s dating arguments fail. There are a number of more detailed reasons. But one overall methodological reason undermines his entire effort.
That is, he is openly tendentious. The whole point of his exercise is to see how early he can date them with justifiable arguments. Accordingly, references to arguments for later dates are as a rule dismissed on the basis of what in logical fallacy lists is known as the fallacy of incredulity. Generally his dismissal, whenever he does address a reason sometimes offered for a later date, takes the form of expressing some inability to see a reason why X if Y. Of course, this is an easy enough fallacy to commit. All it takes to undermine it, however, is another student with a little more reading and imagination based on a wider knowledge of possible circumstances to explain X and Y together.
The reason I am bothering with this very generalized post is that these principles came to mind on reading a short passage in Revealed Histories by Robert Hall. In his chapter on the Odes of Solomon, he discusses the dating of the Odes.
Consistent with their character as hymns, the Odes of Solomon make few allusions to datable historical events. Dating must rely on the use of the Odes by other authors or on the contacts of the Odes with various circles of thought. (p. 148)
As simple as that. Hall proceeds to note points of contact between the thoughts of the Odes and those found in Ignatius, hymns of Qumran, New Testament christological hymns, Johannine Christianity, Ascension of Isaiah, and Valentinian gnosticism.
And that is how the Odes must be dated.
In other words, there are two types of evidence. There is the evidence of the narrative content itself. And there is the external evidence. The external evidence might not necessarily demonstrate a specific knowledge of the document in question, but if it expresses the same topical interests, themes and cultural specific imagery, one might reasonably suggest a possibility of the documents belonging to the same time and cultural matrix.
It’s a while since I read Robinson’s Redating, but I don’t recall his work containing any extensive discussion of the external evidence. And in the case of the gospels, the external evidence does indeed point in the direction of a second-century provenance.
But should not the internal evidence outweigh the external? No. Or at least not necessarily.
Internal evidence — what an author writes — requires external controls for us to be able to objectively evaluate its status and character. An author — and ancient authors often did this — might well create a literary or narrative voice that reads as if the tale is being told in a particular time and from a particular place, even by a particular circle of witnesses. And the whole kaboozle can be literary artifice from start to finish. That is not hyperscepticism. It is a basic detail that anyone familiar with ancient texts soon learns to understand. We even see examples of it in the New Testament. 2 Peter is generally regarded as a pseudepigraph. That’s a polite scholarly term for forgery. But this is something I’ve discussed many times on this blog, along with scholarly works discussing this fact and its history in ancient times.
I’m not saying that we must assume the gospels are “forgeries”. I am saying that we have no external controls by which to assume their narrative is historical. In that absence, we cannot assume that there ever was a Jesus walking the rounds in Galilee and who visited Jerusalem one Passover to meet his demise if the gospel narratives are the original source of evidence for all this. So to seek to date the gospels as close as possible to a story for which we have no objective evidence to evaluate its facticity seems a bit like shadow-boxing.
The best that John Robinson’s book can achieve is to show us the possibility of a very early range of dates for the gospels.
A work that is serious about addressing the question of dating the gospels will do much more than Robinson has done. Robinson states that his goal was to see how early he could date the gospels. That’s fine. But an objective look at dating must consider Robinson’s work along with in-depth arguments for other possible time periods.
We need to justify a tendency to wish to date the gospels early or late or “on time” if that’s the way we want to go. But I would have thought that any attempt to date the gospels would seriously weigh all the options and possibilities. I have read somewhere that the late second century dates of the gospels have long been rebutted. Specifically, it was apparently Lightfoot who “demolished” them. I would feel more secure in accepting that assessment if I could locate the articles or papers where that rebuttal is supposed to have closed the door on that possibility so decisively. I sometimes get the impression it is just “one of those things” that “everyone who knows, knows”. Be that as it may, I’d like to keep searching till I find it and see those arguments for myself. I have found many Lightfoot articles on the web, but none yet that addresses this question.
It’s not a sin to be biased. But it is a sin to argue in ignorance of one’s biases. And it is an unforgivable sin to knowingly dismiss later possibilities with a wave of the logical fallacy of incredulity.
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