How To Date Early Christian Texts

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by Neil Godfrey

A new post has appeared on the Weststar Institute’s blog, 8 tips for dating early Christian texts. It covers considerable detail for both relative and absolute dating.

My earlier post, Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels, was a summary of Niels Peter Lemche’s explanation of valid methods to arrive at an absolute date range for the gospels. The Westar Institute post by Cassandra Farrin gives much more detail — most of it applicable to relative dating.

Her headings — but you must read her post to grasp the full meaning of each:

1. Does the writer refer to any historical figures and events?

2. What other texts does the writer know and refer to?

3. What is the earliest known reference to this text in other sources?

4. Does the text contain special terms or words that changed in meaning from one era to another?

5. Does the text copy the mistakes or variations of other, earlier texts?

6. Is the text concerned with questions or themes that were also popular in other texts of a certain historical period?

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?

8. Is there any archaeological, socio-cultural, or paleographic research to back up your best guess?

The post links to another set of interesting ones, including one titled 5 Quick and Dirty Rules for Interpreting Paul

1. Set Acts of the Apostles aside.

2. Paul was not a Christian.

3. Paul was addressing the nations.

4. An apocalyptic scenario underlies Paul’s understanding.

5. Read Paul’s letters in the Greek.


Cassandra also plugs a few Westar publications. One of them looks like a revised edition of Stevan Davies’ New Testament Fundamentals. I like Stevan Davies and his books but I confess I have not completely read this one yet. I must soon.

The Westar Institute, many will know, is the organization behind the Jesus Seminar. It’s  good to see activity on their blog resurfacing. I wish they had more.






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21 thoughts on “How To Date Early Christian Texts”

  1. Are scholars who accept Paul wrote the big seven epistles sometime in the 40-50s CE not presupposing some sort of missionary journey that Acts presents? Or are there some historical details in Paul’s “authentic” letters that pin them to this time period? I read the Seminars book on Acts some time ago and remember it being pretty sceptical about its historical content. I’m guessing (from my imperfect memory) that they hold out the possibility that it may contain some kind of rough outline that reflects reality. I believe Richard Carrier does as well. His observations on the trial speeches in Acts not mentioning an historical Jesus and therefore possibly come from a period before Jesus was believed to be a “real” person are fascinating, although I’m not completely convinced. I’ve always thought those long speeches are more likely from the imaginative pen of Luke.

    1. 2 Cor 11:32 — the reference to Paul’s escape from Damascus — comes to mind as one chronological marker. I recollect that there are several questions surrounding apparent anomalies in that passage, however.

      1. As a possible chronological marker of a supposedly authentic letter, almost nobody ever has the clarity and boldness to follow where it actually leads. King Aretas held the city of Damascus from 85 BCE to 72 BCE, from the year he captured it from the Seleucid Empire to the year it was captured by the Armenian king Tigranes II. King Aretas held the city again from 69 BCE, when he took it back, until 64 BCE, when it was conquered for Rome by Pompey. This is the only King Aretas who ever held Damascus. This is the only King Aretas who is recorded as capturing the city, and it is the only King Aretas whose name appears on coins minted at Damascus. It is of course Aretas III.

        I understand that this is what is meant by the “several questions surrounding apparent anomalies in that passage,” but it’s not something that we should be mealy-mouthed about. It looks like sanity is currently winning the edit war in the Wikipedia entry for Damascus.

        There are multiple ways to explain the passage of 2 Corinthians here, of course, in descending order of plausibility.

        (1) This part of 2 Corinthians includes a misunderstanding arising at a later date regarding the territory of Aretas IV, which was not as far north as Damascus, as was that of Aretas III. This could involve a small interpolation, a larger false letter (chapters 10-13), or a non-authentic 2 Corinthians.
        (2) This part of 2 Corinthians represents an authentic letter written during 85-72 BCE or 69-64 BCE.
        (3) Something other than the city of “Damascus” in Roman Syria was meant by “Damascus.” (This is Sid Green’s hypothesis.)
        (4) The typical false, harmonizing/apologetic explanations.

        1. I should note that possibility (2) founders on the evidence that Corinth was almost entirely deserted between 146 BC and 44 BC, between being destroyed by Lucius Mummius and refounded by Julius Caesar, and that possibility (3) is highly speculative, especially when Damascus was a famous city actually held by a certain King Aretas, leaving possibility (1) as the only possibility that carries significantly high probability.

          1. Thanks for this, Peter. It’s been a long time since I looked at questions surrounding this passage and from what you are saying here there is more to consider than I was ever aware of.

    2. It is plausible to interpret 1 Corinthians 9:13 (“Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings?”) or Romans 9:4 (“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship…”) as references to the temple cult still active.

      1. Of course. Thanks for that.

        And Romans 3

        What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?

        2 Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.

        3 What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness?

        4 Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written:

        “So that you may be proved right when you speak
        and prevail when you judge.”

        Difficult to imagine that being written by one who knew the Jews had been crushed in Palestine by Rome and their temple razed to the ground.

        1. The Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem must assist the dating and explanation of NT contents, without going overboard with John Robinson or Risto Santala.

          1. Certainly. That sets the earliest possible date. Though some scholars continue to interpret Mark 13 as referencing the attempt by Caligula to set up his statue in the Temple around 40 CE. One of those, James Crossley, goes further and suggests the possibility that the reference to Caligula’s efforts (interpreted as the Abomination of Desolation) was added only some years after the main gospel was written.

            1. Perpetual agnosticism about some sort of historical Jesus (or Paul, or Papias) may be a personal preference, but I do think we should engage closely with the NT material, and with competitive, close analysis of its contents by evemerists and mythicists alike. It is just too lazy to say that verses that upset our views must be IPSO FACTO “interpolations”. And does anyone know where a UK citizen like me can get a paperback of Robert Price’s “Christ Myth Theory & its Problems” without paying Amazon £1,000?

              1. Stuart – on the subject of ebooks; Judith Lieu’s new book on Marcion is available on Scribd. It isn’t even being sold on Amazon yet.

        2. Neil,

          Your focus is off in these verses, Romans 3:1-5, are post Marcionite. And they are best understood in terms of the orthodox response to Marcion in the mid-2nd century. Marcion declared that Christ came unannounced from a previously unknown God, and that the creator and law giver God of the Jews was not his. The Jewish scriptures was declared illegitimate and inaccurate in the Marcionite antithesis, and are as good as destroyed. In fact they say law was annulled. And ironically that was true when Hadrian dissolved Judea, ending the authority of Mosaic Law in the empire, such that even circumcision lost legal protection – Jews could not appeal to the tribal law of a non-existent province. Hence Antoninus ruling to allow Jews to circumcise their children (but not others, such as slaves in the household, which Mosaic law proscribes). IMO this is the background explaining the circumcision controversy in Galatians; but I digress.

          This response was a new form of exegesis, proof texts built off orthodox understanding of the OT (LXX) designed to show that Christ was foretold in the scriptures and was from the God of those scriptures. There was no need for these before the Marcionite texts, so why bother? But when Marcion’s text came out it became necessary. And it became necessary to explain how these texts passed from Jews to Christians, how the promise of Abraham passed to them.

          And the answer to the text examples you give is in them. The Jews are first, per Romans 1:16 in Catholic form (Marcionite reads – τε πρῶτον, per AM 5.13.2). And why are they first, and what makes circumcision special? Romans 3:2 tells us because “first they were entrusted with the words of God.” That is the scriptures, the very basis of the exegesis against Marcion and the other heretics. The Jewish God is the true God (of Jesus) and he cannot be nullified. All those men who are liars are those whom the Psalm suggests are made liars by their LOGOS (teaching), because those true are justified when they are judged.

          The perspective need not be first century to explain this view. The words fit perfectly the agenda of the orthodox battling heretics in the mid-2nd century far better here.

          1. There was no need for these before the Marcionite texts, so why bother?

            This is a plausible possibility. But another suggestive possibility is that there was no Christian before Marcion that believed that Jesus had to be exactly the Jewish Messiah (and not, at best, only to appear as such).

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