A Better Way to Date a Biblical Text

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by Neil Godfrey

Jonathan Bernier has posted “three basic means by which to date a biblical text” which I think are reasonably useful but can be improved upon. His focus is primarily on the New Testament chronology.

Bernier calls his first tool “synchronization” and it’s pretty basic. If a text declares that the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in by Titus then obviously the text dates some time after that event. Of if the Gospel of Matthew appears to have used the Gospel of Mark then obviously GMatthew was later than GMark. (The trick here, of course, is being able to produce a convincing argument that the borrowing definitely was from Mark to Matthew and not the other way around.) And so forth.

His second tool is what he calls “authorial biography”. This device “uses what is known about the author(s) independent of the text in order to determine when she or he wrote.” Bernier says this method is “most usable in regard to the Pauline corpus, due to the existence of Acts.” Scholars are certainly on solid ground here if they can be sure they can trust Acts to provide a reliable biography and chronology of Paul. Other scholars who approach Acts with a view to understanding the character of its narrative content by means of literary criticism and comparative literary studies, and by means of determining what period of church history the theological themes most neatly synchronize with, may have doubts that Acts is so useful. Bernier acknowledges that biographical data for most authors of the NT is woefully inadequate but a critical approach must also leave a question mark over Paul’s corpus. We know that the NT contains many letters falsely attributed to Paul and I suppose we must have faith that the circular arguments we use to establish the genuine epistles are reliable. Maybe it doesn’t really matter and the only important thing is that we know what early church writers believed to be genuine.

The third method is called “contextualization”. Here is where I think Bernier and other scholars could find a little room to refine their methods of dating. Bernier explains contextualization: “contextualization uses what is otherwise known about the development of early Christianity in order to determine when a text most likely originated.”

The first question that comes to my mind is this: What sources are used to devise a model of early Christianity’s development? The answer, I have to presume, are primarily the New Testament documents. So my second question then becomes: How do we date these NT documents? And squeezed into that question come a few others: how do we establish the authorship, provenance, and literary function of those documents as historical sources?

Bernier offers a “sterling example” of dating by “contextualization”. It is James Crossley’s justification for dating the Gospel of Mark to the mid to late 30s (sic) CE. To arrive at this date for the Gospel of Mark Crossley has not begun with a literary analysis of the gospel in order to determine the function of its narrative details by means of comparison with other literature of the general period (let’s say from 30 CE to 130 CE when we first meet an apparent independently claimed awareness of the existence of the gospel). This period was rich in Greco-Roman (and Jewish) authors developing new genres by mixing and matching existing forms, and the Gospel of Mark is certainly one such innovation that was imitated and emulated by others. Instead, Crossley treats the narrative as so much dirt and rubble that needs to be cleared aside, or a window that needs to be looked through, in order to discover “the real Jesus” behind it all. Or maybe those are not quite apt analogies (though they are used by some New Testament scholars to explain their historical methods). Maybe the text of Mark is read and interpreted in a way “as if it were written before” Christians in Mark’s circle were confronted with disputes over the Jewish law.

Such a method is potentially useful but its conclusion (in this case a date as early as the mid 30s) needs to be proposed as a hypothesis and tested rigorously before it can be allowed to decide the date of the gospel. Otherwise, surely, we are guilty of dating Mark by means of a single criterion and by circular reasoning to boot.

Some tests that need to be applied in this case:

What would we expect to find in Paul’s letters if Paul were indeed influenced by the Gospel of Mark (as Crossley proposes)?

What else would we expect to find in the Gospel of Mark itself if it were indeed written so early? Compare the ways ancient biographies and histories were written back then. Their references to sources, efforts to persuade readers of the value of their work, etc.

What would such an early date imply for other questions related to the “synoptic problem”, Q, the ways later authors ignored or changed it, etc? How do our expectations or predictions pan out in the evidence?

What would such an early date imply for the subsequent history of the work, its acceptance, its authority, etc and how do our answers fit with the known history (or lack of known history)?

If it is true that early readers (as Crossley concedes) saw the potential for Mark’s gospel narrative to be interpreted as presenting a Jesus who did not conform to Jewish laws, then how do we justify our and their respective interpretations?

Are their simpler hypotheses (those with fewer constituent hypothetical entities) to explain another date range for the gospel?

So when it comes to “contextualization”, I think the method can have value if we broaden our range of evidence and data to study and not confine ourselves to but one interpretation that requires many other sub-hypotheses (sometimes called ad hoc rationalizations) to justify.

Or we can read a much simpler set of guidelines set out by a scholar specializing in Old Testament. I think his rules of thumb work equally well for the NT: Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels.


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28 thoughts on “A Better Way to Date a Biblical Text”

  1. What baffles me is just how poor the reasoning of these “biblical experts” is.

    It is clear that a degree in theology is absolutely no basis for assessing the historical veracity of biblical texts.

    But furthermore, apparently even a degree in biblical studies is of no use either.

    It seems that the field needs much more exposure to hard sciences, archaeology, anthropology, and real history.

    1. Per Ehrman (13 January 2017). “Can Biblical Scholars Be Historians?”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.

      In most PhD programs in biblical studies – for example, those provided in seminaries and divinity schools – the training is focused principally on the texts of the Bible and their meaning. The emphasis, in those circles, is on “exegesis,” that is, the interpretation of the Bible. People trained like that are often adept at literary criticism of various kinds (or often of just one kind). Often there is also a secondary emphasis on the theology of the Bible. Theological training (at least outside of fundamentalist circles) is more closely related to philosophy.

      Both foci have some ties to history, even though PhDs from these kinds of programs rarely are interested in history per se. But there are yet other approaches to biblical studies that are more historically oriented, and there are indeed Bible scholars who are historians. These scholars are not interested only in the interpretation and theological significance of the Bible, but also (or rather) in what the biblical texts can tell us about the history of the communities lying behind them.

      There are a number of Hebrew Bible scholars, for example, who are particularly trained in and expert on the history of ancient Israel. In order to determine what happened, historically (say in the eighth century BCE, or the sixth century BCE, etc.). These scholars utilize the biblical texts and all other relevant information – including archaeology, texts from surrounding civilizations (Egypt, Babylon, and so forth). They are more interested in the social history lying behind the biblical texts (and their authors) than in the meaning of the texts per se.

      So too with the New Testament, there are social historians who utilize the Gospels and other sources to write about what happened in the life of the historical Jesus or who focus on the letters of Paul and other sources to reconstruct the social history of the Pauline communities.
      But there are also some (very few) biblical scholars who are interested in broader historical topics of Christianity starting with Jesus and Paul and others at that time, and moving up well beyond that into the early centuries of Christianity. That is where I have focused the vast bulk of my research for, well I guess for twenty-five years.

      1. Oh groan!!! Has Bart Ehrman even heard of the challenges to the very notion of “biblical history” or “history of biblical Israel”? It seems not.

        Again, he has no idea of what is involved in genuine literary criticism of texts and how a genuine literary criticism is a sine qua non before we know how to read a text for historical information. Yet he continues on saying that the gospels are our windows into the history of Jesus and his disciples.

        Bart Ehrman once had my respect as a scholar. He has been losing it for some years now. He seems to have not updated or informed himself seriously of developments in the past ten, even perhaps 20 years. He is evidently resting on his reputation and giving his followers cheap recycles from a past generation.

        1. • Bart Ehrman does profess a willingness change his views, although I suspect it will not happen until the the last chapter, like in Voltaire′s Candide, which concludes with the character Candide saying, “Non liquet” (it is not clear), a term that was applied during the Roman Republic to a legal verdict of “not proven”.

          Ehrman (28 May 2017) [now formatted]. “Would I Be Personally Devastated if the Mythicists Were Right?…“. The Bart Ehrman Blog.

          When I started my serious study of the New Testament . . . I had a view of Jesus very much like the one most conservative evangelicals have: Jesus was a miracle-working son of God who came to earth principally to die for sins.
          • My historical studies eventually changed my views of Jesus. I think every historian should be willing to change his views based on his study of the evidence.
          • Scholars who do not change their views – but come out of a study with the same views they brought into it – are highly suspect.
          Would I be traumatized if the mythicists were right after all? Not in the least. I would probably feel energized.

          1. One has no chance of changing one’s mind if one doesn’t bother to read seriously the other views. He certainly did not do that with the mythicists, and I don’t think he even got started with his latest book on memory theory. He seems to think he knows it without having to know it.

            I’d be more impressed with his professed willingness to change his mind if he had not accused virtually all mythicists of being motivated by an anti-Christian agenda. If he can’t acknowledge that it makes no serious difference to the lives of atheists if they were to learn Jesus existed I can’t take him seriously in his last line of the above quote.

            One will never change one’s mind if one refuses to make an effort to understand and keep up with new things.

  2. As for dating Mark itself, I’m starting to lean more toward a bit later dates. My assessment of when Mark must have been written is as follows:

    1) The writer of Mark made use of at least 4 letters of Paul perhaps as many as 6.
    2) Many literary references in Mark make the most sense as relating to the First Jewish-Roman War and the destruction of the temple
    3) Several elements of the story itself make overt references to the destruction of the temple
    4) The writers of the other Gospels copied from the Gospel of Mark in some fashion
    5) Mark appears to be the source of belief that Jesus was a real person

    Given all these things there is a relatively narrow date range within which Mark could have been written

    1) Mark had to have been written after the letter of Paul were written- long enough after that the write of Mark could have gained access to Paul’s letters to different communities.
    2 & 3) Given that the temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the story has to have been written after 70 CE, but I think it must also have been written before the Second Jewish-Roman War of 115 as the focus is clearly on the temple destruction of the first war, and I think the setting of the story prior to the first war is to position it as an explanation for the cause of that war.
    4) Given that the Gospel of Matthew is attested to in the early 2nd century we know it much have existed by then, and as well Luke must have existed by the time it was being used by Marcion, and I think Luke made use of Matthew so Matthew had to have been written early enough for Luke to make use of it and thus Mark had to have been written early enough for Matthew to make use of it in time for Luke to make use of it, etc. But I also think Matthew was written before 115 as well, as in my view it shows no signs of knowledge of that revolt. So with a latest date for Matthew of around 110, Mark would likely need to have been written at least 10 years before that to give time for Matthew to come into contact with the work and derive his version of it.
    5) And point number 5 is a real kicker for me, and this is what drives me to date Mark to as early as possible, because I see mark as the source of belief in a real Jesus person and there seems to be evidence that Jesus was being viewed as a real person by the late first century, so Mark has to have been written before that.

    So for me all this puts a latest reasonable date for Mark at around 90 CE, with a more likely range being around 80 CE.

    If a strong case can be made that the writer of Mark made use of Josephus – the Jewish War, I think this would push the likely date of authorship up to around 85 CE.

    But in my mind, Mark has to have been written early enough to explain the rise of belief in a human Jesus, so pushing it past 85 is challenging in my mind. As late as 90 would be acceptable if there were a very compelling case for it being that late. Past 100 CE I think is impossible unless some very concrete evidence comes to light proving this to be true.

    But whereas I used to say Mark was likely written between 70 and 80 CE, I think I would now say between 75 and 85 CE. But the key thing for me is Mark has to be early enough to explain the development of everything that is dependent on it, which, in my view, is quite a lot.

    1. A solid case has been made that the Olivet Discourse was inspired by Hadrian’s punitive destruction following the Bar Kosiba revolt. cf. Detering, et al.

      No gospels of any sort are mentioned until c. 150, none of the canonical ones by name until c. 180. What, exactly, leads you to believe such a late date is impossible?

      1. Detering makes some good points, but like many people, I struggle with why Pilate would be used as the Governor instead of someone later if the story were actually written at that time. Also, the overall story to me seems more relevant to the 1st war, as by the time of the 3rd war many of the issues raised in the story are no longer relevant. The story is clearly set in the time prior to the first destruction, and thus seems to be about the first destruction, about the transition from the state of Jewish society prior to the first destruction to after it.

        I just wonder if Detering is reading too much into the “desolating sacrilege”.

        And from my view, the Mark wasn’t written until around 140 CE, then there is a lot to explain about the time between Paul and 140. I think the case for Paul’s writings being before the first war is strong, so what we would have then would be a void of roughly 100 years between the writings of Paul and James, then nothing for 100 years, then the Gospel of Mark and a sort of “revival” of Jesus worship and a flurry of writings coming out in the period from 140 to 180, many of which are falsely trying to be portrayed as having been written before the first war or shortly after.

        1. I struggle with why Pilate would be used as the Governor instead of someone later if the story were actually written at that time.

          I don’t follow how the time period of a fictional story can tell us anything about when that story was written. Both Malory and Zimmer Bradley wrote about King Arthur, but 500 years apart.

          Einhorn sees the use of Pilate as an intentional misdirect. But Pilate’s presence, in a story set around a century in the hazy past, can be fully explained by a casual cribbing of Josephus by an author who showed little regard for accuracy anywhere else.


          The story is clearly set in the time prior to the first destruction….

          And yet Jesus’ primary antagonists are the Pharisees, who only rose to prominence following the destruction of the Temple. Jesus preaches in local synagogues, which didn’t exist in the AD 30’s. Jesus’ antinomian positions, too, are anachronistic; a decade or two after his departure, his original followers will be resisting such newfangled ideas emanating from Paul.


          I think the case for Paul’s writings being before the first war is strong….

          What do you make then, of the extensive philological & theological study that concludes the epistles are not true letters, are pastiches of disparate source material, are addressed to mature ekklesia that could not have arisen so quickly, and primarily discuss 2nd Century concerns and conflicts?

          How does an early composition jibe with the first record of them appearing only c. 140, or Justin Martyr’s apparent complete ignorance of them or of Paul himself?

          Recognize that the gospels and epistles appeared de novo mid 2nd Century, with no historical Jesus of Nazareth predicating them, and the ‘100-year void’, which troubles you so, disappears.

            1. Never mind — I slogged through that wall o’ text myself:

              At a seminar organized by none other than James Crossley, archaeologist Jodi Magness — who believes Jesus was buried at Nazareth, the gospels are historical, and the Testimonium Flavianum is the real deal — gave a “tour de force” slideshow that “basically nuked any suggestion there weren’t such things” as synagogues.

              Her arguments:

              • “Synagogue” just means ‘gathering place’ [an ‘assembly’ but whatever], so they could’ve been in all sorts of locations that left no archaeological evidence;

              • Any excavated building whose purpose is not clear could’ve been a synagogue;

              • They had one in Jerusalem, so they must’ve had them elsewhere, too;

              • Some pretty pictures of buildings that believers in the gospels have convinced themselves must’ve been those very same synagogues mentioned in the gospels.

              Wow. Could’ve, could’ve, must’ve, must’ve. No wonder The Great Brain considers the “case now closed.”

          1. Yes the Pharisees are a later concern, but they did rise to power in the 70s so someone writing in the 70s or 80s could easily have discussed them. Synagogues did exist prior to the destruction of the 2nd temple and after it. Certainly they existed in the 70s and 80s.

            It may well be that many writings don’t surface in Romans hands until the mid 2nd century, but the epistles of Paul, James and Hebrews clearly are written from a perspective that shows no knowledge of the destruction of the temple or the war.

            I don’t find it difficult to believe that it took some decades for many of these writings to make their way into the hands of Roman scholars.

            I don’t think the scenario you lay out is impossible, but I also don’t think its necessary to explain the material either. But I’ll admit I haven’t studied the deep details of such a case and will look into it more. I did find Detering’s paper on the subject somewhat persuasive, but not entirely and to me the whole issue just raises too many unnecessary challenges to an already challenging proposition.

            Proposing that Mark is a fictional narrative created around 75 CE is hard enough, trying to convince people that it was invented around 140 is needless self flagellation.

            1. re

              the epistles of Paul, James and Hebrews clearly are written from a perspective that shows no knowledge of the destruction of the temple or the war.

              I’m pretty sure the Mishnah (‘published’ around 180-200 AD), talks about the Temple as if it’s still standing –
              … in the world described by the Mishnah the Temple still exists and the laws that governed it are expressed in the present tense … the Mishnah itself ignores the events of the Roman occupation of the land of Israel. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/mishnah/
              Maybe the Tosefta does, too. I don’t know about the Gemara or the Talmuds.

              It is only now that these things are being better unpacked, eg. –

              The Mishnah’s ritual narratives are a series of texts of varying length – from one or two sentences to a whole tractate – embedded in the Mishnah’s continuous discourse that describe in vivid detail how rituals were performed in the Temple, in relation to the Temple, or in the court of law …

              In the past, the Mishnah’s ritual narratives have been studied in one of two ways. Traditionally, they were treated as transparent historical accounts which provide the historian or the scholar of religion access to historical events and to rituals performed in the time of the Second Temple. Jacob Neusner took the opposite approach, arguing that the Temple-oriented ritual narratives (like all Temple material in the Mishnah) were pure fantasies created by rabbis of the Ushan generation (mid-second century CE), living after the destruction of the Temple. According to Neusner, the rabbis created a utopian fantasy in which the sacred center of Judaism, the Temple, continued to exist within the religious imagination of its authors. Both of these approaches, which are problematic in their extreme stances toward the narratives, took important steps in describing the ritual narratives as a collectivity.

              In this dissertation I break with the earlier approaches and treat these narratives neither as transparent history nor as total fantasies, but as far more complicated and nuanced texts with characteristic narrative shape and thematics. My approach is informed by a multidisciplinary perspective incorporating insights from the study of the Mishnah, the study of narrative, and the study of ritual, and I build on recent scholarly work on the Mishnah, especially works on the historical context of the Mishnah and on the Mishnah’s narrative. Similarly, I build on the recent studies of Beth Berkowitz and Ishay Rosen Zvi, who treat individual narratives from a culture-critical perspective.

              From The Ritual Narrative Genre in The Mishnah: the Invention of the Rabbinic Past in the Representation of Temple Ritual, a Dissertation in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations presented to the Faculties of the University of Pennsylvania by Naftali S. Cohn in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy 2008

              From the abstract –

              the rabbinic narration of past ritual can best be treated as collective memory. By remembering the [Temple] Court in a position of authority over temple ritual, the rabbis are imagining this past institution in the image of the legal-ritual role they are attempting to construct for themselves in their present.

              1. It’s one thing to talk about the temple as if its still standing in that way, but can you seriously think that the letter to the Romans would just ignore the hostilities between Jews and Rome at that point? The whole period from 66 to 140 was one of constant and major conflict between Roman and the Jews. That all of this conflict would have just been completely ignored in the Pauline letters doesn’t make any sense. They had to have been written before such conflict started.

              2. r.g,
                Sure, but there is no logic to any of these texts or the contexts assumed of them (ha, inadvertent pun: texts that con). Paul is mainly portrayed as a proselytiser to the Gentiles. All the Pauline letters are to places outside Judea, ‘Israel’, Galilee, etc., including Rome.

                Romans 1 is a general spiel. Romans 2:17-24 is to challenge the Jews. Romans 2:25- the end of chap. 4 is more sales pitch, and Rom 2:25 to 3:6 could be written in response to Nerva’s changes to the fiscus Iudaicus: changes which made it more desirable to renounce one’s Jewishness, especially for slaves and their families and other relatively new converts (in recent generations), or those considering conversion after meeting the Jewish diaspora. As could Romans 6:16-22/23, and perhaps all of Romans chapter 7.

                Romans 9 could be a post temple destruction appeal to Jews.

                Perhaps not mentioning the destruction of the temple was seen as part of a good sales pitch?

            2. Proposing that Mark is a fictional narrative created around 75 CE is hard enough, trying to convince people that it was invented around 140 is needless self flagellation.

              I’m interested in figuring out as best as possible what really happened, not adjusting the talking points to appeal to fence-sitters or whoever you have in mind.

              The orthodox timeline is both built atop a series of lies, and used to provide cover for those lies. All the evidence points to a 2nd century origin of the bulk of the NT, and the pieces all fall into place when seen from that perspective.

  3. Bernier’s methodology is yet more circular reasoning, the intellectual equivalent of that desperate air combat defensive tactic, the Lufbery.

  4. I put all NT texts no earlier than the era of Hadrian, and all arguments to first-century dating are jokes as the NT texts thoroughly depends on conflicts with Jewish terrorism practised by Lukuas et al, as well as on conflicts with heresies from no earlier than the second century. Further, I do not succumb to the ideology of Markan priority, but see the canonical synoptics as further reworkings of proto-synoptic texts which progressively euhemerized and judaized prior proto-gnostic/hermetic roots, driven by the schizophreneous desire to both embrace the OT and combat the Jews. The relative order of the synoptics becomes thus largely irrelevant.

  5. I don’t think we can be sure that any of the Gospels were cited until Justin or even later. Many passages we read about are also found in Matthew but without attribution to a gospel “according to Matthew”. It is equally possible that the gospel incorporated various free-floating sayings. Mark is said to be known to Justin solely on the basis of Justin’s reference to sons of Boanerges.

    The problem gets thornier when we see indications that the gospels we have were later developments: Our Gospel of Luke cannot have been the Luke Macion knew, and we see indications that before our canonical version there was no nativity story: the gospel quite possibly began at 3:1.

    Ditto for Mark. We keep in mind questions arising over the Secret Mark gospel; and within the gospel itself there are odd “seams” that indicate something has been added or is missing from an earlier composition.

    As for Mark having access to Paul’s letters, I have faint memories of a study done on when Paul’s letters were collated into a single volume either end of first century or early second. Is it more reasonable to think of Mark having access to such a collected volume?

    As for the abomination of desolation, we have Haenchen’s interpretation to consider, also: https://vridar.org/2018/03/10/the-abomination-of-desolation-in-mark-13-what-did-the-reader-need-to-understand/

    Whenever Mark wrote I think it would have to be a time of persecutions. We might normally think of Trajan and Pliny’s letter being a good indicator of those happening from early second century, but then we have the real possibility (probability) that Pliny’s letter is a forgery! https://vridar.org/2016/02/17/fresh-doubts-on-authenticity-of-plinys-letter-about-the-christians/

    1. I have faint memories of a study done on when Paul’s letters were collated into a single volume either end of first century or early second.

      Was the subject of that study Marcion’s apostolikon?

        1. Is it David Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins?

          Robert M Price mentions this in Amazing Colossal Apostle, sounds like what you are describing.

          1. Ah, I am sure it is Trobisch! Thank you! I am away from my hard copy collection right now so I cannot check to doubly confirm but will do so when I return. But I am confident that you have identified it.

    2. All good info to keep in mind. I think the author of Mark working from a collection of Paul’s writings does seem the most probable, but of course it is possible that whoever wrote Mark collected these writings independently on his own as well. But yeah, a lot of good stuff to look into there. Thanks, also to MrHorse’s reference.

  6. I really wish before these folks came up with their great “new” dating method they would apply it to a work of popular fiction and see what happens. My personal favorite is “Gone with the wind” but any number of examples would suffice.

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