Christian Literature (According to Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament [New York: Doubleday, 1997])
Apostolic Fathers based on Ehrman’s Loeb editions and Clayton Jefford’s Reading the Apostolic Fathers Lost Sources
Writings of the Jerusalem Church? Other letters by Paul, including perhaps some to Jews
Sources Embedded in Present books
Testimonia Collections (very early 30s)
Pre-canonical Passion Narrative (30s)
Miracle stories Controversy stories, etc.
Sayings source in Matthew and Luke (Q)
John’s Gospel of Signs and Discourse Sources
|1 Thessalonians||c. 50||Corinth|
|2 Corinthians||mid 57||Macedonia|
|*Didache 1-10, 16||50-60s?||Palestine?|
|2 Timothy||late 60s?||Rome?|
|Revelation||92-96||Asia Minor, author fr. Palestine|
|1 Clement||mid 90s||Rome|
|2 Thessalonians||end 1st cent. ?|
|1 John||c. 100|
|2 John||c. 100|
|3 John||shortly after 100|
|Ignatius||c. 110||Antioch, Smyrna, Troas|
|Polycarp to Philippians||110-120?||Smyrna|
|2 Clement||140s?||Corinth? Egypt?|
|Martyrdom of Polycarp||c. 155||Smyrna|
|Epistle to Diognetus||150-200?|
Information found in Jared’s post come from his online courses through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anyone can take these courses. If you are interested, click here.
If you address my questions in your next posst, let me know. Regarding the time-line of the epistles, what evidence do we have that any of the books were written in the 1st century? Both Christian Bible scholars as well as those that are agnostic ie. Bart Ehrman, seem to believe that at least a few of the Pauine Epistles were in fact written by Paul.
Also, the four Gospels seem to be at least some-what reliable in painting the historical Jesus, otherwise people like you and Dr. Ehrman would not have a job.
I have a difficult time understanding how a textual critic could view the New Testament as providing any reliable history and the evidence that is used to validate its historicity and dating. It just seems there are a lot of assumptions and I have yet to discover if they are valid/warranted. In all my readings, I have been unable to find anyone that addresses these basic questions regarding dating and reliablity of the text. How does the New Testament compare to other ancient “historical” texts?
You pack foundational questions into a brief space. How do we date biblical books, specifically to the first century? Great important question. Here are a few answers.
1. External evidence
2. Internal evidence
a. Historical references
b. Relative chronology
c. Presumed context
All of these work together. I will explain each one and then how they go together. External evidence consists of the actual physical manuscripts of the biblical books as well as references to the books in other literature.
Internal evidence examines clues in the text themselves, Sherlock style. Sherlock PhD that is. You need to be careful because some biblical texts pretend to be written earlier than they are…. Pseudepigraphy is the shining example, where an author pretends to be someone famous, usually to get his book read. There are many examples of this in the New Testament. The Book of Daniel is the best example from the Jewish Scriptures… the book pretends to be written in the 500s, but it gets historical details wrong, has a few Greek loan words, and describes the situation in detail that happened between 167-165 BCE. But let’s get back to the New Testament.
We are fortunate when we get historical references. Key for the New Testament is the destruction of the temple in 70. So if you look at the beginning of Mark 13, Jesus predicts that the temple will be destroyed and “not one stone will remain upon the other.” Chances are this is pre-70, because 1) it is vague and 2) it is technically wrong, since part of the outer temple still exists—the Western Wall (granted, the entire temple complex was destroyed, so it is a bit nitpicky). But when you get to Matthew and Luke, the destruction of the temple is described in much more specific detail. (details)
Relative chronology means that we can determine when a book was written in relation to others. Presumed context answers the question, “What historical situation is presupposed by this text?” One key to presumed context is that there are general trajectories in early Christian literature. The Jews come across as more guilty because they were blamed for Jesus’ death, the Romans come across as more innocent because the Christians wanted to get in their good graces, Jesus comes across as more perfect and divine, miracles become more spectacular, church organization increases, women become more oppressed, and the return of Jesus is deemphasized. The magic question when it comes to parallels accounts or forms of a text is this: Which one best explains the existence of the others?
So let’s explore how these all go together. In the early 1900s, scholars presumed that the Gospel of John was written in the second century. That all changed when Papyrus 52 was discovered, a credit card sized fragment containing a few verses of John 18. This tiny fragment was all they needed to demonstrate that the Gospel of John was written earlier than supposed (granted, theoretically it could have come from a source for John, but scholars assume it comes from the finished gospel. We have other early Christian texts we can’t pinpoint like Papyrus Egerton 2). The portrayal of Jesus in John is radically different than in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke). In the Synoptics Jesus speaks in pithy parables and his message is to repent because the Kingdom of God is near. In John Jesus speaks about himself for chapters on end. In John 9:22 says that the Jews (which is a weird appellation to start with) agreed that anyone who believed in Jesus would be put out of the synagogue. This does not fit around 30, but does fit the end of the first century.
Ok, back to the Pauline epistles. As you note virtually all scholars are in agreement that Paul wrote seven letters attributed to him: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, 1-2 Corinthians, and Romans. Note that Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy and Titus *also* claim to be Paul but most scholars doubt they were. And then Hebrews was attributed to Paul but there is no claim or evidence that he wrote it. Romans was clearly Paul’s last (and finest) letter.
So here is a bit of the logic. We know that there was a Christian leader named Paul in the 40s-60s. We have quite a few letters that claim to be written by Paul. Some of these fit the historical context of the 40s-50s, are consistent in style and theology, etc. So these are the undisputed Paulines. Tradition is that Paul was killed under Nero in about 64, same as Peter. So the most logical conclusion is that we have letters that really were written by Paul rather than that all the letters we have are forged. Interesting point: the letters by Paul are the *only* books of the NT where we can identify the author. Revelation was written by someone named John but we don’t know which John. Mark was likely written by *a* Mark but again we don’t know which one (since there is no logical reason why someone would attribute the gospel to “Mark”).
So let’s look at 1 Thessalonians for a minute. The main problem with this letter seems to be that people were dying; Paul addresses this in chapter 4, and in verse 15 presupposes that he himself will be alive when Jesus returns (“we who are alive…”). There is no Church structure… when Paul writes a letter he does not write it to an elder or bishop but to the entire community. So lots of indications that it was written early. It is interesting to note given these are the earliest books in the New Testament that they have a very high Christology, that is Jesus is already worshipped as Lord and probably even as God to a degree.
Feel free to ask follow up questions.
Though scholars differ with how confident they are regarding what we can know about the historical Jesus, most scholars think that we can have a reasonably clear view of what Jesus said and did, and I agree. The most powerful evidence here is the Criterion of Dissimilarity, that is traditions that embarrassed and caused problems for the early Christians so they needed to explain them away. Things like the fact Jesus was crucified as a criminal, betrayed by one of his closest followers, predicted the destruction of the temple, was baptized by John the Baptist (which would make him inferior to John), predicted the coming of the Kingdom of God in the lifetime of his disciples… all these issues caused problems for later Christians and these traditions are glossed over, corrected, or neglected in later texts. And the picture of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who claimed to be the Messiah is quite plausible.
A summary of these historical principles is that people tell stories about history for only one of two reasons: either it is true or people want it to be true (or as a subset are afraid it might be true). We know Christians altered or invented tons of stories about Jesus. Just read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas or Gospel of Peter for some crazy stuff.
What exactly are you asking when you talk about the reliability of the text? Are you talking textual criticism, or the reliability of the narratives contained within?
Here is a quote from Ehrman’s textbook chapter on the historical Jesus:
“To sum up: we know that Christians were modifying and inventing stories about Jesus and that our written sources preserve both historically reliable information and theologically motivated accounts. In light of this situation, the traditions that we can most rely on as historically accurate are those that are independently attested in a number of sources, that do not appear to have been created to fulfill a need in the early Christian community, and that make sense in light of a first-century Palestinian context. Finally, I should emphasize that with respect to Jesus, or indeed any historical person, the historian can do no more than establish probabilities. In no case can we reconstruct the past with absolute certitude. All that we can do is take the evidence that happens to survive and determine to the best of our abilities what probably happened. Thus, scholars will always disagree about the end results of their labors. But nothing can be done about this: the past cannot ever be empirically proved, it can only be reconstructed.” (p. 250).
So really it comes down to a squishy humanities form of the scientific method. The best history is that which best explains all available evidence as simply as possible with the least amount of contradictions.
Again, great questions.
Thank you for the terrefic answers. I think the first two books by Bart Ehrman that I ever read were “Lost Scripture” and “Lost Christianities.” I don’t quite remember how I discovered him, but I am glad I did. What makes him so effective as a writer (and I believe you share some of this talent) is his abilitly to take very idiosyncratic, technical information and dispense it in a way that is understandable to average Joe. I have found that what he shares is not new, just unknown to most people. This is information that a lot of Protestant ministers and thologians know about, but for some reason don’t share with their congregations. When I hear conservative Christians say, “Oh, that’s not new. We new that all along,” I just have to say, “Well, you should have been saying it then.”
Using the temple’s destruction to date Mark, was new information for me. Thank you.
Occasionally I will be asked to teach the Gospel Doctrine class. I taught one last year that dealt with the end of Paul’s life as recorded in Acts of the Apostles. I proposed a few questions which you addressed in your response. They were: How do we know who wrote the Gospels? How do we know who wrote the Pauline epistles? How do we know Paul wrote Hebrews? As a side note, I love Origen’s answer to that last question. The questions led to a fun discussion and dispelled some long-held assumptions.
Regarding 1 Thesasalonian holding a high Christology, does it point to the fact that early Christians did see Jesus as God quite early? And, that this was NOT a later development?
Ben Witherington in his book, “What Have They Done With Jesus?”, has an interesting hypothesis on who the beloved disciple was and if it was John the Revelator or John the Apostle or someone else.
What outside sources do we have to show that Paul was a real historical figure?
Regarding pseudoepigraphical and apographical works, I find these are only important in that they show how some early Christians and some inter-Testamental Hebrews thought. I once had a member in my ward come up and start talking about a book that was not included in the New Testament and was sure it was true and it proved early tampering with the texts. I didn’t know how to tell him he was wrong without making him feel stupid; he had so much zeel. I ended up telling him any ways. You mentioned the Gospel of Peter. Didn’t the early church for the most part reject that as authoratative? I guess what I am saying is, it might have some wild stories about Jesus, but not many people accepted the book as canonical. Does using the argument about the unreliabilty of a pseuoepigraphical work like The Gospel of Peter do anything to weaken the reliability of the New Testament text as historically accurate?
Regarding Papyrus 52, I always wondered why it was assumed not to be a copy of a source for John. Thanks for addressing that.
I am the Young Men’s President so I get to teach them some real fun stuff. I don’t use the manual at all. The boys want to be stretched and challenged. I have addressed Markaen priority with them; how the Gospels become less and less anti-Semetic and that indicates which ones were written first. I took Bart Ehrman up on his challenge and the boys and I read the resurrection narrative in “parallel form” as opposed to “linear form” They had a ton of fun with that. I made a chart that each young man had and we went through all 4 Gospels two Easters ago to see where things were the same and different.
I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions. It is a real treat for me. You asked me what I meant by “reliable.” I mean, as a ancient historical text, how do the New and Old Testaments compare to other ancient biographies, narratives, etc.? How reliable are the narratives that are in the bible? How does textual criticism inform us on the subject?
The quote from Ehrman, from what book does it come? Is it from, “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture”? I have that book, as well as over 100 other books on my wish list at Barnes and Noble. I don’t know when I will get to it. Plus, it is crazy expensive.
Now, some unsolicited advice. Write a book about all this foundational stuff you just addressed. As far as I know, no one has done a book that addresses this stuff. There is a possibility that someone has written and published a book dealing with dating the New Testament through Varsity Press, but no one but conservative Christians and me reads anything they publish. Some other books I have on my wish list are, “Origen, Against Heresy” (all volumes) and “Origen, Against Celsus” ( all volumes) Since you are an expert on him, you should write a biography for the lay-person. I would read it.
I will address the points you bring up but trust me, I plan on writing several books on the History of the Bible; it will be one of my main publishing goals.
Cool. Really cool. I look forward to it Jared.
I feel sorry for people who have difficulty with early authorship of the parts of the New Testament. I have been sifting through information about the Bible for more than 40 years. The Jerusalem school for synoptic studies has done great work in pin-pointing time, place and linguistic influence on the New Testament. The first written life story of Jesus’ time on earth was within the first few years by Matthew in Hebrew before he went out to spread the message. It was translated into Greek and parts were copied into various collections of teachings and anecdotes. Reassembly shows up in the intro to Luke and helps us understand why and how the various gospels came to be; all accurate per incident and quote. Galatians was written at the time of Acts 15; Thessalonians and Corinthians a little later. A good timeline of the epistles is given in the Nelson NKJV Chronological Bible. Almost all were written contemporaneous to the writer and the intended recipients. The timeline at the top of this page is much later than it actually occurred. The unwillingness to acknowledge authorship and timeliness is appalling. I hope the timeline will be amended soon to more reflect reality.