Determining Date and Authorship

This is a continuation of my series on Biblical criticism that started with my post Overview of Biblical Criticism – I. You might think I would now continue with Overview II, but I’m not nearly that consistent. My next post will continue that line, but first I want to look at some caveats, and a couple of the most basic issues in examining an ancient document.

One of the major difficulties that I see with Biblical scholarship in general and Biblical criticism in general is simply that conclusions are often presented very confidently without an adequate presentation of the facts and reasoning that produced that conclusion. This is overwhelmingly true in material written for popular use.

I’m writing this series to try to help improve on this situation. While I cannot provide a graduate education in Biblical studies or Biblical criticism in a few blog entries, I believe I can point out some key elements of how conclusions are reached in those areas so that lay persons can judge what they read more effectively.


First, some general considerations.

1. Don’t read just one introduction to a Bible book or one article on a topic. While some writers are quite good at summarizing all views and providing the arguments and evidence for them, those writers are rarely the ones who write for a popular audience, and if they do, time and space constraints make it difficult for them to truly cover the evidence.

2. Choose your sources carefully. Make sure that you have material both that presents the argument from the point of view of your faith community, if any, and also something that argues a view that is substantially different.

3. Don’t mistake confidence for accuracy. There’s the old story about the minister who wrote in the margin of his sermon notes, “Point weak, shout louder.” That’s true of scholars sometimes as well. I recall a book by a well-known Biblical critic of the 20th century. As I was reading the first couple of chapters about 60 or so years after he had written them, I noted that there was a great deal there that I would disagree with, that there was hardly anything there I would regard as “proven,” and that much of the material had not stood the test of time in scholarly consensus. At the start of the next chapter he said, “All of this is the assured result of scientific study.” (I paraphrase.) Beware of that attitude!

Date and Authorship:

No matter where we go with Biblical criticism, from studying whole sections of the Bible involving multiple books (such as Samuel/Kings, Chronicles/Ezra/Nehemiah) down to individual pericopae (such as a single parable), the question of who wrote it and when will come up. (We will also want to ask what it was written for, and to whom, but that goes beyond the scope of this post.) Any student of the Bible will encounter this type of question, as it is included in most introductions to Biblical books in study Bibles. But if you look at a variety of study Bibles you will find significant disagreements on these questions.

How can one determine the date and authorship of a book? We generally divide the evidence into two categories, external and internal.

External evidence includes a number of elements.

  1. References by other authors
    If another author makes reference to a work, that work must obviously have been written before the reference. In addition, in some cases the author may simply state when he believes the document was written. One must, of course, determine the reliability of the person making the reference. A good example of this is when Eusebius quotes Papias (c. 140 CE) regarding the authorship of the gospel of Mark. External references also apply to authorship.
  2. Manuscripts of the text
    Again obviously the document must have been written earlier than the earliest known manuscript of this. You may laugh at having this mentioned as a specific point, but the discovery of a tiny fragment of the gospel of John from about 125 CE forced many scholars to rethink their dating of the gospel into the mid to late 2nd century.
  3. Quotations of the text
    Clearly, the book must have been written before it can be quoted. This is not always a simple as it might seem, because in many cases there is a valid question as to who is quoting whom, and therefore is the later author. Ancient authors did not always specify the name of a person they were quoting, and also sometimes quoted very loosely or simply made allusion to a passage.
  4. Inclusions in collections
    Again, it’s clear that a book can’t be part of a collection before it’s actually available. This issue comes up in dating books of the Hebrew Bible, because it appears that in the Hebrew book order, the books were accepted as canonical in three portions–Torah, Prophets, and Writings. For Christian interpreters, this applies particularly to the book of Daniel, which is grouped with the major prophets in our English Bibles, alongside Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, but is included in the Writings in the Hebrew Bible. The Writings tend to contain later material. (More on Daniel below.)

Internal evidence:

  1. Statements in the book itself
    When the book of Isaiah begins, “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz which he saw in the which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah,” we get a pretty straightforward piece of evidence for authorship and date. Though there is some disagreement about the precise dates of the reigns of those kings, that variation is hardly significant to the issue at hand. (But see below.)
  2. Chronological statements in the book
    Here I’m talking about statements that go beyond the general prologue I quoted above. For example, Isaiah 6 begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died . . .” Daniel gives precise chronological information, though in his case the dating is nonetheless controversial.
  3. Allusions and references to events and persons
    In the case of Isaiah, this is one of the key issues that has produced the 2nd Isaiah theory. Between chapters 44 and 48, reference is made to the Persian King Cyrus, who was certainly not a contemporary of the kings listed earlier. Was Isaiah in fact prophesying the work of Cyrus that much in advance, or was part of the book written later. (I’ll be talking a bit more about this in an introduction to Isaiah I’m preparing to place on my Energion.com web site. I’ll make a short blog post when that introduction is completed.) Such references can be obscure in themselves, such as the reference to Darius in Daniel 6. Who is this guy?
  4. Language used
    This is tricky, because a document can be written in archaic language, but especially when it concerns technical terms, it can be helpful. Jacob Milgrom, in his 3 volume Anchor Bible Commentary on Leviticus, surveys technical terms from the temple and tabernacle in late Jewish literature, in Ezekiel, and in the Pentateuch, and shows that the priestly source for the Pentateuch must be dated before Ezekiel. Since Ezekiel’s date is fairly well established, that pushes the date back considerably from what critical scholars have been saying.
  5. Interests and priorities
    This is more general, but one can expect a writer who is very interested in war to have written in either a time of war or when war was threatened. If the writer talks about a time of peace and complacency, he may be writing in an era when those were problems. This is very general, but if you have other indicators, it can help make the result more precise.

In determining authorship, in addition to these items, one must consider the style of writing. This is a process of comparing material that is known to be by the author in question with items that are in dispute. One must be very careful of such arguments, however, because they often depend on assumptions about the topic and surrounding history. For example, in arguing that Jesus did not make certain statements about the end of the world, some scholars depend on the assumption that he must be either a wisdom teacher or an eschatalogical preacher, but not both. That assumption may or may not be valid, but it is often made implicitly and accepted without due consideration. In arguing that the pastoral epistles must be written by a disciple of Paul and attributed to him, scholars work with an assumption of how the church developed (things in the pastoral epistles reflect a more developed church structure than existed in the time of Paul), and also an assumption of how much Paul’s own interests can changes as circumstances develop. Again, these may be valid assumptions, but they need to be considered and accepted or rejected consciously.

These are just the bare basics, but I will touch on many of these topics more as I continue this series on Biblical criticism.

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