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Follow-Up on According to John: Theological Development and Determining Date and Authorship

In my Google Hangout discussion I mentioned using the development of theological concepts in dating a particular writing. I don’t think I really covered the issue involved all that well, so I’m going to follow up briefly here. My purpose is not to argue any particular position, but to illustrate the issues.

If I might start from a slightly broader approach, one of the ways in which one dates a particular writing is by looking at things in it that connect to events outside of it. Hopefully some of those things outside of it can be dated more precisely than the writing itself. In all cases, one should be aware that no single element provides an absolute answer. One normally gathers a set of arguments and searches for the best possible explanation of all the data. Often people reject an argument as weak when it is not intended to stand alone at all, but rather is just suggestive. It has to be combined with other data.

To take an example from the Hebrew scriptures, the destruction of Samaria (722-721 BCE) is described both in 2 Kings and in Assyrian records. We can get quite precise dating from the Assyrian records, while we only have relative dating from Kings. We can tie the events together with a high degree of accuracy because the event is described in both.

Narrowing it down a bit, consider both the authorship and dating of the pastoral epistles, Titus and 1 & 2 Timothy. Many scholars believe that these were written by someone in Paul’s name after Paul had died. Note here how authorship and dating interact. If Paul wrote the pastoral epistles they must date no later than the early 60s CE, since Paul dies in that period. He is unlikely to be producing new epistles after his death! Here, however, it works the other way. If it isn’t Paul that wrote them, then it is likely they were written after Paul’s death. Nobody is likely to be sending around letters claiming to be from Paul while Paul was still alive, at least not without inviting scandal.

But why the later date? One argument relates to church history. Some would hold that the church organization displayed in the pastoral epistles is too advanced to reflect the time of Paul. In a sense, then, the later writer would be using Paul’s name to bless these developments in church organization. I’m not going to try to argue this one way or the other as that’s not my purpose. What I do want to point out is that this form of dating requires two things: 1) A correct reading of the level of church organization reflected in the epistle, and 2) An accurate assessment of the development of church organization.

Regarding the first, let’s consider the Greek word episkopos. When you see this word in the pastoral epistles how do you understand it and translate it? How do you see it’s relation to the diakonos? Is it bishops and priests, or perhaps a more informal general overseer and local minister? What is the role and authority of those making the appointments. I’m not an expert on any of this. What I will point out is that people see these terms and the discussion of church leadership in the pastoral epistles differently. This will impact any decision on dating that relates to the development of church organization.

Regarding the second, one has to determine just how church structure developed. This is a task for a church historian who will look both at the New Testament evidence, and the evidence of the early church fathers as they either reflect or describe the church organization that exists at that point.

Now remember that each argument need not be decisive. Far from it. There will be many minor indicators and many indicators that could be argued either way.

I referenced one in my discussion, the dating of Hebrews, and my difference of opinion with my friend (and Energion author), Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. One of the most important datable events of the first century of church history is the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Now, Elgin and I differ on the probable dating of the book of Hebrews. First, note that if the author of Hebrews is Paul (ably argued by David Alan Black in The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul), then it must be dated no later than the early 60s CE. Why? See above on Paul’s death.

But the particular point that I mention here is that Elgin and I take the same piece of evidence and see a different result. I see the author of Hebrews building his entire argument on the tabernacle in the wilderness, and thus see the destruction of the temple (not in existence at the historical time our author is referencing) as much less relevant. In fact, one might argue that the author uses the tabernacle because the temple was no longer in existence. But Elgin argues that one could hardly make this argument after the destruction of the temple without mentioning that event. And as much as I may hate admitting it, he does have a point. So the evidence weighs lightly in this case.

But now we finally get down to the issue at hand, which is dating based on theological development. This is akin to dating the pastoral epistles based on church organization but each element of the argument becomes harder. Let’s consider the case of christology. I would argue a high christology for the gospel of John. The Word was God. The Word became flesh. Case closed. Well, not quite as easily as all that, but I’d come back to those two points after arguing other interpretations.

To date a writing in this way requires one to both read the theology of the writing in question correctly and also to have a well calibrated idea of the way in which theology developed. If you move into later times, you can look at whether a writer argues for or against gnostic positions, and just what gnostic positions are reflected. I parallel John 1:1-18 to the thought developed in Hebrews 1:1 – 4:13. In both cases we have the message presented through Jesus (a Son/the Word) placed against the message presented by Moses, with superiority attributed to the message through the Son. I would argue that the christology of Hebrews 1:1-3 is as high as the christology in John. If I then date Hebrews to the decade or so following the destruction of Jerusalem, some would say that the christology is questionable at that point. Most interpreters since the time of the reformation, for example, have interpreted the term “Word of God” in Hebrews 4:12 as referring to the scriptures and not to the person of Jesus.

If we turn to Elgin’s dating, which is earlier, then his reading of Hebrews as high christology (as he does) means that a high christology and the associated vocabulary would be available much earlier. I refer to Elgin because he’s a friend. There are plenty of scholars who would hold either the position I do or that he does. Elgin and I hope to arrange a discussion of this between us, not so that one of us can win, but so that we can clarify the way these arguments are formulated and help readers make their own decisions. This particular type of argument is one of the weakest. I’m not arguing that it’s not worth doing, but it requires a broad knowledge and very careful work to make successfully.

A reverse effect is also possible. One might find a way to read Hebrews as having a lower christology, simply present Jesus as the Son of God, because one assumes due to date that this is the way it should be read. In doing this sort of work, one should always be very conscious of one’s own biases.

My point in going through all of this is to help readers get an idea of how to read introductions to Bible books, especially when those introductions differ. There are massive differences in dating given for portions of the New Testament. Matthew, for example, might be dated all the way from the 40s to the late 80s. Luke is often dated in the mid-80s, but there’s an interesting piece of internal evidence that suggests an earlier date. Acts ends before the death of Paul. One explanation for this is that the book was written before Paul died. There are other explanations; never imagine that a debate such as this is settled in one line! In addition, Luke was written before Acts (relative dating is important!), and so Luke must have been written before the mid 60s because it must have been written before Acts. But if there’s a good reason for Paul’s death to be left out of Acts, other than that it hadn’t happened yet, all this might change!

Knowing how these arguments are formulated will help you read introductions intelligently.

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