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Dating Biblical Books

Dating Biblical Books

I will be dealing frequently with issues of date and authorship while discussing Paul. The reason for this is that there is a considerable variation in what books scholars believe that Paul wrote, so while giving perspectives, I need to deal with the differences in the books attributed to Paul and what picture emerges of the apostle.

As some background, let me embed two videos I’ve done on dating and authorship. One major problem with this discussion is that for most laypeople the discussion is quite opaque. They don’t really understand how scholars determine date and authorship, so they’re stuck with either a consensus, or with what is presented in their study materials.

The first video is on dating the book of Daniel. In this, I’m not trying to give you the answer, but rather to give you a look at the various considerations:

The video above is from my own YouTube channel. The next one is from the Energion Publications YouTube channel. It’s a dialogue with Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. on this topic. Elgin takes a somewhat more conservative approach than I do, but his approach is also conversation friendly, i.e., you are asked to look at and evaluate evidence.

Elgin is the author of Evidence for the Bible, among other books, and I’m author of When People Speak for God and Learning and Living Scripture, among other books.

Though it is in serious need of revision to add some disciplines/tools in biblical criticism, the pamphlet What Is Biblical Criticism? can be helpful.




Of Scholarship and Tribalism

Of Scholarship and Tribalism

When I was working on my MA, one of my professors recommended a paper I had written for publication. He suggested submitting it to the university’s journal, Andrews University Seminary Studies. I was of course greatly pleased to have one of my papers recognized in this way, especially considering the respect I had for that particular professor.

Some days later I was approached by the journal editor who informed me that the paper had been read by one reviewer, and that he wanted to talk to me before proceeding further. Apparently this reviewer had suggested that I was trying to become “a new Wellhausen” and that the paper should not be published for many, many reasons.

Now the fact is that my paper was not as interesting, nor as creative, nor as radical as the work of Julius Wellhausen, and the reader was in no sense commending me by referring to that famous name. Rather, it was his way of saying I was jumping tribes. The editor had several suggestions for me, but the one he favored involved dividing my paper into two parts, separating my interpretation from my discussion of structure, and he would publish the one on structure and then “consider” publishing a separate paper on the interpretation. Considering the interdependence of the two portions of the paper, after seeking some advice, I chose to withdraw the paper.

Now one isn’t supposed to know who one’s reviewers are in circumstances like these, but I found out because the reader cornered me right after graduation and told me. His reason for doing so was that he was concerned for my soul as, if I did work such as I had done in that paper, I was headed straight for perdition. Oh, and he also disagreed with my approach to the scholarship, but that was a footnote.

At the time, I associated such tribalism with conservative and fundamentalist scholarship. I had grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church with a belief in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, a 6,000 year age for the earth, a literal seven day creation week, and traditional authorship for the books of the New Testament, including all the gospels, the pastoral epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation. So I had seen the arguments that would make the same John author of the gospel, the epistles and the book of Revelation. In that context, suggesting I was trying to be a second Wellhausen was to suggest a radical departure from the norms of the tribe.

Well, I learned about jumping tribes. I first became unchurched and uninvolved. After many years I joined a new tribe. I became a member of a United Methodist congregation. In this new tribe, I thought, I would find church without the sort of loss of freedom to think represented by my former denomination. And indeed, there is a substantial difference. Yet there is a note of very similar tribalism.

Repeatedly I have heard in meetings that one should only use United Methodist curriculum. Presumably this is because organizationally prepared and approved curriculum materials are safe whereas others might lead the congregation astray. These arguments come from all sides. At one meeting it was in objection to a piece of Baptist material that was said to have “too much Jesus” in it. Really?

As a publisher, although not an academic publisher, I have noticed this same sort of thing from scholars. There are boundaries to the scholarship one wants to consider and discuss, and these boundaries often don’t have to do with the quality of the scholarship involved.

Excursus: What do I mean by quality in scholarship? Primarily I mean that a scholar should have a good overview knowledge of the literature in the field, have given consideration to opposing viewpoints in forming arguments, cite good sources, include original work, accurately represent opponents’ work, and present arguments based on evidence.

Readers give great latitude on all those points to someone they agree with, and become hypercritical with someone outside their tribe. Considering that people are people, there are always points to be criticized. In academic publishing, that’s one of the points. Hear those criticisms and hopefully improve down the road. The goal is consensus. (The tribes have labels such as “evangelical,” “fundamentalist,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “Methodist,” “Baptist,” and on and on.)

But that consensus comes at a price. Once a consensus is formed, it becomes difficult to get people to reconsider the consensus, because there is a tribe named “mainstream scholarship” and membership in it is desirable. You don’t want to be a crackpot. So the scholars wait for a sufficiently famous individual to break with the consensus or for something earth shattering to happen, that will break the consensus. Then people can move.

But if the consensus can later be broken, then surely it was already fragile even when it couldn’t be challenged, and the various crackpots who challenged it back then, and were summarily dismissed, may actually have been right. But no, we have to move with the consensus. Or so we’re told.

Of course, if a different tribe opposes us, they are just anti-intellectual! Know-nothings! Nobody in our own tribe supports them, so they can be dismissed!

What interests me most is that I see this view all around. Conservatives tell me that liberals are against academic freedom. Liberals tell me it’s conservatives. Evangelicals in the “evangelical mainstream” are accused of being there just because “evangelical” is a good label. Those outside are accused by those on the inside of just wanting the approval of men. The players and the playing field changes; the game does not.

I think it is quite possible for someone who grew up in a traditional background such as I did to have studied the same material I did, and to have concluded honestly that he or she should stick with the same set of views. I should not accuse that person of just seeking the approval of people (the SDA community, for example) because of that conclusion. It is possible for someone who starts from a liberal position to move toward conservative positions. I would like to see these things argued on the evidence. In fact, I don’t think one has successfully defended a position until one has defended it against the folks outside of the tribe.

It is from this view that I get my philosophy of publication. In particular, I designed the Participatory Study Series to represent different views. In this series the study guide to Ecclesiastes advances the claim that Solomon did, in fact, write the book, while the guide to Ephesians suggests that Paul did not write that epistle. It happens I disagree with both positions, but I’m delighted to see both books in the series. I also publish the book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul, which claims that Paul did write the book of Hebrews. Three for three: I disagree with all.

Well, I do admit that the last one has adjusted my position. I used to say that it was quite certain Paul did not write Hebrews, but beyond that it was impossible to say. Now I just say that there is no conclusive case on authorship.

Many might (and do) say that I have no idea what I’m doing if I can publish things that differ this greatly. On the contrary I have a very specific aim. If someone studies through the Participatory Study Series, I would like them to have approached the study of various biblical books from a number of different perspectives and developed the ability to evaluate these viewpoints and come to conclusions of their own. I never had, and do not now have, the desire to provide a set of study materials that display just one viewpoint.

This is not because I don’t have a viewpoint. I definitely do. While I never pursued academic work beyond the MA level, and while I do not write scholarly articles myself, I have been a lifelong consumer of biblical scholarship. What I want is for people to interact with these different viewpoints, especially those outside of the views of their tribe, and to be able to make up their own minds and defend their position. I bluntly find all the tribes (including the “no-tribe tribe) to be deficient on this point.

I’m often told that I look scattered. My response is that biblical scholarship looks narrow to me. I don’t mean in the sense that one can’t find a great variety of views, but rather in the sense that there are too few conversations between the various tribes.

My suggestion for the New Year is that you include in your reading a variety of materials written by people who would not be comfortable in your church or in your scholarly “club.” When you do so, try to give them the same benefit of the doubt that you would give to someone who was in your own crowd, or alternatively apply the same critical approach to those on the inside.

I think the results could be great!

Let’s Get Critical

Let’s Get Critical

It’s amazing to me how frequently we are do biblical criticism, but are not sufficiently critical in evaluating the results.

Now don’t take this as the complaint of someone who is afraid that biblical criticism will undermine the scriptures. I think the Bible can handle it. It’s not that I don’t think there will be issues. I just don’t think those issues are what the story is about, but that’s another post. I believe that we Christians can benefit from hearing the views of non-Christians about the meaning of our religious texts as well.

But it’s rather simply to find the holes in an existing theory, and much more difficult to build and defend a new one. The argument often becomes one of making a false dichotomy.

Take, for example, the authorship of the Pentateuch. I’m fairly thoroughly convinced by the nature of the text itself that the first five books of the Bible were not written by one man at one time, or even during one time period. I find the evidence for this quite convincing. Now I lean strongly toward a version of the documentary hypothesis, though my dating of the sources would be unorthodox. But I am much less certain of my beliefs about how the Pentateuch came to be than I am that it was not written by one person at one time.

Now I’ve heard the false dichotomy handled from both directions. Someone pokes a few holes in the documentary hypothesis—and heaven know there are holes to be poked—and then expects that one accept the alternative, authorship by Moses at one time. On the other hand, I’ve encountered people who poke a few holes in the singular authorship by Moses—and heaven know there are holes to be poked there too!—and then assumed that one would accept the documentary hypothesis as the only alternative.

But those are not the alternatives. One simple option is to question the sources and dates. There are plenty of options for dating the sources of the Pentateuch, if one accepts that there are sources. There are not just two alternatives.

My point is not to argue for some particular solution, but to point out that making the positive case for a particular solution is much more difficult.

Then we have the question of where we apply critical methodologies. Many people would have no problem considering how reliable a report of a battle from an Assyrian inscription or tablet was, but would not apply the same criteria to a story from Kings. There are Christians who would apply critical study to the Qur’an, but who would be very angry if the same methodology to the Bible. There are Muslims and Jews who find New Testament criticism very convincing, often heading straight to a minimalist or even mythicist position. But don’t go applying the same standards to the Qur’an or the Hebrew Bible. Then there are Christians who apply criticisms to evolutionary theory that no historical study, including the New Testament (resurrection anyone?) could possibly withstand.

This is natural and human. We tend to defend the things we believe. We even tend to defend the things we want to believe. But if we are going to claim to be critical—and I think that’s a good thing to be—then we need to be critical all the time. That will mean that many of the theories that we espouse must be espoused tentatively, with the knowledge that we could be wrong, and the expectation that in many cases we will be.

Can you apply a critical approach to the doctrines and beliefs of your own faith? Have you?

Confronting Critical Issues in Church

Confronting Critical Issues in Church

I’m using “critical” here in two senses: 1) critical study of the Bible, as in using the methodologies of the historical-critical method and 2) critical in the sense of “of key importance.

I believe that issues such as the inspiration of scripture, the nature of scripture, historicity (or not) of various passages, and creation and evolution should be addressed in church. They should be addressed in Sunday School, starting very young. In the modern world, we cannot expect children, not to mention older church members, never to be exposed to various alternate ideas.

I think that would, in itself, make a good case for seriously addressing these issues in church. If you can’t restrict the flow of information, it’s counterproductive, in the long run, to try. I believe it would be a bad idea to restrict this information in any case. People, including young people, should be encouraged to make a fully informed choice. But the fact that the nature of the world means they will get all that information just makes the idea of narrowly indoctrinating them on a particular view, and/or hoping that certain questions won’t come up, impractical as well as just plain wrong.

Ken Schenck brought this issue to my mind with his post How to Create a Fundamentalist. He notes: “All you have to do is bring history and context into the chemical process in a confrontative or combative way.” (You really need to read his whole post to get the context for this! He makes an important point.) Now trust me. If a young adult first encounters critical scholarship in a secular college, he or she will certainly encounter it in a confrontational or combative way.

Now don’t misunderstand me. A certain number of readers will probably assume that I mean we should somehow inoculate church members against the attack on their faith by critical methologies. I think that is going to be a failure as well.

Too often when we teach about other faiths in church, it becomes a matter of teaching them the most common stereotype of people of that faith and how to convert them. Just go to any Christian book store and look at short guides to other religions. Most of them will be of this type. It’s almost guaranteed that if a 100 page book covers several faiths and supposedly tells you how to “reach them for Christ” the description will be limited. Supposing someone learned about Christianity in 10 pages or less. Would you think they were ready to seriously address Christians?

I bring this up by analogy, because another approach to teaching something about biblical criticism and the myriad of related topics in church is to have a class that would be best titled “Biblical Critics and How Bad They Are.” This is the same sort of approach. I don’t think one has an adequate idea of critical methodologies, even for a layperson, unless one has actually worked with the texts looking at the process and results. (I have a brief series on my other blog, Threads from Henry’s Web, touching on some of the basics of biblical criticism, along with another series on basic ideas about origins.) But frequently what we hear is a litany of “silly” results (from the viewpoint of the speaker) so that we can laugh at critical scholars and go back to believe limited things.

But I think liberals and progressives are often weak in this area as well. They very often teach results of critical scholarship, supported largely by the authoritative credentials of particular teachers or speakers. I recall one Sunday School class that invited me to discuss the Jesus Seminar. They generally accepted the results of the seminar, and were pretty sure that conservative critics were wrong, but they actually had no idea how the seminar produced its results. So I took them to a pericope, looking at how one finds the boundaries, and then examining some of the criteria for authenticity. It was complex but enlightening.

I could have said that I disagree with significant portions of the Jesus Seminar methodology (I do) and cited other scholarship that opposes it, but instead I chose (and will always choose) to break things down to nuts and bolts, if I can possibly find the time. There are, of course, many other methodologies to look at in studying the historical Jesus, and I think if one puts in the effort, one can teach a lay audience a great deal more than we do.

Instead of this, I think we tend to teach biblical studies (lite) and theology (very lite), repeating the same sort of shallow things. There is plenty out there to teach, and if we’re afraid of discussing the major issues, we (in the mainline protestant churches especially) will continue to lose.


Michael Bird on Studying the Gospels

Michael Bird on Studying the Gospels

Michael Bird has a really excellent post on critical and faithful study of the gospels. I’m not going to extract from it, though my hat tip goes to Darrell Pursiful who extracted an excellent quote.

I was reminded of a book my company published recently, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully. I haven’t had time to write the “reflections” post I usually write regarding each book I publish, but some of those reflections would surely reflect the attitudes that Bird expresses.

Critical Views of OT vs. NT

Critical Views of OT vs. NT

I’ve noticed in conversation with a number of pastors over the last few years that many tend to take a more conservative view with regard to authorship of the New Testament than they do of the old. This is, of course, strictly anecdotal, limited to my own experience.

For example, someone may argue vehemently for early dating and historical reliability of the gospels, or Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles while accepting a late date for Daniel or for the final composition of the Pentateuch or a 2nd century date for Daniel.

My point is not that they are necessarily wrong. I take some relatively liberal positions on a number of these issues myself. What I’m wondering is whether there is indeed a difference. Most of my study, both formal and on my own since, has involved the Old Testament, and I tend to accept more of the Old Testament critical theories than I do for the New Testament, where I tend to avoid a specific decision on issues I haven’t studied in as much detail. But the folks to whom I’m referring have studied the New Testament more thoroughly than the Old, and take a reverse position.

I’ve written a brief survey, just 11 questions, to kind of get an idea. Doing this online is not scientific, and I haven’t spent enough time on these questions in any case, but I’d still be interested in getting a general idea.

I’ll post the results here later.

Online Survey Software

Take the Online Survey

A Brief Thought on Partitioning Epistles

A Brief Thought on Partitioning Epistles

I’ve just completed reading Frank J. Matera’s II Corinthians: A Commentary in the New Testament Library series.  I’m going to post a few notes in review of that commentary, but this is just a brief note, a passing thought, and definitely not a completed theory.

There are many cases in which critical theories about authorship strike me as rather well-taken.  First and second Isaiah come to mind with a very striking change in style and theme between chapter 35 (36-39 provide an historical interlude) providing at least a substantial basis to consider multiple authorship.  The entire book gives evidence of collection, and so one shouldn’t be too shocked to see evidence of a seam here and there.

But in other cases such suggestions seem a bit less well taken, and epistles are one case.  Keep in mind that I’ve done much more study of Isaiah than I have of any New Testament epistle, but still it seems to me that the very nature of an epistle should suggest that it is not necessarily going to be a coherent theological presentation as might be expected of a thesis or dissertation.

But some of the arguments seem to depend on a slightly too sanitary an image of what an epistle should be.  Second Corinthians reads to me like a letter written by a volatile, emotional, and very intense man.  That he goes from a “that’s OK now” view at the end of chapter 7, invites them to participate in a collection, and then switches back to castigating them about certain other faults in chapter 10 seems out of place if Paul wrote a carefully planned, drafted, and edited letter.  On the other hand if Paul was responding to the situation with mixed emotions–you’re getting it!  some of it!  not all of it!  let me tell you what else you need to do!–then the letter actually seems fairly coherent.

Matera deals with the literary integrity of 2 Corinthians on pp. 24-32 and then again briefly on pp. 214-215.  I think he makes some excellent arguments.  He doesn’t appeal to anything like the idea I’m presenting here.  He relates this to Paul’s rhetorical goals.  I’m afraid I think that the letter might have been structured better rhetorically (from a certain point of view) if drafted by a committee of bishops, but Paul was hardly to be compared to a committee of bishops!

I recall the recent pastoral letter from the United Methodist bishops on care for God’s creation, titled God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action.  I think that letter should be strongly contrasted to 2 Corinthians.  While I disagree with very little in the bishops’ letter, though in some cases I think they are not doing well in terms of priorities, I nonetheless find the letter boring and unchallenging.  I have heard several of those bishops preach and without exception they produce a better sermon on their own.

What I’m getting at here is that it seems to me that some critics expect Paul to produce something akin to the bishops’ letter.  Paul was not too likely to do such a thing, so instead we have 2 Corinthians.

Oldest Hebrew Inscription Found

Oldest Hebrew Inscription Found

The biblioblogosphere is alive with discussion of the released photo, line drawing, and preliminary translation of what appears to be the oldest example of Hebrew writing to date.  I found it originally through Evangelical Textual Criticism, but have since read quite a number of posts about it.

I’m afraid, however, that I must be missing something here with the claim that this will change the dating of Biblical texts by hundreds of years.  Which ones and why?  I already believed some sources of the Pentateuch dated from this period, and I don’t think oral transmission would be sufficient.  In addition, following Milgrom’s dating for P & H, there is already a strong proposal that places extended texts 300-400 years later than this.

In other words, there were serious suggestions of written texts going back this far even before this discovery.  Now it’s nice to have confirmation that such writing existed, rather than just speculation that it might/must have, at that early date, but I think it was a reasonable inference that it did.

At the same time, knowing that such things existed in this small form doesn’t really demonstrate that the longer literary texts existed at the same time, much as I’d like it to do so.

Perhaps I have simply always assumed written texts were quite possible substantially earlier than our earliest example of them.  The question remains quantity and quality.  Writing a small text on an ostracon and writing the final, redacted Pentateuch are substantially different things.

Bill Arnold on the Composition of Genesis

Bill Arnold on the Composition of Genesis

I have written quite a bit about this topic on this blog, and am also doing a series related to it on my Threads blog, so I was glad to see another summary article (HT:  Dr. Platypus).  Most lay people are not well acquainted with critical theories about the Pentateuch, as they get the briefest of descriptions followed by either a dismissal from one side or an assertion of scholarly consensus on the other.

Bill Arnold’s article is very useful for several reasons.  He outlines the overall theory very well along with traditional dating of the various sources.  He discusses some of the possibilities for the history of those sources, and alternative dating.  He does take up some non-traditional views, but in several cases (looking at the dating of P, and some of what he says on H), I happen to agree.  It’s always nice for the non-specialist to find some fine scholar agreeing with his much less sophisticated opinions!  I was convinced by the linguistic arguments from Dr. Jacob Milgrom in his Leviticus commentary from the Anchor Bible series, whose praises I sing from time to time.

Having said all that, I commend the article to those who would like to know more about this topic.