"[T]o discover the distance of the earth to the sun is a task for thought of the first degree, in this case for astronomy; to discover what it is exactly that we are doing when we discover the distance of the earth from the sun is a task for thought of the second degree, in this instance for logic or the philosophy of science." So writes Collingwood, on the first page of The Idea of History. The distinction between thought of the first and second degrees (hardly original to Collingwood, of course) has had me thinking me about why chronology matters. I tease myself, saying that my concern with chronology is the result of a vaguely unhealthy neurotic obsession, and that's probably true to a certain extent, but the reality is that I would hardly invest a significant amount of time and energy into the matter if I did not think it to be a worthwhile historiographical pursuit. Why is it thus worthwhile? What exactly am I doing when I discover the dates at which the New Testament texts were written?
I'll begin with a cautionary tale. These days there is a peculiar myth circulating the internet, namely that Jesus never existed. It is peculiar, because it is evidently false to anyone actually competent to speak to the matter, and thus it is really quite baffling that anyone would actually hold it to be true. It is a myth because it stands as a fantastic and incredible (literally, in-credible) tale that is propagated in order to give warrant to a certain ideology, namely a remarkably unsophisticated new atheism (I mean, really, one hardly needs to demonstrate that Jesus did not exist in order to reject belief in God, nor would Jesus' non-existence demonstrate that God never existed). Like just about any modern myth held by the grossly under-informed, its proponents love to adopt the trappings of the sciences, whether human or natural. In the case of "mythicism," as this myth is called (in a sublime moment of remarkable yet unintentional self-parody), the trappings adopted are largely those of religious studies, including but not limited to century-old and utterly refuted history-of-religion theories about dying-and-rising gods and other ideas long ago consigned to the dustbin of brilliant but disastrously wrong hypotheses (Frazer was a genius, no doubt. He also happened to be utterly mistaken).
Also among the trappings of religious studies adopted by mythicist pseudoscientists is what I call the "consensus chronology" of the dates at which the New Testament text were written. In this chronology Paul's letters predate all the canonical gospels. One aspect of the standard mythicist myth is that since one can read Paul such that he is not referring to Jesus as an actual flesh-and-blood person, it must follow that originally Jesus began as a purely cosmic and mythological figure who was historicized in the gospels. Let us leave aside the fact that is predicated upon a purely tendentious and demonstrably false reading of Paul. (Honestly, if one cannot see that this is purely tendentious and demonstrably false then one merely reveals that one is lacking in competence to speak to the matter. There are matters upon which informed persons can disagree. Then there are matters upon which disagreement indicates that at least one interlocutor is not qualified to be part of the discussion). For my purposes, what is more interesting is that this depends upon the consensus chronology, which runs from Paul to the gospels. If, as I have come to believe, Mark's Gospel predates and Matthew's is roughly coeval with Paul's earliest undisputed epistles, and Luke's roughly coeval with and John's about a half-decade later than Paul's latest, then things suddenly change. Suddenly the trajectory "From Paul to Gospels" becomes empirically unsound, in addition to the illegitimate conversion of that trajectory into "From myth to history." This doesn't even begin to touch the special pleading involved in rejecting a consensus position adopted by virtually every New Testament scholar (that Jesus existed) while accepting without reflection a consensus position adopted by most but hardly all such scholars. If we are all mistaken on something so fundamental to the discipline, then how can it be assumed without investigation that the majority of us are correct on anything else?
Chronology is often referred to as the backbone of history, and with good reason. If the basis of history is narrative, then chronology is its most fundamental building block. It is the outline of our narrative. Now, of course, we might present our narrative out of chronological order, much like Tarantino does in Pulp Fiction, but Pulp Fiction also reminds us of the importance of chronology: for it is only when one pieces together the proper chronological order of the narrated events does one fully understand what was going on in the story (also, does anyone else wish that Big Kahuna Burger was a real thing? Seriously). For good or for ill, we are forever trapped in the flow of time, and that means that our understanding of our existence takes on an inescapably temporal dimension. Chronology is perhaps the most basic way that we have of making sense of that temporal dimension when thinking about the non-repeating sequence of unique events with which historians are so concerned (the calendar perhaps the most basic way that we have of making sense of that temporal dimension when thinking about the repeating cycle of days, weeks, months, years, etc.). It is what tells us that if Paul and Luther both write at least formally similar things about justification, that Luther was influenced by his reading of Paul rather than Paul by his reading of Luther (and thus while Luther might be described legitimately as Pauline, Paul cannot easily be described as Lutheran, except in the sense used by Steve Westerholm to describe the "Lutheran" reception of Paul). It reflects our judgment that Marcion knew Luke's Gospel, rather than the author of Luke's Gospel knowing Marcion's writings. When we discover chronology, we discover the basic rudiments of human history.