Thursday, 22 December 2016

Why Robinson Still Matters

Robinson's Redating the New Testament is of crucial significance because, to the best of my knowledge, it was the 20th-century's only monograph-length critical study devoted wholly to the dates of the New Testament texts. Indeed, Robinson, writing in 1976, had to look back to Harnack's Chronologie, published in 1896-7, to find something comparable to his own work. It was controversial because it argued for what I describe heuristically as a "lower" chronology for the New Testament texts. In my own work on the dates of the New Testament texts, I distinguish between lower, middle, and higher chronologies. While all three chronologies agree that the undisputed Pauline epistles cluster in the 50s, lower chronologies argue that the balance of the NT texts for the most part date between c. 40 and c. 70, middle chronologies that the balance dates largely between c. 70 and c. 100, and later chronologies push one or more larger works of the NT (these days, usually Luke and Acts) into the second century. Obviously this distinction is fuzzy, as are most heuristic schemes, but it's a good starting point.

Middle chronologies can also be described as the "consensus position," as by far the majority of NT scholars would subscribe to such a view. But the middle chronology has never been given a full, synthetic, defense, comparable to what Robinson did with the lower chronology, and nor has the higher chronology. The closest for the middle chronology was Harnack's aforementioned 1896-7 work, but--not surprisingly--what Harnack wrote 120 years ago does not quite correspond with the general contours of the modern middle chronology. Moreover, turning to Harnack for a synthetic defense of the middle chronology is to open a door to the lower chronology, as Harnack subsequently revised certain key dates downwards (notably those of the Gospels of Mark and Luke, and also Acts), such by the end of his career his chronological scheme straddled the lower and middle chronologies. The closest to a synthetic defense of the higher chronology is the work of F.C. Baur in the mid-19th century, but as the middle chronology is largely a response to that, and the early to the middle, an updated synthetic defense would be desirable. Indeed, Baur's chronology is hardly viable today, as even the most die-hard advocates of a higher chronology would tend to recognize. For synthetic treatments of the matter of the dates of the New Testament text, we are left with Robinson. He is virtually the only player on the field. Yet he only represents one of the three major options that are out there. This leaves us in a position where we tend to evince greater confidence in the dates of the New Testament than the current state of the research permits.

The way to begin correcting this situation is for three monographs to be produced: one giving an up-to-date defense of a lower chronology, one giving a defense of a middle chronology, and one giving a defense of a higher. I myself am presently working to produce a defense of the lower. I have no intention of writing defenses of the middle or the higher chronologies: the ideal situation is for each to be written by an enthusiastic advocate of the respective chronology, and I find that I can only be such with regard to the lower chronology. I would, quite simply, not be the right person to write the other two, necessary monographs. But I do believe they are necessary, and hope that they might emerge.

1 comment:

  1. JB, I once wrote a masters-level paper on the dating of the Book of Daniel. From the limited perspective I had at that level, it seemed to me that we lack a clear consensus on what it means to "date" a canonical work. In the case of Daniel, the consensus dating to the early second century BCE ignores that much of the book must have been composed in some form well before that date, and that the book was further revised after that date in certain traditions. There is of course no controversy about there being varying stages in Daniel's composition, and various versions of the book composed after (and probably, before) the book's consensus date. But the dating of the book to the early second century BCE tends (in a kind of circular logic) to reinforce an interpretation of the book tied to the Maccabean revolt, to the detriment of other ways to do critical-historical evaluation of the book. The dating also tends to give the Masoretic version of the text a higher priority than it probably deserves.

    The point I'm trying to make here is two-fold. First, I no longer know what it means to "date" a book. I think we naturally (but unfortunately) think of dating in anachronistic terms (just as we think of "authorship"). Second, we need to consider the accuracy of any "dating" in terms of the effect it has on scholarship that proceeds from such dating.