Wednesday, 6 February 2019

On Dating the Old Testament

(A small apologia for my use of "Old Testament" rather than "Hebrew Bible." Working in a Catholic context, I am interested in not just the books shared in common by Judaism and Christian, but also in the so-called "Deuterocanon" or "Apocrypha." As really the only historic category that encompasses these 46 books is "Old Testament," I use this term, with the clear statement that supersessionism is neither implicit nor intellectually and morally acceptable).

I have been giving some more thought to the method of Old Testament chronology, specifically how to go about establishing when specific books were written. The starting point is what I have learned from working on NewTestament chronology (cf. previous posts, and eventually my forthcoming monograph with Baker, Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament), and to that end I would remind my devoted reader of the three basic categories of argumentation that I have recognized in the work of establishing the date of specific NT books: synchronization, authorial biography, and contextualization. Synchronization is the classic work of establishing the text’s temporal relationship to independently datable events or situations, including the composition of other texts. For instance, when Isaiah 1:1 tells us that Isaiah had a vision in the days of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, we can be reasonably certain that the text dates no later than the reigns of these men. At least two factors tend to vitiate but do not necessarily obviate the use of synchronization in the work of Old Testament chronology: one, the relative dearth of independently datable events or situations in the Old Testament corpus; two, the fact that certain texts appear to have been composed over very lengthy periods of time. Both problems exist within the work of New Testament chronology, but are more acute in Old Testament (although the latter problem is perhaps overstated at times, and is often driven more by lingering Victorian commitments than by careful attention to the evidence). Indeed, without getting into the nitty gritty of the evidence, my guess is that there are several prominent books of the Old Testament for which arguments from synchronization will be almost entirely fruitless.

Authorial biography begins from what we know about the author independent of the text to ask where in her or his life the text is best situated. Nowhere in the biblical corpus is this of greater utility than the work of Pauline chronology, where it yields the most precise compositional dates of probably either testament (for instance, one must argue in spite of the best evidence if one wants to date Romans at any time other than late 56 or early 57). As with synchronization, authorial biography is of greatly limited utility to the work of establishing the date of Old Testament books, in large part because in very few cases do we know much about the authors independent of the texts in question. Indeed, off the top of my head, I cannot think of any Old Testament book for which arguments from authorial biography could be particularly fruitful. It is entirely conceivable to me that this entire category of argumentation would be absent from efforts to establish the dates of the Old Testament texts.

Within New Testament chronology, contextualization consists of establishing the text’s temporal relationship to the general course of early Christian development. James Crossley’s treatment of the date of Mark’s Gospel is a classic example here. Noting that Mark’s Gospel takes it for granted that Jesus was Torah observant whereas Matthew’s and Luke’s must address questions about whether he was, Crossley argues that Mark’s Gospel is most appropriately situated before the Gentile mission had forced early Christians to seriously confront the matter of Torah observance. In Old Testament studies, contextualization would comparably seek to establish the text's temporal relationship to the general course of developments in Israel and the broader Near Eastern milieu. A recent example might be Sandra Lynn Richter’s argument that the economics supposed by the Urdeuteronium (which she defines roughly as consisting of Deuteronomy 4.44–27.26) are most reflective of those which straddle the Iron I/Iron II transition (i.e. in more classical terms, the period of the Judges through the early monarchic period); if Prof. Richter is correct on this matter, then all other things being equal such a range becomes the best candidate for dating this material, as any other alternative will almost certainly be significantly less parsimonious. My expectation is that arguments from contextualization would be the most fruitful in the work of establishing the dates of particular Old Testament writings.

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