I get somewhat annoyed when, in discussions, people assign hard and fixed dates to certain – in this case Christian – works. Christian writings are especially problematic for dating because you need to understand what else was going on in the world that would have been known to the author.
So for example, if we find a document by an unknown person that says he lived in “New Amsterdam” then it’s reasonable to conclude that this person lived sometime after New York City was bought from the Native Americans but before New Amsterdam was renamed New York. Which is roughly the time period between 1625 and 1665… a span of 40 years.
The same methodology is used (and should be used) by New Testament scholars. Because of the destruction of the 2nd Temple that Jesus “predicts” in the gospel of Mark, this sets the no-earlier-than date of 70 CE – when the Temple actually was destroyed. To me, though, the same pericope sets a no-later-than date of 135 CE since it can also describe a contemporary account of the Bar-Kochba revolt. That’s a span of almost 70 years, which is unacceptable to most people because of our addiction to certainty. But I’m comfortable with that number.
Though other problems arise with this span though. In the Ignatian letters, he writes about some things that are peculiar to Matthew, such as the visiting astrologers and the virgin birth. I bring up Ignatius and Matthew because Matthew – according to the Two-Source Hypothesis solution to the Synoptic Problem – is using Mark as a source. But this brings up more problems. When was Ignatius writing? Was he really reading from Matthew or just recalling oral tradition/rumors? Remember, saviors with virgin births were a common meme in the first century. What if Matthew got the virgin birth theme from reading Ignatius and not the other way around? Do we have the same sort of time span for Ignatius’ letters? Are the Ignatian letters even authentic? All of those questions cannot be answered with any certainty.
And then there’s Paul’s body of writings. Traditionally, Paul was writing sometime in the 40s or 50s. But this is still just tradition based on Acts of the Apostles (that post went into my dating scheme of that work); the problem is that the earliest witness to a body of Paul’s writings was Marcion. Another problem is that we don’t even know if the seven authentic letters have maintained integrity (i.e. no interpolations) in the 100 year timespan between 40 CE and 140 CE. And then, Marcion’s Pauline letters aren’t even the ones found in our current New Testament so either Marcion subtracted from Paul, or the Catholics added to Paul – that pushes the earliest witness to our current Pauline letters to c. 170 CE with Irenaeus. That’s about a 130 year window that we don’t know who was writing/adding/subtracting to who knows what and where.
While Polycarp and Clement (of Rome, not Alexandria) mention Paul in passing, we still have to have no-earlier-than and no-later-than dates (there are fancy Latin terms for these, but I don’t feel like writing them lol) for Polycarp and Clement. The only thing that we have about those two is again Christian tradition. Nothing tangible.
The one tangible thing that dates Paul’s letters (at least, 2 Corinthians) is a reference to an “Aretas” who had a governor working for him in Damascus. But this is no smoking gun – it actually brings up more questions than it answers.
In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me
-2 Cor 11:32
Taking the (authentic) Pauline letters in isolation, this is the only passage that can be used to date when Paul lived. Paul says that there was a governor in Damascus who answered to King Aretas. The only time in history that an Aretas had control of Damascus was before 63 BCE when the Romans kicked him out. But that was Aretas III, not Aretas IV. The latter is the one who lived in the mid 1st century CE.
So there’s something fishy going on here.
So Paul lived a little over a century before he’s placed in traditional history, or this passage is an interpolation of some sort. I don’t like false dichotomies, but these are the two best options IMO. There are others (mistaken, overblown persecution complex, etc.), but they don’t seem too likely. Considering that the authentic Pauline letters already probably have interpolations in them, and we have “canonical” Pauline letters that are pseudepigrapha, I think this might be another case of interpolation. But what was the purpose of the interpolation?
The third option, that Aretas IV actually had control over Damascus c. 40 CE (as per Wikipedia) doesn’t seem likely. Damascus was under Roman control in 40 CE, so there’s no way that they’d let a foreign king control one of their provinces.
Damascus sat at the convergence of the Silk Road from China and the trade routes from Arabia and Palmyra. That Silk Road also served as a primary invasion route from Central Asia to the West and it was one of the main reasons why 4 Roman legions, 1/4 of the Roman Army under Augustus, was sitting in Syria in the first place.
The suggestion that a race as pragmatic as the Romans would willingly give such an important commercial and strategic position to a man who had recently been chased back to Nabatea by one of their generals is, simply, silly.
Here’s the passage in its “original” Greek:
εν δαμασκω ο εθναρχης αρετα του βασιλεως εφρουρει την πολιν δαμασκηνων πιασαι με
The word used for govenor here is εθναρχης or ethnarch. This is the same sort of title that the Herods had (they were technically tetrarchs not kings, a mistake in Mark [6:14] that Matthew [14:1] corrects in the same pericope). αρετα του βασιλεως::areta tou basileos is in genitive form, so the ethnarch mentioned prior to it belongs to him.
This presents a whole bunch of problems for dating Paul’s evangelism – though in the Pastorals, Paul mentions Pilate which is a no-earlier-than date of c. 33 CE (when Pilate was Prefect). The no-later-than date for the Pastorals is Irenaeus c. 170 CE. Scholars refuse to try to find the “authentic” Paul though they try to find the “authentic” Jesus. Without Paul, the birth of Modern Christianity becomes impossible to securely date to the first century. I make the distinction “modern” because there could have still been some sort of proto-Ebionite/Jesus movement that had nothing to do with god-men who gave people with enough faith some sort of eternal life.
Of course in the Jewish work called the Toledot Yeshu, the entire Jesus scenario plays out during the late Hasmonean era (1st century BCE), when Aretas III was in control of Damascus. Another fishy coincidence.
To support a “Paul” writing this c. 40 CE, DC Hindly has an interesting thesis:
The interest of the primary author (“Paul”) in women dishonoring her “head” and being shorn may have something to do with the Nazirite vow discharged by Queen Helena of Adiabene sometime in the late 40’s to mid 50’s CE. I can’t shake the feeling that the “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thess. 2:3-7 is the Emperor Gaius, and the restraining entity is the Governor of Syria, Petronius, dating the events of that letter to around 40 CE. If these are really indicators of date, then the order of Paul’s activities in Acts must certainly be wrong.
Basically, the primary material is authentically written c. 40 CE, but the secondary material (all of the Jesus/Christ language) is all interpolation; post 70 CE. Here is one example I noted in an earlier blog post.
In the gospel of John, the author has Christians being kicked out of the synagoges while Jesus was still alive. This doesn’t actually happen until around 95 CE with the council of Jamnia. This sets the no-earlier-than date for John to being that same date. John also never mentions the Sadducees, so this might mean they were a distant memory by the time John was writing (there are a couple of other options that I don’t feel like getting into at the moment). The beliefs of a proto-Ebionite named Cerinthus was said to be who this gospel was refuting. Cerinthus lived c. 100 CE so this moves the no-earlier-than date to when Cerinthus was alive. Which could still have been during the council of Jamnia. The no-later-than date is the lifetime of Valentinus, a gnostic and contemporary of Marcion who is said to have used John the most when he wrote his Homilies.
But wait – we still have another problem. Our current John is very anti-docetic so Valentinus couldn’t have been using our current John. So this pushes the “canonical” John’s no-later-than date to possibly to Tatian, who compiled four gospels into one harmony called the Diatessaron. This is a span of about 60 years.