How Early was the New Testament Written?

New Book Argues for Early Composition


The dates of the texts that comprise the New Testament are largely contested. The only exceptions are the undisputed Pauline letters. Otherwise, there are a range of views on when the documents were written. The various views can be sorted into three general ranges: (1) early chronologies that argue for pre-70 dates, (2) middle chronologies that argue for dates between 70-100, and (3) late chronologies that put the New Testament documents into the second century. Most New Testament scholars tend to favor middle or late chronologies, which makes this new book from Jonathan Bernier so very interesting and provocative. The book is Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament: The Evidence for Early Composition (Baker, 2022), and Bernier is assistant professor of New Testament and executive director of the Lonergan Research Institute at Regis College, University of Toronto.


A Unique Defense

One thing that makes this book so important is that it represents one of only two attempts in modern scholarship to offer a full-length account of the chronology of the New Testament documents. The other attempt came from John Robinson in 1976, which also made a case for an early chronology. With the publication of Bernier's work, there are now two monograph length defenses of early chronology, though Robinson's book was methodologically faulty, a problem which is addressed by Bernier. The problem now is that, while many scholars assume a middle or late chronology, no full-scale defense of either middle or late chronologies has been written. Bernier suggests this is not because the evidence is especially strong for middle/late chronologies, but rather because it's not. In fact, a significant part of Bernier's work involves demonstrating that what is often cited as evidence for middle/late chronologies doesn't actually bear on the debate. For example, scholars sometimes argue that Jesus' prediction of the temple's destruction reveals the author's awareness of that event; as a result, the claim is made that gospels should be dated after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. Bernier shows why that's irrelevant to the discussion and why Jesus' prediction makes as much sense pre-70 as it does post-70. It seems to me a problem for the guild of New Testament studies that the majority view regarding chronology is largely unsubstantiated and that the minority view has now been defended at length, not once but twice. Bernier lays down the gauntlet at the end of the concluding chapter:

The reality is that with the publication of this work, two complete, monograph-length studies have been published since the turn of the twentieth century by professional biblical scholars who defend lower chronologies for the composition dates of the New Testament corpus, while there have been zero similar studies defending middle or higher chronologies. This puts the lower chronologies in an intellectually privileged position. The best way to offset this privilege is for professional New Testament scholars to produce comparable defenses of middle or higher chronologies. I genuinely hope that this occurs (280).


Methodological Rigor

One of the most impressive features of the book is its methodological rigor. Bernier looks at each document through the a three-part framework including: (1) synchronization, which involves identifying the text's temporal relationship to other events; (2) contextualization, which aims to situate the text temporally within the early development of Christianity in areas like ecclesiology, Christology, gentile inclusion, etc.; and (3) authorial biography. Bernier addresses the evidence in each area meticulously and thoughtfully. His arguments are judicious and do not overstate the case.


In short, I found this book to be intellectually stimulating, historically refreshing, and generally provocative in the even-handed way it challenged the assumptions of the academic guild. I'm eager to see the responses to it and join Bernier's call for the production of serious defenses of middle and late chronologies.

 

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online.


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