Less than two centuries ago the scholarly current first began to run toward a new and different view of the New Testament. The New Testament books were written, said the new views, neither when — nor by whom — the Church and tradition had long supposed and incorporated into the very titles of the books in the Authorized and other versions.
By 1850, the Tubingen school of biblical criticism prevailed. F. C. Baur, dominating the scholarly scene, questioned the authorship of every book except Revelation and four of the epistles of Paul. All the rest, including Acts and Mark, were placed well into the second century, far removed from the events they described — and from apostolicity!
Once again, by 1900, the scheme had been modified. Harnack, for example, placed only Jude, James and II Peter in the second century. But views at that time were extremely varied and scholarly disagreements volatile.
"By 1950 the gap between radical and conservative had narrowed considerably, and we find a remarkable degree of consensus." Thus John A. T. Robinson, in the introduction to his most recent book, delineates the progress of New Testament dating in a survey by fifty-year periods.
Robinson Strikes Again In Redating the New Testament, the controversial Cambridge dean, former Anglican bishop, British theologian and author (Honest to God, The Human Face of God, etc.) has demonstrated once again that he can be just as challenging and provocative as ever. But this time there is no challenge of the virgin birth, no espousal of "the new morality," no denial of biblical absolutes.
Instead, building on the basis of his numerous earlier articles and a vast knowledge of the writings of others, he finds reasons sufficient to now persuade him to date the original writing of every New Testament book to times earlier by far than are generally accepted — even before the culmination of the Jewish-Roman conflict (AD. 66-70) and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple which occurred in AD. 70. Indeed, he finds the major clue for his unusually early dating in these very events, and in the fantastic significance — as it seems to him — of the New Testament's complete failure to mention or to otherwise betray any evidence of the fall of Jerusalem or its results, in spite of its necessarily tremendous impact on the early Church. Most scholars date the books (with the exception of some of Paul's epistles) after that climactic event. Ktimmel's theory — the standard dating at present — puts most of the New Testament writings between AD. 80 and 110.
Robinson, though he has the highest respect for fellow scholars, has a lot to say about the inadequacies of presently accepted scholarly techniques. There is, for example, his statement concerning the "manifold tyranny of unexamined assumptions..... Different schools of critics take these over from their predecessors, and of course individual commentators and writers of introductions take them over from each other. Fashions and critical orthodoxies are established which it becomes as hard to go against in this field as in any other.... Some of this is sheer scholarly laziness" (p. 345).
Once having become accepted among scholars, ideas and chronologies tend to become embedded in academic concrete.
Continuing, Robinson explains: "Each new student enters a field already marked out for him by datelines which modesty as well as sloth prompt him to accept, and having accepted to preserve. The mere fact that 'New Testament introduction' tends to occupy his earliest and most inexperienced years has a formative effect, for good or for ill, on all his subsequent work" (p. 350).
Early in the book Robinson explains the reason for his own investigation: "In fact, ever since the form critics assumed the basic solutions of the source critics (particularly with regard to the synoptic problem), and the redaction critics assumed the work of the form critics, the chronology of the New Testament documents has scarcely been subjected to fresh examination.... It is only when one pauses to do this that one realizes how thin is the foundation for some of the textbook answers and how circular the arguments for many of the relative datings. Disturb the position of one major piece and the pattern starts disconcertingly to dissolve" (p. 9).
He speaks of the "remnants of Tubingen presuppositions" from which scholarship has had great difficulty shaking itself free, and of the "lingering influence of an older criticism, too thoroughly bent upon negative results" (p. 164).
And what were those influences and presuppositions? A priori assumptions and guesses regarding the length of time necessary for the evolutionary development of Christian ecclesiastical thought (and/or the documented congregational problems and needs), which are supposed, sometimes erroneously, to be evidenced in the books in question.
"A priori arguments from Christology to chronology," he points out, "and indeed from any 'development' to the time required for it, are almost wholly unreliable" (p. 85). He argues that every situation or doctrine evidenced in the New Testament could and did come to the fore in the approximate period 15 to 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.
But do not suppose that Robinson's purpose is in any way bent toward critical or academic iconoclasm. Far from it. His is not a negative purpose, nor is Redating a negative book.
Positive Contribution Throughout, in closely reasoned point-by-point treatment, Robinson presents a basis or a justification for his dating of each book, and challenges the reader, scholarly or otherwise, to prove him wrong. He does not claim to be infallible, but is convinced that in the main he is on the right track in lowering New Testament dates.
This is not the place to reexamine his evidence (nor to judge it), but merely to point to its support for the position that the New Testament is, after all, exactly what it should be: the record written by apostles and a few other teachers in the very first generation of Christians.
It may come as a shock to some lay Christians today to find him dating the book of Revelation (and indeed all the writings of John) pre-A.D. 70. Robinson notes that "the consensus of the textbooks, which inform the student within fairly agreed limits when any given book of the New Testament was written, rests upon much slighter foundations than he probably supposes" and, "surprising to discover... only one book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse, is dated in early Christian writings" (p. 337). Nevertheless, he takes issue with the reliability of even that one sole exception. He dates the book of Revelation's backdrop of persecution of Christians (as well as its scenes of an existing Temple) not in the reign of Emperor Domitian (whose supposed persecutions he gives reasons to doubt), but in the then recent reign of Nero in the mid-60s (whose persecutions of Christians are not in dispute). This was, after all, he points out, following Hort, "'the general tendency of criticism' for most of the nineteenth century" (p. 224).
An "objection has sometimes been brought against a date in the 60s from the fact that Laodicea, almost totally destroyed in the earthquake of 60-61, is addressed as an affluent church. But the city took pride in having rebuilt itself without waiting for help from imperial funds, and by the end of the decade might well have boasted, 'How well I have done! I have everything I want in the world' (Rev. 3:17). Ironically Moffatt holds that it is irrelevant to connect this with the reconstruction after the earthquake because by the 90s 'the incident is too far back'! This is an instance of how arbitrary [and circular!] dating procedures so often are" (p. 230).
Other Books The epistles of John, Robinson believes, reflect the same period of budding heresy and takeovers by false teachers that is evidenced in the letters of Paul in the late 50s and beginning of the 60s. The same can be said for Jude and II Peter. The deviation of the grammar and writing style from I Peter to II Peter and II Peter's stylistic resemblance to Jude, Robinson accounts for by suggesting that Jude wrote II Peter at Peter's direction and for his signature. The "first" letter implied in II Peter 3:1 was not I Peter but Jude. I Peter is placed at the onset of the Neronian persecution, spring 65.
The book of James was written very early, in the 40s, before there was a strict differentiation of Judaism from the Christian Church, which otherwise would have been reflected in this piece of typical Jewish-teaching literature.
Robinson accounts for the alleged differences of language between the different writings of John on the grounds of the elapse of a decade — critical in the life of the Church — between the epistles and Revelation. John's Gospel, an even earlier book, retained in John's final editing the marks of its original uncanonical composition in the late 30s or 40s.
The other Gospels shared a similar early origin, in forms which were written and rewritten in the 40s and 50s. But Robinson completely rejects the necessity of having them written by the ecclesiastical "community," as has been the usual scholarly view in this generation. As to their resemblances and common sources, he says: "Though practically no one would question the fact of literary interrelationship between the synoptists, it is less clear than it was fifty years ago that the first three Gospels can be set in a simple chronological series or that we know what the order of the sequence is. Equally it is much less evident than it once seemed that John is dependent upon, and for that reason later than, the synoptists" (pp. 338-339).
The book of Acts dates itself by the otherwise unanswerable question of why it ends as it does, with no climax, no special event, as if left unfinished to be continued as later events occurred. Robinson's verdict: Acts was written no later than A.D. 62. Acts then gives us the clues for constructing the framework of Paul's life and letters, which, Robinson accepts, were all written by Paul (not claiming the unsigned book of Hebrews, which, however, he believes was quite obviously written at a time when the Jewish Temple services it describes were in full swing).
Final Thought Throughout his monumental work, Robinson insists he is not alone in seeing the evidence for various earlier datings than has been the recent custom. In comment and footnotes he carefully documents a recent trend back toward conservative views, and an increasing tendency toward agreement with the kind of dating he now espouses.
Whatever the final verdict — and it is clear that scholarly debate has been reopened — the "book, somewhat paradoxically, seems certain to prove a powerful intellectual support for orthodox Christianity" (National Review, April 1, 1977).
Whatever the degree of acceptance on certain individual datings, the case Robinson presents is worth reading.