Monday, January 20, 2014

Fr Longenecker on dating the New Testament



I keep an eye on Fr Dwight Longenecker’s blog “Standing on My Head” (which is HERE). Born in the USA, Longenecker is a former Evangelical who became a priest of the Church of England, and is now a Roman Catholic priest back in the USA. He’s no slouch intellectually; nor is he easy to pigeonhole in terms of what particular stream of the contemporary Catholic Church he belongs to. He’s just - well - mainstream. On 20th November last year, he posted a little article which expresses exactly my view of a whole branch of purported scholarship. Now, I must say that I have always been fascinated by theories of the origins of sub strata of Biblical texts and how they might have been edited by the writers who incorporated them into the literature that became canonical. 

But as a student I had come across C.S. Lewis’ devastating 1959 article “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”, now published in “Fern-seed and Elephants” (text HERE) at about the same time as I made my decision to write essays as if I believed the latest theories, in order to get through the subjects, while - to be honest - I was becoming more and more sceptical about the worth of such unbridled unbelief as actual scholarship. It is so uncool, even among some of the theologically orthodox, to question the assumptions of the biblical critics, that I’ve really left the area alone, even on this blog. But the short sharp blows dealt by Fr Longenecker in his blog post were so good that I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. 
     

Dating the New Testament

For the life of me I have never been able to figure out why scholars make such a big difficulty out of dating the New Testament.

On the face of it, the problem is not so difficult, but what we have to do is take things at face value with common sense. Once we get into academic theories about what might have happened it is all a bit like conspiracy theories–in which one scrap of ambiguous evidence may mean that and may mean this and may mean something else, then the theorists start building great castles in the air from scraps of evidence combined with huge chunks of speculation. Then other scholars speculate further on the speculation until the result is so far from the real events as to be laughable. Once you go down that route of possible other authors, possible later dates and possible editorial changes–for which there is no evidence anywhere–you end up in a labyrinth of confusion and chaos–and we know who the Lord of confusion and chaos is . . .

If we work with common sense and take things at face value it is actually very easy to discover the dating of the New Testament:

First you need a verifiable historical date. We could use 70AD the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, but we have an earlier reliable date:  65AD. We know this is the year St Peter and St Paul were killed in Rome during the persecution of the Emperor Nero. Therefore Paul’s epistles and the first epistle of Peter were all written before 65 AD.

The Acts of the Apostles was written by Luke–the same person who wrote the gospel of Luke. The Acts of the Apostles does not mention the death of Peter and Paul. If Peter and Paul had died by the time it had been completed we can be sure Luke would have mentioned their martyrdom. He would have mentioned their martyrdom for three reasons: he told the story of Stephen’s martyrdom and he related the death of the apostle James. Thirdly, the death of the martyrs was an important feature for the early Christians. They used it as a teaching point. John does just this in his mention of the death of Peter in his gospel.

Because the deaths of Peter and Paul are not mentioned in Acts of the Apostles we can be confident that it was written before 65AD.

The Acts of the Apostles makes it clear that the Gospel of Luke was written before the Acts of the Apostles. Luke says in his opening words, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.”Therefore the Gospel of Luke was written before 65 AD.

Scholars believe the Gospel of Luke was based on the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew. If the gospel of Luke depended on Mark and Matthew, then they were also written before 65 AD.

Jesus Christ was crucified 33AD. Therefore the main three gospels were written within just thirty or so years of the death of Christ. John’s gospel was written after 65 AD and before the death of John around 90 AD.

This leaves the question of authorship. Some scholars dispute the authorship of the books of the New Testament saying that apostles’ names were attached to them, but they were written by a secretary or another author altogether.  There is some possibility that a secretary wrote some of the material in the New Testament–especially if the stories were based on the preaching of the Apostles. This is probably the case, for example, with the epistles of Peter.

However, the idea that whole books were fabricated later and assigned to the Apostles is far fetched. While this happened with the obviously later Gnostic Gospels like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, there is little evidence that this type of pseudo graphical writing took place in the early development of the New Testament.

While some of the writing of St Paul evidences different vocabulary and style this is not significant enough to say that the books were not written by him. Style and vocabulary vary greatly within any writer’s work.


Why do scholars try so hard then to give a late date to the New Testament? Because they have another agenda. If Jesus really claimed to be God incarnate–as the gospels show–then it is difficult to avoid this conclusion about him. However, if these “mythological” elements can be shown to be later inventions, then they can be dismissed, and the only way to show that they were later inventions is to try to prove that the gospels were written at a later date. In other words, the radically liberal New Testament scholars are not only lousy scholars. They’re liars.




1 comments:

Alice Linsley said...

I enjoy reading Fr. Longenecker too. I find him funny and often profound. Usually, he is very down-to-earth and practical.

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