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Old 02-13-2001, 08:41 PM   #1
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Post The Dangers of Dating New Testament Dooks Based on Theological Development

Nomad has started a very interesting thread on dating the New Testament. Pursuant to that thread, I thought the following post was appropriate.

In the mid 1850s the influential Protestant Theologian Ferdinand Christian Baur argued that the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, could not have been composed before 160 CE. His works and influence gave rise to an entire school of New Testament criticism which followed this late dating. Among their reasons for dating John so late was its high degree of "Christology." That is, the Gospel of John is the gospel which most clearly asserts that Jesus is God. According to this school, and many modern commentators, the idea of Jesus as God did not develop until much later in Christianity. One simple finding, however, completely undermined this school of thought.

In 1920, Bernard P. Grenfell acquired some papyri fragments in Egypt. Among the hundreds of fragments was a scrap which measured only 2.5 by 3.5 inches and contained a few verses from the Gospel of John. Specifically, John 18:31-33, 37-38. It went unnoticed until in 1934, Professor C.H. Roberts discovered it while sorting through unpublished papyri belonging to the prestigious John Rylands Library. Amazed at his discovery, Professor Roberts published the fragment and a discussion of his significance. See C.H. Roberts, An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library (Manchester 1935).

An analysis of the style of the script revealed that the fragment dated from the first half of the second century. Most scholars now date it to 115 to 125 CE. See Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, at 85; Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, at 39. It is likely that p52 is the earliest part of the New Testament known to us today. Moreover, the implications of the find were and are enormous. This early dating shattered the Baur school of thought on John, and in my opinion, illustrates the problematic science of dating New Testament books because of their level of theological development. .

Because there is substantial agreement today that the Gospel of John was written around 92 CE, p52 is an extremely early copy of the original autograph. Only about 20-25 years separate the original from this fragment. This in itself carries enormous implications, but when viewed in light of where the p52 was found it carries even more significance. Traditionally, the Gospel of John is believed to have been written in Ephesus, in Asian Minor. P52 was found in Egypt. "P52 proves the existence and use of the Fourth Gospel during the first half of the second century in a provincial town along the Nile, far removed from its traditional place of composition." Metzger, at 39. Therefore, not only was the Gospel of John written in the First Century, it was well traveled within 20 years of its composition.

While I found these events interesting in and of themselves, I also think it demonstrates an important point. One of the drawbacks of dating New Testament books according to their "theological development" is very subjective and, therefore, prone to infusion of one's own bias. Moreover, this problem is exacerbated by our lack of non-New Testament information regarding the early church. Knowing just where christological development or the organizational level of the church really was at any given time is a very difficult prospect. So, not only is our understanding of early Christianity limited, but such analysis lends itself to being influenced by the biases of the commentator.
Old 02-14-2001, 01:50 PM   #2
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Hi Layman

Thank you again for a very interesting post. I agree that Christological development is not a very effective means for accurate dating of the Canons (or even necessarily the non-Canonical books), and although Baur's error was understandable, I wonder if the scholarly community has really learned from his mistake.

For example, we now see a movement to redate GJohn based on high Christological development! Setting aside the irony, I wonder if you have uncovered any more interesting evidence for dating this Gospel. I am having a brutal time finding anything more than educated guesses, not to mention a fair bit of wishful (or even intellectually lazy) thinking going on here.

I would be delighted to hear what you, or Bede, or any of the other members might have found out about this unique Gospel.

Thank you again, and peace,

Old 02-14-2001, 02:14 PM   #3
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A friend of mine posted this on the THC Discussion Board for Religious History. I respect his opinion but have fundamental differences with is methodology and conclusions. Regardless, it is an interesting piece. To give what credit I can, he posts as Oldboy:

In this post I will express my PERSONAL views on the development of the Gospel of John. Some of these views will rub against the grain of the majority of scholars.

The first part of this offering will be my hypothesis followed by some supporting evidence.

This is not intended to denigrate this gospel or to challenge it’s inspired status. In my hypothesis I will claim, at least, 3 distinct authors worked to compose the final gospel as we have it today. This is not unique for critical literary scholarship has successfully exposed this in Genesis and Isaiah. Therefore the doctrine of “Divine Inspiration” can still rationally be extended to include the multiple authors and editors. Without violating this doctrine within the texts as we presently have them.

“That the Gospel of John is obsessively christological is obvious to even the most casual reader.” This statement is taken from the acclaimed book “Related Strangers” by professor Stephen G. Wilson. It is representative of the views of nearly all Biblical scholars. Agreement on this gospel being the last composed is almost universal.

Contrary to this I believe it was, at least in part, the earliest written. However, I am in agreement with the majority opinion that it has undergone extensive editing and redacting. Also that the final editor completed his work about mid-2nd century.

The original author, I’ll call “A”, could possibly have been an eyewitness, although I doubt this. However, “A” more likely was well acquainted with people who, possibly, were eyewitnesses. This portion of or gospel was written about 45CE.

“A” then could possibly be the same author as what some scholars have proposed as the author of the hypothetical “Signs Gospel”. This is the theory relating to the source for the 4th Gospel.

Around the mid-70’s, I’ll call “John”, obtained a copy of “A’s” gospel. John was vaguely familiar with an oral version of the Gospel of Mark. However, he did not use Mark as his source but used “A’s”.

The certainty for the timing of the Parousia or the 2nd coming, at this point in history, was troubling and in serious question. “A’s” gospel did agree with that of Mark9: 1, and though John believed “A” was completely true, a present need was required to explain this delay.

John’s community originated just South of Samaria. It had accepted and converted some Samaritans early on as well as a few gentiles around 40CE. This caused some turmoil as traditionally Jews harbored great repugnancy toward Samaritans. Therefore this egalitarianism had to be shown as having the approval of Jesus in his gospel.

A Jewish revolt against Rome (66-70CE) brought this community into a direct line of fire, very early, causing their evacuation to the South and ultimately to Alexandria. Here is where John and his small community, a very early Jewish-Christian congregation, collided with the community of Mark. Peter was the focal point for Mark’s Christianity and it contained several customs unfamiliar to John.

In Alexandria John wrote his gospel by combining it with that of “A’s”. It gained a fair amount of popularity especially later among the Christian Gnostics like Valentinus and Heracleon.

Although no major doctrinal disputes existed John and Mark’s Christianity had numerous cultural disagreements. Such as those concerning Baptism and the Eucharist. By the mid-80’s John died. His community developed a schism and split. One group left Alexandria and ultimately settled near Ephesus. Here they came into contact with Pauline Christianity.

Their new leader, I’ll call “E”, found Paul’s theology compelling. Some of John’s gospel was ambiguous and unclear; therefore it needed to be revised as to more closely compliment Paul. Thus “E” added and omitted to John’s gospel into what we have today. There have been some later editors but they had only a very minor effect on the text.

End of Hypothesis

There are numerous reasons for believing the Gospel of John or “A’s” was the earliest written. The differences from the Synoptics all seem to be more accurate in “A”. Such as the Last Supper in “A” is on the eve of Passover; the Synoptics it is the Passover
meal. Certainly it could not have been the Passover meal as dictated by Jewish customs and laws.

“A” has superior knowledge of 1st century Jewish holidays and traditions. But most importantly “A” describes the 2 pools of Bethesda (5:2-9) and “gabbatha” (19:13) or the seat of judgment in Herod’s palace on the far West end with extreme accuracy and detail. No other writings seemed to agree with this but Archaeology (of the late 1950’s) verified this by discovery, confirming “A’s” descriptions as correct.

This would seem to suggest a geographical knowledge by the writer that surely would have placed him, pre 70CE, at the scene possibly as early as the 40’s. Also “A’s” use of a vocabulary quite similar to the writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and not by the Synoptics, tends to suggest its earlier composition.

“A” knew that big water-pots of stone were used for baths of purification, that Tabernacles and Encaenia were major festivals in Jerusalem, that circumcision was not permitted on the Sabbath. He also knew of details of the high priests; unlike the other gospel writers. His knowledge fits nicely with Josephus and early rabbinical literature that describes the mid-1st century milieu.

In John 4, we can detect the acceptance of the Samaritans. This might indicate the geographical approximation of this community. Certainly this was one of the earliest Jewish-Christian congregations. Lying between Galilee (North) and Jerusalem (South) it is a natural location for the birthplace of this group. Also in this area a good many gentiles lived some of who joined with this diverse sect. The Roman armies would have marched through Galilee into Samaria and on to Jerusalem at the onset of the 1st Revolt (66CE). Therefore forcing refugees Southward. This community could have surely been included in this group, ending up in Alexandria.

My basis for Alexandria is that at this time tradition tells us St. Mark, disciple of Peter and author of the gospel, settled there and became the patron Saint of Alexandria. John’s gospel speaks pejoratively of Peter. In fact he makes several references subordinating Peter to the Beloved Disciple.

I believe this strongly indicates a religio-cultural clash of these communities. Evidence of a difference can be found in Acts 18:24-26. Apollos was from Alexandria and knew of a Baptism only in the form of that of John the Baptist. By this we can safely assume a different Baptismal custom was on going in this city.

This Johannine community in Alexandria developed a schism (1John 2:18-29) and split. One group migrated North to Ephesus about 84CE. John probably died just before the split and his successors fought over leadership and the gospel.

In John’s gospel revision he amalgamated “A’s” with his own message of Jesus. The quality and accuracy was subordinate to “A” and he wove in some historical and geographical errors. This version of John’s gospel would be similar to the Edgerton 2 papyrus, a 2nd century unknown gospel writing found in 1935, showing a blend of our present John and the Synoptic Gospels.

While in Ephesus this community continued to attend the synagogues. But now this form of Christianity had developed some rituals and theological beliefs that were contrary to Judaism. Therefore the Jewish community issued the “birkat ha-minum”(John 9:22) benediction against heresies and expelled these Christians from their synagogues, about 85CE.

The final editor, “E”, now took over and set out to correct the misunderstandings incorporated in John’s Gospel. Influenced heavily by Pauline theology he reworked the text into a compatible homogeneous gospel, as we now know it. “E” believed everything written by John, the eyewitness, was true but needed to be up dated and clarified.

“E” certainly omitted and added text. He had to correct the wordings in the gospel to rededuce the Gnostic inferences and to come in line with the Pauline corpus. We can detect several of the additions but know nothing of the deductions.

Robin Lane Fox writes in “The Unauthorized Version”: “We have 88 fragments (of the
Bible) which are datable before 300CE…there was a great reluctance to correct any single word in the Christian scripture…which is sometimes stated as a matter of religious fact…none of the small errors and tiny differences of wording in the texts…effects any major item of Christian belief. This optimism may be misplaced. We have 2 early papyri which overlap across 70 verses of John’s Gospel, and even if the plain errors of the copyists are excluded, they differ at no less than 70 small places.” Fox is pointing to the ongoing process of editing shown in the discovered papyri and between “A”, John and “E”, none in their final form.

Before the discovery of the Rayland’s Papyrus, a fragment of John 18, dated to 135 –150, most scholars believed John to be a mid-2nd century composition. This was because they had believed the “birkat ha-minum” was issued after the 2nd Jewish revolt of 132-135. Today it is accepted as enacted in 85CE, and the Gospel to about 95. With numerous 20th century discoveries we now understand the underlying text (“A’s”) of John could be much earlier.

Scholars like Fox and Fortna date this sub-text to the 40’s or 50’s, and these are not conservative scholars.

My hypothesis is based on a paucity of evidence, to be sure, but it does fit with what we do have. It is important to note: The original ancient writers did not know they were writing sacred scripture, neither did the editors and redactors. However, each party has clearly demonstrated a profound reverence to writing the truth, as they understood it to be. Editing and redacting was only done to make the text more understandable and exercised care not to cause change to the original meaning. Wholesale changes did not occur.

Especially the NT writers believed they were indeed writing about God and how He related to mankind. This has been pointed out by critical scholarship.

Old 02-14-2001, 03:40 PM   #4
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Hi Layman, and thanks for the quick response. You may want to take a look at Bede's thread on this issue. His theory may closely parallel that of yourself, or your friend's. You can find it here:

Authorship of the Gospel of John

The thread is not yet archived, and Bede is obviously still a member here. You may want to strike up a conversation with him on your theories and his.

Sadly, I have been too wrapped up in looking at the Synoptics to give this issue the attention it deserves, so anything either of you might add would be greatly appreciated.

Be well,


[This message has been edited by Nomad (edited February 14, 2001).]
Old 02-14-2001, 03:58 PM   #5
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Thanks, Layman, for your wonderful story.
I have always felt that John's roots were very early. Do you have the textual analysis to back up your argument of multiple redaction? Other than the minor differences in the papyrii, I mean.

Old 02-14-2001, 04:02 PM   #6
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"wonderful story"

The condescension is unnecessary. As I tried to make clear (and apparently failed to do), the THEORY is not mine and I really don't have an opinion one way or the other about it.

If you would like to contact the author to discuss his theory with him, go to The History Channel's discussion boards for Religious History. He posts there under Oldboy. I have found him to be very responsive to questions and personal messages. I am sure he would be happy to answer your questions.

As for myself, similar to Nomad, my studies have been focused more on the Synoptics and Paul than on the Gospel of John.

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