Reviews - What do customers think about Redating the New Testament?
Monumental but Somewhat Questionable Dec 17, 2008
This is a fascinating but mystifying book, given Bishop Robinson's more famous earlier book, Honest to God. That one, and others by him, promoted a liberal theology involving a demythologized Jesus, absent of all myths and miracles, fairly fit for the Modern World.
Here, in Redating the New Testament (1976), Robinson apparently swings to the right, perhaps out of liberal guilt, and joins the conservative camp, at least to some extent. His "redating" is actually an earlier dating, that is, earlier than the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, and also earlier than almost all other liberal Christian scholars estimate. Such an early dating of all the New Testament texts is typically a conservative Christian desire. Conservatives think it supports their supernaturalist position, verifying the reputed claims and miracles of Jesus circa A.D. 30. After all, if the texts were written by eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus, or by others but still before the year 70, chances are that those texts are historically accurate, right? Hence the miracles and metaphysical claims are fact. Or so the logic goes.
Alas, Robinson never addresses this basic contradiction between his books. And there is no subject index here, nor an index of scriptural passages, so the reader cannot quickly check Robinson's thoughts on such subjects as the nativity stories, various other miracles, a resurrection, or supernaturalism in general. Reading the entire long book very carefully (both a privilege and a chore), I found only one or two tiny mentions of miracles, and none that might resolve this ambiguity. Robinson, despite his brilliant and systematic scholarship, seems to have lost the forest (the supernaturalism issue) for the trees (the dating evidence). He thereby gives the supernaturalists much support, though at one point he does finally, momentarily, and lamely distance himself from "literalism" (p. 355?).
Yet, with regard at least to all 21 epistles (letters) of the New Testament, a pre-70 date seems fairly reasonable and in any case would be nothing earth-shaking. None of them mentions any miracles by Jesus, except for a vague resurrection and a Second Coming that never came. So an early dating for them would actually be welcome news for liberal Christians and other skeptics of the supernatural (like me). Consider the Epistle of James, for example, and the probability that it is the earliest extant Christian text (late 40s). It is very revealing for the concerns and beliefs of such early Christians. So, too, is the Epistle to the Hebrews.
As for the gospels, even if Robinson is correct in dating them, or their early drafts, to the 50s, that would of course not confirm their supernatural episodes as historically true. Why should we suppose that religious fictions are necessarily slow to develop, taking many decades? Such fictions could easily have formed more quickly, within a mere decade or two, in the minds of some devoted, emotional, superstitious followers of Jesus. Even eyewitnesses can fantasize, especially hero-worshipping eyewitnesses. Considering other wild beliefs of 1st century Mediterranean religions, both Jewish and Gentile, it's no wonder that Jesus was soon portrayed as a prolific miracle-worker (above and beyond his few probably real faith-healings). Yet, the closest Robinson comes to stating this point is found in his few very vague references to a "rapid development of Christology" by the 50s, which could mean many other things.
On the early dating question again, much depends on the Gospel of Mark, by all accounts the first gospel written - but exactly when? In Chapter II, Robinson discusses the allusion in Mark 13:14 to a destruction of the Temple, made in the form of a prediction spoken by Jesus. Robinson sees it as a general warning from a time years before A.D. 70, and perhaps even as the words of Jesus himself circa 30. Robinson denies that this passage is a retrospective invention reflecting the actual siege and destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, as most liberal scholars think. Personally, I myself, as a religious agnostic and newcomer to this dating question, do not know exactly what those many New Testament scholars say who believe that Mark 13 (and the whole gospel) was written at about the time of the actual siege and destruction in 70, but I tend to side with them. The cryptic parenthetical words in 13:14, "let the reader understand," raise a question that Robinson does not address: Understand what? If nothing terrible had yet happened to the Temple/Jerusalem/Judea since Jesus (perhaps) foretold its doom, what could any reader, if reading Mark in the 50s or early 60s, knowingly "understand"? The author's cryptic words seem to allude to something terrible that had already occurred there, and the only real candidate for that event is the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 69-70. If so, Mark dates from then or even later. Moreover, other alleged predictions by Jesus in Mark 13 (e.g., 13:9, 10, 11), and their parallels in Matthew and Luke, seem to be not the words of Jesus, but clearly of later date. And the whole of Mark 13, which purports to be a spontaneous prophecy spoken by Jesus, is incredibly long. On that count alone it seems artificial and of much later date.
Robinson considers the lack of any specifically historical reference to the destruction of the Temple in all four gospels as powerful collective evidence for their pre-70 date. But I think that the Gospel of Mark may have started a significant trend in this regard. If its author, a non-Jewish Christian writing about A.D. 70, did not wish or dare to refer openly (and gloatingly) to the tragic siege/destruction of the Jewish Temple that year, the later gospel writers may simply have followed suit, as they did in so much else, thinking Mark's discretion wise. Thus, largely because of Mark, the latter three, writing A.D. 70-100, would also have referred only ambiguously to the Temple's destruction. Robinson's "four" gospels considered as combined evidence for a pre-70 date would thereby by reduced essentially to just one.
Robinson cites the Epistle of Barnabas as one post-70 text that clearly refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, showing what he expects from other texts if they are to be judged post-70 too. He neglects to mention that that long epistle refers to the destruction only very briefly, in a single verse or two (16:4-5). If not for that one little passage, Robinson could presumably date the epistle earlier than 70.
Again with regard to Mark, Robinson several times (Ch. II and IV) offers, as evidence for its pre-70 date, the passage "take to the hills/flee to the mountains" (Mark 13:14), which he claims cannot be a veiled allusion c. 70 to Christians fleeing Judaea/Jerusalem during the Jewish-Roman War 66-70, because elsewhere it is historically recorded that they fled to Pella, a city located not amid hills, but in the lowland of the Jordan Valley ("below sea level," Robinson pointedly writes). But Robinson's argument is weak. First, did the author of Mark, if located far from Palestine c. A.D. 70, even know about that very recent escape to Pella? Second, "take to the hills" could easly be only a figurative expression for "escape," whichever route was chosen. Third, leaving Jerusalem, one does indeed encounter hills/mountains, and the frantic Christian flight to Pella 66-70, and probably to other places as well, must have involved much travel through hills of some sort, even if the final destination was not so hilly. Fourth, Pella was in fact nestled in hilly country, though admittedly in the bottom of the Jordan Valley. Fifth, that tiny and no doubt impoverished band of refugee Jewish Christians in Pella apparently then died off and left no writings, and because of that silence no firsthand Christian testimony about the siege and destruction of Jerusalem survived in written form to be incorporated later into the New Testament. All in all, then, Robinson's "take to the hills" argument for a pre-70 date of Mark seems very weak to me.
Also in Chapter IV, one of Robinson's main arguments for dating the Gospel of Mark to the 50s is a brief, 2nd century passage by Papias suggesting that Mark himself, though not an eyewitness to Jesus, was Peter's "interpreter" in Rome and then "accurately" wrote his gospel while Peter was still alive. But these circumstances may very well have been telescoped by Papias and others, considering their much later, distant perspectives and the effects of rumor and wishful thinking. One simply must take into account the understandable wish of 2nd c. Christians to have (or invent) a dignified pedigree for their traditions. Robinson does not adequately explore the real possibility or probability that Mark, or whoever authored the Gospel of Mark, could have worked with Peter sometime in the 50s yet not written his gospel about Jesus until c. 70, thereby recording much authentic history but also adding much unauthentic, legendary material.
In fact, Robinson reveals that the earliest recorded comments by Peter, or Peter's followers (via Clement c. 100, then Eusebius c. 325) about the Gospel of Mark were actually only lukewarm at best. "Peter," Clement's passage states, "neither strongly forbade it [the Gospel of Mark] nor urged it forward" (p. 107). Robinson rightly calls this comment "damning with faint praise," but then he drops the subject. We, however, must ask what prompted such negativity. Was it all those gaudy, fictional miracles added to Mark?
In his final chapter, XI, Robinson confesses an ultimate uncertainty about his redating (early dating) effort. He emphasizes the chaos and confusion of trying to date any of the New Testament texts (except the letters of Paul, mostly from the 50s) more precisely than the general period of the second half of the 1st century. Still, on the whole, his book is a very useful one-volume corrective to those too-liberal, too-skeptical scholars who at one time or another have dated almost every text of the New Testament to the 2nd century.
Why is this out of print? Jun 18, 2007
Outstanding scholarship and a very interesting read. Compelling case with solid logic presented that the New Testament was completed prior to the destruction of the Tempe in AD 70.
Persuasive and disappointing at the same time May 1, 2007
Believe me, I really wanted to like this book. Tresmontant's masterpiece "The Hebrew Christ" spoke glowingly of it, and no less an authority than Raymond Brown admitted that the issues raised here have not been satisfactorily answered.
Actually, when this book first came out critics derided it as "an unconvincing tour de force" and that the author "steamrollers the evidence". Well let me tell you his evidence IS the steamroller. When you read about the destruction of Jerusalem in documents certain to have been written after 70 AD (Jewish apocalypses, the Letter of Barnabas, etc.) and compare them with the alleged depiction of the same events in the Gospels, you too will be convinced that they could not possibly have been written in the same period and/or are talking about completely different things.
And make no mistake, this is not a tirade by some fundamentalist arguing that the NT contains literal divine words or even inspired words. Rev. Robinson recognized that the writing of the NT involved the collection, rejection and editing of various oral traditions. He just shows this took less time than "mainstream" scholars claim. Rev. Robinson clearly was a critical scholar of the first order, and it was reassuring to read here that the academic argument for a pre-70 dating of the Gospels and Acts has an eminent pedigree indeed. Moreover, it was shocking to find out exactly how flimsy is the evidence for a post-70 dating.
But there are too many pitfalls which lessen the impact of this book. The author's credibility appears seriously hampered by both his insistence in dating the ENTIRE New Testament before AD 70 and his almost uncritical acceptance of traditional authorship for even the most disputed NT Epistles. His discussion of the Epistles of James, Jude and Peter together is far longer than that of the entire Pauline corpus and twice as long as his discussion of all the Gospels and Acts combined. Finally, there is not a sentence that could run on long enough for this man, and constantly I found myself bogged down trying to figure out which clause referred to which.
The bottom line is this book makes a virtually ironclad argument for dating the Gospels and Acts before AD 70. If he had focused only on this aspect (and kept his sentences shorter) I would have given it five stars.
A Must Have Mar 20, 2007
If you are serious about Bible study you must have this book. Dating the New Testament, especially Revelation, is critical to correctly understanding the message of God to the 21st Century Christian.
This is THE book on this topic ... Jan 4, 2007
This book advances the case that all of the Gospels and all of the books of the New Testament were written before 70 A.D.
Robinson's case is detailed, well-researched, and persuasive. The book is an excellent read. (It is not "light" reading, however. Consider the topic.)
This work is often considered THE book on the topic of early dating. It is cited in subsequent works by Jean Carmignac (The Birth of the Synoptics) and John Wenham (Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It is also mentioned in the Foreword in The Hebrew Christ by Claude Tresmontant. (I highly recommend these other three as well.)
This book is highly recommended if you are looking for a book on the topic of the dating of the Gospels and the NT.