Redating the New Testament by John A.T. Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bishop Dr. John A. T. Robinson (1919-1983) was a thoroughgoing theological modernist. He began writing this book as a theological exercise, as “little more than a theological joke”. At some point he asked himself “why any of the books of the New Testament needed to be put after the fall of Jerusalem in 70.” He notes that none of the books make any reference (actual or metaphorical) to the destruction of Jerusalem as a past event. He contrasts this with the apocryphal books, with their use of the earlier destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians standing in for the recent Roman actions. (Robinson contrasts the restrained style of the canonical books with the more flamboyant and detailed post-event writings of II Baruch, II Esdras, and the Sibylline Oracles.) Ultimately he supports the (then shocking) conclusion that none of the New Testament books were written after 70 A.D. (C.E., for those with scholarly pretensions).
One of Robinson’s contributions is to draw attention to the chains of inferences and preconceptions that are used by those arguing for the late dating of the canonical New Testament scriptures. That there is no reason to accept the late dates becomes increasingly clear as these preconceptions are dealt with and swept aside.
What is also clear is that Robinson (as a theological modernist), has no conception of the church or tradition as an authority. He, like most western theologians since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, view the authors of scripture primarily as competing individuals rather than as part of the Church. He has difficulty accepting the authors of scripture as people who cooperated in the proclamation and promulgation of the Gospel.
To the western scholar and theologian, the questions of who wrote what and when are quite important. However, for the Eastern Church, the question of who wrote what is subordinate to the question of inspiration and canonicity. Where the modern scholar might look askance at seeming interpolations such as the ending chapter of the Gospel of Mark, within the Eastern Church this interpolation is not a problem, because the Church determined that the supposed (and probable) interpolation is part of inspired scripture. Thus the question of whether the apostle Peter wrote the epistle of II Peter is unimportant, despite its being the subject of never-ending speculation on the part of the theological liberals.
Yet Robinson does the Church a great service by laying bare the ephemeral nature of the claims that many of the New Testament writings were not written by their ascribed authors. He notes that the claims based on statistical word counts, diction, and style are all over the map, pointing to the probability that their differences can be ascribed as much to differences in the preconceptions used to construct the statistical algorithms. He notes as well that “there is an appetite for pseudonymity that grows by what it feeds on.” Once you assume pseudonymity, you see it everywhere. He argues against a tradition of pseudonymity on the basis of historical church writings which reject books on that basis, and mention the deposing of a bishop who wrote such a pseudonymous book. He notes as well the Pauline attitude towards those circulating books claiming to be written by him. (II Thess 2:2; 3:17).
Whether you are a scholar or merely a theological dilettante (like me), you need to have this book in your library.