I have been asked to present a paper at this year's SBL Annual Meeting in Boston on "Dating the Crucial Sources" for a new consultation entitled "Cross, Resurrection and Diversity in Early Christianity". Simon Gathercole is speaking in the same session; April DeConick is responding to me and Stephen Patterson is responding to Simon. John Kloppenborg will be in the chair.
It is a pleasure to be invited to give a paper, and a special pleasure to do so at one of the inaugural meetings of a new consultation. When one is invited to present, it will usually be in an area that overlaps with one's area of expertise, but which at the same time provides a fresh challenge, as here. I have written a little about dating issues but not a lot. It is something that interests me, but this is providing me with an opportunity to spend some time thinking through things in a more systematic and serious way. But where does one begin with such a broad topic? One of the pitfalls of attempting to date early Christian documents is to shoot too quickly for absolute dates, to try to pinpoint each text to a specific moment without doing the prior work on working out the relationships of documents to one another. Thus however much we might find matters like the Synoptic Problem not to our taste, it is essential to get on top of such things if we are to get some feeling for the most plausible relationship of documents to one another. It is a necessary prior step before attempting to fix documents to a specific date or range of dates.
Before that, though, several more preliminaries and important reminders:
(1) What is a document? I once wrote an article on Q called "When is a text not a text?". Although it dealt specifically with the hypothetical document Q, it got me thinking about the broader issues of what we mean when we talk about "texts" and "documents" in antiquity. Of course we all know that we do not have autographs and we know that there were no printing presses, but textual critics rightly remind the rest of us to behave like we actually know that that is the case. Too often, we lapse into treating our scholarly constructs as if they are the actual artefacts that they are only aspiring to be. At the very least, we need to keep reminding ourselves in discussions like this that we are not dealing with fixed points and known entities but with reconstructions and approximations.
(2) A Document's Evolution: there is a related issue here, that the more we become text-critically sensitive, the more we are inclined to reflect on the evolution of the documents we think we know. When we try to date Mark's Gospel, what are we dating? Something that approximates to our scholarly reconstructions of Mark 1.1-16.8 or something akin to what the vast majority of witnesses have, a Mark that goes on beyond 16.8? When we try to date John, are we imagining a version with or without the pericopae adulterae, with or without Chapter 21? When we date Thomas, are we dating textual antecedents to the Oxyrhynchus fragments, where where Coptic Thomas's Saying 77 is found with Saying 30, or constructs more akin to the Coptic, or both or neither? Even in our print culture, a document's history is often about a date range rather than a fixed point in time. When I refer to John Knox's Chapters in a Life of Paul, do I date it to its original influential edition in 1950 or the revised version of 1987, in which he reacts to his own critics of his earlier work? (And to make it still more complicated, we could insist too that even the 1950 edition featured revised versions of articles written in the 1930s). The point here is that sometimes our attempts to date documents precisely ignore what we know to be the case, that documents are not static entities even today, let alone in antiquity.
(3) Text and Tradition: There is a further related issue that often causes confusion. We sometimes speak as if a document is as early as the traditions it contains. Or, to put it in another way, we confuse tradition history with a document's dating. Thus a document first penned in the year 80CE might contain good traditions from the early 30s. One first penned in the 60s might be full of historically dubious legends. We should be careful to make sure that in attempting to date a document we are not simply dating the traditions contained in that document.
It is not my intention, though, just to talk about the difficulty of the task at hand, but rather to make sure that certain warnings are in place before embarking on the journey ahead. I want to make clear that where I do talk about dating documents, I am doing so in full knowledge that there are difficulties here, and that we speak in a shorthand that sometimes has to bypass complex issues to which we will have to return.