So far in this series of posts, we have been looking at the relative ordering of the crucial documents, focusing on the sequence of the documents without attempting to pin them to particular decades. As far as the canonical Gospels are concerned, we are looking at an order like this: Mark > Matthew > Luke > John. The time comes, though, when we need to attempt to pin these texts to points in time. As anyone familiar with New Testament studies will know, the dating issue is determined by a pivotal question: do the documents post-date the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE? Since Mark is the first in this sequence of documents, dating Mark would be a very helpful way of moving forward. If Mark post-dates 70, so do Matthew, Luke and John.
Before tackling that question, however, there are some necessary reminders. The discussion is inevitably clouded by the complications of textual tradition (observable) and textual tradition (hypothesized); I have spoken already (Preliminaries) about some of the difficulties involved with a document's evolution and range of dates and the inevitable difficulties that that causes the historian. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak reasonably about the dating of the documents as long as one bears these kinds of difficulties in mind. History, and especially ancient history, often needs to deal in approximations. It is a heuristic and not a descriptive discipline, and reasoned discussion of the date of given documents is achievable provided one proceeds with care.
It is important, for example, to distinguish clearly between the date of a given document and the date of the traditions within it and to avoid allowing document dating to get bound up with tradition history. How, then, should we conceive the question of dating a document? It should refer, I think, to the date of the given document as a observable, substantive entity with recognizable parameters such that it distinguishes itself from other documents. Matthew, for example, is recognizably Matthew and not Mark, even though it contains a lot of Mark. Luke is recognizably Luke; it is not Matthew and it is not Mark even though it contains a lot of the shape and the substance of those documents. In this kind of discussion, then, we need to be clear about what it is we are trying to date. We are dating the documents to which our texts bear witness, and not prior oral traditions, written traditions, or hypothetical earlier versions of the document in question. In this context, we are not investigating the dating of elements within the larger, later document; we are attempting to date the document itself.
A document can be no earlier than its most recent datable tradition. This is why, when we come to Mark, the question of its knowledge of the destruction of the temple is so important. If Mark is familiar with the events of 70, the presence of traditions earlier than 70 will be irrelevant. A good example of an approach that recognizes the distinction between the date of the document and the history of its traditions is Gerd Theissen's work on Mark's Apocalypse and Passion Narrative. He argues for versions of Mark 13, and of Mark 14-15, that date from the late 30s or early 40s, but thinks that Mark itself was written after 70.
It is in this context that I find myself reflecting on James Crossley's recent book, The Date of Mark's Gospel, published in the series I edit called Library of New Testament Studies in 2004. Crossley argues against the consensus that Mark should be dated somewhere in the region 65-75CE, suggesting instead that Mark's knowledge of Jewish Law, and the assumptions he makes about it, make best sense at a very early point, as early as mid to late 30s or early 40s. There are many things I like about James -- I am all in favour of young, attractive British blogging scholars who are willing to stick their necks out against the consensus on important issues, and who publish in LNTS. So I wish I were able to agree with the thesis of The Date of Mark's Gospel, but I don't. One of the book's virtues, I think, is that it effectively strengthens the case for a law observant Historical Jesus and Crossley's arguments to that end are effective. I am not persuaded, though, that James succeeds in narrowing the gap between Jesus and the author of Mark. As David Gowler points out in his review of James's subsequent Why Christianity Happened, "Jesus' Torah observance could still have been adequately represented by Mark in the 60s" (CBQ 69 (2007), 815-6 ). The notion that the originating circumstances of the tradition correlate directly with the perspective of the evangelist is problematic given the possibility that Mark is sometimes a faithful retailer of traditional material. Or, to put it another way, it is always going to be a tall order to demonstrate that assumptions apparently made in given traditions are identical with assumptions made by the author of the document in which they appear.
Moreover, where there are clear signs of Marcan redaction, they point away from Crossley’s thesis. In the key passage about hand-washing in Mark 7, the narrator’s framing of the material explains that hand-washing before eating food is something practised by “the Pharisees and all the Jews” (καὶ πάντες οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι). This does not set up the debate as an intra-Jewish one of the kind that Crossley’s thesis requires. The practice of hand-washing is established as something that all Jews do, and which Jesus’ disciples do not do (7.2, 5), setting up a contrast that Jesus’ words then speak into, a contrast that makes good sense on classic form-critical grounds. For Crossley, the reference here to “all the Jews” is a Marcan exaggeration, but this concedes the ground about the accuracy and precision of Mark’s knowledge of Judaism that is a major and necessary element in his case.