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Dating the Bible

Table of contents
1 The Hebrew Bible
2 The New Testament
3 Apocryphal Books
4 The Gnostic Scriptures
5 References
6 External links

The Hebrew Bible

The authorship of the Hebrew Bible is an open topic of research, and who and how many people contributed to the text a vital and lively area of investigation to this date. Therefore, assigning solid dates to any of the texts is difficult. Since the dating of the authorship of these books depends on the particulars of the deconstruction of the texts, the range of dates assigned to the first five books is rather broad.

There are fundamentalist scholars who follow the traditional assignments of authorship, and to them, the Pentateuch should have been written by Moses in the period of Exodus, ca 1280-1250 BCE. Other scholars (the biblical minimalists) would insist that the whole of the Pentateuch is a post-exilic construction, perhaps with material from an earlier oral tradition. A middle ground is held by people such as Israel Finklestein, whose archeological studies tend to suggest that a substantial portion of the Pentateuch is a seventh century construction, designed to promote the dynastic ambitions of King Josiah of Judah. A traditional strain of scholarship (the biblical maximalists) would assign portions of the Pentateuch (generally the J author) to the period of the United Monarchy in the tenth century BCE, would date Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic history to the time of King Josiah, and that the final form of the Torah was due to a redactor in exilic or post-exilic times.

One way to date an ancient text is to examine the text for places or events that were known to the author. If, for example, the text refers to a town or village that did not exist until the third century BCE, then that can be used as a reference to pin down the approximate date of authorship. Also used can be the style of writing, and common facts known at a particular place and time. Loan words from other languages can be important, as the period of contact between different cultures creates watermarks in time that allow for dating.

To give a working example, in the views of some scholars (e.g. Hartman and Di Lella, 1978), the book of Daniel was written in the third century to second century BCE, even though it claims to have been written in the 6th century BCE (Hartman and Di Lella suggest multiple authorship, with some material dating to the third century, culminating with a second century editor and redactor). The reasons for such an assignment include, according to proponents of this view, a use of Greek and Persian words in the Hebrew of the text unlikely to happen in the 6th century, that the style of the Hebrew was more like that of a later date, that the style of Aramaic used in the Book of Daniel was that of a later date than 6th century, that the use of the word "Chaldean" occurs in a fashion unknown to the 6th century, and that the repeated historical gaffes of the author of Daniel betrayed an ignorance of the facts of the 6th century that a high official in Babylon would not have, while the 2nd century history was found to be far more accurate (see Ferrell Till's analysis here and here).

Documents, inscriptions, and objects that have portions of the Torah, or the whole of the text, allow researchers to place an upper bound on the date of a particular portion of text, or perhaps even the whole of it. If the portion of text is small, it can be argued that it simply is part of an oral tradition; for that reason whole books or substantially whole books are proportionately more meaningful in determining when the whole of the Bible was written. Also useful are documents, inscriptions, and objects that speak of the Hebrew Bible, or portions thereof, or of people, places and events that are in common with Biblical narrative.

The oldest known object with a fragment of Torah is a good luck charm, inscribed with Num 6:24-6:27, and dated to approximately 600 BCE (Dever, p. 180). Though whole copies of the Bible were not found at Qumran, the documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls contained versions of many books of the Hebrew Bible. The Scrolls have been dated from the third century BCE to 68 CE.

In terms of the dating of complete authoritative texts, there are three main versions of the Hebrew Bible. There is the Masoretic text of the Torah, thought to be first assembled in the fourth century CE. The oldest known copy (the oldest is the Aleppo Codex, the oldest complete text is the Leningrad Codex) now dates to the tenth century CE. There is the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Torah, made under Ptolemy in the third century BCE. The oldest copy of the Septuagint is centuries older than the oldest complete Masoretic text, and fragments of the Septuagint date to the second century BCE. There is also the Samaritan Torah, which emerged after the Assyrian occupation of the northern kingdom of Israel. The Peshitta, a translation of the Christian Bible into Syriac, a variant of Aramaic, can be useful in determining authenticity of passages and hence help establish dates. The earliest known copy of the Peshitta dates to 445-460 CE.

The New Testament

Dating and authorship of the New Testament is the subject of much study, and much controversy. The traditional view is that the works were completed within the lifetimes of the contemporaries of Jesus Christ. Some scholars believe the dating to be much later. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Gospels draw on earlier sources.

Approximate dates that New Testament books were written

The most accepted historical understanding of how the New Testament developed is known as the two source hypothesis. This theory holds that Mark is the oldest Gospel. Matthew and Luke are believed to come later, and draw on Mark and also on a source that is now lost, called the Q document, or just "Q". John is thought by many to be a later work.

Apocryphal Books

(Nothing here about the apocrypha?)

The Gnostic Scriptures

The Nag Hammadi collection, also known as the Gnostic Scriptures (Pagels), were not accepted as canonical by Jerome in the 4th century CE. They were written in Coptic, and are generally dated to the third and fourth centuries CE.

See also: Documentary hypothesis, The Bible and history, Synoptic problem, Markan priority, Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi


Dever, William G. What Did The Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It?, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, USA, 2001.

Fox, Robin Lane The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, NY, 1992.

Hartman, Louis Francis, and Di Lella, Alexander A. (Ed) The Book of Daniel (Anchor Bible, Vol. 23), Anchor Bible, 1978.

Pagels, Elaine The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage, reissued 1989.

External links

Review of the Leningrad Codex

Textual Criticism of the Torah

The Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)

When was the Book of Daniel Written? (C.H. Salvia versus J.P. Holding)