Sunday, 22 January 2017

Redating the New Testament, by J.A.T. Robinson

John AT Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 1976 SCM

This is a book I had wanted to read for many years, but never got around to buying.

The Anglican bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson (1919-1983) was most famous for the best-selling Honest to God. This book popularized the views of existential theologians such as Paul Tillich. While the ideas it contained were unoriginal and would have been familiar to theology students, it shocked many lay people to hear them from a bishop. Despite his liberal views, many Evangelicals and conservative Christians have delighted in his less familiar work, Redating the New Testament.

This groundbreaking book argued that the entire New Testament had been written prior to 70 AD. Central to his argument was the importance of the Jerusalem temple in the mindset of early Christians and to the 1st century Jews. Robinson argues that it would be unthinkable for the fall of Jerusalem to have occurred without being mentioned in the writings of the New Testament had they been written after the event. In his judgement, there are no uncontestable references to the fall of Jerusalem anywhere in the New Testament writings. His conclusions that the Pauline writings might postdate the Gospels and that there is no reason to place the Gospel of John AFTER the Synoptics are very radical. He also argues that the epistle of James was written by a relative of Jesus between 47 AD-49 AD, making it one of the earliest books of the New Testament.

In the penultimate chapter he addresses the post-apostolic literature such as the epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. He considers the question of what was going on in the later first century in terms of Christian literature if the New Testament was complete in 70 AD. He suggests that it was perfectly possible that the 80s and 90s might have been a literary void, resulting from the confusion of the fall of Jerusalem and the Neronian persecution. However, he argues instead that the second century dates of much of the post-apostolic literature was arbitrary and some of these texts might have been written in the first century.

Robinson suggests in the introduction that this book, while offering conservative conclusions (especially his views on authorship of the New Testament books, as well has his dating), will offer no comfort to those who are resistant to Biblical criticisms, as its arguments are built on the critical methodology. This is true to a large extent, for instance regarding the temple. Robinson looks to see whether the Olivet Discourse offers any details about the fall of Jerusalem. Were it to contain them, he (and other critics) would conclude that the discourse post-dates 70 AD, while an Evangelical or conservative Catholic would conclude that this was a prophecy. There is clearly an anti-supernatural bias. Yet many conservative Christians have eagerly embraced his dating system, as such early dates would allow little time for the embellishment of mythological details in the Gospel stories. However, not all conservative Evangelicals have accepted his conclusions. Prior to this book, Evangelical scholars dated some books, such as the Johannine corpus quite late in the first century. The book of Revelation has been dated by Patristic tradition to the reign of Domitian and many conservative Christians prefer to follow this date. The dating of Revelation touches on key questions of eschatology. Those who adopt the Preterist interpretation of Revelation, that the bulk of the prophecy was fulfilled in the first century tend to favour Robinson's early date, while those seeing it as fulfilled in the future tend to prefer the later date.

I had expected this book to be very dry and technical, but I was actually surprised to find that it was very readable, written in the style of a literary conversation. There are some who suspect that Robinson was insincere in his conclusions and that he wrote the book as a sort of donnish literary experiment. This is perhaps rather uncharitable.

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