do we determine the age of the documents?
one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has
been quietly discarded and replaced by a new theology. A fundamentalist
would deny this, since fundamentalism is antihistorical:"
lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get
its pants on."
Why do we need to know the age?
The examination of the
documents that translate into the Bible begins with the determination of
their age. Knowing the approximate age of the writings helps put the
writings into historical context. This will help clarify the finer points
of their meaning as well as gauge the veracity of their prophecies. Obviously
no one is going to find any date on an ancient document followed by a big
"BC". Therefore, other methods must be used to accurately place these in
3.2 Isn't it as simple as checking ancient calendars?
Consider the peculiar
problems found in dating texts from ancient calendars. One problem is that
different cultures used different calendars, and no single culture even
maintained the same calendar. Another problem is that ancient cultures
largely did not date their years of existence from any common point (like
western nations today use BC and AD, or BCE and CE).
Many ancient cultures
marked themselves as relative to a particular monarch's reign. To coordinate
chronologies between those cultures, we must note the length of reign of
different rulers and then chart cross-cultural events such as wars, treaties,
earthquakes, or comets, relative to the number of years into or out of a
This is a workable solution,
but is complicated by the fact that different cultures also used different
methods of recording the years of a monarch's reign. These regnal years
could be dated from when a new ruler was named, or when a new ruler began
to co-reign with an existing ruler, or when a ruler actually assumed the
throne, or at the beginning of the first year after a ruler had come to
Because ancient dating
is mostly limited to these kinds of associations, accuracy is somewhat relative
to an ever-sliding scale of when a handful of major events are best determined
to have taken place. Further complicating this is the problem of incomplete
archaeology. Archaeology, as we recognize it today, is a comparatively young
science. With each of the many new archaeological finds being made come
adjustments to previous theories and relative placements in time.
3.3 The turbulent history of establishing ancient dates.
The following is an
excellent example of how progressive discoveries and research have contributed
to the turbulent history of establishing just a single ancient date [paragraph
As has been observed
above, the association of Amraphel, king of Shinar (Gen. 14:1), with Hammurabi
of Babylon led scholars in the first two decades of the twentieth century
to assign Hammurabi to a period as early as 2123-2081 BC.
In 1928 S. H. Langdon
and J. K. Fotheringham placed the reign of Hammurabi ca. 2067-2025 BC.
the dating by more than half a century to ca. 2003-1961 BC, Pirot brought
it still lower to ca. 1947-1905 BC.
Evidence from Mari
led to the general conclusion that the earlier dates were much too high,
and when Thureau-Dangin published evidence in 1937 that Shamshi-Adad I
was contemporary with the earlier portion of the reign of Hammurabi, Albright
suggested a date for the accession of the latter at ca. 1870 BC...
Albright reduced his
own dating still further to 1728-1686 BC. This accorded generally with
the conclusions of Neugenbauer, who had argued that the Venus astronomical
observations required the date of 1792-1750 B.C....1
And on and on the process
of dating goes, illustrating that the more ancient the document, the
more imprecise and relative any assignable date. Conversely, the later
the event or writing, the more precise the date assigned.
One additional difficulty
in dating the biblical writings is that none of the original documents,
as penned by the hand of the original authors (called autographs or autographa),
is known to still exist. The biblical writings were actively used in teaching
and worship, and as such, were subject to wearing out.
The fact that copies
were made is typical of document preservation in ancient times. Just how
atypical the copying process was concerning documents believed directly
inspired by God is the focus of another
chapter. Having introduced some of the challenges in dating writings,
what follows are methods which are currently being used in combination to
arrive at the most likely answers.
3.4 What are the current methods being employed?
1. Simple study
2. Linguistic peculiarities
5. Carbon-14 dating
6. References by other works
1. Simple study
of the content of a text sometimes reveals its authorship and date. One
author of a commentary on Habbukuk mentions certain events current to his
own time. These could place the commentary's origin at the time of the Roman
capture of Palestine under Pompey in 63 BC. Customs and other practices
of life are another way to gain insight as to when a text was written. Also
to be taken into account are details within a text which are no longer available,
such as fine descriptions of cities and structures which have long since
Those who approach biblical
writings with the presupposition that prophecy is impossible sometimes use
prophecy as proof of a late date. Some critics in the Enlightenment period
who recognized the prophecy of Christ's atonement in Isaiah chapter fifty-three,
for example, assigned the book to a date as late as the Middle Ages. However,
that assignment was based upon a preconceived rejection of the text's contents
rather than on historical or literary grounds.
2. Linguistic peculiarities
may also offer insight into when and by whom a text was written. The style,
the particular words or phrases chosen, and specific topics for which detail
is provided or emphasis is given tend to indicate the authors' background
and the general period in history.
At one point it was
assumed that of the various Semitic dialects (known collectively as Aramaic),
western Aramaic was of late origin. This was assumed for lack of evidence
to the contrary. However, subsequent discoveries have proved otherwise as
R. K. Harrison argues,
The presence of Aramaic
elements in the cuneiform compositions from Ras Shamra, as illustrated
particularly by the consonantal shift from z to d in the relative pronoun
and elsewhere, attests further to the antiquity of the tongue. Consequently,
it is no longer possible to argue for a later date for a given composition
on the basis of Aramaic words and expressions in it. 2
The danger here is that
the search for peculiarities can be misused if it is applied too finely;
that is, if it is applied to each word or sentence of a document, instead
of to the document as a whole. Such an application is how critics of a previous
era proceeded from their premise that the Bible was appended through the
centuries. In the documentary hypothesis, as exemplified by the 18th century
French physician Jean Astruc and later modified by a number of German scholars
in the 19th century, each sentence of an early document could be subjected
to individual evaluation for its particular authorship. 3
If God was referred
to as Elohim in one passage, for example, and then as Yahweh the next, the
conclusion drawn by critics seeking proof of multiple authorship was that
each of these sentences evidenced the preference of different authors. (This
theory will be further discussed in here;
and predominant philosophies of the 18th and 19th century here.)
But by that standard, even the original content of this site would fail
to confirm myself as the sole writer. This is because I have referred to
God as Lord, Creator, and many other titles.
the study of ancient handwriting, is a comparative method of dating that
can be used to discover the date of manuscripts or to corroborate the witness
of other dating methods. William F. Albright and John C. Trevor came to
separate but identical conclusions on paleographic studies of some of the
Dead Sea Scrolls. They
both place the writings to have been done as early as 200 BC.
provides more clues as to when copies of Scripture were written. The pottery
in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were left undisturbed date from late Hellenistic
and early Roman periods of 200 BC to AD 100. More specifically, excavations
at Qumran have revealed the general period of occupation was from 135 BC
to AD 68, when Rome crushed the Zealot revolt.
Another example of archaeology
aiding the dating process comes from excavations in Iraq at ancient sites
such as Nuzu. These have produced some twenty thousand clay tablets detailing
ancient Babylonian life. The tablets confirm many of the customs ancient
biblical figures observed; customs such as the transferal of birthright,
Abraham's purchase of a portion of land, the custom of numbering the trees
on that land, and the rights of and obligations to expelled slaves. According
the tablets throw
an interesting light upon the life and times of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
setting them accurately against the cultural background of second millennium
BC. Assyrian society. 4
Carbon-14 dating is another dating process. It compares the decay of
carbon atoms within an object against a known rate of change. A linen cloth
in which certain scrolls were preserved gives a date of 250 BC. A different
method of laboratory dating is radiometric analysis. This measures extremely
minute changes in radioactive decay, and multiplies that change by a rather
enormous amount to arrive at an estimate. Unfortunately, the error factor
involved can be equally enormous (more).
Materials in this situation have the potential to become contaminated more
easily and give false readings. While that will always be a consideration,
the technology behind this method is not without some merit and might improve
in the future.
Reference by other, later writings can also help to establish the date
of preceding material. An Alexandrian Jewish philosopher named Aristobulus,
writing between 170-150 BC, recorded that the Torah, or first five books
of the Old Testament, were translated into Greek during the reign of Ptolemy
II (285-247 BC). This translation was called the Septuagint (or LXX)
to which translations of the rest of the Old Testament were later added.
The LXX was fully complete by, or prior to, 117 BC. 5
No light is shed upon the dates of the original writings by the LXX, but
Aristobulus' comments establish the importance and widespread demand of
these writings very early in history.
One word of caution
concerning the use of extra-biblical confirmation for scriptural statements:
it is fallacious to think Scripture must always be corroborated by the use
of non-biblical sources. This is not a logical necessity. It is groundless
to assume that something is false just because it's found in the Bible just
as it's equally groundless to assume something is true because it's not.
All too frequently
the tendency has been to regard any biblical statement as unreliable and
suspect, though the very antiquity of the Old Testament (even by the critics'
own dating) should commend it for consideration as an archaeological document.
In case of any discrepancy with a pagan document, even one of a later
age, the heathen source has been automatically given the preference as
a historical witness.
...It would be naive
to suppose that pagan Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian records - in
contrast to the Hebrew Scriptures with their lofty ethical standards -
were free from propagandistic Tendenz or party bias. 6
3.5 Intra-biblical confirmation.
An alternative to extra-biblical
confirmation, surprisingly to many people, is what could be called intra-biblical
confirmation. The various biblical writings can, to a great extent, be used
to corroborate each other. This is because the Bible is not one book; it
consists of separate works, by separate authors, from separate centuries.
For example, it is not
erroneous to use Daniel's writing to corroborate Jeremiah's, or Paul's to
corroborate Isaiah's, even though they are all found within the compilation
called the Bible. This is identical to using Copernicus to corroborate Galileo,
or Hawking to corroborate Einstein when the writings of each are printed
within the covers of the same textbook. Thoughts of key individuals from
different eras expressing common beliefs within a single volume are not
suggestive of collusion, but are indicative and expectedly descriptive of
independent corroboration and confirmation.
of statements contained within the Bible is certainly welcome, but it is
by no means a prerequisite for accepting the truth of any particular scriptural
statement. Extra-biblical material is no less subject to the factors
of bias and interpretation than is the Bible. Remember that space flight
was as much confirmation for Yuri Gagarin that there is no God as it was
confirmation for Apollo XVI's Charles Duke that there is. Similarly, the
dating of Scripture will undoubtedly always continue to be as debated and
contested as belief in God is itself.
NEXT: When were the biblical books written?
Was Christianity cut-and-pasted
from other religions?