Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament, by Jonathan Bernier

Do I Recommend It? No

When I was first entering the stage of biblical academics, I assumed the traditional origins of each New Testament book because it was the only thing I knew. Eventually, I came to know the basic reasons for assigning, say, the Gospel of John to the range of 90 to 95 CE. The apostle John knew the other gospels had been written, but his students encouraged him to write his own account, so he consciously wrote something very different from the synoptics. Consequently, because he left out Jesus’ eschatological discourses, John then decided to write the Revelation to fill in that gap from his gospel.

I eventually read Redating the New Testament by John A.T. Robinson. My impressionable mind was quickly changed to the view that the entire New Testament pre-dated the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. If any of those books had come after that event, they obviously would have mentioned it. This played well with the theological beliefs I was developing at the time, shaped by works such as those from N.T. Wright, David Chilton, and Scot McKnight.

Over several years, though, I continually shifted toward a more critical review of the evidence and arguments. With only slight variations, I now generally favor the common theories of when the New Testament texts were written: Paul’s authentic letters probably come from the 50s CE, while the gospels, Acts, the rest of the letters, and the Revelation of John range from 65 to 125 CE. My studies on each NT text have not been exhaustive enough to be exposed to every single minute detail, but this is the broad sweep of scholarship. I look to my earlier view with a sheepish embarrassment; I was not led by sound methodology or cohesive arguments, but by a belief system which made the pre-70 dates a necessity. That same belief system acted as the blinders which prevented me from evaluating the claims of Robinson and the others with a more critical eye.

I am not familiar enough with Jonathan Bernier to make any judgment regarding whether his theological convictions played a role in bringing him to this familiar premise: that the entire New Testament may plausibly be dated before 70 CE. But my familiarity with a wide array of methods by which theologically conservative Christians set out to protect the NT from the singular most problematic accusation leveled at it—that its prophetic claims about the timing of Jesus’ return and the end of the world failed—compels me to ask why that particular year is such an important deadline for Bernier. Perhaps I am being overly skeptical. Yet, I cannot help but notice the flimsiness of so many of Bernier’s arguments. I think my suspicion that Bernier is being led not by any kind of critical methodology, but by a willingness to arrive at a desired conclusion, may be supported by three trends I found throughout his book.

The first, briefly, is that within each discussion of a New Testament book there is a section labeled Authorial Biography. Bernier uncritically depends on much later hearsay and legend to decide the traditionally-assigned authors are at least nominally correct. He lists out men known by that name, alleges they were ‘active’ prior to 70 CE, then interacts only with whatever evidence does not ‘convincingly exclude this possibility’ that one of them was the author. For example, the Revelation of John is (of course) attributed to an author named John. Therefore it is ‘probably’ John the apostle or John the elder, only mentioning as an afterthought that the revelator may be an otherwise unknown or pseudonymous ‘John’.

The second trend is a fallacious appeal to the New Testament as exceptionally well-crafted literature, which leads into a circular thought process. For example, on page 67, Bernier writes in defense of dating Acts prior to 70 CE:

But even if we grant that Acts 20–21 might well betray Luke’s knowledge of Paul’s death, we still want to ask why the author was prepared to obliquely imply but not explicitly narrate Paul’s fate, especially after spending so much time focusing upon the travails that brought him to Rome. Foreshadowing something that never happens in the text is poor foreshadowing indeed.

An author can easily employ foreshadowing without fulfillment taking place in the narrative itself, but in the reader’s knowledge beyond the narrative. In a modern example, the 2015 biopic Steve Jobs repeatedly foreshadows projects Apple would eventually undertake, with each nod to these future pursuits existing solely as a wink to the audience. However, the more important part of Bernier’s objection to this ‘oblique’ foreshadowing is not that he doesn’t (seem to) grasp the versatility of such a trope. Rather, it’s the immensely subjective nature of his argument. He struggles to raise substantial objections to the accepted reading that Acts 20–21 anticipates Paul’s death, so ‘even if we grant’ that this is what Acts was doing, the failure for Paul’s death to actually occur in the book must mean it was written before Paul died (circa 62 CE). Why? Because for Acts to allude to his death after-the-fact without actually showing his death would be ‘poor’ writing. As if Acts could only be the highest quality of literature. This is not a critical argument; it tips across the line into apologetics, but it’s easy to miss because Bernier glides through the point so quickly.

The third and most problematic trend I noticed is that he simply does not interact with all the relevant evidence.

When discussing the synoptic gospels, Bernier generally devotes about three to five paragraphs to a given passage. He gives four paragraphs to ‘the torn curtain’ (Mark 15.38; Matt 27.51; Luke 23.45). Similarly, he spends three paragraphs on ‘the wedding banquet’ (Matt 22.7). The rare occasions he gives more attention to a biblical text, I actually tend to agree with his objections for why it does not support assigning a post-70 date to the book. For example, he offers ten lengthy paragraphs to the ‘desolating sacrilege’ in Mark 13.14-27 and Matt 24.15-31 (see my thoughts on this passage here). In my opinion, this large disparity in length allows us to vaguely detect where Bernier spent more time researching a passage, and so, inversely, the less space he gives to a particular text the less familiar he was with scholarship on it, or the less it fit into his overall theory.

Yet, this is less problematic than that there are passages he altogether ignores. Bernier says nothing on Mark’s story of Jesus exorcising the demon named Legion, despite the theory this story depends on post-70 knowledge of the role Legio X Fretensis played in the destruction of Jerusalem. He makes zero mention of Mark’s story of Jesus being asked about Caesar’s denarius, which has been argued as evidence the author knew the post-70 Fiscus Iudaicus. And though Bernier does tackle a few other passages in Mark regarding the destruction of the temple, insisting they could have originated before 70 CE, he fails to address the cumulative weight of all these texts when read as a unified thematic thrust by Mark’s author. Namely, why does the author spin the entire second half of his gospel around the certainty of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, if he was writing nearly three decades before the event happened?

Bernier’s failure to seriously interact with the theories of critical scholarship are found throughout the rest of the book. His handling of the theory that 2 Corinthians is a conflation of multiple letters suggests a general unfamiliarity with this view. He doesn’t address the key premise that the component letters of 2 Corinthians are widely thought to be in reverse chronological order, which makes a large impact on how Paul’s sharp tonal shift in the letter should be understood. When Bernier arrives at Colossians and Ephesians, he has dispensed with any pretense that he is following the evidence, instead directly stating that he begins with the ‘supposition’ of their authenticity. He doesn’t acknowledge the differences in writing style or eschatology between Colossians and the authentic letters of Paul. The dozens of verbal and conceptual parallels between Colossians and Ephesians strongly suggest the latter was an expanded rewrite of the former by a secondary author, but Bernier barely musters three sentences when discussing the literary relationship between the two letters, mentioning solely the shared reference to Tychicus. Was Bernier completely unaware of all the other parallels? That would indicate how little he researched beyond his own biases (and hence should not be writing this book). Did he look at this evidence and sincerely think it was entirely irrelevant? This brevity on such a substantial point against his thesis cannot be justified.

Taking 2 Peter as our next example, the vast majority of scholars agree the letter is pseudepigraphical: it uses 1 Peter but is written in a sharply different style from it; it acknowledges a popular collection of Paul’s letters is in circulation; it uses the synoptic tradition (perhaps Matthew); it contains the clearest example of a NT author attempting to explain the failure of the eschaton to materialize in the expected time frame; and, the book is an expanded version of the Letter of Jude. Each of these alone would warrant an entire chapter of attention, but the extent of Bernier’s interaction with them is limited to flatly repeating unconvincing arguments that are popular among apologists, giving an opinion on how Robinson dealt with them, or saying nothing at all. Near the end of this section, Bernier mentions the ‘possibility’ that Paul converted in 29 CE and wrote several letters in that year, which enables 2 Peter to have been written as early as 30 CE. While Bernier does softly reject this ‘possibility’, the fact he gives it any credibility at all shows how far backwards he is willing to bend just to avoid the far more likely explanation that 2 Peter is a late forgery. Bernier’s acknowledgement the letter may be as late as 125 CE (the tail end of the range of when critical scholarship assigns authorship) is little more than lip service, since he immediately pressures the reader to accept it is likely an authentic letter Peter wrote in the 60s CE.

My own interest in apocalyptic texts and traditions made Bernier’s chapter on the Revelation of John the most difficult to read. There was a reason I was so critical of Elaine Pagels’ book Revelations. Because of my familiarity with the topic, his failings here are especially obvious. His look at the seven kings in Rev 17 amounts to a single paragraph. Discussion of Rev 13 takes just three paragraphs, barely hinting at the role the Nero Redivivus legend plays here. He surveys a brief selection of arguments concerning Rev 11. When the immense weight of literary and thematic evidence for ‘Babylon’ utterly contradicts his entire theory, he blithely calls it an ‘argument from silence’ (this particularly weak accusation screams projection). He completely fails to interact with the necessarily relevant apocalyptic literature (e.g. 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, Revelation of Abraham, the Sibylline Oracles). This is not to say parts of the Revelation of John cannot plausibly have originated pre-70; I happen to think this is the case. Yet, it is difficult to state just how inadequately Bernier evaluates the evidence.

Bernier’s treatment of his thesis is sloppy at best, in my opinion. He grasps at straws to make the foundation for his case that the entire NT may plausibly be dated before 70 CE, while ignoring huge swaths of important texts and scholarship that undermine his claim. The negligence which permeates the book makes it sincerely feel like Bernier started with his conclusion and dodged through the evidence, keeping only what could be construed to support his argument and a handful of counter-points he thought did not pose much of a challenge. It has the tone of an apologetics book written by someone familiar only with the topic on a near-to-surface level. I can’t recommend this book.

1 comment:

  1. Why more scholars haven't come out against this book is beyond me. The book Revelation and little apocalypse sections in the gospels were mind-numbingly bad. Good writing Mark.