Some methodological guidelines for the dating of biblical texts

One of the central preoccupations of modern biblical scholarship has been the dating of individual texts to particular historical situations or relative to other texts, as well as reconstructing their diachronic development from earlier stages to the final forms that appear in various text traditions/translations (LXX, Qumran, MT). And while I think this is a worthwhile endeavor and ultimately necessary to explain the complex literary quality of the Bible, too often hypotheses have been advanced based merely on vague historical correlation, the desire to find kernels of great antiquity, and the assumption that biblical scribes were for the most part simply editors or tradents handing down earlier tradition. At the same time, the traditional dating of biblical texts has tended to lack engagement with holistic literary and ideological analyses or fail to entertain the possibility that the scribes responsible for large-scale compositions were simply inventors of tradition.

I have a lot more I could say about this, but in the interest of encouraging more methodological rigor and self-criticism in the dating of biblical texts I thought I would offer a few basic guidelines:

1) The burden of proof is on those who would date a text earlier than its surrounding literary context;

2) Such proposals also move on a sliding scale, the earlier one dates a text relative to the major contexts for the production of the Bible (Persian and Hellenistic periods, late Judahite monarchy) the more speculative and tenuous the argument becomes;

3) To demonstrate literary discontinuity requires a higher bar of evidence than continuity, i.e. on principle readings that make sense of the text at a synchronic level are to be preferred over diachronic readings.

4 comments on “Some methodological guidelines for the dating of biblical texts

  1. Steve Fleming says:

    I’m curious how Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible and Russell E. Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible have been received. They both argue that the Pentateuch and much of the content up to 2 Kings were written in the Hellenistic era and were based on instructions that came from Plato’s Laws about how to create a well run state based on an invented but useful mythology (the Laws does say that). I’ve only read Wajdenbaum’s intro (he argues the one person wrote Genesis to 2 Kings) but read all of Gmirkin (he argues that the writers of the Septuagint didn’t translate the Old Testament but wrote it). Gmirkin goes into a lot of detail arguing that much of the Law of Moses derived from Plato’s Laws.

    • RT says:

      In short, they have not been received well. While the parallels they cite with Greek or Hellenistic literature are interesting, they are scattered and quite vague, not demonstrating dependence by any means. In addition, they completely ignore the findings of redactional and historical criticism, which shows that the Pentateuch is a conglomerate that came together over a fairly long period of time, at least a few centuries.

      • Steve Fleming says:

        Thanks, RT. I don’t think the parallels are vague, so I think that’s a mistaken criticism. They’re quite specific. But I’d be interested in examples.

        But in terms of Hellenistic influence generally, I’m curious what the arguments are there. That is, in what ways is Hellenism in the OT?

        • RT says:

          If you’re interested in this subject, I would encourage you to read some of the reviews of Gmirkin and Wajdenbaum, which explain some of the problems with their literary parallelism.

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