Book reviews

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

Redating the New Testament is a cunning book, in which Robinson hides his chronological theory, substantiated with the heavyweights of biblical scholarship, behind a facade of light-footed intellectual frivolity. On the one hand he brilliantly exposes the meagre arguments behind the traditional dating of the New Testament writings, but on the other he replaces this traditional dating with a new theory that in my opinion is even weaker than the chronology he questions.

The core of Robinson’s theory is a very early and concentrated dating of the New Testament writings, roughly between 50 and 70 CE, before or at the latest during the war of the Jews against the Romans (66-70 CE) . Robinson states that all the New Testament writings must have been written before the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE because these crucial war events are not unambiguously described as past events anywhere in the New Testament. This thesis is diametrically opposed to the opinion of many biblical scholars, who consider the veiled mentions of the war in the synoptic Apocalypse and elsewhere in the gospels as prophecies-after-the-facts and therefore as references to the war. This interpretation of the doom prophecies are the basis for dating most New Testament writings after the end of the war in 70 CE, the four gospels being the most important of them.

In fact Robinson’s theory stands or falls with this ‘unambiguous description’ of the destruction of the Temple and/or the fall of Jerusalem in the New Testament. In my opinion this unambiguous description is present, reducing Robinson’s theory to futility. This description, however, is worded in the apocalyptic writing style, and this combination of an unambiguous message and a subversive writing style is not the easiest one. The apocalyptic writing style was used by suppressed people to hide important information from their ruthless oppressors, in this case by the early Christians to conceal their subversive message for the Romans.

The crucial word in the synoptic Apocalypse is the Greek θλιψις, which is usually translated as (a period of) tribulation, but which is more exactly translated as a catastrophic event. Θλιψις more specifically is the apocalyptic code word for the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, for example in Mark 13:24. The effect of the catastrophe, the production of an enormous cloud of smoke, is described in the same verse, in this way supporting the ‘catastrophic event’ translation instead of the ‘period of tribulation’ translation. Also in Revelation (chapter 11 in the first place) and the Didache (particularly the apocalyptic final chapter) the final events of the war are described as past events (and in all these writings the parousia of the Christ is connected with these cataclysmic war events.)

After chapter 2 ‘The Significance of 70’ Robinson’s main thesis had already faded away. Nevertheless I enjoyed the chapter on the epistle of James later on, the early dating of which in my opinion is correct, with the two ‘Jesus’ mentions as interpolations.