How Early Is "Early"?
John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (The Westminster Press, 1976)
What a pity that this pathbreaking work is out of print while publishers flood the bookstores with fantasy-as-history in an unending stream.
Bishop Robinson, a theological modernist whose Honest to God made him controversial within the Anglican communion, began this book as, in his own words, "a theological joke": "I thought I would see how far one could get with the hypothesis that the whole of the New Testament was written before 70", the year in which the Roman army sacked and burned the Temple of Jerusalem. As it turned out, he got much further than he had ever expected, a journey made more impressive by his lack of any predisposition toward a "conservative" point of view. (Indeed, he somewhat defensively disclaims any intention of giving aid and comfort to “the fundamentalism of the fearful” or “the conservatism of the committed”.)
His conclusion is that there is no compelling evidence - indeed, little evidence of any kind - that anything in the New Testament canon reflects knowledge of the Temple's destruction. Furthermore, other considerations point consistently toward early dates and away from the common assumption (a prejudice with a seriously circular foundation) that a majority of primitive Christian authors wrote in the very late First or early-to-middle Second Century under assumed names.
For want of data, absolute proof of Robinson's thesis is impossible, and the weight of his arguments varies - from overwhelming in the case of the Epistle to the Hebrews through powerful (the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles of John) to merely strong (the Pastoral Epistles, the non-Johannine Catholic Epistles and Revelation).
In a postscript, Robinson reconsiders the dates of several subapostolic works: The Clementine Epistles, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache, the accepted dates for which range from the 90's to the latter half of the Second Century. He shows that, freed of the "push" of late dating of the canon, the most natural dates for these writings are earlier and that all could well have been written by 85 A.D.
Whether or not one agrees with every word of Robinson's analysis, he makes his case well and should force all students of the New Testament to rethink seriously the presuppositions that underlie much of what is currently written about First Century Christianity. Unhappily, finding a copy, even in these days of on-line used book consortia like ABEBooks.com, is a challenge. One can only hope that some publisher will gamble that the sober reasoning of this tome will in the long run outsell the shrill fantasy flights of the “Jesus Seminar” and their ilk.