“Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament” by Jonathan Bernier

New Testament scholarship has plenty of quacks. Not only from Christian apologists who argue that everything in the Bible is literal and true, but also from atheists who argue that Paul pulled the entirety of Christianity and Jesus out of his ass. Some argue that there’s no harm in arguing for such outrageous claims (which usually rely on mere conjecture) but that’s simply bad scholarship.

And bad scholarship is just that: bad scholarship. (And honestly, atheists, of which I consider myself, should know better)

Unfortunately there’s just too many holes in New Testament history, and given the nature of its study, it’s understandable that people are going to have some strong opinions. Moreover, new evidence is few and far in between, so scholars sometimes let their imaginations run wild with what scant data there is.

Nevertheless, MOST academics, ranging from the secular to the devoutly fundamental, can agree on a few things: 1st Thessalonians is probably the first Pauline epistle (likely written in 52AD) and the Gospel of Mark is the oldest gospel (likely written just after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD). In fact, I’d argue, from the perspective of academia, these dates could almost be deemed ironclad.

Few, if any, from the hardline atheist side (especially the “mythicist” school) would move these dates forward, largely to put as much distance between the (“alleged”) death of Jesus and the first written accounts. In fact, from this perspective, only the most ardent apologist would attempt to do so.

Then there’s Jonathon Bernier’s Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament.

The book was released this year, so I don’t know what it’s academic reception is. But a few armchair scholars are already labeling it a work of apologetics. And that’s a bit too harsh, in my opinion.

Nevertheless, when one pushes the dates of the gospels up by nearly 30 years, it should raise a few eyebrows. Much of this argument hinges on the dates of Luke (and by extension, the Book of Acts), which is largely agreed to be the last synoptic gospel written. I agree with Bernier that the “we” passages in Acts have been a difficult thing for scholars to explain, especially if we want to date Luke/Acts post 90AD. Additionally, Bernier makes a compelling (although not fully convincing) argument that the ending to Acts wouldn’t quite make sense to readers had it been completed sometime after Paul’s death.

Yes, Bernier is a professor at a theology school attached to the University of Toronto (but honestly, those are the only places you can find a job teaching about history of early Christianity and the New Testament). But he certainly doesn’t rely on “apologetics” to make his arguments. You may not find it compelling, but I think the importance of Bernier’s work is to highlight that an earlier dating for the New Testament is not entirely unfounded.

This book may not be a “paradigm shift” in New Testament studies, but the author does ask important questions and the knee jerk reaction shouldn’t be to label it apologetics.

Besides, doubt in god and Christianity shouldn’t hinge on Jesus’s existence or the dating of the New Testament. That’s a weird argument to make. So atheists, particularly ones like myself who can appreciate the New Testament for its historical and (at times) artistic value (as opposed to misusing it by believing it to be some holy document), should be open to reading Jonathon Bernier’s work.