Could you give some of the clues scholars have regarding the dating of Paul’s letters?
This seems like it ought to be an easy question to answer, a real softball. But it’s not; it’s a tough one, a hard curve.
Different scholars have different likes and dislikes within their own fields. Most New Testament scholars, for example, do not enjoy doing textual criticism – the reconstruction of the oldest attainable form of the text based on our surviving manuscripts. In fact, most are not trained in it and want nothing to do with it. When I started in my career, on the other hand, that was the one thing I was completely passionate about. Different strokes for different folks. There are some scholars who want nothing to do with the Synoptic Problem, and others who have worked on it for thirty years. And there are scholars who simply cannot get interested in establishing a chronology of Paul’s life and letters, and others who want to do almost nothing else.
I’m afraid when it comes to Paul, I’ve always been in the former camp. I just never have been drawn into the long, protracted, and complex debates about when Paul was where and with whom, and when he wrote this letter in relation to that letter (was in in June, 51 CE or April, 52 CE – and so on). I’m not against this kind of scholarship in the least. It is absolutely important and necessary. It just doesn’t float my boat. I have friends and colleagues, however, who puzzle over such things endlessly, and there are a number of full books written on the topic.
That being said – how DO scholars who do this kind of thing go about doing it? Here I’ll give the essentials. Basically it works like this:
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