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Paul’s Chronology

QUESTION:

Could you give some of the clues scholars have regarding the dating of Paul’s letters?

 

RESPONSE:

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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Jesus and Sacrifices
Early Christianity in Egypt

63

Comments

  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  July 10, 2013

    Quick question about dating…in your post you mention “years” and “months” and I have seen this often elsewhere, and then there is the issue of dating specific years such as whether Jesus died in30 CE or 33 CE and so on.

    The Jews had their calendar, and I have no recollection of what kind of calendar was used by the Romans, and we know historically that the calendars can be lunar or solar and that we now use a Gregorian calendar with modification…and it all seems so mixed up and imprecise.

    Yet you and other scholars mention such things as:

    “…for example, he indicates that three years after in Damascus, after his conversion, he went to made a visit to Jerusalem to see Cephas; in Galatians 2:1 he indicates that fourteen years later he went back to Jerusalem. “…and so on.

    When you use the words “years” and “months” what kind of years and months are you referring to, that is, how many days in a month and months in a year and so on? …. not a big question but it puzzles me a bit.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2013

      Julius Caesar incorporated a new calendar (hence: the Julian calendar) in which each year was 364 days and 6 hours in length — so not all that different from our calendar. This was based, obviously, on solar calculations. There were also months based on lunar calculations. Days and hours were trickier because of the variations in sunlight. Roman calendars had 12 hours of night and 12 hours of day, but an “hour” was a different length every day, so that there would be exactly 12, say, each night — the entire length of that particular night divided by 12.

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  July 11, 2013

        Thank you…most appreciated. Also, like the info on your daughter’s home schooling program very much. I’m a retired public school teacher and have a great interest in finding better ways to educate our children. Blessings to her project.

  2. Robertus
    Robertus  July 10, 2013

    I’m flabbergasted by the fact that most NT scholars are not trained in text criticism! Where do they receive their training where such a lacuna magna is allowed? Are you talking about primary level seminary training, which is not really training for scholarship?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2013

      Most graduate programs in New Testament studies do not include training in textual criticism, except, possibly, as very much a side issue covered in passing. Yup, pretty amazing. Outside of conservative theological seminaries, UNC, where I teach, has for years been the only PhD granting institution in the nation where a graduate student could do textual criticism as an area of focus. And I’m afraid that since I’ve moved on to other things, even we are phasing it out.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  July 11, 2013

        Perhaps this is more of an American thing? I cannot imagine this happening at any of the major European universities, certainly not those I attended.

        • Robertus
          Robertus  July 11, 2013

          Thanks!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 12, 2013

          Actually, no, it’s not particularly American!

          • Avatar
            hwl  July 28, 2013

            Why is there declining research efforts on textual criticism? Isn’t it ironic that such a scientific field of biblical scholarship (I judge the field of exegesis to be more an art than a science) is phased out while there is such much more effort devoted to endlessly interpreting and reinterpreting what this sentence or word in the Bible means?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 28, 2013

            I don’t think there is declining research efforts. Just the contrary, there have been enormous advances made over the past 20 years. Right now most of the work is being done in England and Germany (though not all of it obviously). And highly significant changes are happening and huge progress is being made. The field is developing so fast that if a person is not on top of it full time, it is not possible to stay abreast….

      • Avatar
        bamurray  July 13, 2013

        So why is that? Has the field exhausted its fruitfulness?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2013

          Sorry — I’m not sure what you’re referring to!

          • Avatar
            bamurray  July 15, 2013

            Sorry – I meant why are academic programs in textual criticism going away? Nobody thinks it’s a fruitful research program anymore?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 16, 2013

            It’s a complicated story. Maybe I’ll post on it. Good idea!

  3. Avatar
    brandyrose  July 10, 2013

    Fascinating, thank you.

  4. Robertus
    Robertus  July 10, 2013

    What do you think of Gerd Lüdemann’s dating of the letter to the Thessalonians as early as the early 40s, around the time of Caligula threatening to defile the Temple in Jerusalem?

    Now that you mention it, what do you make of the fact that Paul never mentions the Temple, Jesus’ prophecy of its destruction, or anything to do with the Temple cult? I guess he was just so thoroughly hellenized that it was very significant to him.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2013

      I haven’t read Luedemann’s argument, so I really can’t say. Paul does use imagery drawn from the temple cult (see my posting today); it’s hard (read: impossible) to know if he knew about Jesus’ predictions.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  July 11, 2013

        Thanks. “… and Paul’s somewhat peculiar statement that “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.” (The reason it’s peculiar is that the Passover lamb that was sacrificed was not understood to be for atonement.)”

        This is sort of in line with what I was wondering. Was Paul so thoroughly Hellenized and non-Judean that he was not that aware of nor especially interested in the Temple and the details of the temple cult? Obviously, Paul was very ‘Jewish’ in many other respects but I don’t see much about the temple.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 12, 2013

          I don’t think it was because Paul was Hellenized. I think by his time Jesus’ death during the Passover had already taken on significance and his followers reinterpreted the signfiicance of the death in light of when it happened: just as the passover lamb brought salvation through its blood (in Exodus) so too Jesus with his blood. So they based their theology not on the Jewish understanding of the Passover lamb sacrificed in commemoration of the event but upon a reinterpretatoin of the event itself.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  July 12, 2013

        “it’s hard (read: impossible) to know if he knew about Jesus’ predictions.”

        I agree, but if he did know of Jesus’ ruckus & predictions against the temple, he might not have liked it too much.

        “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.” (1 Cor 3,17 NRSVP)

        And that’s about all we know of Paul’s attitude toward the Temple.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 12, 2013

          Right. But Paul thinks that the (new?) temple is the Christian church, as he indicates in the preceding verse and elsewehre.

          • Robertus
            Robertus  July 16, 2013

            Thanks, very interesting! So do you think that, as an apocalypticist, Paul would also be expecting a new, heavenly temple to come in the near future? Or has the new temple already been realized in the Christian church?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 17, 2013

            Wish I knew! My sense is that it is now the church, but it’s hard to say….

  5. Avatar
    Adam0685  July 10, 2013

    Sorry to ask an off related question. I’ve tried searching for the answer myself but I know you would know this off hand…many conservative scholars talk about how there are 5000+ NT manuscripts and sometimes use this as major argument to for the textual reliability of the NT(s) today verses the originals. My question is generally speaking how much of these manuscripts are actually fairly early. When I hear apologists throw out these numbers they make it sound like all these manuscripts go back before 300 CE.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2013

      94% of those manuscripts date from after the 9th century. There are very few indeed before 300, and the ones that are dated, say, to the second century are all scraps/fragments.

  6. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  July 10, 2013

    Paul also mentions in 2 Corn. 11:32-33 that he escaped from Damascus when the Nabatean King Aretas tried to capture him. King Aretas controlled Damascus, by Caligula, from 37-41. This was around three years between his conversion and going to Jerusalem. Hope that helps.

  7. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  July 10, 2013

    Has anyone ever considered this to be really works of fiction..After all, Jesus was returning (imminently) so there would be no need for any kind of dates of when things happen. Next, where is all the money coming from on these massive trips around the Mediterranean?? This is a lot of foot trips for these people…The average life span is about 35 years of age..Way to many unanswered questions for me.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2013

      The money appears to be coming from local congregations that take up collections (as Paul indicates in his letters — e.g., Philippians); and life spans are notoriously tricky: if half the people die as new borns, and the other half live to be 70, then the average is 35. So old age was not unheard of.

      • Avatar
        bobnaumann  July 11, 2013

        Wasn’t Paul a tent maker? If I recall he said something about working when he stayed in a place so as not to be a burden on his congregation.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 12, 2013

          The book of Acts indicates that he worked with leather, which is often taken to mean tent-maker. I have a chpater that discusses some of htis in my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction (chapter on 1 Thessalonians).

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 10, 2013

    Good question. Good answer. But not my cup of tea either. I would, however, like to know more about the discrepancies between Acts and Paul’s letters

  9. Avatar
    billgraham1961  July 10, 2013

    This question goes back to Matthew. I realize you may or may not get to it, but today I read Matthew 10 and 11. In Matthew 10:5-6, Jesus “sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel” (NIV). In Matthew 10:23, Jesus said “…Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

    I am 52, and I’m noticing the significance of these verses for the first time. I used to understand Matthew 10:23 in terms of eschatology. I saw it in future tense, but it obviously cannot be a future event. The audience of Jesus’ promise was his 12 disciples. The promise was that Son of Man would come before they had finished going through the towns of Israel despite any potential persecution at they faced at the hands of local counsels in the synagogues there.

    Is this another passage that indicates Jesus was an apocalyptic, but that he got it wrong? In verse 7, Jesus instructed the apostles to say the “Kingdom of Heaven is near.” In verse 18, however, Jesus seems to contradict himself by saying, “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.” Matthew 10 is pretty confusing in several regards, and this is one them.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2013

      Yes, this was a key verse for Albert Schweitzer’s reconstructoin of Jesus’ apocalyptic message in The Quest of the Historical Jesus. My sense is that it represents something Jesus actually said, that has been preserved in Matthew, and that Jesus really did believe that the end was to come that soon.

  10. Avatar
    toejam  July 11, 2013

    Thanks for this. Very helpful. While we’re on the topic of Paul, my question is: In 1 Corinthians 2:8, who does Paul consider the “rulers of this age” to be, who he says are responsible for crucifying Jesus? The Romans? The Jewish establishment in Judea/Israel (Paul himself obviously considered himself a Jew, but he would have been aware that he was in a fringe sect)? Or was it something less tangible – the devil or cosmic forces of evil etc.? I take it as a reference to all three. I know a lot of mythicists in the Wells/Doherty/Carrier “cosmic Jesus” tradition insist that he can’t be refering to the Romans or Jews. I’m not so sure. What are your thoughts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2013

      It’s a great question and hard to answer. My sense is that it probably means “all of the above.” But in any event, the mythicist view that htis death took place in the heavenly realm instead of here on earth (e.g., Doherty) has, in my view, nothing going for it.

  11. Avatar
    pawel  July 11, 2013

    “Paul was in Corinth (the capital of Achaia) for 18 months. That means that his 18 months must have overlapped with Gallio’s proconsulship in 51-52.”
    = 18 + 24 + 18 = 60 months = 5 years
    quite loose for a fixed point ;P

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2013

      Yes, it’s not exactly a pinpoint. But it’s not as bad as your equation: 51-52 means 12 months spanning 51 and 52.

      • Avatar
        pawel  July 13, 2013

        Well – not exactly 🙂
        Unless we know (do we? – it requires additional data, like – “proconsul tenure usually began at july”, or sth.) which 12 out of 24 months it means, we must still include 24 months into the equasion.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2013

          Yes, I think the experts do know (it just happened to cross the two years, like any school year does). I simply don’t happen to be one of them….

  12. Avatar
    bobnaumann  July 11, 2013

    I have always been confused by the terminology BCE and CE as opposed to BC and AD. Was the Common Era the result of the Romans trying to fix up the calendar and had nothing to do with Chistianity? And was it coincidence that led later Christians to equate the Common Era to the time of Christ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 12, 2013

      BCE and CE are completely modern designations, implemented because Jews, Muslims, and everyone else in the West uses the same calendar even though they don’t consider Jesus to be the Lord/Christ.

      • Avatar
        bobnaumann  July 13, 2013

        So the dating of our calendar really is based on the Cristian Era? When did this become adopted? Surely it could not have before 33 AD and probably not before Chritianity became the state religion in the Fourth Century. So did they back date everything to year 1 which they thought was the year of Jesus’ birth?

  13. Avatar
    jhague  July 11, 2013

    Unrelated to dating Paul’s letter (but reading this article made me think of this question), do you view Paul’s mystical experience on the road to Damascus as a fabrication? It seems to me that he made up the entire event so that he could create a religion that borrows the antiquity of Judaism. He could then convert his Gentile friends to a religion that was “related” to Judaism. It seems that as he wrote his letters to various congregations, he was making up his responses as he went.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 12, 2013

      No, my sense is that Paul had a bona fide “vision” of Jesus that turned him around, that he wasn’t making it all up. (he didn’t get a lot out of converting, other than getting beaten, flogged, stoned, and generally abused). I explain my views about htis more in my book on How Jesus Became God.

      • Avatar
        AnotherBart  December 13, 2017

        Glad to hear you say this. I myself have Narcolepsy. Hypnogogic & Hypnopompic Hallucinations are one of the 5 major symptoms. Some have suggested that these types of hallucinations from extreme sleep deprivation may have been what Paul experienced.

        I can say from personal experience, that when I’m experiencing these hallucinations, they are so real at the time that I can be convinced, temporarily, that what is happening is real. I will look at bricks in the wall, look away, and then see the same texture on the same bricks in my dream. I have to look for clues. But there are always strong indications that I’m not in reality: things so bizarre that I I know its a dream. But, when I am truly awake, I have absolutely no question about the dividing line between reality and hallucination. I remember the dream AS a dream. I am NEVER concerned when awake that I might be…. not awake.

        Also, these dreams have distinctive patterns. Narcoleptic humans, such as myself, often have dreams of someone trying to break into the house. Or an ominous presence outside. Terrifying!

        I’ve never had a vision of an angel telling me what to do, where to go etc. Its all–thieves!!!

        And they are all at night, when in bed, not while walking around.

        • Avatar
          AnotherBart  December 14, 2017

          Now I am going to contradict myself. I wrote “They’re all at night”. What I *meant* to say was “they all occur when sleeping, usually in the first five minutes of my head hitting the pillow, or upon waking”. That can be at night. at 1pm, whenever, so long as I’m in a position to rest.

          So. Night or ‘whenever’? Here we have a real life example of someone ‘caught in the act’ of…… deception? No. This is why I don’t think we need to get caught up in trying to find ‘errors’ in scripture….. because if you’re looking for them… “seek and ye shall find….” them… as in, you’ll find errors whether they’re there or not.

          Also, these experiences haven’t happened for years, because my condition is well managed through medication…….

  14. talitakum
    talitakum  July 11, 2013

    So, after the analysis of Paul’s christology (and pre-Paul, e.g. Philippians) and considering Paul’s chronology, you may agree with late M. Hengel who said “with regard to the development of all the early Church’s christology, that more happened in the first twenty years than in the entire later centuries-long development of dogma.”…

  15. Avatar
    Walid_  July 12, 2013

    my tuppence here:

    if you think Paul’s footprint is hard to trace, then try jesus’!!!
    jesus can never be known to exist at a certain place at a certain time, as Dr Ehrman puts it: ‘it depends which gospel you read’.
    was it three years as in John? or just one as in the synoptics.
    Was he even from Judea? or from Nazareth? was he in Egypt? or not.
    food for thought!

  16. Avatar
    dewdds  July 12, 2013

    Related to the whole Pauline chronology is the discrepancy between Gal 1:17,18 and Acts 9:26-30, where different reports are given on his travels after the Damascus stay post-conversion. Indeed Gal 1:17 presents it as protesting some other story about Paul’s wanderings at that time. What do you make of these differences?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 12, 2013

      I think it’s a real discrepancy and that Paul, who literally swears he’s telling the truth, really is telling the truth. The author of Acts wants Paul to meet up with the disciples right away because he wants everyone to know that they all got along from the very beginning and never had any major disagreements (in contrast to the reality that Paul outlines in Galatians).

  17. Avatar
    jhague  July 13, 2013

    Thank you for your reply. I look forward to reading your new book.
    I noticed that you put vision in quotes. So we might be kind of saying the same thing. My thought is whatever Paul’s “vision” was, it was not Jesus or a Christ figure. His vision was no different than a person having a vision now. It was a result of a mental condition, drugs, hallucination or fabrication. Whatever the source, he then used that “vision” to create a new religion that appealed to Gentiles.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2013

      Yes I use “vision” to mean that it either could have been a vision of something that was really there or of something that was not there. Believers say the former, non-believers the latter — but in both cases it is a vision.

  18. Avatar
    Steefen  March 23, 2014

    The problem here is that the crucifixion of Jesus does not work on calendars until 36 C.E. Nisan 15 falls on a Thu. in 30, a Tue. in 31, on a Tue. in 32, on a Sat. in 33, on a Tue. in 34, on a Tue. in 35 and on a Sat. in 36. Author Joseph Raymond writes: “In only two years [30 through 36 Common Era] did 15 Nisan fall on a Saturday, with Passover beginning the previous evening (on Friday)—33 and 36 C.E.” When would Jesus stage a Palm Sunday, in 33 or 36? Well, it is not until 36 that (quoting Raymond) “50% of the Roman troops for the Syrian province, were engaged in a campaign over 500 miles to the east. Furthermore, a large Jewish army allied with the Romans under Antipas had just been defeated by Aretas, king of Nabatea,” giving Palm Sunday even less resistance.

  19. Avatar
    Steefen  March 23, 2014

    Atwill says Josephus did not give us accurate dates because he was too busy trying to make history fit the prophecies of Daniel and a 40 year typology.

    70AD when the woe-saying Jesus of Ananus was killed had to be (for Josephus) 40 years after the biblical Jesus’s ministry began in 30 C.E. A generation is 40 years in Jesus’ day. Jesus’s prophecy of a destroyed Temple had to happen approximately within 40 years.

    The Wars of the Jews documents Daniel’s prophecies had come to pass within the first century. Josephus was aware that the “son of God” foreseen by Daniel had appeared earlier in the century and had been cut off (by the crucifixion of the biblical Jesus). Josephus was conscious of an important religious mystic wandering Galilee. Josephus was keenly aware that his work demonstrated that Daniel’s prophecies had come to pass and that Jesus was the Christ which the prophecies had envisioned. When Jesus failed to be the Messiah by Jewish rejection, Titus became Messiah and Son of Man.

    With Jesus dying 15 Nisan year 33 and Masada slaughter 15 Nisan 73, we have another 40 year period. This is Christianity wandering in the desert and finally with the end of the Jewish Revolt, the promise land of Christianity.

    Now, the question is: did Jesus die in 33?

    Bart Ehrman:
    Paul converted to be a follower of Jesus in possibly 32-33 CE

    Steefen:
    Paul cannot convert in 32. The biblical Jesus does not get crucified until 33 or 36.

  20. bonesdoll
    bonesdoll  April 23, 2014

    Question: Is there any evidence of Paul or Joseph of Arimathea visiting Britain..

    Thanks

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