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How to Date Documents, including Barnabas


In a comment on my recent post on the letter of Barnabas, where I indicated that “it is almost certainly to be dated to the 130s CE (for reasons I could explain if anyone really wants to know….)” – one reader asked:

I, for one, would be quite interested in the how these various works are dated. Seems like it would be of utmost importance seeing as the date of composition all but decides the question of authorship. Even if it only provides a general sense of why a particular date is hung on a manuscript or composition, I think it would be helpful.



Yes, as it turns out, it is very difficult to date ancient writings; but scholars who have worked on such matters (for nearly 300 years now, in some instances) have marshaled pretty good evidence in case after case, although in many instances there continue to be substantial debates. There are several ways to establish parameters, which are fairly commonsensical. If a writing is quoted by an author whose dates are relatively certain (his dates too need to be established on independent grounds! But in lots of cases there is almost no doubt), then obviously the writing is earlier than that. So that’s a beginning. Second, if the writing itself quotes a datable writing or author then it must be written later than that. And third, relatedly, if the writing refers to a datable event, then it must be later.

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The Mayan Calendar, Y2K, and the Letter of Barnabas
Why Was Barnabas Attributed to Barnabas: Part 2



  1. Avatar
    Scott F  January 2, 2013

    Thank you! 😉

  2. Avatar
    jimmo  January 2, 2013

    I recall from Misquoting Jesus you saying that often the words and phrases indicate earliest and latest possible dates. The non-biblical example I always think of is the difference between Edgar Allan Poe and Steven King. Similar genres, but something that use the same words and style as King could not possibly be written by Poe, but it would be fairly easy for King to write something in the style of Poe.

  3. Avatar
    Peter  January 3, 2013


    I’m showing my ignorance here, but what are the main clues regarding the dating of the letters of Paul?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 3, 2013

      That sounds like the subject for a post. I’ll get on it!

      • Avatar
        Helwys12  March 17, 2013

        So, of the authentic letters of Paul, he wrote 1 Thessalonians first, and Romans last.
        In what order were his other authentic letters written? Is there a scholarly consensus?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 17, 2013

          Not completely, other than that 1 Corinthians came before 2 Corinthians. I tend to put Galatians early in the mix.

  4. Avatar
    Mikail78  January 3, 2013

    Bart, I have a question about the dating of the book of revelation. It’s my impression that the scholarly consensus is that it was written between 90-100 AD. However, I think there are credible scholars who believe it was written before 70 AD (If I’m wrong about this, and the belief that it was written before 70AD is more of a fringe view, let me know). In the notes of the Haper Collins Study Bible, if I remember correctly, it says that the writer of the book of revelation began writing it before 70, but it did not come to be the way we know it now until 90-100 or later. Of course, this means there is probably more than one author, right? Or am I wrong on that? I hope I haven’t misrepresented any scholarly views here. If I did, it’s not intentional. Anyway, I’d love to see your response on the dating issues concerning Revelation.

    • Avatar
      Mikail78  January 3, 2013

      OOPS!! Damn, I forgot to ask my main question. Do you think it’s likely that the Book of revelation was first written before 70, but was not put in its present form until 90-100 or after?

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  January 3, 2013

        I think some of it probably comes from the 60s or possible 70s, but that the final form as we have it is from the 90s.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 3, 2013

      Some scholars think the same author produced more than one edition of the book. Part of the problem is that some of the book seems to presuppose the time just after Nero’s death in the mid 60s, but others seem to presuppose the time during the reign of Domitian in the mid 90s. So the solution has been to say that there were two editions, or that some of the author’s prophecies he wrote as notes years earlier. Off hand I don’t know of people who have argued for different authors, since the style is fairly consistent (and consistently not good, I might add!)

    • Avatar
      Jim  January 4, 2013

      Although not dealing much with the dating of this book, I found Elaine Pagels “Revelations” a cool read.

  5. Avatar
    bobnaumann  January 3, 2013

    Could you shed some light on the dating of the Gospel of John. I had always thought it was written around the turn of the First Century. Isn’t this about the time the proto-orthodox Christians began to believe in the divinity of Jesus. My question is, was the belief in Jesus’divinity based on John’s Gospel, or was John’s Gospel written to support this emerging belief?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 3, 2013

      Yes, and yes! John was written to support this belief, and it certainly helped generate the belief. And yes, it is usually dated ot the mid 90s or so.

  6. johndash
    johndash  January 3, 2013

    “The apostle Paul – well-connected and well-traveled and familiar with lots of churches – shows no knowledge that such a thing as Gospels exist.” I should have asked you about this earlier. I was surprised when, back in a post on Marcion, you said the other “gospel” Paul talked about was “a version of our Gospel of Luke.” Would you explain? Thanks.
    John Dash
    Fairport, NY

  7. Avatar
    Kasey  January 5, 2013

    Does your thesis/dating of Barnabas have any effect on how you date and understand the parting of the ways?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2013

      Well, it wsa before Barnabas and the Didache, since they both have it; and a lot of scholars think that it is based on a non-Christian Jewish version — possibly even *pre*-Christian.

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