I continue here with some comments about my pop quiz (see: https://ehrmanblog.org/my-faux-pop-quiz-this-semester/ and https://ehrmanblog.org/does-basic-information-about-the-nt-matter-my-pop-quiz/ ), and some of the reasons I ask the questions – that is, what I try to teach from the answers (so that the quiz is not designed to see how much the students know already). Here are two more of the questions:
- In what century were they (the books of the NT) written?
Answer: First century CE. I use this question to explain the modern usage, among historians (and others!) of BCE and CE. Of course all of us (well, all of us my age) grew up with the dating system BC and AD. Most people don’t actually know what those abbreviations mean. Nearly everyone gets “BC”: Before Christ. But I remember – or maybe I misremember – being taught when I was young that A.D. stood for “After Death.” Well that ain’t right. And a second’s reflection shows why. It would mean there would be no dates for the years between Jesus’ birth and his death! A.D. therefore stands for the Latin phrase Anno Domini, “Year of our Lord.” I’ve never figured out why one abbreviation is based on English and the other Latin; maybe someone can on the blog can tell us?
In the meantime, here’s something else most people don’t know. In correct usage…
The rest of this post is only for members. If you’re not one, there’s no time like the present. Apart from that being literally true, it’s true for the case in point. You should join now. You’ll get tons of benefit, and every penny of your small membership fee goes to help those in need. So there’s no downside!
In correct usage B.C. follows a date: 567 BC; but if you do use A.D. it is to precede the date. That’s because you would say “year of our Lord 1996” you would not say “1996 year of our Lord” (since in this case the phrase functions as a modifier [though nominal] and modifiers of substantives typically precede the term they modify in English – “a fast runner” not “a runner fast”). And so instead of 1996 A.D. you should say A.D. 1996.
That may sound weird, but lots of correct English sounds weird. It should be “data are” instead of “data is” – since the word data is plural. (Any word that has a different from for the singular – in this case datum – is plural.) So the correct phrase is “the data show this” not “the data shows this.” The only reason is sounds strange is that almost no one says it correctly. There are all sorts of things like this. For example “I could care less” (as people always say) makes no sense. If you could care less that means you do care more. But you’re trying to say you don’t care at all; and so it has to be “I couldn’t care less.” OK, there are lots of examples of that kind of thing, many of them my hobbyhorses.
In any event, scholars these days tend not to use B.C. and A.D. because they are distinctively Christian terms. At least A.D. is. But the calendar in use now is used by everyone, not just Christians, and huge numbers of people among us do not consider Jesus to be their Lord. So why should they date things according to the year of “our Lord”?
CE and BCE are religiously neutral. They simply refer to the calendar everyone in our form of civilization uses, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, atheist, whatever. They stand for “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era.” Yes, the common era is dated from the birth of Jesus (kind of); but I’m never going to advocate picking some other arbitrary point to divide the ages. And all things being equal, I’d prefer not starting the calendar at 4004 BCE….
And, as many of you know, the date of the birth of Jesus is not actually the beginning of the Common Era. The calendar as we have it was devised by the 6th century monk Dionysius Exiguus (a name translated into English, memorably, by Stephen Jay Gould as “Dennis the Short”), who made a rather significant miscalculation. If the Gospels are right that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod the Great, then we have a problem, since Herod died in 4 BCE. And so that would mean, in the older designation, Jesus was born four years Before Christ. Go figure.
The other thing that my students don’t usually realize is that there was/is no year 0. The calendar goes from 1 BCE to 1 CE.
- Name the Gospels of the NT
Answer: Well, this is the one question nearly all my students get right. If nothing else, they know Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But most of them don’t know who these people are, and so in class I explain that two of them were thought to be Jesus’s disciples (that is, among the Twelve): Matthew the tax collector (named that only in Matthew) and John the Beloved Disciple (the “beloved disciple” only appears in the Gospel of John, but he is not called John there and even more weird, this Gospel is the only one that never mentions the disciple John by name. Go figure). Mark and Luke were allegedly close companions of two of the leading apostles: Mark was thought to be the secretary of Peter, Jesus’ right hand man, and Luke was thought to be the companion of the apostle Paul. So you get Gospels representing writings of two of Jesus’ disciples and of Peter and Paul, the most important figures of earliest Christianity.
As a rule my students do not, know, however, that none of the Gospels actually claim to be written by these people. They are all anonymous. For none of them does the author identify himself, and never do they suggest they were disciples of Jesus or companions of his apostles. There is some question of whether the early second-century church father Papias called the first Gospel Matthew and the second Mark (I think not: I think he was talking about other books; but it’s a debated point). The first time anyone comes out and names them as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was the heresy-hunter Irenaeus, around 185 CE – so a century or so after they had been in circulation.
And so among the questions we deal with in the class are: Is this old tradition right? If not, who were the actual authors? Were they eyewitnesses? If so, would that mean their accounts were accurate? If not, how did they get their information? Interesting questions. Of course I deal with them a lot on the blog, as well as I class.
I’ll continue with other questions in future posts.