Friday, June 09, 2006

Rediscovering treasure

I've been busy this week sorting my thoughts for Sri Lanka. I now have 26 lectures outlined; all I have to do is write them - that's next week's task!

In the meantime we're kicking off a series in 1 Timothy on Sunday evening which (by coincidence) raises fascinating issues of Pauline chronology which I will be covering in lecture 20 - just when did he write the pastorals (if he indeed did write them and they weren't composed after his death by those who continued to carry the torch for him - Luke, for instance)?

In the course of my reading, I turned to John Robinson's Redating the New Testament. This was the first work of serious academic theology I ever read. It was recommended to me by my then rector, Hugh Sylvester, back in 1978/79. It had an enormous impact on me. I remember feeling that two aspects of my life - my Christian faith and my love of history - were brought together by a writer of immense skill and historical imagination.

Reading Robinson's words again reminds me just what a good and sadly neglected book this is. His arguments are still compelling, 30 years after the book first appeared. It strikes me that scholars of all hues have found its thesis too difficult to integrate into their view of NT history and so it has been sidelined and ignored. Very few works seem to engage with it at all

It deserves better. His case that the whole New Testament was written prior to 70AD is certainly controversial but it's made with such gracious and clear-headed logic that it needs to be reckoned with in a way that most NT scholars shy away from.

When we know so little for certain about the history of the period from 33 (the resurrection) to the fall of Jerusalem in 70, it seems reckless to be so dogmatic about what can and can't have happened in those 37 years. It seems equally cavalier to dismiss as entirely untrustworthy the only narrative source we have, claiming to come from and cover those years (namely Acts - Paul Barnett in his recent book The Birth of Christianity - the first Twenty Years makes a good case for taking Acts seriously alongside Paul's letters as a source of reliable information)

And it seems overly dogmatic (as Robinson points out) to assert that Paul couldn't have written certain letters that bear his name on purely linguistic grounds. We have such a small corpus of writing from him that saying what is characteristically Pauline and what isn't, is tricky. We also don't know enough about his writing practices - how much did he dictate and how much leave to his secretaries to fashion his ideas into words for particular audiences? It's possible that because the pastorals are more personal, they are more not less reflective of Paul's normal turn of phrase.

Anyway, if you're looking for a good academic theology tome to take to the beach along with Dan brown this summer, I strongly recommend Robinson's Redating the New Testament.

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