Thursday, May 3, 2012

Dating the Old Testament

It is difficult to come up with a completely unbiased basis for evaluating the dates for the composition of the books of the Old Testament. Those of us who hold that the Bible is the Word of God will, of course, give credence to who these books or the rest of Scripture claim they were written by.  But while it is normal to give the author the benefit of the doubt, we really cannot expect this of sceptics on an issue as controversial as the Old Testament. Now the sceptic will claim that fulfilled prophecy was written after the fact and that there must have been time for the stories of miracles to grow up. But this is simply circular reasoning. Further, we should dismiss, from any perspective, the concept of evolution of religion. New faiths can grow up quickly, often in the lives of the founders or their immediate successors. Also, even if Biblical theology grew up slowly, we would have no idea of when it began growing and at what pace.

Is there then an objective basis for evaluating the dating of the Old Testament books? The actual manuscript evidence does not take us back more then about a couple of hundred years B.C., though even this is a problem for some late dating theories. In later Biblical history the basic historical events have been confirmed by archeology. This suggests a date of writing, or at least a source, close to the date of the events. Though not surprisingly, the earlier you go the more controversial things become and the more arguments there are both ways. Another possible argument is from philology. This would be a good argument if we had a significant body of datable extra-Biblical material in the Hebrew language from the time. We do not. Philological arguments are made by finding words claimed to be of foreign origin and speculating on when these words might have made their way into the Hebrew language. This is at best an argument from silence (which is of virtually no value in ancient history), and there are cases where later discoveries have called conclusions on this basis into question. There is also the question of historical errors and anachronisms, but these are few and generally explicable. I am forced to conclude that it is difficult to dogmatically establish the dates of the Old Testament books from external historical evidence, and I would not expect someone to accept a conservative dating for these books unless they had accepted the Bible was the Word of God. But I also do not see anything like adequate proof for rejecting the traditional dating on purely historical grounds. We must look for other avenues to establish the truth of the Old Testament. But it should not be rejected out of hand because of the claim it was written long after the fact.


  1. Why do you think people feel that it is important to know the dates of ancient events in Genesis? Seems that even the author, Moses, did not know those dates as he most likely was transcribing an orally transmitted understanding of the events.

    1. I do not claim to know what sources Moses may or may not have used. My purpose in this post is purely negative. To question theories that say the Old Testament books could not be accurate or written by who they claim to be, because they were written much later. There is much we do not know and may never know, unless God chooses to reveal it to us, about the writing of the Old Testament. What I am urging is scepticism of the sceptics.

    2. I agree Mike. Those who claim to know concern me the most.