The Dating Game

When it comes to ancient documents, there is no one-size-fits-all criterion for determining their date. There are, however, general principles, based on two types of evidence: external and internal.

External evidence refers to clues outside the document that can either pinpoint a date or help give us a window. For example, if a given document is clearly cited in another dateable text, then the established text provides a "no later than" cut-off date for our text. Alternatively, an external source may give explicit verification of a document's authorship and/or dating. The only questions are (1) whether there is any reason for the source to have distorted or fabricated this report, and, if not, (2) whether there is good reason to doubt its accuracy.

Internal evidence includes any signs within the text itself that may give a clue to its date. Many of these can provide a "no earlier than" cut-off date. Internal evidence includes:

• An explicit statement of audience, authorship (assuming that the named author is not a pseudonym), or time of writing.

• Allusion to any dateable events, figures, movements, ideas, practices, texts, or other material culture.

The original language of composition.

• The style, word choice, and genre of the document, which may be traceable to a particular author or setting.

• The substantive concerns of the document, which may be traceable to a particular author or setting.

• The more external and internal evidence there is, the greater likelihood of a consensus for a proper dating. The less evidence, the more we are left to an educated guess.

By Nicholas Perrin

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #96 in 2007]

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