For Britons of my generation, the name JAT Robinson, quondam Anglican Bishop of Woolwich raises the image of his famous book Honest to God. Published in 1963, the book aroused a storm of cobtroversy, partly because it introduced the odea of situational ethics to a company wider than university scholars, and partly because it called for a fundamental review of the way we regarded God. Read now, one would simply wonder what the fuss was about? But for some of us, Robinson raises another image – that of a New Testament scholar of great learning whose work in this area was as much of a blessing to traditionalists as his other work was a cause of irritation.
Robinson’s best work, at least in my own view, was his Redating the New testament which was published in 1976. Here, the same fearless disregard for received opinion which upset people in his more famous book, was brought to play on modernist views on the dating and authorship of Sacred Scripture.
For Robinson one fact as of fundamental importance – the destrcution of the Temple in jerusalem in AD 70. A datable fact, and one which rocked the Jewish world on its foundations, it is never once mentioned in any of the NT books; this, Robinson pointed out, is exceedingly odd. It is like someone writing a history of modern Britain and not mentioning world war II; you would do that only if you were writing before that war had taken place.
By the 1950s the conventional consensus was something like this:
|50-1||I and II Thessalonians|
|53-6||Galatians, Philippians, I and II Corinthians, Romans|
|90-5||I Peter, Revelation|
|100+||I and II Timothy, Titus|
Much of this, Robinson pointed out, was based on theories of what theological developments it was suposed were relevant to what date; anything ‘advanced’ had to be late, as as John’s Gospel was, theologically speaking, very sophisticated, that meant it must be the latest. Well, if you decide on such criteria you ignore, Robinson argued, the text itself and what can be read from it.
The early church was very cautious about claims of texts to be apostolic, there needed to be a real tradition about the provenance of a Gospel, and John’s was accepted from the beginning. It is impossible to read the text without coming to the conclusion that the person is claiming to be the Beloved Disciple. Much paper and ink have been spent on the notion of a Johannine comunity, the existence of which (outside those pages) has never been shown to exist, and yet, on the basis of an academic construct, scholars have argued that the text is not by John but by others in his name. The evidence for this is the supposed existence of the supposed community. Well, when scholars come up with some evidence which is not guesswork, we could discuss that, by Robinson deals with the text and treats the claims seriously, inviting others to explain why he should not.
Scholars have extrapolated from the tradition that John lived to a grand old age and assumed that the Gospel must have been written towards the end of his life; for this there is no hard evidence. The end of the Gospel is clearly written by another hand after John’s death, but that is no reason to assume that the rest of it was also written in the late first century. The similarities between some of the ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls and John’s Gospel kicks the propos away from the old theory that it had to be late because of Hellenistic influence; there was much more interprentration between Hebrew and Greek thought than scholars once recognised. As Robinson puts it: ‘The gospel shows the marks of being both Palestinian and Greek – in contrast with the Qumran literature which is Palestinian and Hebrew. I am not convinced that this simple difference has been given sufficient weight.’
Kilpatrick’s conclusion is worth quoting:
What have we learned about him? A poor man from a poor province he does not seem to have been a bookish person. In Greek terms he was uneducated with no contact with the Greek religious and philosophical literature of his day. This creates a problem: how does a man without these contacts have so many apparent similarities to a writer like Philo in his thought? As his material conditions as far as we can elicit them indicate a man of Palestinian origin it seems reasonable to look for the background of his presentation of the Gospel there. Our sources of information will be the LXX and related works, the literature of the Qumran and the Rabbinic texts especially the traditions of the Tannaim. On other counts we arc being forced to recognize that notions we have associated with Hellenistic Judaism were not unknown and not without influence in Palestinian Judaism in the first century AD.
Robinson’s conclusion on the date is as follows:
|30-50||Formation of the Johannine tradition and proto-gospel in Jerusalem|
|50-55||First edition of our present gospel in Asia Minor|
|60-65||II, III and I John|
|65 +||The final form of the gospel, with prologue and epilogue.|
He has not convinced many scholars, but I remain unconvinced by the criticisms, to which I hope to return.