Determine the age of ancient documents

(John Van der Werff) #1

Hi everyone
I have been told that ancient documents were written in an appropriate time.
For example: the sayings of Jesus were written within 60 years of Jesus death.
The sayings of Buddha were written 600 years after his death.
The sayings of Mohammed were written 200 years after his death.
I assume this is based on archeological evidence, the content of the writings, and ancient writings from others about the respective individual wrttings.
Does anyone know any other techniques that help determine how the ages of the writings are determined?


(SeanO) #2

@JohnV I believe ancient manuscripts are generally dated by: style of writing, reference or knowledge of current events of a particular period, people who are mentioned, the location where they were discovered, etc. Archaeologists use contextual clues to determine the date.

Apparently certain Carbon 14 dating methods are difficult to use because part of the document has to have already decayed to use them. However, they developed a new one and dated the dead sea scrolls. But one scholar’s response was amusing - he said ‘We already knew that because of the style of writing and contextual clues’.

The old method of carbon-14 dating required the destruction of parts of ancient documents to obtain the necessary carbon-14 samples. The new method requires only a pinhead-size sample, Broshi explained.

Here is a good book from F F Bruce on how we can trust the reliability of the Old and New Testament Manuscripts.

Is this the argument you are referring to? Generally it is a comparison to show how much more evidence there is for the NT than other ancient documents.

Look forward to hearing others thoughts and suggested resources.

(John Van der Werff) #3

Thanks for your response and the reference. My question goes deeper. I want to know how those dates are determined.

(SeanO) #4

@JohnV If you read the beginning of my post, I note that they are determined by:

  • style of writing - Greek writing changed from time period to time period - so the actual form of the script can indicate date
  • contextual clues - if the text mentions certain rulers, locations, etc. that can be a hint as to what time period it came from
  • when other ancient writers who mention it say it was written
  • Carbon 14 dating - while this requires some of the material to have deteriorated, it can be used on occasion (see article above)
  • location documents found - if the documents were found surrounded by items from a certain time period, it may be reasonable (may) to assume that they came from that time period

I’m not an expert on dating ancient documents, but my impression is that each document requires going through this process to determine when it was most likely written.

Dating Luke - Geisler

Here is an example of some arguments for an ‘early date’ for the Book of Luke. See how he uses contextual clues and historical notes to attempt to date the book. That is one example of how dating these materials is approached.

The Gospel of Luke was written by the same author as the Acts of the Apostles, who refers to Luke as the ‘former account’ of ‘all that Jesus began to do and teach’ (Acts 1:1). The destiny (‘Theophilus’), style, and vocabulary of the two books betray a common author. Roman historian Colin Hemer has provided powerful evidence that Acts was written between AD 60 and 62. This evidence includes these observations:

  1. There is no mention in Acts of the crucial event of the fall of Jerusalem in 70.
  2. There is no hint of the outbreak of the Jewish War in 66 or of serious deterioration of relations between Romans and Jews before that time.
  3. There is no hint of the deterioration of Christian relations with Rome during the Neronian persecution of the late 60s.
  4. There is no hint of the death of James at the hands of the Sanhedrin in ca. 62, which is recorded by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews (
  5. The significance of Gallio’s judgement in Acts 18:14-17 may be seen as setting precedent to legitimize Christian teaching under the umbrella of the tolerance extended to Judaism.
  6. The prominence and authority of the Sadducees in Acts reflects a pre-70 date, before the collapse of their political cooperation with Rome.
  7. The relatively sympathetic attitude in Acts to Pharisees (unlike that found even in Luke’s Gospel) does not fit well with in the period of Pharisaic revival that led up to the council at Jamnia. At that time a new phase of conflict began with Christianity.
  8. Acts seems to antedate the arrival of Peter in Rome and implies that Peter and John were alive at the time of the writing.
  9. The prominence of ‘God-fearers’ in the synagogues may point to a pre-70 date, after which there were few Gentile inquiries and converts to Jerusalem.
  10. Luke gives insignificant details of the culture of an early, Julio-Claudian period.
  11. Areas of controversy described presume that the temple was still standing.
  12. Adolf Harnack contended that Paul’s prophecy in Acts 20:25 (cf. 20:38) may have been contradicted by later events. If so, the book must have appeared before those events.
  13. Christian terminology used in Acts reflects an earlier period. Harnack points to use of Iusous and Ho Kurios , while Ho Christos always designates ‘the Messiah’, and is not a proper name for Jesus.
  14. The confident tone of Acts seems unlikely during the Neronian persecutions of Christians and the Jewish War with the Rome during the late 60s.
  15. The action ends very early in the 60s, yet the description in Acts 27 and 28 is written with a vivid immediacy. It is also an odd place to end the book if years have passed since the pre-62 events transpired.

If Acts was written in 62 or before, and Luke was written before Acts (say 60), then Luke was written less than thirty years of the death of Jesus. This is contemporary to the generation who witnessed the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This is precisely what Luke claims in the prologue to his Gospel:

Many have undertaken to draw up a record of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught . [5uke 1:1-4]

Luke presents the same information about who Jesus is, what he taught, and his death and resurrection as do the other Gospels. Thus, there is not a reason to reject their historical accuracy either.

(John Van der Werff) #5

Ah… thank you. For some reason, I am getting old, I did not see that first part. Thank-you my friend! That’s perfect.

(SeanO) #6

@JohnV Great! Any commentary on a Bible Book will generally have a section about dating that book, if you have some commentaries laying around.

(John Van der Werff) #7

I see that… thanks. This whole subject came up after talking with a New Age friend. He claimed that the claims of Buddha were not accurate. I asked him why he thought that to be true and he basically implied that his teachings did not fit his worldview. But he had no real reason. He previously said that the scripture in John 14:6 does not say Jesus is the only way because the word “the” is not capitalized…

After listening to a lecture I recently emailed him comparing the timespan between the writings of Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus and and when they died. He then asked me how the times are determined. I had some thought, which matched what you wrote, but you wrote it so eloquently that sent him what you wrote. I hope you don’t mind. Blessings and thanks!


(SeanO) #8

@JohnV No worries. His argument that ‘the’ is not capitalized is not logical - a word does not need to be capitalized to function. In addition, Jesus made it clear that He was the only way to God by saying right after that that no one comes to the Father except through Him. Quite straightforward.

Christ grant you wisdom as you reach out to him and open His heart to Christ’s love.

John 14:6 - Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

(John Van der Werff) #9

I agree with you… and not only that but it is my understanding that in the original text all letters were capital letters. I did not want to argue with him and kept asking him why he interpreted things that way… and it came down to him interpreting life from his point of view. As you’re probably aware, this is very common for the New Age world view and logic is not important… or so they say. I once asked him if I though 2+2= 5 does that make it true and he said yes. He is a dear friend and I keep asking questions and praying for him. He is also a follower of Bashar. I have learned a lot from him.


(SeanO) #10

John, I think you made a wise decision not the press the point. And I think prayer is certainly needed if by ‘Bashar’ you mean the supposed multidimensional being who is being channeled through a man’s body. May Jesus free your friend from bondage to such superstition or spiritual oppression and into the glory of Christ.

(John Van der Werff) #11

Thanks for your encouragement. Yes it is the same Bashar you mentioned.

I’m looking to interacting more with you… my new friend!


(SeanO) #12

@JohnV Indeed - brothers in Christ! Look forward to more good conversations and praying that Christ might guide you in all things.

(John Van der Werff) #13

I will pray for you also​:+1::+1::+1: