Putting a date to a book of the Bible

manuscript 764px-Uncial_0220_Rom-4.23-5.3

(pictured: 764px-Uncial_0220_Rom-4.23-5.3)

Recently I was asked how we know when a certain book of the bible was written.  It was actually being asked specifically about the book of Malachi.

There are specific criteria looked for and used in dating the writing of books in the bible, or any ancient manuscript for that matter and also specific evidence proposed for each book (writing) based on researching for the mentioned criteria.

“External Evidence” tends to be general in nature, but certainly helps to narrow down the era in which something was written.  Simply put, we know historically Moses lived a long time before the Apostle Paul.  Both wrote books of the bible, but Moses was known without question to live a long time before the birth of Christ and Paul certainly after.

“Internal Evidence” is more detailed and based on the nature of the writing itself.  In general, this criteria could include self-claimed dates, historical events, names and known authors, language, writing style, and overall content all of which we can compare to what we know for sure, to narrow down in proximity or at times even exactly, what year something might have been written.

For example, let’s date the book of Malachi in the Bible.

External evidence: Manuscripts dating from the 3rd century and before contain portions of the book.  We can determine that it was written at some point before the 3rd century A.D.

Internal evidence: Malachi 1:8 references a Persian governor.  Based on what we know from secular history, this means it had to be written after 538 B.C.

Other internal evidences are also found.  The Bible Knowledge Commentary gives the following evidences:

Most scholars agree that the Book of Malachi was written around 450–430 B.C., for these reasons: (1) Malachi’s rebuke of the priests’ malpractice in the temple shows that the temple had been rebuilt and the priesthood reestablished. (2) The moral and spiritual conditions Malachi addressed were similar to those encountered by Ezra, who returned in 458, and Nehemiah, who returned in 444. These included intermarriages with Gentiles (2:10–11; cf. Ezra 9:1–2; Neh. 13:1–3, 23–28), lack of the people’s support for the Levites (Mal. 3:10; cf. Neh. 13:10), and oppression of the poor (Mal. 3:5; cf. Neh. 5:4–5). Either Malachi was addressing the same generation that Ezra and Nehemiah spoke to, or Malachi spoke to a later generation some time after Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s corrections.

Blaising, C. A. (1985). Malachi. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 1573). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

With each added piece of evidence, the date can be narrowed.  The more specific the criteria discovered, the more specific the date can be determined.  In the above example, leaving allowances for lack of more specifics, it can be determined and widely accepted based on evidence that the writing of the book of Malachi was between 450 and 430 B.C.

Using the same process of inductive study, we can look at each book of the bible and other ancient writings and use both External and Internal evidence as criteria to help determine the date of it’s writing.

Such processes (the science of inductive study) can also be used to determine authorship and in the case of the Bible, canonicity (Is it identified as belonging in the canon of Scripture).

With each criteria discovered (question answered), greater confidence can be established in the validity of the text’s origin and content, as well as help us keep the content seated in the correct historical and cultural setting which aids in the actual understanding of the text itself.

Great questions.  Keep them coming.


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