Why John A.T. Robinson is Not to be Trusted
This is a review done for the Society of Biblical Literature by Prof. Grant in 1978, in which it shows that even Peers of Robinson were disgusted with this book. It seems only apologists have clung to it, although it was dismissed by nearly all scholarship.
Redating the New Testament by John A. T. Robinson
Robert M. Grant
Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 97, No. 2. (Jun., 1978), pp. 294-296.
Redating the New Testament, by John A. T. Robinson. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976. Pp.
Can a study that "began as a joke" (p. 10) be taken seriously? This is a basic question regarding
J. A. T. Robinson's attempt to prove that everything in the NT was written before the fall of
Jerusalem on 26 September 70. The Pauline epistles naturally belong before that date, but
Robinson devotes much effort to showing that all the other books go there too. This leaves
something of a vacuum between about 75 and about 100, and therefore, relying solely on the
authority of Lightfoot as supported by Harnack and Streeter, Robinson proceeds to date the
Ignatian letters about 110. Then he uses Audet to get the Didache very early, puts 1 Clement in 70
and just before 26 September, and locates Barnabas and Hermas in 75-85. (He neglects references
to 2 Apoc. Bar. 61:7 in Barn. 11:9 and to 32:4 in 16:6; cf. P. Bogaert, Apocalypsede Baruch[Paris:
Cerf, 19691 1.272-75.)
In regard to the NT the "proofs" are strange. We are told repeatedly that arguments from
theological development are "notoriously dangerous" (p. 65; cf. 9 n., 85,88,334 n.). We are not
warned against the crankiness of G.Edmundson, deeply influenced by late 19th-century Roman
archaeologists who wrongly loved very early dates (e.g., De Rossi, Lanciani, Marucchi).
"Experience," Edmundson wrote (The Church in Rome in the First Century [London:
Longmans, Green and Co. 19131 237), "has taught that there are very few indeed even of the socalled
'accepted results of criticism'which can be received without the mental reservation of a note
of interrogation." This is certainly true of Edmundson's book. Like Robinson, he revered
authority ("those who speak with the highest authority" [p. 83], i.e., Lightfoot) and hoped to
establish the reliability of tradition-except for the Didache, which he set in the fourth century.
Edmundson tried to defend tradition on the basis of various principles. He taught that a tradition
was reliable if its influence "should spread gradually until everywhere the facts are accepted as
true without any doubts being raised by those who, had they not been plainly true, wouid have
desired to reject them" (p. 46). Neither Robinson nor Edmundson seems touched by the bearing
of psychological or sociological questions on belief in tradition; and neither is greatly affected by
questions of literary dependence, within the NT or outside it.
Robinson's arguments are based essentially on authority, sometimes that of 19th-century
English scholars (Zahn and Harnack too) or "classical historians." These are usually B. W.
Henderson, who relied on Edmundson, or A. N. Sherwin-White, who did not. Sometimes we hear
of a "sufficient comment" like that of Armitage Robinson on the notion that the Elder John wrote
the gospel: "That mole never made such a mountain" (p. 310). Or, on the same page, we find a
criticism of a critic of Papias: "Of course Papias does nothing of the sortw-but Papias does.
Another authority, not really any more weighty, is Eusebius, whose comments Robinson uses
from the Chronicles and the Church History when they please him; often they do not.
Edmundson (p. 59 n. 1) had justified reliance on Eusebius with these words: "The evidence of
Eusebius, it must be remembered, was based upon a wise acquaintance with earlier Christian
literature and with a mass of official Church documents and state papers, as well as local
traditions now lost to us, and that [sic] Jerome had studied Eusebius' works, and that he had
access to the Eusebian sources." Virtually none of this is true as stated, as has been shown by the
studies of P. Nautin and others; and one cannot simply pick and choose attractive dates from the
Chronicle. (This, by the way, is what Lightfoot's date of 110, or rather "about 110," for Ignatius is
based on.) Robinson himself does a fine job of demolishing a Eusebian date when he wants to (pp.
An important section shows how Robinson tries to undermine tradition when it conflicts with
his theory. Irenaeus said that the Apocalypse was seen "toward the end of Domitian's reign." Robinson says that since two other statements by Irenaeus about John are probably untenable,
this one must be untenable too. Clement of Alexandria speaks of John as alive "at the death of the
tyrant," but since he does not name the tyrant we do not know whom he has in mind. Again,
Origen does not say which emperor banished John to Patmos (the reference should be to Matt.
comm. XVI 6). Clement and Origen, then, do not explicitly mention Domitian, and we can thus
discredit Irenaeus. Further in support of Robinson: Victorinus, a supposedly independent
witness to the Domitianic date, actually relied on Irenaeus. What alternative to the "tradition"is
there? Robinson cites Epiphanius the Unreliable and Confused as a witness to John's being
banished under Claudius. And he cites a "tradition" of Tertullian that John was plunged into
boiling oil at Rome and then banished to an island. He also refers to "a strong defense of
Tertullian's reliability at this point by a fellow lawyer" in a "strange but erudite book" (pp. 221-
24). One point only need be noted: Tertullian was a "lawyer" only in the imagination of Eusebius
(Hist. eccl. 2.2.4) who had read only his Apology, and only in Greek. Throughout this section of
Robinson's book one misses a clear picture of Christian traditions after NT times. In turn, this
lack obscures the earlier picture. Walter Bauer, whose review of Edmundson Robinson notes (p.
112 n.) but does not appreciate, had already studied such traditions (Das Leben Jesu im Zeitalter
der neutestamentlichen Apokryphen [Tiibingen: Mohr, 1909]) and assessed their value correctly.
One can agree with Robinson that NT critics seem to pile cargo on deck without checking the
ballast or noting leakage below the waterline, but the trouble may not lie where he or Dodd (cited
from a late letter, pp. 359-60) thinks or thought. Comparison with dating shifts due to
radiocarbon research (pp. 1-2) is irrelevant. The trouble lies in the lack of a coherent and
generally accepted method, and in a tendency to assume that the compilation of materials and the
citation of authorities equals cogent proof. Robinson says he originally did not appreciate "how
little evidence there is for the dating of any of the New Testament writings" (p. 336; italics his). He
still may not appreciate how little of what he has assembled is evidence.
At the end he provides "general observations," including the one just cited. In addition, he
claims that traditional testimony to the dates of NT books is "virtually worthless," although
somehow attestation of authorship is much more valuable. He points out that questions of
literary dependence are hard to deal with-and so on. One would suppose that these points
constitute "the seemingly obvious" in regard to which Robinson notes "the apparently almost
wilful blindness of investigators" (p. 342). The trouble with such sermonic comments (though 1
should certainly not cast the first stone) is that they too tend to be fairly obvious, and when one
refers to "the manifold tyranny of unexamined assumptions" the reference, presumably, is
universal (Rom 3:23). The case for placing all the NT books before 70 cannot be made by the
methods employed here, and it has not been made.
Robert M. Grant
University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637