When I was a kid, some adult told me that the Bible was written in the Middle Ages. That late-date data supported that person's idea that the Bible was written to manipulate and control people.
I don't know which came first, the faulty late-date data or the notion that the Bible was written to manipulate and control. At least, I don't know for sure. But if I had to guess, I'd guess that the person in question had personally experienced a manipulative and controlling religious environment. Then, when the late-date suggestion came up, it stuck.
Of course, it was written way later. That's what you'd expect if the Bible was written by liars trying to pass fiction off as fact in order to legitimize power, right?
And we have very little defense against this Dark Art. I've been shocked over the last year to discover how much faulty data I believe about ancient Rome and ancient Judiasm (that's, like, all of my Bible background stuff). I didn't know any better, so I just believed whatever data supported the most common or most compelling narrative.
But what if the liar lies elsewhere? What about ulterior motives for late-dating?
Dating is often difficult (this applies to every meaning of that phrase). Scientists argue about the age of the earth with such intensity because their closely-held worldviews hang in the balance. Historians argue about the "discovery" of America because it shapes how they tell its story. And Biblical studies people argue about the dating of the Bible because they think it tells us how seriously we have to take it.
But the more I think about it, the less convinced I am. Why does a late-date mean we have to take it less seriously? If we've seen the minimization of transcription errors throughout ancient literature, isn't this assumption another case of chronological snobbery? Those quaint little ancients can't be expected to accurately hand down history.
Now, the best data indicate that the New Testament writings were written soon after the New Testament events, so I'm not supporting a late-date theory. I'm just saying, a late-date only diminishes the meaning of the Bible if we're already looking for excuses to diminish the meaning of the Bible. If we can't find our excuses in dating, we'll just have to look elsewhere.
This makes my head spin. Look at it this way...
Stephen Colbert believes that the universe is only 6,000 years old. God made it recently. It still has that new-universe smell. Great.
The book of Genesis tells the story of God creating the universe. This is where Colbert gets his guidance for dating (dating guidance out of Genesis, hmmm, chapter 24 has potential, chapter 34 scares me...different kind of dating).
Who wrote Genesis? (You can kinda see where I'm going, can't you?) The Genesis story spans Creation all the way through Joseph's life. The conservative position pegs Moses as the writer of Genesis (somewhere between 1500 and 1300 BCE).
So, if the universe is 6,000 years old, it was created in 4,000 BCE. If Moses wrote Genesis, it was written at least 2,500 years after the first events recorded in the book.
All this is to say, we Christians have to find a way to be okay with late-dating of Biblical texts. We can fight and pretty easily win the dating battles around the New Testament. Scholars have been dragged kicking and screaming into dating almost all of the New Testament writings to within 100 years of Christ's death. But we should know: winning that battle wins us very little.
Late-dating isn't the end of the world. Let's not freak out.