Scholars are frequently forced to play detective to determine when an ancient book was written.
Ancient books did not have copyright dates neatly printed on a page at the front of the book. Frequently, they did not contain any explicit reference to the year in which they were written.
As a result, scholars have to look for clues within the books to figure out approximately when the work was written.
The Significance of 70
A potentially important clue for books written in the first few centuries B.C. and A.D. is what the book says about the temple in Jerusalem, for we know that the temple was destroyed by the Romans in late A.D. 70.
If a book refers to the temple as still standing and in operation, that’s a clue that the book was written before the temple’s destruction, while if it refers to the temple being destroyed then that’s a sign it was written afterward.
One book of the New Testament that appears to refer to the temple still being in operation is the book of Hebrews, where we read:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? . . .
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins [Heb. 10:1-2, 11].
Note the present tenses: The sacrifices “are continually offered” year after year. The priest “stands daily” at his service, “offering repeatedly” the sacrifices. That strongly suggests that the Jerusalem temple was still in operation.
The thing that makes it absolutely certain is the question, “Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered?”
In A.D. 70, they did cease to be offered, and the author of Hebrews is intensely concerned that his audience of Christian Jews remain firm in their faith in Jesus and not return to non-Christian Jewish practice.
If he were writing after the temple had been destroyed, in keeping with Jesus’ prophecy (Matt. 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6), the author could not have failed to point this out—both as a fulfillment of the Lord’s prophecy, as a sign of God’s rejection of non-Christian Jewish sacrifices, and as a sign of the inferiority of the Jewish temple sacrifices compared to the value of Christ’s own sacrifice (the very point he is arguing at the moment).
A Counter Claim
Some scholars raise an objection at this point. For example, William L. Lane objected to the above argument, in part because of what he referred to as “timeless” present tense verbs used to describe the temple and its sacrifices after it had been destroyed.
Lane thought that Hebrews was written before A.D. 70 (he assigned it tentatively to the period between A.D. 64 and 68), but he did not think that the argument from present tense references to the temple as still functioning was sufficient, because he thought there were other, similar references made in documents written after the temple was destroyed—that is, references that made it sound as if the temple were still functioning, when it wasn’t.
This is a meme in some scholarly circles, but it needs to be backed up. If there are such references, we need to look at them and see how much doubt they actually cast on the argument.
Fortunately, Lane provided a list of four such references, writing:
For similar use of such “timeless” presents in describing the Temple itself and its sacrifices after the Temple had been destroyed, see Jos., Ant. 4.224–57; 1 Clem 41:2; Barn. 7–8; Diogn. 3 [Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 47a: Hebrews 1–8, lxiii].
The abbreviations Lane uses may not be familiar, so here are the four sources he refers to, spelled out:
- Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, 4:8:17-23[224-257]
- 1 Clement 41:2
- Epistle of Barnabas 7-8
- Epistle to Diognetus 3
How much doubt do these references cast on the argument described above?
The Present Tense
Lane is correct that the present tense sometimes gets used in a way that does not refer to the present time. Consider the following statements:
- Kittens are cute.
- Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Stars with more than a certain amount of mass become black holes.
- Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens.
- In Huckleberry Finn, Twain explores aspects of the human condition through the eyes of a boy who is the son of the town drunk.
- As Shakespeare says, “To be or not to be—that is the question.”
- Hamlet is a most remarkable character.
- The priest pours the blood of the sacrifice at the foot of the altar.
- A blind man comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, I would receive my sight.”
In each of these sentences, the main verbs are in the present tense (are, freezes, become, is, explores, says, is, pours, comes, says), yet none of them refers to a specific action occurring in the present time.
Some of them refer to general truths that apply without respect to time. The last refers to events actually occurring in past time (this is known as the “historical” present).
Linguists and biblical scholars could classify these uses of the present tense in different ways, but Lane is correct that the present tense does not always refer to an event occurring in present time.
As a result, it’s possible for there to be statements using the present tense to describe the temple and its operations even after its destruction.
Marked vs. Unmarked
I’m sure that there are present-tense descriptions of the temple written after its destruction. In fact, I’m sure that there are books out there written in the last century—more than 1,800 years after its destruction—that use the present tense in this way.
For example, I can imagine scholarly discussions of how the temple rituals operated sliding into the present tense (“The priest pours the blood of the sacrifice at the foot of the altar”).
I’m also sure that there are historical novels set before A.D. 70 describing the temple as still in operation, and they may sometimes use the present tense when doing so.
But in both of these cases, the use of the present tense is “marked” in such a way that the reader knows it is not describing a present reality. There will be some kind of marker in the text that cues the reader to this fact.
To see how this works, consider the historical present we referred to above. This frequently occurs in the Greek text of the Gospels, and its purpose is (frequently) to make the story more vivid for the reader, as if he himself were witnessing the events in realtime.
But the reader knows, as soon as he starts reading the Gospels, that they describe the events of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth—not events occurring in the world right now, as the reader is reading.
These uses of the present tense are thus “marked” for the reader as referring to events that are not occurring in the present.
In the same way, a modern discussion of how the temple rituals used to be performed will be similarly marked. Indeed, any such discussion is likely to have a statement somewhere near its beginning that explicitly points out that the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.
Similarly, any historical novel—by the fact that the reader knows it is a historical novel—is marked as describing events occurring in the past (if they occurred at all).
But what if we are reading an ancient, non-fiction document that seems to speak of the temple as still in operation and does not mark the text as referring to no-longer current events?
What if we read an ancient document that simply refers to sacrifices as being performed in Jerusalem?
Unless there is something else affecting the text (a marker of the type we’ve been discussing) then the natural interpretation is to assign the text a date before the destruction of the temple.
If you want to overturn that presumption then you’d need to show that there was a strong tradition—in use at the time—of unmarked, present-tense references to the temple and its operations that continued to be used after its destruction.
Here is where Lane’s case encounters significant problems.
How Many References?
Lane provided us with four references that he saw as “timeless” presents written after the temple was destroyed.
That’s not a lot.
Four cases could simple be the result of random authorial usage. That’s not nearly enough to show that there was an established usage at the time.
Lane, who regrettably is no longer with us, might say that there are many more examples he could have given, but he did not give them, and I haven’t (yet) found other authors providing longer, more substantial lists.
What I have to go by is the list that Lane provides, and it’s not a list that’s long enough to document an established usage.
Another problem is that the four passages Lane cite turn out to be very weak examples.
Let’s look at each of them.
Lane’s first example comes from the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. Here he is on solid ground in identifying a source that dates from after the destruction of the temple.
Josephus was a combatant in the Jewish War that climaxed with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. After the war, he began a literary career, and all of his surviving writings date from this period.
In the A.D. 90s, he wrote his Jewish Antiquities, which is the work that Lane cites.
Although Lane refers to a fairly lengthy passage from the Antiquities (around 1,600 words in Whiston’s translation), there is only one portion of it that refers to the temple:
But as to the ripe fruits, let them carry that which is ripe first of all into the temple; and when they have blessed God for that land which bare them, and which he had given them for a possession, when they have also offered those sacrifices which the Law has commanded them to bring, let them give the firstfruits to the priests.
But when anyone hath done this, and hath brought the tithe of all that he has, together with those firstfruits that are for the Levites, and for the festivals, and when he is about to go home, let him stand before the holy house, and return thanks to God, that he hath delivered them from the injurious treatment they had in Egypt [Jewish Antiquities 4:8:22(241-242)].
This passage does use the present tense, even in English (“let them carry that . . . into the temple,” “let them give the firstfruits,” “let him stand before the holy house”).
But there is something to be noticed about these verbs: In both Greek and English, they aren’t just in the present tense; they are in the imperative mood. In other words, they are commands.
That marks them not as descriptions of things that are happening but as things that should happen (at least in some circumstances, such as having an operating temple).
Right there, that tells us that this passage is not going to help us document an existing usage of unmarked present tenses for the temple after its destruction, because these presents are marked.
And it isn’t just the imperative mood that does that. It’s the whole context.
If you read the text surrounding the portion of the Antiquities that Lane cites, you discover that it’s all in a huge speech given by Moses. Here is how Josephus introduces it:
When forty years were completed, within thirty days, Moses gathered the congregation together near Jordan, where the city Abila now stands, a place full of palm trees; and all the people being come together, he spake thus to them [op. cit. 4:8:1(176)].
This is adapted from the opening of Deuteronomy (see Deut. 1:1-5), and the whole speech is, in fact, Josephus’s rewriting of Deuteronomy, with the passage quoted above being his paraphrase and condensation of the laws of tithe and firstfruits found in Deuteronomy 12-15 and 26.
Even the title given to this chapter by Whiston (“The Polity Settled by Moses; and How He Disappeared from Among Mankind”) tells you that this is not an unmarked reference to the temple and its operations. This is Josephus’s retelling of things said by Moses more than a thousand years earlier!
The present tenses used in this chapter are thus marked by the context as occurring in a speech set in the distant past.
Lane’s citation from Josephus thus does not provide the kind of reference we need.
St. Clement of Rome
Lane’s second reference is from 1 Clement—a first century letter written to the church at Corinth by St. Clement of Rome. In the course of the letter, he writes:
Not in every place, brethren, are the continual daily sacrifices offered, or the freewill offerings, or the sin offerings and the trespass offerings, but in Jerusalem alone.
And even there the offering is not made in every place, but before the sanctuary in the court of the altar; and this too through the high priest and the afore said ministers, after that the victim to be offered hath been inspected for blemishes [1 Clement 41:2].
Here we have precisely what we don’t have in Josephus: a reference to the temple as if it’s still functioning in Jerusalem, using the present tense and in the indicative (rather than imperative) mood: the continual daily sacrifices “are . . .offered” in Jerusalem. The offering “is . . . made” before the sanctuary in the court of the altar, through the high priest and the afore said ministers.
These presents aren’t marked by anything in the text as occurring in the past or being descriptions of what should happen in the ideal.
Good stuff. Just what we need as evidence.
If it was written after the destruction of Jerusalem.
The trouble is . . . it wasn’t.
Although 1 Clement is commonly dated to the A.D. 90s, this date is erroneous.
The reference to the temple still operating is, in fact, a major clue that 1 Clement was written before the temple’s destruction, but it is not the only such clue.
A variety of scholars, including John A. T. Robinson (Redating the New Testament) and William Jurgens (Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1) have discussed clues in the letter that point to a date considerably earlier than the A.D. 90s.
For example, the names of the letter carriers mentioned in the text (Claudius Ephebus, Valerius Bito, and Fortunatus) indicate that two of them were freedmen of the Emperor Claudius and his wife Valeria Messalina. Given the way manumission worked in Rome, slaves were not freed before a certain age, and these men would have been far too old to serve as letter carriers in the A.D. 90s.
The most thorough study of the date of 1 Clement at present is Thomas J. Herron’s Clement and the Early Church of Rome: On the Dating of Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. It is highly worth reading.
In any event, 1 Clement was not written in the A.D. 90s. Instead, clues in the letter show that it can be dated to a fairly narrow window of time between the fall of the Emperor Vitellius in December of 69 and the destruction of the temple in August of 70.
The Epistle of Barnabas
Lane’s third example is from the Epistle of Barnabas (an anonymous work not actually written by the apostle Barnabas).
This work was written after the destruction of the temple. In fact, it may be the earliest such Christian work that presently survives.
The destruction of the temple is clearly referred to as an accomplished fact in the text:
Finally, I will also speak to you about the temple, and how those wretched men went astray and set their hope on the building, as though it were God’s house, and not on their God who created them. . . . For because they went to war, it was torn down by their enemies [Epistle of Barnabas, 16:1, 4].
We are on solid ground, therefore, in seeing this as a post-70 work. But what does it say in the passage that Lane refers to?
Again, Lane cites a fairly lengthy passage (around 1,000 words), but we can deal with it in shorter space. At this point in the epistle, the author is conducting an exercise in typology, and in chapter 7 he explores the Christian typology of the provisions relating to the scapegoat (Leviticus 16), while in chapter 8 he does the same for the provisions related to the red heifer (Numbers 19).
All of the present tenses used in these chapters of Barnabas are marked. They all occur in the process of describing actions performed during a ceremony required by the Mosaic Law and then noting how they correspond, in one way or another, to Christ.
We do not, in these passages, have the present tense being used to describe the temple or its operations without reference to this typological exploration of Old Testament rituals.
Even if there are details of the ceremonies borrowed from recent memory of seeing the rituals performed (as there may be, for Barnabas 8 refers to children taking part in this ritual, and their presence is not mentioned in Numbers), the fundamental frame of reference involves comparing a ritual prescribed in the Old Testament to its fulfillment in Christ.
This is thus markedly different from the kind of reference we have to the temple functioning in 1 Clement.
The Epistle to Diognetus
Lane’s final reference is to the Epistle to Diognetus. This is an early, anonymous work of Christian apologetics.
In chapter 2, the anonymous author describes the Greeks as worshipping idols in the following way:
And as for the honors that you think you are offering them: If they [the idols] are aware of them, then you are in fact insulting them; but if they are not aware, then you are showing them up by worshiping them with the blood and fat of victims [To Diognetus 2:8].
In chapter 3, the author compares this idolatrous worship to the worship offered to the true God by Jews, saying:
The Jews indeed, insofar as they abstain from the kind of worship described above, rightly claim to worship the one God of the universe and to think of him as Master; but insofar as they offer this worship to him in the same way as those already described, they are altogether mistaken.
For whereas the Greeks provide an example of their stupidity by offering things to senseless and deaf images, the Jews, thinking that they are offering these things to God as if he were in need of them, could rightly consider it folly rather than worship [op. cit., 3:2-3].
Here he contrasts the way in which Greeks worship many, false gods with the way Jews worship the true God, but he notes that they offer the same kind of worship: “the blood and fat of victims,” of which the true God is not in need.
This understanding is confirmed just a bit later, when he writes:
In any case, those who imagine that they are offering sacrifices to him by means of blood and fat and whole burnt offerings and are honoring him with these tokens of respect do not seem to me to be the least bit different from those who show the same respect to deaf images: the latter make offerings to things unable to receive the honor, while the former think they offer it to the One who is in need of nothing [op. cit., 3:5].
This does speak of sacrifices as if they were still being performed by Jews. Unlike the reference in Josephus, it isn’t marked as being part of a speech given in the distant past, and unlike the reference in Barnabas, it isn’t marked as a typological reading of an Old Testament ritual. Instead, it looks similar to the straightforward reference found in 1 Clement.
Could it, like 1 Clement, have been written before the destruction of the temple?
I’m not aware of anyone who dates it to this period, but we should be careful, because the popular opinion is that 1 Clement was also written after the temple’s destruction, and that is mistaken.
Michael Holmes summarizes the issue of To Diognetus‘s date this way:
The date of the document is a matter of conjecture as well. Reasonable suggestions range from 117 to after 313. Between 150 and 225 seems the most likely; Lightfoot, Meecham, and Frend favor the earlier of these dates, while R. M. Grant places it somewhat later [The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations of Their Writings (1999 ed.), 530].
That is a wide range of dates, and it illustrates the fact that there is little certainty regarding when this document was written.
The earlier portion of the range (c. 117) comes close to when the temple was in operation. Could the work be dated before its destruction?
To Diognetus is similar to the writings of the other Greek-speaking apologists of the 2nd century, and so it is often date alongside them, but there is no reason, in principle, why it cannot be a forerunner that helped establish the genre of this sort of apologetic writing.
If we are to entertain this possibility then the fact that the author refers to Jews still offering sacrifices could itself be a clue that it was written before the temple’s destruction.
There is even the fact that, later in the work, the author describes himself, saying:
I am not talking about strange things, nor am I engaged in irrational speculation, but having been a disciple of apostles, I am now becoming a teacher of the Gentiles [op. cit., 11:1].
While a person in a later age could describe himself figuratively as a disciple of the apostles, an early author could well have meant that he was literally a disciple of the apostles, which would suggest a first century date.
However, there is a problem here, because there is a break in the text just before this passage, and most scholars think that this statement wasn’t part of the original To Diognetus but was rather part of a second work.
So let’s suppose that the work was written after A.D. 70. What are we to make of its apparent references to ongoing Jewish sacrifice?
Hypothetically, it might refer to sacrifices not taking place at Jerusalem. It does not, after all, specify Jerusalem as the place where these were occurring.
Although the view among the Jewish establishment strongly favored the offering of sacrifices at Jerusalem, this was not universal. There was, in fact, a Jewish temple at Leontopolis in Egypt, and sacrifice was also offered there (as it had been at a previous temple in Elephantine, Egypt).
The temple at Leontopolis was destroyed in A.D. 73, however, because the Romans feared it might become an alternative cultic site for Jews and lead to another rebellion, so the window in which To Diognetus could have been written on that theory would be quite narrow.
Could the sacrifices have been offered elsewhere? While the school of thought that eventually prevailed in Judaism held that sacrifices (with few exceptions) were not to be offered elsewhere, it is possible that, in the wake of the temple’s destruction, some priests tried offering sacrifices elsewhere, but this is unlikely to have been a well-known practice and thus is not likely to be what the author of To Diognetus has in mind.
Instead, if the epistle were written after A.D. 70, he is likely thinking of the customary mode of Jewish worship that prevailed up until the destruction of the temple, and he chooses to speak of it as if it were ongoing because it suited his purpose as a way of showing the superiority of Christian worship of the true God.
On the other hand, if that was his purpose, it is strange that he didn’t mention the temple’s destruction and the end of these sacrifices as a sign of the true God’s rejection of the Jewish mode of worship. That would have suited his purpose even better, and this omission may serve as another indicator of a pre-70 date.
In conclusion, the evidence regarding the Epistle to Diognetus is ambiguous. On the one hand, we have what looks like a reference to Jewish sacrifice as if it is ongoing. On the other hand, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the date of the epistle and what the author has in mind.
This means that, although the epistle might qualify as the kind of evidence Lane needs, the situation is too uncertain to provide a clear, indisputable case.
Furthermore, it is the only such case we have found, and so it may be explained by the idiosyncrasies of a single author. We do not have a basis for proposing an established usage of unmarked present tenses being used to refer to the temple and its operations after A.D. 70.
The theory proposed by Lane does not ultimately succeeding in casting a great deal of doubt on the idea that present tense references to the temple and its operations can be a significant clue that a document was written before A.D. 70.
However, our examination of the passages cited by Lane does reveal some important cautions that need to be taken into account.
The first of these is that it is not merely any use of the present tense that serves as a clue to a pre-70 date. The use needs to be what we have referred to as an “unmarked” use of the present—that is, one in which the reader is not signaled that the use of the present tense should not be taken as a reference to present time.
Such marking may occur, as in the case of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, when the present tense is used in the course of a speech given long before the destruction of the temple. It also may occur, as in the Epistle of Barnabas, when an Old Testament text or ritual is being analyzed.
A second caution—as we saw in our discussion of the Epistle to Diognetus—is that we need to at least be aware of the fact that sacrifice was not offered exclusively at the Jerusalem temple.
This means that a passage containing a reference to Jerusalem specifically (like the passage in 1 Clement) will be at least a slightly stronger clue of a pre-70 date than a passage referring to Jewish sacrifice without mentioning it being offered at Jerusalem.