Chronology of the Bible

I'm looking for some information on dating the Bible in chronological order.

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Sorting out biblical chronology is a tricky business.
You’re a step ahead of many people in realizing that the current order is not chronological; but sorting out a chronological order is a tricky business. This is ancient material with many of the stories of the Bible likely passed down orally before ever being written, some probably developed even before writing existed at all. Others may have been first recorded in smaller sections and then much later put together into a “book” of the Bible. And then you have the centuries-long process of putting together all the books that form the Bible as we know it today.
Since we have no “original” manuscripts of any of the biblical books—we have copies of copies of copies—it’s impossible to precisely date anything in a way that everyone would accept. If just one of the assumptions about dating a particular book should prove to be wrong, that will throw off a lot of other dating. That’s why the “chronological” Bibles that are published are focused on the chronology of the events described as opposed to the chronology of when they were written down. The chronology of events is still not an easy task, but it’s far more manageable than the chronology of when those events were recorded in the form that we have them now.
To complicate matters further, many of the books of the Bible were written over a considerable length of time, so to get a true chronological order you’d need to break up some books of the Bible and interweave the material into other books. That is true whether you’re looking for an event chronology or a chronology of the writing. For example, Psalm 51 is David’s song of repentance after he took Bathsheba, got her pregnant, and then made sure her husband was killed in battle to cover it up. So that Psalm would belong inside 2 Samuel 11 with that story if you’re interested in the chronological order of the story, but if you want the order in which they were written, who knows where it goes. Both 1 and 2 Samuel (originally one book) were written in segments over time and it’s the same with the Psalms. But the dates for the recording of the segments are only educated guesses and can differ from scholar to scholar. 
It’s like that in many places. Even when most scholars are pretty sure that a single author is responsible for a book or books (like Luke and Acts), it still would not be clear whether they were written in quick succession or over the span of a decade or more with other books sneaking in during the process. Never mind the assumption that we have some way to verify the exact dates of that author and his life, which we don’t.
Now let’s throw in the theological differences between scholars on how they view the Bible as a whole. Those who believe that the first five books of the Bible were actually written by Moses are going to date those books very differently than those who see many hands in the recording of those books over time. Scholars debate about whether the book of Isaiah represents only the work of the prophet Isaiah or whether it includes later work by those who saw themselves writing in Isaiah’s tradition. How a given scholar answers that question differs according to their belief about the nature of the Bible and how it should be read. In the New Testament there are large debates about which of the letters attributed to Paul were actually written by Paul. Again, the decision a particular scholar makes about that will affect the date they assign to its composition.
All of the above are why you don’t see chronological Bibles all over the place. To really get a sense of the issues involved, getting a study Bible that has introductions to each book that address issues of dating and authorship can be really helpful. And to really, really get a sense of the issues involved, get multiple study Bibles and notice how those introductions differ from one another in terms of authorship and dates of composition. Study Bibles are put together by scholars who share a certain theological slant—some more conservative, some more liberal—so the notes and introductions can have significant differences depending on the study Bible.
The folks at Thomas Nelson publishing have produced a Chronological Study Bible, but it’s set up according to the chronology of the events described, not the chronology of the writing. Here’s an article they put out about reading the Bible chronologically if you’re interested in the chronology of events: There are one or two others, but they’re all the same in that they are putting the Bible in chronological order based on the events, not on the composition of those events into written form.
The folks at Bible Gateway have a chronological listing of the books by approximate date of composition here: This includes the deuterocanonical books that are included in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles that most Protestant Bibles omit. But bear in mind that if you put a dozen Bible scholars in a room with this list, they would argue for the rest of their lives about the ways in which the list simplifies complex issues, is incorrect, or any number of other things.
The first volume in the Bible studies that we publish describes how the entire canon came together in a short, easy-to-digest volume. It’s called What Is the Bible? (not to be confused with the book by Rob Bell of the same name) and the Amazon link is here: That volume also addresses why some Christian traditions have additional books that others do not.
The bottom line is that unless or until some archaeologist gets incredibly lucky and finds even a single page of an “original” manuscript that can be carbon dated—or even a first-generation copy—it’s all educated guesses. And the dating of many books of the Bible rely on that initial guess about one book being right. For example, if that lucky archaeologist were to find a page of Mark’s gospel, and we saw that it was either a good bit later or earlier than it’s current estimate of 50-60 BCE, we’d be rearranging the estimates for almost the entire New Testament.
It’s immensely complex and confusing, which is upsetting to many people who rely on the Bible to guide them in their walk of faith. So I always like to bring these questions back to something much simpler to clear the fog—a question I personally apply to every debate about the Bible: "So what?” 
Knowing when a book of the Bible was written could be helpful in setting up the context of what I’m reading. But if the date established by whatever scholar we prefer should happen to be wrong—or even if the person/people writing it turns out to be different—would it matter? Would that actually change anything about my faith? If lots of people contributed to the material in Isaiah, is it not still the Bible? If God inspired a koala bear to act out the story of Jonah and someone wrote down what they saw, is it not still a wonderful story about obedience, forgiveness, and our own tendency to want only those we like to be saved? Is it not still (as 2 Timothy 3:16 puts it) “good for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness?” 
Too often we argue about things that really don’t matter when it comes down to how we live out the life of faith that the Bible puts before us. If we find a particular issue fascinating to study, that’s great. That’s how God calls scholars who follow that passion and help us add depth and context to what we read in a whole variety of fields. But there’s a difference between things that are interesting for study and things that are essential to living a faithful life and, before we dive into a rabbit hole of complex information, we would be wise to understand the difference.

Author: Anne Robertson




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