The Historical Context of Early Christianity Timeline

The dates below are approximate and I am open to correction on any of them.  In the next post I will slot in the texts of the New Testament and other early Christian writings into the picture.

721 BCE – Assyrian Deportation of the Northern Kingdom of Israel

586 BCE – second deportation of exiles from Southern Kingdom of Judah to Babylon, third deportation (581 BCE)

539/8 BCE – Cyrus the Great (rule 550-530 BCE) conquers Babylon and beginning of return to Jerusalem

520-515 BCE – Zerubabbel governor of Persian state of Yehud, Joshua the high priest, re-establishment of temple cult

  • 458 BCE [?] Ezra arrives in Jerusalem; 445/4 BCE Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem

333/2 BCE – conquest of Persian Empire by Alexander the Great (reign 356 -323 BCE)

300-198 BCE – Palestine under control of Ptolemies of Egypt

ca 250 BCE – translation of the Pentateuch into Greek in the Septuagint (LXX) and later versions added Prophets and Writings.  The legend is that Ptolemy II Philadelphus asked 72 elders to translate the Law into Greek to be included in the library of Alexandria (cf. The Letter to Aristeas)

198 BCE – Palestine under control of Seleucids of Syria

  • Antiochus III “the Great” (ruled 222–187 BCE)
  • 175-164 BCE – Antiochus IV “Epiphanes”
  • 162-150 BCE – Demetrius I “Soter” (Savior)
  • 150-146 BCE – Alexander Balas
  • 146-139, 129-125 BCE – Demetrius II Nicator (Victor)
  • 143-142 BCE – general Diodotus Typho sets Balas’ son Antiochus VI Dionyisus on throne in city of Antioch
  • 142-129 BCE – general Diodotus Trypho sets himself up as king, slain by Antiochus VII
  • 138-129 BCE – Antiochus VII Euergetes (benefactor) Sidetes

167 BCE – profanation of the temple under Antiochus IV

166 BCE – Jewish priest Mattathias, who had fled into the wilderness with five sons (John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, Jonathan) after he killed a fellow kinsman who was going to sacrifice to the Greek gods, dies

166-160 BCE – third son Judas the Maccabeus (“hammer”), re-dedication of the temple (164 BCE)

160-143 BCE leadership and high priesthood of Jonathan, tricked and executed by Trypho

  • Josephus introduces Pharisees (from Perushim or “separate ones”), Saduccees (associated with priestly line of “Zadok” or from saddiqim [righteous ones]?), and Essenes at this time (cf. Antiquities 13.171).  The “Wicked Priest” (=Jonathan?  Simon?) is opposed by the “Teacher of Righteousness” and remembered as a significant figure by a sectarian community at Khirbet Qumran (=Essenes?)

142-134 BCE – leadership of Simon and beginning of full autonomy

134-104 BCE – John “Hyrcanus”

  • 132 BCE siege of Jerusalem by Antiochus VII. Hyrcanus pays 3000 talents from the sepulcher of David, recognizes Seleucid authority, and join campaigns against the Parthians until Antiochus slain in 129 BCE
  • expansion of Judean state in Samaria, Idumea (forced proselytism to Judaizing rites), and the Transjordan

104-103 BCE – Aristobulus I

103-76 BCE – Alexander Jannaeus

  • wars and territorial expansion, sided with the Sadducees against the Pharisees and ruthless against his internal enemies such as butchering 6000 during the Feast of Tabernacles or crucifying 800 Jews (Ant. 13.372-383; cf. 4QpNah)

76-67 BCE – Salome Alexandra queen and eldest son Hyrcanus II high priest

  • In taking Alexander’s last advice to win over the Pharisees who commanded popular support, the Pharisees effectively ruled through her and got some revenge on their enemies

67-63 BCE – Aristobulus II king and high priest

  • A partisan for the Sadducees like his father and victorious over his brother Hyrcanus II, but Antipater the Idumaean convinced Hyrcanus II to join with Aretas king of Arabia to make war with Aristobulus II.  Continued civil war leads to Roman intervention

63 BCE – Roman conquest by Pompey

  • Hyrcanus II restored as high priest and ethnarch (63-40 BCE)
  • after Pompey was killed (48 BCE) Antipater’s support for Julius Caesar in campaign against Egypt granted him Roman citizenship and the title of Roman Procurator of Judea (Ant. 14.8.5), forced to side with one of Caesar’s assassins Cassius against Marc Antony, poisoned in 43 BCE

44 BCE – assassination of Julius Caesar

40-37 BCE – short-lived rebellion of the king and high priest Antigonus, the son of Aristobulus II

37-4 BCE – the client-king Herod the Great, the son of Antipater

  • appointed king of the Jews by the Romans in 39 BCE and married the grand-daughter of Hyrcanus II Mariamne, victorious in re-capturing city of Sepphoris and Antigonus executed by Marc Antony in 37 BCE.
  • constructed cities of Caesarea Maritima and Sebaste, restoration work on the Jerusalem Temple, and extended his rule over Samaria and other territory
  • had family members including Mariamne and sons put to death out of paranoia and burned alive Judas and Matthias for inciting a group to tear down a golden eagle erected on the temple

31 BCE – Marc Antony defeated by Octavian at the battle of Actium and afterwards Antony/Cleopatra killed themselves

27 BCE – 14 CE – Octavian “Augustus” (revered), the adopted great-nephew of Caesar and divi filius (son of god), leads transition from the Roman Republic to the Empire and starts Julio-Claudian dynasty

  • Tiberius (14-37 CE), Gaius “Caligula” (37-41 CE), Claudius (41-54 CE), and Nero (54-68 CE)

5/4 BCE – birth of Jesus of Nazareth

4 BCE – 39 CE – Herod’s son Antipas appointed tetrarch, ruling Galilee and Peraea

  • rebuilt Sepphoris to be his main center before he later constructed his capital Tiberius in 17 CE upon a cemetary
  • had John the Baptist executed on political charges (Josephus, Ant. 18.5.2) and perhaps objections to Antipas’ marriage to his niece and wife of his half-brother Herodias (Ant. 18.5.1; cf. Mk 6:22-28 par)

4 BCE – 6 CE – Herod’s son Archelaus named ethnarch, ruling Judea, Samaria and Idumea until it came under direct Roman rule.

6 CE – census of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, appointed governor of Syria, for purposes of taxation of the provinces of Syria and Judea under the new arrangement of direct Roman rule, leads to the uprising of Judas the Galilee (alleged founder of Josephus’s “fourth philosophy” or zealots)

6-41 CE – Judea governed by prefects: Coponius (6-9 CE), Marcus Ambibulus (9-12 CE), Rufus Tineus (12-15 CE), Valerius Gratus (15-26 CE), Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE), Marcellus (36-37 CE), Marullus (37-41 CE)

29-34 CE – Jesus crucified under Pontius Pilate on the 14th or 15th of Nisan during one of these years (cf. Helen Bond’s article challenge to scholarly certainty of dating it precisely to April 7, 30 CE)

30 – 64 CE – Jerusalem Church under the leadership of the Pillars (Cephas, the Twelve, Jesus’ brother James), Stephen and the Hellenists (?), missionary activity of Paul, other non-kerygmatic hypothetical Jesus groups (?)

  • The sources of the Gospel tradition
  • Paul’s letters (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philemon, Philippians), possible 2 Thessalonians and Colossians are authentic or else written shortly after Paul’s death.  If genuine (?), the epistle of James pre-date the death of Jesus’ brother and react against a (distorted?) interpretation of Paul’s teaching.
  • Jesus’ brother James executed by the high priest in 62 CE in the transition between the procurators Porcius Festus and Albinus (Ant. 20.9).  In the tradition it is believed the apostle Paul was beheaded (1 Clem 5:6 [?]; Ignatius, Rom. 4.2-3; Acts Paul 11:3-6; Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 2.22.2) and Peter crucified (cf. John 21:18-19 [?]; 1 Clem 5:4 [?]; Ignatius, Rom. 4.2-3; Dionysius of Corinth in Hist .Eccl. 2.26; Acts Pet 36-39; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.3) during Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome.

40/41 CE – Caligula crisis: Caligula threatened to set up his statue in the temple that did not come to pass due to the persuasion of Agrippa I and then Caligula’s assassination

37-44 CE – due to his friendship with Caligula Agrippa I takes over rule of Antipas’ territory after the latter’s banishment and his support for Claudius Judea and Samaria come under his control

  •  had the apostle James, the son of Zebedee, executed according to the Book of Acts.

49/50 CE – expulsion of (some?) Jews at instigation of “Chrestus” (=Christos) (Acts 18:2; Seutonius, Divus Claudius 25)

44-66 CE – Judea, Samaria, and part of Galilee again under Roman procurators: Cuspius Fadus (44-46 CE), Tiberius Julius Alexander (46-48 CE), Ventidius Cumanus (48-52 CE), Antonius Felix (52-60 CE), Porcius Festus (60-62 CE), Albinus (62-64 CE), Gessius Florus (64-66 CE).  Meanwhile Agrippa II the last of the Herodian dynasty and ruled over less territory than his father (48-66 CE)

  • Theudas led some people out to the Jordan river and persuaded them that the water would part before the procurator Faudus crushed him and his followers (Ant. 20.97-98) (ca. 44-46 CE).  The Egyptian gathered a crowd to the Mount of Olives so that the walls of the city would fall at his command and fled when Felix ordered troops to attack (War 2.261-262; Ant. 20.169-171) (ca. 52-58 CE)

66-74 CE – the Jewish War against Rome, the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE by the Roman general Titus, the rebels last stand at Masada (fortress) before the Romans took it in 74 CE

  • The Gospel of Mark (ca. 65-75 CE)

69 CE – after Nero’s suicide the year of the four emperor’s Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian

69-96 CE – the Flavian Dynasty:  Vespasian (69-79 CE), Titus (79-81 CE), and Domitian (81-96 CE)

  • The Gospel of Matthew, Luke-Acts (?), the Gospel of John (?), Ephesians (?), 1 Peter, Hebrews (?), James (?), Johannine Epistles (?), Jude (?) Revelation (cf. Ireneaus, Adv. Haer. 5.30.3), the Didache (?), 1 Clement (?)

96-98 CE – Nerva elected by the Senate as emperor after Domitian’s assassination.  The start of a stable Nerva-Antonine dynasty (96-192 CE) including Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and Commodus

  •  Luke-Acts (?), the Gospel of John (?), Ephesians (?), Hebrews (?), James (?), Johannine Epistles (?), Jude (?), the Didache (?), 1 Clement (?)

98-117 CE – Trajan, the adopted heir of Nerva, reigns as emperor

  • Luke-Acts (?), the Gospel of John (?), Ephesians (?), James (?), Johannine Epistles (?), Jude (?), the Didache (?), 1 Clement (?), Papias’ Exegesis of the Lord’s Logia (ca. 110 CE), the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, 2 Peter (?)
  • Rome reaches the height of the territorial extent of its dominion, suppressed Jewish revolts in Egypt and Cyrene, wrote the famous correspondence with Pliny the Younger which included a discussion about trials against Christians

117-138 CE – emperor Hadrian

  • 132-135 CE – The second Jewish War led by Simon bar Kochba (son of the star) resulted in the banishment of Jews from the city of Jerusalem renamed Aelia Capitolina.  The Christian apologetic strategy to treat this as a punishment for the rejection of Jesus is exploited in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (e.g., chapter 16).
  • The completed Gospel of Thomas (cf. saying 70)?
  • Epistle of Barnabas?
  • 2 Peter?

144 CE – traditional date of the excommunication of Marcion by the Church of Rome

200 CE – Codification of Jewish oral traditions in the Mishnah, the first major text of Rabbinic Judaism and the source of the commentaries in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds.

Addendum on the Dating of Christian Texts

If a text does not give explicit information on when or where to locate it, scholars try to establish a terminus a quo (limit from which) and terminus ad quem (limit to which).  It must date before its first manuscript attestation and the earliest writer to cite it as a source, while it must postdate any historical persons or events or writings referenced in it.  Scholars may try to further pinpoint a date based on other internal clues in the text or its place in one’s overall reconstruction of Christian history (e.g., comparing a text to earlier or later developments represented in other texts).

  • Paul’s Epistles: Mark Goodacre had a post on the sequence.  1 Thessalonians is likely the earliest sent from Athens or Corinth (1 Thess 3:1, 6 cf. Acts 17:16-18:18) and lacks key ideas (e.g., justification) in later epistles.  I favor Galatians being sent to the geographical region of Galatia (Acts 16:6; 18:23) rather than the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia which included Pisidian Antioch Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (cf. Acts 13:13-14)  (against a defense of South Galatian theory) and the intertextual links of Gal 2:1-10/Acts 15 puts it after the Jerusalem Council and feud at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14; cf. Acts 15:30-39).  Goodacre’s date of 1 Corinthians before Galatians seems plausible and Paul is headed to Jerusalem with the collection before he plans to go to Rome and Spain in Rom 15:22-29 (did he make it to Spain as 1 Clem 5 hints?).  The Prison Epistles (Philemon, Philippians, Colossians [?]) are from Rome (cf.  Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, subscripts of some mss, silence on the collection, imperial guard in Phil 1:13 and “Caesar’s household” in 4:22, development of Paul’s thought in Philippians/Colossians) or Ephesus (less distant from Philippi in Phil 2:19-30 and Colossae in Phlm 10, 12, Col 4:7-9, plans to visit Colossae instead of Spain in Phlm 23, Marcionite Prologue to Colossians, speculative reconstruction of Ephesian imprisonment from 1 Cor 15:32/2 Cor 1:8-10); a Roman provenance makes these epistles Paul’s last.
  • Deutero-Paulines:  2 Thessalonians (cf. Paul Foster’s article) and Colossians are arguably Pauline.  If Colossians is judged pseudonymous based on style, eschatology, Christology, household code, etc, I would attribute it to Paul’s circle (Col 4:7-18) shortly after Paul’s death.  Ephesians may be a later circular letter (“in Ephesus” an addition) that richly sums up Pauline theology and imitates Colossians.
  • Sources of the Gospel Tradition:  The form critics noted that before the Passion Narrative, which reads like a unified story with events in succession, sayings or deeds of Jesus are loosely arranged in Mark and many could be passed down as individual anecdotes. Whether one accepts that the non-Markan double tradition in Matthew/Luke goes back to a single sayings source Q or reflects Luke’s use of Matthew, in either scenario I find it unlikely that Matthew invented all the non-Markan sayings shared with Luke and sayings sources is a completely reasonable hypothesis (cf. behind individual aphorisms in Mark, some or all of the shared non-Markan sayings in Matthew/Luke, some sayings in the Gospel of Thomas [?], the Egerton Gospel [?], sayings of the Lord in the NT Epistles and some Apostolic Fathers).  Other sources may include collections of parables (e.g., Mk 4), pronouncement stories (e.g., Mk 2-3:6), miracle stories, an eschatological discourse (e.g., is the Caligula crisis behind the “abomination of desolation” in Mk 13:14), or a Passion Narrative.
  • Mark, Matthew:  With notable exceptions (e.g., Maurice Casey, James Crossley), most date Mark shortly before or after the Jewish War.  The question is whether the polemic against the Temple throughout Mark 11-14 and predictions of its demise in 13:1-2 are vaticinium ex eventu (prophecy from the event) after 70 CE.  Matthew and Luke postdate Mark, while knowledge of Matthew is reflected early in Papias, the Didache, and Ignatius.
  • Catholic Epistles:  Hebrews’ anonymous author may be associated with Pauline circle including Timothy (Heb 13:23-4), has a supersessionary development of the new covenant theme (cf. 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:1-18), may be pre-70 in its discussion of the ongoing temple cult as it does not exploit the temple’s destruction or else just reflecting on the cultus from the Scriptures, and is known as early as 1 Clement. 1 Peter’s level of Greek and rhetoric, the cipher “Babylon” for Rome, the spread of Christ followers in Asia Minor, the label Christian, the Pauline influences, the silence on earlier disputes over Torah observance in mixed congregations, etc, suggest a post-70 date.  It is known by Papias, Polycarp, and 2 Peter and the sporadic harassment faced by Christians may date before Domitian or Trajan (cf. epistle of Trajan to Pliny).  If not by Jesus’ brother Judas, Jude looks back on the apostles in v. 17 and there is debate if it is at home in emergent catholicism (vv. 3, 20-21) or Jewish apocalyptic (vv 5-16).  The epistle of James, if not authentic, leaves little clues to date it and Origen is the first to explicitly refer to it.  Knowledge of 1 Peter (2 Pet 3:1), Jude, and Pauline epistles as “scripture” (3:16) as well as the rebuttal against scoffer’s of the Lord’s delayed return (3:4-10) and doubts of the Church Fathers shows 2 Peter may be the last NT book in the early-mid 2nd century.
  • Revelation: the 12 apostles are figures of the past (Rev 21:14) and the seer’s exile to Patmos suggests that relations have deteriorated with “Babylon” (Rev 19-20), perhaps to the end of Domitian’s reign (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5.30.3).  It may have influenced Papias’ millennialism.
  • Johannine Writings:  P52 established the latest possible date at 125-50 CE and it is arguably known by Ignatius (ca. 110).  It is plausible that John knew Mark’s outline but I am uncertain about the literary relationship of John with Luke – whether it depended on Luke, Luke depended on John, or both independently relied on some common oral traditions – to date John before/after Luke.   While I agree with some scholars (Körtner, Norelli, Watson, MacDonald) against others (Deeks, Hengel, Hill, Bauckham) that there is no clear reference in Papias to John’s Gospel, Papias seems to have known 1 John (cf. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.17) and the epistles may postdate the Gospel in reflecting a debate in the community over the nature of Christ’s humanity in light of the Gospel portrait.  Late 1st or early 2nd century?
  • Luke-Acts: is commonly dated 70-100 CE.  Arguments advanced for a date around 62 CE as Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome without disclosing his execution or the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, but the additions of Luke 19:42-44 and 21:24 make explicit the aftermath of the Jewish War which is at best implicit in Mark (and Matthew) and Acts is a narrative about the gospel spreading from Judea to the ends of the earth rather than a biography of Paul.  I am persuaded by Steve Mason and Richard Pervo that Luke-Acts postdates the Pauline Epistles and Josephus’ Antiquities in reflecting knowledge of them.
  • Pastorals:  the lack of attestation in early Pauline collections, their stylistic unity and difference from the rest of Paul’s epistles, the chronological discrepancies, and the exchange of the charismatic excitement over the apocalyptic Christ event for settled formulas to be believed and hierarchical church structures suggests a later date.  The church structure of bishops, elders, and deacons seems to be closer to Ignatius of Antioch.
  • Apostolic Fathers:  For an early 2nd century dating of Papias’ writing see Robert Yarbrough’s article online, though the knowledge of some NT writings (Mark, Matthew, 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation) inclines me to date it closer to 110 CE in his 95-110 range.  The dating of Barnabas depends on whether the little horn in 4:4-5 is a reference to Nerva after the reigns of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, unless it is taken from an earlier oracle on Vespasian after the Year of the Three Emperors or a prediction of a future antichrist, and questions over whether Nerva excited the hopes for a rebuilt Jewish temple (16:3-4).  Otherwise, it may be read in light of Hadrian’s ban of circumcision (9:4) and plans for a Pagan temple (16:3-4).  The Didache preserves very old Jewish Christian traditions and the only reason to put it at the turn of the century is it seems know Matthew (8.2; 11.3; 15.3, 4).
  • Gospel of Thomas:  I find convincing that at least some sayings reflect Matthean or Lukan redaction while others may be independent, perhaps as Matthew and Luke influenced the oral stream that reached Thomas, and no one rebuilding this house in saying 70 might be post Bar-Kochba.
  • Marcion: traditional date of his excommunication is 144 CE, but Justin Martyr (1 Apol. 50) suggests Justin’s complaint that an elderly Marcion is still active in his day may indicate that Marcion’s ministry dates back earlier.

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