Rarely do we have the original manuscripts of ancient books. Surviving copies generally date centuries—and often millennia—after the date of the original composition. Unfortunately, it is often the case that we don’t know—and frequently cannot know—the original date of a composition, especially anonymous compositions with vague historical allusions. There are four main ways scholars use to date ancient texts.
1- Examining explicit references to dates given in the text. Some biblical books, such as Kings and Chronicles, provide numerous explicit dates, usually correlated to royal reigns. Other books in the Bible, however, contain almost no chronological information whatsoever.
2- Examining synchronisms between dates, events or people described in a text with outside information. Two examples will suffice. The Bible describes and invasion of Judah by king Shishak (Sheshonq) of Egypt in the late tenth century BC (1 Kgs. 14:21-31; 2 Chr. 12:1-12). Pharaoh Sheshonq of Egypt built a monumental Bubastis portal at the Karnak temple in Luxor celebrating this campaign in Israel and Canaan, as confirmed by Sheshonq’s victory stele found in Megiddo. (The Bubastis portal city list includes the place name ywdh m’lk, sometimes understood as referring to the kingdom of Judah, see 3.9). The fact that the biblical name and date correspond with Egyptian records indicate that First Kings is relying on some type of authentic contemporary tenth century Israelite documents. The date of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC can be more precisely identified by comparing 2 Kings 25:1, 8 with Babylonian chronicles of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. Such synchronisms between the Bible and non-biblical people, events and dates provide key dates in biblical chronology.
3- Establishing the final date of the writing (or editing) of a text based on the last historically datable event mentioned in the text. The Book of Kings, for example, contains dates ranging from around 1000 BC until “the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, [when] Evil-merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison” (2 Kings 25:27). From Babylonian records we can establish that the first year of Evil-merodach/Amal Marduk is 562 BC. Thus, the final form of the Book of Kings could not have been written before 562 BC. Its final form must date to after that event, Second Chronicles, on the other hand, ends with “the first year of Cyrus king of Persia [as ruler of Babylon]” (2 Chr. 36:22), which equates to 538 BC. Chronicles must have been written sometime after that date. It is likely that Ezra is actually a continuation of Second Chronicles, which would make the date of final composition even later. This data tells us that a text could not have been finished before the last datable event described in the text. However, we need to remember that parts of a text could have been written substantially before the final date mentioned. And, on the other hand, the final editing could be substantially later than the last date mentioned in the text. (To be continued.)