18 March 2014

A note on New Testament authorship...

About a month or so back, I got into a discussion about the authorship of New Testament texts, with me being told quite firmly that it was only in the late second century that the canonical Gospels first became associated with the evangelists to whom they're traditionally attributed. As you can imagine, I responded with equal firmness that this most certainly wasn't the case, and, well, after a short gallop through the data I was asked to sum up what I'd said in writing and to say why I thought this mattered. In the end, I thought it best to outline the whole case with the summary tagged on at the end as a kind of précis. Like so.

Early Associations With Authors
Irenaeus of Lyons, writing around 180, is the first extant author who can be said beyond reasonable doubt to identify the four canonical Gospels: he speaks of the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John, and criticises those groups that use only one of these Gospels to the exclusion of the others. It’s telling that he does not present his association of these Gospels with these authors as a novelty; rather, this is something he expects his audience to take for granted, as an established fact.

If the original form of the Muratorian Canon can be dated to 170 or so, we can recognise a slightly earlier instance of an author associating the four Gospels with their conventional authors, but leaving aside how the text of the Canon is incomplete, the dating is far from safe.

More interesting is Justin Martyr’s Apology, dating to 150 or so and recording how Christians of his era would attend Mass where ‘the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read’; Justin obviously says nothing more specific, given his audience, but he appears to be testifying here to how Christians of the mid-second century regarded the Gospels as the apostles’ personal accounts of their time with Jesus. This was around the time, of course, when Marcion was proposing a limited but real Biblical canon composed only of a carefully-pruned Luke and the Pauline letters.

Earlier still, in the first decades of the century we have Papias, fragments of whose texts survive in the writings of Irenaeus and Eusebius; Irenaeus describes him as a pupil of John and peer of Polycarp, as well as the author of the five-volume The Sayings of the Lord Explained. This was still extant in Eusebius’ day, and Eusebius quotes from it to clarify that it was ‘the Presbyter John’ who Papias knew, rather than the Apostle John. He quotes Papias as quoting said Presbyter John:

‘Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teachings to the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no misstatement about it.’

Traditions do not come from nowhere, after all, so it’s hardly surprising that Papias, writing no later than 130, would have believed what he did on the basis of what a teacher of an earlier generation would have told him. Nor should we be surprised that prominent Christians in Asia Minor should have been so familiar with a Roman text like Mark: communications were remarkably fast in the Empire, and we shouldn’t think of Christian communities, any more than any other ancient communities, as isolated backwaters.

Eusebius also quotes Papias as saying of Matthew that, ‘Matthew compiled the Sayings in the Aramaic language, and everyone translated them as well as he could.’ It seems that in the early second century it was thought that Matthew had written a kind of Aramaic proto-Matthew, which had been translated into the Matthew that we have. My suspicion, as I’ve said before, is that proto-Matthew was mapped onto Mark, possibly with some further admixture of sources -- notably the commonly hypothesised 'Q' -- to give us the document we know as Matthew.

We have, then, real evidence that in the early second century Mark was regarded as the author of Mark, with this apparently having been believed in the late first century when Presbyter John would have taught Papias; There are, of course, plenty who dismiss the Papias tradition, but I have never seen a case for doing so that didn’t entail methods that were at least a tad circular.

Pseudonymous Authorship
To associate the New Testament documents, other than a central core of Pauline letters, directly with their traditional authors is often seen as the height of naivety; scholarly orthodoxy points instead to a scenario where texts arose within communities as expressions of their faith, being merely linked with prominent early Christians as a kind of communal imprimatur, whether said documents were Gospel narratives like John or letters like 2 Timothy.

The first problem with this is that this orthodoxy simply isn’t supported by much solid evidence; it is, rather, little more than a nineteenth-century hypothesis derived primarily from the belief that the New Testament documents were so late in authorship that they could no longer be regarded as written by their traditional authors, which in turn posed the problem of why early Christians venerated books they knew weren’t written by the traditional authors. That’s not to say that this is in itself a bad hypothesis, merely that people tend to forget that this is merely a theory, and one singularly lacking in supportive evidence.

In fact, not merely is there a lack of evidence to support the theory, there are serious arguments against its plausibility.

Origen and Eusebius noted that there were question marks over the authorship of 2 and 3 John, James, and Jude, but give no indication that anybody had ever so disputed the traditional authorship of the Gospels or the Pauline letters, say; neither is there any evidence of any of the Gospels having alternative names, like, the Gospel of the Antiochenes or the Gospel of the Ephesians. Indeed, I struggle to think of any post-Homeric books in Classical antiquity that could be described as having arisen from communities rather than being written by individuals.

In Forgery and Counter-Forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, Bart Ehrman argues that pseudonymous authorship was by no means a respectable tradition in antiquity, and that forgery was regularly condemned as such by people who had the tools they needed to identify it as such; we might think of how the first-century Thrasyllus collected a Platonic canon, including as an appendix a collection of texts he believed to be spurious accretions falsely attributed to Plato in subsequent centuries, or how the aforementioned Muratorian Canon dismisses as forgeries intended to further Marcion's Gnostic version of Christianity the supposedly Pauline letters 'to the Laodiceans' and 'to the Alexandrians'. The ancients, it should be remembered, had brains ever bit as good as ours. If Ehrman is right – and he might well be –  it seems unlikely that early Christians would have given a special place to books they knew to be falsely attributed.

This in turn invites another question, though: if early Christians – and their opponents – could have identified forged Biblical texts as forgeries, and yet didn’t do so, might this have been simply because from the first they knew and trusted their provenance?

Much tends to be made of the fact that the Gospels are anonymous books; clearly then, it is regularly held, authorship was subsequently ascribed to them and was done so on questionable grounds. Given the conventions of ancient literature, I find this bizarre: the plays of Euripides and Sophocles are no less anonymous than the Gospels, Plato hardly identifies himself as the author of every Platonic dialogue, and Aristotle certainly doesn’t identify himself as the author of the works ascribed to him, yet we don’t routinely cast aspersions on these on the grounds of their authors’ anonymity. And if the author of Matthew, say, speaks of Matthew in the third person, what of it? Julius Caesar and Thucydides did much the same thing.

Scrolls tended to have tags attached to them, necessary labels in collections of more than a few scrolls. We know that early Christianity originally developed within a Jewish context, so it seems that at least the larger Christian communities must have had collections of Old Testament scrolls which they would have supplemented by Paul’s letters and other documents. These scrolls must have been labelled – doing otherwise would have been like having a library of spineless books. When a community acquired or wrote its first Gospel they could presumably have labelled it ‘Gospel’ but once they came into possession of a second Gospel, it would have been important to label the two Gospels differently, the obvious way of doing so being by reference to their authors.

There is no reason to assume, then, that the Gospels were ever anonymous in any meaningful sense.

Does this matter?
As a general rule, the earlier the source, the more historically valuable it is, and it’s clear that the early Christians believed the historical reality of the faith an issue of paramount importance. Paul, famously, in 1 Corinthians 15 stresses that if the Resurrection isn’t real, then Christianity is a waste of time, but does so only after reeling off a list of witnesses to that Resurrection, most of these being, he wrote, still alive; his point, surely, was that these could be consulted on the accuracy of what he preached. Luke 1:2 makes a point of saying that he and others had learned the story of Christ from ‘those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word’, and John 1:14 seems to imply that the original audience of John included people who had witnessed the risen Christ, as indeed does the comment at John 21:24 that ‘we’ – his community or closest companions within that community  –  ‘know that [John’s] testimony is true’, something that had previously been noted at John 19:35.

In other words, the early Christians clearly thought it mattered that the Gospels should be regarded as having an essentially historical character. And if it mattered for them, should it matter any less for us? 

In the first place, we should have a serious vested interest in truth in general, and the truth of the Gospels in particular. In practical terms too, many people I know who have abandoned their faith have done so because they had come to regard the Gospels as little more than fairy tales written down long after the events they purport to describe. It wasn’t just that they didn’t believe in miracles and exorcisms and so forth, but that they suspected that the Church didn’t do so either or at least didn’t do so consistently; a Gospel read metaphorically was for them a pointless Gospel. The general historicity of the Gospel accounts really matters, and if we play this down we continue to drive people away.

It is perhaps worth noting that the Second Vatican Council explicitly assigned the Gospels’ authorship to the apostles ‘themselves and apostolic men’, such that it seems the Council affirmed Matthew and John as the actual authors of the Gospels assigned to them, even if John essentially dictated his Gospel while Matthew’s contribution to his Gospel may have taken the form of a lost Aramaic proto-Matthew.

I’m not inclined to worry too much about the question of whether Galilean fishermen could ever have written documents as polished – or indeed as Greek – as John or 1 Peter, or indeed about whether they could write at all. John 18:15, for starters, states that ‘the beloved disciple’ was known to the high priest, which suggests that he was rather better connected, and thus perhaps rather better educated, than the average fisherman.

As for the average fisherman, he might in any case have at least occasionally had a level of education to match that of a carpenter or builder, at least one such person being described in the Gospels as talking in Aramaic, reading in Hebrew, and possibly even chatting in Greek, given Jesus’ reported conversation with the Syrophoenician woman of Mark 7:26. As for Matthew, well, given he appears to have been not just a tax collector –  indeed, a customs official –  but a wealthy man able to put on a banquet for a large crowd at a moment’s notice, according to Luke 5:27, I don’t think we should be too sceptical about the prospect of his having been literate.

In any case, after a couple of decades of living in Asia Minor or Rome, it’d hardly be that strange for the likes of Peter or John to have mastered Greek, and it may also have been that they relied on others to polish their writing –  1 Peter 5:12, for example, makes clear that the letter itself was written by one Silvanus, just as Romans 16:22 reveals that Paul’s masterwork was in fact penned by one Tertius – before signing off on the finished product.

(Ghostwriting and approaches analogous to modern speechwriting could go some way to explaining stylistic differences to letters attributed to the same author, of course; I'm not entirely convinced, for instance, that many people, reading Lumen Fidei and Evangelii Gaudium would automatically assume they'd both ostensibly come from the same man.)

In any case, the assumption that people must have lacked literary talent because they smelled of fish always bothers me; it smacks of the sort of snobbishness that tries to assign Shakespeare’s plays to the likes of the Earl of Oxford. Talent isn’t confined to the wealthy, after all, and given a chance, people can shine.

From a specifically Catholic stance, it is worth remembering too that the Council taught that God inspired the Bible’s human authors to consign ‘to writing everything and only those things which He wanted,’ such that ‘everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred authors must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit’. In interpreting Scripture, then, we are called upon to do two things, both being clearly mandated as necessary by the Council: we must read with an eye to the human authorship of texts, noting literary forms and customary styles and conventions, and we must read with an eye to the divine authorship of texts, noting the unity of Scripture, the tradition of the Church, and the harmony that exists within elements of the faith.  

To do otherwise is to read the Bible outside the Church.

In short, then...
Anonymity within texts was common in antiquity, but given how scrolls would typically be labelled for ease of identification, this didn’t mean texts were at any point anonymous in any practical sense. There is no evidence that anybody other than the four traditional authors were ever identified as the authors of the Gospels, and Patristic sources indicate that the Gospels had been identified as written by their traditional authors as early as the late first and certainly in the early second century.

Contrary to scholarly convention in New Testament studies, it was not common in antiquity for texts to be falsely attributed to someone and then venerated by people who knew they weren’t written by their purported authors; forgeries tended to be regarded as such, and spurious texts were treated with suspicion. The belief that New Testament books were honoured as Johannine, Matthean, or whatever, on the basis of having arisen from communities centred around the likes of John and Matthew, was never really more than a hypothesis intended to resolve problems raised by, among other things, the late date at which said books were believed to have been written. Of course, this lateness has itself not been proven, and is all too often treated as a premise, rather than an uncertain conclusion. These theories have calcified into scholarly orthodoxies, but we should always remember that they are just theories, and theories based on precious little evidence at that.

Does this matter? I believe it does, primarily because the authorship of the Gospels is a matter of truth, and truth should be something in which we're all invested. I don’t think it’s good enough to brush this off as though it doesn’t matter.

That’s not the only reason, though: from the first, Christians have believed the basic historicity of the Gospel narratives to be important, especially for apologetic and evangelical purposes; the earlier a text is, the more likely its sources are to have witnessed the events it describes, and the more ‘historical’ we should recognise it as being.  As such, if we really care about sharing the Good News, we should hope that the New Testament documents are early and linked with people who witnessed the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, so that we can share that fact with people. It’s hard for most people to accept spiritual truth unless they’re first convinced of historical truth. 

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