Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Bart Interrupted: Part Four
We live in a text bound age full of litigious people concerned about copyright, intellectual property, and authorship in the modern sense. I have a friend in fact who is in fact a intellectual property lawyer. You don’t want to know all the permutations and combinations of that law. By contrast, the first century world of the NT writers was a dramatically different world. For one thing, it was largely a world of oral cultures. Perhaps 10-15% of the populus was literate, could read and write, and even less actually owned ‘texts’ or manuscripts. Furthermore, the production of texts in antiquity was a tremendously laborious process, and expensive as well. Scribes did not come cheap, papyrus and ink was not cheap, and the codex, or notebook form compilation was just coming into existence in the first century A.D. Most documents were written on a single sheet of papyrus which would be rolled up and tagged, with what I like to call a toe tag—a small identifying marker. Scribes were not mere secretaries in antiquity, they were in fact the intellectuals and scholars of their age. It you want to learn about their various roles you can read several of the chapters in my forthcoming Baylor book What’s in a Word.
Not surprisingly, ancient views about ‘authorship’ are not quite the same as modern views which assume ‘individual’ authors for almost all documents that aren’t collections of essays by some group of scholars. However in ancient collectivistic cultures this was not the norm. Many, if not most ancient documents were anthological in character--- a compilation of traditions from various different persons and ages through time. This was true about collections of laws, proverbs, songs, religious rituals, and stories as well. We should not be surprised in the least in reading through the book of Proverbs that all of a sudden in a book ascribed to Solomon, we have in Prov. 30 the sayings of Agur, or in Prov. 31 the sayings of King Lemuel, whoever he may have been. Or again, the psalms are compilations from various different ages, some are probably songs of David, but some are songs for or dedicated to David, some are composed by others still. It is a mistake to evaluate ancient documents as if they were just like modern documents, and this applies to NT documents as well, in various regards.
For example, the vast majority of scholars are in agreement that the Gospels we call Matthew and Luke are compilations from a variety of sources, including Mark and a sayings collection, and some unique material not found in other Gospels. Of course, this becomes puzzling to modern readers of Matthew because they rightly ask the question--- why would an eyewitness apostle like Matthew need to use secondary sources for events he was present to view? Why indeed. Here is where I say to you that while we must properly answer this question, one also needs to not do what Bart Ehrman does in his chapter on who wrote the Bible when it comes to this issue—which is to suggest that these Gospels were originally anonymous, and labels were added to them later for apologetical purposes, and that when we read of who they are attributed to in an early source like Papias, we can with a wave of the hand simply dismiss such evidence. If you want to read what a historian of merit has to say indetail about the Papias’ traditions I would point you to Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which is mostly a close reading and explanation of Papias and what he says. It does not in any way agree with Ehrman’s analysis of these early traditions. Indeed, most scholars today think there was a collection of the four canonical Gospels together at some point early in the second century in codex form which is when we get the official labels—according to Matthew etc. based on earlier traditions about the sources of these documents (see e,g, the work of Graham Stanton).
When the Gospel documents were originally written, the audiences that received them knew who the authors were and had a relationship with them. This is especially clear from a text like John 21 which informs us that while the final compiler of the Fourth Gospel is not the Beloved Disciple, nevertheless, he is the source of the traditions in this Gospel, having written them down, and “we know that his testimony is true”. The compiler of the Fourth Gospel knows the man personally, and can vouch for his trustworthiness in telling the Gospel stories. So let’s deal now with some of the flimsy assumptions made which are the basis of Ehrman’s conclusions.
1) Assumption One: The canonical Gospels were probably originally anonymous. This is wrong on two counts. First, when these documents were written down, if there were not identifiers in the document, the papyrus would have been tagged by the scribe to be able to distinguish it from other documents, and these tags regularly had the names of the author or compiler and sometimes a short title as well or instead. Second, we should not imagine that the Gospels were written for general public consumption. Publishing in antiquity was almost always an in house, small audience thing, unless we are talking about Emperor’s publishing laws and propaganda. The circles for which these Gospels were written in all likelihood knew who wrote these documents. Papias is simply basing on to us the early traditions about Matthew, Mark, and John that he heard personally from John the elder, who had know various of the eyewitnesses.
2) Assumption Two: In the case of a Gospel like Matthew which includes some 95% of Mark within it, obviously this means that Matthew had nothing to do with the content of this Gospel since it relies on earlier and even secondary sources. This sort of reasoning ignores the anthological nature of most ancient documents. All it took for a document like Matthew to be labeled ‘Matthew’ is if he was the most famous source used in the document for some of its material. And of course if the three sources used in that document are: 1) material from Mark, not an eyewitness, 2) material from Q or a sayings collection; 3) material from some other unique source scholars usually call special M material, then if either 2) or 3) came from Matthew, his name would take precedent over Mark’s in the document, especially if there very first source material in this Gospel, the birth narratives, came from Matthew. What Papias says is that Matthew had compiled some of the largely sayings material of Jesus in Aramaic or Hebrew. This sounds more like 2) above, than 3), but Papias is general enough that it could be 3) since the Greek word logia need not mean just ‘sayings’. It could mean teachings, for example or even ‘words about the Lord’.
3) Assumption Three: Jesus’ disciples were “lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic speaking peasants from Galilee.” (p. 106). First of all fisherman are not peasants. They often made a good living from the sea of Galilee, as can be seen from the famous and large fisherman’s house excavated in Bethsaida. Secondly, fishermen were businessmen and they had to either have a scribe or be able to read and write a bit to deal with tax collectors, toll collectors, and other business persons. Thirdly, if indeed Jesus had a Matthew/ Levi and others who were tax collectors as disciples, they were indeed literate, and again were not peasants. As the story of Zaccheus makes perfectly clear, they could indeed have considerable wealth, sometimes from bilking people out of their money. In other words, it is a caricature to suggest that all Jesus’ disciples were illiterate peasants. And Bart is absolutely wrong that Acts 4.13 says otherwise--- what Acts 4.13 says is that the council is shocked at the theological capacity of Peter and John because they are ‘unlettered’. This is not the ancient word for illiterate, it is the word for not being learned, not having done formal school training, say in a synagogue.
We need to move on now and consider what Bart says about forgeries and intellectual property in antiquity, and yes indeed there was a concern about such matters in the first century A.D. though certainly not to the same degree as we find today. Bart is also right that there were also not only forgeries in antiquity, there were also pseudepigrapha of various sorts. Now the latter has to be evaluated on a genre by genre basis. By this I mean that while there was a literary convention when it came to apocalyptic works to ascribe those works to ancient luminaries or worthies (e.g. the Testament of Abraham is not by Abraham, the Parables of Enoch are not written by Enoch and so on), it was not an approved literary practice to write letters in the name of other persons without their approval or dictation. This issue has to be evaluated according to the literary type of document we are talking about. The parables of Enoch are not a forgery, they are a pseudepigraphic apocalyptic document and the conventions were well known in early Judaism about such documents.
Pseudonymous letters, sermons or speeches are a whole different ballgame. These, if they are genuine letters or sermons, can be called forgeries if there is no connection between the putative author and the actual author of a given document. Bart is absolutely right when he says “Ancient sources took forgery seriously. They almost universally condemn it, often in strong terms.” (p. 115). He is also quite right that forgeries had the intent to deceive. And he is also equally right that various of these sorts of documents were penned in the second century A.D. to add to the corpus of Christian writings for various purpose. A good example of this would be the so-called Acts of Paul and Thecla, or the Epistle to the Laodiceans. Our concern is not however with such documents, but with those from the first century A.D. (and it is only first century documents in the NT) that made it into the canon of the New Testament. Are their forgeries in the NT?
First of all, we need to bear in mind that anonymous documents are not pseudonymous documents. Hebrews for example, has no attribution of authorship internally or externally, it is an anonymous sermon. Perhaps Apollos wrote it, but in any case, the author of the document is not trying to pass it off as written by some luminary. Secondly, there are documents which are internally anonymous but had an external attribution. For example 1 John, in the content of the document says nothing about the author at all. It is a sermon, and it appears that early Christian sermons, like Hebrews, were frequently produced without internal attribution. And exception to this is James. Bart wants to argue that this is by some otherwise unknown James. The problem with this suggestion is shown by the many commentators on the book of James, and also by the content of the book, which draws on no less than 20 sayings of James’ brother Jesus. As Bauckham has shown at length, there is no reason to doubt James is by the famous James the brother of Jesus, any more than there is reason to doubt Jude, who identifies himself as James brother is by Jude, the brother of Jesus. On the other hand, Bart is right that Revelation is by one John of Patmos, who is probably not John Zebedee, nor is he the Beloved Disciple. This man was a apocalyptic prophet whose Greek and theologizing is different from that found in the other Johannine documents (see my Revelation commentary).
The real issue when it comes to pseudeigrapha in the canon is whether documents like 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles, 2 Peter are pseudepigrapha. Bart thinks they are, and I think they are not. For the record, the commentators are about evenly divided on most of these books with the exception of 2 Peter, which most take to be a pseudepigrapha. In fact 2 Peter is a compilation document which draws on Jude in its second chapter, and on a testimony of Peter in the first chapter, and perhaps some Pauline material as well in 2 Pet. 3. As a compilation document it is attributed to its first and most famous source Peter. There is a Petrine testimony about the Transfiguration in 2 Pet. 1, that likely goes back to Peter himself. The compiler of the document does not see or present himself as an author. He follows the ancient tradition of attributing the compilation to its most famous contributor, as we saw was true for Proverbs, Psalms, Matthew as well.
But what about those Pauline letters? Let me remind the readers that Paul certainly used scribes. We see this in various of the ways Paul ends documents. For example, in Gal. 6 he says he is now taking up the pen and writing a bit in his own hand, which clearly implies he has been using a scribe to compose the letter. Or in Rom. 16 we have a greeting from the scribe Tertius whom Paul used for that document. In the Pastoral Epistles Paul tells us “Luke alone is with me” which explains why the Pastorals reflect so much Lukan vocabulary and style. ‘Authorship’ in the ancient world was a term that basically meant ‘a document which comes from the mind of X and faithfully reflects his views/message, whoever actually composed the document’. If an author had a faithful scribe who knew his mind on an issue, he could simply tell the scribe—compose a document on X on wax, I will review it, then you may copy it out on a papyrus, with possible changes. There was a sliding scale between on the one end using a new or hired scribe to simply take dictation for most of the document and on the other end of the spectrum using a trusted colleague who knew one’s mind to compose a document. Paul and Peter (using Silas, see 1 Pet. 1) used such scribes to convey their thoughts for them. When one examines these NT letters carefully, and takes into account the ancient conventions about composing such letters, I see no reason to conclude any of these documents are forgeries, particularly on the basis of style, which is a function of personality and personal preference if one is a skillful writer, and it depends on the type of letter one is writing as well. Rhetorical style was chosen according to the situation. Furthermore, a skillful scribe could choose to write in verbose Asiatic Greek rather than Attic Greek if he chose (cf. e.g formal English English to American slang). When we take these things into consideration, as we should there is no reason to come to the conclusions Bart does about forgeries in the NT.
The early church, as we begin to see already in Papias, was confident that their ultimate source documents went back to apostles, prophets, eyewitnesses and their co-workers, which is why these 27 documents are in the NT. They were composed by Paul (with help of scribes and co-workers), Peter (1 Peter with help of Silas probably), Mark, Luke (both co-workers of both Peter and Paul), the 4th Evangelist (drawing on Beloved Disciple written sources. The Beloved Disciple composed 1-3 John himself), the compiler of Matthew, James, Jude, perhaps Apollos in the case of Hebrews, John of Patmos, and at the very end of the NT period, the compiler of 2 Peter, drawing on Petrine and other materials.
In short, the NT can be traced back to about 8 people, either eyewitness apostles, or co-workers of such eyewitnesses and apostles. Early Christianity's leaders were largely literate, and some of them, like Paul and the author of Hebrews, were first rate rhetoricians as well (see my little primer NT Rhetoric).