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  • Brian Chilcote

Can I get Your Autograph?

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Thoughts on the Authorship of Scripture

We cannot be dependent on the “original autographs,” not only because we do not have them, but also because the very concept is anachronistic for most of the Old Testament and does not reflect how the books came into existence.

Walton, John H.; Sandy, Brent. The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (p. 67).

Authorship is a concept that derives from a predominantly written culture, whereas ancient Israelite society was largely an oral culture. Traditions and stories were passed on orally from one generation to the next. They had their authority from the community that passed on the tradition rather than from an author who wrote a text.

…the spread of Greek language, cult brought with it the concept of authorship. The authority of a text came to be associated with its author. Jewish tradition naturally felt compelled to find authors for its literature in this age, although there was little explicit evidence about authorship in the Bible.

William M. Schniedewind. How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel

We picture Moses in his tent, scribbling away, miraculously recording all the events of creation, the Noahic flood, Abraham's movements, the Exodus and so on. We imagine David in the palace, lyre in hand, working on a psalm late at night. And there's Luke, laboring over an interview with an eyewitness, trying to record an accurate account of the events in the life of Jesus. The production of the biblical texts we possess were definitely not produced as described. Not even close.

The answer to the question in the title is an emphatic NO. Scholars use the word "autograph" to refer to an original document dictated or written by the hand of the composer. We have almost no autographs from antiquity partly because of the material process of producing and disseminating written material in those cultures, and also because disaster befell the Roman Empire and the Library of Alexandria. It's possible that we have a few letters from Simon Bar Kochba (135 CE) among the Dead Sea Scrolls- an extremely rare example with any sort of confidence in its provenance. The only reason we have Aristotle, Pliny, Cicero and the like is that a scattering of monasteries maintained copies inn their libraries that were rediscovered by scholars in the Renaissance.

"Not a single autograph in the hand of ancient Greek or Roman notables, not one manuscript so carefully preserved in the Classical period, not one book from the library at Alexandria, has survived. The manuscripts that we have are copies rarely older than the 6th century AD and more often belong to the 9th and 10th centuries. In the Middle East and Egypt, some ancient letters and documents have been found, preserved by circumstance and the arid climate."

The conflict between oral and written texts continued through the Rabbinic period after the fall of Jerusalem. For most of ancient near eastern history the means of transmitting wisdom, etiological stories, moral lessons, poetry and so on was chiefly verbal. In many settings, a written text symbolized a kind of magic or an act of official control, especially in cultures where the only readers and writers were governmental agents. (See Niditch, Oral World and Written Word)

Commercial transactions necessitated the early rise of scribes for hire, but beyond that we don't know much about the literacy levels of the cultures in Palestine at any time prior to the middle ages. What we do know is that most of the culturally important material was produced and consumed by mouth and ears rather than ink and eye. Homer, Gilgamesh and the national stories of the Jews probably originated in an oral tradition. Niditch in her book mentioned above points out the pervasive presence of oral features in the written texts of the Old Testament, and the perceptual differences between the two.

That means that it is much more likely that books like those in the Torah were developed orally over hundreds if not thousands of years by a population whose origins are lost in time. The books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles betray the political agendas of the post-exilic officials who were anxious to rebuild a shattered nation shamefully left without a temple to their God. Ancient values bearing on the recording of history were different from ours. Encouraging virtue and reinforcing community mores was seen as a perfectly legitimate purpose for written historical records. In contrast to our attempt to write nonfiction with as much objectivity as possible (or pretended at least), ancient historians subordinated precision to didactic effect.

For example, the fact that while recent archaeological data shows a regionally successful northern kingdom between Solomon and the exile, the Judean compilers of the history of that era show exactly zero "good" kings in the northern kingdom of Israel just as one would expect in a politically competitive environment where history is recorded by the victors. Were the Judean scribes "inspired" to denigrate their northern cousins in some texts and support their prophetic preaching in others? Archaeological evidence shows that the north was actually more politically and economically successful than the south until the Assyrian conquest in the 8th century BCE.

Ancient authorship was communal. Later redaction, editing and editorializing was considered normal and necessary. Concerning inspiration, one could ask exactly what "original document" can we talk about when we say it was "inspired? Through later centuries of hand copying manuscripts in candlelit scriptoria, some manuscripts were produced with marginal glosses inserted into the actual text, skipped lines, repeated lines, subtle additions, subtractions and rewording by clerically astute copyists who felt the need to conform the text to more closely match the prevailing orthodoxy (see the Johannine Comma - a phrase that manuscript evidence shows was most likely a marginal note that made its way into 1 John 5:8). Sometimes these variations were corrected, sometimes not. It's a valid question: what iteration of a document like the gospel of Mark or Isaiah can we point to as the official inspired version?

Based on the literary evidence, it is more likely that the Old Testament documents were stitched together and compiled than produced by a lone author whose individual idiosyncrasies were preserved in the literature. Even if oral traditions can be counted on as conservative concerning changes to the texts, there remains the problem with imagining a single inspired text, especially if there was no written text at all when ancient national etiologies were shared around the family hearth.

The set of texts we read in our Bibles is the result of a very long process of oral and written input by an enormous number of anonymous bards and scribes from hugely divergent cultures and languages. While it may approximate actual, original locution-illocution-perlocution events (see J.L. Austin's Speech Act Theory) involving interactions between God and human receivers, there is no way to substantiate the idea. In the absence of any hint of empirical clues, we are left with only possibilities shaped by our biases about inspiration. To affirm inspiration in the usual sense, one is required to assert that throughout an extremely complex process, God superintends every single step and stage of transmission from language to language, culture to culture, scribe to scribe, backward and forward through time from demonstrably erroneous late translations to more accurate earlier ones, (and vice versa) filtered through many, many different cultures and political realities. Is inspiration a miracle? For supporters of inerrancy, there is no other option.

John Dominic Crossan in his book The Birth of Christianity explores the convoluted relationships between memory, oral tradition, oral transmission and written language. His conclusions emphasize the reality that we will probably never know the exact linear process connecting Jesus's actual words and deeds with the memories of eyewitnesses, subsequent oral story versions, liturgical formats, early written accounts, later translations and our English Bibles. Studies of human ability to remember and recite stories (Crossan, chapters 3-5) show that accuracy is not a reliable feature of subsequent retellings. It's not even particularly valued in non-literate cultures. For most cultures without a written language tradition, a story is judged to be "good" or "poor" based on the teller's ability to arrive at certain standard plot points by creative means, not verbatim precision.

In a study of Balkan storytellers in the 1930's, a discussion was recorded that demonstrates the fraught interface between literate (writing-based) and nonliterate (reliance on memory and repeated standard phrases) approaches to reciting remembered events. By this time, the oral tradition of telling and singing the old epic tales existed side-by-side with a growing written literature in which the tales were stored in books. This approximately mirrors the first century when this parallel also existed. Written material was often considered essentially "oral" by those who did not have the regular experience of learning by reading.

A participant in the study, Hivso Dzafic, was acquainted with a well-known (illiterate) singer of tales named Avdo Mededovic. When asked about Avdo's rendition of a story called The Wedding of Smailagic Meho, He shared that he had read it to Advo from a printed songbook while they worked together in their butcher shop. The researcher asked:

"Did he (Mededovic) sing it just the way it was in the poem or did he sing it longer than that?"

Dzafic: "…he sang it all exactly as it is in the book…it got quite long by the time he was through with it because you see it… it doesn't take as much time to read it as it does to sing it."

"Of course. but do you supposed there was possibly some difference, that he might have added something here or there?"

"Oh I couldn't judge that at all."

"That there was anything added?"

"On my word of honor I didn't notice anything to criticize… It's the same was in the book as it is when he sings it. If I were to take the book, and open it like this while he was dictating, I'd see exactly the same thing there with my eyes as he'd said. (Crossan p. 77)

In other words, precision in a "good" rendition of a story does not factor in when orality prevails in a culture. "Good" and "accurate" are apples and oranges. Details can be added, subtracted, embellished and otherwise changed as long as the story makes sense to a listener and bears a passing resemblance to what they remember. Accuracy as a primary measure of the quality of a written source did not arise until the ability to read and compare texts caught on outside a narrow society of elites.

Our demand of accuracy from biblical material is just one example of how we unconsciously transfer our expectations of written literature to ancient writings without considering the tremendous differences between the two. When reading the gospels, for example, we treat them as accurate eyewitness accounts of the actual words and deeds of Jesus. In actuality, we are reading examples of later theologically crafted and persuasive rhetorical editions of what the Jewish-Christian Jesus communities needed at the time. Choices were made about what to include and what to skip. Stories and speeches- what Jesus "would have said-" were chosen because they supported a point of view or a persuasive aim.

The claim that ONLY the originally inked manuscripts were inspired and inerrant leaves us with less inspired and inerrant ones UNLESS the writers of the Septuagint, Johannes Gutenberg and the Committee on Bible Translation (producers of the NIV) can be considered as similarly inspired and inerrant in their linguistic choices.

These historical data should slow our automatic tendency to assign authors to eponymous ancient documents. Historically, it was a move to increase the respectability of a text and raise its status among the variety of other texts in circulation at the time. It's why we have so many extrabiblical titles competing for authority that we know weren't written by their purported authors, such as: the books of Enoch, The Wisdom of Solomon, The Testament of Abraham, The Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Thomas. It was commonplace to affix the name of an authoritative figure to a text that churches might use liturgically.

The likelihood is much higher that writer of Matthew wrote "as if" he were the Apostle Matthew OR that the gospel was initially accepted as anonymous and a later redactor decided to attach Matthew's name to it. Same for Mark and John. Luke may be an exception as there is not claim of direct contact with Jesus- and his contact with Paul is debated. First and Second Peter are good examples of later texts that purport to be from the hand of eyewitness Peter, but are plagued with elements that put this claim in doubt. Scholarly digging into the vocabulary, style, and themes of 1 and 2 Peter only deepens the controversy.

To sum up: It's a mistake to assume that ancient literary production was in any way similar to ours. That includes the concept of authorship. We like to think that the gospels were written by actual apostles, or that Moses composed the entire Pentateuch because it supports our ideas of authority and authenticity. However, what we know from textual and historical evidence leans heavily against these assumptions and we would do well to let these documents speak for themselves as they are. While we're at it, we should let go of our insistence that a disciple named John must have written John, the Johannine letters and Revelation. Authority can reside in ancient texts without resorting to artificial connections to certain noteworthy figures, especially if there's some continuity between the beliefs of the apostles and the young Jewish-Christian sects a few decades later. We can still understand, interpret and benefit from the biblical record if we take it for what it actually is: impressionist paintings of a hero by a young spiritual movement trying to establish legitimacy and identity in a chaotic post-Temple world. What we have in our New Testament collection are not actual, unvarnished, objective accounts, rather, they are snapshots of later theologies in their developmental stages, using contemporary language and conceptual frameworks to tell the story of a remarkable leader that deserved remembrance.

Questions to Ponder

What difference does it make if the gospels' authorship is more communal and less individual?

How would you describe authority when talking about the Bible?

Some people call many New Testament texts "forgeries" because their claimed authorship is not supportable. Thoughts? (see Ehrman, Bart; Forged: Writing In The Name Of God - Why The Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are)

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