It is an abuse of one’s status as a public intellectual to write dogmatic apologetics for lay readers. Professor Brant Pitre cobbles together a grab-bag of rationalisations to promote Catholic dogma and presents it to his lay readers as a work based on superior scholarship. The title of this post might have as well have begun with “Betrayal of lay readers” as “Failure of scholarship”.
Take the second chapter of The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ as but one example. After having earlier stressed the importance of understanding the Gospels in their Jewish context, Pitre in this chapter abandons that Jewish context and flips to a non-Jewish Greco-Roman context, resorts to anachronisms, fallacious rhetorical arguments and some misleading statements about the manuscript evidence to pummel the lay reader into “just knowing” that our canonical gospels were composed as we read them today, complete with their author names, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, heading each one. The book could be ignored as another Catholic tract if it were not for his academic peers — some of whom have been known to react with indignation if one dares suggest they are not objectively engaged in intellectually honest pursuits — publicly complimenting the work.
In seeking to reassure faithful readers that the Gospels were not originally written anonymously Pitre time-warps out of his “spiritually enlightening” Jewish context of the previous chapter and appeals to modern Western reading preferences:
Imagine for a moment that you’re browsing the shelves of your local bookstore, and you come across two biographies of Pope Francis. One of them is written by a longtime friend and contemporary of the pope. The other biography is anonymous. Which one would you buy? Most people, I would venture to guess, would go for the one written by someone who had actually spent time with him, someone who was a friend of Jorge Bergoglio, the man who later became pope. At the same time, I think most people would also view the anonymous biography with some level of suspicion. Who wrote this? Where did they get their information? Why should I trust that they know what they’re talking about? And if they want to be believed, why didn’t they put their name on the book?
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 12). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Scholars who argue the contrary (which, incidentally, would probably be most critical scholars) do so because of religious prejudice, because they do not want to believe in the Jesus in the Gospels, according to Pitre. The lay believer is led to think of critical scholars as hostile to his or her faith and to be dismissed as some sort of enemy of the truth:
The theory [of the anonymous Gospels] is remarkably widespread among scholars and non-scholars alike. It is especially emphasized by those who wish to cast doubts on the historical reliability of the portrait of Jesus in the four Gospels.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 16). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I’ll dwell upon the anachronistic analogy and the convenient abandonment of the Jewish context of Brant’s argument in this post.
[T]he Gospels are a form of ancient Greco-Roman biography. As experts in ancient biography have pointed out, “authors of biographies… normally were named.” Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 40. Moreover, one of the standard “opening features” of an ancient Greco-Roman biography was ordinarily some kind of “title.” Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?, 156– 57. These titles sometimes identify the author in the third person (see, e.g., Josephus, Life of Josephus; Tacitus’s Agricola; Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers). This makes perfect sense, since when it comes to biography, the reader will want to know who is giving the account of the subject’s life, and how they got their information.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 207). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Has Pitre read beyond the works of fellow apologists like Craig Keener and Richard Bauckham in his investigations into this question? Nowhere in his bibliography or index does one find reference to the 2008 article in the reputable journal Novum Testamentum 50:2 120-142 by Armin D. Baum, The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature. Professor Baum’s article actually offers Pitre, Bauckham, Keener and others a way to consistently evaluate the Gospels without sacrificing their Jewish context. But that would also mean stepping away from what modern readers might look for in a biography and accepting that the gospels just might have been originally anonymous after all.
Anonymity: A Stylistic Device
Begin with the abstract of Baum’s article:
The anonymity of the NT historical books should not be regarded as peculiar to early Christian literature nor should it be interpreted in the context of Greco-Roman historiography. The striking fact that the NT Gospels and Acts do not mention their authors’ names has its literary counterpart in the anonymity of the OT history books, whereas OT anonymity itself is rooted in the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East. Just as in the OT, where the authors of books that belonged to the genre of wisdom and prophetic literature were usually named while historical works were written anonymously, only the NT letters and the Apocalypse were published under their authors’ names while the narrative literature of the NT remained anonymous. The authorial intent of the Gospels’ anonymity can also be deduced from its ancient Near Eastern and OT background. Unlike the Greek or Roman historian who, among other things, wanted to earn praise and glory for his literary achievements from both his contemporaries and posterity, the history writer in the Ancient Near East sought to disappear as much as possible behind the material he presented and to become its invisible mouthpiece. By adopting the stylistic device of anonymity from OT historiography the Evangelists of the NT implied that they regarded themselves as comparatively insignificant mediators of a subject matter that deserved the full attention of the readers. The anonymity of the Gospels is thus rooted in a deep conviction concerning the ultimate priority of their subject matter.
Three New Testament historical works, Luke, Acts and John, contain prologues, the literary place-marker where one would most expect to find a reference to the author’s identity. But no,
Whenever New Testament narrators address their readers, whether in the first person or in some other way they consistently remain anonymous. (p. 122)
It is in the prologues of Greco-Roman history that we normally find the author’s name.
The absence of a prologue was usually considered as a departure from long established standards. Therefore, Lucian could write disapprovingly:
There are historians who “produce bodies without any heads?works lacking an introduction that begin at once with the narrative.”
Thus, the Jewish historian Josephus prefixed elaborate prologues to his Bellum Judaicum and to his Antiquitates because he did not want his works to appear, in the eyes of his educated Hellenistic audience, like headless bodies.
The same applied to Greco-Roman biography:
Greco-Roman biographies were published under the names of their authors (Euripides, Isocrates, Lucian, Philo, Plutarch, Suetonius etc.) as well. Only the lives that belong to the genre of popular literature (1st to 4th century A.D.) were an exception: the Vita Aesopi the Vita Alexandri Magni (later ascribed to Callisthenes), the somewhat more sophisticated narrative Lucius seu asinus and the Vita Secundi philosophi. These biographies have not only a rather low and episodic style but also anonymity in common. (pp. 126f.)
After surveying the range of ancient biographies and histories Baum concludes:
On the basis of these observations we may conclude: If a Hellenistic historian did not mention his name in (the prologue of) his work, he deviated from an ancient and widespread literary convention. (p. 127)
Baum then compares Old Testament and other Jewish historiography:
In contrast to the works of Greco-Roman historiography the Old Testament historical books are anonymous without exception. The author’s name is never mentioned. Even the historical source texts to which the Old Testament narrators refer remain anonymous. The historical books of the Hebrew Bible are not named after their authors but after their introductory words (“In the beginning” etc. in the Pentateuch), after their content (Chronicles) or after their main characters: Joshua, Judges, etc. Later narrative works like Tobit, Judith or the Books of the Maccabees and other writings like the anonymous Vitae Prophetarum or Joseph and Aseneth have also been named after their main characters.
Only the prophetic books in the “Old Testament” and the Wisdom literature contain author names.
A Near Eastern practice
Read against the background of Ancient Near Eastern literature the anonymity of the Old Testament history books was anything but unusual.
- Acadian literature was for the most part handed down anonymously as well.
- In Mesopotamia, historical epics were generally published without their authors’ names.
- And Egyptian literature was mostly written anonymously as well.
- Near Eastern Wisdom books frequently carried their authors’ names.
- Writings on the deeds of the Pharaohs, however, were usually written by unknown authors.
Not until the time of Alexander the Great did Greek literature and literary conventions gain a decisive influence in the Ancient Near East, “among them the wider use of authors’ names.” Nevertheless, even during the Hellenistic period, Jewish writings were still being published without the names of their authors. As a rule, however, only wisdom, apocalyptic, and testamental literature mentioned the names of the respective authors. (p. 128, my formatting and bolding)
Qumran literature is also mostly anonymous, as are the later Jewish Mishna, Tosefta, the Talmudim and Midrashim.
Baum’s remarks on the later 2 Maccabees are interesting:
Furthermore, the Hebrew history books did not have a prologue that informed the readers about their purpose and their sources. They also did not contain authorial reflections in the first person. Even 1 Maccabees still makes use of this Old Testament style.
In contrast, 2 Maccabees already includes a prologue by the author in the first person. This prologue concludes with the following words (2 Mace 2:19-32):
At this point therefore let us begin our narrative, without adding any more to what has already been said; for it would be foolish to lengthen the preface while cutting short the history itself.
By writing these words the author of 2 Maccabees adopted a literary device characteristic f Greek historiography. Yet, even 2 Maccabees remains anonymous.
2 Maccabees is thus a close analogy to the Gospel of Luke and Acts in which we have a prologue without mention of the author’s name.
The Context of Ancient History of Literature
By writing anonymously the New Testament narrators were closer to Hebrew than to Greco-Roman historiography. The first and second Gospel present themselves in the style of Old Testament history books: anonymous, without prologues, and without any first person reflections by their authors. The Gospel of Luke and especially the Book of Acts with their prologues and the statements of their authors in the first person conformed to a certain extent to the conventions of Greco-Roman historiography. Yet they, like 2 Maccabees, remain anonymous. Their authors integrated elements of both traditions.
The New Testament historical books share the feature of anonymity, which distinguishes them from Greco-Roman historiography, with all the works of Old Testament (and Near Eastern) historiography. In concealing their authors’ names the narrative books of the New Testament follow the model of the Old Testament books from Genesis to 2 Kings as well as 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. (p. 131)
The reason Greco-Roman authors of histories and biographies published their works under their own names is not hard to find. Many of them are quite forthright about their reasons:
Every Greco-Roman author, not just the historians, wanted to receive recognition for his literary accomplishments. A book had the potential to make its author famous. . . .
Historians, too, were hoping for fame and recognition by publishing their historical works. In the prologue to his Antiquities Josephus mentions several goals that, according to him, motivated historians to write their works. In the first place he refers to fellow writers who approached their task “eager to display their literary skill and to win the fame therefrom expected.”
Even epitomisers like Justin reckoned with the appreciation of their readers for their (albeit comparatively small) literary efforts:
“For your approbation is sufficient for me for the present, with the expectation of receiving from posterity, when the malice of detraction has died away, an ample testimony to my diligence.”
Only authors who published their work under their own names could hope for fame and recognition. That is why Greek and Roman history books were not published anonymously.
Would apologist scholars really like to compare the Gospels with Greco-Roman “biographies” if that comparison imputes to the evangelists the same vain glorious motives as those godless pagan authors?
Reasons for Anonymity in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography
Anonymity is just one of the contrasts with Greco-Roman historical writings. In the Old Testament historical works we find no intrusive first person reflections on the events by the author as we do in Greco-Roman works. Herodotus and Thucydides and others are always jumping in to the pages of their text to tell readers their thoughts. There is nothing like this in the OT historical works– or canonical Gospels.
Speech material in the OT (and Gospels) nearly always written as direct speech, in dialogue form, again in stark contrast to “comparable” typical Greco-Roman writings. Direct speech was largely left behind with Homer and later historians generally presented much of their discourse material in indirect speech.
The author(s) of Chronicles appears to have wanted to preserve the original wording of his source material in the Books of Samuel and Kings. He preserved 80% of those sources in his own historical work. Contrast Greco-Roman historians who sought to impress their readers with their literary skill. Altering and editing their source material was standard practice.
The anonymity of Old Testament historiography is related to the fact
- that it does not contain reflections in the first person
- nor does it use indirect speech
- and that it reproduces the wording of the respective source texts rather closely.
(p. 137, my formatting.)
The effect of direct speech is to distance even further the author from the narrative. The characters speak for themselves. There is “no mediator” as such.
Baum offers the following explanation for the anonymity of Near Eastern historiography:
In order to understand the relationship of Hebrew historians to their subject matter an additional factor has to be taken into account. According to W. Speyer the historical books of the Old Testament were to be regarded as “records of very old oral traditions.” This characterization is basically accurate. It must, however, be modified in light of the written sources to which Hebrew historians regularly refer (1 Kings 11:41 et al). Old Testament narrators thought of themselves as mediators of oral and written traditions.
“The narrator disappears behind his material. He does not, as it were, report on historical events; rather he passes on traditions.”
The writer remains invisible behind the tradition he hands on, acting as its nameless mouthpiece. In Old Testament historiography the historical tradition had absolute priority, as indicated by the fact that these historical works are almost invariably anonymous.
In contrast to the anonymous historical works, the prophetic and Wisdom books of the Old Testament (and the Ancient Near East) were published under their authors’ names. (p. 137)
Why the difference with the Wisdom literature? Wisdom depended upon the authority of the teachers.
New Testament Anonymity from the Readers’ Perspective
By writing their works without mentioning their names, the New Testament narrators deliberately placed themselves in the tradition of Old Testament historiography. Like their Old Testament models, they wanted to use the anonymity of their works to give priority to their subject matter, the narratives about the life of Jesus (and the spread of the early Jesus movement). As authors they wanted, for the most part, to disappear behind their subject matter. In order to move the subject matter to the foreground as much as possible they let their actors talk mostly in direct speech and abstained from any reflections in the first person. Even in this respect they took over the stylistic devices with which the Old Testament historians had already tried to disappear as far as possible into the background of their narratives. Since they were mainly concerned with their subject matter and not with displaying their literary skill, the narrators of the New Testament also largely abstained from elevating the colloquial Hellenistic prose of their sources to a more sophisticated literary level. All of these literary idiosyncrasies of the Gospels and Acts were designed to make the authors as invisible as possible and to highlight the priority of their subject matter. (pp. 139-140)
Of course the anonymity of the Gospels did raise concerns among many in the early Christian movement and author names were eventually associated with them. Why and how that came about is a question for another post, probably when I discuss Pitre’s third chapter in which he argues for the originality of the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our canonical gospels.
The anonymity of the New Testament historical books should not be regarded as peculiar to early Christian literature nor should it be interpreted in the context of Greco-Roman historiography. The striking fact that the New Testament Gospels and Acts do not mention their authors’ names has its literary counterpart in the anonymity of the Old Testament history books, whereas Old Testament anonymity itself is rooted in the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East. Just as in the Old Testament, where the authors of books that belonged to the genre of wisdom and prophetic literature were usually named while historical works were written anonymously, only the New Testament letters and the Apocalypse were published under their authors’ names while the narrative literature of the New Testament remained anonymous. The authorial intent of the Gospels’ anonymity can also be deduced from its Ancient Near Eastern and Old Testament background. Unlike the Greek or Roman historian who, among other things, wanted to earn praise and glory for his literary achievements from both his contemporaries and posterity, the history writer in the Ancient Near East sought to disappear as much as possible behind the material he presented and to become its invisible mouthpiece. By adopting the stylistic device of anonymity from Old Testament historiography the Evangelists of the New Testament implied that they regarded themselves as comparatively insignificant mediators of a subject matter that deserved the full attention of the readers. The anonymity of the Gospels is thus rooted in a deep conviction concerning the ultimate priority of their subject matter. (p. 142)
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