Sunday, 25 March 2012

Biblical Authorship: Challenging Anti-Conservative Presuppositions (Part 3 of 4)

Valentin de Boulogne's St. Paul and His Writings
Assumption # 3: "An author’s entire vocabulary is limited to a select handful of his writings."

     This seems to be the underlying assumption when the authenticity of a particular document is challenged due to its message containing a number of words or phrases that are absent from other writings attributed to the same author. Critical scholars tend to place a great deal of emphasis on hapax legomena, i.e., words occurring only once in a text or a literary collection. Ephesians, for example, is among the most disputed documents in the Pauline corpus because it employs over ninety words not found in the rest of the letters bearing Paul’s name. However, this is a tremendously subjective criterion. Consider the fact that Ephesians is the only extant Pauline epistle wherein the term "water" appears. Is it logical to assume that this basic word was not in the apostle’s vocabulary and that he did not and could not have ever used it?!
     Each book of the Bible has a distinctive thrust that necessarily calls for specific terminology. Some teachings naturally overlap and share the same or similar wording, whereas others do not. An effective communicator is aware of his intended audience and their particular needs, and his word-choice is influenced accordingly. It is not realistic to expect any writer to say the exact same things in precisely the same manner with the very same words, irrespective of his audience, his topic, his purpose, or his circumstances. Further, when attempting to evaluate the perceived vocabulary of a given author, his utilization of quotations and other borrowed materials must be factored in. And of even greater significance is the prospect of co-authors, collaborators, and secretaries. If multiple works were produced by an author with the assistance of different colleagues, who’s to say which words belong to which contributor and which ones do not? The issue of vocabulary is a notoriously weak determinant for questions of authorship.

Assumption # 4: "An author’s writing style is static, irrespective of when, where, why, and how his respective writings are composed."

     In almost every discussion about the Bible’s disputed books, literary features, particularly language and style, are involved. If an author’s characteristic writing style can be quantified, any document that exhibits variations, even if it bears his name, is removed from the list of authentic writings. Why are 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastorals considered by so many New Testament scholars as having been authored by persons other than the apostle Paul? One of the main reasons, according to current critical analysis, is that the writing styles of these epistles differ from the "genuine Paulines" and thus "do not sound like Paul."
     The most obvious question is: how does one determine which of the Pauline letters are genuine to begin with, thereby providing a standard of comparison? Since, for example, Colossians claims to be from "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ" (1:1), why not start with Colossians and then systematically dismiss the other Pauline letters that do not conform to its manner of presentation? The truth is, consistency of vocabulary and rigidity of writing style are unrealistic expectations. This is especially true when one’s writings span a number of years, involve a variety of circumstances and topics, and address different audiences and issues. Furthermore, the limited size of the writings in question (a single chapter in some instances!) makes any attempt to assess specific authorial characteristics impracticable.
     In order for these arguments to seem plausible, a key factor that must be completely ignored is the potentiality of literary collaboration. If an author has dictated his message to a capable amanuensis, or has discussed the contents of the composition with influential colleagues, or has partnered with one or more co-authors, the language and style with which the final product is conveyed would likely betray the collaborative influences of more than one person. Of all the reasons offered by hostile critics for questioning the authorial integrity of a biblical text, the hypothetical "writing-style" premise most noticeably represents the friction between theory and reality.
--Kevin L. Moore

Related Posts: Biblical Authorship Part 1, Biblical Authorship Part 2, Biblical Authorship Part 4, Authorship of Ephesians

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