Sunday, 1 April 2012

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

Assumption # 5: "Ancient eastern authors were reclusive individualists, solely involved in the production of their works with no outside influences or contributors."
Paul by Rembrandt

     If a writer’s unique literary habits can be identified, a seemingly objective standard is then available to discern between authentic and spurious works produced in his name. However, the entire focus of this popular analysis is limited to the individual author, while no consideration is given to any number of significant external factors. Were biblical writers as solitary and confined as current critical scholars seem to imagine?
     The concepts of solidarity and individuality may be relevant to modern literary cultures and westernized thinking but are viewed quite differently in the context of oral cultures and ancient eastern practices. The more common procedure in the ancient east was to orally dictate information to a skilled amanuensis who was then responsible for putting it into writing. Note, for instance, that Baruch wrote for Jeremiah (Jeremiah 36:1-32), Tertius wrote for Paul (Romans 16:22), and Silvanus wrote for Peter (1 Peter 5:12). The intriguing question is, how much compositional freedom was the trusted scribe allowed in the writing process? While a definitive answer is beyond determination and would no doubt have varied from one situation to the next, the reality of tandem compositions makes the appraisal of an author’s literary features much more tentative if not contestable, particularly when more than one secretary may have been involved. 
     Beyond the secretarial component and of even greater consequence is the issue of joint-authorship. Consider, for example, the book of Psalms, which is universally understood as the product of multiple authors. David, Asaph, Korah’s sons, Solomon, Moses, Heman, Ethan, and various anonymous writers all contributed to this collection of poetic compositions. Would it then be legitimate to isolate the authorial peculiarities of only one of these contributors and then critique the entire volume with this restrictive focus? In light of conventional literary procedures in the historical-cultural settings of biblical writings, how should the compositional features of a given text be evaluated? The idea of a lone author producing his work in solitary confinement is a fairly modern, westernized concept that does not fit the ancient eastern/biblical model.
     Probably more than anyone else the apostle Paul has been victimized by this anachronistic misrepresentation. The real historical Paul comprehended, executed, and communicated his mission in the context of a community of fellow believers and co-laborers. Not only is this demonstrated in the Acts narrative, where Paul is rarely depicted alone, but even in his own writings we find copious references to co-senders and co-workers, prolific use of exclusive "we" terminology, and allusions to collaborative ministry. He was undoubtedly an influential leading figure in his group of associates, but "Paul the individualist" is an unfounded misconception. Collective responsibility appears to have been the norm. To speak of "Pauline theology," for example, fails to effectively appreciate that the theology of Paul was something mutually formulated and shared within a cooperative environment. Far from being a lone maverick, the apostle understood his calling, his message, and his work as an integrated part of a whole, never discounting the indispensable partnership of trusted companions.
     Seeing that most of the New Testament documents were written in letter-form, a unique insight into the production of a first-century apostolic manuscript is provided by the letter embedded in Acts 15:23-29. The context reveals that after a group discussion and consensus among the Jerusalem apostles and elders under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (v. 28), a letter was commissioned to convey their decision. Two of their number, Judas-Barsabbas and Silas, served as amanuenses (note v. 23, graphō = to "write"). These two men were further authorized to verbally communicate the contents of the letter to the recipients (v. 27). Upon its completion, Judas and Silas delivered the letter to the Antioch congregation by publicly reading it, while they (as prophets) also imparted additional instruction (vv. 30-32).
     In view of current critical analysis, how would one go about assessing the language and style with which the contents of this apostolic missive were conveyed, and to which of the multiple contributors would the whole enterprise be ascribed? Even though a negative case against the traditional authorship of a number of biblical books has been carefully constructed by generations of liberal scholars, the foundational premise is invalid. The presumption of an author’s virtual independence is contrary to what the evidence supports. Notwithstanding the prophetic instrumentality and influence of a prominent figure, the legitimacy of any objection that focuses on the literary features of a solitary writer must therefore be called into question.
--Kevin L. Moore

Related PostsAuthorship of Ephesians, Biblical Authorship Part 1, Biblical Authorship Part 2, Biblical Authorship Part 3

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