Ehrman Chapter 4: Agreement But More Nuancing Is Necessary and Crucial

In chapter 4, Ehrman deals with the issue of how pseudonymity was understood in the ancient world. He then works through the ways such practices were seen and how a secretary functioned. (The technical term for this role is an amanuensis).

In chapter 4, Ehrman deals with the issue of how pseudonymity was understood in the ancient world. He then works through the ways such practices were seen and how a secretary functioned. (The technical term for this role is an amanuensis).

Ehrman begins making his claims that the Bible is a very human book in his view. That is not really a surprise since all his writing in the last decade or so has been dedicated to making this argument. He then challenges the idea that pseudonymity was acceptable in the ancient world. In short, for Ehrman it was seen as deceptive, despite the commonly held argument that this was not the case. He cites several scholars who make this argument in the one form or the other. He notes they bring little or no evidence with the position they take to show the category’s acceptability.

He works through four variations in these arguments: (1) the Spirit is seen to be at work, speaking for the person named as author, (2) the tradition is being reactualized, (3) in philosophical schools a disciple could speak for the founder of the school, and (4) secretaries impact the style and content of the work whose roots are in the person named. This last argument is not really the same type of category as the others as in that scenario there is direct contact between the luminary named as author and the work.

Now we have agreement on the key point Ehrman is making. Pseudonymity, where it is genuinely such and is identified, was rejected in the ancient world because it was seen as misleading and dishonest. The incident involving Serapion and the work of the Gospel of Peter shows this vividly. The book went off the shelf (so to speak) when it was determined that it was not from Peter.

A problem in this discussion is that it is more nuanced than the all or nothing authorship option Ehrman defends. Ehrman realizes this and goes into a defense that anytime someone else writes for another we have forgery and deception by ancient standards. However, categories 2 and 3 above are really an appeal that the teaching is sourced in the person named as author and so his name and authority can be appealed to. In that light, if the luminary did not have direct involvement in the text, the claim is that the teaching in one way or another genuinely connects to the named author. It is not a claim to write in that person’s name and then create de novo what is said. It is that the ideas were inspired and sourced ultimately in what the named author taught. This is specially the case with epistles and the theological ideas expressed there, which are different from apocalyptic, where an experience is constructed and made the frame through which ideas and often with additional revelation from God. This is also different from the various Acts he often appeals to (of Peter, Paul and John), since these are really ancient romances that have many legendary features in them describing events tied to these people. Genre matters here. What we have here are letters that were in a sense also rhetorical speeches. The letters were about ideas and where they came from. That is what the attributions dealt with as well.

Ehrman argues against this alternative that the example appealed to from views about the multiple authorship of Isaiah do not work, since the ancients did not see another author in the work (I agree with him here). But his key objection is that the real author cannot justify the claim to be Peter. However, that, in fact, is the very question. The claim is the teaching is Peter’s and the experience appealed to (as with the Transfiguration in 2 Peter) is his as well. It is his voice that is being delivered. I actually do not think this is what is happening in the bulk of these disputed New Testament texts, but I also think that Ehrman’s dismissal of the category as not possible for ancients says a little too much. Their forms of attribution are not ours. What we footnote, they often simply presented. When he dismisses the few examples people make for this intermediate category (and they are not plentiful but they are there—and that is what matters), one senses Ehrman has to argue this way or else his entire claim of the extent of forgery collapses.

This brings us to the secretary argument. It is here that Ehrman’s appeal is peculiar. His defense that secretaries do not involve themselves in these works is that when this took place this was exceptional and an upper class practice only.  I simply ask how does he know this? The reason he connects the practice to the upper class is because the literature we have that relates these texts comes from the upper classes. But if a secretary does this for people with more ancient education rather than less, why would the scribe not do so for people of less education and background, people who would be less likely to be able to write for themselves? What the upper class examples show is even people who could write completely for themselves availed themselves of such services now and again. Part of what made the secretary a scribe like this was not just that they could write and do so clearly, but also compose. One of the works to which Ehrman appeals by Catherine Hezser speaks of such possible use in such settings for people with a merchant or trade background and in the context of administrative type work (pp. 94, 231, 489-492). So the dismissal of this category is also not as straightforward as Ehrman suggests.

Oh, and here is another thing. In many contexts, it was slaves who were trained to become scribes for a house. In other words, the secretary often crossed a social class himself coming out of a humble background.

In sum, we are left with trying to determine when a claim of authorship is really a only that––and in what sense.

On p. 136-137, Ehrman accepts the fact that scribes improved style. If this is so, then we introduce stylistic interference into our assessment of the contents of the letters. This is the very point those who challenge the use of style and statistics are making. Where such activity is going on, then assessing style becomes a problematic category. (By the way, the work Ehrman cites by Richards has been updated. He uses the older version and the newer version has more discussion of evidence).

Witherington says it this way, My view would be there are no forgeries in the NT at all, no pseudonymous documents, but that does not mean that all the documents of the NT meet a modern way of looking at authorship, which is what Bart is applying to the NT documents.  There were definitely composite documents in antiquity named after the most important source for or contributor to that document.  And in addition to that, the varied practices of scribes writing or copying on behalf of others must be taken into account.

All of this makes Ehrman closing gambit suspect. He sees two scenarios. One he says does not have much precedent where someone else writes in another’s (say, Peter’s or Paul’s) name. (Of course that is a caricature, since the claim is Peter or Paul would have discussed the content and interacted over it orally with the secretary he used.) The other scenario, he says, is full of analogies. What he fails to note is that most analogies deal with genres other than epistles. In fact, there may be three scenarios. The third would be either a collaborative effort between the author and secretary or even the use of sources from the author that the secretary or later author used. Where either of these options may have been used, the issue of authorship becomes much more murky.

I note this, even though, in fact, I myself see only a more direct collaboration as possible for some of the New Testament letters. In this chapter and topic what we are considering are the cultural options. There could well be more going on here than Ehrman contends. If that is the case, the entire case Ehrman makes is severely damaged.

A final aside: The issues of sources pointing to the naming of an author may be the type of thing that is going on with Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, where the attribution to Solomon exists because he is one of the primary sources for the material in the book in a book that is a collection of materials in a wisdom genre. Again genre matters here. Ehrman mixes apples and oranges here and ignores how certain genres were constructed and what attribution may mean. Witherington makes this point in more detail in his post on chapter 4.