Thursday, October 27, 2016

New Testament Authors, Autographs, and Elitist Romans

An article published in a recent issue of JETS explored the definition of "autograph" as it related to the composition of the New Testament writings and Greco-Roman publication practices;
 "What are the NT Autographs? An Examination of the Doctrine of Inspiration and Inerrancy in Light of Greco-Roman Publication." JETS 59/2 (June 2016): 287-308.
The paper posited that, "in reference to the NT, the 'autograph,' as often discussed in biblical inerrancy doctrinal statements, should be defined as the completed authorial work which was released by the author for circulation and copying, not earlier draft versions or layers of composition."
The article seemed to garner a positive response from readers as well as questions regarding the applicability of the thesis to the Pauline corpus. Another line of feedback questioned the validity of applying the composition practices of Roman elites with the authors of the New Testament documents, who may have been from humble uneducated backgrounds.

Other than Paul (and possibly Luke), we have very little knowledge of the social status and education levels of the authors of the New Testament writings. Despite this, much has been made of the statement in Acts 4:13;
"Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus."
This verse has often been used to show that Peter and John could not read or write (whether in Greek or Aramaic), were from the lower level of the social strata, and thus, could not have authored any of the New Testament writings (Ehrman, 75). However, this appears to be going too far with this statement in Acts. The context of the passage has to do with a meeting of the Sanhedrin examining the teaching of Peter and John with regard to Jesus. Because ἀγράμματοί (uneducated) is used along with ἰδιῶται (laymen) it seems more likely that the Sanhedrin were astonished because they thought (or knew, see below) that Peter and John had no legal training in biblical interpretation and rabbinical law and did not hold an official position in the Temple. Similar statements were made in John 7:15 with regard to Jesus; "How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?" The astonishment is expressed over Jesus showing such learning in biblical interpretation and his followers addressing him as 'Rabbi' when he had no formal rabbinical training. It seems then that Acts 4:13 has little to do with Peter and John's ability to read and write and their education in general (Bruce, 102;cf. Kraus, 439-440).

In contrast, it may be that some of the disciples, namely John, walked in the elite social strata of Judean society. If we take the statements in the Gospels at face value (we have very little else to go on), then it may be that John came from an elite family. If one compares Matthew 27:56, Mark 16:1, and John 19:25, it may be that John's mother was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke indicates that Mary was related (ἡ συγγενίς) to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:36). Elizabeth was from the Aaronic line and was married to Zacharias, a priest (Luke 1:5). Therefore, the apostle John may have been distantly related to the Priestly family through his mother, even though John himself did not hold an office in the Temple worship.

Further clues indicate that John may have moved in the elite class of Judean society. The author of the Gospel of John (if taken at face-value, the apostle John) is known for referencing himself anonymously (compare John 1:35-40) and is most likely the anonymous disciple mentioned in John 18:15;
"Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest"
John is known well enough by the High Priest Caiaphas that he is allowed to enter into the "elite" areas of the Temple complex. If John was known to the High Priest, then this might shed some light on Acts 4:13 because the Priest overseeing the Sanhedrin would have known personally that John had received no formal rabbinical or legal training and therefore "that they were uneducated, common men."

Coupled with this, if one looks at the use of ἀγράμματοί in the papyri, then it becomes clear that being ἀγράμματοί does not automatically classify one as coming from the lower strata of society. A well know example comes from the Fayum in Greco-Roman Egypt. Petaus (2nd century AD), even though he was ἀγράμματοί this did not prevent him from operating in the upper strata of society and holding a position of status as a village scribe. One had to own a great deal of property to be considered for the position of village scribe (Kraus, 443: Harris, 278-279).

Of course, none of the above is meant as an apologetic defending traditional authorship of the Gospel of John or the veracity of the New Testament. Rather, it is only meant to emphasize the uncertainty of the education levels of the apostles and followers of Jesus. It is a mistake to assume that all of the apostles and disciples (who later authored New Testament writings) were uneducated and illiterate, and/or from the lower social strata. Of the authors of the New Testament writings, John at least may have been a member of the Judean elite society and therefore may have shared in similar Greco-Roman attitudes towards literary composition discussed in the JETS article. Explicit examples of John's careful consideration could be gleaned from his writings, but will have to wait for another time.

Bruce, F. F. Commentary on the Book of Acts: The English Translation with Introduction, Exposition and Notes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.

Ehrman, Bart D. Forged: Writing in the Name of God : Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. New York: HarperOne, 2012.

Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Kraus, Thomas J. "'Uneducated', 'Ignorant', or Even 'Illiterate'? Aspects and Background for an Understanding of AΓPAMMATOI (and IΔIΩTAI) in Acts 4.13." NTS 43.3 (1999); 434-449.

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