Historians lose one
aspect of their ability to evaluate the reliability of information in texts
that are written anonymously. Where the identity of the author is in doubt, the
information recorded in the text is likewise at the very least suspect. Here is
a hypothetical example. A document emerges from the shadows of history
purporting to be a Civil War era document about the exploits of a certain private
from the ranks (Pvt Christopher Smith) in the Battle of Gettysburg, but no
trace of Smith can be found in official documents. The report is undated and
turns up some 150 years after the war. How reliable is the report given in the
anonymously written document?
My example bears a certain similarity to New Testament
(NT) literature. Some of the NT texts are anonymously written, and some of the
texts are regarded as pseudonymous by critical scholarship; that is, they are not
written by the person claiming to be the author. What follows is a survey of
the state of critical studies as to the authorship of NT texts, virtually all
of which, except for a few fragments, date from 200 and later. In critical
scholarship the following texts are anonymous in the sense that an author is
not named in the body of the document: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts,
Hebrews, and the Johannine letters (1, 2, 3, John). Their subscript titles are
traditional and secondary, and represent the view of the early church. The
following texts are thought by most critical scholars to be pseudonymous: the
Pastoral letters (1, 2 Timothy and Titus), 1, 2 Peter, James, and Jude.
Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians are also thought to be pseudonymous.
These texts are called “Deutero-Pauline”; they are from the Pauline school (likely
written by anonymous disciples of Paul). The texts whose authorship appears
certain are seven letters by Paul: 1 Thessalonians, Romans, 1, 2 Corinthians,
Galatians, Philippians, Philemon. The author of the Apocalypse, named John, is
an otherwise unknown “former witness to Jesus among the churches of Asia Minor
Not everyone agrees with the way the literature has been categorized
above, however. There are even differences between critical scholars on the
authorship of the texts. Some critical scholars for example challenge the
Pauline authorship of 1 Thessalonians, which is thought by most critical
scholars to be the earliest Pauline writing. Critical scholars decide the issue
of authorship based on historical evidence alone and they will set out their
reasons for critiquing the authorship of a document so that their rationale can
be critiqued by other scholars.
With regard to my hypothetical example above had the
author of the anonymous document claimed to be one Edson Williams, 1st
Sgt of Company A of the 56th Pennsylvania, a volunteer Infantry
Regiment of the First Corps of the Army of the Potamic, the information in the
anonymous document would have warranted further research, even though there
were no Smiths listed on the Unit Roster.2 The 1st Sgt is
expected to know what happened with soldiers under his command would be the
rationale for further study.3 This is one reason that the writers of
pseudonymous documents of the NT are thought to have used names of known
members of the Christian movement to attach to their documents. For example,
the name of Paul may have been added to Colossians for this very reason. What
is at issue for the modern historian when the authorship of Colossians is
attributed to Paul, if it is not written by Paul? It is this: the false
ascription attributes the ideas of the pseudonymous author to the known
historical figure and invalidates, or at least renders suspect, the historical accuracy
of any description of Paul based on the use of Colossians.
The disinterested historian ideally is interested in the
Bible only as a library of texts gathered from the stream of Western
civilization and in arranging them with respect to their historical sequence in
order to reconstruct the sequence of historical events and thought. The church
is interested in this goal as well but only up to a certain point. The
overriding interest of the church is in protecting the Bible as an iconic
object that communicates God’s eternal “Word,” for the purpose of using the
Bible as an authoritative source for faith and morals. Given the Church’s need
for a firm basis for faith and morals, anonymous and pseudonymous texts become
a difficulty. What for the disinterested historian is an inconvenient problem
becomes for the church a serious problem.
authority of the Bible resides not in the collection of texts themselves but in
its authors, that is, in “the authority of persons who being presumed to know
the truth communicate it to others.”4 If that is the case, knowing the
identity of the authors of the Biblical texts becomes essential in order to support
claims made for the Bible’s authority.
Early Christians shared this idea. The anonymous author
of Hebrews opined: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various
ways by the prophets…“ (Heb 1:1). And in 2 Pet 1:20-21 we read: “No prophecy of
scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation because no prophecy ever came
by human will but men and women moved by the Holy spirit spoke from God.” (New
Revised Standard). The authority of the prophet’s experience with God was in
turn passed to their written texts as well: “All scripture is inspired by God…“
(2 Tim 3:16). But the authority of the prophet’s experience undergirded the
authority of the written text for the early Christians.
Missouri State University
1See the discussion in W. G. Kϋmmel, Introduction to the New
Testament (17th revised ed.; Abingdon: SCM Press, 1975), 472.
3Of course, if the author made a
specific claim to be Edson Williams, 1st Sgt of Company A, it might
be a fraudulent claim and the document could still be pseudonymous.
4The quotation is from C. H. Dodd; see the discussion in Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 303-305.