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 (1:9)…”1
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.
The 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.