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The Hidden History of Those Who Wrote the Christian Story

Christ handing scrolll of new law to St Peter while looking at St Paul, mid-4th century. Marble Sarcophagus at Vatican Museums. Artist Unknown. Credit - CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images

It is an unlikely success story. A first century religious leader named Jesus was brutally executed as a criminal in first century Jerusalem. His death should have ended the movement. He left behind him a ragtag group of poorly educated Aramaic-speaking fishermen and craftsmen; men with some street smarts who lacked resources, experience, or connections. And yet, tradition insists, this handful of men seeded the religion that would change the world.

The improbability of Christianity’s success has always been part of its rhetorical power; how could this small group of misfits have succeeded against such odds? There is a lengthy intellectual tradition that attempts to explain the expansion, rise, and spread of Christianity from its beginnings in the Galilee to its ‘conquest’ of the Roman Empire. At least part of the answer, though neglected, is simple: The disciples had help.

An overlooked aspect of the famous Road to Damascus story is how dangerous it was. The Apostle Paul’s vision of Christ left him in a perilous situation: newly blind and stranded several miles away from sustenance and shelter. It was only with the assistance of those in his entourage that he made it into the city and avoided an unpleasant death from starvation and dehydration. These helpers are almost invisible in the story, but they are critical to Paul’s success.

The contributions of invisible assistants go much further than their underappreciated but essential roles as local guides and travelling companions. Paul tells us that the letters he wrote to his communities were dictated to others. The name of at least one—Tertius (meaning just “Third”), the coauthor of the Letter to the Romans—sounds distinctly “slavish.” There was nothing exceptional about Paul’s method; dictation to enslaved secretaries and scribes was one of the most common forms of writing in the Roman period. Paul’s secretaries, like those who took dictation from emperors and philosophers, recorded the notes and charters for members of professional clubs and associations, or the scribes helped illiterate people with legal paperwork took down his words and edited them, as their job dictated.

On the frequent occasions where Paul found himself confined underground in damp dark prisons, it was enslaved assistants who were loaned to him by wealthier members of his congregations who brought him sustenance and provided him with access to the outside world. While incarcerated, Paul would not have had the opportunity to review what had been written down for him, but this may not have mattered either. He notes in 2 Corinthians 10:10 that people found him more impressive in writing than in person. Perhaps he has his secretaries to thank for that.

What was true of Paul—the best educated of the Apostles—is true of all early Christian writers and leaders. Most early Christians used secretaries to transcribe and copy their writings. According to an early second century tradition, the Apostle Peter dictated his Gospel to his secretary Mark, a “translator” who had travelled with him helping him communicate with Greek-speakers and navigate local customs. Later sources would elevate Mark’s pedigree to religious aristocracy, but our earliest sources picture him as low status and hints that he was enslaved.

The legend of Peter and Mark might be apocryphal, but it captures a very real ancient dynamic: people who were illiterate, people who had visual impairments, people who suffered from arthritis or gout, and people who were elderly dictated almost everything they wrote. Those of means routinely dictated their opinions and delegated their correspondence to their enslaved workers simply because it was more comfortable. As anyone who recalls taking a handwritten exam knows, writing hurts. Florentius of Valeránica, a tenth century copyist, claimed that “the burden of writing…mists the eyes, it curves the back, it breaks the belly and ribs, [and] it fills the kidneys with pain.” It is because of this that, unlike later enslavers who had reading glasses and printing presses, elite Romans educated enslaved workers to do their paperwork.

The work of these secretaries was not, as some might assume, mindless. The reason we suppose that it was is because ancient enslavers tell us it was. They picture their enslaved workers as mere body parts or tools. As the “hands” or “tongues” of enslavers, literate workers who wrote letters and managed whole households and estates were seen as mere mouthpieces for the will of their enslavers. Even sidestepping the ethically problematic activity of accepting this dehumanizing view of enslaved people, there is another issue: it is historically inaccurate.

Read More: What Jesus Really Said About Heaven and Hell

Ancient secretarial ghostwriting involved an ability to wrangle unwieldy expressions into grammatical compliance, and an adeptness at imitating both established models of elegant writing and the quirks and compositional tells of the dictator. It was imitative, but it was also creative and constructive. Ancient papyri reveal that secretaries improved upon the raw material with which they were provided. Sometimes scribes wrote private jokes into tax documents. In one ancient papyrus fragment I located in Berlin, a secretary inserted enslaved people back into a history text from which they had been erased, squeezing the name of captive engineers between the lines of the manuscript. Perhaps the secretary saw their insertion as a means of resisting power.

Studies of secretarial and clerical work from every other period, from medieval secretaries to mid-twentieth century data processing, shows that low status writers always make powerful and important decisions that affect the final product. In All the Livelong Day her classic study of the meaning of boredom-inducing repetitious work, Barbara Garson writes that an “amazing ingenuity goes into manufacturing goals and satisfactions on jobs where measurable achievement has been all but rationalized out.” Cognitive psychologists would argue that people cannot help but crave agency. It is bad history to dismiss secretaries as unimportant.

In the case of the Bible, even small tweaks and improvements in style have had an outsized impact. For almost two thousand years, readers of the New Testament have agonized over the interpretation of every detail of the Jesus story. Christians have excavated participles as if they were precious relics. Any modification, however small, has affected the course of Christian theology. An excellent secretary or copyist is usually undetectable, but they were always there, actively coauthoring and making decisions that affected the most important collection of books in human history.

The influence of enslaved people on the making of Christianity did not begin and end with inscription. Once an Apostle or Christian author had written their letter, gospel, or treatise, it was trusted unfree couriers like who undertook lengthy journeys to foreign cities and sometime inhospitable audiences that spread the Gospel abroad. Surely, they are as worthy of the title of “missionary” as anyone else. They facilitated connections between the budding congregations of believers, answered questions about the meaning of the texts they had delivered, and laid the groundwork for what would later be called the universal (that is, catholic) church.

It was the editorial eyes and cramping hands of copyists in bookstores and private homes that laboriously reproduced and corrected successive generations of Christian books. They made mistakes, to be sure, but they also made corrections, repaired damaged books, and added insecticide made from cedar oil to preserve the words of the past. Copyists have had a bad rap since the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, whose negative view of scribes owned a great deal to his antisemitism and incipient anti-clericalism, but ancient copyists were not just corrupters of texts. They were curators and guardians of letters.

And when a Pauline letter, a life of Jesus, or an apocalyptic story about the end of the world was read aloud, it was servile readers, whose animated gestures and intonation brought the stories to life in Christian gatherings. That some Christian bishops worried about their delivery of scripture only demonstrates the influence of these readers in the lives of illiterate Christians. In making decisions about emphasis and tone of voice these enslaved people became the first interpreters of scripture and the faces of the Gospel.

The fact of servile collaborators is clear to students of Christian history. The prolific mid-third-century Christian theologian Origen, whose critical editions of the Hebrew Bible and theory of biblical interpretation have been foundational for Christian theology, could not have performed his work without the team of enslaved scribes and calligraphers “gifted” to him by his patron Ambrose. Though the men and women who assisted Origen are anonymous, the names of other literate workers—Fortunatus (Lucky), Onesimus (Useful), Epaphroditus (Charming), Epaphras (Lovely), and Tychicus (Fortunate), to name only a few—are preserved in early Christian texts. Though these names are typically servile, and they performed servile work, their social status is rarely discussed. They are remembered instead, and in keeping with much later apocryphal traditions that sought to elevate them, as volunteers and bishops. Thinking about their perspectives and experiences as marginalized member of society, however, would change how scholars and lay people alike read every part of the New Testament.

The success of the Christian proclamation, therefore, was not just the work and accomplishment of a dozen hand-picked freeborn disciples, but owes as much to the enslaved, often invisible, workers whose names have been erased and whose status has been obscured. At every step in this process—from the inscription of the books of the New Testament, to their movement to other parts of the Mediterranean and beyond, to their copying, and their performance and interpretation in Christian gatherings—enslaved people were present, playing a variety of essential roles not only in the writing of the New Testament but also in the rise of Christianity. In so doing, they have shaped the world we occupy today.

The influence of invisible coauthors and ghostwriters continues in the present. Many authors use ghostwriters, even in cases where the genre involves telling a personal story. It’s rare that, as recently happened with some evangelical pastors, there’s much controversy about the practice. Readers tend not to worry that the shape of a biography doesn’t always come from the “author” or that the convictions of a history-making speech often belonged to someone invisible. Often this is because those unseen contributors are buried under NDAs. Further down the publishing line fact checkers, editors, proof-readers, and editorial managers make critical interventions both for good and bad. They may not be authors, but they do important authorial work. The issue isn’t cooperation: whether in writing or running a business creative collaboration can be a boon to everyone. The problem is when the many hands that make light work and shape history are hidden from view.

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