Opinion: How ‘God’s ghostwriters’ transform our understanding of the Bible

Editor’s Note: Candida Moss is the Edward Cadbury Chair of Theology at the University of Birmingham and former professor at Notre Dame. She is the author of multiple books, most recently, “God’s Ghostwriters: Enslaved Christians and the Making of the Bible.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

The version of Easter you’re likely familiar with probably starts with how the Bible tells the story. According to the Gospel of John, Pontius Pilate was reluctant to condemn Jesus to death. He had to be persuaded that Jesus was a threat to the imperial order before ordering his crucifixion.

Candida Moss - Brian McConkey
Candida Moss - Brian McConkey

In reality, Pilate was a man known for his cultural insensitivity and brutality. It’s unlikely that he would have thought twice about executing a low-status teacher who had caused a stir.

This is not the only part of Pilate’s role in the Easter story that is unhistorical. The Bible says he also ordered that a titulus (a sign) identifying Jesus as “the King of the Jews” in Greek, Hebrew and Latin be affixed to the cross. When Jewish religious leaders asked him to change the sign, he refused. “What I have written, I have written,” Pilate replied.

Pilate, of course, did not write anything at all (although the Greek translation of this passage insists he did). The most powerful Roman in Judea did not paint a trilingual wooden sign himself. It’s highly doubtful that Pilate was able to understand Hebrew, much less write in it. (As a governor who likely hailed from the Italian peninsula, he would be unlikely to have learned Hebrew.) This kind of work, therefore, was both beneath his pay grade and above his head.

How did differing accounts of history wind up in the Bible? Enter the ghostwriters.

As just one of many instances where the person who did the (quite highly skilled) translational and literary work is obscured from our view, engaging others to do one’s book work was one of the most common forms of writing in antiquity. The apostle Paul dictated his letters to secretaries, most of whom — with the exception of one, Tertius (Tertius means “Third” and was a popular name for enslaved workers in antiquity) — remain anonymous.

In Romans 16:22, Tertius identifies himself as the one who “wrote the letter.” The author of the Gospel of Mark was the apostle Peter’s “interpreter.” We can expect that as a translator, Mark helped Peter navigate unfamiliar surroundings and communicate to audiences who only spoke Greek. Translation is always interpretive and, in antiquity, often involved expanding the original ideas.

Even taking the most conservative position on the authorship of the texts of the New Testament, we should assume that illiterate and aging apostles needed assistance, who had neither the education nor the eyeglasses to write in their old age. And so, just like everyone else who was illiterate, experienced vision loss or just preferred not to write by hand themselves, early Christians wrote using the expertise of other, usually enslaved, literate workers. These secretaries and scribes were the ghostwriters behind the Jesus movement — and it was their skill and expertise that helped the Jesus movement spread.

How these ‘ghostwriters’ worked

The reason low-status literate workers are obscured and considered unimportant comes from Roman enslavers, who depict their secretaries as body parts (hands, tongues) or tools (pens). The agricultural writer Varro called them a “speaking type of tool,” while the poet Martial described a shorthand writer as a “hand.” Since we generally don’t trust the judgment of Roman enslavers’ characterization of enslaved people as body parts, perhaps we should not assume that they are correct on their intellectual abilities and contributions either.

Ancient manuscripts reveal that scribes greatly improved the style and words of the people for whom they wrote. In their work, papyrologists Roger Bagnall and Raffaella Cribiore have isolated examples of scribes improving the style of the letter dictated to them by women, for example. Comparative studies of book work across other periods show that lower-status collaborators have always made contributions to and interventions into the work of the author.

As I show in my book, “God’s Ghostwriters: Enslaved Christians and the Marking of the Bible,” ancient dictation was bare bones and idiosyncratic.

"These secretaries and scribes were the ghostwriters behind the Jesus movement — and it was their skill and expertise that helped the Jesus movement spread," writes Candida Moss. - Douglas Sacha/Moment RF/Getty Images
"These secretaries and scribes were the ghostwriters behind the Jesus movement — and it was their skill and expertise that helped the Jesus movement spread," writes Candida Moss. - Douglas Sacha/Moment RF/Getty Images

This is one reason why there are so many pre-modern examples that remain untranslated. The standard shorthand manuals that have survived from antiquity differ from the shorthand found in the margins of ancient manuscripts. It is not guaranteed that any two ancient shorthand writers used the same system. If an ancient secretary condensed the words of an evangelist into symbols during dictation, the same secretary would have to expand them later.

Secretaries weren’t interchangeable and, once the texts were in shorthand, the authors themselves were unlikely to have been able to read the text that they “wrote.” Given that some New Testament texts were allegedly inscribed while Paul was incarcerated, we should not assume that he had an opportunity to review the final draft.

Ancient literate workers were — by necessity and job description — active and involved collaborators in the texts that they produced. Someone might respond that while enslaved and formerly enslaved secretaries and copyists were present, they were still not authors. Perhaps not, but they did authorial work and they made important interventions that have shaped Christian theology.

Why their work still matters

Given how closely people interpret the Bible, there’s no such thing as a small improvement or inconsequential change. What’s at stake in insisting on solitary authors at the expense of their collaborators?

In Christian contexts the answer is clearer. How can anyone be certain that they have the “real” word of God if invisible collaborators are in the mix? This struggle, too, is nothing new and is not unique to the use of low-status collaborators.

Christians have wrestled with disagreements and discrepancies between ancient manuscripts. Historically, the tactic has been to make certain kinds of low-status workers (secretaries) invisible while making others (copyists) take the fall for problems in our sources.

In his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” John Calvin made the apostles secretaries for the Holy Spirit. In this scheme, the real amanuenses are shuffled off-stage only to reappear when it is expedient for the interpreter.

More than one Bible scholar has blamed Tertius for his own inability to understand portions of Romans. In his widely read “Daily Study Bible,” for example, William Barclay speculated that Tertius “struggled to write down” Paul’s words and used that assessment to reorganize the sequence of Romans 16:13–16 on the basis of Tertius’s supposed confusion. Barclay is part of a long tradition that accuses copyists of corrupting the manuscripts.

But what about the contributions they might have made? If the author’s intent matters, then the intentions of enslaved collaborators matter too. While critics will protest that this kind of exploration is speculation, it is. It is rigorously informed speculation about what might have happened while acknowledging the limits of our evidence.

What we know is that Paul and Tertius wrote the Letter to the Romans together and that collaboration moves us into the realm of speculation. Saying that Paul “wrote Romans” when Romans itself claims that it was written by Tertius isn’t just speculative, it’s wrong. Their collaboration matters.

One interpretatively significant example where collaboration was important is Romans 5:1. According to the New Revised Standard Version, the passage reads, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Greek manuscripts from which the standard critical editions of the New Testament are produced offer two primary options for the verb: echōmen (the subjunctive: “let us have”) and echomen (the indicative: “we have”). The difference is a single vowel.

The former reading — which was popular from antiquity onwards and is better attested in the manuscript tradition — encourages the recipients to make peace with one another. The latter is a statement of fact that expresses the condition that followers of Jesus already enjoy.

What is not obvious to modern readers is that these words sounded the same in the first century C.E. They make a substantive difference to our interpretation and how Christians are supposed to respond. In one reading, modern Christians can rest on their laurels. In another, they are called upon to make peace.

Whichever reading was the “original” written text, it would have been a decision on the part of Paul’s secretary — a decision between two identical-sounding options — with the uncertainty in the ancient manuscripts reflecting the auditory interchangeability of the two.

Tertius did not change something or make a mistake as much as he made a decision. That decision shaped the text and its interpretation over the course of nearly two millennia. Collaboration does not have to be about corruption; it can be about cooperation.

For those invested in Christian scripture and its status as a religious text, these secretaries should not be seen as a threat. If someone holds that scripture is divinely inspired, why could secretaries not be recipients of that inspiration as well?

Why are these figures only brought into focus so that they can be blamed for perceived problems in the text? Perhaps instead of worrying about corruption and uncertainty, we should focus on the ethics of obscuring labor and credit.

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