Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Content and Form: Authorship Attribution and Pseudonymity in Ancient Speeches, Letters, Lectures, and Translations -A Rejoinder to Bart Ehrman

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Content and Form: Authorship Attribution and Pseudonymity in Ancient Speeches, Letters, Lectures, and Translations -A Rejoinder to Bart Ehrman

Article excerpt

In Bart Ehrman's recent book on ancient pseudepigraphy, at least three central questions can be distinguished. First, Were pseudepigraphical texts written to deceive and were they regarded as deceptive by their readers? Ehrman gives a positive answer.1 His second question is, "Did forgers think that lying is something not only right, but divinely sanctioned?" (548). Ehrman's answer is again positive, and there can be little doubt, I believe, that this is exactly what some of the ancient sources indicate.

Third, Ehrman asks what kinds of texts were regarded as pseudepigraphical. His answer to this third question is controversial. Ehrman disagrees with my thesis that "a book that was not authored by the person named is not a forgery if its contents can be traced back directly to that person" (31 n. 6). He does not concur with my observation that the ancients distinguished between the wording and the contents of a text and formed their opinion about its authenticity or inauthenticity on the basis of the origin of its contents (87-88, 90, 110, 116, etc.).2 Ehrman's counterthesis is that the decision about a book's authenticity "was not based purely on the question of the contents of a work" (88). A book was regarded as authentic only if it contained the alleged author's "own words" (111). According to ancient standards, a text that did not contain the alleged author's own words was a forgery.

I have already written a short and preliminary reply to Ehrman's counterthesis. 3 In this article I will defend and improve my earlier interpretation of the ancient notion of authorship in much more detail. For this purpose, I will show how fundamental the ancient distinction between content and form was in many ancient explanations of literary authenticity and pseudonymity. It was applied by various ancient authors to all sorts of texts: independent texts that were produced under their authors' control (I.1) or without their authors' control (I.2) as well as embedded texts (II).

I. Content and Form in Independent Texts

1. Independent Texts Produced under Their Authors' Control

The wording of an independent text of an ancient author could be influenced by others in different ways. (a) Speeches could be composed by professional speech writers. (b) Some ancient correspondents employed secretaries who composed their letters in their own style. (c) Historians could authorize language assistants to improve the Greek style of their books.

a. Speeches Composed by Speech Writers

In Rome, political leaders employed ghostwriters not only for their letters but also for their speeches and proclamations. We are particularly well informed about Roman emperors who made use of this kind of assistance.

We learn from Suetonius that, on the one hand, the emperor Nero (54-68 CE) wrote his own verses and did not publish as his own poetry that had been produced by others. On the other hand, Nero was regarded as "first master of the empire to stand in need of borrowed eloquence" (Nero 52 [Rolfe, LCL]). As his speech writer he employed Seneca, whose polished style could hardly go unnoticed by those who listened to Nero's speeches. One of the speeches composed by Seneca was Nero's panegyric of Claudius at his precursor's obsequies. According to Tacitus,

The speech, as the composition of Seneca, exhibited the degree of polish to be expected from that famous man, whose pleasing talent was so well suited to a contemporary audience. (Ann. 13.3 [Jackson, LCL])

Later, in 55 CE,

Nero pledged himself to clemency in a series of speeches, which Seneca, either to attest the exalted qualities of his teaching or to advertise his ingenuity, kept presenting to the public by the lips of the sovereign. (Ann. 13.11 [Jackson, LCL])

As these reports demonstrate, at least the style but probably also parts of the content of Nero's speeches were considered the work of his teacher Seneca.

In another case, Tacitus was not sure if a speech of one of Nero's successors had been composed by Otho himself or by his speech writer (scriptor orationis) but regarded the second option as more likely (Tacitus, Hist. …

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