Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Authorship and Anonymity in the New Testament Writings

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Authorship and Anonymity in the New Testament Writings

Article excerpt

This survey of the NT writings is based on the supposition that consideration of the (possible) authorship of Bible books is hermeneutically significant and productive of an increased understanding of the biblical text.1 This is by no means the agreed basis upon which NT scholars carry on their work, and so I will need to argue for the viability of the approach I will take. Often the effort to identify the biblical author is viewed as an irrelevant concern for the exegete, and the "implied author" is seen as "a more helpful construct for interpretation,"2 or else the traditionally-assigned authorship of the various biblical books is stoutly defended but few or no hermeneutical implications are drawn from the position taken. For any book that is, strictly speaking, anonymous (e.g. the four Gospels, Acts, and Hebrews),3 the attribution of authorship is a paratextual phenomenon as opposed to a textual one. As in the case of book order and the book titles, the attribution of authorship to anonymous texts is an aspect of the biblical paratext because affixing an author's name to a book allows the grouping of texts for the purposes of study, perhaps different from the canonical order(s) of the biblical books (e.g. the Johannine corpus, Luke-Acts), even though these orders have in part been influenced by suppositions about authorship. Attributing authors to otherwise anonymous writings can be viewed as "implied reading instructions" supplied by those responsible for presenting the NT materials in this way.4 In drawing conclusions about who wrote what and preserving these interpretive deductions in the titles applied to the biblical books, early readers of the NT writings provided a guide to subsequent readers.

I.DOES AUTHORSHIP MATTER?

The concept of authorship is a vexed and contested issue today. A mark of recent literary theory and practice has been a shift of focus from author to text and from text to reader (the so-called "three ages of criticism"). The stress on the reader led Roland Barthes to talk of "the death of the author" ("La Mort de l'auteur") and to claim: "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author."5 In other words, to give the reader a greater say over the meaning of a literary work, the privileged position of the author as the maker of meaning had to be abolished. This is not a denial of the empirical fact that every literary work is written by someone (it would be ridiculous to deny that), but an assertion that authorship of a work is hermeneutically irrelevant. The problem with authorship (for Barthes) is that it prevents the endless multiplication of meanings. Severing the connection of text to author opens a text to a boundless variety of interpretations.6 Michel Foucault makes the same point in these words: "The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning."7 Foucault expresses the hope that "the author function" will disappear in the cause of human freedom, though he fears that some new form of constraint will be experienced. On that basis, for those who read Scripture as a revelation of God and his ways (and of what we should be and do in response) there is much to be lost in a loss of the author, for the "author" is "a figure for determinate sense" whereas the "reader" is "a figure for unlimited semiosis."8

As pointed out by Foucault, however, it is difficult to make the author entirely disappear or to abolish the author's privileges.9 True enough, discovering meaning in biblical texts is not strictly dependent on the precise identification of their authors,10 but that does not mean to say that specifying an author does not contribute to meaning. The supplying of an author's name has more than one possible role:11 (1) it shows the interconnection of texts (via common or related authors), enabling texts to be grouped, establishing a relationship between texts (e.g. reciprocal explication, filiation) and suggesting that their viewpoints are compatible and coherent; (2) it may link a work to a particular time, date, culture, and provenance, thus ruling out certain interpretations as impossible; (3) it separates literary works, differentiating a text from and contrasting it with other texts, and so protecting its separate perspective and viewpoint;12 (4) it gives a text "a certain status" as nonephemeral and serious, and the phenomenon of pseudepigraphal works shows that connection to a known author was considered advantageous and even essential; (5) it may help to support the authenticity and accuracy of what is said, by narrowing the historical distance between the events described and date of composition (maybe positing access to eyewitness testimony). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.