Apostolic Scribes

I can’t deal with every objection to 2 Peter’s authenticity all at once (or at least, I’m too lazy to do so at the moment), however I thought I would raise a point about the very different style of 2 Peter and 1 Peter, and use that to make a broader point about the writing of the New Testament. The first epistle which goes under the Petrine name (in the Canon) has very good, smooth Greek, and it reads very clear as a result. The second, however, has very bad Greek, is rather unclear, rarely uses the definite article and, in fact, not only uses vocabulary which doesn’t appear in the first epistle, but uses words which don’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament. For an epistle of only three chapters, it uses such hapax legomena a surprising number of times; 57 in all. Now, the first point to note is that Peter was obviously using scribes, as the following note at the end of the first epistle makes clear:

“With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it. She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark.”
1 Peter 5:12-13

The Greek name transliterated here should read Silvanus, who is likely identical to the ‘Silas’ mentioned in Acts 15:40 and Acts 16:19. Silas (or Silvanus) helped to compose the letter, and as Peter indicates, Silas was already a convert, likely a Greek (given his name and his obvious aptitude in Greek). The Second Epistle doesn’t give any indication of who helped Peter compose it, though one popular opinion is that it was Glaucias who Clement of Alexandria mentions in the following passage:

“Basilides… claims (as they boast) for his master, Glaucias, the interpreter of Peter.”
~Stromata, Book 7, Ch.XVII

Notice that Glaucias is called the interpreter of Peter, meaning he was the one who would help translate or transcribe Peter’s words and teachings. However, the Gospel of Mark was, according to tradition, Peter’s teachings compiled by his son in the faith, Mark. 1 Peter was composed with the help of Silvanus/Silas (depending on how you render the name), and the style of the Gospel of Mark along with 1 Peter are notably different from the style of 2 Peter. The only other ‘interpreter’ of Peter we know about is Glaucias, so many conservative scholars suspect that it was Glaucias who helped Peter compose his last epistle which explains the difference in style. Glaucias may not have been the best scribe, but it isn’t obvious that Peter had much of a choice since, as he indicates in 1 Peter 1:13-15 (referring to the event recounted in John 21:18-19), he is rather close to his death at the time of this writing. He may not have had the luxury of time, or at least the time it would have taken to find another scribe.

Moreover, the argument from a difference in style is often used to differentiate authentically Pauline epistles from those which, according to most scholars, only bear Paul’s name (pseudepigraphically). However, even though Paul was likely more affluent in Greek than Peter, we know that Paul used scribes as well. For example, at the end of the Epistle to the Romans it reads:

“I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.”
~ Romans 16:22

Clearly, then, the epistle to the Romans was written by Paul with the help of a scribe named Tertius, who was also an early convert. Technically, a previous generation of scholars (though, even in their time they were a minority) argued that the Epistle of Romans was composed by Paul in Syriac and only translated by Tertius (See Adam Clarke’s commentary on the Bible for more). These often also argued that Tertius was Silas, and that Silas just had more than one name (which wasn’t entirely uncommon for the time, and while Silas is a Greek name, Tertius is a Latin name). In  Acts 16:19 we find evidence that Silas and Paul were also close. However, I think it is more reasonable to say that Tertius is not the same person as Silas (notice the difference in style between Romans and 1 Peter), and to say that Tertius did not ‘translate’ a letter of Paul, but actually transcribed it (notice how odd Tertius’ greeting would be if he were a translator instead of a transcriber).

Thus, I think arguments from differences in style between epistles are always extremely weak – at most they might justify thinking that a different hand penned the words, but not that a different author composed the letter. Even in the case of St. Paul, scribes were used, and often different scribes. Sometimes Paul even makes a point of telling his readers when he is actually composing the letter with his own hand instead of using a scribe, as he does in 1 Corinthians 16:21, Colossians 4:18 and in 2 Thessalonians 3:17. Granted that a considerable number of scholars think that both Colossians and 2 Thessalonians are of dubious authorship, they are not as hotly contested as the Pastoral Epistles or Ephesians (I would suspect that a majority of scholars would be comfortable accepting the Pauline authorship of Colossians or 2 Thessalonians). Moreover, some of the arguments against Pauline authorship of Colossians or 2 Thessalonians are based on stylistic differences between these and ‘accepted’ letters like Romans, Philippians or 1 Thessalonians. Obviously, though, such arguments aren’t worth anything if Romans, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians et al were composed with the help of transcribers. Arguments for and against Pauline authorship obviously go far beyond notes about differences in writing style, but I will leave such arguments aside for the time being – my point is just to undermine arguments from differences in style.

With the aforementioned considerations in view, I want to raise a more general point about the composition of the New Testament books. It is often noted by scholars like Bart Ehrman that the illiteracy rate of the first century, especially Greek illiteracy among Jews in and around Palestine, makes it entirely implausible to think that the fishermen and tax collectors gathered together as Apostles by Jesus of Nazareth could have had enough education in their backgrounds to ever compose a letter in Greek, much less a Gospel or anything else. However, we know that in the first century, precisely because of the rate of illiteracy among people, those who were educated enough to write would often offer their services for a fee. They would happily compose a letter for you if you were simply willing to pay them. As Christianity expanded it is likely that more of these educated scribes would become Christians, and if they were Christians then they would likely compose a letter or even something larger than a letter for a minimal fee, or perhaps no fee at all. Given such considerations, we would expect for the longer letters of the New Testament to be written later than the shorter letters, a trend which is otherwise without explanation, since it seems unreasonable to think that a Greek convert would want to write more than Paul or Peter (or any of the others) would want to write. This is more or less the pattern we see in the New Testament – the Gospels were clearly written after the Epistles, and Epistles like 1 Thessalonians were written before Romans. Granted, this isn’t a rule without exceptions, (Jude is clearly the shortest epistle, but may not be nearly the earliest), but the general pattern makes sense if we suppose that as Christianity expanded more scribes, like Glaucias, Silas and Tertius were willing to compose lengthier letters as a service to the Apostles (and thus to the whole Church) without incurring an inordinate cost for the Apostles. So, Matthew may have been dictated by Matthew with the help of a scribe who falls entirely into the shadows, the same may be said of John (perhaps this explains some oddities in the Gospel, and maybe it was composed, as some scholars suggest, with the help of Polycarp). In any case, if John also used scribes that may explain the difference in style between the Gospel and the three epistles (something more would need to be said about the Apocalypse). Moreover, it might make sense of the fact that in the very earliest age of the Church letters weren’t commonplace precisely because not only was there a lack of scribes to help compose letters, but a lack of interpreters who could read the letters out loud to the Christian community (and notice that many New Testament letters are written with the conscious intention of being read aloud in a congregation (eg. Revelation 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:27), and thus we would expect more letters to be written as more Christians were able to read such letters out loud for all to hear). There is a point here about how closely tied the Scriptures have always been to the Liturgy, but I’ll leave that point for another time.

We know 1) that the Apostles enlisted the help of scribes in order to compose many or most of their letters, 2) that as Christianity expanded scribes like Tertius, Silas and Glaucias converted and helped the Apostles write lengthier letters or treatises, 3) that the differences in style between one letter and another, therefore, cannot so easily be taken to count against the authorship rather than the transcriber-ship and 4) that it isn’t so unreasonable to think that the Apostles did compose, with the help of scribes, Gospels like Matthew and John (of course Luke was writing for Paul, and Mark for Peter, but both Luke and Mark only take their queues from Paul and Peter respectively; their compositions are clearly ‘their own’ rather than Peter’s or Paul’s).

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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