Sunday, May 13, 2018


According to traditional attribution, at least two (Matthew, John) and arguably three (plus Mark) of the four Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. (I'd say Mark was probably a partial eyewitness.) Yet all four Gospels were written in the third-person, which is often taken to be evidence that they were not by eyewitnesses. John is a partial exception: at a few strategic points in the account, the narrator explicitly identifies himself as a participant. 

Yet there's a literary convention in ancient historiography where an authorial observer adopts the voice of a third-person narrator even when–or especially when–describing events of which he has firsthand knowledge. The technical term for this historiographical convention is illeism. 

Therefore, the use of third-person narration carries no presumption that it wasn't written by an eyewitness. Illeism has certain motivations (see below). 

Hecataeus of Miletus (ca. 550-476 BC) begins his work by identifying himself in the third person…Herodotus (484-425) also conveys his representation of history in the third person…Mole writes that "the effect is double: the naming suggests that Herodotus himself will be in an important figure in his History (as indeed he is); the use of the third person suggests objectivity and detachment.

Thudycides (ca. 460-398 BC) begins his work The Peloponnesian War with the third-person self-reference…Thucydides also presents himself in the third person in order to present himself as a character within the history in which he was a participant…Grant writes that Thucydides "seeks to emphasize his objectivity by writing of himself in the third person, like Julius Caesar". 

Xenophon (ca 430-350 BC), a student of Socrates, records in the Anabasis his march with the Ten Thousand as they travel into and back from Persia in an effort to aid Cyrus. Like Thucydides he refers to himself in the third person when referring to his own participation in events.

In the Hellenistic period, Polybius (ca. 200-118 BC) prefers the use of the third person for self-reference when describing events in which he is a participant. Campbell notes that "as with Thucydides, the effect of narrating Polybius's participation in events in the third person is to distance the author/actor from the narrator and, in so doing, to increase the sense of historical objectivity". 

Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) refers to himself in the third person throughout his work Gallic War…Josephus (AD 37 to ca. 100), in War of the Jews, presents himself as a participant in the historical events conveyed by referring to himself in the third person. R. Elledge, Use of the Third Person for Self-Reference by Jesus and Yahweh: A Study of Illeism in the Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Its Implications (T&T Clark 2017), 17-21. 


  1. Yes, it's very well-known. (Fun fact: Russell Kirk wrote his own autobiography in the third person. At first when one reads it one finds it insufferable, affected, annoying. But eventually one just gets used to it.) It's almost amusing that Bart Ehrman *still* brings up this chestnut of an objection when (if I recall correctly) St. Augustine answered the same thing when he heard it from Faustus back in the 300s.

    1. Lydia mentioned Augustine's response to Faustus. The document provides a lot of valuable information about the authorship attributions of the gospels in antiquity, as I've discussed elsewhere. The section Lydia referred to is 17:4 of Augustine's Reply To Faustus The Manichaean. That's where Augustine responds to Faustus' objection. You can read the objection itself in 17:1.

      Augustine seems to have considered speaking of yourself in the third person so common that he criticizes Faustus for acting as if he's ignorant of the practice: "Faustus can hardly be so ignorant as not to have read or heard that narrators, when speaking of themselves, often use a construction as if speaking of another." (17:4) The fact that Faustus raised the objection isn't much of an argument that referring to yourself in the third person wasn't common, since Faustus also used a lot of other bad arguments. Read the remainder of section 17:1, for example, where Faustus accompanies his objection to Matthew's third-person language with other bad objections. Faustus was unreasonable about a lot of issues. Augustine seems to think Faustus was being dishonest: "It is more probable that Faustus wished to bewilder those more ignorant than himself, in the hope of getting hold on not a few unacquainted with these things." (17:4)

    2. Here's the relevant part of Augustine's work. He cites some examples to illustrate his argument. Though the Pentateuch refers to Moses in the third person, its Mosaic authorship was widely accepted in antiquity. That reflects how familiar the people of the ancient world were with speaking of yourself in the third person. Augustine also notes that the gospels themselves support the practice outside of the context of Matthew's authorship. They have Jesus speaking of himself in the third person. And the fourth gospel alternates between referring to the beloved disciple in the third person without qualification and identifying him as the author.

  2. That's why Bob Dole was such an awesome candidate. He never said a word about his own views on the campaign trail. It was an imposter the whole time.