Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Was A Large Percentage Of The New Testament Attributed To The Wrong Author?

Critics of Christianity often suggest that many of the New Testament documents are attributed to somebody other than the actual author. You can find a lot of discussions in online forums, for example, in which critics deny that Christians have any documents written by eyewitnesses of Jesus' pre-resurrection life, and they'll claim that Paul is the only purported resurrection witness from whom we have any writings. Even when a document is said to have been derived from an eyewitness, such as Mark's reliance on Peter in writing the gospel of Mark, critics will often attempt to dismiss or downplay the significance of that eyewitness influence.

A lot can be said in response, but here are several points to begin with:

1. The earliest Christians were highly concerned with eyewitness testimony. An apostle had to be an eyewitness, non-eyewitnesses refer to their reliance on eyewitnesses, etc. (Luke 1:2, John 15:27, Acts 1:21-22, 2:22, 1 Corinthians 9:1, Hebrews 2:3, 2 Peter 1:16, 1 John 1:1-3) Why would a community so concerned with eyewitness testimony not preserve any accounts from eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry, then also fail to preserve any documents those eyewitnesses wrote on other subjects? No appeal can be made to illiteracy, since we don't know that every eyewitness of Jesus' ministry was illiterate, such widespread illiteracy among the eyewitnesses is highly unlikely, and having another person write out a document for you was common in the ancient world, even among the literate. The Christian belief that the early Christians did preserve documents from some eyewitnesses of Jesus' pre-resurrection life, as well as documents from resurrection witnesses other than Paul, is on its face more credible than the skeptical assertion.

2. Eyewitnesses like Paul and James lived until around the middle of the first century. Other apostles and relatives of Jesus are reported to have lived until the late first century, which makes sense from what we know of human lifespans. Disciples of the apostles, such as Clement of Rome and Polycarp, lived until as late as the second half of the second century. At what time would something like 15, 18, or more New Testament documents circulate with false authorship attributions without eyewitnesses like the ones just mentioned noticing it and correcting it? It's possible that a document like Hebrews or Jude may have initially been sent to a relatively small audience, and perhaps some documents escaped the notice of some of the apostles and their disciples, but how likely is it that such a scenario occurred with a large percentage of the New Testament? The gospels, for example, are known to have widely circulated early on and to have been possessed and read early on even by the enemies of Christianity (Aristides, Apology, 2; Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 10; etc.). At least the large majority of the New Testament, including authorship attributions, surely would have been widely noticed by the apostles and their disciples.

3. The ancient world in general and the ancient Christians in particular were aware of the potential of false authorship attribution, and they took steps to avoid it. See Glenn Miller's article here. D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo write:

"Whatever the reason, pseudepigraphic letters among the Jews are extremely rare....Referring both to Christian and non-Christian sources, Donelson goes so far as to say, 'No one ever seems to have accepted a document as religiously and philosophically prescriptive which was known to be forged. I do not know a single example.'...[quoting Philip Carrington] 'There seems to be no evidence at all that such missives [viz. letters] were freely composed in the names of contemporary persons who had recently died.'...so far as the evidence of the Fathers goes, when they explicitly evaluated a work for its authenticity, canonicity and pseudonymity proved mutually exclusive....The onus is on those who uphold the idea that the writing of pseudonymous letters was an accepted practice among the early Christians to produce some evidence for their view. On the contrary, the evidence we have is that every time such a writing could be identified with any certainty, it was rejected. Inevitably, this means that many scholars seek to establish the pseudepigraphical character of a particular document on purely internal grounds...More than half of the New Testament consists of books that do not bear the names of their authors...The onus is on the upholders of theories of pseudonymous authorship to explain why this strong tradition of [internal] anonymity was discarded in favor, not of authors attaching their own names to what they wrote (as Paul did), but of other people's names....If the 'school' mode of transmission [whereby a school of a teacher's followers composed documents in his name] was so ubiquitous and easily understood, why did none of the church fathers who addressed questions of authenticity view it as an appropriate model for their grasp of the New Testament documents?" (An Introduction to the New Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005], pp. 341-342, n. 39 on p. 342, pp. 343-344, 346, 350)

4. As Carson and Moo mention above, "many scholars seek to establish the pseudepigraphical character of a particular document on purely internal grounds". Where's the external evidence for the theories of modern critics? If one group of people can consistently cite a combination of internal and external evidence for their arguments, whereas the other group consistently lacks external evidence and repeatedly relies on an internal case that can reasonably be questioned, which group seems more likely to be more accurately perceiving what happened historically?

5. Internal evidence cited against the traditional New Testament attributions is often weaker than it's made out to be. In the article linked above, Glenn Miller uses the example of variation in his own writing style. He compares the writing in articles he wrote several years earlier to the writing in his latest articles. You can notice some differences. And it was common in the ancient world for people, even literate people, to use secretaries and editors. Commenting on the apostle John, Craig Keener writes:

"Besides any skills John had acquired [which could change at different times in his life], he undoubtedly would have had help; even the most literate normally used scribes, and Josephus’s staff included style editors to improve his Greek. John would have been an unusual writer if he published the work entirely by himself." (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], pp. 101-102)

That's one of the reasons why external evidence is so significant. It's more conclusive than internal evidence. In these disputes over New Testament authorship, who is it who's putting more emphasis on external evidence, and who's putting more emphasis on internal evidence? With a document like the gospel of John, the traditional Christian side of the dispute has a heavy advantage in terms of both internal and external evidence, yet we're asked to reject the traditional document attribution because of much weaker internal evidence.

6. The early Christians acknowledged and discussed disputes over the authorship of books like Hebrews and 2 Peter. Therefore, when the authorship attributions of the large majority of the New Testament books are universally or almost universally accepted by the early Christians, it can't be argued that the early Christians were unwilling to question authorship or were unwilling to publicly discuss disputes over document attribution.

7. The earliest enemies of Christianity raised a large variety of objections to the religion, as we see reflected in the New Testament, Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho, etc. But the sort of widespread denial of authorship attribution that we see among modern critics, in which something like 10, 16, or more authorship attributions are rejected, seems to have been unknown to the earliest critics of Christianity.

8. The fact that some individuals misjudge a document's origins, such as somebody mistakenly thinking that the Epistle Of Barnabas was written by Barnabas, doesn't give us reason to reject other individual or group judgments. Some people have falsely attributed something to George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, for example, but we don't therefore conclude that all or most attributions to those historical figures are therefore in a state of significant doubt. We know that the early churches were highly networked, and we know that they sought information from each other when considering canonical issues. Individual X doesn't necessarily lose much credibility because of a misjudgment made by individual Y, and group judgments are often more reliable than individual judgments. Giving some examples of individuals being wrong about document attribution doesn't give us sufficient reason to conclude that all other individuals were similarly unreliable or even that the individual in question was unreliable in every claim he made. These issues have to be judged case-by-case. Raising doubts by citing the mistakes of a few individuals wouldn't be sufficient to make the case for dismissing something like 10 or 18 books of the New Testament.

9. Some high quality documents credibly attributed to disciples of the apostles, such as First Clement and Polycarp's Letter To The Philippians, were excluded from the canon. It doesn't seem that the early Christians were carelessly accepting any document that had any small amount of credibility. The quality of some of the documents excluded from the canon speaks well for the quality of the books included.

10. The fact that dead men don't write letters isn't a discovery of modern times. The fact that it's suspicious if a letter allegedly written by a particular author doesn't begin circulating until long after his death isn't a discovery of modern times either. If documents like Titus and 2 Peter began to circulate 30 or 60 years or more after their supposed author's death, there probably would have been a large amount of doubt about the document among both the early Christians and their early enemies. False document attribution in the context of early Christianity wouldn't have been as easy as critics often suggest.


  1. Mark Dever once said of Al Mohler that is is very rare for us to get a guy this smart on "our team".

    Thank God we got Jason, too.

  2. One has to wonder why it is so uncommon for smart guys to join your team, if it's the smart choice?