Posted by: chuckbumgardner | June 18, 2008

Anonymity of NT Historical Books

Just read an interesting article: Armin D. Baum, “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Romand and Ancient Near Eastern Literature,” Novum Testamentum 50 (2008): 120-42.  Have you ever wondered why Matthew – Acts do not have in the body of the text the author’s name, while the epistles (generally) do?

Baum suggests the authors of the Gospels/Acts remained anonymous in the tradition of OT historical writers who wished to highlight the subject matter over the skill of the author (themselves).  In his own words:

The anonymity of the NT historical books should not be regarded as peculiar to early Christian literature nor should it be interpreted in the context of Greco-Roman historiography.  The striking fact that the NT Gospels and Acts do not mention their authors’ names has its literary counterpart in the anonymity of the OT history books, whereas OT anonymity itself is rooted in the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East.  Just as in the OT, where the authors of books that belonged to the genre of wisdom and prophetic literature were usually named while historical works were written anonymously, only the NT letters and the Apocalypse were published under their authors’ names while the narrative literature of the NT remained anonymous.  The authorial intent of the Gospels’ anonymity can also be deduced from its Ancient Near Eastern and OT background.  Unlike the Greek or Roman historian who, among other things, wanted to earn praise and glory for his literary achievements from both his contemporaries and posterity, the history writer in the Ancient Near East sought to disappear as much as possible behind the material he presented and to become its invisible mouthpiece.  By adopting the stylistic device of anonymity from OT historiography the Evangelists of the NT implied they regarded themselves as comparatively insignificant mediators of a subject matter that deserved the full attention of the readers. (142)

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Responses

  1. Chuck,

    I have just read Baum’s article. I think he is right that the anonymity of the gospels and Acts is a phenomenon that requires an explanation. However, he did not convince me that the authors were anonymous out of modesty or in imitation of the OT practice. It seems to me that Luke-Acts and Mark (at least) were probably written for gentile audiences so Greco-Roman conventions should apply. The prologues in Luke-Acts are also problematic for Baum’s theory, as I think he realizes, since they do not fit the OT model. He only two examples of texts with a prologue that are anonymous, so I am not really convinced.

    Another explanation for the anonymity is that it is protective. The authors wanted people to circulate their documents widely without having to worry about exposing the authors to persecution. The church was persecuted throughout the first century and no-one new when it might become deadly. A text could easily fall into the hands of persecutors, who would be able to use it to identify the ‘ring leaders’ of the church, unless the text was carefully written.

    Whatever the reason for the anonymity, I think the Luke (Lucius?) very deliberately makes it impossible to identify him from the text. He limits the ‘we passages’ to sea voyages so anyone wanting to trace him would not know where to start to make enquiries. He also introduces the ‘we passages’ in the middle of journeys, making it quite ambiguous where he started the journey. Thus we can’t tell from the text whether he came from Antioch, south Galatia, or Troas. Nor can we tell whether he joined the collection delegates in Greece or in Philippi.

    It is a pitty that Baum did not consider the possibility of protective anonymity.

    Your thoughts?

    Richard.

  2. Richard,

    I had not given consideration to the possibility of protective anonymity when it came to the authors of the NT, only regarding those who were referenced therein (or not mentioned at all for their protection, such as Lazarus in the synoptics). After the above post, however, I did read Bauckham’s work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (and I see you are familiar with it), and appreciated Bauckham’s work in this regard.

    I’m not ready to dismiss Baum’s thesis, but I am quite interested in yours. Have you written formally on protective anonymity / Christian renaming? Or could you point me to a key treatment of the subject?

  3. Well, I should have looked first. I see you have indeed written formally on it:

    R. Fellows, ‘Was Titus Timothy?’ JSNT 81 (2001): 33-58

    R. Fellows, ‘Renaming in Paul’s churches: the case of Crispus-Sosthenes revisited’ Tyndale Bulletin 56.2 (2005): 111-130

  4. Chuck,

    I have not published on protective silences in print, but take a look at my web page here:
    http://members.shaw.ca/rfellows/index.htm
    In particular, look at this section:
    http://members.shaw.ca/rfellows/My_Homepage_Files/Page56.html
    Concerning Luke/Lucius, see my discussion here:
    http://members.shaw.ca/rfellows/My_Homepage_Files/Page67.html
    Also relevant to the question of the anonymity of the author of Acts is the fact that Acts DOES mention “Theophilus”. See my discussion of him here:
    http://members.shaw.ca/rfellows/My_Homepage_Files/Page16.html

    If you are interested in renaming, a good place to start would be with Crispus-Sosthenes, as the case is strong, and it provides a possible example of how Luke concealed information from opponents. For stuff on Crispus-Sosthenes, see my web site and/or read my Tyndale Bulletin article.

    All comments welcome.

    Richard.


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