DH 4: Ancient concepts of Authorship

DH 4: Ancient concepts of Authorship April 5, 2014

Most biblical books are anonymous—no authorship is asserted by the text itself.  The major exceptions are the prophetic books, all of which explicitly name the prophet as their author (Isaiah 1:1; Jeremiah 1:1; Ezekiel 1:3; Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1; Amos 1:1; Habakkuk 1:1; Zephaniah 1:1; Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 1:1; Malachi 1:1; Note that many scholars claim these passages are “colophons” added by later editors or copyists as a type of title or introduction to the book.)  Nonetheless, even in these “authored” prophetic books, it is likely that the prophetic oracles were first written down by disciples.  This is most clearly evident in Jeremiah, where his scribe and disciple Baruch is explicitly said to have written down Jeremiah’s teachings and prophecies from Jeremiah’s dictation (Jeremiah 36:4, 18, 26-27, 32, 45:1).  So who is the author of the book of Jeremiah?  The prophet who spoke the words, or his scribe who wrote them down?  In biblical cultures, the act of physically writing a text does not imply authorship.  This is quite different from the modern view of authorship, where being the author primarily means writing a text.  This distinction is primarily due to the transition in modernity from oral to literate culture, and from books as rare and expensive documents in antiquity, to ubiquitous availability of books in modernity.

The divergence between ancient and modern concepts of authorship is clear from the origin of a number of the most famous books of antiquity.

• Socrates wrote nothing during his lifetime; his teachings were recorded by his disciples Plato and Xenophon.

• Jesus apparently wrote nothing; his teachings were transmitted orally among his disciples, and recorded in the gospels.

• Confucius’ Analects consists of his oral sayings as recorded by his disciples.

• The Buddha likewise never wrote any of his own teachings; they were transmitted orally, and first recorded in writing only centuries after his death.

• Qur’an was transmitted orally for a generation before finally being written down.

• The Enneads, the book of the famous Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus, was actually “written” by his disciple Porphyry.

• The two greatest Jewish rabbis of the first century, Hillel and Shammai, left no written texts of their teachings, which are extensively cited through oral tradition in later rabbinic books.

• Apollonius of Tyana’s life and teachings are first recorded by his distant disciple Philostratus nearly a century and a half after his death.

• Pythagoras’ teachings were all passed on by oral tradition, recorded centuries later by his disciples, often using the phrase “he [Pythagoras] himself said” to reflect the original author of the sayings.

From the ancient perspective, the originator of these teachings is the real author, not the disciples who finally reduced them to writing, and certainly not an editor or redactor who fiddled around with the scrolls.

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