Identification of Authors in Ancient Literature

Identification of Authors in Ancient Literature January 14, 2015

A discussion here on this blog brought up the question of whether other ancient works may, like the Gospels, have initially circulated without an author being indicated, with the attribution to the author being added only subsequently to the manuscript tradition.

This led to a blog post by Matthew Ferguson, which made comparisons to the works of Tacitus, which may not have named him as author when first published.

Since the manuscripts that we have of ancient texts are usually much later copies, I wonder how much we know about the titles and attributions of authorship that works carried when they were first circulated. The Gospels may be rare in not having what could be called titles. But are they rare in having the names of their authors added to them only later? Do we have any evidence from ancient authors who describe what one found on typical manuscripts of books?

See also Ferguson’s post about early sources and the historical Jesus, Jonathan Bernier on the authorship of the Gospel of John, and Brant Pitre on Erasmus and the canonicity of the titles of NT works.

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  • rrhersh

    Homer says “Hi!” No, not Homer Simpson. The other one. Well, OK: both of them.

  • Matthew Wade Ferguson

    Hey Dr. McGrath,

    Thanks for linking to my posts! One thing that I think is important to note is that the process of composition and publication was probably not uniform throughout the Roman Empire in the 1st century CE. Sophisticated literary works published in Rome, for example, were publicly recited by the author (or someone on behalf of the author), and were copied by professional book dealers and kept in public libraries. In other parts of the empire and in other genres of literature, the publication process could be considerably less sophisticated and more anonymous.

    In the case of Tacitus, Pliny (6.16;6.20) knew that Tacitus was the author of his Histories before he even published it, and Tacitus was also probably communicating with others in high literary circles besides Pliny. I am not sure whether Tacitus’ name was originally included in early manuscript copies of his Histories (I think it probably was), but I am certain that book dealers and libraries would have identified him as the author of the work. Likewise, when his Histories was first recited in Rome, he would have been known as the author through that is well.

    I think it is safe to say, therefore, that authors who wrote in high literary circles — such as Tacitus, Livy, Plutarch, etc. — would have been well-known as the authors of their works from the beginning of their publication.

    However, there were also lower literary circles and genres of literature in which authorship was less known. For example, in the genre of ancient biography, there were scholarly, historical biographies that were written in high literary circles (e.g. those of Plutarch and Suetonius), and there were other forms of more popular biographies, written for a more general audience, that circulated in lower literary circles. This second kind was far more often anonymous.

    As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 99) explains:

    “Simultaneously with the emergence of a bookish form of biography in the late classical and Hellenistic periods, vital biographic traditions were in progress at an oral or subliterary level, concerning in the first place legendary figures of great popular appeal … In contrast to the Lives treated in the previous chapter, which are the works of distinctive authors and largely remain under authorial control, these are anonymous; and they are ‘open texts’, with regard to origin as well as transmission.”

    I think, therefore, that when we talk about issues of authorship, we need to consider more factors than just the titles or whether an author’s name is included in the text. We also have to consider things like genre of literature, and which literary circles and methods of publications had more authorial control.

    In the case of the Gospels, I think that their situation is more analogous to popular biographies. For example, as Hägg notes, popular biographies operated far more as ‘open texts’ and could thus be subject to expansion, redaction, and adaptation. We see this in the Gospels when Matthew borrows from 80% of the verses in Mark, and Luke borrows from 65% of the verses. Biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius did not write that way. Sophisticated biographies were more concerned with demonstrating authorial research and talent, and thus they did not just lift their material from previous texts. Instead, Plutarch and Suetonius wrote in far more unique styles that were associated with them as individual authors.

    Also, as Ehrman notes, the Gospels were originally written in imitation of the Jewish scriptures in the Septuagint. Those texts were likewise not about demonstrating a particular author’s literary talent, but were anonymous works designed to give a continuous, third person narrative. Likewise, when the Gospels were first recited, I do not think that the recitations were designed to celebrate the authors who had written them. Instead, they were probably recited in church communities anonymously as part of sacred scripture. Furthermore, the Gospels were not sold by professional book dealers and kept in public libraries in the 1st century CE. They would have thus had less editorial provisions for identifying the authors of the texts.

    Another issue that comes up in dealing with authorial traditions is whether an author identifies himself explicitly by name within the text. Herodotus and Thucydides both name themselves within the bodies of their histories. I chose Tacitus for comparing the authorial attribution with the Gospels, because Tacitus, in this case like the Gospels, does not identify himself by name in his historical works. We therefore have to look to other philological criteria that I discuss in the article for identifying him. But the issue of authorship is still more complex than whether the manuscript title names the author or the body of the text does so. We also have to consider the literary context in which the text was produced.

    My thoughts are that the original authors of the Gospels were chosen by “ability.” Church leaders like Theophilus would commission talented and educated members of their community to write Christian texts. However, during later canonical disputes in the 2nd century CE, authorial traditions were favored that conveyed “authority.” I think this is where the disconnect happened with their original authorship. The original authors may not have been particularly authoritative figures, but instead the most talented and educated individuals in their community. However, when determining canon, the literary talents of the author was not the major issue at stake, rather than the authority of the putative author as an apostle or early church figure.

    I am thinking, by the way, of expanding this discussion further when I write my dissertation (though I have not yet settled on a topic or started writing it). I’m planning to write a dissertation that combines Classical and New Testament issues of philology, genre, and 1st-2nd century CE Greco-Roman literature. It will be a little bit like Richard Burridge’s work, but less focused on “proving” that the Gospels belong to a particular literary genre, rather than analyzing them as comparative literature in context. My putative topic would cover issues like authorship, source analysis, literary structure, textual criticism, etc., and would compare the methods used by Classicists when analyzing Pagan texts with the methods used by NT scholars when analyzing Christian texts.

    My thoughts are that the methods of Classics and NT Studies should be completely congruous. We are, after all, both studying the same time period using the same types of evidence and methodologies. Unfortunately, Classics has in many respects been artificially cut away from NT Studies in the way academic departments and curricula are structured at most universities. I am hoping to write a dissertation on a topic that could help heal this rift.

  • arcseconds

    I’d have to say that I’m quite disappointed in Bernier’s article. The argument seems to work just as well for ‘the author of John was Chinese’.

    Surely no-one is arguing that it’s a logical impossibility (or even a nomological impossibility) that an early first-century fisherman could have written John (or could be literate at all). As you, James, are always ready to remind us, history is about probability, not certainty. And I feel Bernier has mentioned this once or twice before, too.

    So I doubt anyone is arguing that the probability is literally 0. Statements like ‘could not have’ should presumably be read as equivalent to “it’s extremely, extremely unlikely, so unlikely that it’s not worth considering” or something like that, just as ‘Jesus existed’ doesn’t mean ‘it’s a modal certainty that Jesus existed; it couldn’t have failed to be the case that he existed and any account to the contrary is literally not meaningful at all’ or anything like that, but rather ‘it’s extremely probable that he did exist, so probable it’s beyond reasonable doubt’ (or something like that).

    Hence the arguments couched in terms of Aristotelean logic are out of place, even if they have some interest in their own right.

    If we thought that the probability of any given 1st century Galilean fisherman had enough literary proficiency to write John was 0.2 (following Bernier’s coin example) then we’d be almost certain that Jesus would have someone capable of writing John amongst his followers, and indeed it’s highly probable one of his fisherman apostles would have this ability. Even if it was 0.01 (following Bernier’s example suggestion of the probability of not doing so being 99%) then that’s still pretty high: there’s still a good chance Jesus would have at least known someone like this, and there’s a 4% chance (1 in 25) that one of the four fisherman apostles were this skilled in Greek.

    With a probability this high, I think the argument really revolves around other matters: the strength of the traditional attribution (and any other arguments for John the Apostle to have written it) versus the argument for late authorship.

    But I don’t think the proponents of this argument think the probability is anywhere near this high. I think they think it’s really low, that it would be extremely unusual for any Galilean fisherman to have this level of Greek, that this sort of education would be typically unattainable and unaffordable (in terms of both time and money) and probably not even particularly desirable (it doesn’t help them fish). So some very unusual circumstances, on this hypothesis, would be necessary for a Galilean fisherman to have had this kind of education. Maybe they were originally a scion of a wealthy, Graeco-Judean family from somewhere like Alexandria, and some odd chain of events saw them end up in Galilee, fishing. We might estimate this to be more one-in-a-million: maybe one or two first-century Galilean fishermen did have this kind of background, but it’s possible none of them did, and unlikely that any of them lived at the right time to meet Jesus, and still more unlikely that they became one of the 12.

    Bernier can still ask ‘how do we know this?’, but surely this is not just an idle assertion or bias. I don’t know the evidence myself, but it’s asserted pretty much everywhere that literacy rates in the ancient world (and in fact in virtually every society prior to the modern age) were pretty low, and the education necessary for complex literary composition rarer still, and this would be almost entirely confined to the wealthy (plus of course while Galilean fishermen might speak a little greek, their native language was Aramaic). Perhaps this is a mistaken assertion, but if it is in fact false then Bernier has an important challenge to received wisdom that goes far beyond the small matter of the authorship of John! Of course, maybe Galilee was an exception here, but again, if proficiency in Greek composition was common among fishermen there, this seems a surprising fact that has implications beyond Gospel authorship.

    Bernier’s right that this is a weak argument in a sense. If we had strong positive evidence that John son of Zebedee did have this background, say by some statement in Acts discussing him writing various treatises, then background probabilities have to be put aside (assuming there’s not strong reasons for doubting this testimony). But we don’t have this, instead according to Acts John is ‘unlearned and ignorant’.

    (And if we had strong positive evidence that he was Chinese, we’d have to put aside the still vastly lower probability that somehow someone from China somehow learned Greek composition and got involved in the 1st century Christian community (probably by emigrating), accept that this had happened (it’s not at all impossible).)

    But we don’t (so far) have such positive evidence, just a late traditional attribution which may well result from confusion of Johns. (And no evidence whatsoever that he was Chinese).

    As there seem to be all sorts of ways the attribution could have come about that don’t involve John son of Zebedee being a highly unusual figure, or Galilee being a highly unusual greek-composition-and-fishing region, I think the argument, such as it is, stands. It’s very extremely unlikely that any 1st century Galilean fisherman had this level of literacy, and baring any strong evidence to say otherwise, we’re left with it being much more likely someone else wrote John.

    • I think his point is simply that we have to assess the matter in terms of what the evidence suggests about who wrote it, and not in terms of the a priori likelihood or unlikelihood of a person in a particular category being likely to write something like this. I’m not sure what the odds were that the first and only Roman Catholic would be elected president of the United States in the 1960s. But I’m sure the odds were not in favor of that. That would not, however, be a valid basis for arguing against John F. Kennedy having been president.

      I think this may be closely related to the issue with Carrier’s approach to the mythicist question. History is full of improbable but natural and possible things.

      • arcseconds

        We can be tolerably sure the author of John wasn’t chinese, can’t we? Can we also not be tolerably sure, for the same sort of reason, he wasn’t a Galilean fisherman?

        How does this fit in with your own view about miracles? You think it’s vastly more probable that miraculous stories have been invented somehow, rather than the miraculous event actually occurred. But surely that’s a matter of a priori background probabilities trumping whatever the evidence suggests?

        • The issue with miracles is that they are viewed as astronomically improbable, even by those who believe they happen, and so there is really no conceivable way that a probabilistic approach can render them probable. I don’t see the odds of an ordinary person being a capable wordsmith to be comparable. Many rabbis also practiced trades, and a distinction needs to be made between a wealthy family involved in the fishing industry, and someone who seeks to make ends meet day after day by catching fish themselves. Unless we know which category Zebedee was in, this detail may not give us much to go on.

          That the Gospel of John was written by a Galilean fisherman of any sort is much more probable than that it was written by someone who was Chinese, is it not?

          The point of this is to acknowledge that, however much one might regard this sort of a priori point as having some legitimacy, it doesn’t actually prove anything much. There are some good reasons for concluding that someone other than John ben Zebedee wrote the work. But if the evidence was strong in favor of his authorship, his connection with fishing would not, in my opinion, be a powerful counterargument.

          • arcseconds

            I agree with all of that for the most part.

            Yes, the probability of the Gospel of John being written by someone who is Chinese is quite a lot lower.

            Although a wealthy Galilean fisherman is still rather unlikely to have Greek composition skills, from what I know about it. Even moderately wealthy people were unlikely to be very literate at all, and Hebrew literacy seems a lot more likely than Greek for such a person (Ferguson argues this point, and gives a reference to a paper looking at how cosmopolitan Galilee was (not very, apparently)).

            However, the gist of Bernier’s response, and to some extent yours, seems to be that background probabilities don’t matter at all. Who cares if it’s 100 to one against, if in fact the author of the Gosepl of John was a fisherman? If we don’t care that it’s 100 to one against, why should we care if it’s 10,000 to one, or a million to one? And if we don’t care about million-to-one chances, why care about quadrillion-to-one ones?

            Surely we do care about these probabilities, and it’s not possible to sequester them into two neat piles of ‘things we’re going to ignore because they’re just a priori background probabilities’ and ‘things we’re going to pay attention to because they’re astronomically improbable’, as there’s a continuum of cases in between.

            Let’s illustrate this with a continuous variable: the height of the apostle John, assuming a normal distribution, a mean height of 154cm and a standard deviation of 10cm (*)

            *) that the apostle John was above average in height — 1 in 2, perhaps only an indirect implication that he was tall would be enough for us to accept that he was probably was above average in height. About half of Jesus’s followers could be expected to be above average.

            *) that the apostle John was over 180cm (~6′) tall — 1 in 200. A remark that he was this tall would probably suffice. Jesus probably had someone this tall among his followers.

            *) that the apostle John was over 2m (~6’7″) tall (about the height of Goliath in early manuscripts) — about 1 in a million (†) Someone this tall would probably be the tallest person in Palestine, and one of the tallest people in the Roman Empire. Jesus probably didn’t even meet anyone this tall, and if he had, they would have been the tallest person he ever met.

            At this point a single reference to him being this tall would, I imagine, be subject to doubt as being an exaggeration, so we would need stronger evidence than that to be convinced, but an independent source about “that tall guy John, 6’7″ one of the followers of Jesus” or something like that might induce us to believe it.

            *) that the apostle John was over 2.9m (~9’7″) tall (about the height of Goliath in later manuscripts). — at this point the normal distribution caclulator with the most precision I found online claps out and just says ‘probablity 0’ (‡) This would make John the tallest person ever by 20cm, so we could estimate it at being somewhere shy of 1 in a hundred billion on the basis of frequency, maybe.

            At this point, I don’t think any amount of textual evidence will convince us. It’s much more likely to be a tall tale than anything else. Maybe independent accounts of him accomplishing something only possible if he were this tall would sway us, but I think even then we might think they were just stories (and perhaps not genuinely independent). So we would probably need a skeleton, or at least a bone (femur, maybe), with an appropriate provenance to convince us.

            Note that being 20cm taller than Robert Wadlow doesn’t seem impossible at all, just extremely unlikely. It doesn’t even really require us updating our understanding of human physiology or anything extreme like that. So I think it’s mostly just the raw unlikihood here that makes us look askance at any conceivable textual evendence (although we might have some concerns as to the ability of a 1st century family to care for someone who probably has endocrine disorders of some kind and probably needs a lot of food…).

            So I conclude from this that background probabilities do demand different levels of specific evidence to overcome them. We’ll make our own inferences to relatively high probability situations happily, we’ll take people’s word for things that are uncommon to rare, start to think ‘maybe there’s another explanation for why they’re saying this apart from “they’re telling it like it is”‘ for things that are very rare, and really want to stick with ‘we need another explanation for this account’ for things that are maybe-once-in-all-of-human-history-at-most.

            (It is worth noting that the alternative explanation, that heights are being exaggerated, is in itself not terribly problematic (happens all the time), which does mean it’s an attractive explanation in this case, and that isn’t always the case, of course. As I’ve remarked before ‘someone made it up’ doesn’t come for free. )

            (*) 154cm is the lower bound of some paper I located for medieval heights, and a bit above some figure I saw quoted for 1st century palestine. 10cm is a modern standard deviation I saw on some webpages. I’m not pretending these numbers are accurate, but they’re not unreasonable for the purpose at hand.

            (†) probably an underestimate, as real heights are not really normally distributed — they have ‘thick tails’ (deviations are most noticeable a long way from the mean). OTOH, 10cm seems high as a standard deviation… anyway, it’s still tall enough to be really quite extremely tall during this period.

            (‡) FWIW, ≥2.35m has a probability of ~1×10^-16, i.e. ‘astronomically low’, although again, thick tails probably means this is a massive underestimate.

      • Paul E.

        Setting aside the issue of whether the a priori likelihood or unlikelihood of a Galilean fisherman writing John is truly the “core” of the argument “against” Zebedean authorship (I have no clue – nor do I have any idea how confident we can be that “John” was a Galilean fisherman, e.g.), and agreeing that the matter should be considered on the basis of evidence assessment, I have a hard time understanding how a priori likelihood or unlikelihood could possibly be considered an illegitimate part of that assessment.

        • Again, to use my analogy, I’m not sure how one would gauge the likelihood of a Roman Catholic becoming president in the 1960s in the US. But once the evidence clearly suggests it has happened, the question of how likely it was ought not to be considered counter-evidence.

          • Paul E.

            Certainly, to address your new analogy, once an event is “proven” to have happened, then the odds against it are irrelevant (something akin to drawing a circle around where an arrow has landed and saying “what are the odds!”). That, of course, was not the point of my post. (And is that the case with the authorship of John? The conclusion that a fisherman son of Zebedee named John who was a disciple of Jesus wrote the Gospel of John is historically analogous to the conclusion that John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, was president of the US in the 1960s?) My post had to do with evidence assessment when arguing “for” or “against” (although even then, I am not entirely comfortable with that terminology) as suggested in Bernier’s post, and in that context I have a hard time understanding how a priori likelihood or unlikelihood can possibly be considered irrelevant.

            Again, if the question is “who wrote John,” then evidence needs to be gathered, assessed and presented, and assessed again. A structure is involved in all stages of that process, whether explicit or implicit, and in all stages, a priori likelihoods or unlikelihoods are involved, again either implicitly or explicitly (sometimes referred to by historians in terms of “inherent” likelihood or unlikelihood). Some of this gets buried within argumentation as, e.g., implicit presumptions (sometimes mis-termed “assumptions”) or allocations of burdens of production or proof, etc., but it’s there nonetheless.

          • arcseconds

            I think you have the heart of it here.

            ‘Inherently unlikely’ or ‘low background probability’ isn’t a convincing argument against evidence that’s already convinced you that the unlikely has occurred.

            But unless you have evidence that’s strong enough to be convincing, you’re left with the fact that whatever-it-is is quite unlikely.

            Bernier perhaps is arguing “but what if I had a really good argument that John son of Zebedee wrote John? Then this argument that it’s unlikely wouldn’t hold water.”

            That’s true, of course, but until such an argument is presented, we’re left with it being unlikely. You can’t exorcise the unlikeliness by waiving around a promissory note.

            (It’s of course possible that Ferguson is wrong about how unlikely it is for a Galilean fisherman to be accomplished at Greek composition, but if so, that also needs to be argued)

          • You can’t exorcise the unlikeliness by waiving around a promissory note.

            That is an excellent line. Rest assured that I will steal it.

          • What I understood Bernier’s point to be is that, because it is the kind of evidence which has no probative value if there is strong evidence that an unlikely person said/did/wrote something, pointing out the unlikelihood of a person connected with fishing writing a text that reflects knowledge of rabbinic tradition is the kind of argument that is best dropped. That doesn’t mean that the argument for John ben Zebedee having written the Gospel is strong, and I didn’t understand Bernier to be suggesting that it is. It means that an argument which doesn’t really demonstrate anything ought to be discarded, and focus placed only on arguments and evidence which could potentially make the case one way or the other.

          • If that is Bernier’s point, then it is just wrong because there is no particular kind of evidence that may be discarded because it loses its probative value when other evidence becomes stronger. The probative value of any kind of evidence diminishes as the strength of any kind of evidence pointing in a different direction increases.

            Imagine a historian in the year 5535 trying to determine whether Barack Obama was the first Black president. If he lacked any other evidence, he might be forced to consider a survey of racial attitudes which showed that the election of a Black president in 2008 was unlikely. However, if he had other evidence, the probative value of the survey might be negligible (although I’m not sure that it would ever be absolutely zero).

            If the probative value of the tradition that John was a fisherman is negligible because evidence pointing in another direction is strong, then the thing to do is to show that its probative value is negligible. Manufacturing a reason to discard it because of the kind of evidence it is is an apologist’s tactic.

          • So you don’t think that your Obama example indicates that the alleged likelihood of something based on abstract considerations isn’t a good guide to what happened in history?

          • If by abstract considerations, you were to include things like the alleged unlikelihood of any first century Jew being capable of imagining a non-conquering messiah, I might agree, however, literacy rates do not strike me as being anywhere near so ephemeral.

            Regarding my example, I am still amazed at the combination of circumstances that it took to elect our first Black president. If a fifty-sixth century historian had nothing to go on other than racial attitudes in 2008 America—i.e., he didn’t know about the near meltdown of the global financial system or the military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan or Republican vice-presidential candidate Caribou Barbie—I think he might be justified in concluding that it was unlikely that Obama had been Black. He would be wrong of course, but the problem would be that the limited evidence available to him pointed in the wrong direction.

            But my quarrel is not with the possibility that some types of evidence might tilt the scales much less than other types. My quarrel is with the idea of discarding evidence in order to avoid putting it on the scales at all. That is the kind of thing that apologists do.

          • You ought to be aware that apologists are every bit as likely to offer as evidence things that should not persuade, as to discard evidence that should persuade. And the question here is which kind of case we are dealing with.

            Literacy rates may or may not be relevant to this, since few ancient authors put the “pen” to the “paper” themselves. The ability of someone to compose the words, which they would dictate to a scribe, is a different sort of question. It is only if you think that someone would have had to be able to read in order to be aware of the interpretative traditions that are incorporated or alluded to, that literacy becomes a relevant consideration.

          • I am not sure that it is at all a different sort of question. As I understand the argument that seems to have convinced most mainstream scholars, dictating a work like the Gospel of John would require most of same compositional and linguistic skills that would be required for the author to write it himself.

            By the way, I am indeed aware that apologists are prone to make weak arguments supported by weak evidence, but I am not inclined to judge them too harshly for that as I find that almost everyone is prone to overestimate the strength of their own conclusions. To my mind, what distinguishes legitimate scholars is their honesty in acknowledging and confronting counter-arguments and counter-evidence rather than trying to sweep them under the rug.

          • You referred to literacy. The skills in question are very different in the ancient world. Paul’s letters indicate that he was adept as a composer of letters, less so when it came to writing in his own hand.

          • The Gospel of John indicates that its author possessed a command of the Greek language as well as compositional skills and rhetorical skills. As I understand the mainstream argument against traditional authorship, it is those skills that indicate a level of education that would be unlikely for a Galilean fisherman. As I understand it, the mainstream argument doesn’t depend on whether he used a scribe to put the words on the papyus or he did so himself.

          • What do you think we know about people involved in the fishing industry in Galilee that would definitively proclude such an individual from knowing Greek at the unsophisticated level we find in John, and which would prevent them, after however many years of studying with a teacher that is considered to have been an excellent storyteller, from becoming competent themselves?

            I think one of the reasons I consider this issue important is that many of these arguments depend on a no-longer-tenable view of Galilee as a rural backwater.

          • Jim

            You make an interesting and important comment, “… depend on a no-longer-tenable view of Galilee as a rural backwater”. I’m nowhere near up to speed on this and if there are others in the same boat, would you consider devoting a blog post on this topic in the near future? (I don’t know if you have covered this in the recent past – I searched your site for “Galilee and rural/backwater” but didn’t get any hits)

          • I’m not sure I’ve ever blogged about this before. I could certainly try to blog about it. In the meantime, if you look up information on the excavations at Sepphoris, and about that city and its characteristics, that would be a good place to start.

          • Jim

            Yeah that’s why I was interested in your comment, especially wrt the old question of why Sepphoris is not mentioned in the gospels as it was only 3-4 miles from Nazareth. I’ll have to look further into some of James Strange’s work on Sepphoris.

          • You know me. I like to stick with the mainstream consensus whenever I can, however, I have observed that NT scholars sometimes exaggerate how much they know. Based on my best recollection of what I have read on the topic, mainstream scholars think they know that it was only the very wealthy who had the freedom to pursue the kind of education that would be required to compose the Gospel of John and that there is no evidence that anyone in the Galilean fisherman class had that kind of wealth.

            Of course, if this is not the case, we would have raise our prior. If we have some evidence of Galilean fishermen having that kind of wealth, we would have to reassess the prior probability. We might also have to do so if we had some evidence of less elite people obtaining the requisite education. I would be surprised if we ever got to the point where general literacy considerations had no impact on the prior,

          • Would you consider Paul to have been very wealthy? Could he have authored the Gospel of John with his economic and employment background? Does the author of John seem to you better educated in Greek, or less educated?

            By the way, I assume you were being sarcastic in your opening statement, right? You don’t stick to the mainstream consensus except when you like it.

          • I lack the expertise to form any opinion about the level of Paul’s Greek skills. That is why I would have no choice but to defer to the consensus of scholars, although I don’t recall ever seeing anyone address that specific question.

            There are certainly a lot of factors that might go into assessing the likelihood that a Galilean fisherman would possess the skills to write the gospel of John and there may well be many reasons why mainstream scholars have assessed a lower probability than they should. If you can convince your peers that a Galilean fisherman is as likely to have written the Gospel of John as anyone else, I would likely accept that the issue is irrelevant to the question of authorship. At present, their argument still makes sense to me.

          • Here’s a list I managed to find of some of the occupations of tannaitic rabbis:

            The sages of the Talmud worked at many diverse occupations. For instance, Hillel was a woodchopper before he became the Nasi (President of the Sanhedrin) and Shammai the Elder was a builder. Abba Chilkiyah was a field laborer; Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai was a businessman for forty years; Abba Shaul was a gravedigger; Abba Chilkiyah was a field worker; Abba Oshiya was a launderer; Rabbi Shimon P’kuli was a cotton dealer; Rabbi Shmuel b. Shilas was a school teacher, Rabbi Meir and Rabi Chananel were scribes; Rabbi Yosi b. Chalafta was a tanner; Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar was a shoemaker; Rabbi Yehoshua b. Chananiah was a blacksmith; Rabbi Safra and Rabbi Dimi of Nehardea were merchants; Rabbi Abba b. Zavina was a tailor; Rabbi Yosef b. Chiya and Rabbi Yannai owned vineyards; Rabbi Huna was a farmer and raised cattle; Rabbi Chisda and Rabbi Papa were beer brewers; Karna was a wine smeller (he determined which wine could be stored and which had to be sold immediately); Rabbi Chiya b. Yosef was in the salt business; Abba Bar Abba, (father of Mar Shmuel) was a silk merchant; and (Mar) Shmuel was a doctor.


          • OK. Do you think that evidence is sufficient to establish that a fisherman is as likely to have written the Gospel of John as anyone else? How likely do you think it is that a Galilean fisherman would have also been a sage? Did sages generally have the kind of command of the Greek language that the author of John demonstrates?

          • It depends a lot on where they lived, and what kind of education they were privileged to have, among other things. Paul’s letters show that some sages had a significantly better command of the Greek language than the author of John demonstrates. The Greek of the Gospel of John is on the whole perfectly acceptable Koine, but it is simple, and doesn’t reflect the level of proficiency that Paul had, to say nothing of the author of Luke-Acts or of Hebrews.

          • So what do you make of the fact that John is described as illiterate in Acts?

          • It is nice to know that you think that Acts has some historically reliable information, even if it is only in carefully chosen snippets that suit your purposes.

            Luke-Acts depicts Jesus as seeming to have a level of scribal literacy that earlier sources suggest that he lacked (see Chris Keith’s work on this). Here, the authorities note that these individuals were uneducated – perhaps in the sense that they had no rabinic training, perhaps meaning that they were not scribally literate. But they were articulating themselves surprisingly well. And so the explanation was noted, that these had been Jesus’ students. How is that a counterargument to one of them having been able to be the source (obviousy not the author in a strict sense, given ch.21) of a work in acceptable but unrefined Greek?

            As I presume you know, I do not think the case for John son of Zebedee having been the author is convincing, and if a John wrote it, it was more likely John the Elder. The point here is whether a generic detail about someone’s background can tell us what they were capable of composing. Perhaps as a useful analogy, the musical “Amazing Grace” that I went to see in Chcago a while back was composed by a former police officer who does not read and write music. In that domain, people seem more aware that scribal skills of reading and writing are distinct from the skills of playing and composing.

          • I am actually far from certain that any reliable historical information can be recovered from Acts, although some of the things recounted might be true. I was just asking you what your thoughts were on the matter because it seems to me that if one is assessing the probability that one of the gospels was actually written by one of the people described in the New Testament, he has to take into account all elements of that description that might be relevant.

            I don’t believe that a generic detail about someone’s background can tell us definitively what literary works they were capable of producing, but I do believe that it might well be able to tell us something about the probability that they were capable of a particular caliber of work. I can well believe that there were first century peasants with natural gifts and a thirst for knowledge who acquired learning far beyond the norm. However, as you have yourself pointed out many times, possibility and/or plausibility do not equal probability. We still have to go with the odds.

            Is it possible that some other person named John who was in some way connected with Jesus or his first followers was in fact responsible for the gospel that bears that name? Sure. Do we have good evidence that this was the case? It doesn’t look like it to me.

          • arcseconds

            Well, if there were evidence of sufficient strength to overcome the fact that it’s prima facie unlikely, then of course the argument on the basis of unlikihood loses out. We could describe this as ‘dropping’ the argument if you like.

            However, I haven’t seen an argument that’s anywhere near that strong. All we have is a late ascription to some John, and a later (I think?) tradition that this is the apostle John. That’s not very strong evidence. Bernier sounds like he has other considerations, but he hasn’t tabled them so far as I know.

            In the face of such very weak considerations, surely the fact that it seems quite an unlikely supposition actually does have merit.

            (Whereas there’s less of an issue in, say, supposing Luke wrote Luke (at least in so far as literary competence goes). )

            And it doesn’t seem to me to be any different in kind from asserting that the author of John was Chinese, or perhaps more ‘realistically’ (in the sense that people actually sometimes assert things like this) Indian, or had some knowledge of Indian philosophy. If we had really strong evidence that the author was Chinese or knew Indian philosophy, then sure, the fact it’s prima facie unlikely can’t stand in the face of that.

            But surely we would require better evidence the more unlikely the suggestion is, no? If someone wants to establish that the author of John was influenced by Indian philosophy, then they’re going to have a bigger uphill struggle than establishing that they were influenced by Plato. The same kind of evidence that might convince us of Platonic influence won’t be sufficient for Indian influence, because a competent Greek writer, especially one writing on philosophico-religious topics, might almost be expected to be familiar with Plato, whereas an Indian connection is proposing something much more unexpected.

          • I still don’t think that asking about a priori probability makes sense in the context of historical study, at least as it is used by apologists such as Christian fundamentalists and mythicists. If we have evidence that something happened, it should not matter how unlikely it is, as long as we are not talking about a truly extreme case. And if we don’t have evidence that something happened, then that ought to be the reason for not concluding that it happened, rather than general improbability.

          • Since history is about what probably happened in the past, how can it possibly not matter how likely it is that something happened?

          • Please don’t misrepresent what I wrote. It absolutely matters how likely it is that something happened. Once we have evidence which makes it likely that something happened, it then matters not at all how likely that event would have been considered in advance of it happening.

          • I wasn’t misrepresenting what you wrote. I was trying to figure out what you meant by “it should not matter how unlikely it is.”

            The problem with what you seem to be saying now is that the way we decide whether “we have evidence which makes it likely that something happened” is by comparing the evidence to the prior probability. The less likely we judge a thing to be a priori, the better the evidence we need in order to conclude that it likely happened. The only justification for discarding the prior probability would be if we judge the evidence to be so strong that it would overcome even the smallest prior.

          • I am not persuaded that that is how historical study works, or should work. It really does not matter how poorly Abraham Lincoln did in previous attempts to engage in politics, and how that influences the prior probability one might calculate of his becoming president. I don’t think anyone would say that their reason for acceping the evidence that Lincoln became president is because that evidence counterbalanced the a priori unlikelihood. Do you think that historians actually do think in those terms? Do you think that they ought to? If so, why?

          • I don’t think anyone would would bother talking the prior probability of Lincoln becoming president either, but it is for the reason I stated above. That is the type of case where the evidence is so overwhelming, that no conceivable prior probability is small enough that it couldn’t be overcome.

            That isn’t what we are talking about here though, is it? What we are talking about here is pretty thin evidence of who actually wrote the gospels. We are talking about traditions that cannot be traced any closer than decades after the events in question.

            In such cases, I have indeed seen historians approach problems that way even though they do not articulate their analysis in terms of prior probabilities. Civil War historians frequently have to deal with incidents that were first reported in somebody’s memoirs several decades after the fact. I can think of several cases where historians have considered the likelihood that the actors in question would have done the things reported given the kinds of things they were generally believed to have done.