‘God’s Ghostwriters’ Review: The Bible’s Hidden Contributors

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘The stupid, the lowborn, the gullible; slaves, women, and children.” For the second-century pagan writer Celsus, it was easy to sneer at the adherents of the new Christian faith as a basket of deplorables. Still, insults often contain a grain of truth. In his point-by-point rebuttal of Celsus’ anti-Christian polemic a century or so later, the theologian Origen doesn’t dispute this particular charge. Yes, the lowborn, the uneducated, the marginalized were indeed at the core of the Christian mission: That was the point. Today, most theologians would accept that Celsus was right to foreground the crucial role of women in shaping the early church. In “God’s Ghostwriters,” Candida Moss attempts to make a similar case for the role of enslaved people. It is hard to imagine a reader who wouldn’t find this a thrilling, if at times infuriating, book.

Ms. Moss, a professor of theology at the University of Birmingham, is the author of several spiky and provocative revisionist studies of the early church. In “The Myth of Persecution” (2013), she argues that early Christian martyrdom was an overwhelmingly fictional phenomenon; the magnificent “Divine Bodies” (2019) is an exploration of the concept of bodily resurrection. In “God’s Ghostwriters,” she sets out to recover the contributions made by enslaved men and women to the development of the church in (roughly) the first two centuries after Christ.

In fact, “God’s Ghostwriters” is by far the best account we have of the roles played by enslaved people in supporting the high literary culture of the ancient world more broadly. Famously, Pliny the Elder died in A.D. 79 while composing an eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius; less famously, Ms. Moss conjectures, at least one enslaved shorthand writer must have perished at his side (no self-respecting Roman carried his own notebook). Throughout antiquity, every stage of literary composition, dissemination and reception was facilitated by enslaved letter-carriers, copyists and readers. As Ms. Moss reminds us, even reading a book generally meant listening to an enslaved person, who was himself reading from a scroll copied out by another enslaved person.

“God’s Ghostwriters” makes a more radical and specific claim: that enslaved people were integral to the formation of the New Testament. Ms. Moss’s key concept is that of co-authorship. When an author dictated his or her ideas to an enslaved scribe, the scribe, she argues, was much more than an animate dictaphone: “Their interpretative work,” she argues, “gave shape to the thoughts and words of the speaker and made them an indispensable part of the compositional process.”

In a mundane sense, that is obviously true. The tricky question is how far we can legitimately stretch this idea of giving “shape.” Ms. Moss is admirably keen to engage in a project of “ethical reading that is reparative as it listens to neglected voices . . . to read with erased collaborators and to attend to invisible actors.” The trouble with invisible actors is precisely their invisibility. How can we tell if we are “attending” to the muffled voices of enslaved scribes, or simply imagining them? When does “ethical reading” tip into wishful thinking?

Take the epistles of Paul. Several of his letters (Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, Philemon) were demonstrably written from prison. The vivid narrative of Acts shows that he was imprisoned multiple times—at Philippi, Caesarea and Rome. Many scholars think, for good reasons, that the “prison epistles” were in fact written during a further imprisonment at Ephesus.

Ms. Moss begins by imagining what Paul’s hypothetical Ephesian prison might have been like: “damp, moldy, and bitterly cold . . . almost entirely dark, with the only natural light in the room entering through a small lunate opening close to the ceiling.” How could Paul have written his epistles in this ghastly place? “We might imagine,” Ms. Moss argues, “that someone—perhaps the secretary of one of Paul’s wealthier followers, or perhaps a street-corner scribe hired for the day—squatted next to the window with stylus in hand and wax tablet balanced on his thigh, ready to take dictation.”

All well and good, but once this hypothetical street-corner scribe finished noting down the text of Philippians (say), what then? “He read the letter back to Paul, but there may not have been an opportunity for the prisoner to review the final draft for errors or ambiguities. The secretary, therefore, had considerable influence over the text. . . . Many scribes were used to improving the style of their customers.” Ms. Moss reminds us that Paul himself claimed to be no great shakes as a public speaker: “It is impossible to prove that Paul’s secretaries came up with the turns of phrase, rhetorical flourishes, or intellectual arguments for which the Pauline epistles are known, but there are hints that they might have.”

No one can disprove any link in this fragile chain of hypotheticals. Yes, in theory, Philippians might have been dictated through a prison window to an enslaved scribe—though a spoilsport might note that no moldy dungeons featured in Paul’s imprisonments at Caesarea and Rome: Both were rather sociable and comfortable spells of house arrest. Yes, in theory, an enslaved scribe might have inserted words or phrases or “intellectual arguments” of his own. Yes, after his release from prison, Paul might never have gotten around to removing the enslaved scribe’s surreptitious contributions to the text of Philippians. Or then again . . .

Where I really started fidgeting was when Ms. Moss went in search of specific passages contributed by “might-have” scribes of this kind. Few Pauline images are better known than the haunting passage of 1 Thessalonians 5, which likens the coming of the Day of the Lord to a thief in the night: “Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.” Ms. Moss, quite correctly, notes that night watchmen in antiquity were often enslaved people. How did Paul—or, as Ms. Moss would have it, “Paul and his collaborator”—come up with the beautiful image of the watcher in the night? “Arguably,” she suggests, “the idea comes from an enslaved scribe who themselves may have spent some exhausting nights awake.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal