A few weeks ago I did a post discussing the characteristics of ancient historiography displayed by the Gospel of John. In response, a commenter asked, “Which other ancient histories never name the author?” As pointed out by another commenter, this question was irrelevant to the point of the post because I did not claim that the Gospel of John was an example of ancient historiography, only that it was influenced by that genre in important aspects. Nevertheless, I provided four examples of Greco-Roman historiography that did not seem to identify the author in the text and asked the commenter whether he could offer any authority indicating that ancient historiography always identified the author in the text. He failed to respond.
The Failure to Identify the Author in the Text
A few weeks later, it was with great interest that I ran across an article on this very subject during one of my visits to the local seminary to check out the periodicals. In the latest issue of Novum Testamentum, I found "The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books" by A.D. Baum, Novum Testamentum 50 (2008) 120-142. Professor Baum notes that none of the “historical books” in the New Testament -- the Gospels plus Acts -- identify the author in the text. He then examined Greco-Roman historiography and concluded that Greco-Roman historians almost always identify themselves in their text (usually in the prologue) and did so because of their desire for personal fame:
Only secretaries and copyists worked anonymously. Their names are mentioned only in exceptional cases. Greco-Roman historians mention their names even if the amount of work they invested in collecting their material and adorning it stylistically was rather limited.... The fact that almost all Greek and Roman historians published their works under their names is probably due to their distinctive longing for fame.
Id. at 132.
Greco-Roman historiography was not the only game in town, however. Professor Baum points out that historical writings from the Ancient Near East tended not to mention their author. The most prominent and relevant examples are the Old Testament historical writings. “In contrast to the works of Greco-Roman historiography, the Old Testament historical books are anonymous without exception.” Baum, op. cit., page 127. Examples include Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles. This practice carried forward into later times as 1 and 2 Maccabees attest. These Maccabees writings are particularly notable as they are otherwise indebted to Greco-Roman historiographical practices.
Other Ancient Near East historical writings also were “anonymous.” “Acadian literature was for the most part handed down anonymously as well. In Mesopotamia, historical epics were generally published without their author's names. And Egyptian literature was mostly written anonymously as well... Writings on the deeds of the Pharaohs  were usually written by unknown authors.” Baum, op. cit., page 128.
Focus on Personal Fame or Subject Matter?
Why the difference? According to Professor Baum, the focus of the ANE authors -- especially of the Old Testament historical books -- was their subject matter, rather than their own fame. This carried over to the New Testament historical books. “By adopting the stylistic device of the anonymity from Old Testament historiography the Evangelists of the New Testament implied that they regarded themselves as comparatively insignificant mediators of a subject matter that deserved the full attention of the readers.” Baum, op. cit., page 142.
This is an invaluable point of comparison by Professor Baum. In my article on Acts, I point out that the author of Luke-Acts likely saw himself as continuing the story of scripture, as had been recorded in the Old Testament historical books. The same thought had likely occurred to other New Testament authors. Although scholars often look for the influence of the Old Testament on the New, they have given insufficient attention to that influence when it comes to issue of genre, in my opinion.
I would add that there may have been another reason for New Testament anonymity. As Richard Bauckham points out in a different context, becoming known as an advancer of Christian ideas was not without its risk. See Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. In other words, it might have posed more problems than benefits for the author of the Gospel of Matthew, for example, to gain fame and notoriety as the author of evangelistic texts for an outlawed religion.
Exceptions in Greco-Roman Historiography
But going back to the beginning of my post, what about those four examples of Greco-Roman historiography that I had listed for my skeptical commenter? Do they show that the practice of self-identification was not as widespread as Professor Baum concludes? The four are Sallust's The Jugurthine War and The Conspiracy of Catiline, and Tacitus' Agricola and Germania.
I emailed Professor Baum to ask him about these examples. He was quite pleasant and confirmed that the four historical works I mentioned in fact did not identify their authors in the prologue or anywhere else in the text. I find this a significant point. Professor Baum had identified at least one other Greco-Roman work that did not self-identify, Anabisis by Arrian. That brings the count to at least five. Notably, the works of Sallust and Tacitus are not aberrations. Sallust wrote in the first century before Christ and his works were “much admired throughout classical antiquity.” Sallust, The Jugurthine War/The Conspiracy of Catiline, page 8. Tacitus is considered the preeminent Roman historian of his time. He wrote in the late first and early second centuries. Both Sallust and Tacitus were leading Romans of their day, having served in the Senate and as Governors of Roman provinces. Their failure to self identify in the texts of significant historical writings calls into question the pervasiveness of this practice.
The breadth of Professor Baum's survey of the relevant literature is unclear. He includes two works by Josephus, and Polybius, Callimorphus, and Justin in a chart. Elsewhere in his article he refers to Miletos, Thucydides, some Jewish authors who wrote according to Greco-Roman historiography conventions, and biographers such as Eurpides, Isocrates, Lucian, Philo, Plutarch, and Suetonius. But opposed to these are Arrian, Tacitus, and Sallust. That is not an insignificant minority. I would also add that it is almost blind luck that I stumbled across Tacitus and Sallust. I am attempting to survey Greco-Roman historiography, but given work and family obligations it is slow going. I had just happened to have read these works when I was questioned about ancient historiography and anonymity. This means that it is possible that there are additional examples of mainstream Greco-Roman historians who did not self identify.
In his email, Professor Baum said his “first guess” would be that Sallust and Tacitus might have identified themselves in the title of their book. This is possible, of course, but not confirmed. And I am reluctant to treat the two practices – identifying one's self in the text versus on a tag in the title – as materially similar for present purposes. Moreover, it is also possible that one or more of the New Testament authors of the historical books were identified in the title or on a tag. In his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, E. Earle Ellis concluded that this likely was the case with Luke-Acts. “Before placing a book-roll in the library it would be tagged for ready reference with a title and the author’s name. In all likelihood Luke’s volumes were so tagged by Theophilus since this was the common custom.” Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, page 65.
The New Testament historical books' failure to identify their authors is notable and deserving of more attention than it has received. Such so-called anonymity was apparently the rule for Old Testament historical books, as well as common practice among other ANE historical authors, which were an important influence on the New Testament authors. But the suggested near uniformity of Greco-Roman historiography in identifying the author in the text may have been overstated. There are important exceptions, and may even be more, pending additional research. Accordingly, the New Testament historical books' failure to explicitly mention their authors does not count against their being of the genre of ancient historiography generally, and is not evidence against the influence of Greco-Roman historiography.