Failure to Identify the Author -- The Historical Books of the New Testament

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.


Steven Carr said…
Yes, the authors of the Gospels saw themselves as 'comparatively insignificant mediators'

After all, it is not as though they had been disciples.
Leslie said…
I never really thought of ancient literature as having a title. Not that I thought they wouldn't have one (it makes sense to)... I just never really considered that whole issue.

But if it's possible that some of these other writings had their writers identified in the title, is this not possible of others, especially, for example, Luke-Acts?

In these matters of authorship, I have often found the Muratorian fragment of great interest, particularly since it is a rather early cannon. Not only does it suggest that John wrote the gospel by his name, but it even talks about why he supposedly wrote it. Of course, I don't take it all too seriously, but it's intriguing to me all the same.
Layman said…

Yeah, and Sallust and Tacitus were only Senators and Governors of important Roman provinces. Nothing to see here.

But perhaps the New Testament authors of the historical books -- even those who were disciples -- thought that if Moses could write Exodus without identifying himself in the text as the author -- that they could show the same restraint. :)

And Mark and Luke were not among the Twelve, as I am sure you know.
Peter said…
Layman, others,

Do you think Mark (or whoever the author was) wrote himself into the story in 16:5 as a young man so he could claim he knew what happened?
Kevin Rosero said…
I've noticed in myself that when I get something published that has to do with the Bible or Christianity, my attitude toward my own authorship is different than with secular work I've published. With the latter I usually spread the news that I've been published. With the former I only hope that people read it. I'm an amateur photographer, and if I get photos published I like knowing that people connect me with them. If the topic is Christianity, though, I hope that the readers care about the subject rather than caring to make a connection with the author. Next to the things I'm writing about, the author seems like a trivial matter. If readers thought more about the author than the subject matter, then the material has not made any kind of (positive or negative) impact, and it's the impact that matters to me.

Just sharing this as confirmation of what you're saying about the evangelists. I know, first-hand, that you're not just guessing.

And in this task -- imagining how the early Christians felt and worked -- today's Christians have something of an advantage over non-Christians.

There are pure secularists who find the Christian worldview foreign, and do not know what to do with the early Christians except to cast suspicion upon them. I hope they'll consider the possibility that present-day Christians might actually have a leg up on understanding the first Christians, and that it just might be best for Christians and secularists to work together.
Steven Carr said…
Of course, Joseph Smith showed a great deal of restraint by not identifying himself as the author of the Book of Mormon.

It is always useful not to name yourself as the author , especially if you want to avoid awkward questions.
Layman said…

Obtuseness is not a virtue.

Smith claimed to be a translator, not an author. So obviously naming himself as the author would defeat his claimed purpose. Of course, none of the Gospel authors or the author of Acts claimed their writings were mere translations from another language.
Jason Pratt said…

As someone who is a big fan of the Mark-was-the-young-man-at-the-tomb-in-GosMark hypothesis, I wouldn't say he was doing it so that he could claim that he knew what happened. The reference is too brief and without connection to authorship per se. Contrast the presentation to the GosJohn epilogue, where the author is concerned precisely with positioning himself as an important eyewitness in the Jesus passion and resurrection tradition (though still under the authority of the apostles, especially Peter.)

If the young man at the tomb in GosMark is John Mark, then narratively he was certainly setting up a correction to mistaken tradition. (Which, not incidentally, is also what the author is explicitly trying to do in the Johannine epilogue.) This goes a long way toward explaining several peculiar features of GosMark, including the odd pinch-off at the end. It also goes a long way toward explaining numerous interesting overlaps and complementary features between GosMark and GosJohn--I strongly suspect Mark was the redactor for both texts.

(The only serious problem with the theory is that Papias seems to think John Mark is a totally different person from John the Elder; assuming Eusebius correctly reported Papias, of course. I dearly wish we had any surviving copies of Papias' five volume logia-commentary work that he was researching and writing in the 80s. sigh.)

While I don't explicitly identify John Mark with the Beloved Disciple and the young man at the tomb, in my King of Stories harmonization study, I do leave room for the identification to suggest itself. Check the final two entries.

Jason Pratt said…
Epic category error failure, Steven. Instead of dashing off whatever seems the most sceptically ironic thing to say on a moment by moment basis, try thinking out the contexts instead. You'll be a stronger opponent for it.

Joseph Smith routinely identified and promoted himself as the God-inspired translator of a miraculously preserved inspired document that then just as mysteriously disappeared. Not at all the same thing as what the canonical Gospel authors were doing.

Layman said…

My current position on that episode is that we do not have enough information to reach the conclusion that the episode is meant to imply the presence of the author.

It could just as easily be reference to a source. Others conclude that the episode is a way to emphasize who "all" abandoned Jesus with haste and humiliation.

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