Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Doodling in the Blank Spaces for Attention

 I saw several references over the last few days to a newly released book, God's Ghostwriters by Candida Moss.  

The author's name struck a chord with me, and sure enough, I'd written about one of her previous books back when these virtual pages were rather must bustling.  That previous work, The Myth of Persecution, made the argument that the "age of persecution" in the Church was a myth. Moss admitted that martyrdoms did happen, but she contended that persecution was not universal and systematic, and that the Romans had their own self consistent reasons for punishing Christians anyway, such that it should really be thought of as prosecution rather than persecution. (The original blog post gets into it in a fair amount of detail and also quotes a number of ancient sources which clearly cut against Moss's argument.)  

To that I'd add a more recent post looking at trends in papal sainthood, which noted that 27 out of the 31 popes before the Edict of Milan were martyred, while another 3 were once on the martyrology but were removed because so little is known of their lives that modern Church scholars questioned whether they were really martyred or not.  With at least 27 out of 31 early bishops of Rome dying for the faith, you can see why the "myth of persecution" got going...

But now Dr. Moss is back in the news with another popular history book. This one seeks to address the role of enslaved scribes in the composition and transmission of the Bible.

This isn't an uninteresting topic. Slavery was widespread in the Roman Empire, and indeed early Christians were mocked as belonging to a religion of slaves and women. In addition to various "servants" in the Gospels who were probably slaves, in Paul's letter of the Colossians we see Paul sending the escaped slave Onesimus back to Philemon with instructions to treat Onesimus as a fellow Christian should.

Further, as Moss points out, the act of writing and transmitting writing in the ancient work involved a lot of manual labor which was often performed by slaves or freedmen.  We think of slavery as being the domain of unskilled work, but there was a whole trade in highly educated Greek slaves in the Roman Empire, slaves who served as the tutors and scribes of the educated class. Even for the decidedly non-aristocratic apostles, use of professional scribes (who were probably slaves or freedman) may well have been how epistles and gospels were actually committed to papyrus.

Moss points to evidence from Paul's own epistles that they were dictated to a scribe. In the Epistle to the Romans, the scribe actually names himself at the end.  "I, Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord." (Rom. 16:22) Moss says that the simple name "Tertius" (which means "third") suggest he was a slave.

But that word "suggests" is where the weakness in this whole enterprise comes in. Moss's project here is to show how enslaved scribes, copyists, and couriers were a major influence on the words of the Bible and their spread throughout the Roman world. She's like to bring this invisible aspect of history into the light.  But because the contribution of slaves is at best hinted at, she basically has to imagine the history she presents, which means that what she conveys is necessarily speculative and influenced by what story she wants to tell.

Was Tertius a slave or a freedman?  What was his relation to Christianity and Paul?  We don't know, other than that he conveys his own greetings to the Christians in Rome as Paul is listing off everyone else who sends greetings.  (To me, this would hint that he knew or was known of by Christians in Rome, though Moss doesn't seem to spend time on this.)  Did Paul's scribes set down exactly what he said or did they polish up his rhetoric with their own flourishes and arguments?  We really don't know and can't know.

Moss believes she's doing a form of justice to these long dead slaves, saying, "Though their work has been erased and mischaracterized, enslaved people are as central to the history of ideas as they are to the history of labor. Any accountable Christian history involves telling a story in which our understanding of the origins of ideas, texts, doctrines, and traditions is interwoven with the stories of the enslaved workers who participated in these projects. Unfree workers should not be relegated to the footnotes of intellectual or religious history; they deserve a place alongside the apostles, emperors, and bishops who helped make the Roman Empire Christian." (page 14)

It seems to me that even with this goal, if one were to be honest, the most one could do would be to lay out what you saw as the gaps and then provide what background information we have about Roman slavery and how it may have fit into the writing and copying of the Bible.  But that wouldn't be the sort of exciting book which would pull in the Amazon seller rankings for Little Brown.

So instead, Moss appears to have decided to write a work which can be most charitably described as speculative, eliding the extent to which the history she is "revealing" is in fact history she is making up.