Was the New Testament Written by Slaves?
The Ethics of Writing Scripture
When you think of the people who wrote the New Testament, who comes to mind? Maybe Paul, Mark, Luke, Matthew, John, Peter, and a whole host of other named figures. God used powerful apostolic men to write His Word. What probably doesn’t come to mind are slaves. The New Testament talks about slaves, but it wasn’t written by them—surely?
That depends on what we mean by “written.”
In a recent journal article, Candida Moss, professor of theology & religion at the University of Birmingham, argues that ancient readers would have considered the traditional “scribe” of the Gospel of Mark (i.e. the person who physically wrote the text) to be an enslaved person.1
Early Christian tradition held that Mark was a close associate of the Apostle Peter and helped him write down/translate his memories of Jesus into what is now the Gospel of Mark. In the ancient world, slaves were often employed in the production of texts including transcribing dictation. These servile writers had the ability to preserve literature by memory, being trained to consume, write, perpetuate, and copy texts. Those who knew the early Christian tradition about Mark as Peter’s “scribe” would have understood his role in the Gospel as a servile/enslaved activity. Even the nickname later given to Mark—“stubbyfingered”—suggests that his disproportionate body mirrored the slavishness of his profession.
As Moss argues, “The one who dictates is the power-holder and author, the one who takes dictation is the slave.” (p. 204)
Whether this early Christian tradition can be trusted is besides the point. What is the point is that it pushes us to think about the involvement of slaves in the production of the New Testament more broadly. Prof. Moss is currently working on a book on this very topic, which will be a must read when it is published.
What should we as readers do? There are three things that this knowledge changes for those who study and use these scriptures.
The first thing is that we should not ignore or downplay the central role that enslaved agents had in creating and shaping the New Testament as we know it. For far too long we have read the writing of the New Testament through the ideals of Christian liberty, ignoring that such texts not only endorsed the slavery of the time (e.g. Ephesians 6:5–8; 1 Timothy 6:1–2; 1 Peter 2:18–25) but were a product of it. What are the ethics of using the New Testament as enslaved-literature? In other words, how are we supposed to use the Bible as scripture-borne-out-of-oppression?
The second question is how we might think about the slaves who helped write parts of the New Testament as co-authors and collaborators. While ancient readers would never have considered Peter and Mark to be co-authors, from our perspective we may think differently. Readers of the New Testament have a tendency to elevate the big-name writers like the Evangelists (Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John) or Paul or Peter or James. It’s easy to focus on them. But the reality is they probably had help and that help more likely than not came in the form of a servile scribe. For example, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the actual “scribe” who received Paul’s dictation and wrote his words down was Tertius (Romans 16:22). Why then should Paul get all the credit?
A third question raised by this discussion is the role of enslaved persons in preserving, transmitting, and generating early Christian traditions. Some scholars have worked on tracing “living memories” of early Christianity through the first 3-4 generations after the death of Jesus of Nazareth.2 The transmission of this early “history” is often through well-known figures like John the Elder or Polycarp. But what about the enslaved collaborators who wrote the New Testament, working with some of the movements earliest authors like Paul or Peter? Who knows that the “living memories” of early Christian figures were passed down not just through the elite few but through also those who were considered servile?
The point of all this is not to make readers feel bad that slaves had a large role in the creation of the New Testament. Rather, it is to point out that despite their enslavement, the unseen and often uncredited servile collaborators of these scriptures have, in the New Testament, a profound legacy.
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Why do I use the term “enslaved” sometimes instead of “slave”? Check out this article here for a bit of background: https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/eric-zorn/ct-column-slave-enslaved-language-people-first-debate-zorn-20190906-audknctayrarfijimpz6uk7hvy-story.html