In a poorly-lit, cluttered room, four men (and an angel, an ox, a lion, and an eagle—oh, my!) sit and recline in cramped quarters. Disheveled, pallid, hunched over books—codices, not scrolls, of course—all four are absorbed in the same activity together: writing the Gospels. Their labor forms the subject of a popular art tableau from late antiquity on. Whether portrayed together or separately, the four Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are always writing, each working tirelessly on the Gospel that bears his name.

But art isn’t always an accurate representation of reality, as biblical scholar Candida Moss reminds us in her new book, God’s Ghostwriters: Enslaved Christians and the Making of the Bible. “For the past two thousand years, Christian tradition, scholarship, and pop culture have credited the authorship of the New Testament to a select group of men: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, James, Peter, and Paul,” Moss writes. “But the truth is that the individuals behind these names, who were rewarded with sainthood for their work, did not write alone. In some meaningful ways, they did not write at all.”

So who did? The people who almost always did the physical writing and, in many cases, the public reading in the ancient world: the educated enslaved scribes and copyists, lectors, expert shorthand stenographers, secretaries, and other related professionals, who were ever-present yet not quite seen in the shadows of the Roman Empire, where slavery was simply a fact of life. Moss sees her work, therefore, as making the invisible visible, crediting the previously uncredited, and bringing the ghosts into the emancipatory limelight.

When handwriting was hard

Before going further, one precautionary note: While for many people in the pews today this idea of the New Testament writers not penning their scrolls by their own hands might seem shocking, for ancient historians, Moss’s description of book production is hardly surprising.

The Roman Empire was an extremely stratified society, where enslaved people were ubiquitous, always on hand to do such hard work as writing. Keep in mind, after all, that writing with ancient implements and technologies was much more physically arduous than the method I’m employing right now, as I type up this review with ease, seated in a well-lit room, in my pajamas in a comfy chair.

And I’m wearing glasses, with yet another updated prescription, because even in the modern world, a lifetime of reading Greek will seriously mess with one’s eyesight. Who knew? Paul did, apparently. According to Moss, Paul’s reference in Galatians 6:11 to including a brief note in the letter in large script by his own hand (whereas the rest of the letter was penned by an unnamed other) may denote his visual impairment.

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It is a good reminder why someone beyond the prime of youth (as Paul was) would not be able to handwrite his own letters. Just think how many people today wear some sort of assistive eyewear. In a world with exceedingly poor medical care and no good indoor lighting, someone like me (who has worn glasses since first grade) was basically doomed. Since this same world also ran on enslaved labor, this meant, again, relying on secretaries—who were often unfree. Theirs was a career that privileged the young, even children, before eyesight eroded and hands grew arthritic.

We’ve established the generally widespread use of scribes. But who were the writers of the New Testament specifically? Moss begins the tale with some names that we know, and this is where things begin getting more hypothetical—always plausible, never absolutely provable (welcome to ancient history, folks!). There is Mark (the author of the Gospel)—according to Moss, he was originally the enslaved scribe and translator of the apostle Peter. At least he got to add his name to his own book, but that was far from typical.

Then, among the more obvious examples, in Romans 16:22 one Tertius interjects to add his greetings to those from Paul. Who is Tertius? He is likely an enslaved professional scribe. While Paul himself could not have afforded such a scribe, his patrons helped him out in this way. As Moss writes, “Tertius is traditionally associated with the deacon and community leader Phoebe, a wealthy member of the group of Christ followers in Corinth.”

So, what did it mean for Paul to write so many of his letters, like Philippians, with the aid of a scribe from a Roman prison? Moss paints a picture that corrects the vision we have of a writer seated next to Paul in a dungeon, neatly taking dictation. Rather, she notes, the secretary is unlikely to have been allowed inside the dungeon, instead taking dictation while crouching outside, next to the tiny window that allowed light and air into the subterranean prison. Paul, then, had to yell from below to be heard—hopefully accurately—by the dutiful scribe, paid by the line.

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Once complete, the Gospels and the letters were transported, read aloud, and recited from memory—and not only in churches, Moss notes. In one intriguing tale, she narrates a hypothetical dinner party at which an enslaved lector was tasked with reading aloud Mark’s Gospel. Could such a recitation, Moss wonders, have resulted in the addition of the longer ending of Mark (16:9–20)?

Perhaps an experienced lector, practicing for a public reading, was afraid that the original ending was too simple, inelegant even (sorry, Mark!). Instead, then, he decided to jazz up the account a bit, adding a more entertaining ending to the Gospel. Nothing unusual to it. Readers and performers in antiquity had been doing this for over a thousand years, at this point, since at least the days of the Homeric epics.

Something extraordinary afoot

Moss’s research and storytelling are beyond reproach, even as we can (and should) quibble over some of the more hypothetical scenarios she presents. But then, as Moss reminds us herself at the book’s outset, “This method of history-telling involves imagination, refocus, and redress. … All ancient history involves imagination: even for famous emperors, politicians, and philosophers, the evidence is scant and hyperbolic.”

Reading this work of thorough research—and finding myself disagreeing with some of its fundamental assumptions—I kept thinking more about the imagination aspect involved. History is not an exact science. Facts do not speak for themselves but require interpretation. The question remains, therefore, what to do with the highly impressive body of material that Moss assembles in the book and in the expanded resources at the accompanying website.

Just how might the awareness of enslaved writers being involved in the composition of the New Testament affect our view of the Bible? This is where evangelical Christians will find themselves disagreeing with the book’s fundamental assumptions—and, therefore, conclusions—on theological grounds.

The book’s title—God’s Ghostwriters—gives away the game. Who are ghostwriters, anyway? In her new memoir, Ghosted, Nancy French takes readers behind the scenes into a modern professional ghostwriter’s life. There are plenty of prominent politicians and media personalities who have the platform—the name recognition—but cannot write their own books or even news articles. A good ghostwriter comes alongside them, then, and writes quickly and efficiently, taking the kernels of information she has learned about her subjects and presenting their stories and opinions more compellingly than they could manage on their own.

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At the end, though, the ghostwriter steps back into the shadows. Hers is not the name on the book’s cover—or if it is, it is merely there in tiny print underneath the main “author.” Tertius sends his greetings; but Paul is the author.

This is exactly the process Moss imagines having happened with the New Testament—the ghostwriters made their own decisions in drafting the New Testament, which means that the end result may be more Tertius than Paul, for instance. We have here the beginnings of a scandal: Supposedly, the foundational religious text of an entire movement had been written by the nameless and the powerless, rather than by their named oppressors. And yet, is this really the case? The homogeneous nature of Paul’s letters, so many of which even the most ardent skeptics accept as authentic, is strong evidence that Paul, rather than various scribes he employed, was the true author nevertheless.

Moss’s interpretation, while possible, brings its own presuppositions to the table. It assumes, for instance, that the New Testament is a fully human document, compiled by human hands and driven by wholly human motivations, just as any other work of human literature. In other words, this approach to the evidence takes God out of the picture (unlike, to cite one example, historian Carlos Eire’s recent book about levitating saints, They Flew). Miracles are a tough pill to swallow, whether we’re considering a saint possibly airborne mid-prayer or, in this case, the divine inspiration of Scripture.

And yet, that is the foundation of belief: the idea that the things seen are not the only things—and beings—that exist. When considering the composition of the Bible by various hands, what if we acknowledge that something extraordinary is afoot rather than treating the Bible as if it were written exactly like any other work of ancient literature? What if we recognize God’s place in the process of writing the New Testament, just as we recognize other miracles afoot in Jesus’ ministry and in the lives of saints and martyrs afterward?

Most importantly, what if, instead of interpreting the data Moss considers merely as part and parcel of the oppressive structures of the Roman Empire, we see Christianity as what Jesus and his followers wanted it to be—a revolutionary belief that all human beings are unconditionally priceless because they are each made in God’s image? As sociologist Rodney Stark has argued, many (even if not all) Christians lived out this belief in caring for each other, causing the explosive growth of Christianity that otherwise seems utterly unexplainable.

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Some of the enslaved martyrs whose stories Moss considers in this book, like Blandina and Felicity, certainly considered the faith to be their strength, their encouragement in a world that otherwise saw them as non-entities. It was the promise of eternity with God that gave them strength to find hope in Christianity and to resist Roman oppression. It doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine the same faith inspiring the secretaries who assisted Paul and his ilk.

Yes, the Roman Empire was oppressive, abusive, and highly hierarchical. And yet, from the earliest days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, his followers included people who otherwise would never have banded together as equals. In Christ, they could see each other as treasured children of God, as collaborators in the kingdom here and in the one to come. Maybe God’s ghostwriters, far from ghosts, were always part of the plan.

Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church and the forthcoming Mothers, Children, and the Body Politic: Ancient Christianity and the Recovery of Human Dignity.

God's Ghostwriters: Enslaved Christians and the Making of the Bible
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Book Title
God's Ghostwriters: Enslaved Christians and the Making of the Bible
Little, Brown and Company
Release Date
March 26, 2024
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