Who wrote the New Testament?

Let’s see . . . there was Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul.

Those are the easy ones.

Anybody else?

If you think about it for a moment, you’ll likely come up with James, Peter, and Jude.

Good. Now, who else was there?

 

Harder Cases

At this point, your mind might flash to the book of Hebrews, which doesn’t list its author. Some have proposed that it was written by Apollos, Barnabas, Luke, or another member of the Pauline circle, but I’m not talking about it’s unnamed author. I’m looking for named authors.

Depending on how much you read the Church Fathers and some modern authors (like Benedict XVI), you might know that there is a question of whether one or two people named John contributed to the New Testament, but I’m not talking about that, either.

There are three additional men who are named in the New Testament as authors.

So who were they?

The answer is Sosthenes, Silvanus, and Timothy.

 

“Wait,” you may be saying. “What books did they author?”

In the case of Sosthenes (SOSS-thin-EES), it was one book: 1 Corinthians.

In the case of Silvanus, it was two books: 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

In the case of Timothy, it was a whopping six books: 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

 

“Wait! Didn’t Paul author those?”

Yes, he did. Paul was the primary author of each letter, and Sosthenes, Silvanus, and Timothy were his co-authors.

You can tell this by the way each book is addressed. In the ancient world, letters were commonly begun with a variant on the formula “X to Y,” where X was the author and Y was the recipient.

Thus 3 John opens with:

The elder to the beloved Gaius (3 John 1).

This tells us that “the elder” is the author and Gaius is the recipient. It presupposes that Gaius knows who the elder is, but other than that it is a fairly standard opening for a first century Greco-Roman letter.

On the other hand, at the beginning of 1 Corinthians, we read:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (1 Cor. 1:1-2).

The formula “X to Y” is somewhat obscured by the literary-theological elaboration it is given here, but it’s still present. Stripped of the elaboration, it reads:

Paul and Sosthenes to the church at Corinth.

This lists both Paul and Sosthenes as authors, and that’s weird.

 

Co-authors?

It may be common today to find a book written by more than one person (e.g., the sci-fi classic The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle).

Co-authors are common today when it comes to books, but not with letters. Today most letters are authored by only one person.

The same was true in the ancient world, so Paul’s listing of other individuals as co-authors was startling.

It was one of several unusual things about his letters. (For another, see here.)

What does his inclusion of co-authors mean?

 

The Role of Authors

Today we think of the author of a work as the person who writes it, but this is not a guarantee.

In the modern world, we have “ghost writers,” who write a work on behalf of the person who is listed as its author.

Even apart from such an extreme case (where one person composes all of a work’s words in the name of another), we have intermediary stages involving editors, copy editors, and proof readers, where various other individuals make some contribution to the composition of the words that the author eventually signs his name to.

These kind of intermediate contributors are, in fact, the norm in modern publishing.

Take it from me as someone who works (in multiple roles) in that industry: No professionally published book comes out without being looked over, and contributed to, by individuals such as these.

And yet it is the author who lends his name to the work and takes responsibility for it.

That’s true all the way up to the pope.

 

Even the Pope?

Popes—whether they be Francis, Benedict, John Paul, or others—give tons of speeches and issue far too many documents for them to be solely responsible for.

They have helpers, editors, and even ghost writers. Yet they ultimately sign their names to documents and take responsibility for them.

That’s the ultimate mark of an author: Regardless of what role he played in the composition of a document’s words, he lends his name to it and takes responsibility for it when it’s published.

The author is the authority behind the letter.

He’s likely to have played a role in the composition or revision of the text (particularly if it’s an important text), but it’s the ultimate acceptance of public responsibility for the document that makes him its author.

 

Ancient Authors

The same was true in the ancient world. Authors generally proposed that the work be written and played a role in the process of its composition and revision, but what precisely that role was could vary, depending on how much freedom the author gave to those he was working with.

The author may or may not have asked for changes before the final draft was published, but he was the one responsible for how the process as a whole played out.

Ultimately, he authorized the publishing of the work in his name and so became its author.

Or co-author.

In Paul’s case, he included people like Sosthenes, Silvanus, and Timothy, who lent their names to various letters when they were sent. They took responsibility for them, alongside Paul, and so became his co-authors.

 

The Role of Paul’s Co-Authors

This did not mean that they made large contributions to the text. In all likelihood, they did not.

It is clear, when we read Paul’s letters, that he has the dominant voice. Paul frequently speaks in the singular (“I”) rather than the plural (“we”). And we don’t read things like, “I, Sosthenes, say . . . ” or “I, Timothy, tell you . . . ” That’s one reason why it’s so easy to mistake Paul as the sole author.

But it’s likely that his co-authors did make contributions alongside his.

Some have suggested, for example, that Paul was more brusque than his co-authors, and that may be why 2 Corinthians 10-13 is so harsh in tone compared to the part of the letter that precedes it (i.e., Timothy was not with Paul when he wrote this part and so couldn’t urge him to tone down his brusqueness, though he was listed as a co-author of the letter as a whole).

However Paul’s co-authors may have contributed in the writing of the letters to which they lent their names, they still played a distinct role.

 

Authors vs. Secretaries

It’s important to recognize that they were not simply Paul’s secretaries or scribes.

Serving as a scribe in the ancient world did not make you an author.

Scribes had many roles, which ranged from copyist to ghost writer, depending on how the author wanted to use them.

What they did not do is lend their name to the document in the opening address and take that kind of responsibility for it.

Thus in Romans, Tertius—the scribe who Paul employed—merely greets the recipients near the end of the letter, saying:

I, Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord (Rom. 16:22).

He does not have his name listed in the “X to Y” address of  Romans 1:1-7, alongside Paul as a co-author.

This is not to say that people like Sosthenes, Silvanus, and Timothy couldn’t have simultaneously functioned as scribes—just that their role was not limited to this.

If they played a scribal function in composing these letters (though this is not at all certain), their role went beyond that, and Paul had them include their names in the address, thus authorizing the letter and becoming its co-authors.

This means that, in a real sense, they are authors of the New Testament!

Yet we rarely hear about them in this capacity.

So who were they? What do we know about them?

That’s the subject of another post.

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