***This reflection was first presented at a BRANE panel on ancient authorship on Nov. 9. 2021. Tom Geue, very graciously, participated in the panel and offered a response to this and one other review. As the panel was somewhat informal, I referred to the author as “Tom” throughout, and I have left it that way for publication here.

 

Authorship in early Christianity sometimes seems like a special problem. In the canonical texts that are supposedly witnesses to its formative period, we have numerous narratives and letters with no authorial attribution. In addition, there are other letters attributed to authors who likely didn’t write them, and there is also an apocalypse that, while credited to a person named John, might as well be anonymous, given the absence of any meaningful information about this particular John. Yet, within roughly a century after the life of Jesus, the anxiety about anonymity of the gospels in particular proved to be too much. In the mid-second century, we observe the speedy emergence of the four-fold naming schema for the gospels, with absolutely no record of dispute regarding alternative names, constituting what Daniel Ullucci refers to (with evident sarcasm) as an almost “Septuagint-sequence miracle.”[1] Indeed, it appears that anonymity in early Christian texts was perceived to be a problem that needed solving.

It was thus a pleasure to read Author Unknown: The Power of Anonymity in Ancient Rome and to think more deeply about the problems and possibilities of anonymity in ancient literature in general and in my area of specialization of Christian origins specifically. This is not a response to his book in its entirety, but rather a reflection on his method . I want to start my reflection with trying to convey the excitement I felt when reading this. To be honest, I haven’t been this excited about reading something in a long time. Tom’s writing style is truly a delight—it is infused with enthusiasm, curiosity, and infectious energy. I was excited to imagine new horizons within which we can think about nameless, identity-less authors. I was intrigued by his phrasing of “working with”[2] anonymity and of “treating anonymity not as a paralyzing lack but as a constitutive effect of the text.”[3] Furthermore, I was eager to think about anonymity, not simply as nameless texts, but also as unidentified characters in texts, as well as an affective condition of reception. For Tom, anonymity is not a problem for us to solve. It is a productive aspect of texts that serves important (and hitherto overlooked) functions that affect our experience of reading texts. It does “something real and interesting.”[4] It has “migratory power”[5] and “furnishes speculative fuel”[6] in the narratives it punctuates. Its communicative power, in Tom’s view, far surpasses the contingent and particular power of the known author. This was, to be sure, an energizing book.

Before moving any deeper, I should offer my own transparency: I have admittedly tended toward historicist impulses. I live in, to use Tom’s phrasing, “the joyless prison of compulsive contexting”[7] (though I’m quite happy here!). As excited as I am about the new doors opened by a focus on anonymity, part of me still clings to the need for contextual specificity, at least insofar as it is possible. Since this is the positionality that I am starting from, I was experiencing a great deal of liberation as I read this, as I hope to have already indicated. Yet I would be remiss if I did not give us some provocative proddings to stimulate our discussion. Yet, despite those proddings that follow, there’s actually little I would change in this extraordinary study. If we can think about scholarship always striving for a kind of Hegelian synthesis to propel itself forward, we need these provocative theses to generate constructive dialogue.

The first issue I would like to raise concerns my particular sub-field of Christian Origins. Interestingly, this concern didn’t occur to me on the first read—perhaps my initial excitement about these ideas was taking up all the room in my brain! But on the second read, a pressing worry arose, namely, the danger that too much enthusiasm about “the Open” and “the Anonymous” would give way to unrealistic notions of author-less, folk traditions. I emphasize that I do not think this is what Tom was going for specifically in his book, but I see such consequences entailed in his discussion of anonymity as “transcending” and “disembedding” traditions.[8]

Consider the way Tom talks about anonymous graffiti. He appreciates this ancient graffiti for its “supercharged immediacy”[9] and access to “an unmediated vox populi,”[10] which, in turn, gives us special access to the ancient world precisely because of its lack of situatedness.” This anonymous writing, he concludes, is “the purest form of writing.”[11] Elsewhere, he envisions anonymous texts to be far more robust cultural products than those tied to singular, named individuals: because an anonymous text “could come from anyone, it might actually come from everyone; it might voice something bigger, broader, more powerful than the hand of an individual subjectivity could ever produce.”[12] The anonymous thus generates an authority that “doesn’t stem from the individual but from the collective.”[13]

My concern with this sort of language is what some scholars of early Christianity could do, and indeed have done, with such a starting off point. Namely, they could use such a framework to argue that the early traditions about Jesus have no particular genesis from singular authors but are rather the unmediated products of a nebulous community of Jesus’ followers. Put differently, recognizing the open anonymity of the gospels in particular could provide an occasion for fundamentally misunderstanding where the origins of these traditions and lead to the argument that they spontaneously and miraculously generated from the midst of the early Christian “community.”

Robyn Walsh has recently offered a compelling critique and historicization of the scholarly efforts to argue that the traditions about Jesus are somehow author-less or unmediated expression of the “community” of Jesus followers.[14] In particular, she locates the genesis of this scholarly habit of reading in German Romanticism, which was marked by specific concerns for identity formation and political expression in its historical context. What’s more, viewing early Christian literature as the sedimentation of unmediated folk traditions, she argues, would require us to treat its composition entirely differently than we do with other ancient texts. Instead, Walsh grounds the anonymous gospels in the social locations of particular elite authors and their competitive literary networks. For this reason, though they are anonymous texts, we still can envision the distinct authors and their cultural practices that brought such texts into being. We don’t need to continue imagining these texts emerging as author-less oral traditions that the community produced and then collected into writing—which incidentally, is exactly what early Christian thinkers such as Eusebius would have us believe, although for him, traditions moved straight from Jesus to the communal collective to the gospels. That in itself makes me skeptical of this notion anonymity in early Christianity.

Back to the book at hand. For Tom, the openness of “the Anonymous” takes us in the direction of transcendence and divinity, which brings me to the second set of questions I have. It strikes me as embodying a certain set of assumptions to think of anonymity as liberating ideas or making them somehow more than themselves. Consider how Tom writes of Homer’s suppression of his authorial identity. “[W]ithholding his name,” he claims, “makes his poetry take on a universal valence. Not knowing where it comes from lifts it up (for us) to the divine.”[15] Why, I’m curious, would we assume divinity and not, say, something demonic? In slightly different wording, why assume that anonymity would move something up an ontological hierarchy and not down? Further, why do assume at all that anonymity is of greater value than a situated text? Theoretically, “the Unknown” could be good or bad, so arguing that “the Anonymous” is always or automatically “greater than” seems curious to me.

I’ll spend the most time on my third and final point, which is related to the two previous ones but is more of an ethical one, stemming from the consequences of the democratizing of traditions through their anonymity. Citing Quintilian, Tom notes with approval the view that traditions “become true, they count as common property, that have staying power down the generations, because their author is unknown.”[16] Whenever anyone starts talking in terms of property, I get a little anxious, because as long as there has been property that can belong to individuals (even if, as in this case, the greater good seems to be common property), there has been inequality and unequal access to that property. So, when texts are open to all, I worry that it is readers in positions of power, louder readers, and more aggressive readers who will control the interpretation.

What’s more, anonymity allows the text, in Tom’s words, to be used “as something transpersonal: a cultural/social document, an authoritative bearer of witness to something bigger than itself.”[17] My concern is thus: such a viewpoint, in my mind, seems to devalue the individual in favor of something “bigger.” What is this “bigger” thing that is more valuable than the individual? I suspect the answer is something like a feeling, an idea, a collective identity, or something else otherwise invisible, the existence of which is not equally evident to all. Indeed, there’s something almost theological about the idea that the individual, particular author is automatically subordinated to something “bigger.” Where then, I might ask, does that leave the atheist?

This concern is animated by a bit of a Marxist impulse. If we use anonymity to “open up” texts to any possible author, we implicitly say that an author’s social location and distinct experiences are unimportant or insignificant. Put differently, disembedding “the Particular” from a given text in order to open it to anonymity seems to assume that all human experiences are interchangeable, that any possible author can be imagined behind a text. Protecting the specificity of authors—to the extent that we can know them—almost seems more humane to me. Especially when it comes to ancient literature, safeguarding “the Particular” feels like we are doing our part to protect the fragile, fragmentary data that we have about where these traditions come from; we ensure that the distant authors are not simply buried in a homogenous heap of “the past.” As I suggested earlier, allowing anonymity to open texts cannot help but privilege interpreters who are more powerful, louder, more aggressive, better known, more influential, etc. Emphasizing the anonymity of unnamed texts too strongly stands to deprive the quieter, more reserved, less aggressive thinkers of the mark they want to make on the world; the way their ideology reflects a real, contingent and conditional, lived experience; and the way their minds, bodies, and experiences have led to their particular textual expression.

To argue for anonymous texts that could theoretically belong to anyone (even God!) requires us to ignore the very internal textual evidence that can tell us about the kinds of people we suspect produced texts. To make an even bolder suggestion, I might even say that there is no such thing as an anonymous text: all authors have a social location and all texts preserve some information about that social location, even if it’s just a small revelation about the author’s cultural inheritance, or a hint at the training that the authors must have received, or even just the “fact” of their selection of topics. In other words, we might not know the name of the person who produced the text, but we often know the kind of person they were—their literate skills and technologies, their ideological interests, their imagined audiences, the words they prefer to use, etc. Do we want to force ourselves to masquerade within a “condition” of “ignorance,” if it requires us to deliberately ignore the parts of themselves that authors poured into their texts? Might anonymity disenfranchise the ordinary people behind texts, who might not have left their names, but nevertheless left their marks in different ways?

In closing, then, I suppose the question that I’m orbiting around is: what difference does an author make? Tom’s argument, if I understand him correctly, is that knowing authorial identity makes only one kind of difference and that we haven’t fully appreciated the difference that not knowing can make: we can and should think beyond that question to new possibilities. I totally agree. While I’m excited about those possibilities, I can’t shake my view that authors matter. Especially in today’s politically-charged world where we’re struggling with the legacy of abusers who also happened to have produced amazing cultural products or important scholarship, they can matter a great deal. Authorial identity makes a difference in terms of how we imagine a text’s legacy and if indeed we should archive it as something culturally significant. To illustrate this, I want to end with a provocative quote from comedian John Oliver, who spoke the following in discussing the dangers of fake news and deliberate misinformation on the internet: [A book called] How I Broke Rules and Made History would read pretty differently if it was written by Ruth Bader Ginsberg instead of Osama bin Laden.”[18] I’d love to say it doesn’t matter who might have written such a book, but with those two possibilities, it really does.

 

Sarah Rollens, R.A. Webb Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Rhodes College

 

Notes:

[1] Ullucci, “The Anonymity of the Gospels κατά Pac-Man”, 103. According to Ullucci, there are really two separate questions in the question of early Christian anonymity: why an author would write anonymously (a question of production), and why early Christians would circulate an anonymous text (a question of consumption).

[2] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 55.

[3] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 5.

[4] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 6.

[5] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 17.

[6] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 17.

[7] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 2.

[8] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 235.

[9] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 15.

[10] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 15.

[11] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 15.

[12] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 9-10.

[13] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 19.

[14] Robyn Faith Walsh, The Origins of Early Christian Literature: Contextualizing the New Testament within Greco-Roman Literary Culture.

[15] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 9.

[16] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 20.

[17] Geue, Author Unknown, p. 16.

[18] John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, (HBO) Oct 10, 2021.

 

One Comment

  • Richard Fellows says:

    The writers of Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke-Acts leave themselves unidentified in conformity to a style of Jewish literature that goes back to the old testament history books (so Baum Nov Test 50 (2008)). By leaving themselves unidentified they kept their readers’ focus on the narrated events. There is a modesty in anonymity.

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