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Book review: God’s Ghostwriters: Enslaved Christians and the making of the Bible by Candida Moss

by
07 June 2024

Henry Wansbrough looks at an act of reparation

AFTER several publications in this area, Professor Moss has bitten the bullet and attempted the impossible: to delineate the invisible. Enslaved people (her preferred term, to salvage their stolen dignity) did not write autobiographies and are seldom to be glimpsed in ancient sources. They remain busy below the sightlines; without them, Roman civilisation would have ground to a halt; for all lowly and menial tasks and service industries were in their hands. What did they contribute to the formation and delivery of the Bible, more specifically the New Testament?

The Epilogue makes clear once more that a primary aim of the author in tackling this subject was a matter of social justice, to acknowledge the part played by the unseen and unacknowledged members of society on whose work we all depend, not only in the formation and transmission of the gospel message, but also in our everyday life — especially during the ravages of Covid.

The book begins with a grim picture of the vulnerability and insecurity of enslaved people, as well as the multiplicity of essential services that they provided in the Roman world. Our sources tell us plenty about the great writer, Pliny the Elder, but little about the large train of secretaries, pedesequi and others, who were no doubt overwhelmed and buried with him in the eruption of Vesuvius.

Occasionally, other heads pop up in the New Testament: for example, Tertius (a slave-name), the secretary or co-author of Romans (Romans 16.22). But Paul was not alone on his journey to Damascus, and Cornelius’s whole household were baptised with their master. How much did they contribute to the formation of the New Testament? Who was responsible for gathering together the fragments of post-resurrectional fragments which now constitute the “longer ending” of Mark (Mark 16.9-20)? To whom is addressed that little insert in the Synoptic apocalypse, “let the lector understand” (Mark 13.14), and who is responsible for it?

The primary area of the author’s study is the New Testament, but vivid investigations of subsequent developments follow, each neatly woven round one prominent core: the development of the text itself, woven round the four/fifth-ccentury Codex Bobiensis; the tasks of the lector, crafted round an imaginary servile lector, Felix; the second-century Christian witnesses, represented by Blandina; finally, a development of the Gospel hints on the punishment of the disobedient, sparked off by a possibly mythical character, Euclia, from the second-century Acts of Andrew.

Especially in these later chapters, there is plenty of use of the imagination, even though this does sometimes run riot (Paul dictating one of his prison letters to an enslaved secretary through a skylight on to a roadway, or a lector giving a reading of St Mark’s Gospel for post-prandial entertainment). The conjectural nature of solutions is plentifully flagged up by a wealth of “perhaps” and “it could be that . . .”. The stimulus provided by a scholar comes as much from her questions as from her answers.

 

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a former member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


God’s Ghostwriters: Enslaved Christians and the making of the Bible
Candida Moss
William Collins £25
(978-0-00-861217-7)
Church Times Bookshop special offer price £20*
*Signed copies are available at Church House Bookshop

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