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How Did Ancient Writers Use Secretaries? A Blast from the Past

Here is the second of a series of three blasts from the past — from four years ago when I was dealing with how secretaries were and, especially, were not used in the ancient world by authors when producing their work.  Did authors (such as John for the book of Revelation, or Peter for either 1 or 2 Peter) use a secretary to write their books for them?  To answer the question with something other than common sense (that is, common guessing), we need to know about secretarial practices in antiquity.  As it turns out, we do know some things, as I’ll explain in this post and the next.

This is what I said four years ago now:


I have received some comments and emails about my claims about Silvanus as a secretary (or rather, NOT as a secretary) for the book of 1 Peter, and realized it would help if I could give some more detail about what we know about secretaries in the ancient world. The following is from an excursus in my forthcoming Forgery and Counterforgery; it will come in two parts, the first today and the second, hopefully, tomorrow. If you’ve read my book Forged, the substance of what follows will be familiar; this is the slightly more whomped up version of what I discuss there.


Now that we have explored six of the Deutero-Pauline epistles, we are in a position to consider the hypothesis widely invoked by advocates of authenticity to explain how a letter allegedly by an author should differ so radically from other writings he produced. The notion that early Christian authors used secretaries who altered the writing style and contributed to the contents of a writing– thereby creating the anomalies that arouse the critics‘ suspicion – is so widespread as to be virtually ubiquitous. There is no need here to cite references; one need only consult the commentaries, not only on the Pauline corpus but on 1 and 2 Peter as well. At the same time, almost no one who invokes the secretary hypothesis sees any reason to adduce any evidence for it. Instead, it is simply widely assumed that since authors used secretaries – as Paul, at least, certainly did (Rom. 16:22; Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11) — these otherwise unknown persons contributed not only to the style of a writing but also to its contents. There is a good reason that commentators who propose the hypothesis so rarely cite any evidence to support it. The ancient evidence is very thin, to the point of being non-existent.

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Does a Person Need the Holy Spirit to Interpret the Bible? Is John’s Gospel Accurate? Readers Mailbag August 7, 2016
Who Could Read and Write? A Blast from the Past.



  1. Avatar
    Hank_Z  August 5, 2016

    I love this blast from the past. When I subscribed to your blog several years ago, I went back and read every post you had ever written for this site. I’ve also read almost every one of your posts since then.

    While I recognize some of the content in these ‘blasts from the past’, I could have recalled almost none of it.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  August 5, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I have a question that approaches this topic from bottom to top (so to speak), as opposed to from top to bottom (as I see you approaching it). Let’s assume that the tradition is correct that the Gospel of Mark was written by Peter’s interpreter-turned-amanuensis Mark. (I find it highly questionable, but it does raise an interesting question.) If Mark was Peter’s “interpreter” that would mean that Mark would have had to be fluent enough in both Aramaic and Greek in order to do his job. But when we read the Gospel attributed to him, we notice right away that whoever composed the Gospel of Mark was not a good Aramaic speaker. The prime example is Mark 5:41 when Jesus purportedly says “talitha qum” as he’s raising the little girl from the dead, and the author translates that phrase as “little girl, rise up!” The problem is that is not how you say “little girl, rise up!” in Aramaic. For one, “talitha” doesn’t mean “little girl” but “little lamb”. But that’s a minor thing. The major thing is the word for “rise up” is incorrectly conjugated! “Qum” in Aramaic (and in Hebrew) is the masculine singular imperative (קום), while the feminine singular imperative is “qumi” (קומי — same as in Hebrew). Now, I’ve read Vermas’ hypothesis that the feminine imperative might have been deprecated in the Galilean Aramaic of Jesus’ time, but I don’t buy it. Cleary, whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark was not a native Aramaic speaker. Moreover, whoever wrote Mark was also not terribly well educated in Aramaic either — which doesn’t preclude him from being an interpreter, but it doesn’t bode well for him either. So I guess my point is, or my question is, either Jesus actually spoke that ungrammatical phrase (maybe Jesus was as benighted his hagiography wants to portray him as), or at some point someone attributed that ungrammatical phrase to Jesus, and that person was the ignoramus who got it wrong. In either case, it doesn’t make the early disseminators of the church message look like the most competent men in the world at the time. In other words, it’s clear they were neither at all steeped in Semitic culture nor guided by anyone who was. If the earliest account of the words and deeds of Jesus can be so error-ridden, and those errors were continued to be copied and transmitted, I think that strongly suggests that the original disciples had almost nothing to do with the NT material that has come down to us. Peter and the rest simply had no hand at all with anything that we see in the NT. Sorry, I guess I didn’t really have a question.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2016

      Yes, interesting point. Also, Mark completely misunderstands Jewish customs in Mark 7, where he says that “all Jews” insisted that one wash the hands before eating. Some Pharisees claimed this, but not all Jews. Mark apparently didn’t know. He wasn’t Jewish, almost certainly, I would say.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  August 7, 2016

        The Jews that “Mark’s” community heard about or interacted with may have been members of the more stringent branch of Pharisees who insisted on washing their hands before every meal. If I remember correctly, John Meier’s in the 4th volume of A Marginal Jew uses this as evidence that the author of Mark wasn’t intimately familiar with the everyday customs of ordinary Jews, but, instead, was a member of a Greek Christian community who had heard tale of how stringent Jews were in their own lands, as opposed to the more lax diasporic Jews.

  3. Avatar
    dragonfly  August 5, 2016

    Somehow I don’t think Paul would have left even one word of his complex and deadly serious theology in his letters to the discretion of someone else.

  4. Avatar
    FocusMyView  August 6, 2016

    Are there other examples of lower class writings that we have heard of at all? It seems incredible that the early Christian movement initiated literary creativity in a people who might otherwise not have had it.
    Come to think of it, translating the Bible seems to have been a major sources for creating alphabets and teaching literacy throughout the ages. Quite a legacy.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2016

      It’s a bit less incredible when you realize that in antiquity, unlike today, most people “read” a book by hearing someone else read it out loud in a social context.

      • Avatar
        Michael Sommers  August 15, 2016

        Not just in antiquity; that is how people “read” Chaucer. And today, of course, we have audio books.

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