The Hidden History of Those Who Wrote the Christian Story

Candida Moss in Time: It is an unlikely success story. A first century religious leader named Jesus was brutally executed as a criminal in first century Jerusalem. His death should have ended the movement. He left behind him a ragtag group of poorly educated Aramaic-speaking fishermen and craftsmen; men with some street smarts who lacked resources, experience, or connections. And yet, tradition insists, this handful of men seeded the religion that would change the world.

The improbability of Christianity’s success has always been part of its rhetorical power; how could this small group of misfits have succeeded against such odds? There is a lengthy intellectual tradition that attempts to explain the expansion, rise, and spread of Christianity from its beginnings in the Galilee to its ‘conquest’ of the Roman Empire. At least part of the answer, though neglected, is simple: The disciples had help. An overlooked aspect of the famous Road to Damascus story is how dangerous it was. The Apostle Paul’s vision of Christ left him in a perilous situation: newly blind and stranded several miles away from sustenance and shelter. It was only with the assistance of those in his entourage that he made it into the city and avoided an unpleasant death from starvation and dehydration. These helpers are almost invisible in the story, but they are critical to Paul’s success.

Christ handing scrolll of new law to St Peter while looking at St Paul, mid-4th century. Marble Sarcophagus at Vatican Museums. Artist Unknown.CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The contributions of invisible assistants go much further than their underappreciated but essential roles as local guides and travelling companions. Paul tells us that the letters he wrote to his communities were dictated to others. The name of at least one—Tertius (meaning just “Third”), the coauthor of the Letter to the Romans—sounds distinctly “slavish.” There was nothing exceptional about Paul’s method; dictation to enslaved secretaries and scribes was one of the most common forms of writing in the Roman period. Paul’s secretaries, like those who took dictation from emperors and philosophers, recorded the notes and charters for members of professional clubs and associations, or the scribes helped illiterate people with legal paperwork took down his words and edited them, as their job dictated.

On the frequent occasions where Paul found himself confined underground in damp dark prisons, it was enslaved assistants who were loaned to him by wealthier members of his congregations who brought him sustenance and provided him with access to the outside world. While incarcerated, Paul would not have had the opportunity to review what had been written down for him, but this may not have mattered either. He notes in 2 Corinthians 10:10 that people found him more impressive in writing than in person. Perhaps he has his secretaries to thank for that.

What was true of Paul—the best educated of the Apostles—is true of all early Christian writers and leaders. Most early Christians used secretaries to transcribe and copy their writings. According to an early second century tradition, the Apostle Peter dictated his Gospel to his secretary Mark, a “translator” who had travelled with him helping him communicate with Greek-speakers and navigate local customs. Later sources would elevate Mark’s pedigree to religious aristocracy, but our earliest sources picture him as low status and hints that he was enslaved.

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