18 April 2014

Triumph and Disaster: The Crucifixion in Christian Art

Ever since Lenny Bruce quipped that had Jesus been killed in the middle of the last century, Catholic school children would wear little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses, it’s been a staple of lazy comedians to sneer and ask what kind of a religion chooses an instrument of torture for its symbol. The answer, writes Francis Spufford in 2012’s Unapologetic, is “one that takes the existence of suffering seriously.”

The Cross, says John O’Donohue in Eternal Echoes, is a unique axis in time, where time and timelessness intersect. All past, present, and future pain was physically carried up the hill of Calvary in the Cross, so that it could be transfigured in the new dawn of the Resurrection. This, he says, is the mystery of the Eucharist, which embraces Calvary and the Resurrection in the one circle:
“In Christian terms there is no way to light or glory except through the sore ground under the dark weight of the Cross.”
Detail of a fifth-century ivory miniature of the Crucifixion, held by the British Museum.

O’Donohue describes the Cross as a lonely, forsaken symbol, the most terrifying image in Christian theology being a state of absolute abandonment, immortalised in the Passion narratives when Jesus cries out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

This, according to the second volume of Joseph Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth, was no ordinary cry of abandonment. Misheard and misunderstood by some nearby, the faithful recognised this as a truly Messianic cry, the opening verse of the twenty-second psalm.
“Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulation, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with suffering Israel, with all those who suffer under ‘God’s darkness’; he takes their cry, their anguish, all their helplessness upon himself – and in so doing he transforms it.”

Given the suffering that’s ever-present in our world, and how at times we seem awash in a sea of tragedies, it’s remarkable how rarely this precise moment of divine agony and isolation is ever expressed in art.  Theology isn’t just a matter of technical jargon in obscure journals, but is ever present in the preaching, the liturgy, and the iconography of the Church; art matters, as it reflects how we think about things, and shows us how we might do so.

The sixteenth-century Isenheim Altarpiece
For the last thousand years or so, most renderings of the Crucifixion have been variations on the theme of a dead Christ, his head resting on his right shoulder, his body sagging, his side bleeding from the spear driven into it by the Roman soldier to make sure he was dead.  These pictures and sculptures serve to express a truth – that God became Man and gave his life for us – that though all-important nonetheless omits something that was central to earlier Christian thought.

Kenneth Clark, in BBC’s 1969 Civilisation, went too far when he said it was the tenth century that “made the Crucifixion into a moving symbol of the Christian faith,” but it is true that before then it was relatively rare to see crucifixes on which Christ was not depicted alive and looking ahead, his eyes wide open.

Such iconography expressed an understanding of the Cross prominent in all sermons on salvation in Acts and reflected the early Church’s dominant understanding of the Crucifixion: that the Cross was less a defeat than the path to resurrection and God’s supreme triumph over sin, death, and the Devil.

Fifth-century crucifixion from the door of Santa Sabina, Rome
Although he oversimplified the range of early medieval iconography, the Swedish Lutheran bishop Gustav Aulén hit on something very important when he wrote in his 1931 Christus Victor of how things changed during the Middle Ages.
“What was lost was the note of triumph, which is as much absent in the contemplation of the Sacred Wounds as in the theory of the satisfaction of God’s justice. This is reflected very significantly in later medieval art. The triumph-crucifix of an earlier period is now ousted by the crucifix which depicts the human Sufferer.”
Of course, the sacrifice of the Cross is a mystery, and one that cannot be dismissed with a single neat theory. Tom Wright, the former Anglican bishop of Durham, has rightly observed that “when Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.”

It is through the mystery of the Eucharist that we actively participate in the memory of God; this was brought home to me with great force when I attended Mass in the chapel of Leeds Trinity University in late 2011.

Too rarely in my life have I had more than the driest and most academic understanding of what the Mass meant, but when the Eucharist was held up before the most remarkable crucifix I have ever seen on that November Saturday, I understood.

Made from bronze and fibreglass and modelled upon the sculptor himself, Charles I’Anson’s crucifix was completed in October 1971, after eighteen months of work. It depicts neither a Christ looking forward in confidence nor one in gentle repose after having given up his spirit.

Act of Will
Instead, I’Anson’s crucifix depicts Our Lord pushing himself away from the Cross, driving himself upward and forward and crying out. It portrays a dying man’s supreme act of will, showing Jesus forcing his limbs to support him so he can gather the air to cry out, whether to ask why his Father had forsaken him, or to commend his spirit into his Father’s hands.

People often don’t grasp just how agonising crucifixion was, or how it killed. It was a slow and degrading punishment which killed – in most cases – by suffocation. The crucified needed to stay as erect as possible in order to breathe, and as legs and arms gave out, pressure gradually built on the chest, forcing victims of the cross to inhale constant shallow breaths simply to stay alive, until eventually even the shallowest of breaths proved too much.

The contorted spine, strained limbs, and taut muscles of I’Anson’s crucifix make explicit Christ’s pain in a way I have never seen, but although it is a representation of agony, it is no mere representation of defeat.

On the contrary, it is a magnificent, gritty, idealised rendering of the greatest triumph there has ever been, that moment when history and eternity were as one, when God overturned our human understandings of triumph and disaster and reclaimed us for himself.

-- The Irish Catholic, 28 March 2013.

17 April 2014

Nazis, Godless Religions, and Indignant Atheists

When Pope Benedict visited Britain in 2010, he began his trip with a speech addressing the Queen; this speech infuriated a host of atheists, as they thought it outrageous that he had, to their minds, conflated atheism with Nazism. All else aside, some quipped, Benedict had fallen victim to Godwin’s Law, by being the first person in a debate to mention Nazi Germany. 

It’s worth looking at what he said:
‘Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a "reductive vision of the person and his destiny" (Caritas in Veritate, 29).’
I found it odd that people thought it disgraceful, even ludicrous, that Benedict would have said just this, not least because given his own history there is surely at least a chance that he knew rather more about Nazi Germany than any of those jeering; he had grown up in the Reich, after all, and as a teenager had been forced to join the Hitler Youth, though he seems not to have attended meetings; he served in the war, too, being drafted into an antiaircraft unit, and subsequently into the regular army, though he deserted a few months later.

The views of any thoughtful, intelligent, and erudite individual who’d experienced this should surely be recognised by any fair person as worthy of attention; that they should have been met out of hand with such scorn said rather more about those scoffing than the Pope himself.

A few weeks after his trip to Britain, Benedict wrote a letter to the Church’s seminarians, beginning with an anecdote about what happened when he joined the regular army.
‘When in December 1944 I was drafted for military service, the company commander asked each of us what we planned to do in the future. I answered that I wanted to become a Catholic priest. The lieutenant replied: “Then you ought to look for something else. In the new Germany priests are no longer needed”. I knew that this “new Germany” was already coming to an end, and that, after the enormous devastation which that madness had brought upon the country, priests would be needed more than ever.’
The notion that the Reich wouldn’t want priests certainly tallied with Benedict’s own experience. His seminary rector had been interned in Dachau, for instance, where a thousand Catholic priests had been killed and so many were imprisoned that they had their own barracks, and he began his life as a priest in a parish where the Nazis had executed both of his predecessors. 

Regardless of what conclusion we might reach when we study the facts for ourselves, it is at least understandable that Benedict would be of the view that the Nazis sought ‘to eradicate God from society’.

I had recommended the book, to be fair…
Back around New Year, I wound up in a protracted disagreement with a good friend who’d been reading Jonathan Sacks’ The Great Partnership, a book I’d recommended and that he’d found abysmal. Disagreement started early on when I received a text criticising Sacks for having supposedly referred to Nazi Germany as an ‘atheist state’, subsequent texts taking issue with him for sniping at secularism and criticising the Third Reich and the Soviet Union as ‘godless societies’.

I reread the book in response to the texts, and couldn’t find any references to Nazi Germany as an atheist state; what Sacks said, as far as I could tell, was that:
‘In the past the danger – and it was a real danger – was a godless society. That led to four terrifying experiments in history, the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China.’
Just a few sentences later he mentions how he fears the profoundly modern phenomenon of apocalyptic religiosity as much as he does ‘secular totalitarianism’, such that I think it’s reasonable to see ‘secular totalitarianism’ as his description of the four aforementioned experiments.

I don’t think ‘secular totalitarianism’ is an unfair description of them: all four experiments sought to establish a unipolar society where the sole focus of loyalty was the state, and none of these states recognised a higher spiritual authority from which rights could derive, as did the United States in its Declaration of Independence, let alone a religious or spiritual basis for their states or societies, as, for instance, does the Irish Constitution. 

It’s important to note that while he identifies these as experiments in secular totalitarianism, he certainly doesn’t say these have been the only ever secular states.

It’s important to note too that Sacks doesn’t call these ‘godless societies’, instead saying that they arose because of godless societies. There’s quite a difference between the two, and later in the book he considers the kind of ‘godless society’ he believed responsible for these experiments.

Origins of a Godless Society
In the context of Nazism, he looks at those Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment, depending on whether you think said project ended in the late eighteenth century or so, or continued long beyond it, arguably even to this day) thinkers who formed the intellectual milieu of the German cultured classes during the wars. It was those thinkers, and those who were formed by their ideas – in the 1960s Eric Voegelin characterised the inter-war German elite as a ‘rabble’ – that comprised the ‘godless society’ that gave birth to the Nazi experiment. As Sacks puts it later on:
‘Knowing what happened in Russia under Stalin, in China under Mao and in Germany under Hitler is essential to moral literacy in the twenty-first century. These were programmes carried out under the influence of ideas produced by Western intellectuals in the nineteenth century to fill the vacuum left by a widespread loss of faith in God and religion.’
To explain this, Sacks surveys in potted form certain key features of the intellectual history of the modern West, homing in, as you might expect, on the anti-Semitism that scarred the writings of the likes of Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, but also looking at the impact of the writings of Marx, Darwin, and Freud. While deploring how their ideas were abused, he is adamant that we cannot afford to ignore the effect that their ideas had: human dignity, he argues, is a very fragile concept, and one which can all too easily be obscured or lost.

Supporting this, Sacks tosses out a list of respectable names to show just how mainstream eugenicist thought had become in the first half of the twentieth century, and it’s in light of this that we can understand why Robert Graves observed in 1960 that those Nazi surgeons who experimented on their 'non-Aryan' prisoners were ‘dedicated scientists taking full advantage of the unusual opportunities offered them by Hitler's irreligion’.

(Hitler’s irreligion, as Graves puts it, I’ll come to in a bit.)

Orwell, of course, described Nazi Germany as a state in which science fought on the side of superstition, and lamented that this wasn’t really surprising: the energies that shape the world, he observed, are such things as racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, and love of war. These things don’t go away, and it was the genius of the likes of Robespierre and Hitler to tap into them, whether in the name of ‘Reason’, ‘Liberty’, ‘the Fatherland’, or  the German ‘race’; indeed, as Primo Levi pointed back in the day, the leader-cult that marked Nazi Germany entailed Hitler being believed and adored as though he were divine; it is in human nature to worship, after all, with the real question being to what – or to whom – that natural drive should point.

The answer to that from Sacks’ point of view should be fairly obvious, of course, but it’s especially worth paying attention to what he has to say about Nietzsche in this regard, not merely because there’s a strong case that he and Schopenhauer were the most important ingredients in the heady ideological cocktail from which the Nazis imbibed. Nietzsche regarded Christianity in particular and religion in general as emasculating forces, things that denied nature and constrained mankind; for him traditional Christian morality was perverse, with the Christian insistence that we are all equally valuable in God’s eyes particularly unnatural. God is dead, he held, and we should have the courage to face and embrace the consequences of that reality.

With such attitudes, and being so influential, it’s hardly surprising that back in the 1940s Henri de Lubac identified Nietzsche as – along with Comte, Marx, and Feuerbach – one of the fathers of what he described as a new ‘atheist humanism’, distinct from the older Christian humanism and the atheism that was at least as old as Lucretius. De Lubac saw this new ‘atheist humanism’ as a new phenomenon in which religion was regarded not merely as false but as degrading; God, for all of these, was an enemy of human dignity, and until belief in God was cast aside, mankind could never be free to forge its own destiny.

At this point it might perhaps legitimately be countered that while Germany’s chattering classes may well have comprised a ‘godless society’, drunk on Nietzsche’s will-fetishizing and Schopenhauer’s anti-Semitism, this seems an unfair thing to say of German society in general. Intellectuals may have jettisoned God and elevated man – whether the man-made state or the race of man or a particular man called Hitler – to the status of a god, but what of the ordinary German?

Liberal Protestantism, and the Depreciation of the Divine
Without getting bogged down in the details of Germany’s religious demographics, it’s important to stress that unlike modern Germany, Germany at the time of Hitler’s ascent to power was a primarily Protestant nation; somewhere in the region of two-thirds of Germans were Protestant, and remained so throughout the Nazi period.  This matters, and not merely because German Protestants tended to support the Nazis in greater numbers, proportionately as well as absolutely, than German Catholics, while Catholic intellectuals and clergy had a better record of speaking out against the Nazis, as Michael Burleigh details in Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror, than is commonly recognised: rather, it points to the fact that if we must speak of German society in general, we are obliged to speak in large part  of Protestant society.

A priest friend of mine remarked to me in September that for all that English Dominicans sing the praises of the late Herbert McCabe (as indeed do I), England is not a country where theology is deemed to matter; Germany, on the other hand, very much is such a country, such that insofar as there has been a language of theology over the last couple of centuries, that language was German. The first half of the twentieth century was in many respects a golden age of German theology, with the vast majority of German Protestant pastors and theologians subscribing to one variant or another of liberal Protestantism, following in the footsteps of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Arnold von Harnack.

While this liberal Protestantism took many forms, it tended to play down or even reject the divinity of Jesus, to treat the books of the Bible solely as historical books rather than as agents of revelation, to deny the reality of the miracles related in the New Testament accounts, and to dispute the canonicity of various Biblical books, notably ones from the Old Testament.  Although this approach has continued to this day, with those who’ve followed in this line including the German Paul Tillich and after him the English John Robinson and the American John Shelby Spong (about whom, more another time), it peaked before the war, when in Germany it was confronted to great effect by the Swiss Calvinist Karl Barth, arguably the most important theologian of the last hundred years.

As Eric Metaxas explains in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Barth scandalised the German theological establishment by insisting on the reality of God, and on how all theological and biblical reflection must rest on this: he further insisted on the reality of revelation, and rejected extremist versions of the historico-critical approach to Scripture. One of the hallmarks of liberal Protestantism, this ‘higher criticism’ indisputably yielded great fruits but also yielded a tendency for scholars to interpret Christ not as a figure who challenged them, but as a historical construct who reflected their own values.

This proved especially inconvenient when Hitler took power, talking of how he could only ever imagine a blond-haired blue-eyed Aryan Christ, with the new German Christian movement happily excising the Old Testament from the Bible as ‘too Jewish’.

For many liberal Protestants in Hitler’s Germany, the notion of ‘race’ was an ‘order of creation’ comparable to the family; individual lives were thus less important than the well-being and purity of the collective nation or state, and given that as early as 1931 the main Protestant welfare association in Germany decreed the sterilisation of ‘undesirables’ to be not merely legitimate but a duty , it should not surprise us that many liberal Protestantism found a natural ally in National Socialism. Roughly 14,000 of the approximately 17,000 Protestant pastors in Germany in 1933 ended up supporting Hitler, for some value of ‘support’, about 3,000 of these becoming members of the explicitly Nazi ‘German Christian’ movement. Given the extent to which they’d abandoned God for a pseudo-historical ‘Christ’ of their own making, mouldable into whatever image suited them, there is a very real sense, in which key elements in mainstream German liberal Protestantism – or at least its leadership at both a national and a local level – was, in Hitler’s day, itself a ‘godless society’.

It all comes down to terminology, as tends to be the way. Still, I think that when Sacks used the term ‘godless society’ we can be confident that he was speaking most definitely of the intelligentsia of Hitler’s day and the decades prior to him.

Secularism, Atheist States, and Venn Diagrams
What then of this term ‘atheist state’?

I can’t find the phrase in the book, as I've said, and so can’t get it in context, but I would say that if Sacks did describe the Third Reich as such, this certainly shouldn’t be shouted down as a crude error. It might be a contentious point, but it’s clearly not something that’s been refuted in so thoroughly a way that it can be dismissed as flat-out wrong; it is, rather, the sort of thing that would be the subject of a typical undergraduate essay, where a student could reasonably be expected to argue the case in any number of ways.

My own feeling on this is that while Nazi Germany was not formally an atheist state, there’s a strong case to be made that it was materially one, and that it certainly was a state directed towards atheism. Of course, the first thing you’d have to do in addressing this kind of question is define how you understand the term ‘atheist state’, and this isn’t something that’s simple to do.

Think, for instance, of how people might contest descriptions of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China as ‘secular states’. Dictionary definitions, at least in English, are really just useful starting points, but the primary meaning of ‘secular’, according to the Concise OED in front of me, is ‘not religious, sacred, or spiritual’; by this definition they would seem very much to be secular states, in that neither state recognised religious roots, let alone the notion of a spiritual reality greater than themselves.

I’d therefore say it’s entirely fair to call Nazi Germany a secular state, if not necessarily an atheist one, but it could be countered that nothing in that Concise OED definition says ‘openly hostile toward’, which Soviets certainly were, for instance.  It’s quite true that nothing in the definition says that but neither does anything in the definition say anything to the contrary. Even Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, concedes that ‘the hatred of Jews in [Nazi] Germany expressed itself in a predominantly secular way,’ though of course he tries to get round this by blaming this on Germany’s religious culture more than four hundred years earlier, as though neither the Reformation nor the Enlightenment had happened in the meantime.

(Leaving aside how those who are so keen to blame modern problems on our medieval forebears tend to be rather less willing to give them credit for universities, the banking system, science, and a host of other things they really did bequeath to us.)

Anyway, if we accept the basic OED definition and use a bit of set theory, we should say:
‘The set of secular states is the set of all states that do not recognise a religious, sacred, or spiritual reality including both those states that are openly hostile toward religion and those that are not openly hostile toward religion’.
Given this, what might constitute an ‘atheist state’, and how might it differ from a ‘secular state’? People have a tendency to conflate secularism with atheism, but I think this such conflation as inaccurate as the conflation of atheism with humanism; while atheist states would surely be secular ones, atheist states hardly exhaust the limits of what secular states could be, said states presumably having the capacity to be agnostic or simply apathetic in character. Presumably, then, an atheist state would be a state which recognised nothing higher than itself, and which sought to abolish or to subordinate religious activity and belief.

That last point could be contentious, of course, but I think it matters; religious activity is essentially idolatrous if it is not directed above all to God, and if the state seeks to subordinate or control religious activity so that its focus is other than God, its aim can accurately be described as the corruption of religion and the denial of worship to God. This was something Karl Barth came to believe during the rise of the Nazis: that their basic crime was an offence against the First Commandment, with all the other offences and horrors they’d go on to commit being consequences of that.

And that brings us to Hitler…
More specifically, what can we say of Nazi Germany? Well, if we start by looking at the German political leadership, we immediately hit a stumbling block in Hitler himself: sometimes he appears to be a devotee of a ‘Christ’ of his own creation, an Aryan who fought against Jews; in private conversations he was scathing about Christianity; in public he would often talk up Christianity especially as a cultural phenomenon; on many other occasions he described himself as an agent of ‘Providence’; and at other times he presented himself and put forward the views of a solid and cynical materialist. 

Michael Burleigh snootily observes in Sacred Causes that ‘Hitler was a lazy, dilettantish autodidact rather than a systematic thinker, so one should not strain to discover coherence or consistency in his views on religion or much else’, and indeed, when we look at major studies on Hitler and the Reich, we find very different analyses...

While Ian Kershaw regards Hitler’s pro-Christian statements as simulation, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, the first part of his recent two-volume biography of Hitler, finds plenty of evidence that Hitler was a devotee of ‘Providence’, regarding himself as an agent of it, and also cites him talking of his destiny to complete what he regarded as Christ’s ‘struggle against the Jew’.

Alan Bullock, however, reckoned that Hitler’s talk of ‘Providence’ was simple projection, a rhetorical way of expressing his own sense of purpose or destiny; in Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, he says that aside from being contemptuous towards Christianity which he was determined to destroy when the war was over, ‘Hitler was a rationalist and a materialist, with no feeling or understanding for either the spiritual side of human life or its emotional, affective side’. 

Richard Evans, in The Third Reich at War: How the Nazis led Germany from Conquest to Disaster, reckons that Hitler’s hatred of Christianity reached new heights during the war, with Hitler emphasizing again and again his belief that Nazism was ‘a secular ideology founded on modern science.’ He quotes Hitler as saying that in the long run, ‘National Socialism and religion will no longer be able to exist together.’

Insofar as any kind of pattern can be discerned in Hitler’s views, Michael Burleigh argues in The Third Reich: A New History, that:
‘the overwhelmingly Christian character of the German people meant that Hitler dissembled his personal views behind preachy invocations of the Almighty, and distanced himself from the radically irreligious within his own party, even though his own views were probably more extreme.  […] In reality his views were a mixture of materialist biology, a faux-Nietzschean contempt for core, as distinct from secondary, Christian values, and a visceral anti-clericalism.’
William L. Shirer, author of the controversial but highly influential The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, took the view that Nazism tapped into a principle central to German society since Luther’s time which entailed giving ultimate authority to a single temporal ruler; this view is highly unpopular in Germany, but nonetheless, Shirer is good on the whole ‘German Christian’ phenomenon. Noting that although Hitler was nominally a Catholic (and thus as a baptised person was ontologically a Christian), his 1920 party platform took the view that religious liberty was only acceptable insofar as it did not challenge ‘the moral feelings of the German race’. Whatever they were.

In 1932 the ‘German Christians Faith Movement’ was founded, with about 3,000 Protestant pastors being members by the following year, when a new ‘Reich Church’ was established. It was Hitler’s view that Ludwig Mueller, his ‘Reich Bishop’, would have to take control of the direction of those churches that did not voluntarily fall into line.

In 1935, Hitler appointed Hans Kerrl as minister for Church Affairs, a clear sign of the extent to which he expected the State to control religion in Germany. Shirer quotes Kerrl as saying that the Catholic bishop of Muenster had tried to make it clear to him that ‘Christianity consists in faith in Christ as the son of God,’ but that this made him laugh. ‘Christianity is not dependent on the Apostles’ Creed,’ he said, but was represented by the party in which ‘the Fuehrer is the herald of a new revelation.’ 

A thirty-point programme for the Reich Church was drawn up during the war, claiming the right to control all churches within the Reich; determining to eradicate ‘the strange and foreign Christian faiths’; forbidding the publication and dissemination of the Bible; replacing priests and pastors with Reich orators, abolishing crosses, crucifixes, Bibles, and images of saints from the church buildings; and replacing these with swastikas, copies of Mein Kampf, and a sword which would stand to the left of the altar.

While it’s clear that given how he associated atheism with Bolshevism and Communism, Hitler would never have described himself as an atheist or Nazi Germany as an atheist state, it’s equally clear that in practical terms, Hitler’s aim was solidly atheistic: he sought to deny worship to God by setting up the State, the material expression of the German Race, as an object of worship, with him as its prophet. For Hitler, and for the Reich, there could be no ‘god’ other than the Fatherland itself. As Richard Evans puts it, to Hitler’s mind, ‘the future was Nazi and the future would be secular’.

In short…
Whether we call this radical secularism, atheist humanism, secular religion, or simple idolatry is, of course, something that can be debated. There’s a powerful case to be made, as did the writers of Kulturkampf: Reports from the Reich before and during the war, that Nazism was an Ersatzreligion, an atheistic substitute religion that denied honour to God in favour of an idolatrous devotion to ‘strength’ or sheer natural power. Churchill evidently shared this view, in some sense at any rate, describing Nazism and Communism in 1937 as ‘non-God religions,’ in which, he said, ‘You leave out God and you substitute the devil.’ But this, too, can be debated.

Nazi Germany was, after all, a work in progress. Difficult though it may be to imagine, it could have got even worse.

-- From the files, January 2014

09 April 2014

The Map is Not the Territory: Herodotus and the Myth of Hoplite Battle

Another piece from the archives -- April 2003, believe it or not -- where it's just been gathering dust...

* * * * * * *

There was an article in the New York Times last week, examining the books which have had the greatest impact of late in the White House. Last Autumn Dick Cheney read An Autumn of War by Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian, whom he later invited to dinner. Cheney told his aides that Hanson’s writings reflected his philosophy. In An Autumn of War Hanson wrote approvingly of the ancient Greek view of war as ‘terrible but innate to civilization — and not always unjust or amoral if it is waged for good causes to destroy evil and save the innocent.’ He asserted that we were in an ‘outright bloody war against tyranny, intolerance and theocracy,’ and he called for going to war ‘hard, long, without guilt, apology or respite until our enemies are no more.’[1]

Hanson has long argued that the ‘Hoplite Battle’ was the central military act in ancient Greece. This ‘Hoplite Battle’ was a swift and decisive clash of well-armed social equals, fighting and willing to die in defence of their lands. These social equals, Hanson believes, relied not on ruse or cunning for victory, instead depending on their own courage, discipline, and martial skill. E.M. Walker, writing in the first edition of the Cambridge Ancient History elegantly explained that ‘To the Greeks a battle was in the nature of a duel; it was an agon, in which honour was satisfied and the pursuit ceased when the enemy acknowledged defeat by asking for a truce for the burial of his dead.’ Such battles were almost inevitably ritualistic, as W.R. Connor argues in his 1988 article on the symbolism of early Greek land warfare.

This model of hoplite battle generated by believers in a Greek way of war is well-known and generally accepted. 

The opposing armies would deploy on a plain, typically agricultural land at the edge of the invaded territory. Often organised by tribal regiments, arrayed in a line with the best men stationed in the front and rear ranks, the heavy infantry would be protected on the flanks by light infantry and cavalry. Omens would be taken, and sacrificial animals slaughtered in a ritual shedding of blood. Commanders would address their men, and the signal for battle would be given. Both armies would advance, covering the last hundred or so yards at a run. It seems unlikely that the two armies collided at full tilt, but when they met a giant melee of pushing and stabbing would begin. Men must have fallen, whether dead or wounded, or simply because they lost their footing due to pressure from behind. As men fell, gaps would have appeared in the front lines, which enemy hoplites sought to enlarge; eventually the pushing – the othismos – would enable one army to penetrate the enemy line. This breaching of the line, the pararrhexis – was a sure sign of defeat, and the army whose line had been broken would turn and run. The victorious army would generally not pursue for long, instead opting to make the battlefield its own; they stripped the armour from the enemy dead and gathered their own dead for burial. A victory marker, called a tropaion, would be erected at the spot where the enemy line had been broken and the enemy had turned and fled. The defeated army, having regrouped, would send a herald to request a truce to enable them to retrieve their dead: this request was an admission of defeat; indicating that the outcome of the battle had been accepted

The basic origins of this thesis are clear enough. In a famous speech he attributes to the Persian Mardonius,[2] Herodotus describes the Greek Way of War, noting that:
‘When they have declared war against each other, they come down to the fairest and most level ground that they can find and there they fight, so that the victors come not off without great harm; and of the vanquished I say not so much as a word, for they are utterly destroyed.’ (Hdt. 7.9)
This passage from Herodotus is generally taken at face value and reinforced by passages from Thucydides,[3] Demosthenes,[4] and particularly Polybius [5] in order to gain an insight into the ‘Greek Way of War’.

The problem with these passages is that they all highly rhetorical; they are hardly sober reflections on the nature of contemporary warfare. The core passage from Herodotus is exceptionally complex, loaded with problems and ambiguities. Remember at all times that this speech surely does not represent anything Mardonius said; rather these words have been put into his mouth by the Greek Herodotus. Why? In the first place its main function is to show the heroism of the free Greeks, who are willing to die to defend their homeland; unlike, in this respect they stand in sharp contrast to the Persians, who like to fight their wars without unnecessary casualties. The Greek willingness to sustain casualties horrifies Mardonius; yet modern calculations suggest that in most Greek battles the defeated army would suffer perhaps 14 or 15 per cent losses, with the victor losing only one man in twenty. It is also odd to see a Persian being surprised at the Greek desire for decisive battle, since earlier in his account Herodotus shows the Persians as deeply exasperated by the Scythian refusal to face them in the open field; the Scythian scorched earth policy so infuriated the Persians that Darius supposedly wrote to the Scythian king to ask him to face the Persians in the open field (Hdt. 4.126). The historicity of this letter may be questionable, but of more interest is the fact that when it suited his purposes, Herodotus was quite capable of presenting the Persians as devotees of decisive battle.

It’s also odd that Herodotus represents Mardonius as seeing the Greeks as tactically inept and not inclined to use terrain to their advantage; think what happened at Thermopylae, one of history’s finest examples of the tactical use of terrain (Hdt. 7.201-228; Diod. 11.6-10). Is Herodotus simply saying that the Persians misunderstood the Greek capacity for flexibility in warfare?

Consider the passages from Demosthenes (9.47-52) and Polybius (13.3.2-7): both men are harking back to a Golden Age of Hoplite Warfare that may never have existed. Polybius appears to be talking about the Lelantine War, more than five centuries before his own day. And Demosthenes is praising the honourable methods of the old Spartan enemies, despite the fact that in the funeral speech ascribed to him by Thucydides, Pericles scorned those very Spartans for their reliance on stratagems and ruses! (Thuc. 2.39.1) The rhetorical content of both passages renders them automatically suspect. Even the passage from Thucydides (4.126.5-6), who at least knew what he was talking about, is not entirely safe. After all, it purports to represent what Brasidas said to inspire a force of troops who were relatively new to hoplite warfare, as they were feeling threatened by ‘savage’ Illyrians. It is hardly surprising that he would laud their method of warfare.

We need to keep these issues in mind, as when presented with a picture as compelling as that drawn by Hanson, it is all too easy to forget that this is a ‘model’ or an ‘ideal type’. It is a tool to enable us to gain understanding of Greek battle, synthesizing features which are common to many, but by no means all, Greek battles in an attempt to manufacture a mental construct which never ‘really’ existed. This does not mean that the model is useless, simply that we have to be careful how we apply it. There’s a school of ‘pop psychology’ called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, one of the central principles of which is that ‘The map is not the territory’. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of NLP, when it comes to Greek Warfare we should make a point of keeping in mind this distinction between maps and territories.

Consider firstly the claim that the ‘Hoplite Battle’ was the central act of Greek warfare. This claim simply doesn’t bear serious scrutiny. It is, frankly, disingenuous to speak of ‘Greek warfare’ and ‘hoplite warfare’ as if the two were synonymous. In Thessaly, for instance, cavalry was the dominant military arm; this is hardly surprising when one envisages the Thessalian landscape’s plains and gently rolling hills (Plat., Leg. 1.625d); there appear to have been Thessalian hoplites, but they were less significant than the cavalry (Xen., Hell. 6.1.8-9). The ‘primitive’ Greeks in the mountains of western Greece, such as the Acharnanians, Aetolians, and Ozolian Locrians, fought as lightly-armed missile troops, specialising in skirmishes and ambushes (Thuc. 1.5, 3.94, 97-8). The Cretans and Rhodians were famous for their skills with the bow and sling, respectively. The Greeks of the island poleis may have been more inclined to naval rather than land warfare – after all, who were they going to fight? The Sicilian Greeks appear to have relied far more on their cavalry than on their hoplites; Thucydides’ account of the early stages of Athens’ doomed Sicilian expedition indicates that the Syracusan hoplites were inexperienced and ineffective, unlike their potent cavalry and missile troops.

It could be countered that although these states were all Greek, none of them was truly a mainstream Greek society. What of the Greeks in the ‘hoplite heartland’ of the Peloponnese, Central Greece, and Euboea? For states such as Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, Argos, Plataea, and so forth, warfare generally meant hoplite warfare. But in some respects the very term ‘hoplite warfare’ seems meaningless. In the first place, as Louis Rawlings has argued, hoplite warfare did not solely consist of battles. Hoplites could on occasion fight as marines, and could serve a police function or perform garrison duties, as well as participating in raids and reprisals – effectively acts of guerrilla warfare.

In addition to this, the Hanson thesis assumes that Greek warfare followed an uninterrupted learning curve, where two centuries or more of ‘pure’ hoplite warfare came to an end with the Persian Wars, after which hoplite battle became more and more sophisticated over the course of the Peloponnesian Wars and the Theban Hegemony. Such an assumption is unwarranted, and is lacking in evidence, as there is hardly any evidence for how battles were fought before Marathon, and what little evidence there is appears to contradict Hanson’s idea. Furthermore, this thesis ignores cultural differences between various Greek states and assumes that all hoplite armies fought in an essentially identical fashion, which was not the case.

Consider the Athenian army, which appears to have been officially mobilised very rarely before the late sixth century. Scythian archers were a common subject on Athenian vase paintings in this period; curiously, on some vases they are shown as operating in association with the regular infantry, shooting from between the hoplites of the front ranks. They are reminiscent of the archers in the Iliad, relying on their comrades’ shields for protection (Hom., Il. 4.112-4, 8.266-72). It might seem unsafe to rely on Vase illustrations as evidence for Athenian warfare during the ‘Golden Age of Hoplite Battle’, but this notion of missile troops being deployed amongst the hoplites seems to have been a Spartan practice during the seventh century. Several passages from Tyrtaeus testify to the importance of missile troops in early Spartan warfare, notably when he exhorts them as follows:
‘And you, light-armed, squatting under a shield here and there, must throw great rocks and hurl smooth javelins while you stand close to the heavy armed.’ (Tyrt. Fr. 11.35-8)
Lest we be tempted to argue that missile troops were integrated into the Spartan army only in its early history, it is worth contemplating Herodotus’ somewhat cryptic statement that each Spartan at the battle of Plataea was accompanied by seven helots, while a single helot accompanied each hoplite of the perioikoi. These helots were equipped as light-armed missile troops, and were reportedly ‘in attendance’ on the hoplites, which probably indicates that they were not deployed simply on the flanks (Hdt. 9.10.1, 9.29.1). This is irreconcilable with the notion of hoplite battle as a battle of equals, with the disdain supposedly felt by hoplites for the use of missiles in battle, and with the basic notion of hoplite tactics being based on solid lines of heavily armed infantrymen.

Thucydides makes Pericles scorn the Spartans for their reliance on trickery, and their tactics at Thermopylae seem to defy everything that the model of ‘Hoplite Battle’ takes for granted. Herodotus claims that the Spartan hoplites at Thermopylae turned and pretended to flee, only to turn back and strike the Persians who had broken ranks and fallen into disorder in attempting to press their apparent advantage (Hdt. 7.211.3). Such a stratagem looks decidedly unGreek, foreshadowing the famous ‘Parthian Shot’ or even Mongol tactics. It might not be surprising that the Spartans should have been capable of such a manoeuvre, though, considering the fact that unlike the free citizen militias so feted by Hanson, they were in effect professional soldiers who engaged in a life-long training programme. Even the Athenian phalanx at Marathon, however, appears to have exhibited a degree of flexibility unimaginable for the phalanxes we read of in the pages of Thucydides and Xenophon; or at least unimaginable for their phalanxes as seen through the prism of our model of ‘hoplite battle’ (Hdt. 6.113).

If the Spartans and Athenians offer exceptions to the model of ‘Hoplite Battle’, the Thebans stand out in blatant defiance of it. The hoplite infantry was indeed the dominant military arm in Boeotia, but the aristocratic cavalry played a crucial role in Boeotian battles, notably the Boeotian victory over Athens at Delium in 424 (Thuc. 4.90-6). The Boeotian cavalry pursued the defeated Athenians until nightfall; this murderous pursuit cost the Athenians dearly and was hardly in accordance with the spirit of ‘Hoplite Battle’ (4.96.8, 101.2). What’s more, the cavalry had been instrumental in the Boeotian victory, rather than just its aftermath. The Boeotian left wing had been under pressure from the Athenian right, so Pagondas sent two cavalry squadrons to support the beleaguered infantry. The cavalry rode behind a hill, staying out of sight, and appeared in such a way as to surprise the Athenians who broke and fled, thinking that a new army had arrived (4.96.5-6). Such reliance on surprise might seem contrary to the openness so characteristic of conventional model of ‘Hoplite Battle’, but it was clearly not regarded as dishonourable among the Boeotians: it seems clear that the Boeotian victory over Athens at Coronea in 446 was regarded as a heroic victory (3.62.5, 67.3, 4.92.6), despite being an ambush rather than a set-piece battle (1.113.2).

The notion of the ambush at Coronea being a decisive battle – and it surely was decisive – is an interesting one, as it forces the question of what Greeks thought of when they spoke of battle. When Greeks spoke of battle, did they automatically mean the set-piece hoplite battle as envisaged by Hanson, and apparently as indicated by Herodotus in his Mardonius speech? Hanson argues, following Pritchett, that the existence of an extensive vocabulary devoted purely to set-piece hoplite battles demonstrates the centrality of shock battle to Greek culture. The careful delineation of the set-piece battle's various stages and areas of the battlefield might support this thesis, but while this certainly might indicate how important shock battle was to the Greeks, it might equally mean nothing more than that that unlike other forms of military engagement, the pitched battle between hoplites had easily distinguished components. After all, the fact that an activity has its own jargon hardly indicates how important it was to the wider culture.

Such pitched battles were known as ‘drawn-ups,’ as ‘battles by agreement,’ as ‘battles in the plain,’ and as battles that were ‘just and open.’ The problem with this analysis is that with the exception of parataxis – ‘drawn-up’ – these terms are quite rare in our sources. This perhaps suggesting that the pitched battle was a far less frequent occurrence than modern writers would like to admit. There is no doubt, for instance, that the battle of Coronea in 446, as mentioned already, was a fully-credited battle, but it would be hard to use any of the terms Pritchett and Hanson cite to describe it. Or look at the battles of Sphacteria in 425 or Amphipolis in 421 – both battles were notable for the asymmetry of the opposing sides’ losses – for example, seven of Brasidas’ men fell at Amphipolis, as against 600 or so of Cleon’s – this asymmetry is attributed by Thucydides to neither battle being a pitched or drawn up battle (Thuc, 4.38.5, 5.11.2). But even the term parataxis was not used exclusively to refer to hoplite battles. Xenophon uses the term for cavalry formations (Hell. 4.3.5, 7.5.23), and Polybius uses it not specifically for Greek infantry encounters, but also for battles between Romans and Gauls (2.18.2, 2.26.8), Romans and Gauls and Etruscans together (2.20.2, 4), and Macedonian phalangites against Illyrians (2.70.6).

Other terms for battle are frustratingly vague, and are never applied in a manner exclusive to the pitched hoplite battle. The Homeric term ponos, used by Herodotus on occasion, really just means ‘toil’ or ‘struggle’ (Hom., Il. 6.77; Hdt. 6.114, 7.224.1), and the verb symballein, conveying the sense of ‘coming together’ is used to refer to battle in a vague sense by both Homer and Herodotus (Hom., Il. 3.70, 20.55; Hdt. 1.77, 1.82, 7.210.2). Kindunos, meaning ‘danger’ or ‘risk’, is used frequently by Polybius (1.33.4, 34.9, 2.28.9, 3.84.15), but again has no specific application to hoplite warfare, and even agon, which basically means ‘contest’, is usually applied to battles in a largely metaphorical way, whether by Phormio addressing his men (Th.2.89.8) or Polybius describing the battles of the Trebia or Cannae (3.71.5, 116.2).

The term mache is indiscrimately applied to battles of all sorts by Greek writers. It implies virtually nothing about the nature of the fighting which took place. Homer uses it constantly for mass fighting, but also occasionally for single combat (Il. 7.263, 11.255, 11.542). Herodotus describes pitched battles such as Marathon and Plataea as machai (6.117.1, 9.69.1), but also uses the term to mean simply a style of warfare, as practised by the Lydian cavalry, the Sagartians, or even the Greeks, in the Mardonius speech (1.79, 7.85.2, 7.9.1). Thucydides uses the term in a broad sense for the encounters at Sphacteria (4.39.1), Delium (4.93.2, 95.2, 101.1, 101.3), Amphipolis (5.11.2, 12.2), and Mantinea (5.74.1, 75.1, 75.4). This is particularly striking, when we remember that he specifically said that neither Sphacteria nor Amphipolis was a pitched battle; it might seem odd that he does not apply any more precise term than mache to describe Mantinea, say. Xenophon also uses this vague, generalised word when he writes of such classic set-piece encounters as the Nemea River, second Coronea, Leuctra, and second Mantinea (Hell. 4.2.23, 4.3.16, 6.4.8, 7.5.27); but also uses it in the famous ‘Tearless Battle’ of 368 (Hell. 7.1.32), even though this was not even a battle; no fighting took place, only the slaughter of fleeing Argives and Arcadians.

Where does this leave us? The ‘hoplite battle’ is to some extent a chimera; set piece battles took place on a surprisingly infrequent basis. Interstate warfare was indeed a commonplace of Greek life, but when we read that a battle took place, we should not automatically assume that it was a pitched battle between two similarly armed and trained groups of hoplites. Ancient rhetoric has led modern writers to ignore the evidence, and instead to force the facts that we have to fit a flawed and generalised theory. Herodotus’ celebrated description of the Greek way of war, although it is very useful for studying the ideology of what set-piece battles did take place, does not provide us with a microscope to scrutinise all ancient battle accounts. Rather, it is a distorting mirror, warping the way we study Greek warfare. Without Herodotus to lead us astray we might not have been tempted to assume a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of Greek warfare, and would have recognised that there was no ‘Greek Way of War’. Greece in the Archaic and Classical periods is best viewed as a military matrix, throwing up many variants on how heavily-armed infantry could be used in battle, with or without the assistance of cavalry, missile troops, or even ships.

University of Warwick, April 2003.

[1] Kakutani, Michiko, ‘Critic’s Notebook; How Books Have Shaped U.S. Policy’, New York Times, April 5, 2003, Late Edition – Final, Section D, Page 7, Column 5.

[2] Yet wars the Greeks do wage, and, as I learn, most senselessly they do it, in their wrongheadedness and folly. When they have declared war against each other, they come down to the fairest and most level ground that they can find and there they fight, so that the victors come not off without great harm; and of the vanquished I say not so much as a word, for they are utterly destroyed. Yet speaking as they do the same language, they should end this dispute by the means of herald and messengers, and by any means other than fighting; or if needs must that they war against each other, they should discover each where the strongest defence lies, and there make his essay. (Hdt. 7.9.2)

[3] Now as for these Illyrians, for those who have had no experience of them, the menace of their attack has terror; for their number is indeed dreadful to behold and the loudness of their battle-cry is intolerable, and the idle brandishing of their arms has a threatening effect. But for hand-to-hand fighting, if their opponents but endure such threats, they are not the men they seem; for having no regular order, they would not be ashamed to abandon any position when hard pressed; and since flight and attack are considered equally honourable with them, their courage cannot be put to the test. Besides, a mode of fighting in which everyone is his own master will provide a man the best excuse for saving himself becomingly. They think, too, that it is a less risky game to try to frighten you from a safe distance than to meet you hand to hand; otherwise they would not have taken this course in preference to that. And so you clearly see that all that was at first formidable about them is but little in reality, startling merely to eye and ear. If you withstand all this in the first onrush, and then, whenever opportunity offers, withdraw again in orderly array, you will the sooner reach safety, and will hereafter know that mobs like these, if an adversary but sustain their first onset, merely make a flourish of valour with threats from afar in menace of attack, but if one yields to them, they are right upon his heels, quick enough to display their courage when all is safe. (Thuc.4.126.5-6)

[4] But for my own part, while practically all the arts have made a great advance and we are living today in a very different world from the old one, I consider that nothing has been more developed and improved than the art of war. For in the first place I am informed that in those days the Lacedaemonians, like everyone else, would spend the four or five months of the summer “season” in invading and laying waste the enemy’s territory with heavy infantry and levies of citizens, and would then retire home again; and they were so old-fashioned, or rather such good citizens, that they never used money to buy an advantage from anyone, but their fighting was of the fair and open kind. But now you must surely see that most disasters are due to traitors, and none are the result of a regular pitched battle. On the other hand you hear of Philip marching unchecked, not because he leads a phalanx of heavy infantry, but because he is accompanied by skirmishers, cavalry, archers, mercenaries, and similar troops. When, relying on this force, he attacks some people that is at variance with itself, and when through distrust no one goes forth to fight for his country, then he brings up his artillery and lays siege.  I need hardly tell you that he makes no difference between summer and winter and has no season set apart for inaction. […] For so far as a campaign is concerned, provided, men of Athens, we are willing to do what is necessary, we have many advantages, such as the nature of his territory, much of which may be harried and devastated, and countless others; but for a pitched battle [agōn] he is in better training than we are. (Dem. 9.47-52)

[5] The ancients, as we know, were far removed from such malpractices. For so far were they from plotting mischief against their friends with the purpose of aggrandizing their own power, that they would not even consent to get the better of their enemies by fraud, regarding no success as brilliant or secure unless they crushed the spirit of their adversaries in open battle. For this reason they entered into a convention among themselves to use against each other neither secret missiles nor those discharged from a distance, and considered that it was only a hand-to-hand battle at close quarters that was truly decisive. Hence they preceded war by a declaration, and when they intended to do battle gave notice of the fact and of the spot to which they would proceed and array their army. But at the present they say it is a sign of poor generalship to do anything openly in war. Some slight traces, however, of the ancient principles of warfare survive among the Romans. For they make declaration of war, they very seldom use ambuscades, and they fight hand-to-hand at close quarters. (Polyb. 13.3.2-7)

18 March 2014

A note on New Testament authorship...

About a month or so back, I got into a discussion about the authorship of New Testament texts, with me being told quite firmly that it was only in the late second century that the canonical Gospels first became associated with the evangelists to whom they're traditionally attributed. As you can imagine, I responded with equal firmness that this most certainly wasn't the case, and, well, after a short gallop through the data I was asked to sum up what I'd said in writing and to say why I thought this mattered. In the end, I thought it best to outline the whole case with the summary tagged on at the end as a kind of précis. Like so.

Early Associations With Authors
Irenaeus of Lyons, writing around 180, is the first extant author who can be said beyond reasonable doubt to identify the four canonical Gospels: he speaks of the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John, and criticises those groups that use only one of these Gospels to the exclusion of the others. It’s telling that he does not present his association of these Gospels with these authors as a novelty; rather, this is something he expects his audience to take for granted, as an established fact.

If the original form of the Muratorian Canon can be dated to 170 or so, we can recognise a slightly earlier instance of an author associating the four Gospels with their conventional authors, but leaving aside how the text of the Canon is incomplete, the dating is far from safe.

More interesting is Justin Martyr’s Apology, dating to 150 or so and recording how Christians of his era would attend Mass where ‘the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read’; Justin obviously says nothing more specific, given his audience, but he appears to be testifying here to how Christians of the mid-second century regarded the Gospels as the apostles’ personal accounts of their time with Jesus. This was around the time, of course, when Marcion was proposing a limited but real Biblical canon composed only of a carefully-pruned Luke and the Pauline letters.

Earlier still, in the first decades of the century we have Papias, fragments of whose texts survive in the writings of Irenaeus and Eusebius; Irenaeus describes him as a pupil of John and peer of Polycarp, as well as the author of the five-volume The Sayings of the Lord Explained. This was still extant in Eusebius’ day, and Eusebius quotes from it to clarify that it was ‘the Presbyter John’ who Papias knew, rather than the Apostle John. He quotes Papias as quoting said Presbyter John:

‘Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teachings to the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no misstatement about it.’

Traditions do not come from nowhere, after all, so it’s hardly surprising that Papias, writing no later than 130, would have believed what he did on the basis of what a teacher of an earlier generation would have told him. Nor should we be surprised that prominent Christians in Asia Minor should have been so familiar with a Roman text like Mark: communications were remarkably fast in the Empire, and we shouldn’t think of Christian communities, any more than any other ancient communities, as isolated backwaters.

Eusebius also quotes Papias as saying of Matthew that, ‘Matthew compiled the Sayings in the Aramaic language, and everyone translated them as well as he could.’ It seems that in the early second century it was thought that Matthew had written a kind of Aramaic proto-Matthew, which had been translated into the Matthew that we have. My suspicion, as I’ve said before, is that proto-Matthew was mapped onto Mark, possibly with some further admixture of sources -- notably the commonly hypothesised 'Q' -- to give us the document we know as Matthew.

We have, then, real evidence that in the early second century Mark was regarded as the author of Mark, with this apparently having been believed in the late first century when Presbyter John would have taught Papias; There are, of course, plenty who dismiss the Papias tradition, but I have never seen a case for doing so that didn’t entail methods that were at least a tad circular.

Pseudonymous Authorship
To associate the New Testament documents, other than a central core of Pauline letters, directly with their traditional authors is often seen as the height of naivety; scholarly orthodoxy points instead to a scenario where texts arose within communities as expressions of their faith, being merely linked with prominent early Christians as a kind of communal imprimatur, whether said documents were Gospel narratives like John or letters like 2 Timothy.

The first problem with this is that this orthodoxy simply isn’t supported by much solid evidence; it is, rather, little more than a nineteenth-century hypothesis derived primarily from the belief that the New Testament documents were so late in authorship that they could no longer be regarded as written by their traditional authors, which in turn posed the problem of why early Christians venerated books they knew weren’t written by the traditional authors. That’s not to say that this is in itself a bad hypothesis, merely that people tend to forget that this is merely a theory, and one singularly lacking in supportive evidence.

In fact, not merely is there a lack of evidence to support the theory, there are serious arguments against its plausibility.

Origen and Eusebius noted that there were question marks over the authorship of 2 and 3 John, James, and Jude, but give no indication that anybody had ever so disputed the traditional authorship of the Gospels or the Pauline letters, say; neither is there any evidence of any of the Gospels having alternative names, like, the Gospel of the Antiochenes or the Gospel of the Ephesians. Indeed, I struggle to think of any post-Homeric books in Classical antiquity that could be described as having arisen from communities rather than being written by individuals.

In Forgery and Counter-Forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, Bart Ehrman argues that pseudonymous authorship was by no means a respectable tradition in antiquity, and that forgery was regularly condemned as such by people who had the tools they needed to identify it as such; we might think of how the first-century Thrasyllus collected a Platonic canon, including as an appendix a collection of texts he believed to be spurious accretions falsely attributed to Plato in subsequent centuries, or how the aforementioned Muratorian Canon dismisses as forgeries intended to further Marcion's Gnostic version of Christianity the supposedly Pauline letters 'to the Laodiceans' and 'to the Alexandrians'. The ancients, it should be remembered, had brains ever bit as good as ours. If Ehrman is right – and he might well be –  it seems unlikely that early Christians would have given a special place to books they knew to be falsely attributed.

This in turn invites another question, though: if early Christians – and their opponents – could have identified forged Biblical texts as forgeries, and yet didn’t do so, might this have been simply because from the first they knew and trusted their provenance?

Much tends to be made of the fact that the Gospels are anonymous books; clearly then, it is regularly held, authorship was subsequently ascribed to them and was done so on questionable grounds. Given the conventions of ancient literature, I find this bizarre: the plays of Euripides and Sophocles are no less anonymous than the Gospels, Plato hardly identifies himself as the author of every Platonic dialogue, and Aristotle certainly doesn’t identify himself as the author of the works ascribed to him, yet we don’t routinely cast aspersions on these on the grounds of their authors’ anonymity. And if the author of Matthew, say, speaks of Matthew in the third person, what of it? Julius Caesar and Thucydides did much the same thing.

Scrolls tended to have tags attached to them, necessary labels in collections of more than a few scrolls. We know that early Christianity originally developed within a Jewish context, so it seems that at least the larger Christian communities must have had collections of Old Testament scrolls which they would have supplemented by Paul’s letters and other documents. These scrolls must have been labelled – doing otherwise would have been like having a library of spineless books. When a community acquired or wrote its first Gospel they could presumably have labelled it ‘Gospel’ but once they came into possession of a second Gospel, it would have been important to label the two Gospels differently, the obvious way of doing so being by reference to their authors.

There is no reason to assume, then, that the Gospels were ever anonymous in any meaningful sense.

Does this matter?
As a general rule, the earlier the source, the more historically valuable it is, and it’s clear that the early Christians believed the historical reality of the faith an issue of paramount importance. Paul, famously, in 1 Corinthians 15 stresses that if the Resurrection isn’t real, then Christianity is a waste of time, but does so only after reeling off a list of witnesses to that Resurrection, most of these being, he wrote, still alive; his point, surely, was that these could be consulted on the accuracy of what he preached. Luke 1:2 makes a point of saying that he and others had learned the story of Christ from ‘those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word’, and John 1:14 seems to imply that the original audience of John included people who had witnessed the risen Christ, as indeed does the comment at John 21:24 that ‘we’ – his community or closest companions within that community  –  ‘know that [John’s] testimony is true’, something that had previously been noted at John 19:35.

In other words, the early Christians clearly thought it mattered that the Gospels should be regarded as having an essentially historical character. And if it mattered for them, should it matter any less for us? 

In the first place, we should have a serious vested interest in truth in general, and the truth of the Gospels in particular. In practical terms too, many people I know who have abandoned their faith have done so because they had come to regard the Gospels as little more than fairy tales written down long after the events they purport to describe. It wasn’t just that they didn’t believe in miracles and exorcisms and so forth, but that they suspected that the Church didn’t do so either or at least didn’t do so consistently; a Gospel read metaphorically was for them a pointless Gospel. The general historicity of the Gospel accounts really matters, and if we play this down we continue to drive people away.

It is perhaps worth noting that the Second Vatican Council explicitly assigned the Gospels’ authorship to the apostles ‘themselves and apostolic men’, such that it seems the Council affirmed Matthew and John as the actual authors of the Gospels assigned to them, even if John essentially dictated his Gospel while Matthew’s contribution to his Gospel may have taken the form of a lost Aramaic proto-Matthew.

I’m not inclined to worry too much about the question of whether Galilean fishermen could ever have written documents as polished – or indeed as Greek – as John or 1 Peter, or indeed about whether they could write at all. John 18:15, for starters, states that ‘the beloved disciple’ was known to the high priest, which suggests that he was rather better connected, and thus perhaps rather better educated, than the average fisherman.

As for the average fisherman, he might in any case have at least occasionally had a level of education to match that of a carpenter or builder, at least one such person being described in the Gospels as talking in Aramaic, reading in Hebrew, and possibly even chatting in Greek, given Jesus’ reported conversation with the Syrophoenician woman of Mark 7:26. As for Matthew, well, given he appears to have been not just a tax collector –  indeed, a customs official –  but a wealthy man able to put on a banquet for a large crowd at a moment’s notice, according to Luke 5:27, I don’t think we should be too sceptical about the prospect of his having been literate.

In any case, after a couple of decades of living in Asia Minor or Rome, it’d hardly be that strange for the likes of Peter or John to have mastered Greek, and it may also have been that they relied on others to polish their writing –  1 Peter 5:12, for example, makes clear that the letter itself was written by one Silvanus, just as Romans 16:22 reveals that Paul’s masterwork was in fact penned by one Tertius – before signing off on the finished product.

(Ghostwriting and approaches analogous to modern speechwriting could go some way to explaining stylistic differences to letters attributed to the same author, of course; I'm not entirely convinced, for instance, that many people, reading Lumen Fidei and Evangelii Gaudium would automatically assume they'd both ostensibly come from the same man.)

In any case, the assumption that people must have lacked literary talent because they smelled of fish always bothers me; it smacks of the sort of snobbishness that tries to assign Shakespeare’s plays to the likes of the Earl of Oxford. Talent isn’t confined to the wealthy, after all, and given a chance, people can shine.

From a specifically Catholic stance, it is worth remembering too that the Council taught that God inspired the Bible’s human authors to consign ‘to writing everything and only those things which He wanted,’ such that ‘everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred authors must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit’. In interpreting Scripture, then, we are called upon to do two things, both being clearly mandated as necessary by the Council: we must read with an eye to the human authorship of texts, noting literary forms and customary styles and conventions, and we must read with an eye to the divine authorship of texts, noting the unity of Scripture, the tradition of the Church, and the harmony that exists within elements of the faith.  

To do otherwise is to read the Bible outside the Church.

In short, then...
Anonymity within texts was common in antiquity, but given how scrolls would typically be labelled for ease of identification, this didn’t mean texts were at any point anonymous in any practical sense. There is no evidence that anybody other than the four traditional authors were ever identified as the authors of the Gospels, and Patristic sources indicate that the Gospels had been identified as written by their traditional authors as early as the late first and certainly in the early second century.

Contrary to scholarly convention in New Testament studies, it was not common in antiquity for texts to be falsely attributed to someone and then venerated by people who knew they weren’t written by their purported authors; forgeries tended to be regarded as such, and spurious texts were treated with suspicion. The belief that New Testament books were honoured as Johannine, Matthean, or whatever, on the basis of having arisen from communities centred around the likes of John and Matthew, was never really more than a hypothesis intended to resolve problems raised by, among other things, the late date at which said books were believed to have been written. Of course, this lateness has itself not been proven, and is all too often treated as a premise, rather than an uncertain conclusion. These theories have calcified into scholarly orthodoxies, but we should always remember that they are just theories, and theories based on precious little evidence at that.

Does this matter? I believe it does, primarily because the authorship of the Gospels is a matter of truth, and truth should be something in which we're all invested. I don’t think it’s good enough to brush this off as though it doesn’t matter.

That’s not the only reason, though: from the first, Christians have believed the basic historicity of the Gospel narratives to be important, especially for apologetic and evangelical purposes; the earlier a text is, the more likely its sources are to have witnessed the events it describes, and the more ‘historical’ we should recognise it as being.  As such, if we really care about sharing the Good News, we should hope that the New Testament documents are early and linked with people who witnessed the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, so that we can share that fact with people. It’s hard for most people to accept spiritual truth unless they’re first convinced of historical truth.