The arrest of Christ, the Judas kiss and Malchus’ ear being cut off

Was The Bible written by slaves?

A new book maintains that enslaved scribes and readers may have affected the shaping of Christian ideas


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the Church of England, the gospel reading for Good Friday is John 18:1 — 19:42, the narrative of Christ’s betrayal, arrest and passion. The reading is relatively long, at least for Anglicans, and temptation abounds to drift off as the familiar story unfolds. The listener indulging that temptation might miss entirely two verses in which a companion of Jesus cuts off the ear of one of the high priest’s slaves.

This story is present in each of the gospel narratives. Mark (14:47), thought to be the earliest canonical gospel, records that “one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear”. Matthew (26:51-54) and Luke (22:49-51) expand the narrative: Jesus rebukes his follower for his violence, and, in the latter, Jesus also heals the slave’s ear. It is only John’s Gospel (18:10), however, that informs us: “The slave’s name was Malchus.”

Nor does Malchus appear only here in John’s passion narrative. When Peter denies Christ for the third time, Malchus’ relative accuses him of being a follower of Jesus: “One of the slaves of the high priest, a kinsman of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ Peter again denied it; and at once the cock crowed” (John 18: 26-27).

These two brief glimpses of an enslaved family in the house of the high priest leave us with more questions than answers. Who was Malchus? How did he come to be the high priest’s slave? How did the writer of John’s Gospel know his name and, more significantly, why did he decide to include it? How were Malchus and his kinsman affected by Peter’s violence and denials of Christ? Conversely, how — if at all — were they affected by Jesus’ healing, death and resurrection?

God’s Ghostwriters: Enslaved Christians and the Making of the Bible, Candida Moss (Little Brown, £25)

Figures such as Malchus and his kinsman are the focus of Candida Moss’ God’s Ghostwriters, a book which aims to tell “the untold story of how enslaved people created, gave meaning to and spread the message of the New Testament”. Moss describes for a general audience the role that enslaved scribes and readers played in Roman literary culture and imagines how such scribes and readers may have interacted with and left their impression upon the New Testament.

Scribal work in ancient Rome, as elsewhere, was difficult and monotonous and was often relegated to slaves or freedmen. Moss uses accounts from classical authors, graffiti and material evidence to envisage the kinds of lives these enslaved scribes may have led.

She draws attention to figures from the New Testament such as Tertius, the scribe who wrote St Paul’s letter to the Romans and the anonymous scribe of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, whose professional hand Paul’s own “large letters” follow.

Focusing especially on Paul’s epistles written from prison, she imagines these scribes “squatted next to the window with stylus in hand and wax tablet balanced on his thigh, ready to take dictation.”

Whilst modern readers often picture Paul sat at a desk, deftly writing his letters with a quill and ink, Moss reminds readers that the work of scratching out words on papyrus, wax or pottery was probably done by someone else, typically someone enslaved or recently freed from slavery.

She also argues that scribes and readers regularly made editorial decisions such as amending drafts, supplying corrections, clarifying “auditory ambiguity” and providing emphasis. These scribal decisions, Moss contends, may have been the source of the various styles found in the Pauline epistles and, in particular, “the pervasive bookish language” of Galatians.

More contentiously, Moss also maintains enslaved scribes and readers may have “affected the shaping of Christian ideas”, citing passages from 1 Thessalonians (5:2-6) and Luke (12) where Christians are urged to keep watch for the Day of the Lord: “arguably, the idea came from an enslaved scribe who themselves may have spent some exhausting nights awake”.

Focusing on the Gospel of Mark, by tradition the scribe and translator of Peter, Moss examines the ways in which Jesus “takes on the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7): his lack of a human father, his job as a carpenter, his use of parables, his presentation as a divine overseer and his death by crucifixion. Moss contends “the enfleshed God could not escape the shadow of ‘slavishness’ precisely because the structure of enslavement undergirded the world of Jesus and his earliest chroniclers”.

Although Moss admits her work is “imaginative”, in some places she allows her imagination too much licence. For example, she interprets the story of the paralytic at Capurnaum (Mark 2:1-12) as an account of four slaves forced to bring their rich master to Jesus. She argues that Jesus’ words to the former paralytic (“I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home”) are a command for “the now able-bodied enslaver to do his own work”.

Likewise, she imagines that the source of the story of the sinful woman washing Jesus’ feet with perfume was “perhaps an enslaved scribe”, rejecting Paul’s “regulations that implicitly excluded enslaved sex workers … Though Luke’s Jesus explicitly forgives the woman, in none of the versions of the story does he condemn her profession or behaviour.”

A fanciful image of Saint Paul writing, from an early 9th century manuscript version of Saint Paul’s letters

Indeed, Moss maintains the Gospel writers frequently left open the possibility for women to have been enslaved sex workers: the 12-year-long “condition” of the bleeding woman whom Jesus healed “might have been read as the consequence of violence and battery. The effects of her mistreatment as a sex worker are on full display.”

Mary the mother of Christ may also have been a sex worker: the Gospel writers’ presentation of her “ambiguous status” and statement in the Magnificat that she is the “slave of the Lord”, Moss writes, “create the possibility for this interpretation”. Yet many such readings are based on scanty textual evidence and seem to read more into the text than from it.

Although Moss’ blending of sacred and secular sources significantly reimagines the writing and reading of the New Testament, on occasion, the comparisons drawn are too disparate. For example, Moss imagines a reading of the Gospel as like an ancient symposium, complete with “drunk guests” and “delicacies like crawfish and pig’s liver”. Though wine and bread were consumed at both, symposia and early Christian gatherings were probably very different affairs, and an abundance of non-kosher foods such as crawfish and pig’s liver seems doubtful.

Moss gives voice and dignity to enlaved contributors to the New Testament, but her conclusions are bleak: “Enslaving ideologies, which have been partly supported and transmitted by Christianity, have provided the foundations for cultural attitudes towards justice, punishment, racism and poverty.”

In her introduction, she writes that “in another bitter irony, enslaved workers were intimately involved in composing, writing, interpreting and spreading a message that bolstered the prestige and power of their enslavers”. The book’s third section, “Legacies”, focuses on how the New Testament has been misappropriated to justify slavery on both sides of the Atlantic.

Moss contends that her work should “broaden the collective understanding not just of who we imagine was responsible for writing these texts but also those with whom Christians imagine themselves reading”.

Amongst those Christians, we should include not only the enslaved scribes, readers and messengers of the ancient world, but also those more recently enslaved who likewise found solace and a call for justice, in New Testament passages like Paul’s proclamation that “there is nether Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

The formerly enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass, drawing on imagery from Jesus’ healing ministry, wrote in 1847 that “the Anti-Slavery platform is based on this kind of religion. It spreads its table to the lame, the halt and the blind. It goes down after a long neglected race. It passes, link by link till it finds the lowest link in humanity’s chain — humanity’s most degraded form in the most abject condition. It reaches down its arm and tells them to stand up. This is Anti-Slavery — this is Christianity”.

Throughout His life, Jesus was surrounded by tradesmen, women, sinners and slaves. In the garden of Gethsemane, one of them is given a name: Malchus, derived from Hebrew melek (“king”). Perhaps he too found hope in Jesus, another king who took on the form of a slave.

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