The Bible resting on a lectern.

About six years ago I needed reading glasses for the first time. I have written several books on disability but for me, this was the first moment that I asked myself, “What did people do before refractive lenses?” The answer, of course, was simple. They used other people, primarily enslaved people, to read and write. This was so obvious, and the problem must have been so pervasive and yet with a few exceptions we almost never hear about these people in our sources and scholars like myself rarely discuss them.

It's the sort of thing that once you notice you can’t stop thinking about. As I dug into the use of secretaries, copyists, and readers more I began to realize that it wasn’t only people with visual impairments who used enslaved workers to write. This was the default way in which people composed everything from philosophy to love letters. What was true for people in general is even more accurate for the first followers of Jesus. They were not well educated. And so, like other groups, they pooled their resources and rented scribes and copyists to write the stories and letters that we know as the New Testament. It was enslaved couriers who carried and performed those texts, and who were the first to interpret scripture. At every step in the generation of the Bible and the rise of Christianity, we find enslaved people in key positions, making decisions and doing work that would shape the religion.

Perhaps more importantly, there are many things that historians and modern Christians lose sleep over that are explained by thinking about the invisible workers we so rarely discuss.

Professor Candida Moss, University of Birmingham

While people sort of knew some of this, academics had always assumed that these people didn’t really do anything they were just fungible workers. Even though thought that that couldn’t be true, the challenge for me was to prove that these ghostwriters made a difference to the story. And so, I did two things, the first was to look to other fields. To the work of historians of Atlantic slavery who had wrestled with the same problems navigating a dearth of evidence. I read scientific analyses of human psychology and agency; and studies of the motivations of clerical workers from the medieval period to the mid-twentieth century. The second was to return to the evidence: to the ancient manuscripts in European libraries and to the graffiti subversively scrawled on the walls of Rome and Pompeii. In some cases, I got lucky, it was by chance that I stumbled across a first draft in which an enslaved secretary had revised a history text to put enslaved hostages back into the story. The more examples of resistance to slavery, humour, and communication between workers I found buried in archaeological reports and Christian manuscripts, the more enslaved collaborators emerged as coauthors in their own right. This was a revelatory insight for me but it was also challenging: I had to think about my own identity as an author and reconsider the extent to which I can claim ownership of “my” own ideas.

Perhaps more importantly, there are many things that historians and modern Christians lose sleep over that are explained by thinking about the invisible workers we so rarely discuss. To give two examples: Why do some Pauline texts sound different to others? Why doesn’t Jesus know the timing of Judgment Day? Where does the idea of hell come from? Thinking about enslaved collaborators helps people invested in Christianity tackle high-stakes problems like forgery. And it gives people license to push back against problematic passages about eternal damnation, genocide, and slavery.

And yet for me, this isn’t just a book about how we interpret the Bible it’s a book about labor and credit. It’s about the harm caused by erasure. I wrote it during the pandemic; in a period that revealed that feminism hadn’t changed as much about domestic labour as we had thought. And even as I felt overwhelmed by work, homeschooling myself, and protecting myself (as an immunocompromised person) from a disease that had a good chance of killing me, I too was participating in a system that ignored low-status workers. I was having things delivered by people who were putting themselves in harm’s way for me. And so, for me ultimately it isn’t just a book about Christianity it is about invisible labour: about who we choose to see and value and who we do not.

You can find out more about God's Ghostwriters here.