The latest homily from Ken Overberg, S.J., delivered to the faculty, staff, students, and baby-boomers of Xavier University’s Bellarmine Chapel community provides us with an opportunity to discuss the meaning of “authorship” in Scripture. Overberg breathlessly asserts, “The second letter of Peter, the second reading, has an unknown author.” Yet authorship in ancient times didn’t mean the same thing it does today. When we hear “author,” we usually imagine someone picking up a pen or putting his hands on a keyboard and writing an original thought or idea. In ancient times, authorship had a different meaning. Yes, (1) it could mean the sort of direct form familiar to modern readers, but (2) it also could mean the originator of the idea or story dictated his words to a scribe or group of scribes. Additionally, (3) it could mean that a school of disciples or followers formed around the originator to preserve and propagate his ideas, thoughts, words, and stories. Members of this school would have understood themselves as preservationists, not innovators, duty-bound to hand-on those ideas without altering them. Given St. Peter’s stature in the early Church, it isn’t difficult to imagine such a school forming around him. So Overberg is at the very least imprecise when he baldly states that the author of Second Peter is “unknown.” Which is why homilies aren’t the best outlets for historical-critical speculation.
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