Pseudepigraphy and Pseudonymity

Pseudepigraphy refers to written works “falsely ascribed” to an author. Pseudonymity refers to works “falsely named” by an author. I prefer to regard pseudonymity as a type of pseudepigraphy. For works generally considered “pseudepigraphic”, one may distinguish several types, broadly speaking:

  1. Pseudonymous works—that is, works in which the (true) author has written under the guise of a more famous figure. Such writings today are often referred to as literary “forgeries”.
  2. Works which are anonymous, or where the authorship is otherwise unknown or uncertain. In the process of transmission and preservation, scribes and editors would occasionally ascribe such writings to a presumed author; sometimes the attribution simply developed as part of a wider tradition.
  3. Works which are written as representing the words of a main character (usually a central, and famous figure). This is distinct from pseudonymity, though related to it in some ways.
  4. Works which present additional events and exploits of a famous character as authentic historical or biographical material. In other words, these are narrated from the point of view of an eyewitness, as opposed to legendary accounts or “historical fiction” in the modern sense.

While these criteria can be applied to any writing, they relate specifically (and primarily) to discussions of ancient and medieval literature. Things are further complicated by the fact that the term “Pseudepigrapha” tends to be used in a very definite sense: referring to a collection of Jewish (and Christian) writings (c. 300 B.C. to 700 A.D.) which draw heavily upon the Old Testament (hence the qualifying label “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha”). These writings are centered on the Patriarchs of Israel, the Prophets, David and Solomon, and so forth, often purporting to be (or at least written as they are) their authentic words. Much of this literature can be classified as apocalyptic—as meant to convey special revelation of future events; in such instances the Old Testament personage is really a literary device to couch the prophecies within the context of biblical (and/or world) history.

However there is much pseudepigraphic material (Jewish and Christian) beyond the “Pseudepigrapha” proper, including: (a) portions of the so-called (Old Testament) “Apocrypha”; (b) a good number of Dead Sea texts from Qumran; (c) New Testament “Apocryphal” books, many written in imitation of Jewish pseudepigrapha; and (d) a number of prominent Rabbinic works.

Especially sensitive is the question as to whether, or to what extent, pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity occur in the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The traditional-conservative view is reluctant to admit any such occurrence, but many scholars (and most critical commentators) believe that it applies to a good many books. A few examples (the number indicates the type of pseudepigraphy, 1-4, listed above):

  • The Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) is essentially anonymous, but authorship has been traditionally attributed to Moses (#2), and Moses is the speaker of nearly all of Deuteronomy (#3).
  • Again all the books of the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi) are technically anonymous, but clearly claim to represent almost entirely the words of the Prophets whose names are indicated in the opening verses (#3, possibly #2 to a lesser degree).
  • The Psalms are attributed to various authors in the superscriptions, the accuracy (and even inspiration) of which is debated (#2).
  • The Proverbs (much of it), Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs are attributed to Solomon in the text (though the opening verse of the Song does not as clearly indicate authorship); nearly all critical scholars hold that Ecclesiastes and the Song, particularly, were written considerably later (#3, perhaps a bit of #4).
  • The four Gospels, Acts and the Johannine epistles are all anonymous, but the traditional authorship was ascribed to them very early on (early-mid 2nd century at the very latest in the case of the Gospels); it is impossible to judge objectively whether they were applied at the original publication (#2).
  • Critical scholars are nearly unanimous in the view that the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus) and 2 Peter are pseudonymous; many hold the same opinion regarding Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians (#1).

It remains an open question as to whether pseudonymity is, in fact, entirely incompatible with a sound, reaonable doctrine of inspiration. Early Church fathers and officials generally condemned the practice; but it certainly took place, for we have examples of both ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretical’ works from the early centuries which are almost certainly pseudonymous. A famous example from the early middle Ages is the writing of so-called Pseudo-Dionysius—a heady mixture of Christian mysticism and Greek ascetic philosophy, which many later Fathers viewed as authoritative to some degree, due to its apparent authorship by the Pauline disciple Dionysius the Areopagite. If they had ever thought it was a pseudonymous work (a “pious fraud”), orthodox theologians such as Thomas Aquinas would not have tried so hard to make it fit into their system of belief. Subsequent centuries have viewed pseudonymity even more harshly, as an attempt to deceive readers or appropriate another author’s prestige. If seen in this light, pseudonymity would seem to create an ethical problem for any writing purported to be divinely-inspired. However, it is worth asking, to what extent is the pejorative and negative value judgment attending such descriptions as “false”, “fraud”, “forgery”, etc., actually warranted? Should authorship be viewed in terms of literary device or historical fact? These are important questions as we seek to study carefully the text of Scripture with both clear mind and open heart.

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