Pseudepigraphy & Pseudonymity in the NT

In the panel discussion I participated in Tuesday (see post below), the issues of pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity were raised by one of the panelists. Since this is an important issue that challenges the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture, I thought I would post a few thoughts.

1. First, some definitions. Pseudepigraphy (“false superscription”) refers to writings that have been falsely attributed to a well-known person. Pseudonymity (“false name”) is used synonymously to refer to the same phenomena, though as Carson and Moo point out, only the latter term can be traced back into antiquity. Examples include works like Wisdom of Solomon, 3 Corinthians, Assumption of Moses, Testament of Job, etc.

2. This phenomena encompasses a variety of motives, ranging from outright attempt to deceive to mistaken conclusions by well-meaning people. In other words, some authors intentionally claimed their work was that of someone else to deceive the audience and claim the authority of the falsely named author. At the same time, other works over time came to be associated with a figure with no intention to deceive; these were “honest” mistakes.

3. A distinction must be made between those works that are anonymous and later came to be associated with someone and those that make explicit claims to authorship. For example, the work called “Wisdom of Solomon” never explicitly claims to be written by Solomon (though 7:1-14 & 8:17-9:18 strongly suggest it); by contrast 1 Enoch directly claims to come from Enoch himself. This distinction is important when we come to the NT. It is one thing to note that Hebrews was (wrongly) thought by some in the early church to be written by Paul (it is anonymous); it is quite another to say that Ephesians was not written by Paul (despite its explicit claim).

4. Despite the fact that this was a common practice in the ancient world, there is absolutely no evidence that the early church ever knowingly accepted a pseudonymous document as authoritative. Again the discussion of Carson and Moo is instructive; they point out that even works (such as 3 Corinthians) that were highly regarded in parts of the early church were condemned when it was recognized to be falsely written in the name of Paul.

5. Therefore if any of the documents in the NT are in fact pseudonymous, they were accepted unknowingly. Furthermore, given the dating that many scholars give to “pseudonymous” letters such as Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles (usually late 1st century, well after Paul’s death), one must conclude that the recipients knew they were receiving a letter falsely written in the name of Paul. But then at some point this “knowledge” was lost. How does that happen?

6. The direct statements about pseudonymity in 2 Thess 2:1-2; 3:17 are often not fully appreciated. Paul explicitly warns the Thessalonians about being shaken by a letter claiming to be from him, and then concludes by noting that the writing of the postscript in his own hand was a distinguishing mark of his letters. Paul explicitly condemns the writing of a letter in his name. Of course, many critical scholars claim that 2 Thess is itself pseudonymous, which would mean that the real author of the letter was condemning the very practice he was engaging in! Talk about hubris!

7. Claims of pseudonymity, therefore, are usually based largely (if not entirely) on internal matters such as vocabulary, style, theology, etc. But notice how subjective such claims are! Do we really have enough of a body of writing from even Paul to emphatically state that Paul could not have written in a certain way? What about the potential role that a difference in amanuensis (secretary) would make in vocabulary and style. What about the difference in historical circumstances that Paul addresses; wouldn’t they make some difference in vocabulary, style, and theology?

8. At the end of the day, claims of pseudonymity are a direct denial of the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, despite what some may claim. While as evangelicals we must not shy away from critical examination of the NT documents, we must also reject the naturalistic assumptions that frequently drive claims of pseudonymity.

This is but a brief excursion into the subject. If you want further discussion, let me once more direct you to the discussion in of Carson and Moo, pp. 337-350.

16 thoughts on “Pseudepigraphy & Pseudonymity in the NT”

  1. I do think there are enough serious differences in style etc. to warrant some question about whether or not the selfsame individual produced these documents. I don’t think subjectivity enters into it. Philology does.

    I’m struck that you haven’t mentioned the idea of a Pauline school as a partial solution to that problem. Underpinning that, what does it mean to claim Paul as author? Modern ideas about authorship–that an individual either by her own hand or through an agent produced a text–may not apply. Because Paul condemns a certain letter written in his name doesn’t mean he ascribes to modern ideas about authorship.

  2. Annie,

    I am familiar with the school solution. Perhaps I should have mentioned it in the post but the length was already getting out of control.

    The problem that I see with the school theory is that there is no evidence for the existence of such a “school.” Furthermore, the fact that no appeal is made to such a phenomena by the early church in defense of “Pauline” authorship. Finally, the inclusion in these letters of personal details I think demands Pauline authorship.

    I agree that we must be careful about not importing modern theories of authorship, and that we must take seriously the claim of co-authors in letters like Colossians, Philippians, 1 Thess seriously.

    Finally, while not saying that every single claim based on style is entirely subjective, I think it is hard to deny that there is a significant level of subjectivity when assessing style, vocabulary, etc.

    Thanks for stopping by

  3. Annie-

    1. I have to question your philological argument. It seems interesting the level of scrutiny that much scholarship has concerning the Pauline writings. I believe a careful study of linguistics in virtually any language will show natural and sometimes extreme variations for one single author.

    2. I appreciate Dr. Harmon’s appeal to the personal details in the epistles, as well as the warnings given as to other “false” writings.

    3. I also question some current ideas on authorship. I believe Dr. Harmon’s point 4 is well grounded:

    “Despite the fact that this was a common practice in the ancient world, there is absolutely no evidence that the early church ever knowingly accepted a pseudonymous document as authoritative. Again the discussion of Carson and Moo is instructive; they point out that even works (such as 3 Corinthians) that were highly regarded in parts of the early church were condemned when it was recognized to be falsely written in the name of Paul.”

    Thanks you too for letting me chime in!!

  4. Good post, Matt. It’s hard to make pseudipigraphy and pseudonymity sound interesting, and you’ve managed to pull it off!

    I agree with your response to Annie. I’ve always been dumbfounded by the narrow box in which mainline scholars tend to put Paul’s writing style.

    Particularly astounding to me is the suspicion in which Ephesians and Colossians are held. They seem to be rejected, on the one hand, because they’re too similar and have been written to the same region and supposedly Paul wouldn’t do such a thing. On the other hand, they’re rejected because they’re not similar enough and, therefore, could not have been written by the same person.

    I know I’m oversimplifying, here, but come on. Isn’t this a little silly?!

  5. On a related note, Matt, evangelicals are often painted as wanting to hold on to Pauline authorship of all the traditionally Pauline letters because of a wrong-headed commitment to inerrancy, etc.

    In your opinion, are there commitments that drive mainline/liberal scholars to deny these things that are not purely objective and academic?

    I know that’s a loaded question, but I often wonder why a person would invest so much time working on these questions in order to disprove the traditional views. At the end of their lives, will they look back on the time spent pursuing those questions and think, “That was time well spent”?

    I guess my first comment was the scholar in me talking. This comment is the pastor in me talking. We’re a little schizophrenic.

  6. Im curious about the quote of 1 Enoch 1:9 quoted in Jude 14-15. Would this be an example of the church quoting a pseud. work as authorative? What implications does this passage in Jude now have upon inspiration?

    Dustin Smith

  7. Bryan,

    As you well know, EVERYONE has presuppositions that shape one’s reading of the evidence. My sense is that there are many driving forces behind pseudonymity. For some it is a speculative reconstruction of theological development within the early church that asserts some ideas (high christology, universal church, etc.) only came several decades after Jesus. For others it is a set of assumptions regarding the eventual development of structure within the church from an originally charismatically oriented fellowship. And some still hold to modified forms of F.C. Baur’s Hegelian reconstruction of early christianity around the poles of Pauline (thesis), Petrine (antithesis), and Acts (synthesis).

    What frustrates me is that more and more evangelicals are becoming more self-aware and forthcoming about their presuppositions, while many critical scholars cling to the illusion that they are simply neutral observers.

    As for your schizophrenia comment, trying to simultaneously live within both the academy and the church virtually assures constant experiences of various mental illnesses. 🙂

    Having said that, may your tribe increase!

  8. My personal favorite is that Peter could not have written 1 Peter because the Greek is too good, and could not have written 2 Peter, because the Greek is too bad!

  9. matt,

    thanks for this brief, yet detailed explanation.

    is the audio available of the symposium? if so, would you provide a link?

    if it’s not yet available, can you let us know when it is placed on the internet?

  10. Danny,

    Audio is not yet available, and to be honest I do not know if it will be made available. That is not my decision. But if it is made available, I will be sure to post a link.

  11. Your article was perfectly timed since my professor touched on this subject yesterday when discussing James. One of the theories about the authorship of James is that it was put together after his death and sent as a collection of writing of James. Those receiving the letter would have know that James was dead when they received it and it really was written by James, just assembled by someone else.

    Do you think that fits within the bounds of inerrancy?

  12. Michele,

    I am inclined to say such a process does not fit within the bounds of inerrancy, but other might disagree. My problem with this view is that the main reason given is the difficult structure of James and its appearance of hodge-podge units on various subjects. But there is no compelling reason to believe that James himself could not have written such a diverse letter (look at the variety of issues in 1 Corinthians for example).

    Although it is sometime abused, I am always inclined towards the simplest explanation that explains the most evidence, and in the case of James I remain convinced that there is no need for the composite view.

  13. Dustin,

    Sorry for not answering your question sooner. The citation/allusion to 1 Enoch in Jude 14-15 does raise a host of issues; I’ll do what I can briefly here to answer.

    1) Paul quotes secular writings without implying the source itself is inspired; e.g., Acts 17:28 (Aratus) and Titus 1:12 (Epimenides).

    2) John 11:49-50 indicates that Caiaphas spoke prophetically about the Lord’s death for his people without even realizing it.

    3) Therefore simply because a NT author quotes from a non-canonical source does not mean that NT author regarded the source as authoritative or inspired in its totality; rather, it means that the NT author finds the particular statement as true and helpful to his argument.

    This is only a start, but I hope this helps

  14. Differences in style can often be attributed to the fact that the NT authors sometimes use amanuenses (secretaries), as Peter did for 1 Peter.

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