Pseudonymity? Pseudepigraphy? Pseudo*.*?

--could the New Testament letters be such?

(updated 7/4/96) 
There are those who argue that some/many of the NT letters (e.g. the Pastorals--1&2Tim+Titus, 2 Peter) are examples of pseudonymity or pseudepigrapha. Both of these terms (for convenience, hereafter referred to as "pseudox") basically mean 'written by someone, who ascribes the authorship to another.' For example, if I, Glenn Miller, wrote a book called "The Autobiography of Benny Goodman" and published it under the pen-name "Benny Goodman", then that could appropriately be called pseudoepigraphic (i.e. written by someone else than the ALLEGED author).

Anonymous works (those without a author NAMED within the text--such as the gospel of Mark) could still be pseudox IF an author was STRONGLY IMPLIED by the text, such as the OT apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon. Solomon is not mentioned in the book, but the description of the author given in chapters 7-8 as being the King of Israel with the greatest passion for wisdom and knowledge, strongly implies Solomon.

Scholarship divides the potential documents into several categories:

  1. gospels
  2. acts
  3. apocalypes
  4. epistles (i.e. letters)
For the purpose of THIS document, I want to focus exclusively on the issue of EPISTOLARY pseudox (i.e. letters only).

Now, epistles with an EXPLICIT author mentioned (such as Paul in the Pastorals), MUST BE pseudox IF ONE DENIES Pauline authorship (assuming textual criticism agrees that the authorial statement is authentic and not a later, spurious addition.) And, since the early church accepted the Pastorals as being authentic, then one MUST SHOW that pseudox was an ACCEPTABLE practice in the early church (if Pauline authorship is to be denied) or that the church was 'fooled' by the writing and did not KNOW it was pseudox.

Why how could a pseudox be a problem? The fact that 'pseudo*.*' is basically a euphemism for 'forgery', raises the obvious ethical issues. And the practical dangers might be illustrated by imagining a forged written order of a government leader to launch nuclear missiles against a different country. Forgeries attached to great names, can carry great weight, and can accomplish 'great things'--for good or ill.

In a religious context, 'heresies' might be written and ascribed to some religious authority. It might be a well-meaning devotee of the figure, or an unscrupulous schismatic, but in either case it is a misrepresentation of the truth.

So, let's dive in...

  • Was epistolary pseudox a common practice in the world of that day?
  • Yes and no.

    In the Greek secular world, "Yes"; in the Jewish world, "No" (NTLE:205).

    So Guthrie (NTI:1012): "While these motives led to the widespread production of forged epistles in the Greek secular world, the number of pseudepigraphic letters in Jewish and Christian religious literature is surprisingly scant. No doubt in the Christian world it was more difficult to escape detection when the pseudepigrapha were in letter form than when they took the shape of gospels, acts, and apocalypses. Most of the Jewish pseudepigrapha belonged to the sphere of apocalyptic and are not therefore in epistolary form."

  • Do we have any pre-Christian Jewish examples of epistolary pseudox? And if so, do we have any reason to believe they were accepted as legitimate approaches?
  • Among the mass of Jewish apocryphal and pseudoepigraphic writings there are only two that make any pretense of being in the epistolary form--the Epistle of Jeremy and the Letter of Aristeas, but in actuality neither of these is an epistle. The former is a sermon (NTI:1012f; CMM:367), and the second is a narrative about the translation of the OT into Greek.

    For example, consider the one from Aristeas. Although it is addressed to someone, numerous characteristics of it distinguish itself as a narrative (and possibly even an apologetic--see OTP2:9ff), and the tone of the first chapter reminds one of the introductions in Luke-Acts. Consider a few phrases from the beginning (all bold emphases are mine):

    A trustworthy narrative has been compiled, Philocrates, of the meeting which we had with Elieazar, high priest of the Jews, arising out of your attaching great importance to hearing a personal account of our mission its content and purpose. (vs 1)
    It is worthwhile telling you this as well, for I am convinced that because you are more favorably inclined toward the piety and disposition of those who live by the sacred Law, concerning whom we propose to write, you will gladly listen, since you have paid a special visit to us from your island, and wish to hear with us of matters pertaining to the edification of the soul. I had previously sent you the account of what I regarded as the most memorable matters. We received this account of the people of the Jews from the most renowned high priest in renowned Egypt. (vss 5-6)
    But lest we prolong the introduction and indulge in idle chatter, we will proceed to the main part of the narrative (vs.8)
    and, from the closing verse (vs 322): "There you have, Philocrates, as I promised, my narrative..."

    There are none of the standard characteristics of epistolary literature of the day (PLW). This cannot function, therefore, as a example of Jewish epistolary pseudox.

    [The one other piece of data recently advanced as a possible example is the so-called Epistle of Enoch, which is taken from I Enoch 91-103, and as such, does NOT manifest the characteristics of ANY of the epistolary forms of the 1st century. It opens with "Now, my son Methuselah, summon all your brothers...Then he spoke to all of them"--this certainly does not look like a letter.]]

    It is also worthy of note that, although the Greek world did not avoid epistolary pseudox, those elements of Jewish culture that were the most Hellenized among the populace never utilized this device. Hellenistic pseudo-apocalypses abound in the Intertestamental literature, but this epistolary form does not even occur ONCE. This is significant as an indicator of the non-acceptance of this external form as a legitimate means of religious expression.

    What this means is that we have NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER that Jewish epistolary pseudox even EXISTED, much LESS was accepted as a legitimate and ethical device.


  • Next question: Do we have any evidence that epistolary pseudox existed in apostolic times? If so, how was it received?
  • Here we have a little data.

    "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. (2 Thess 2.1-2)
    "I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write. (2 Thess 3.17)
    CMM:367 comments: "This suggests that pseudonymous letters were not entirely unknown; on the other hand, it certainly shows that the apostle did not agree with the practice of pseudonymity--at least in the case where someone was writing a letter in his name! He does not regard it as acceptable; in principle, he repudiates the practice, regarding pseudonymity as something to be guarded against, for he gives his readers a token whereby they might know which writings come from him and which make a false claim."

    To this might be added the observation that of ALL the NT writers, Paul--as the one most familiar with and 'at home in' Greek culture--would have had the greatest possible tolerance for the Greek acceptance of pseudox writings. His rejection of that as an acceptable literary device is therefore even more remarkable and weighty.

    So, even in the mid first-century, we have evidence that pseudox EXISTED but were UNACCEPTABLE by the leadership of the church.


  • So, given almost no precedents and one apostolic warning against it, HOW WIDESPREAD did it end up
  • When we actually get around to looking at the 'hard data' of this allegedly WIDESPREAD phenomenon, we will be shocked to see how few alleged cases even exist! ( I was quite amazed as I investigated this.)

    Consider first the apocryphal epistles listed in J. K. Elliott's The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation based on M.R. James (Oxford: 1993). In a work that comprises almost 700 pages of text, the pagecount taken up by the truly epistolary (Elliott reclasses the Epistula Apostolorum into dialogue, even though preserving the text in James' original placement) is a mere 17 pages (only 10 pages of actual text)!!! For a phenomenon that is accepted by the majority of NT scholars today as being "widespread" and 'normal', this scarcity speaks volumes against the position.

    Elliot lists 5 works:

    1. The Letters of Christ and Agbar (generally considered legendary, dating from the end of the second century, but described by Eusebius as being from the archives of Edessa)
    2. The Letter of Lentulus (13th century, supposedly written by a Roman official during the times of Jesus)
    3. The Epistle to the Laodiceans (early, rejected by the Muratorian canon in 160-170 ad, discussed below, ascribed to Paul--cf. Col 4.16)
    4. The Correspondence of Paul and Seneca (14 letters--each one paragraph long, 4th century date, known by Jerome)
    5. The Epistle to the Alexandrians (rejected by the Muratorian canon, not extant)

    In the cautious, academic tone of the author (TANT:537): "This form was not generally used: writers preferred narrative or an apocalypse as a vehicle for their material. Our apocryphal epistles are few and not impressive."

    Non-canonical examples show a considerable time gap between the death of the 'famous figure' and the subsequent use of his name. For example, in the case of the additions to the Ignatian correspondence (7 letters, late 1st century/early 2nd century), the pseudox 'additions' to his works (5 letters) only begin to show up in the 5th century (NTLE:214).

    So, CMM:368 (emphasis mine):

    "As far as our knowledge goes, there is not one such letter emanating from the Christians from anywhere near the New Testament period, and precious few even from later times. It may be correct that New Testament Christians commonly wrote letters in names not their own (an opinion that scholars routinely perpetuate), but we should be clear that it flies in the face of all the evidence we have about the way letters were written in first-century Jewish and Christian communities.
    There is an almost comical aspect of this discussion to me. It is now clear to me that this 'widespread and common' phenomenon is virtually non-existent in the comparative data. When I now turn to a standard 'liberal' (what a terrible word for that position!) NT Intro by Kummel [INT], I find that there are EIGHT such epistles in the NT (eph, 1 tim, 2 tim, titus, jas, I peter, 2 peter, jude)!!! In other words, we supposedly have more examples that made it INTO the canon than the TWO that did not (Laod, Alex)! We allegedly have more examples INSIDE the NT, than OUTSIDE!

    Think about this for a minute. These scholars assert that the authorial superscription's in the NT epistles cannot be true (due to internal considerations generally), which forces them to assume pseudox. But, they cannot take this 'way out' unless they can be sure that the process existed and was accepted by the church (who did the 'canon thing')! Without 'widespread and common' data that the praxis was a legitimate option, they are stuck. This is 'special pleading' in its purest form.

    The net: we have no data--'hard' OR 'soft'--to support the alleged praxis of NT pseudox. It is as simple as that.


  • But we have some data from the 2nd century church about how they saw the GENERAL problem of pseudox. Did the church approve of it--an ANY form?
  • The early church was VERY aware (read:"hyper") of "Christian" pseudox and did not approve of it (even the literary forms that the Jewish community approved--narratives and apocalyptic), and this disapproval extended to the two epistolary pseudox we saw above (laod, alex). Here are the earliest experiences the church had with it (other than that by Paul mentioned above)--all in the 100-200 ad time frame. [for discussion, CMM:368; NTI:1016ff; NWNTI:152-153]

    The net is this: the early church was ON GUARD AGAINST pseudox--of ALL KINDS, not just letters--and responded with extreme disapproval and rejection at EVERY KNOWN OCCURRENCE of it.


  • IF (1) pseudox deception was consistently rejected by the leadership and IF (2) we somehow STILL BELIEVE in epistolary pseudox (as common, widespread, acceptable), THEN how must the reader have responded to such documents?
  • This is an interesting dilemma.


    Here's what we have come up with so far:

    1. There are no precedents in either 'standard' Jewish or Hellenistic Jewish literature for epistolary pseudox.
    2. The NT indicates that it might have occurred, but demonstrates its disapproval of it.
    3. Actual NT-timeframe cases were VERY rare (2-3 cases?).
    4. The church UNIFORMLY rejected every occurrence of ANY type of pseudox (not only epistolary)
    5. The church used apostolic authorship as one of the major criteria for canonicity (and hence, was VERY scrupulous about pseudonymity).
    6. It simply doesn't make sense of the actual textual data, nor does it make sense from a literary-payload perspective.
    I am forced to conclude, on the basis of the actual literary and historical data, that epistolary pseudox was neither widespread, common, accepted, or potentially useful. 
    Glenn Miller, 7/4/96 
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