Pseudonymity and the Bible (Excerpt from Ephesians Study Guide)
Many modern readers find the idea of pseudonymity to be problematic. The idea of a nom de plum is a well understood practice, but writing in the name of a famous person seems unseemly, even fraudulent. The very first syllable is off putting, for “pseudo” means, for us, falsity. Indeed, for me to write a book under the name of a famous theologian, such as Karl Barth, would lead to charges of producing a forgery. How can we accept this text as offering words of truth if it emerges from a false identity. Modern western squeamishness with pseudonymity isn’t something that is shared by every culture, including many cultures living in the early centuries of the Christian era.
It was common practice and considered perfectly acceptable to write a book in the name of another person. Solomon, for example, is the attributed author of most of the Proverbs, while many of the Psalms are attributed to David. There is also a book attributed to Daniel —who may or may not have been a historical figure — that was written several centuries after the era described. Then we have the various authors whose work comprises the book of Isaiah. Within the New Testament, we know that the gospels were written anonymously, with authorship attributed to the books by later tradition —probably in the second century. At least one, if not both, of the Petrine letters are pseudonymous, as is true of Jude.
Among the letters attributed to Paul, the only undisputed letters are those addressed to the Romans, the two Corinthian epistles, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. There is also a whole range of pseudonymous literature that stands outside the biblical canon, but like the canonical texts the reason for writing under the name of a famous person is that the name carried with it a certain sense of authority. As for the letters written in the name of Paul, most scholars believe that the authors represent a theological school of thought that is linked to the person named. Thus, the author of the Ephesian letter is seeking to represent to a second generation church the tradition of Paul’s theology. One of the questions that lies behind the debate over authorship is the identity of Paul. Especially in regard to issues relating to women and to slavery, the Ephesian letter, along with Colossians and the three pastoral letters, seem to have a more rigid or conservative sense to them. This more culturally rigid position seems to stand in contrast to what one finds in the Galatian letter or even the Corinthian letters. By removing Paul from authorship of these discomforting texts, Paul begins to look more progressive (see the arguments in Borg and Crossan The First Paul, 29-58).
- Because there is debate as to the identity of the author of this letter, with many scholars suggesting that the letter was written after Paul’s death in Paul’s name by an associate of Paul’s, how do you feel about the idea of pseudonymity? If this letter is pseudonymous, does that knowledge change how you read and use the letter? Would knowing that it was common practice to write under a pseudonym affect the way you read the text?