Tuesday, January 25, 2011

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?


Excerpts from Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide (Energion Publications, 2010).  For more information about the book see the publisher's page

3 comments:

Beau said...

Bart Ehrman, in "Jesus, Interrupted", argues that pseudonymity in 1st century epistles would have been seen as forgery (had the false authorship been recognized at the time). The common notation of New Testament commentators, that the practice of claiming the authorship of another person, was widely accepted, is simply a false assertion, according to Ehrman.

Though Ehrman is a self-described agnostic, his scholarship on this point is sound. He cites a number of similar examples of forgery in the 1st and 2nd centuries in nonbiblical texts, along with 1st and 2nd century critics of forgery. He also provides citations of similar opinions from conservative scholars such as Terry L. Wilder.

Ehrman differentiates the sort of peudonymity seen in the epistles, from that in the Old Testament books and the gospels. The authors of the OT books and NT gospels make no claims to false names; they are anonymous. Only later were they attributed to Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, by later collectors. This, of course, is acceptable, common, and even attributable to error.

But in the NT epistles in question, (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1&2 Timothy, Titus, and 1&2 Peter) the author himself claims to be Paul or Peter, within the text of the letter itself. Virtually all New Testament scholars agree that some or all of these epistles were not written by the apostles named within the letters. This form of pseudonymity, unlike the later attributions of the gospels, was forgery. There are no examples in antiquity of an acceptable tradition by which authors could falsely claim to be someone else. There are, in fact, many examples of deliberate forgery in antiquity, either to disseminate new ideas with false authority or even to discredit the forged author in some way.

Only modern New Testament apologetic commentators have fostered the habit of calling NT forgeries "an acceptable practice of antiquity", for obvious reasons. There is no historical evidence for this assertion. Attributing an anonymous book to a famous figure may have been common; but, just like today, when an ancient author himself claimed to be someone else, he was, quite simply, lying.

A few additional points. Hebrews is anonymous letter, later attributed to Paul, but now recognized to be by an unknown author. Jude, 1,2,3 John, and Revelation were, most likely, written by a man named Jude and a man named John. However, scholars agree that these men were not Jude and John, the apostles from the gospels. They were a later Jude and John. Since they don't claim to be the apostles in the text, these epistles are not considered pseudonymous.

Beau said...

Bart Ehrman, in "Jesus, Interrupted", argues that pseudonymity in 1st century epistles would have been seen as forgery (had the false authorship been recognized at the time). The common notation of New Testament commentators, that the practice of claiming the authorship of another person, was widely accepted, is simply a false assertion, according to Ehrman.

Though Ehrman is a self-described agnostic, his scholarship on this point is sound. He cites a number of similar examples of forgery in the 1st and 2nd centuries in nonbiblical texts, along with 1st and 2nd century critics of forgery. He also provides citations of similar opinions from conservative scholars such as Terry L. Wilder.

Ehrman differentiates the sort of peudonymity seen in the epistles, from that in the Old Testament books and the gospels. The authors of the OT books and NT gospels make no claims to false names; they are anonymous. Only later were they attributed to Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, by later collectors. This, of course, is acceptable, common, and even attributable to error.

But in the NT epistles in question, (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1&2 Timothy, Titus, and 1&2 Peter) the author himself claims to be Paul or Peter, within the text of the letter itself. Virtually all New Testament scholars agree that some or all of these epistles were not written by the apostles named within the letters. This form of pseudonymity, unlike the later attributions of the gospels, was forgery. There are no examples in antiquity of an acceptable tradition by which authors could falsely claim to be someone else. There are, in fact, many examples of deliberate forgery in antiquity, either to disseminate new ideas with false authority or even to discredit the forged author in some way.

Only modern New Testament apologetic commentators have fostered the habit of calling NT forgeries "an acceptable practice of antiquity", for obvious reasons. There is no historical evidence for this assertion. Attributing an anonymous book to a famous figure may have been common; but, just like today, when an ancient author himself claimed to be someone else, he was, quite simply, lying.

A few additional points. Hebrews is anonymous letter, later attributed to Paul, but now recognized to be by an unknown author. Jude, 1,2,3 John, and Revelation were, most likely, written by a man named Jude and a man named John. However, scholars agree that these men were not Jude and John, the apostles from the gospels. They were a later Jude and John. Since they don't claim to be the apostles in the text, these epistles are not considered pseudonymous.

Beau said...

There's a very interesting twist on the topic of pseudonymity as forgery in NT testament epistles. Only Christian moderates tend to call forged NT authorship an "acceptable practice". Liberal and fundamentalist scholars actually agree that a claim of false authorship would certainly be considered forgery in antiquity. The only difference is that fundamentalist scholars conclude that every NT epistle is written by exactly who it claims to be written by - otherwise their view of biblical inerrancy comes into question. Fundamentalists make the same conclusion for the gospel attributions.

For the liberal (and I would argue, most academically and professionally legitimate) scholarly view, one could reference the Ehrman text.

For the fundamentalist view, a good summary can be found at Faith Baptist Theological Seminary:

http://www.faith.edu/seminary/faithpulpit.php?article=./faithpulpit/2003_05-06