Books that Didn’t Make the Cut: The Pseudepigrapha

Various cake pieces of chocolate and vanilla filling.

Marie Antoinette did not actually say, “Let them eat cake.” Nor did she say Qu’ils mangent de la brioche (that’s “let them eat cake” in French). It makes a great story though. Nor did Julius Caesar actually utter the famous Et tu, Brute? According to Plutarch he died in silence, while Suetonius has him asking kai su, teknon? (“You also, my Son?”). Caesar’s famous last words are actually Shakespeare’s own (brilliant and memorable) creation. These are examples of false attributions to historical personages, and it weighs on the topic of the day, the Pseudepigrapha.

In our discussion of the formation of the canon, we’ve been considering books that didn’t measure up, that didn’t make the cut. We considered the Apocrypha, books considered deutero-canonical by some Christians (Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians), but considered non-canonical by Protestants. The Pseudepigrapha is another category of writings that didn’t make the cut.

Pseudepigrapha is a transliterated Greek word that means “false writings.” These are books that purport to have been written by a significant personage, usually an important Old Testament saint, but they were actually written much later by some imaginative author (most of these books date from about 200 B.C – 200 A.D.).  It is highly likely that the authors themselves didn’t intend to actually deceive, they were simply engaged in an act of sanctified imagination – like a Christian writing historical fiction about the life of Jesus (Ben-Hur for example).

These books have some great titles. Here are some:

  • The Apocalypse of Abraham
  • The Life of Adam and Eve
  • The Apocalypse of Elijah
  • The Apocryphon of Ezekiel
  • The Treatise of Shem
  • The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
  • The Apocalypse of Zephaniah

The definitive collection of Pseudepigrapha is the 2-volume edition edited by James Charlesworth called The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. These (very large!) books contain over sixty documents. Most of these are written by Jewish authors, though some are of Christian origin. All draw on some Old Testament text in some way. Often they are stories that “fill in the gaps” of a biblical story. For instance, the book of Jannes and Jambres tells about the Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses when he confronted Pharaoh. These men aren’t named in Exodus 7-9, but the later author fills in some of the backstory including the judgment that befell these men.

No one (with the exception of the Ethiopian church in a few instances) accepts these books as canonical. No one has ever accepted these books as canonical – these books were never entertained for inclusion in the Jewish canon, nor the Christian one.

Why? Because everyone knew they were pseudepigraphal. And the chief criterion for inclusion in the canon was the validity of standing on prophetic (for the OT) or apostolic (for the NT) authority. These are works of creative literature. They are interesting, but scripture they are not.

Some assert (contra me) that pseudepigraphy was not anathema to canonicity, but that it was a widely accepted practice. Some critical scholars claim that the New Testament itself contains pseudepigraphal documents. Scholars often dismiss Peter as the author of 2 Peter. Likewise Pauline authorship is often denied in the case of these six books: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. These books were written later (so the story goes) by disciples of these apostles. They used the name of Peter or Paul to validate their message. A letter from Paul has way more street cred than a letter from Epaphras.

This is hooey. The notion that the church would have accepted as canonical books that only purported to be written by Peter and Paul (but really weren’t) is entirely contrary to the kinds of investigation and discernment that we know historically went in to formation of the canon. There were pretender pseudepigraphal works; these were rejected because their authorship was in question. What’s more, the biblical authors themselves were taking measures to assure that this kind of deception could not happen. For example, in Galatians 6:11 Paul writes, “See what large letters I use when I write with my own hand.” In other words: my personal signature validates the apostolic origin and authority of this letter. Likewise in 1 Corinthians 16:21.  Paul wrote the letters of Paul; Peter wrote the letters of Peter.

Next time: One important pseudepigraphal work…1 Enoch.