Pseudepigraphy and Jewish Christian Literature

Karen Jobes deals with the issue of pseudepigraphal authorship in her recent Letters to the Churches (Zondervan, 2011).  As she defines it, a document is pseudepigraphical if the author intentionally uses another name rather than his own (page 6).  This is different than a pen name (she cites Samuel Clemens, more commonly known as Mark Twain), and it is also different than using an amanuensis, or scribe, to compose a letter.  If a person was not “officially commissioned” to write a document then it should be considered pseudepigraphic.

Here is the problem for evangelicals with a commitment to inerrancy.  If Second Peter says Peter wrote it, then that means Peter wrote it (or commissioned a scribe to write what he intended).  Many scholars consider 2 Peter to be written well after Peter’s death by a well-meaning disciple of Peter, but without Peter’s direct authorization.  That 2 Peter is a “pious forgery” is almost axiomatic in NT studies.

I agree that the way in which most American evangelicals define inerrancy requires the “historical Peter” to be the author of 2 Peter.  Not only is the name attached to the first verse, but there are several clear hints that Peter is the author in the book.  On the other hand, if I were forging 2 Peter, I would include these very things.   So yes, Justin is correct.  A pseudepigraphical author of  any New Testament book would be contrary to inerrancy.

But what if the definition of inerrancy was expanded to include pseudepigraphy as a literary genre in the first century?  Here’s what I am thinking: those of us who hold to inerrancy would never say that there was a real, historical “prodigal son” behind Jesus’ parable in Luke 15.  In the genre of Parable, the characters are by definition a fiction.  That Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son is true, but that there was a prodigal son is not true.  That part is a story.  I would say the same for Jotham’s fable in Judges 9.  Inerrancy must be broadly defined to include genres such as a parable or illustration.

Can you argue that the genre of Testament literature allows for the use of a pseudonym? No one really thought the Testament of Levi was written by Levi, it was fairly clear that it was not.  One might argue the same about 2 Peter – it is really a “Testament of Peter,” using the literary conventions of the first century.

I am not sure that I agree with this line of argument, but it would allow for an evangelical to teach that Peter is a pseudonym still hold to inerrancy.

On the other hand, it is difficult to accept that letters which claim to be from eye-witnesses of Jesus and “teaching the truth” as opposed to falsehood would themselves be foundation on a lie, even if that was a culturally acceptable literary genre.

8 thoughts on “Pseudepigraphy and Jewish Christian Literature

  1. Could I argue that pseudepigraphy is a literary genre which does not stand opposed to the belief of inerrancy? I could but I do not believe it. If we believe that the Bible is God’s truth, penned by divinely inspired men, then we cannot also believe that letters are not from whom they say they are. Yes, the use of amanuenses was common. The same thing is in practice today, we just call them ghost writers. Yes, there is also the possibility of a pen name as Jobes suggested. However, this does not allow for implications of the author being the Peter of the Twelve. One could (and some do) argue that pseudepigraphy was a commonly acceptable literary genre. However, the Bible, being God’s word, cannont be founded on lies, no matter how “small” we might consider them.

    What does this mean for the authenticity of 2 Peter. I can think of two possibilities for this problem, either the letter was not written after Peter’s death or it was but it had already been commissioned by Peter and the writing of it had been delayed for some unknown reason. I am sure there are other possibilities that could be thought of, that I have overlooked, to solve this problem without the expansion (or complete reinterpretation) of the belief of inerrancy.

  2. I found this first section of Jobe’s book very interesting. It is about a topic that I have never really thought about before when thinking about the writings/writer of the books of the Bible. The term pseudepigraphical may be hard to pronounce but it is not that complicated to understand. When authors use a name other than their own, pseudepigraphical is the term you use. Jobe’s brings this topic in her book in a way that is very easy for people to understand. I never imagined that someone when writing a book to go in the Bible would forge a dead person signature and think that no one would notice. Not cool!

  3. I have always been taught to believe that the Bible is the Word of God. Amanuenses were widely used and there has been no proof to my knowledge to dispute that what they have written is not inspired by God’s truth. God used men from many different walks of life to record his word. These men had to be honest and sincere for God to use them. (1 Corinthians 15:6-7) “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mark 13:31).
    I also agree that there could be several reasons for the question of authenticity of 2 Peter. These reasons are not really important to me. I have faith that the Bible is the true and only Word of God.

  4. An evangelical not holding to inerrancy and holding out Phil.1:18 as an option:

    “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

  5. Just a quick comment: if inerrancy could be expanded to include pseudepigraphical literature as a distinct genre, then POSSIBLY (assuming 2 Peter is pseudepigraphy, which is not at all necessary) 2 Peter could still be inerrant.

    The problem with that line of reasoning is this: even in the 1st century there is evidence that pseudepigraphy was NOT an accepted genre, especially when letters are involved. Here, the genre of 2 Peter is a letter, and must be interpreted as a letter. The Testament of Levi (as well as the other testaments) were not intended to be letters, and so fall under a different genre altogether.

    2 Peter is one of those cases where we as evangelicals feel threatened by “scholarship,” and sometimes attempt some exegetical gymnastics to avoid a tight spot. I don’t think we need those gymnastics here; there is enough evidence to support true Petrine authorship of 2 Peter, which critical scholarship has yet to overturn. I think the burden of proof lies not with us to prove that Peter was indeed the author, but with critical or liberal scholars to prove that Peter was NOT the author…


    • I agree, Carl, that “the burden of proof lies not with us to prove that Peter was indeed the author.” Unfortunately, evangelicals are not so much “threatened” by non-evangelical scholarship (as you say), but that we are envious of it. We play around on the edge of what we can do with inerrancy so that we can appear scholarly in the scholarly world. Academic peer-pressure can be quite strong!

  6. Inerrancy continues to harm people. We can have biblical authority without it. We undermine biblial authority with it, as this 2 Peter discussion shows.

    • I am fairly sure I wrote that it is *possible* to define inerrancy and authority as including the practice of Pseudepigraphy, although I personal do not think hat is the best way to approach 2 Peter (or any NT book for that matter).

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