Challenges for the Study of Pseudepigrapha

Since I intended to spend the summer reviewing the apocalyptic literature in the Pseudepigrapha, this would be a good time think about some of the challenges reading this material. I will be using the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited James Charlesworth (originally Doubleday, 1983; not Yale University Press). The OTPabbreviation OTP throughout this series refers to the 1983 print edition of these two volumes. It is important to point out the obvious: there was no collection of “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” in the ancient world. Although a few were considered sacred by some elements of the early church, these books were never collected as an alternate canon nor were they suppressed by orthodox Christians. There was no grand conspiracy of women-hating priests who systematically suppressed the free-thinking writers of this material. That sort of wild-eyed story telling makes for a good Hollywood movie or a wacky conspiracy theory blog, but it is simply not the case.

There are two problems with using the Pseudepigrapha as a source for studying first century Judaism. The first is the problem of the date of the documents. Some texts come to us in translations dated centuries later than the period under investigation. For example, 2 Enoch (The Slavonic Apocalypse of Enoch) may date to the late first century A.D., but there are no manuscripts which date earlier than the fourteenth century and any “supposed Greek composition need not have been produced before A.D. 1000” (F. I. Anderson, “2 Enoch” in OTP, 1:94 ). Because of this, scholars date the original composition of 2 Enoch from pre-Christian times into the late medieval period. Given this ambiguity, it is probably best not to use 2 Enoch as the centerpiece of a description of first century theology or common second Temple period Jewish theology.

A second problem is that of influence on the theology of “common Judaism” of the first century. We may confidently date a book such as the Psalms of Solomon to “about 50 B.C.” and even posit a Pharisaical context for the book, but how we know with any measure of confidence the book was read in the first century widely enough to change the way people really thought? Or to put it another way, how do we know the book reflects a broad consensus of opinion of first century thinking? The book may have been written and circulated in among a very small community and was virtually unknown to readers outside of that community. Similarly, the book may have been the work of an individual maverick thinker who was out of touch with the rest of Judaism and received virtually no recognition until Christians began to use the text in the second or third centuries.

There are some methods to gauge the date and popularity of a text in the first century. If the text appears among the Dead Sea Scrolls we can at least know the Qumran community valued the text, especially if it appears in multiple copies. For example, Aramaic portions of First Enoch were present at Qumran. These fragments are not precisely the same text as the later Ethiopic version and some are too small to translate. The Dead Sea Scrolls at least confirm the book was known well before the first century and was popular enough to appear in the library of the Qumran community.

Tina Belcher Non CanonicalA second possible way to measure the potential influence of a text is by way of citation. If other first century works allude to a work there is at least an implication of influence. Using 1 Enoch as an example, we can find echoes of themes in other first century writings, not the least of which is the New Testament. The Epistle of Jude clearly alludes to 1 Enoch 60:8, confirming a date for at least that line to the late first century and a certain popularity in Jewish Christian circles.

The use of 1 Enoch in the book of Revelation is also possible. This evidence is potentially dangerous, since the New Testament reflects Christian popularity, but perhaps not Jewish popularity. In addition, the two sources just mentioned date to the post-70 period. The popularity of 1 Enoch may have increased after the fall of Jerusalem and not accurately reflect the pre-70 worldview.

An additional measure of popularity is the amount of additional material created based on an earlier text. 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra seem to have sparked a whole series of books which are based on the earlier versions (i.e., 2 Enoch, 3 Enoch the various other books of Ezra). That Enoch was being read and re-created to reflect a later historical context is a witness to the influence the book may have had in the first century. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs refers to 1 Enoch several times, indicating the influence of the apocalyptic text on later Jewish writings (T.Rub. 5:6, T.Sim 5:4, T.Levi 14:1, T.Jud 18:1, T. Dan 5:6, T.Naph 4:1, T.Ben 9:1).

It is also possible a source is dated post-70 A.D. but still reflects something of Jewish expectations before the watershed event of the fall of Jerusalem. 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra are examples of books normally dated at the end of the first century because they refer to the fall of Jerusalem as a past event. Can these books be useful for constructing Jewish expectations in the pre-70 period?

Possibly, but the evidence ought to be handled especially carefully. That some sort of messianic hope is reflected in these books is certain, but to what extent that same messianic hope was present in Palestine in the late 20’s is a more difficult problem. It is possible there was a messianic hope in the 20’s but it was entirely reworked after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra may be an example of this reworking. The difficulty, then, is sorting out the early material from the re-working.

10 thoughts on “Challenges for the Study of Pseudepigrapha

  1. Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    I would recommend the newer volumes published by Eerdmans. The first is out. With the second coming sometime soon I hope.

    • They do not overlap too much, so having the older Charlesworth volumes is still indispensable. (Heck, go get a copy of R. H. Charles too!)

  2. It is wonderful that you are working through these texts! The problems you mention are, of course, real ones, and one’s enthusiasm for the subject should not lead to an overestimation of influence. We will all be interested in the insights gleaned from your reading. In my The Myth of the Rebellious Angels (2014), I devote chapter 14 to the question of the use of 1 Enoch in the Book of Revelation. I wasn’t expecting to find much and looked at 52 points of possible textual coherence. Of these 13 cases seem to show a close relationship between the books – the most important parts of 1 Enoch for Revelation were the Book of Watchers, the Epistle of Enoch, and the Book of Parables. All the best, and thanks for this post.

  3. Not that I think it makes a huge amount of difference for your point, but a minor correction should be noted regarding 2 Enoch. Namely, that while the version(s) contained in the OTP are from the 14-18th century manuscripts/fragments, there has been a recent find of consecutive pages from a codex containing chs 36-42 from Qasr Ibrim that are older. The fragments are in Coptic and are being edited by Joost Hagen, who has placed the find from within a church library that would date to roughly the 8-10th century CE. I don’t think this really changes the important point that you make regarding the pitfalls of using this text to make assertions about Second Temple Judaism though – and one that should probably be applied to a lot the texts in these volumes.

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