Jewish or Christian Pseudepigrapha?

In the previous post I made a few comments on common problems confronting those who study the Pseudepigrapha. A serious problem is that even though a particular book originated among Jewish thinkers of the Second Temple period, most of this literature was preserved by Christians. It is therefore possible Christian scribes made additions or modifications as they copied to make them more appealing to Christians. One of the better examples of this is 4 Ezra, a Jewish apocalypse written at the end of the first century A.D. At some point an introduction and conclusion Hebrew-Textwas added to the book (sometimes called 2 Ezra and 5 Ezra). These additions include Christian elements (the messiah figure places crowns on the heads of the resurrected martyrs is identified as “the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.” (4 Ezra 2:47).

In a recent essay, Robert Kraft gives us reason to be cautious by asking “can we be sure we are able to separate the Jewish from the Christian?” (Robert A. Kraft, “Setting the Stage and Framing Some Central Questions,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 32 [2001]:371-395). All this literature comes to us as preserved by Christians, therefore we have to assume it was of interest to Christians and is always subject to interpolation and adaptation.
We are often warned about using the Mishnah to develop a “background” for New Testament studies because we cannot be sure what elements date to the pre-70 A.D. period. Why not heed the same warning for using the Pseudepigrapha? It seems easy enough to remember this warning when reading the Apocalypse of Daniel, a book clearly written in the ninth century about current events of the ninth century, but should a book like 1 Enoch or 2 Baruch be read with as much caution? Scholars such as Kraft would think so.

It is not appropriate however to throw out anything that looks too “Christian” or create a false dichotomy of either Jewish or Christian literature. The earliest of this material comes from a theological environment when the categories were not quite fully developed. 1 Enoch and 2 Baruch have both Jewish and Christian elements which may be so intertwined that we can neither sort them out, nor should we try since the intertwining is a part of the environment in which they were written.

Old-ManuscriptPerhaps it is best to think of these books in terms of a trajectory. We know the Old Testament is the foundation for all of the Jewish literature we will encounter in the Pseudepigrapha and is highly influential in the Christian material as well. From this starting point we can track how ideas moved from the Old Testament base through the early apocalyptic and Pseudepigraphal literature, then into the New Testament and the Christian pseudepigraphal material. Potentially we could continue to track development into the medieval period since there are any number of texts which are extensions on themes we begin reading in the Old Testament but come to us through hundreds of years of recycling and reapplying.

When approaching a text, we need to place the book in a historical context including both date and provenance, but also sources. In dealing with a book in the Ezra tradition, for example, we need to think about how the book used and re-used the early Ezra traditions. It is therefore possible even a late text from the medieval period still has useful materials for reconstructing the context of the New Testament despite being hundreds of years removed from the period. There is also the problem of diminishing returns studying the later texts. Because of the late date of the text, the value of the Apocalypse of Daniel for studying the New Testament is rather limited, for example.


4 thoughts on “Jewish or Christian Pseudepigrapha?

  1. Interesting material. I suppose only a small portion of your audience has sufficient background to really grasp and appreciate what you are saying here, but thought I’d let you know there is at least one.

    Beyond that, I’ve felt “under-educated” in that both seminary studies (’70s) and later formal and informal studies have almost fully ignored pseudepigrapha… intertestamental and the important issue of author attribution and related matters, including actual “forgery”. (Until/unless I see his theses systematically refuted, I have to go with Ehrman on what seems to be some “new ground” exposing what even ancients would have considered forgery making it into our NT.) Almost all Christians, including pastors, seem to have misguided ideas about how most of the texts in the biblical canon came to their “finalized” (relatively) forms. That is, via a lot of editing by more than one person, or piecing together diverse written as well as perhaps oral sources, as our Synoptics and Acts.


    • If you think about it, anyone who was in seminary in the 70s did not have access to the Charlesworth collection. Even twenty years later, a New Testament MA degree had little time for intertestamental literature. My first PhD class was quite different, it was a directed reading course which required a reading of both Charlesworth volumes completely. Perhaps it is a reflection of my personal interests, but is seems as though Second Temple Period lit is more accessible than at any other time in the history of scholarship!

      I recall buying a cheap paperback of the “Lost books of the Bible” when I was in college, reprints of 19th century translations of some of this literature with a salacious title implying these books were mysterious hidden knowledge suppressed by orthodox Christianity. I think that is my main beef with Erhman, although it might be his publishers who are guilty of of marketing his books with radical sounding titles.

      His book Forged, for example, is about post NT pseudepigrapha (the Petrine and Pauline acts/apocalypses, etc.) For now, I am focusing on the literature of the Second Temple Period, mostly prior to the NT. I think there is a categorical difference between using an ancient hero of the faith to create an apocalypse (1 Enoch) and what Erhman calls a “forged” document (Acts of Paul and Thecla) or worse, Ephesians or Jude (which he considers forgeries). Jude does not claim to be written by the brother of Jesus, so it can hardly be called “forged,” and if Ephesians is not written by Paul it may very well reflect authentic Pauline theology. Again, that is not a forgery in the sense that Erhman describes it in his opening chapter.


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