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James 1_5The Letter of James is often described as pseudonymous, meaning that the letter is attributed to James but not actually written by him.  In fact, this is an issue for several of the books of the New Testament: The Pastoral Epistles, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude have all been described as pseudonymous.  It is important therefore to think a bit about the practice of pseudonymity in the ancient world, especially as it relates to the authority of the text.

James Dunn wrote the article on Pseudepigraphy in the Dictionary of Later New Testament (IVP, 1997, 977-984).  Beginning with the alleged Pauline pseudonymous letters, Dunn creates a methodology for identifying a letter as post-Pauline.  Simply put, compare the letter to the others which are undeniably from Paul.  In his view, Ephesians and Colossians may or may not be pseudonymous, the pastorals likely represent a “post Pauline tradition.”  But as Dunn admits, this method is hard to use on James, Jude, and the letters of Peter.  There is no other undisputed work of James, so it is difficult to judge.  In fact, he says that the distinction between genuine and pseudonymous with respect to James and 1 Peter is a meaningless argument since in the end we cannot really tell.

On the other hand, a fair argument could be made that James the Just was the author of the letter of James. Conservative scholars (Karen Jobes, Letters to the Church, Terry Wilder, Faithful to the End) consider James’s allusions to the teach of Jesus as well as similarities with the character of James in the book of Acts a evidence the traditional authorship is at least possible (if not likely). These observations track with Dunn’s method (compare the letter to a known source), but at least the comparison to Acts is potentially week since we read the speech of James as reported by Luke, who was not yet a companion of Paul. I do think that Faithful to the End is correct in connecting the James of Acts 15 to the James of the Letter. The character of James in Acts is so consistent with the writer of the Letter of James I have no trouble equating the two.

But the issue of pseudonymity remains.  If a letter can be proven to be pseudonymous, does that reduce the authority of that letter in the New Testament canon?  Perhaps not.

A writer may choose to attach another name to their work for a variety of reasons, some of which are entirely innocent. For example, it is entirely possible that a writer knew the teaching of James very well and created a letter which accurately reflected the teaching of James, and perhaps this writer even used snippets of James’ teaching. In this case, the Letter of James was not actually penned by James, but is an accurate record of his teaching.  There are still some ramifications for inerrancy since the first lines of the book claim to be a letter from James to churches in the Diaspora, but this sort of soft-pseudonymity is not a serious problem.  In fact, it is likely that prophets of the Hebrew Bible were assembled in just this way by anonymous editors who accurately recorded the words of their prophet.

On the other hand, a writer may have attached the name of James to the letter in order to give credence to his own ideas, whether they came form James or not.  Usually any theory of this sort places the writing of the book well beyond the time of James life, perhaps as late as the second century.  This strong-pseudonymity is a much bigger problem for the authority of the text, since the books of the New Testament are assumed to have Apostolic authority. If the letter comes from a much later date and a non-Apostolic author, does it have the same level of authority?

For someone like J. I. Packer, “Pseudonymity and canonicity are mutually exclusive” (Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, 184).  Conservative scholars appeal to Eusebius, who reported that the church fathers rejected anything that was not known to have come from an apostle or someone from within the apostolic (Eccl. Hist. 6.12.3).  I think most conservatives would agree with this assessment and dismiss any argument against the traditional answer that James, the brother of Jesus wrote the letter.

If James was a collection of sayings of the historical James rather than a letter written by him, would that change the authority of the Letter of James for you?

We have been kicking the idea of pseudepigraphy around quite a bit lately. A few years ago, one of my students once made this comment on the issue of the authorship of Second Peter.

Perhaps we might have to reconsider the presuppositions of inspiration and inerrancy. How can a fraudulent document be inspired? Would not this be contrary to the nature of Scripture, to the nature of God?

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, as I have said before, if I were forging 2 Peter, I would include these very things. My student was correct to say a pseudepigraphical author of  any New Testament book would be contrary to inerrancy (as typically defined).

Is This a Forgery?

Is This a Forgery?

But what if the definition of inerrancy could be 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.  When Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son it conveyed truth, but the story of a prodigal son is not true: Jesus created it. Like Jotham’s fable in Judges 9 or Nathan’s Story in 2 Sam 12, the genre of a parable means that the point of the story is true even when the details of the story are clearly created by the author. Inerrancy must be defined broadly enough to include genres such as a parable or illustration, perhaps “testament” is another category that needs to be included.

It is possible to 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; in fact it is clear the “historical Levi” did not write the book. One might argue the same about 2 Peter – it is really a “Testament of Peter,” using the literary conventions of the first century. Scholars frequently observe that Peter is the subject of many post-biblical, non-canonical books. Second Peter could be an example of that type of literature in the New Testament. (This point is similar to Neinhus and Wall, Reading The Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude as Scripture, 112, although the stop short of comparing 2 Peter to the Testament genre).

One advantage of seeing 2 Peter as a Testament is that it removes the stigma of the word “forgery.” If it is a letter, then it is a forgery; if it is a Testament, then it is following the requires of the genre. One does not call Jesus a liar because there was no real, historical Prodigal Son. Not one refers to the writer of the Testament of Levi as a forger nor do they denigrate the book as “bogus.”

I am not sure how far I would want to push the argument, but it would allow for an evangelical to read 2 Peter as pseudonymous and still hold to inerrancy.

We have been kicking the idea of pseudepigraphy around quite a bit lately, and I think we should probably bring some closure to the topic.

The ever-perceptive Justin Hanberry made this comment in a response to my post of a few days ago:

Perhaps then we might have to reconsider the presuppositions of inspiration and inerrancy. How can a fraudulent document be inspired? Would not this be contrary to the nature of Scripture, to the nature of God?

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, as I stated in the previous post, 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.

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