Introduction to the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha

(Summary of a lecture by J. R. Davila on 9 February, 2007)

The word “pseudepigraphon” is first used in Classical Greek to mean “with a false title.”  In the late second century C.E. it is applied by Serapion (Bishop of Antioch in the early third century) to works falsely ascribed to the apostles, a meaning approaching the early modern application of the word to works falsely ascribed to Old Testament characters.  For the purposes of this course, “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” refer to writings fictionally attributed to characters in the Hebrew Bible or written as though they originated in the First or Second Temple periods, but not included in the Jewish canon of scripture or in any of the major Christian canons.  Several dozen such texts survive from antiquity (i.e., before the rise of Islam in the early 600s C.E.) and these are the focus of our interest.  That said, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha continued to be composed up to the present.  The earliest scholarly collection of biblical pseudepigrapha was published in the 1720s by Johann Albert Fabricius in Latin. We shall use the two Charlesworth volumes as our corpus, although the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project here at the University of St. Andrews expects roughly to double the size of that corpus in a publication expected to be out in the next several years.

The term “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” is unfortunately firmly entrenched in the field and so we will use it here.  But there are numerous problems with it.  The term “Old Testament” is essentially a Christian confessional statement and is uncomfortable for Jews (although it is fair to note that many pseudepigrapha were transmitted solely by or even composed by Christians — see below).  The term “Pseudepigrapha” also applies as well to some biblical works (e.g., Deuteronomy and Daniel); not all “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” are technically pseudepigraphic (e.g., no specific authorship is claimed for 3 Maccabees); and some pseudepigrapha are written in the names of non-scriptural characters (e.g., Ahiqar or the Sibylline Oracles).

Some Old Testament Pseudepigrapha are mentioned and even quoted in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and there are a good many fragments of works that fit our definition above among the Dead Sea Scrolls (some of the best preserved examples include the Genesis Apocryphon, Aramaic Levi, and the Temple Scroll).  But the term pseudepigrapha is generally reserved for works other than these and it is the other works that are the focus of this course.  Most ancient scriptural pseudepigrapha were composed in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek.  A few survive complete or fragmentarily in Hebrew or Aramaic because they continued to be transmitted in Jewish circles (Aramaic Levi is an example), but most of what survives was preserved in antiquity by Greek-speaking Christians and thus went through a stage of transmission in Greek (whether translated into or composed in that language).  Some pseudepigrapha survive in Greek, but many have come to us only in other church languages, either in translations from the Greek or composed in those other languages.  These latter texts are the focus of this class in this semester.

When we turn to study these works, the basic problem we face is that these pseudepigrapha survive only in medieval and late-antique manuscripts in these church languages (Arabic [yes, Arabic is a church language too], Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, Syriac), yet some, but not all of them, clearly have an earlier cultural and linguistic origin.  How do we figure out who wrote them, when, where, and in what languages?

Until fairly recently the main scholarly interest in these pseudepigrapha has been in their potential usefulness as Jewish background to the New Testament (and, to a lesser extent, to rabbinic Judaism).  This focus has had the unfortunate effect of skewing the discussion in favour of trying to isolate first-century and earlier Jewish works in the pseudepigrapha.  Often, the tendency has been to assume that any text that is not obviously Christian (i.e., that contains no references to Jesus, the crucifixion, the Virgin Birth, the apostles, the church, etc.) must be Jewish.  Even if a text does have some such references and they can be removed as “secondary interpolations,” the resulting bowdlerization has been treated as a reconstructed Jewish document.

We regard this tendency as mistaken and ultimately harmful to both the narrow field of pseudepigrapha studies and the larger fields of biblical and Jewish studies.  I will present the main issues and problems in the form of bullet points below, often linked to papers online in which I have longer discussions.  I have assigned some articles by myself and Robert Kraft which go into considerably more detail. My recent book, The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha (available in short loan in the libraries, for registered students in the course) treats many of these problems and issues in even greater detail.

¿ Many different types and groups of people had the means, motive, and opportunity to write Old Testament Pseudepigrapha in antiquity.  These included:
Gentile Christians
Samaritans (Yahwists who traced their lineage back to the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel)
Proselytes (i.e., formal converts to Judaism)
God-Fearers (i.e., Gentiles who adopted Jewish religious traditions but did not convert)
Sympathizers (i.e., Gentiles who had some interest in and sympathy for Judaism but did not convert)

¿  Christian scribes translated and copied the Jewish Pseudepigrapha that they liked, whereas Jews in the early centuries C.E. for the most part lost interest in such works and ceased copying them.  This means that our surviving sample of pseudepigrapha transmitted by Christians is skewed:  it has been filtered through Christian tastes and we must assume that many works that did not appeal to these tastes did not survive.  The fragments of pseudepigrapha found among the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm this assumption and help remedy the problem to some small degree.

¿  Christians not only translated and copied Jewish Pseudepigrapha, they also interpolated and rewrote some of them, sometimes heavily.  The Greek Testament of Levi, which is based on Aramaic Levi, is an example.

¿  Christians not only translated and copied Jewish Pseudepigrapha, they also composed Old Testament Pseudepigrapha themselves (the Greek Testament of Solomon is an example).

¿  Christians sometimes rewrote or retold Old Testament stories at length without introducing any explicitly Christian elements.

¿  Presumably Christians also sometimes wrote Old Testament Pseudepigrapha without introducing such elements, but this logical inference is very difficult to prove.  If a pseudepigraphon has no reference to obviously Christian matters, how could we tell that a Christian wrote it?

¿  To complicate matters further, Jews sometimes wrote works related to the Hebrew Bible which sound surprisingly Christian (e.g., the Qumran Hodayot).

¿  Some Jews and Christians were more interested in “boundary-maintenance” (defining themselves against other religious traditions) than others.

¿  It is often very hard to prove that a work in a particular language is actually translated from a lost original in another language.  Frequently, confidently-advanced scholarly conclusions about the original language of an apocryphon or pseudepigraphon preserved only in Greek or another church language are not based on compelling arguments.

These are the problems.  Below are some methodological principals that I and others have advanced and refined to try to address and overcome them.

¿  The key principle is that we should start with the earliest manuscripts — and to a lesser extent, quotations — of a pseudepigraphon and move backwards from them to earlier language versions and cultural contexts only as required by positive evidence.  Someone actually copied the text in the context that produced the manuscript or quote, so its existence in that context is a fact, not an inference, and this should be our starting point (but by no means necessarily our end point as well).

¿ All that said, how often and how well the text was read in the surviving context is an open question, one that is frequently very difficult to answer.

¿  Some intuitively obvious criteria for Jewish authorship include:
Survival in pre-Christian manuscripts in a Jewish context (e.g., the Qumran library)
Survival in or compelling evidence for composition in Hebrew
External (e.g., outside quotations) or internal evidence for pre-Christian composition
Sympathetic concern with Jewish ritual cult, Jewish legal tradition, Jewish ethnic & national interests, or Jewish apocalyptic and eschatological ideas that are difficult to reconcile theologically with Christianity.

¿  No one of these criteria is necessarily decisive.  When working back to an inferred authorship different from that implied by the earliest manuscripts (e.g., Jewish), the most convincing case is made on the basis of multiple converging lines of evidence, not a single argument or indicator.

¿ A final point:  the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha that were transmitted only or primarily by Christians generally have a narrow manuscript base and often survive only in translation (or even only in secondary or tertiary translations).  The manuscripts typical vary a good deal among themselves, making reconstruction of the original text very difficult.  All this means that the text of any given passage in one of these works is frequently quite uncertain, so when we try to understand the content and agenda of a given work we should focus on repeated themes and ideas rather than on single mentions of ideas in brief passages and specific verses.

In the coming weeks we shall look at a number of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha that survive in languages other than Greek, keep in mind these problems and methodologies.  We will begin with presentations by the two lecturers and then will move on from there to student presentations in due course.

(c) 2007
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

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