Methodological Reflections on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha

(Summary of a lecture by J. R. Davila on 15 February, 2002)

I. According to James Charlesworth (OTP I, xxiv) the term “Pseudepigrapha” was first used in the late second century by Serapion (bishop of Antioch in the early third century) in his work _The So-Called Gospel of Peter_, in which he argues that the Gospel of Peter (a noncanonical gospel still extant today) is one of the writings “falsely attributed” to the apostles. But the term was first used in a technical sense in the early 18th century by J. A. Fabricius who edited a volume of texts entitled _Codex Pseudepigraphus Veteris Testamenti_. The term Pseudepigrapha is a modern coinage, not an ancient usage, so it is exceedingly important to be clear what we mean by it. It is also a very artificial term, since it distinguishes a group of texts in part on the basis of arbitrary criteria (e.g., they aren’t known *only* from the Dead Sea Scrolls [i.e., the Pesher to Habakkuk]; they aren’t stories about Christian heroes from the apostolic era [or else they would belong to the NT Apocrypha]). But we are stuck with the word at this point, so with due fear and trembling I propose a definition of what I mean by it. I find some aspects of it procrustean, but it’s still the best I can do in a short space.

THE OLD TESTAMENT PSEUDEPIGRAPHA ARE: the literary remains of the anonymous/pseudonymous revelatory stream of tradition that originated in response to (or sometimes alongside of) the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament accepted in the major Jewish and Christian canons. These literary remains were adopted, preserved, developed, and augmented, mostly by early Christianity, through late antiquity.

II. Some of the issues raised by Bob Kraft in his important article on the Pseudepigrapha in early Christianity should be highlighted here, since he brings out the serious methodological problems that have to be faced when one is dealing with the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. So I will use ideas in his article (which I assume everyone has read) as a launching point for my own commentary.

(1) First, there is the importance of comparative linguistic analysis. The place scholars have to start is the actual MSS (see no. 2 below) in our possession and the language they use. The language may give us important clues for establishing the dates and geographical origins of the MSS, and eventually even of the documents they contain. So, for example, we must try to locate the Aramaic, Greek, and Ethiopic languages of the MSS of 1 Enoch in the larger context of what we know (if anything) about the contemporary diachronic and synchronic dialectology of each language. Since this class deals only with translations, this point won’t have much impact on our work, but it is good to keep it in mind. There is a great deal of productive research–and a good many dissertations–still to be done in this area.

(2) Then there is the importance of direct study of the original MSS. Serious scholarly work on ancient literature must always keep in mind the actual condition, contents, and nature of individual MSS. Working only with eclectic critical editions (which in themselves are extremely important and useful) leaves out an important dimension of historical analysis. I myself have worked with both photographs and the actual fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and with microfilms of medieval Hebrew MSS and have often found that crucial information resides on the MSS themselves, some of which is only visible with the naked eye. I don’t have space here to give all the examples I gave in the class session, but I’ll mention just one. The reconstruction by Albert Pietersma of the papyrus fragments of the previously lost book of Jannes and Jambres (covered in this class in 1997–see the link) is based not only on the content of the Greek text of the fragments, but also very much on the quality of the papyrus, the codicology of the codex, and other subtle hints that come only from close examination of the photographs and the fragments themselves. In 1999, Dr. Rochelle Altman gave an online lecture specifically devoted to this topic (“Writing Systems and Manuscripts”) and Drs. James Harding and Loveday Alexander gave a lecture on the manuscript tradition of the Testament of Solomon (“Dating the Testament of Solomon”), a text we also looked at in 1997. Dr. Altman also gave a related lecture on “The Writing World of the Dead Sea Scrolls” in the 2001 Dead Sea Scrolls course.

(3) Even today there is a general tendency in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha studies to assume a work was written in a Jewish rather than a Christian context if (A) it doesn’t have obvious Christian elements or even (B) if the Christian elements that are there can be excised without great violence to the text overall. This approach is extremely problematical, because most of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha were transmitted by Christians for long periods and are extant only in late Christian MSS. THEREFORE IT IS METHODOLOGICALLY PREFERABLE TO BEGIN WITH THE WORKING HYPOTHESIS THAT A GIVEN TEXT WAS PRODUCED BY CHRISTIANS UNTIL IT IS ESTABLISHED OTHERWISE BY POSITIVE EVIDENCE. This approach may seem draconian, but I agree with Kraft that it is the most defensible one. Even if the Christian elements in a document turn out to be secondary, this way they won’t be given short shrift. Note that this approach merely lays out a working hypothesis to be tested by the evidence, not a dogmatic assertion. As I noted, frequently the opposite is assumed without it being explicitly acknowledged.

Now all this is not to deny that some documents clearly are entirely Jewish. 3 Enoch is written in Hebrew and was transmitted only in Jewish circles until modern times. The Book of the Watchers was passed on very faithfully in Greek and Ethiopic translations by Christians. (The Aramaic fragments from Qumran establish this.) Other Jewish documents were interpolated or altered slightly in Christian transmission, but their original Jewish form can be recovered with a good deal of confidence. In fact, this semester we will be looking specifically at texts alleged to have been written in Hebrew or Aramaic, so that we can study documents like 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, which seem to fall under this category.

In his article, Kraft shows on the one hand that early Christians could transmit texts very faithfully. For example the Septuagint (LXX–the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) was altered very little by its Christian copyists. An even better example is the vast corpus of Greek biblical philosophy produced by the first century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria. Again, his works were transmitted only in Christian circles, yet there is little evidence that the text was tampered with. On the other hand, some Christian copyists felt free radically to revise and interpolate earlier works. Kraft’s example of the letters of Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch in the early second century CE, is a good one. These have come down to us in three recensions, one of which expands the text and even adds spurious letters to the corpus, while another abbreviates the original letters. Only the “middle recension,” like little bear’s porridge, is just right. We could add that the Dead Sea Scrolls show that Jewish copyists could feel just as free to revise: they include expanded and reworked biblical texts (4QpaleoExod and the Reworked Pentateuch) and different editions of sectarian works such as the Community Rule and the War Rule.

(4) Another very important point raised by Kraft and worth belaboring is that texts produced by Christians can sound entirely Jewish. Not everything has to be in every text and a Christian writer may leave out mention of specifically Christian doctrines either because the writer is intentionally composing a work as if it were written in the Old Testament period, or even because has other concerns at the moment that pertain to ethical or other issues relevant to both Judaism and Christianity. An oft cited example of this sort of thing is the Epistle of James in the NT. With two simple emendations (which are nothing compared to the violent surgery some texts have been subjected to) we can produce a purely Jewish document. First, remove the phrase “and of the Lord Jesus Christ” in 1:1. This is an obvious gloss, since the next sentence addresses the homily to the twelve tribes in the diaspora. Second, delete all or part of 2:1 to get rid of the only other reference to Jesus. Voila! A Jewish homily.

Now I don’t seriously believe that an original substrate to the Epistle of James can really be recovered this way. In fact, a more sensitive reading of the text makes that conclusion all but impossible, since the writer seems to be familiar with a version of the Sermon on the Mount. My point (and Kraft’s too, I think) is just that the facile use of emendation can lead us to specious conclusions all too easily. So there is every possibility that works like (to take an example we looked at in 1997) the Testament of Job could well have been written by a Christian and we must discount this possibility only after the most careful scrutiny.

(5) Finally, an important and often neglected question is the role of a given work in early Christian thought. Why was this work composed? Or if its non-Christian origin is not in doubt, why did Christians select it for their libraries while Jews rejected it? What was it about Philo, Josephus, or 1 Enoch that was so attractive? What variety of Christianity would have liked a particular document? Or contrawise, why did the Ethiopic, Coptic, Syrian, etc. Church choose to transmit a particular work while other Christian groups ignored it or lost interest in it? There is a potential goldmine of information to be gathered about the history of Christianity in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages by careful attention to this sort of question.

III. In conclusion, a quick note on Pseudepigrapha material on the Web. There is a number of Web sites that include translations of some of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha covered in this course. Where these are in the public domain in Britain, I have given links to them on the bibliography page (although such translations are sometimes very out of date). Unfortunately copyright laws vary from country to country; for example, works enter the public domain fifty years after the death of the author according to US law, but seventy-five years after according to British law. This means that the very old (but still extremely useful) edition of Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha edited by R. H. Charles is in the public domain in the USA, but *not* in Britain. Thus the Noncanonical Homepage in the USA legally posts material from the Charles edition, but its use in Britain is problematical, so I have not given a link to this page. Because of the copyright concern, I want to emphasize that none of these Web sites are officially endorsed for this course. You will find what you find as you surf, but the use you make of that material is entirely up to you and is your responsibility. I request that no one share addresses online of sites containing Old Testament Pseudepigrapha translations. If anyone does so, it is not to be construed as an official endorsement by this list. I recommend that you read the published edition by Charlesworth or the other editions in book form.

Note: additional introductory material, some overlapping this lecture, can be found on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Web Pages for 1997 and 1999.

(c) 2002
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

Contact details

St Mary’s College
The School of Divinity
University of St Andrews
South Street
St Andrews
Fife KY16 9JU
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462850 
Fax: +44 (0)1334 462852