The Pseudepigraph in the Irish Church

(Online version of a lecture by G. Macaskill on 20 April, 2007)


Many pseudepigraphical and apocryphal texts have been preserved for us within the context of Irish Christianity, including a number that concern Old Testament characters. Such texts have often been ignored by biblical scholars, since they are so obviously Christian in character and are usually quite demonstrably dependent upon older texts. Yet these very facts raise some interesting questions that ought to be considered by anyone working with pseudepigrapha that have been transmitted in Christian contexts and that are debatable as to authorship. In what follows, I will suggest that, at least in the Irish context, the pseudepigrapha were not simply mechanically transmitted with occasional interpolations; rather they were part of a vital and living tradition that continued to grow and change in the process of transmission. Perhaps this was also true of other ecclesiastical contexts in which the pseudepigrapha were transmitted, such as the Slavonic and Byzantine ones. If this was indeed true, then the texts we work with today may be much further removed from any putative Jewish originals than we might like to admit and Christian compositional activity may have been much more thoroughgoing than is often considered.
My research on the Irish texts is at an early stage and I am conscious of the need to provide for the class an overview rather than a detailed study of any one text. What follows, then, will be rather less thorough than I would like, but it will, I hope, provide a good inroad into the Irish texts and their relevance. I will focus on two areas: the importance of Adamic traditions and the importance of “otherworld” descriptions. In both cases, the key will be the creative re-working of older traditions that is evidenced in the Irish texts.
First, though, some background ….

The Irish Church and its Distinctives

Christianity came to Ireland early in the fifth century, at a time when the cultural influence of Rome had diminished in Britain. A distinctive culture had come into existence in the lands around the Irish Sea – which historian Peter Brown referred to as the Celtic Mediterranean (in The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, page 16) – and, after its birth, the Irish church became the hub of a Christian ‘communion’ that existed throughout these lands. Thus, when we speak of the Irish Church and its texts, we must be aware that we are not simply speaking of a distinctive group that lived in Ireland, but rather of a distinctive kind of Christianity centred in Ireland but found also in other Celtic territories such as the Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales and Gaul. Indeed, there was a famous Irish monastery in Bobbio in Northern Italy (actually the name Bobbio is derived from one of the names of the Irish monk Columbanus, who established the monastery), at which many manuscripts were copied.

The Irish Church absorbed and reflected the distinctive Celtic culture that existed around the Irish Sea. Rather like modern Britain, it was only partially European: the Irish Church was in limited continuity with the rest of Latin Christianity as it existed in Western Europe. Certainly, it maintained the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and upheld the notion of the Catholic Church. It also had a distinctive theological culture of its own, however, one that reflected the central importance of monasticism to the Church. The monks of the Irish church were pre-occupied with certain issues, all of which were reflected by their apocryphal and pseudepigraphical texts. Notable among these were Sabbath observance (the risen Jesus helpfully wrote a letter to the Church on this subject), calendrical issues (especially concerning the liturgical year and the date of Easter) and distinctive attitudes to penance. It is the latter two issues that will be of most relevance in what follows. It is worth mentioning that one of the effects of the substantial isolation of the Celtic Churches from the rest of the Western Church was that they were less concerned to outlaw the apocryphal texts.

Language and Texts

Many of the texts of the Irish Church, especially in the earliest times, were written in Latin. Latin manuscripts from the 6th century onwards, though, contain marginal notes written in Old Irish, a distinct language related to Latin. From around about 900 C.E. we find manuscripts written entirely in (or translated into) Irish.

As a language, Old Irish (and Middle Irish, as grammarians sometimes refer to the language after the 10th century) shows a great deal of variance in its spelling. This, though, is less of a problem than in the Slavonic texts, where, as we have seen, it led to all kind of recensional problems: variant spellings in Irish were less likely to lead to misunderstanding because they reflected a fairly consistent underlying language.

The texts produced by the church were by and large composite works, drawing upon traditions attested elsewhere (including among the Slavonic texts, such as Adam Octipartite) and reworking these into new texts that seem to be quite openly derivative: the title of the 15th century Leabhar Breac, for example, translates as the ‘Speckled Book’ (i.e., a patchwork). Where the guiding principle of re-composition of traditions in other Christian environments was often chronographical (retelling biblical history), in the Irish Church the devotional dimension seems to have dominated. Thus, one of our major sources is the Saltair na Rann, the Psalter of the Quatrains, in which apocryphal/pseudepigraphical is arranged in poetic form, probably for liturgical or devotional purposes.

Adam Traditions in the Irish Texts

An Irish text now held by the British Library (Egerton 1782, f. 45) describes the creation of Adam from seven elements of creation: his trunk from the earth, his blood from the sea, his face from the sun, his thoughts from the clouds, his breath from the wind, his bones from the stones, his soul from the Holy Spirit. The text goes on to describe the character of any person in whom particular elements predominate.

It is worth noting that the text portrays Adam as unifying the earthly and divine dimensions of the world: he is continuous with creation on one hand and with God on the other and is thus the centre of the God-World relationship. Other texts, including Saltair na Rann, understand the name Adam to be derived from the cardinal points of a compass in Greek (AnatoleDysisArctosMesembria), a tradition that probably came to the Irish Church through St Augustine, whose commentary on Genesis was the great authority for them on that text. These are not just quirky or playful ideas: they reflect significant theological beliefs. The humanity of Adam prior to the Fall was at one with God and with the world, and the redemption that had come through Christ was often regarded in the early church as restoring that oneness. The liturgical year reflected this sense of restoration: note the inevitable connection of Easter with Spring, as resurrection and the rebirth of nature after the darkness of winter are brought together. It is interesting that horologues from this period, which were used for measuring both day length and seasonal progress, would often have ADAM written at the cardinal points, despite the shift from Greek to Latin as a spoken language. The progress of the liturgical year, then, was measured on devices bearing Adam’s name, furthering the theological connections between Adam-Christ-redemption-liturgy. Having noted this point we may return to the fact that the Irish Church was for a time obsessed with calendrical issues: perhaps their pre-occupation with the Adam traditions was connected to this.

Saltair na Rann and Leabhar Breac, as well as a number of other mss. recount further details of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve. Many of the details here parallel the traditions found in the Latin Life of Adam and Eve and the Greek Apocalypse of Moses(especially the former), but they have been thoroughly re-ordered and altered to be more appropriate to their new Irish-Christian context: Satan, for example, is now referred to as ‘Lucifer.’ Christological dimensions are also developed: after his creation, Adam is three days without a soul, ‘thus prefiguring the resurrection of Christ’ (Máíre Herbert and Martín McNamara, Irish Biblical Apocrypha: Selected Texts in Translation. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989, p.2). Mary is also mentioned: she is described as being created from the pure earth of paradise, unlike Adam who was created from common earth, since God knew that it would be polluted.

Leabhar Breac also recounts in some detail the penance of Adam and Eve. Again, the details are drawn from the Latin Life of Adam and Eve and the Greek Apocalypse of Moses. It is interesting, though, that the traditions have taken on a rather more paraenetic quality: where the older traditions have Eve simply raising the question of what she and her husband ought to do by way of penance, the Irish text has Eve asking Adam for instruction on how penance ought to be done: ‘for I do not know how to do penance’ (Herbert and McNamara, Irish Biblical Apocrypha, 8). As with the older traditions, she and her husband wade into rivers (the Tigris and Jordan respectively). Lucifer then seeks to undermine and foreshorten Eve’s repentance, whose failure to stay in the river becomes more overtly a monastic lesson in sustaining penance.

Saltair na Rann also describes the death of Adam, drawing on the Vita and Apocalypsisagain, but also elaborating, either with fresh composition or with traditions unknown from elsewhere. Viewed in connection with the penance passages, the death of Adam is seen as the final redemption of a genuine penitent: his soul is taken to glory by the archangel Michael, while his body is buried until the Flood, when it is swept to Jerusalem and eventually becomes the soil in which the Cross was planted. Again a rich theological tapestry is woven, potentially implying cosmic redemption but also exhorting true and faithful penance.

‘Otherworld’ Traditions in the Irish Texts

A second dimension worth exploring in the present context is the presence in the Irish texts of traditions speaking of the ‘otherworld.’ This term is used by scholars because of the connection of some of this material with the otherworld of Celtic mythology, but essentially what we are speaking of are descriptions of heaven and hell, sometimes interwoven with descriptions of creation. These texts tend to be connected with New Testament characters such as Mary, whose transition into the heavenly realm (usually referred to as ‘Paradise’) is described in the Transitus Mariae, or the apostle Philip, who is known as the Evernew Tongue (because his tongue was cut out of his head nine times by heathens and each time he was able to go on preaching). Old Testament characters also feature: Elijah and Enoch in The Two Sorrows of the Kingdom of Heaven are also transported to the heavenly realm, where they mourn because their earthly bodies are heavy and inert and they cannot soar with the weightless angels. In addition to biblical characters, later saints also have visions of the otherworld: the Fís Adamnáin, for example recounts the vision of the scholar Adamnán, grandson of Tinne.

My research on this material is at a very early stage, so all that can be made here are the most general of points. What strikes me is the extent to which this material resembles and draws upon (albeit indirectly) traditions that we find in other pseudepigrapha. In the Evernew Tongue for example, we find a description of the seven heavens, with some of which various aspects of creation are connected, with others of which angelic orders are associated. This material strongly reminds me of the descriptions of the seven heavens in 2 Enoch. Likewise the description of angelic liturgy in Fís Adamnáin is reminiscent of similar descriptions in 2 Enoch. This point could be extended to the descriptions of places of punishment, which are rich and detailed (disturbingly so!); much of this detail echoes the descriptions in other pseudepigraphical traditions, including Jewish ones.


This has, I think, implications for our study of these wider pseudepigraphical traditions. The Irish texts attest the ongoing creative vitality of the pseudepigrapha within the Christian tradition: these texts continued to inform the reading of Scripture and the development of theology. In turn, these texts were continually re-written and re-configured; new composites would be made from older texts. Sometimes these were explicitly Christologised, but sometimes they served paraenetic functions that were not so explicitly Christian; rather they referred to walking properly with God, observing commandments and so on. If this occurred in the Irish church, it may well have occurred within other parts of Christianity: perhaps some of our Slavonic texts are also the product of a re-composing of traditions, synthesising strands not previously brought together. One thing is clear: the Irish church did not merely transmit pseudepigrapha and apocrypha with occasional redactional insertions. Rather, they were creative tradents and seemed to feel no embarrassment in that creativity.

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

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