The Slavonic Pseudepigraph: An Introduction

(Online version of a lecture given by G. Macaskill on 16 February 2007. To supplement this lecture, please access the following webpage and read Andrei Orlov’s Introduction to the Slavonic texts:


A substantial number of pseudepigraphical texts have been preserved for us in the Slavonic languages. Most of these have parallels in traditions preserved in other languages such as Greek and Latin. A small number, however, are unique to the Slavonic context, although some of their constituent parts have parallels in other traditions. As Orlov notes, these include Ladder of Jacob, Apocalypse of Abraham and 2 Enoch (sometimes referred to as Slavonic Enoch or The Book of the Secrets of Enoch.

These texts provide rich insights into the ongoing life of the Pseudepigrapha in Slavonic and Byzantine contexts, but they pose a number of problems for students, the most significant being the level of variation between their individual textual witnesses. In order to work with them, one must appreciate something of the linguistic and textual contexts of the works. Such an appreciation will help to highlight the ancestry, the influences and the distinctive problems associated with the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha.

1. Linguistic Context

Dull though it may seem, a quick lesson in the history of the Slavonic languages actually casts a great deal of light onto the texts we are dealing with and their inner variations.

Today, we have a whole range of distinct Slavonic languages, usually divided by grammarians into families (east, west and south). These languages evolved from a common language spoken by the original Slavic people.i Around 862 CE, so the story goes, Prince Rotislav of Moravia officially embraced Christianity and made a request to the Byzantine Emperor (Michael III) that they be sent trustworthy missionaries to teach them the true gospel.ii Two brothers, Constantine (later known as Cyril) and Methodius were sent; as part of their work they either created or formalised the written language system of the Slavonic language as it was spoken in the Macedonian area where they had grown up.iii This written system was then used for the translation of Greek sacred texts – gospels, gospel lectionaries, prayer books and lives of saints – initially in Moravia but later, and to a much greater extent, in Ohrid and Preslav in Bulgaria.iv Further Slavic areas converted to Christianity, including the Kievan Rus’ (forerunners of the Russian people) in 988 CE. By the middle of the 11th century, Kiev was a major centre for Slavonic literary culture. The language of texts that were written prior to this point in the 11th century is usually referred to as ‘Old Church Slavonic’ (sometimes as Old Bulgarian) while that of texts from after this point is ‘Church Slavonic’. The different terminology reflects the development of the language. While still rather fluid, the texts of Old Church Slavonic reflect a greater level of linguistic consistency than those of Church Slavonic, within which the dialects that would later become the modern Slavic languages create serious levels of linguistic inconsistency. In these later texts we find not only numerous potential spellings of individual words, depending on the dialects spoken by the scribes; it is also clear that sometimes the meaning of words was lost in transmission from one dialect to the other. Consequently, manuscripts often contain words that are simply meaningless.

One of the problems that we are faced with in studying the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha is that they have come down to us in the various dialects of Church Slavonic and thus reflect this kind of inconsistency. In my own research on 2 Enoch, I have found that perhaps 50-60% of the words in any given shared block of material vary.v Sometimes these are fairly minor variants, but often they are potentially significant. It is relatively common to come across words that make no sense in context or even words that are simply meaningless, as far as we can tell.

This problem is compounded by the fact that there were, in fact, two Slavonic alphabets. The one that is most familiar to most students, and that is closest to the alphabet used by many of the modern Slavonic languages, is the Cyrillic alphabet. Alongside this there existed another alphabet: Glagolitic. Most Slavists now regard Glagolitic as the earlier of these two alphabets and as the writing system with the best claim to go back to Cyril. All of the manuscripts of the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha are in Cyrillic, but there is some evidence that they were previously transmitted in Glagolitic. This evidence is found in the some of the serious numerical variations that can be found among the manuscripts which can be explained by the fact that the sounds represented by the letters were associated with different numbers in each alphabet. For example while the ‘a’ sound, and the letter representing it, is associated with the number 1 in each writing system, Glagolitic uses the ‘g’ sound for 4, while Cyrillic uses it for 3. If a scribe copied a numerical symbol from one alphabet into the other, he would have to be aware that, for example, ‘e’ didn’t mean 5 in both alphabets.

The consequence of all of this is that we are confronted by a huge amount of variation at the level of individual words or numbers in the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha. To some extent this variation is reflected in the translations and footnotes found in the Charlesworth Old Testament Pseudepigrapha volumes, but, inevitably, many of the variants are obscured.

Textual Contexts

The Slavonic Pseudepigrapha have not come down to us as distinct, self-contained works, but rather as part of larger collections. This fact helps to explain a further level of fluidity that exists in the texts, by which they vary not just with regards to individual words, but also with regard to larger units of text, whether those units be phrases, sentences, paragraphs or even multiple chapters.

The texts could be transmitted within ‘collections’ (sborniki), which had no clear logic or editorial agenda and within which the texts probably existed in what looked like an ‘unedited’ state. They were often, however, transmitted in the context of ‘chronographs’ and ‘palaeas’. The former group of texts retold the history of the world using a mixture of biblical and pseudepigraphical material. They included translations of the great Byzantine chronographs by George Syncellus, John Malalas and George Hamartolos, but there were also a number of anonymous texts. The ‘palaeas’ were rather similar, but in addition to retelling history, they are full of explanatory comments and the reader is more conscious of an editorial (often anti-Jewish) agenda. Finally, texts were also sometimes transmitted as part of juridical or legal texts. The greatest example is the fourteenth-century text Merilo Pravednoe, ‘The Just Balance’.

With the exception of the first category of collections, which represent a small part of our corpus, all of these writings have obviously been edited in particular ways, whether to avoid reduplication of events in the recounting of history or to further the polemical agenda of the editor. The result is that parallel texts, for example the different manuscripts of 2 Enoch, often vary widely from one another in length and are highly ‘recensional’. It may be tempting to think that the first category of collections (the sborniki), which often contains longer texts, represents the purer form, but actually there are indications that these texts themselves have often been built from previously independent traditions that some copyist has seen as belonging naturally

Three points may be noted in conclusion to our discussion of the linguistic and textual contexts of the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha.

  1. The Slavonic texts reflect a Byzantine heritage. They are closely tied to the conversion of the Slavic peoples to Eastern Orthodoxy; the Slavs, indeed, essentially became the heirs of Byzantine culture. Thus, most of the Slavic literature draws upon and translates Byzantine material, but often creatively.
  2. The Slavonic texts are highly fluid, both at the level of individual words and at the level of larger units of meaning. Anyone who wishes to work with them must be prepared to weigh up the various readings in order to establish the most likely original. Often, this process cannot be completed with any great certainty.
  3. For non-specialist students of the Pseudepigrapha (i.e., those who are not Slavists) a significant problem arises from the fact that we have little access to the texts in their original manuscript contexts: we are generally dealing with reconstructed translations.

Potential Influences on the Slavic Pseudepigrapha

Before concluding this lecture, we must consider one final aspect of the Slavic context, namely the question of further potential religious influence. As we have noted already, our texts are heavily influenced by Byzantine Orthodoxy. Two further groups, however, have sometimes been associated with them, although in each case current scholarly opinion would tend to see these groups as having at best a marginal influence.

The first group is a medieval dualist sect known as the Bogomils.vii This was a Balkan sect that arose in the early 10th century and that is generally seen as indebted to the Armenian sect known as the Paulicians. They rejected many of the key doctrines and practices of the Orthodox church, such as infant baptism, Mariolatry and the eternal divinity of Christ. Behind this rejection lay the sect’s own distinctly dualistic creation story.  They taught that God had two sons, Satanail/el (the eldest) and Michael. Satanail rebelled against his father and created the lower heavens and the earth. Jesus was a redeemer figure who, after his baptism, became the earthly embodiment of Michael and overcame Satanail. Obviously, with the world being essentially a Satanic creation, salvation was a matter of escaping the entrapments of that world and its material pleasure.

There are some traces of Bogomil influence in the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha, but the rather overblown claim of A.S.D. Maunder that 2 Enoch was entirely the product of Bogomil thoughtviii has rightly come to be rejected by scholars. Her claim, and the support it received from other scholars at the time, prejudiced much subsequent discussion of the provenance not only of that work, but of all the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha, which were often unfairly dismissed without adequate discussion. Her argument was largely based on the presence in 2 Enoch of calendrical details that reflected fairly late Byzantine thought. These, she argued, proved that the book was not Jewish and, because of the mention of Satanael in 31:4, she suggested that the authorship was Bogomil. Against her argument, it has often been noted that the Satanael reference appears to be an interpolationix and that 2 Enoch as a whole portrays God as the creator of the material world, an idea inconsistent with Bogomil authorship. The Bogomils probably picked up some of the Pseudepigrapha and altered them, but there is no evidence that they actually composed any of them.

The second potential influence is that of the Jewish communities that existed within the Slavic territories. Jewish communities had existed in these areas since long before the coming of the Slavs, notably under the rule of the Khazars, a Turkic people who largely adopted Judaism and who were eventually displaced by the Kievans. Numerous Jewish populations continued to exist in these areas where they had an often interesting relationship with the Orthodox Slavs. In the late 15th century, for example, a movement arose within the Orthodox Church that is sometimes referred to as ‘the sect of Skhariya the Jew’ and that would be denounced by the church leaders (especially in Novgorod) as that of the zhidovstvuyuschtiye: ‘those who think like Jews’. It seems to have centred on the Judaizing tendencies of some Christians, although other aspects (echoes of iconoclasm and, indeed, Bogomilism) may have been just as important.

Particularly important to us is the fact that some scholars have argued for the existence of a Jewish school in Kievan Rus’ that was responsible for the translation into Church Slavonic of many Jewish texts. This theory is particularly associated with N.A. Meshcherskij, whose ideas were supported by a number of other scholars. The theory has been heavily criticized, mainly on linguistic grounds,x and is largely unfashionable today: there is good evidence from within our texts that they have passed through the Greek language on their way to Slavdom.


The Slavonic Pseudepigrapha provide us with rich insights into the ongoing life of the Pseudepigrapha in the Slavic and, by extension, Byzantine contexts. They bear witness to the fact that the Pseudepigrapha continued to develop as they were used in different contexts and to the fact that the tradition was never static. For the same reasons they are also, however, highly problematic texts to work with, exhibiting high levels of fluidity at both micro and macro levels and attesting multiple levels of redaction at the hands of various Christian groups or sects.


i Grammarians refer to this common language – which is not attested by any written texts and must be reconstructed by the application of linguistic theories to later Slavic dialects – as ‘Proto-Slavonic’.

ii The truth behind this story is probably rather more coloured by political than religious concerns, despite the undeniable vitality of the later Slavic Orthodoxy that was borne from this mission. Rotislav was likely concerned to ally himself with the Byzantine Empire in order that he might have support in defending Moravia against the Franks; the Eastern Patriarch Photius capitalised on the situation, gaining fresh territory for the Eastern Church over the Western Church, with which tension was growing ever more strong. See J.J. Norwich, Byzantium: The Apogee. London: Penguin, 71-74.

ii There are significant debates about the role played by Cyril and Methodius in developing the written language system. One aspect of these debates concerns whether Cyril and Methodius were Slavs themselves: Slavs tend to take the view that Cyril was both a Slav and an expert philologist, capable therefore of developing this system within a year, as tradition claims; others suggest that the written system had been developing for some time and Cyril merely formalised it.

iv The period 885-927 CE, during which Bulgaria was ruled by the Tsar Symeon, is sometimes referred to as the ‘golden age’ of Old Church Slavonic: it was at this time that many of the great texts of the language were translated from Greek.

v This figure is not based on a proper statistical analysis, but is simply a guess based on how often I find myself forced to list a variant in my footnotes.

vi It may be worth mentioning that the manuscripts of 2 Enoch found in sborniki are among the latest witnesses to that text.

vii To my knowledge, the most thorough study available in English is that of Dmitri Obolensky  The Bogomils : a Study in Balkan Neo-Manichaeism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948).

viii A.S.D. Maunder, ‘The Date and Place of the Writing of Slavonic Enoch.’ The Observatory 41(1918), 309-316.

ix I shall say more about this in my lecture on 2 Enoch.

x See especially H.G Lunt and M. Taube, ‘Early East Slavic Translations from Hebrew?’ Russian Linguistics 12 (1988), 147-187.

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

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