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The Value of the Pseudepigrapha for Biblical Studies

The Value of the Pseudepigrapha for Biblical Studies

The Pseudepigrapha and Interpretation

The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English (Charles)Students of the Bible should engage the literature of the Pseudepigrapha (Greek portions as well as those in Hebrew and Aramaic) because, next to the Dead Sea Scrolls, this material provides the sharpest insight into how the Jewish community of Jesus’ day approached and interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures. 

It is common for Christian pastors and students to assume that they can best understand early Judaism through rabbinical material like the Talmud and Mishnah. These works are only one tool for contextualizing the New Testament.  For the most part, that material reflects the Judaism that developed during and after the first century A.D. That Judaism was much more uniform and "standardized" than its pre-Christian predecessors. The Pseudepigrapha has been indispensable for demonstrating that it is more proper to speak of "Judaisms" than Judaism. 

Many of the books of the Pseudepigrapha are actually expansions of Old Testament books. The goal of such literary output was not to depart from the sacred faith, but to root subsequent religious and theological discussion to the sacred texts. Post-exilic Jews had been subjected to successive conquests, insult, abuse, and martyrdom, and so there is much concern in the Pseudepigrapha to explain (referencing the canonical texts) the origin of evil, theodicy, the sinfulness of humanity, the belief in a life after death, and deliverance from enemies. These obsessions help explain certain recurring content elements in the Pseudepigrapha:  ascensions of heaven or Paradise; active bureaucracies of angels and demons; visions of a future apocalypse; and political salvation and through a Messiah.

The Pseudepigrapha therefore provides a range of Jewish doctrinal beliefs, some of which are as significant for comprehending New Testament language, teachings, and practices as the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The Pseudepigrapha and Lexicography

Old Testament Greek Pseudepigrapha with MorphologyPseudepigraphal writings play a vital role in Greek lexigraphical and linguistic study, as they provide additional material written in Hellenistic Greek. If you want to study another example of a grammatical construct or a word you encounter in the New Testament, the Greek Pseudepigrapha is a great place to look!

Let's say you're reading in 1 Timothy 3:8 where Paul gives the qualifications for a deacon. He commands that the deacon should be "not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain" (ESV). The Greek adjective translated "greedy for dishonest gain" is αἰσχροκερδής. This is an undesirable character trait in a Christian leader, and the word occurs in a similar context in Titus 1:7 where Paul gives qualifications for overseers. It also appears in the pseudepigraphal Testament of Judah: "Observe, therefore, my children, the (right) limit in wine; for there are in it four evil spirits—of lust, of hot desire, of profligacy, of filthy lucre." The words "filthy lucre" here are a translation of the same word αἰσχροκερδής. Interestingly, it also occurs together with an abuse of wine, though here in the Testament of Judah the desire for dishonest gain is considered a direct result of excessive drinking whereas Paul did not link the two directly.

Examples like this abound. If you're familiar with BDAG you've seen the frequency with which the authors cite pseudepigraphical material. Having a searchable Greek Pseudepigrapha resource makes it possible to very quickly track down these citations and read the broader context...or find examples of your own!

Reception of the Pseudepigrapha by Christianity

Generally speaking, the reception of the Pseudepigrapha by the early Church was mixed, with the majority of Church Fathers taking a negative stance toward these books. There were notable exceptions, and attitudes toward the Pseudepigrapha have changed in recent decades. 

Opposition to the Pseudepigrapha was because the Jewish canon excluded these books. This of course overlooks the fact that certain conservative sects of Judaism, such as the Qumran community, treated books like 1 Enoch as canonical.

Aside from this consideration, the majority of early Church leadership rejected the Pseudepigrapha as canonical as part of its campaigns against heterodoxy. Irenaeus, Athanasius, Epiphanius, and Cyril of Jerusalem are examples of those leaders who considered the Pseudepigrapha as off limits for the canon and even general readership.

On the other side stood important figures like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. Justin accused the Jewish opponents of Christianity of deliberately rejecting certain pseudepigraphical books on the basis that they contained passages of apologetic use for Christian doctrine. To Justin such material was authentic Scripture.  Clement regularly cited pseudepigraphical books in his writings (e.g., 1 Enoch), but does not appear to consider them canonical. He even cites Paul as advocating the use of “Hellenic books” like the Sibylline Oracles because of their usefulness. These oracles are in fact quoted hundreds of times in the Fathers. Origen’s attitude was much the same. It is clear from his work on the Hexapla that Origen considered the canon to be fixed along traditional lines. However, he freely quoted pseudepigraphic material to support his understanding of Scripture.

It is generally agreed that opposition to the Pseudepigrapha as source material for illuminating and understanding the canonical text tapered off greatly after the ninth century A.D. Debates over crucial doctrinal points of Christology and Trinitarianism were by then largely over. Even prior to the ninth century, however, Christians were reworking pseudepigraphical texts for use within the Church. This is quite apparent from the Christian interpolations found in many of the Greek Pseudepigrapha. There is also a great deal of evidence that the same Byzantine scribes who produced the abundance of New Testament manuscripts we have today were also copying Pseudepigraphical works. In this regard, the Eastern Church (Syriac Christianity) apparently never went through a period of suppressing the Pseudepigrapha.

Examples of Pseudepigrapha Informing NT Studies

(The following paragraphs are selected from Dr. Heiser's introductions to the pseudepigraphal texts that will ship with Old Testament Greek Pseudepigrapha with Morphology.)

History of the Rechabites 

Generally, the History of the Rechabites is important as an example of Jewish interest in several matters: the legend of the lost tribes, personal eschatology, and the believing community as co-existent with angels.  In this respect its contents contain striking parallels to other pseudepigraphical works, such as 1 Enoch 39; 2 Baruch 50-51, and the Ascension of Isaiah).

The island of the Holy Ones is described in much the same manner as the paradisiacal realm of the righteous heavenly dead.  However, there is no resurrection in the book, but rather “a separation of soul from body, and ascent of the former with the aid of angels” (Charlesworth, OTP, 446).  The Rechabites are among the living, however, and so their island is some sort of intermediate blissful destination.  After death and in heaven, the righteous await the “resurrection of the rest of the Blessed Ones” (16:7).  While the soul waits it lives in a mansion, an image that may be related to Jesus’s statement in John 14.  While there are other parallels to biblical descriptions of heaven or an intermediate state, the work appears to have borrowed liberally from cultures across the Mediterranean for its description.

More specifically, the notion found that the Rechabites dwelled with angels found in the History of the Rechabites may contribute to our understanding of pre-Christian Jewish traditions (like that at Qumran) that identify the holy people of the community as angels or “angelified” humans.  This in turn relates to the idea of divine sonship as a member of God’s family mentioned in the New Testament (see Charlesworth, “Portrayal”; Dimant; Risenfeld; Rakestraw; Tabor).

History of Joseph 

Although the original work no doubt covered much of the biblical account of Joseph, the surviving fragments appear to refer to Joseph’s elevation to high office by pharaoh, Joseph’s wisdom in overseeing the supply and distribution of grain during the famine, his confrontation with his brothers, the discussion of the brothers while in an Egyptian prison, their trip back to Jacob after having to leave Simeon behind, and Jacob’s sorrow over Simeon’s fate.  In the course of following the biblical storyline, the fragments contain several interesting departures.  For example, Joseph’s title is changed to a more exalted position (“king of the people”; “one who feeds the Egyptians”; “savior of Egypt” (Zervos, ABD, 973).  The effect is to elevate Joseph to a savior figure.  Other pseudepigraphical works do the same (e.g., Joseph and Aseneth), even elevating Joseph to the level of “the son of God” and “the chosen one of God” (Joseph and Aseneth 6:2, 6; 13:10).  Given its presumed date of origin, the writer of the History of Joseph may have been reflecting a typological relationship between Joseph and Jesus.  

Greek Apocalypse of Ezra

The work is very obviously a composite.  One distinctive Jewish element drawn from the Old Testament is that one can argue with God (cf. Job).  On the other hand, although it is the biblical Ezra to whom the visions are given, clear New Testament themes and characters are mentioned in the narrative.  For example the Antichrist is described in detail, the crucifixion is described as a sin against God, and Ezra descends to Tartarus, a clear reference to II Peter 2:4 and later Christian descriptions of the place of judgment, like the Vision of Ezra (4th-7th century A.D.).  The role of angels, particularly Michael and Gabriel, is also of interest to the New Testament student.

With respect to the Antichrist description, the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra very clearly has Antichrist imitating Christ’s features and roles, thereby providing an early attestation to the idea that “-anti” was understood as “in the place of” rather than only “against.”  In this work Antichrist mimics Christ’s healings and miracles, is said to be virgin-born, and solicits worship.  Nevertheless, he is described in grotesque terms.  However, scholars have noted that the description contains a number of metaphorical descriptions that involve signs of the zodiac.  This type of description is found in other texts, for example 4Q186, where astrological signs as part of a description denote character traits (Stone, OTP, 568).  Astrological interpretation of canonical and non-canonical texts was common in both ancient Judaism and the early Church (see Ness; Goodenough; Sedgewick; Charlesworth).

See also:

Last Updated: 10/5/2005