Pseudonymity and the New Testament

Conrad Gempf

Themelios 17.2 (January/February 1992): 8-10.
[Reproduced by permission of the author]


Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College.

A few years ago I met someone who claimed to be C.S. Lewis. He clearly knew a lot about the man whose identity he was appropriating and on occasion mixed what he said with genuine excerpts from Lewis's books. He was very entertaining to spend an evening with, but he was not the man he pretended to be. There were other people present - should I have denounced him to them? Should I have confronted this man: 'Impostor!'?

Perhaps your feelings will change when I tell you that this man was on a stage at the time, surrounded by props. I had gone to see a one-man show based on the life and writings of C.S. Lewis. Despite the fact that the great majority of the audience with whom I was seated were Christians who would claim to be against falsehood and deceit of any kind, no-one was unhappy with the actor or the playwright for the fraud they conspired to present to us. In this context, the pretence was not only acceptable, but laudable. We all paid good money to be lied to, and emitted loud noises of approval when it was complete.

If we can forget for just a moment our deeply-ingrained acceptance of theatre and fiction as valid genres, we may be able to glimpse just how peculiar the whole business is - how odd someone from outside our culture might find it. I submit that it is in this frame of mind that we are best able to approach the curious business of religious pseudonymity ('pseudo' = false; 'nym' = name): the practice of writing a literary work under the pretence that someone else, usually someone more famous, wrote it.


Pseudonymity and the documents

Whatever one thinks about the authorship of the books of the NT, there can be no doubt that there are pseudonymous documents to be found outside of the canon. No doubt the most widely known example of this is the so-called Gospel of Thomas, one of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic documents (although it was known before their discovery). Virtually no-one who has studied this collection of sayings believes that it originated with the disciple whose name it bears, despite the introduction of the book which reads: 'These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Thomas wrote down'.

For a number of the books of the NT, however, you can find scholars on both sides of the question. Clearly it will not be possible to outline all the arguments and points of view in a short article such as this,[1] but it may be helpful to point out a few of the books whose authorship is most 'under fire', and to refer to some of the reasons why this is so. For it is worth noting at the outset that not all NT books are seriously contested. Just as virtually everyone accepts the pseudonymity of the Gospel of Thomas, so virtually everyone accepts that the letters of 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians and Philemon, for example, were penned by the apostle Paul. Even the most liberal of NT critics do not dispute the claims of authorship of canonical books without some reasons.

It is also worth noting at this stage that some of the neat lines between scholars are starting to break down. Formerly it was the case that a person's views on pseudonymity in the canon could be ascertained merely by finding out whether the person was an 'evangelical' or not. Indeed, for many, this was precisely the test: if someone believed that the NT contained pseudonymous works, they were, by definition, not an evangelical. We'll come back later to why this should no longer be the case (under the heading 'Pseudonymity and inspiration'). For now, suffice it to say that the party lines cannot be so neatly drawn.[2]

The book of 2 Peter is probably the most frequently doubted. The author of the book makes unmistakable personal references, such as calling himself Symeon Peter (1:1) and referring to the Transfiguration (1:16-18). But for many scholars, these apparently clear signposts of authorship are a little too clear and self-conscious to be accepted without question. Furthermore, there are features of the letter that seem to point to a time later than Peter's lifetime. For example, if the phrase 'Ever since our fathers died' in 3:4 refers to the first generation of Christians, as many believe, then it is odd coming from Peter. Or again, the reference to 'all Paul's letters' in 3:15 suggests a collection of the letters, whereas it is doubted that they would have been collected and distributed all together in the apostle Peter's time. There are other arguments both for and against Petrine authorship, but our purpose here is merely to show that features of the text itself cause people to inquire into the matter - it is not all presuppositions and hypercriticism.

Of the letters bearing Paul's name, it is the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) which have received the roughest ride. The reasons for this include both form and content. First, there are indisputable differences in both vocabulary and sentence structure from other letters claiming to be written by Paul. Second, in terms of content, important Pauline concepts appear to be used in a different way altogether in these epistles. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the key theological theme of 'faith'. In most of Paul's writings, the idea conveyed is a human response of obedience to and identification with God's acts in Christ. In the Pastorals, it seems more to do with a body of beliefs - the content of the commitment rather than the action: '... he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever' (1 Tim. 5:8). Other theological and ethical quirks could be added to this. There are, to be sure, a variety of ways of explaining these, but they are real differences.

Another perceived problem area in the Pauline corpus is the pair of Ephesians and Colossians. Like the Pastorals, these letters bear a marked similarity to each other and stand over against the other letters of the apostle, albeit less clearly so. While the Pastorals are usually accepted or denied en masse, many scholars will split Ephesians and Colossians and say that Colossians is authentic while Ephesians is not. Again there are reasons that relate to both form and content, and again these are capable of a variety of interpretations or explanations.

Whether they are good reasons or not, it must at least be admitted that there are rational reasons for doubting the authorship of some NT books. And these reasons arise from the text rather than from some perversity of mind on the part of scholars. But how is this phenomenon to be explained? What possible reason could anyone, let alone a Christian, have for writing a document and pretending that someone else is responsible for it?

Pseudonymity and authors

Sometimes, of course, the false attribution of a book to a famous author has nothing to do with the original author at all. The book of Hebrews is a good case in point. It is anonymous, and early Christian writers expressed various opinions about who wrote it, ranging from Luke to Barnabas, including Origen's famous statement that 'who wrote this epistle God alone knows for certain'. The tradition that it was one of Paul's seemed to stick, and for centuries it was so regarded. But without question, if the author had intended to pass it off as such, the initial greeting 'Paul, an apostle...', so typical of the Pauline epistles, would not have been omitted.

Another way that works are sometimes falsely attributed to famous people without the author intending it is when the real (less famous) author has the same name as another potential author. Many commentators think that this is the case with the book of Revelation, which claims only to be written 'by John', and nowhere makes any explicit claim (or even hints) at being by one of the disciples. If 'John the Elder on Patmos' felt that he and his circumstances were known to his intended readers, it may not have occurred to him that centuries later people would confuse him and his work with another John.

But 2 Peter and the other epistles I mentioned in the last section, if they are pseudonymous, clearly go beyond this innocence. Our question remains: why would anyone go to all the trouble to write something, only to claim someone else wrote it?

It is not as strange as it sounds at first. Quite the opposite: for some ancients, it was a very sly move. The ancient medical author, Galen, writes about two libraries run by wealthy collectors who sought to outdo the other by purchasing works of famous authors for huge sums. This demand, not surprisingly, encouraged quite a few people to forge brand-new 'ancient' works for a handsome profit.[3] This, however, seems an unlikely motive for the author of a Christian work, not only because of the morality, but also because the church was not a very lucrative market for such forgeries until a much later period in time.

Another cunning motive for writing a book in someone else's name is to legitimize your own views by 'showing' them to have a more respectable pedigree: 'this isn't my idea; it comes from the disciples!' This is, at least in part, the kind of motive behind the production of such heretical works as the Gospel of Thomas. The motive is not dissimilar to the church's reasons for delineating the canon: 'these aren't just our ideas...'.

Now, for modern people there is a world of difference between summoning support from documents written by authorities and forging such documents oneself. At least there is if what we're reading is a magazine article or a book of non-fiction. We have entirely different expectations of a play, a film or a poem, however. For example, if a television programme shows some film footage of London in the 1930s accompanied by sombre music and the voice of a news presenter doing the narration, the whole audience will treat the words differently than if the music is light-hearted and the voice is that of a famous comedian. It is important to notice that there is nothing intrinsically different about the footage or the medium that demands one not to be taken literally - it is a more or less arbitrary feature of our society and culture, but a feature which nearly everyone in our society is aware of.

Some biblical scholars have argued that it is our arbitrary cultural expectations that mislead us when we consider authorship of some of these ancient books. The cultures which produced them and for which they were produced may have had entirely different expectations than we have. Perhaps when a new epistle bearing an apostle's name was produced after his death, people had only the expectations we might have at a one-man play about C.S. Lewis. We are not likely to condemn the playwright or the actor of plagiarism or misquotation as long as what is said is true and


reasonably in character. Might not the early Christians have had this kind of expectation of spiritual writings? A truly helpful epistle written by someone else in Paul's name might, thus, not have been viewed either by the author or the audience as plagiarism or misquotation or lying. Just as with the actor playing C.S. Lewis, none of the audience would have been 'fooled', nor would the intention of the writer have been to make the people believe that Lewis or Paul were really on the stage. Dishonesty doesn't really enter into it.

This is a very common way of understanding pseudonymity in Christianity and in ancient cultures: that it is used more as an artistic literary device, rather than as a serious and dishonest attempt to gain authority for a work by deceitful means. And to some extent, the evidence that we have bears this out. An incident from the early church that is frequently mentioned is the church father Tertullian's account of an elder of Asia in his time who wrote a book using Paul's name, out of love for Paul and desiring to honour him thus. We shall have occasion to look at the ending of this incident in the next section, but for the time being we can see that the incident illustrates that some Christians did compose pseudonymously, apparently without feeling they were doing something deceitful.

Pseudonymity and audiences

But the real question for such a point of view is whether or not the intended audiences did in fact take 'authorship' this lightly. For the answer, we must again look to the church fathers. Ideally, we would like an 'epistle review' by an early church leader which says something along the lines of: 'Apollos's delightful "Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans" is full of good insights about the Christian faith'. We would expect a church that was very casual about the authorship question, and interested largely in the spiritual value of a book. What we find, however, is different: we find that the early church was very interested in both, including the question of authorship for its own sake.

The modern discipline of biblical studies prides itself on scientific use of literary analysis, and we tend to think that such 'tools' were the invention of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is a bit of a surprise, then, to find very similar techniques being used by church leaders to analyse Christian literature as early as the first few centuries AD. And what they were using them for was to determine authorship. About the author of Revelation, Dionysius wrote:

...I could not so easily admit that this was the apostle, the son of Zebedee... and the same person who wrote the Gospel.... But from the character of both, and the forms of expression, and the whole disposition and execution of the book, I draw the conclusion that the authorship is not his.[4]

Dionysius came to the conclusion that it must have been another man named John who wrote the book. Clearly some in the early church were interested in authorship, and were not exactly gullible.

It is sometimes thought that in order to 'make it into the canon' a book had to meet the formal requirement of being written by one of Jesus' followers. A moment's reflection shows that this is too simplistic. The majority of the NT is attributed to Paul and Luke, two men who were not followers of the Lord during his earthly ministry. Yet it is true that authorship mattered to those who decided, or recognized, the canon. If, however, mere connection to an apostle is not good enough grounds for taking a book seriously, much of the impetus for falsely claiming apostolic authorship is removed.

In the outcome of the incident I mentioned in the previous section, about Tertullian's elder who wrote his book in honour of Paul, despite the lofty motive the elder was not saluted, but rather he was removed from church office. Tertullian also tells us that there were some teachings in the book he didn't like. But these were probably not to be considered heretical - nor were they the crux by which the book was rejected. It is not that Terfullian said, 'These beliefs are wrong, therefore the book must be rejected'; rather it seems more akin to 'this book is a fake, therefore I needn't change my point of view on these matters'.[5]

In short, the only reactions portrayed in the surviving literature are (1) this book really was written by the apostle it claimed to be written by; (2) we don't know who this book was written by, or it was written by a person with the same name as someone more famous; or (3) this book was not written by the person who claimed to have written it and is to be rejected. This does not sound to me like the concerns and reactions of a society that was comfortable with the sort of artistic pseudonymity of which we spoke in the previous section.

Pseudonymity and inspiration

We have seen, in the cases of some of the books of the NT, that it is possible to find rational reasons for asking whether the real author of the book is who the book claims. We have seen further that it is indisputable that pseudonymity was practised in the first few centuries of the church both by heretics (the Gospel of Thomas) and by those who thought of themselves as inside the church (Tertullian's elder). Although inspiration by the Holy Spirit and false claims of authorship do not seem to us to be compatible, we cannot, I think, exclude the possibility that God would work through such literary conventions. Pseudonymity need be only as deceitful as a parable, if the audience knows what's coming.

On the other hand, the evidence shows that the church fathers were far from uninterested in the authorship question, and yet we have no record of their congratulating a pseudonymous author or consciously accepting a single pseudonymous work. We must conclude that if pseudonymous works got into the canon, the church fathers were fooled by a transparent literary device that was originally intended not to fool anyone.

It will be clear by now that I personally find no compelling reason to believe that any of the books in the NT are written by anyone other than who they claim to be written by. The evidence, overall, inclines me to the other direction. But, and this is important, I do not think that pseudonymity can be ruled out as a serious possibility. The cases against the traditional authorship of 2 Peter and the Pastorals in particular are strong and not easily dismissed.

In the end, though, the books' place in the canon was secured not by their authentic authorship claims but by their being inspired by the Holy Spirit. And we must always remember that his ways need not be our ways. In the light of the practice of ancient cultures, therefore, we must not take the point of view that anyone who thinks there are pseudonymous books in the NT necessarily has something wrong with their view of biblical authority.

The books of the Bible were written by specific human beings in specific cultural settings. Being sensitive to these origins, even when features of them appear to conflict with our own cultural expectations, enhances rather than detracts from our under standing of how the Holy Spirit used these people and situations to bring us the book we know as Holy Scripture.


[1] For more complete arguments on both sides of the matter, it is best to look at introductions to the NT and commentaries on the books in question. A good start would be D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Apollos, 1990) and W.G. Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament (SCM, 1975).

[2] On the one hand, evangelicals like Richard Bauckham come down on the pseudonymity side of the question, while people of otherwise more liberal persuasions, like Luke Johnson, come down in favour of authenticity, more or less. See R.J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (Word Biblical Commentary, 1986), and L.T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (SCM, 1986).

[3] Galen, In Hipp. de nat. hominis 1.42, as cited by Bruce Metzger, 'Literary Forgeries and Canonical Pseudepigrapha', Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 91 (1972), pp. 5-6.

[4] Dionysius, Extant Fragments 1.4, as cited by T.D. Lea, 'The Early Christian View of Pseudepigraphic Writings', Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Vol. 27 (1984), p. 69.

[5] See D. Guthrie, 'Appendix C: Epistolary Pseudepigraphy', in NT Introduction, pp. 1011-1028.

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