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Review the article “Pseudepigraphy” by James Dunn in DLNTD and compare his

view with that in the textbook by Carson and Moo as well as others.

In his article on pseudepigraphy (which means “false superscription”), James

Dunn discussed the problem of New Testament writings that explicitly claim to have

been written by a certain person but were believed by many modern scholars to have

been written by someone else. Unlike anonymous New Testament writings such as the

book of Hebrews, the issue of false attribution in pseudepigraphal writings raised

questions about their integrity and acceptability in the canon. For example, we read of

Serapion (second century A.D.) who rejected the Gospel of Peter as “the writings that

falsely bear their names [Peter and the other apostles] . . . knowing that such were not

handed down to us” (Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 6.12.3). Dunn described the nature of the moral

and theological problem in this way, “It is this judgment of falseness, of an intent to

deceive and mislead, particularly by passing off as apostolic what should not be so

regarded, that makes the issue of pseudepigraphy in the NT so sensitive.” On the other

hand, Dunn recognized the significant consensus of NT scholarship that maintains the

pseudepigraphic character of NT writings such as Ephesians, the Pastoral epistles and 2

Peter. How then should we reconcile this apparent contradiction?

Dunn proceeded to evaluate several attempts made to ease the problem of NT

pseudepigraphy. Some scholars argued that writers in the ancient world did not share

modern notions of copyright or intellectual ownership. Therefore they were not as

inhibited as their modern counterparts to claim the use of another person’s name or

portions of his work in their own writings. While there is some truth in this position, it

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can be shown that intellectual ownership was already well developed in Greek culture,

which influenced Israelite literary tradition long before the first century A.D.

A second viewpoint suggests that pseudonymous writing was widely accepted literary

device. Sometimes the act of publishing one’s work in the name of a respected teacher

was perceived as an honorable act rather than an act of deception. Such literary

conventions may be recognized in the case of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs or

the Apocalypse of Adam, written many centuries after their lifetimes. But Dunn doubts

whether this position is applicable in the case of Ephesians, probably written close to

Paul’s death. When the pseudonymous writing was contemporary with the attributed

author, the question of deception may still be raised.

A third view which gained currency suggests that pseudepigraphy was acceptable

because the writer claimed to have mystical identification with the attributed person.

Someone may be inspired to take up the persona of a revered teacher or be inspired by

the Spirit to write so the actual identity of a writer is insignificant. While this theory may

have some plausibility for apocalyptic visions, Dunn found it highly questionable when

applied to the letter genre like the Pastoral epistles. Furthermore, it ignored the cautious

stance of early Christians towards false prophecy (1 Corinthians 12:3, 1 John 3:1-3).

More recent studies drew attention to some possible motivations behind pseudopigraphy

in general such as reverence for past venerable figures, an open attitude towards noble

falsehoods (‘white lies’ in support of a good cause) or more emphasis on the edifying

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content of the writing rather than its authorship. However, in Dunn’s estimation, the

value of such observations to ease the problem of NT pseudepigraphy seemed limited.

Last but not least, Dunn found as the most promising solution to the problem of NT

pseudepigraphy D. G. Meade’s thesis that the phenomenon needs to be seen in light of

“the process in Jewish religious writing whereby tradition has accrued to a prominent

historical figure and particularly the process whereby an original oral or literary deposit

has been expanded by the attribution of further material to the originating figure.” Meade

drew attention to Jewish writings such as Isaiah, the Solomonic corpus, Daniel and Enoch

traditions in which attribution of someone else’s name was primarily a claim to the

person’s authoritative tradition rather than a statement of its literary origins. He wrote,

“Taken from a modern literary perspective, authorship cannot determine canonicity, and

canonicity cannot determine authorship.”1

These Jewish writers were not only reproducing but reinterpreting a core tradition

for a new life setting (Sitz im Leben). Meade further argued that supposed

pseudepigraphic letters in the New Testament showed similar characteristics of updating

the authoritative Petrine and Pauline traditions for a contemporary generation. Dunn

concluded that Meade’s thesis had the greatest potential to explain how the earliest

Christians could have accepted documents claiming authorship of someone who was no

longer alive. The remainder of his article would focus on how the elaboration of an

authoritative tradition (attributed to a particular figure) in the New Testament resembles

that of the Old Testament.


1
D. G. Meade, Pseudonymity and Canon (WUNT 39; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1986), 203

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Through an overview of the process involved in composing the Torah, the

Prophets and the Writings, Dunn explained that the Jewish literary convention showed a

consistent pattern in which there is a revered figure in the past to whom a living tradition

(oral or written) could be attributed; an expansion of that tradition which retains its

continuity while contemporizing it for a new context; and a recognition that the vitality of

the tradition would be lost if the “connection and continuity with the authoritative

originator became too distant, tenuous or artificial”. For example, Solomon was

recognized for his wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34) and he was attributed as the authoritative

starting point of the proverbial tradition (Proverb 1:1) and wisdom literature like

Ecclesiastes. However, as the connection to Solomon became too remote in works such

as Wisdom of Solomon, Psalms of Solomon and Odes of Solomon, acceptance into the

canon was no longer possible as they could no longer claim to stand within his

authoritative tradition. This Jewish writing process, he argued, should be the context in

which we understand NT pseudepigraphy as we can now recognize that such writings

coexist with canonicity without any hint of deceit.

Applying the insights to suspected pseudonymous writings such as the Pastoral

epistles, for instance, Dunn argued that it was plausible that “associates or disciples of

Paul could legitimately write in the name of Paul, as a claim to represent Paul’s counsel

in the face of later challenges, and that the literary device could be accepted without

demur because the writings were recognized as standing in a direct line of continuity with

those of Paul himself (note 2 Tim 2:2)—possibly aided by the incorporation of brief notes

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(particularly 2 Tim 4:9–15) from Paul’s final imprisonment.” Again, the attribution to

Paul was primarily a claim to his authoritative tradition instead of a claim of authorship.

Since it is a legitimate way of using a respected teacher’s name to develop a literary

tradition, Dunn argued that any charge of deceit would be inappropriate in considering

‘canonical pseudepigraphy’. It would simply be analogous to paintings that carry the

signature character and quality of a great artist even though additional brushstrokes were

executed by his students after his death.

Dunn’s article has significant apologetic value if one is already convinced that

there are in fact pseudonymous writings in the New Testament. In such a scenario, one

could potentially hold to their canonicity while attempting to deflect the charge of

falsehood. The ‘living tradition’ position he espoused seems plausible as it has somewhat

similar precedents in OT writings, a likely context for NT practices as well. However,

other scholars like Carson, Moo and Morris remain skeptical because pseudepigraphic

letters are rare amongst Jews and Christians. Since there is no Old Testament epistle, we

do not have an exact precedent to follow.2 Instead, we read of Paul warning his readers

not to believe any prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from him (2

Thessalonians 2:2) and he gave them a distinguishing mark so they could differentiate the

genuine article from a false one (2 Thessalonians 3:17). If the epistles to the

Thessalonians were pseudonymous, we would have to conclude that the author was

condemning the very practice of which he was guilty. How ironic!

2
D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Zondervan, 1992, 367-371

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These evangelical scholars recognize that an early Christian may compose an

apocalyptic work in honor of a revered name, but they could find no evidence that the

same was done for letters as well. Again, there was a lack of evidence to suggest that the

readers of pseudepigraphic letters recognized and accepted the genre. Perhaps such rarity

may be explained by the intimate nature of letters or its liability to detection. We also

need to consider the presence of anonymous works in the canon (such as the Four

Gospels), which suggest that the early Christians may not find it necessary to attach

apostolic names to their books. However, it is important to note that these scholars did

not think the usage of pseudepigraphy was impossible for early Christians. To sum it up:

“The difficulty is not the idea of pseudonymity but the lack of evidence that the New

Testament Christians gave any countenance to the idea.”3

Instead there seemed to be evidence to the contrary. For example, we find a forged

Pauline letter called “3 Corinthians”, highly esteemed in the Syrian and Armenian

churches that it was included in their canon. Tertullian reported that the presbyter who

composed that letter “from love of Paul” was subsequently convicted and defrocked. This

happened despite the fact that the contents are considered orthodox and edifying in the

Pauline tradition. Another example is the Epistle to the Laodiceans, which was rejected

from the Muratorian Canon as a forgery in Paul’s name. To the early Christians, inclusion

of spurious letters into canonical writings is likened to mixing gall with honey. This

pattern was evident in the manner in which the canonicity of 2 Peter and Revelation seem

to hinge on whether their authors were in fact the claimed apostles. Therefore the onus is

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Ibid., 370

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on those who allege the widely accepted practice of writing pseudonymous letters to

provide concrete evidence in support of their claims.

In response to Meade, biblical scholars like Carson, Moo and Morris concurred

with his thesis of the development of a living tradition in early Christianity. However

they would need more evidence before concluding that such a practice is acceptable for

an NT epistle in addition to non-canonical pseudonymous apocalypses, gospels and acts.

Carson pointed out significant dissimilarity between Meade’s OT precedence of Isaiah

which was supposed to have been updated a century later with the Pastorals supposedly

written within only a decade of the apostle’s death. The former also lacked personal

claims and historical details found in those letters.4 We need to exercise more caution in

extrapolating features in one genre to another so different.

Other scholars go beyond the demand for more evidence to advancing positive

arguments on why pseudepigraphy would be inconsistent with canonicity. S. E. Porter

argued that a “noble lie is still a lie” and challenged scholars who believed in

pseudonymous Pastoral epistles to bite the bullet by refraining from using them to

construct Pauline theology.5 Guthrie also criticized pseudepigraphic theories for the

assumption that the author did not see that his notions of truth in the contents of his

writings were inconsistent with a literary method which he knew would have deceived

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D. A. Carson, “Pseudonymity and Pseudopigraphy”, Dictionary of New Testament Background, in Porter,
Stanley E. ; Evans, Craig A.: Dictionary of New Testament Background : A Compendium of Contemporary
Biblical Scholarship. electronic ed. Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity Press, 2000
5
S. E. Porter, “Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: Implications for Canon,” BBR 5 (1995), 121 –
122

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some readers.6 In my view, perceived authentic authorship alone does not guarantee a

writing’s acceptability into the canon. Neither does the uncertainty of apostolic

authorship automatically precludes canonicity. However, the patristic evidence is strong

that if a document can be shown to be forged, it is disqualified from the canon.

As such, scholars who find “canonical pseudepigraphy” as a contradiction in terms

would dispute the claims of New Testament pseudonymity made on the usual basis of

internal evidences such as the vocabulary, style or theology. Such anomalies may be

attributed to the role of an amanuensis (secretary) or particular contexts in which Paul

was writing. It would be natural for the apostle to use different styles or develop different

theological emphases over the course of his ministry. Could we be so certain that Paul

could never have written in a particular way?7 The inclusion of personal details in these

letters seem to point to authentic Pauline authorship. Otherwise it would be hard to

explain why the pseudo-Paul writing should take the trouble to forge these personal

remarks if the readers did not seriously expect the letter to be from Paul anyway. Such an

action had to overcome considerable psychological obstacles that would make it hard for

us not to conclude that intentional deception was involved.

In conclusion, the value of Dunn’s approach to the problem of New Testament

pseudepigraphy would be enhanced if more evidence would surface to convince scholars

that such literary conventions were indeed widely accepted in the early church. It would

6
D. Guthrie, “The Development of the Idea of Canonical Pseudepigrapha in New Testament Criticism” in
The Authorship and Integrity of the New Testament (SPCK Theological Collections 4; London: SPCK,
1965)
7
R. N. Longenecker, “On The Form, Function and Authority of the New Testament Letters”, in Scripture
and Truth, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983

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enable Christians who hold to the majority report with regards to the pseudonymous

nature of certain New Testament letters to maintain their canonicity despite charges of

falsehood. However, in the absence of such evidence, it appears to me that great caution

needs to be exercised before we can accept these conclusions.

Several significant obstacles remain to be overcome in the form of the questionable

ethics behind such a literary convention, the negative attitudes of the early church

towards forgery especially in discussions of canonicity and the lack of evidence that the

early Christians in the first century A.D. practice, condone and accept pseudonymous

letters. To revise Dunn’s analogy, it would be more akin to a zealous disciple of a great

artist who copied his master’s style to create a fresh painting a few years after his death,

forged his trademark signature and claimed it to be from his master instead. It is hard to

see why a moral dilemma does not arise in this case. Despite his valiant attempt, I remain

unconvinced that Dunn’s approach to pseudepigraphy would be able to maintain the

inspiration of the Scripture in the face of such objections until the necessary evidence

could be supplied in support of the claims made.

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Bibliography

D. A. Carson, “Pseudonymity and Pseudopigraphy”, in Porter, Stanley E.; Evans, Craig


A.: Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical
Scholarship. electronic ed. Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity Press, 2000

D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, Grand
Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1992

D. G. Meade, Pseudonymity and Canon, Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1986

D. Guthrie, “The Development of the Idea of Canonical Pseudepigrapha in New


Testament Criticism” in The Authorship and Integrity of the New Testament, SPCK
Theological Collections 4; London: SPCK, 1965

J. D. G. Dunn, “Pseudepigraphy”, in Martin, Ralph P.; Davids, Peter H.: Dictionary of


the Later New Testament and Its Developments, electronic ed. Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 1997

R. N. Longenecker, “On The Form, Function and Authority of the New Testament
Letters”, in Donald, Carson A.; Woodbridge, John D.: Scripture and Truth, (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1983

S. E. Porter, “Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: Implications for Canon,”
BBR 5, 1995

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