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


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


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.

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


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


(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!


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


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


Ibid., 370


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


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

S. E. Porter, “Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: Implications for Canon,” BBR 5 (1995), 121 – 122


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

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


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.


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