Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Pseudepigrapha (Fourth Post)

Books, Christian Education, Church History, Discipleship, Scripture, Uncategorized

“Pseudo-who-grapha? Oh boy, what is this post going to be about? First, you suggest I read a bunch of Catholic books (that aren’t really Catholic), now you want me to read gibberish?”

As we continue our tour of ancient literature, we come a collection of books called “pseudepigrapha” by modern scholars. As the etymology implies, pseudepigrapha are books outside of the canon of Scripture that have falsely (pseudes, from which we get words like pseudonym) attributed names as the author (epigraphē). These include books like “1 Enoch,” or “Testament of Judah,” or “Treatise or Shem,” and so on. Most of these books are published only in collections of Pseudepigrapha, though a few can be found in the Apocrypha (such as Baruch) and even some canons of the Bible (such as the Ethiopian church which includes 1 Enoch).[1]

Several years ago I set out to read Charlesworth’s now classic two volume collection of somewhere around seventy pseudepigraphal books. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. In all honesty, it was a life changer. It expanded my view of thecharlesworth ancient world while completely fascinating me in the process. Like the Apocrypha, there are various genres of pseudepigrapha. There are apocalypses (1, 2, 3 Enoch, Sibylline Oracles, Apocalypses of Adam, Abraham, Elijah, Daniel, and Ezra, etc). This is my personal favorite genre. There are what are called “Testaments.” These are books that follow a similar pattern to the deathbed scene Jacob at the end of Genesis where the patriarch remembers his past and gives blessings or curses to his descendants. Each of Jacob’s twelve sons has his own Testament in the Pseudepigrapha, as do Job, Moses, Solomon, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There are romance novels like Joseph and Aseneth (a personal favorite of mine), history books like Jubilees (a book that is 80% Genesis), The Lives of the Prophets (an account of the deaths of many OT prophets), Letter of Aristeas (a tale of how the Septuagint came to be written), and many more. There are wisdom and philosophical books including one of the oldest of these books called Ahiqar, a seventh century B.C. collection of proverbs, and 3 and 4 Maccabees). These are prayers, Psalms, and Odes. These include other psalms of David, a prayer of Joseph, a prayer of Manasseh after he repented and turned back to the LORD (this is a beautiful little prayer), and the Odes of Solomon. Then there are other pieces of poetry, oracles, dramas, and so on.

Pseudepigrapha can be divided into two more basic categories. There are OT and NT pseudepigrapha. OT deal with, well, OT figures, while NT deal with, you guessed it, NT figures. OT pseudepigrapha were originally written by Jews. However, most of these books were actually preserved by Christians. Early Christians were completely fascinated by these books, and a good many of them actually have Christian additions which were often inserted into the text to show how Christ was the person of whom these books spoke (many of these books are fixated on intertestamental Messianic expectations). A great example of this is how right in the middle of the 8th Sibylline Oracle (a completely fascinating series of oracles), you find an acrostic poem where the first letter of each line spells “Jesus Christ, son of God, savior, cross” in Greek. It is inserted into an oracle that is predicting eschatological upheavals.

NT pseudepigrapha were books written entirely by Christians (though a whole collection of these were written by heretics called Gnostics). Some of these books include letters supposedly written by Ignatius (an Apostolic Father), James (Apocryphon of James), Peter (such as The Letter of Peter to Philip), or even Pontius Pilate. There are “gospels” such as The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew or the Gospel of Nicodemus. There are “history” books such as the Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea or The Acts of Philip. The point is, Jews and Christians of long ago were as creative and fascinated with writing books as they are today. We have hundreds of such books available that most people have never heard about. Curiously, these NT books actually helped the church formalize their lists of canonical NT books, as it is clear in reading them that they are not authoritative.

So why would anyone want to read pseudepigrapha? Let me use 1 Enoch, probably the most famous of all these books, as both an example and a lesson. First, the example. I have a stand alone copy of 1 Enoch on my shelf that contains over 300 footnotes cross referencing this pre-NT book with the 66 books of the Christian Bible.

Fragment of 1 Enoch from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Fragment of 1 Enoch from the Dead Sea Scrolls


Many of those references are to the NT. 1 Enoch was written prior to any NT book, so that means the NT authors were familiar with it. Many people know that Jude actually quotes from this book (Jude 14, 1 Enoch 1:8). So Jude obviously read the book himself. If he did, why wouldn’t I?

Yet, many Christians are so suspicious of any old book not included in the Bible, that while admitting Jude’s citation, they actually take a very skeptical view that this is the only verse of 1 Enoch that is reliable, and we only know this because Jude quoted it. That leads to the lesson. Jude wasn’t necessarily quoting Enoch because he believed this verse or even the book itself was inspired Scripture (Paul quotes Greek poets). Yet, he did believe the book (not just one verse) was reliable and helpful to illustrate his point. What most do not realize is that he alludes to the book at least a dozen other times in his short little letter (see table at the end of this post).

The way to handle a book like Enoch is a good lesson for reading any ancient literature that relates to the Bible. There is no need to take the skeptical route that we can’t trust it because it isn’t God’s word. No one does that with their favorite modern authors. Nor is there any need to say that one verse must be inspired Holy Scripture because Jude quoted it. Instead, approach it and these other books as valuable information that shed light on the culture and theology of the Bible. Read them for what they are, not for what you fear it would make them if you actually enjoyed them. Read them as you would your favorite authors of today.[2]

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

Chart Compiled by Doulgas Van Dorn as taken from George W. E. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, ed. Klaus Baltzer, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001) and Richard J. Bauckham, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 50, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998).

Chart Compiled by Doulgas Van Dorn as taken from George W. E. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, ed. Klaus Baltzer, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001) and Richard J. Bauckham, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 50, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998).

Chart by Douglas Van Dorn

Chart by Douglas Van Dorn

Bauckham Pseud

Chart by Douglas Van Dorn

[1] An interesting chart was developed by the folks at Logos Bible Software on the various canons of various churches around the world. While there are differences, note that there is not an infinite number of books that are debated. In fact, with how many books we know about from antiquity, the number is absolutely minuscule. Finally, to the best of our knowledge, the OT of most Protestants (the sixty-six books of our Bibles listed in LBC 1.2), was the one used by the NT writers.

[2] For more on this particular topic, see the “Appendix: Extra-Biblical Literature” in my book Giants: Sons of the Gods (Erie, CO: Waters of Creation Pub., 2013), 235-38.

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