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. http://www.biblestudymagazine.com/extras-1/2014/10/31/whats-in-the-bible. 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. http://www.amazon.com/Giants-Sons-Douglas-Van-Dorn/dp/0615815375/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Introduction Part II–Objections and Suggestions (Second Post)

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

Objections

In the first post in this series, we introduced the topic of extra-biblical literature and focused in on what makes the Bible unique. But I realize people have objections to objectioneven reading this kind of material. In this post we will look at some objections and I will offer some suggestions that I hope you will find helpful for giving one or more of these areas of study a try.

Here are a couple of things I can imagine some people saying (actually, I don’t have to imagine it at all. I’ve said them myself and had others say them to me). “Some of the books you mentioned are written by Christians, while others are written by non-Christians. We shouldn’t read books by non-Christians.” Keep that thought in mind the next time you pick up a Tom Clancy thriller or Spider-man comic or a grocery store tabloid or the editorial section in the Wall Street Journal.

But some of those books are dangerous because they teach us about false gods. We shouldn’t open ourselves up to demonic worldviews or influences.” Remember that the next time you walk through a mall or watch the Oscars or talk to most college students at your local university. It isn’t reading books like these that we should be concerned about; it is having in our minds that somehow, because they are old, or because they are religious, that they are in competition with the Bible.

Suggestions

Do not be afraid of exposing yourself to old ideas, because Christianity is perfectly capable of holding its own against the best and worst, the most subtle, and the most diabolical ideas the world’s religions have ever offered. If you struggle with this during or after reading a particular work, then I would suggest perhaps reading some apologetic material to go along with it. We really can give good answers for any high or lofty idea that sets itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:4-5), especially if they are supernatural (as in fallen supernatural beings) in origin, as many of the religions of the world undoubtedly are.[1]

Also, consider this. Ancient books are the stories the biblical authors had access to (or those writing after the completion of the NT). These were their “Best Sellers.” They knew about them. They quoted them (see the table at the end of this post). And most of all, they used these stories to the advantage of the people of God. Paul cited Greek poets as an inroad to preaching the gospel (Acts 17:28). Jude used Jewish literature to warn about the last days. This, of course, means they had to have read this stuff.[2] Historical books and letters regularly cite non-canonical books that they used to compile their histories (see the table at the end of this post). The prophets often used the stories of Canaan to mock with their own language and images the gods of the nations, all while glorifying the God who alone created all things.[3]

The Christian Hollywood screen writer Brian Godawa calls this “subversion,” and Hollywood uses it all the time. Good examples are the recent remakes of Noah and Moses, remakes that tell the world what a bunch of monsters and lunatics the “heroes” of the Bible and their God really were. They use our own stories against us! It is a powerful way to indoctrinate someone, because it works on the psyche of a person without them even knowing it. They think they are merely being entertained! Once you are aware of the what the Bible is doing, it can only give a greater appreciation for its God and provide a more faithful original context into which you can understand redemptive history.[4] That’s why the prophets did it.

To conclude, allow me to summarize my suggestions for how to read these books:

1. PRESUPPOSE THAT WHAT YOU ARE READING IS NOT SCRIPTURE. Because it isn’t! In 98% of what you will read, this is not difficult, since no Jew or Christian has ever regarded them as such. Remember that they are writings of humans, not God. Understand that they all have their own context, their own genre, their own purpose for existence, as any other book does.

2. TREAT THESE BOOKS LIKE COMMENTARIES, be they commentaries on the Bible or commentaries on a particular culture. In some ways, that is what any book is. In particular, read books closely related to the Bible as you would read Calvin and Augustine (insert your own favorite author here). In other words, be fair. You will find many things in these books that you agree with as you would if reading a good author today. You will find other things that you do not agree with as you would if reading someone with whom you do not agree. The Jews of old were just like people today.  Their views are diverse rather than monolithic. You will be exposed to all sorts of ideas here.

3. DO NOT LET “CHAPTER AND VERSE” BOTHER YOU. For some people, this creates a kind of cognitive dissonance, confusing their minds because it reminds them of the Bible. For convenience, most ancient literature (including Greek poets, Babylon-ian cuneiform tablets, the Church Fathers, etc.) has been numerically itemized for the sake of easy notation and reference. The Bible wasn’t written with chapter and verse; this was added later. So reading a book with chapter and verse marked in it does not mean you are reading God’s word.

4. TAKE NOTE OF SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES with the Biblical texts. Keep in mind that biblical authors often allude and sometimes even quote these sources.  (The same is also true in reverse, if fact much more so). A citation does not make it “inspired” anymore than Paul citing Greek poets makes them “inspired.”  It does mean that you can learn from these books. When you discover a conflict between a particular book and the Scripture, do what all Christians have done since the beginning of time—let the Scripture have the final say.

5. DON’T FEEL LIKE YOU ARE BEING UNFAITHFUL TO GOD by reading them. You aren’t. Remember we have Biblical precedent for reading other ancient Jewish material outside of the Bible. For example, the Chronicler references nearly 20 such books from which he was drawing his sources and which he expected his original readers would be able to read themselves. The NT quotes, refers to, or allude to many of these books. I have compiled a Table below with the most well known direct quotations or citations of non-biblical works (I have not put any allusions or echoes in the Table).

In these next few posts I’ll try to take you on a whirlwind tour of the ancient literary world, a world that has tremendous impact on our understanding, appreciation, and faith in the Bible: God Holy Scripture.

Chart Compiled by Douglas Van Dorn

Chart Compiled by Douglas Van Dorn

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

[1] Over the past half dozen years or so, my own mind has been opened up to the supernatural world around us, the world that the Bible explicitly and consistently tells us to be on guard against. “If an angel from heaven should preach another gospel,” Paul tells the Galatians, implies (especially in the context of the rest of the letter) that they actually do! Mormonism and Islam do not get their power purely from the minds of human beings.

[2] There are tons of allusions in the Bible to Jewish texts not found in the canon of Holy Scripture. Two fairly extensive lists of these allusions and quotations can be found in Craig A. Evans, Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub, 1992), pp. 190-219, and Steve Delamarter, A Scripture Index to Charlesworth’s The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002).

[3] Dr. Michael Heiser has a great article introducing this idea using the writings of the Canaanites and their idea of the “cloud rider,” an idea which they applied to Baal, but which Scripture emphatically applies to Yahweh. See Michael S. Heiser, “What’s Ugaritic Got to Do with Anything?“, last accessed 3-10-2015.

[4]  Consider the London Baptist Confession’s words that “in a due use of ordinary means,” anyone “may attain to a sufficient understanding of [the Scripture]” (LBC 1.7). Part of these ordinary means would include knowing the literature of the day that was being thought about, borrowed, alluded to, polemicized, and quoted throughout the Scripture.

Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Introduction Part I (The Bible)

Books, Christian Education, Christian Living, Church History, Culture, Scripture

Overview

When I was first asked to do this series, it’s focus was to be only on Ancient Near Eastern Literature and the Bible. But then I started thinking. Because there is an aversion that many have not only to ANE stuff, but even to ancient books closer to the Christian home, perhaps something more basic and broad would be more helpful. So this is going to be a series of posts on non-biblical literature and how to think, well, “biblically” about it. It will focus on ancient literature, with individual posts given to the The_Good_The_Bad_and_The_UglyApocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, other Second Temple Literature (Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus and Philo, Mishna, Targums), the Apostolic Fathers, some of the Church Fathers, Gnostic Texts, Ancient Near Eastern Literature, and relevant Ancient World Literature (Part I and Part II). Don’t know what a lot of this even is? Have no idea why you should care? Never fear. These posts will help give you some answers. The final post (an annotated bibliography) to lead you to some good sources to help you begin your adventure. As this is a blog, we can only do the most basic of overviews. This is my attempt to whet your appetite to a whole world you never knew existed. And what an amazing world it is: The good, the bad, and the ugly!

Introduction: The Bible

If we are going to talk about extra-biblical literature, we should probably begin by contrasting it to the Bible. This will give us a proper framework and grounding to proceed. What makes Holy Scripture unique? It is “Holy,” not because some man or ecclesiastical body said so or because some mere angel communicated the words, but because it is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16) by the Spirit of God (2 Pet 1:21). It is the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15) spoken by the Word of God (Jer 1:11; Heb 4:12).[1]Scripture” comes from the Latin for scribe or writing. In this sense, almost any writing can be “scripture,” but they would not be “holy.” So the Bible is a collection of books that make up the writings of God. Together, these two words show the uniqueness of the Bible among all other writings of history (be they religious or non-religious). For in the Bible, each text has two authors, with one being the Uncreated Creator of all other things.

Despite what Rob Bell recently told Oprah about the Bible being a bunch of 2,000 year old irrelevant letters that we need to stop quoting to contemporary people,[2] the Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). The Confessions of Faith summarize the Apostle’s thought here as they begin, “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience…” (LBC and WCF 1.1). But just here, we come to a vital point. Neither the Scripture nor the Confession teach that the Bible is the only useful or helpful book. Rather, the scope of Scripture is narrowly confined in the Confession to being the source and fully inspired presentation of that information we need to know in order to glory God, to be saved, and to live as righteous people.[3]

Obviously, the Bible touches on a lot of other topics. But its purpose is to reveal saving and sanctifying knowledge about the Triune God. So while it may give some helpful insights into somethings like healthy food, biology, or leadership, it is not a diet book, a science text book, or a coaching manual. To put that another way, we rightly read about having a healthy diet, trying to understand the world of quantum mechanics, or figuring out strategies that make good leaders in books other than the Bible. The Bible does not claim to be any of these things, and most people know implicitly that it is perfectly fine to go to books outside of the Bible to learn more about such things.

This is an important first insight to have when coming to think about the world of extra-biblical literature. For there are biases that some people have against such literature that they need not have if they just recognize a couple of things up front. First, they already read extra-biblical literature every day: a novel, a newspaper, a blog like this! Well, the ancient world had their own versions of all of these things too. So I’m not asking you to consider something you aren’t already doing.

Second, almost none of the books we will look at in the ancient world—be they Christian, Jewish, or pagan make claims of themselves that they are Holy Scripture. Sure, a handful might, just as books like the Koran or the Book of Mormon (which isn’t ancient at all) do today, but for the most part, even religious texts are not claiming to be Scripture in the sense we are talking about here. This point can be very helpful in overcoming deeply rooted feelings that somehow to read an ancient book other than the Bible is to commit a kind of spiritual adultery against God’s word. No, it is no more right or wrong to read the Baal Cycle than it is to read Stephen Hawking (books about origins), to read Joseph and Aseneth than it is to read Pride and Prejudice (Romance novels), to read 1 Maccabees than it is to read Foxes Book of Martyrs (history books).

In the next post we will look at some apprehensions people have about this literature and suggestions for reading this material.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

[1] For the Word of the Lord and the Person of Christ see my previous post here: https://thedecablog.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/christ-in-the-old-testament-part-vi/. The LBC summarizes this in 1.4 saying, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.

[2] Here is Mr. Bell’s statement along with some helpful commentary by R.C. Sproul Jr: http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2015/February/Rob-Bell-Suggests-Bible-Not-Relevant-to-Todays-Culture/, last accessed 2-25-2015.

[3] LBC 1.6 says, “for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life.