Introducing the Pseudepigrapha

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
Tags: Abraham, Archaeology, Bible, biblical archaeology, Christianity, Ezra, Judaism, Moses, Pseudepigrapha, Religion, Susan Docherty
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By: Susan Docherty

The term “pseudepigrapha” is rather off-putting, conjuring up an image of ancient and difficult to understand texts that have little relevance to people today. In fact, this fascinating and wide-ranging literature, dating from approximately 300 BCE to 100CE, includes examples of humour, tragedy, poetry and romance, and offers important insights into early Judaism, the thought-world from which Christianity emerged.

Odilon Redon, The Winged Man (The Fallen Angel). Before 1880.

In my recent book The Jewish Pseudepigrapha: An Introduction to the Literature of the Second Temple PeriodI introduce the general reader to the world of the pseudepigrapha, a collection of early Jewish religious writings which have links with the scriptures but which are not included in the canon of the bible. The name “pseudepigrapha” indicates that the authors generally used a pseudonym, attributing their work to some revered figure from Israel’s past, like Abraham, Moses or Ezra.

What books are in the collection of the pseudepigrapha and what are they about?

The pseudepigrapha fall into several different genres. The most well-known of these forms is apocalyptic, the kind of writing found in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation which was very popular with Jews and early Christians. It is often associated with bizarre symbolism and frightening speculation about the end of the world, and it is true that ideas about heaven and hell and angels and demons were developing at this time. As the opening chapter of 1 Enoch puts it:

5 And all shall be smitten with fear And the Watchers shall quake, And great fear and trembling shall seize them unto the ends of the earth.
6 And the high mountains shall be shaken, And the high hills shall be made low, And shall melt like wax before the flame.
7 And the earth shall be wholly rent in sunder, And all that is upon the earth shall perish, And there shall be a judgement upon all (men).

Chester Beatty XII, Greek manuscript of the Book of Enoch, 4th century CE.

However, the apocalypses in the pseudepigrapha, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch, are mainly concerned with the problem of the presence of sin and evil in a world supposedly created by a good God. They tackle issues which were really pressing for their readers and which have not gone away, such as violence and inequality in society, or the despair felt by those experiencing economic hardship, wars, or poor government.

Most of the pseudepigrapha have their starting-point in the Jewish scriptures. “Rewritten bible” texts, such as Jubilees and Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, literally retell large sections of the biblical narrative, but with additions aimed at increasing their contemporary relevance. New speeches were created for the patriarchs, for example, to emphasise themes important for a later audience, such as God’s continued faithfulness to the covenant, or how to live as a faithful Jew under foreign rule.

Bodleian Library, 4 Ezra fragment from Oxyrhynchus, 4th century CE.

But these books are also interesting because they give a more prominent place to women characters, like Rebecca and Deborah. Other texts use a biblical narrative as a jumping-off point for a new story. Examples of such “biblical expansions” include Joseph and Aseneth and The Life of Adam and Eve. The first of these reads like a popular romantic novel, describing how Joseph met and, after some adventures, eventually married his Egyptian wife. The second imagines what life was like for Adam and Eve and their family after they were cast out of the Garden of Eden. It sends out a powerful message about the extent of God’s mercy, by claiming that both Adam and Eve were forgiven by God for their sin in the end and gained eternal life.

A further group of the pseudepigrapha present biblical themes in a variety of new forms. Some follow scriptural models, like the Psalms of Solomon. But others are influenced by Greek literature: the Exagoge, for example, is a tragic drama about the exodus. A series of “testaments” also offer the fictional death-bed speeches of well-known scriptural figures, who reflect on the significance of their lives and offer ethical advice to their descendants.

Albrecht Dürer Adam and Eve, 1504.

The Testament of Job is perhaps the most moving of these, as it helps the reader to feel Job’s real sorrow at the loss of his children, and to empathise with his wife, as she struggles to bear grief and hardship for which she has not asked:

I was unable to utter a thing; for I was exhausted – as a woman numbed in her pelvic region by the magnitude of birth pangs… (18:4)

On the other hand, the Testament of Abraham is a genuinely funny account of Abraham’s attempts to avoid death (even when he has reached the ripe old age of 995!), which addresses his fears by stressing the generosity of God’s mercy. When Abraham attempts to delay his death by asking to go on a tour of the whole inhabited world, for instance, he causes havoc by calling down punishment on every sinner he sees, so that God has to urge the Archangel Michael who is accompanying him to end the trip early:

O Michael, Commander-in-Chief, command the chariot to stop and turn Abraham away, lest he should see the entire inhabited world. For if he were to see all those who pass their lives in sin, he would destroy everything that exists. For behold Abraham has not sinned and he has no mercy on sinners. But I made the world, and I do not want to destroy any of them; but I delay the death of the sinner until he should convert and live (10.12-14)

Rembrandt speaking with an angel. 1636-1637.

Rembrandt speaking with an angel. 1636-1637.

Why read the pseudepigrapha today?

The pseudepigrapha contain thought-provoking reflections on questions that continue to exercise people today, such as how to explain innocent suffering, or how to deal with the natural fear of death. Some reflect on theological problems, like what it means to say that human beings are created in the image of God, while others provide a trenchant critique of social injustice and corrupt political systems. These writers were not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, and their ability to combine respect for the unique authority of scripture with creative responses to contemporary culture and new questions offers an inspiring model for today’s religious teachers.

This literature is also significant for the information it provides about early Judaism and early Christianity. By reading these books, we learn more about how the scriptures were interpreted at this time, and what people thought about major theological themes like covenant, worship, the law, and salvation.

They offer an especially interesting insight into the beliefs of the great majority of Jews who lived outside of Israel, in the communities of the Diaspora, thereby highlighting the richness and variety of Jewish faith and practice. Here we see Jews who remained loyal to aspects of their traditional religion, but who also wanted to engage with the wider Hellenistic culture, and were happy to use its literary forms to express their beliefs.

It is also important to realise that, although these books were written by Jews, they were actually preserved mainly by Christians, and several remained popular with Christian readers right up to the Middle Ages. There is often overlap with the ideas and imagery of the New Testament, and Jesus and his first followers would have known some of them well. This is a useful reminder of the shared literary and theological heritage of Jews and Christians, which should inform an ongoing, positive inter-faith dialogue.

Susan Docherty is Reader in Biblical Studies and Head of Theology at Newman University in Birmingham, UK. 


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