The Voice 2.49: December 02, 2012

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The Voice

The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha

During the few hundred years before and after the birth of Jesus there was a great amount of literary activity among the Israelites. Some writers described events taking place in their own time and beforehand. Other writers focused on interpreting the Law of Moses. Yet many other writers wrote various texts as if they had been composed by many of the characters found in the pages of the Old Testament. Some of these texts have been preserved over the past two thousand or so years, and we now call them the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.

The word “pseudepigrapha” comes from the Greek words for “false name or ascription,” and can refer to any text which is falsely attributed to a person in the past. “The Pseudepigrapha” is a more modern concept of a collection of such texts. We are more specifically discussing the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, the collection of pseudepigraphic texts associated with people in the Old Testament, as opposed to the New Testament Pseudepigrapha, which is associated with people in the New Testament.

Precisely defining what the “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” is difficult, especially in how it relates to the “Old Testament Apocrypha.” While ancient texts are in both collections, the designations of “apocrypha” and “pseudepigrapha” come much later. “Apocryphal” works are “hidden” or esoteric, with dubious authenticity. Some books, like 3 and 4 Maccabees, are part of the Apocrypha for some, but are considered part of the Pseudepigrapha to others. For that matter, books like 1 Enoch can be rightly considered both “apocryphal” and “pseudepigraphic”: Enoch did not write it, and it is esoteric in its substance. For our purposes, we will consider “the” Old Testament Pseudepigrapha as the collection of texts falsely ascribed to Old Testament personages mostly written between the third century BCE and fourth century CE.

Characterizing the “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” is equally difficult. Different groups of Jews and Christians preserved different texts for various reasons; existing texts are in Hebrew, Greek, Ethiopic, Coptic, and even Old Church Slavonic. Pseudepigraphal texts feature apocayptic, “history,” testaments, psalms, prayers, and wisdom literature. In general, authors of pseudepigraphal texts are trying to teach and encourage their audience by purporting to be a voice in the past, filling in gaps in history, retelling Biblical stories, teaching wisdom, or warning regarding times to come.

The texts of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha are not inspired; they were not actually written by people who lived during the days of Old Testament history. Why, then, should we consider them?

Some of the texts featured in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha relate in some way to matters found in the New Testament. There are some parallels between 1 Enoch and material in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6, 14-15, as well as those “sawn in two” in Hebrews 11:37 and the Martyrdom/Ascension of Isaiah, and perhaps between Jude 1:9 and the Assumption of Moses. They are all likely drawing on similar traditions reflecting actual history. Many texts in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha are apocalyptic in nature, like 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, and the like. They use similar imagery as in Daniel, Zechariah, and the book of Revelation, and we can therefore see that John is not using some strange way of communicating in the visions presented in Revelation, but is using a genre and images familiar to believers in the first century. We can also gain a better understanding of history from many pseudepigraphal works, both from texts like the Letter of Aristeas which claims to tell how the Greek Septuagint was translated, and also through investigation of the pseudepigraphal texts to see the concerns of their authors and audiences.

The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha is not inspired and in no way necessary for salvation, but consideration of many such works is profitable for deep study and the investigation of history. If we will consider such texts, let us handle them wisely.

Ethan R. Longhenry

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