Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings
You have likely seen the above Internet meme before. Did Abraham Lincoln really tell us to not believe everything we read on the Internet? Of course not. We are in on the joke; Abraham Lincoln died long before the Internet was established.
Such a meme is a tongue-in-cheek example of a pseudepigraphal writing. “Pseudepigraphal” is an invented term from the Greek ψευδής (pseudes, “false”) and ἐπιγραφή (epigraphe, “name, inscription”): it refers to writings falsely attributed to someone else, normally a highly esteemed historical figure. In the above case, someone in modern times made up a quotation and falsely attributed it to Abraham Lincoln.
In Biblical studies there are many examples of both pseudepigraphal and apocryphal writings. “Apocryphal” comes from both the Greek ἀπόκρυφος (apokruphos, “secret, obscure”) and Latin apocryphus, “secret, non-canonical.” Apocryphal writings may have unknown authorship or may have known authors who wrote sincerely but whose writings were not inspired and thus not made a part of the canon of Scripture. Today “the Apocrypha” refers to a set of apocryphal books which were part of the Greek Septuagint but not the Hebrew Old Testament (the Masoretic Text); “the Pseudepigrapha” refers to a set of pseudepigraphal texts written within Judaism and Christianity from around 300 BCE to 300 CE. These terms were applied to these writings after they were written; therefore, some writings may be considered apocryphal to some and pseudepigraphal to others (e.g. 1 Enoch, Jubilees); most pseudepigraphal writings are also apocryphal, and a few apocryphal writings are also pseudepigraphal (e.g. Epistle of Barnabas, The Protoevangelium of James).
Both Jewish people and early Christians wrote apocryphal works. In many instances, they attempted to explain historical events, set forth wisdom literature, tell stories, or provide exhortation (e.g. 1 Maccabees, The Protoevangelium of James, Sirach, Judith, the Didache, 1 Clement); such writings are more “non-canonical” than “secret.” And yet many others wrote texts which featured apocalyptic scenes and similar esoteric themes (e.g. Tobit, the Shepherd of Hermas); such writings can be as “obscure” as they are “non-canonical.” Such apocryphal writings provide insight into the world of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, yet they were recognized even at the time as additional, beneficial, but not canonical:
Concerning these scriptures, which are called apocryphal, for the reason that many things are found in them corrupt and against the true faith handed down by the elders, it has pleased them that they not be given a place nor be admitted to authority (Origen, Commentary on the Song of Songs, Prologue).
Jewish people, early Christians, as well as early heretics such as the Gnostics wrote pseudepigraphal works. Many are apocalyptic (4 Baruch, Apocalypse of Peter); many claim to provide teachings from great men of faith in the past (e.g. Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite). Christian and Gnostic pseudepigrapha tend to feature writings claiming apostolic authorship: the Gospel of Peter, Acts of Peter, Paul and Thecla; Gospel of Thomas, Apocryphon of John.
Why would people write texts under a false name? Some likely did so in order to deceive and distort; the Gnostics in particular did so in order to try to associate their doctrines with the Apostles (cf. Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 6.16, ironically an apocryphal work condemning pseudepigraphal writings). Others likely did so with less malevolent motives: some may have wanted to provide instruction or teaching which, in their minds, were what the famous figure of old would have said (not unlike songs or preaching which would put words into the mouths of Biblical characters); not a few likely thought everyone knew that the historical personage did not write such things and were just trying to make a point (not unlike our Abraham Lincoln example above); some believed they were honoring the historical personage in so doing (cf. Terullian regarding the author of the Acts of Paul in Against Marcion 4.3).
Nevertheless, even in the first century, pseudepigraphy proved to be a great concern (2 Thessalonians 2:2, 3:17). In the early third century, a Christian named Serapion wrote regarding the Gospel of Peter: “for we, brethren, receive both Peter and the rest of the apostles as Christ Himself. But those writings which are falsely inscribed with their name, we as experienced persons reject, knowing that no such writings have been handed down to us” (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.12). In a similar way Tertullian condemned the Doctrine of Peter (On Baptism 17). It was evident that not a few false doctrines were infiltrating the church through pseudegraphical writings, and early Christians stood up to oppose and condemn them.
Apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings have value as witnesses to various ideas, teachings, and perspectives in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. Many apocryphal works provide information which proves beneficial for understanding the New Testament. Yet it is clear that they both exist and were not written by the prophets, the Apostles, or anyone else inspired by the Holy Spirit. They are not inspired literature. Teachings and practices not authorized by God in Scripture are found in both apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings.
Thus apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings should be considered very carefully; they should never be used to commend a doctrine or teaching that cannot be found in either the Old or New Testaments. We do well to remember that just because a document claims to have been written by a great person of faith, a prophet, or an Apostle does not mean that such a person actually wrote it. Instead we must practice discernment; may we ground our lives in the truth of God in Christ and accept no substitutes or false teachings!
Ethan R. Longhenry