Monday, May 16, 2011

Pseudonymity and the New Testament: A Problem for Scholarship

Bart Ehrman is generating a lot of media attention lately with his new book Forged: Writing in the name of God - - - Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who we think They are (Harper Collins, 2011). I have not yet read the book, but probably will eventually. Nonetheless, I have a good idea of the contents and what Ehrman has to say (You can read an overview at the CNN Religion Blog). He is claiming that at least 11 of the 27 books in the New Testament are forged, that is, they were not written by the people who claim to have written them. He takes aim particularly at the apostle Paul who Ehrman says only wrote 7 of the 13 letters attributed to him. The other 6 letters are forgeries written by impostors.

I don't intend to take on Ehrman here since I have not read the book yet. But I will note that what Ehrman is saying is not new. New Testament scholars have questioned the assumed and claimed authorship of many of the New Testament books for more than 200 years. What Ehrman is doing is bringing the questions and debates that are normally found in the halls of the academy to a wider audience. And he is doing it in an effective way. But it is a two sided coin. On the one hand, he brings to a more popular venue the discussions that scholars should be having with the so-called "laity." On the other hand, he generates more heat than light since he doesn't really contribute to the discussion, but rather overstates the facts and makes, at times, sensationalist claims. But I have said too much about him already.

What Ehrman is going on about is the phenomenon that is known among New Testament scholars as pseudonymity. It is the act of one person writing a document in the name of another. And we have scores of examples of this from antiquity. For instance, who knew that each of Jacob's 12 sons had written a last will and testament that we can still read today? Or what about Paul's 3rd letter to the Corinthians? Anyone ever read Enoch's book? The author of Jude apparently did. Actually, these are pseudonymous works written by someone other than the claimed author. The fact is, whether we like it or not, it was not unusual in antiquity to come across books whose authorship was attributed to someone else other than the claimed author. Whether this constitutes "forgery" and the writers are "impostors" is a matter for debate.

When New Testament scholars consider this practice in conjunction with Pauline literature, some conclude that some of Paul's letters are pseudonymous. That is, some of the letters were not written by Paul, but by one of his followers or an admirer who wrote to speak to a situation using the authority of Paul. Those letters usually considered to be pseudonymous are 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. It should be pointed out that not every scholar will conclude that all of these are pseudonymous. Some conclude that 2 Thessalonians and Colossians was written by Paul while others will also include Ephesians as authentic. And not every scholar allows for pseudonymity. Some view all the letters attributed to Paul as being written by him. The fact is, there are good scholars, on both sides of the debate, who can contribute important aspects to this ongoing question.

By way of disclosure, I do allow for pseudonymity in the New Testament. I think that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, Colossians and perhaps even Ephesians. I am unsure, however, for a variety of reasons, whether Paul wrote the Pastorals. But as I tell my students, it depends on which day of the week it is and how you pinch me as to what answer I will give. I lean hard towards pseudonmity for the Pastorals, but I am open to the possibility of their authenticity. It is still an open question for me.

The problem, however,(and thus the title of today's post) is that allowance for pseudonmity in the New Testament has become a litmus test of sorts for those on both sides. There are many institutions that would not hire me simply because I raise the question. There are also institutions that would think it incredible that I am not firmly in the pseudonmity camp in all aspects. But the problem is more far reaching than where one can or cannot work. It has a knock-on effect for scholarship as a whole.

Although I am open to the Pastorals being written by either Paul or someone else, I almost never reference them in anything that I write. I am subconsciously aware that if I appeal to the Pastorals or even Ephesians, my work will be rejected by certain journals or not taken seriously by some scholars. The result is that I hamstring myself and my work because I want to be able to publish my ideas, but can't appeal to the complete corpus of letters attributed to Paul. The situation has gotten to the point that I find myself rarely thinking about the so-called "disputed letters."

The second result is that there is a dearth of quality resources for those letters whose authorship is disputed. Most of the articles and commentaries that are seriously engaging the Pastorals, for instance, are being written by people who hold the letters to be authentic. I would venture to say that most of scholarship in these resources is done by Evangelicals who do an excellent job, but cannot question the authorship of the letter. To do so could cause them to lose a book contract and/or their job. For instance, read what happened to Robert Gundry when he suggested that Jesus' genealogy in Matthew's Gospel was not intended to be taken literally.

In my opinion, we have closed off the debate too quickly and decisively. We have limited ourselves from new ways to think about the topic and have turned the whole issue into what amounts to a "yes" or "no" vote. The result is that good minds are not engaging with all of the "Pauline" corpus to the extent that we should. And making our acceptance or denial of pseudonmity a litmus test is a violation of academic freedom.

When people make sensationalist claims about the Bible calling parts of it "forgeries" and the writers "impostors" they perpetuate the stagnation of scholarship on this topic. Making accusations about the Bible's and its long dead authors may sell books, but it does not add to the debate in a helpful way. One of the most important things I was taught in graduate studies was to hold my conclusions tentatively so that if new information came along I would be able to consider it fairly and objectively. In the case of pseudonymity, I don't think either side is following that advise.


  1. When I began at ATS I came from a background of biblical literacy and inerrancy. As I sat at the feet of some incredible professors, particularly in biblical studies, I was stretched. One of my Old Testament professors asked if truth could be found in fiction. Well, yeah, it can. Then to have some New Testament professors introduce me to social/rhetorical criticism stretched me even more. Today I believe that the Bible contains truth for communities to live by. It is also good for teaching and reproof. But, is every thing historically accurate?...

  2. It's ironic that you post this today Dr. Byron. My wife and I were just talking about pseudonymity yesterday.

    For many evangelicals, the term itself is where the discussion ends. They take the term to connote "falsehood," and subsequently apply this understanding to the authority of the book. Furthermore, many use the "snowball theory" of logic to the idea of pseudonymity--If we question the authorship of the Scriptures, we will begin to question the life of Jesus, the resurrection...You get the idea.

    I would have no trouble if someone other than Paul wrote the Pastorals. I would much rather be concerned if we questioned the tradition(s) contained within the NT than the authorship of the books themselves. Just my 2 cents.

  3. Interesting post. It seems to me that everybody, including evangelicals, should be open to the idea of pseudonymity in the New Testament. Otherwise how can we defend the real Paul from being misrepresented by false texts? It is alarming that we do not hear of evangelicals tearing the pastoral epistles out of their bibles. It matters for many reasons, including because the disputed letters are used to reduce the authority of women in the church.

    I share your concerns about the polarization of scholarship. I think that this polarization has caused scholarship to miss important insights that combine both conservative and liberal ideas or approaches. For example, I believe that we can show that Luke/Lucius wrote Acts and was Paul's constant companion if we are open to the possibility that Paul did not write Colossians. The problem is that few scholars who are willing to commit to the pseudonymity of Colossians would want to be seen supporting such a conservative conclusion about Acts (and visa versa).