Secular Sam’s Guide to the OT: the Pseudepigrapha

The writings contained in what is known as the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (hereafter OTP) are legion. They date from about the middle of the 7th century BC to the 9th century AD and were written mostly by pre-Christian Jews, Christians, and other minor people groups. Some of the languages represented in the OTP are Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Slavonic, Coptic, Latin, and others.

What is the OTP?

The word “pseudepigrapha,” as one may see, comes from the Greek compound word which means “falsely superscribed,” or in other words, “false author(ship).” The reason for the name is not to cast the shadow of suspicion upon them, but because the books frequently take the names of noteworthy figures in Israel’s history (like Enoch, Abraham, Moses, etc.) whose authorship either can’t be proved for sure, or the text simply cannot have originated with the author intended, whether by linguistic, historical (anachronisms), or other means. The proper adjectival form of the noun “pseudepigrapha” is, per the SBL handbook of style (p. 162), “pseudepigraphic” (not “pseudepigraphal” or others).

The corpus of the OTP, and the criteria (we love criteria at FPR!) for inclusion within it raged for nearly a decade, with Princeton Theological Seminary scholar James Charlesworth taking the helm. It should not be viewed as a “canon” per se, mostly because scholars have not reached consensus regarding which books should be included. Moreover, if any additional books come to light which may fit well with the rest of the OTP, they would naturally be added (canons are usually viewed as closed). Some criteria discussed by scholars regarding the makeup of the OTP were biblical recognition (ie, which NT authors used it/abused it), literary genre, and other considerations. Charlesworth’s own words on the corpus of the OTP read:

…those writings 1) that, with the exception of Ahiqar, are Jewish or Christian; 2) that are often attributed to ideal figures in Israel’s past; 3) that customarily claim to contain God’s word or message; 4) that frequently build upon ideas and narratives present in the OT; 5) and that almost always were composed either during the period 200 BC to AD 200, or, though late, apparently preserve, albeit in an edited form, Jewish traditions that date from that period (OTP 1:xxv).

Various books from the OTP were found among the scrolls at Qumran. These finds allowed us to see just how prominent the writings of the OTP were in certain Jewish circles, and how they utilized them for religious life and living. The DSS findings also assisted scholars in assessing the dates of many books in the OTP.

What isn’t the OTP?

The books generally known as the Old Testament Apocrypha (or “Deuterocanonical Books” if you’re Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Coptic Church) are not the OTP. These fifteen books are generally included in modern editions of the Bible beginning after Malachi. They contain writings regarding the Maccabean revolt, some wisdom books, and other works. The Apocrypha is not recognized by Protestants, and Joseph Smith considered asking God about it whilst revising the Bible (D&C 91).

What do the writings of the OTP contain?

Many of them were written in the literary genre of apocalyptic, the quintessence of which would be the book of 1 Enoch. While Enoch is attributed very little in the OT (Gen. 5:24), certain aspects of his life and teachings imbue the book of 1 Enoch. The book has given us much insight regarding angelic ministry, demonology, heaven/hell, judgment, and messianism. For NT studies, the book of 1 Enoch has left an indellible impression upon the book of Revelation, as well as “son of man” passages in the synoptics and other places. Other apocalyptic books include, but are not limited to: 2 Enoch, 3 Enoch, Sibylline Oracles, Apocryphon of Ezekiel, Apocalypse of Elijah, etc.

By Charlesworth’s delineation, the OTP also contain “Testaments.” These books usually take a biblical theme, passage, or story, and add to them or explain things further. The genre is generally prose narrative, with occasional quotations from poetry or other works, but they should not be restricted as such. Furthermore, the “Testaments” frequently employ the figure of the dying patriarch (“the fathers” = Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob) who gathers his family around them and informs them of his own sins, urges them to avoid the mistakes he made, and pronounces blessings upon them which he previously received in dreams, visions, or other ecstatic experiences. In short, the Testaments generally show a noteworthy figure giving some form of last will and testament. It should be noted that although the title of an OTP book may contain the word “testament” (ie, Testament of Abraham), the book may not be classified as such, but may actually be included among the apocalyptic works. The quintessential testament is Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.

The OTP also contains Wisdom literature (comparable to Job, Qohelet, or Proverbs), Prayers, and Psalms. Other books are simply floating around under the umbrella of the OTP but with no literary classification whatsoever.

Why study the OTP?

The OTP is important primarily for NT studies. Much of the OTP was composed during the intertestamental period, and therefore sheds light upon some of the NT. Jude 14 is a classic example of pseudepigraphic influence. Several monographs in recent years have dealt with the issue of OTP influence upon the composition of the NT.

The OTP also illumines Jewish life and living, especially in regard to issues of canonicity, revelation, and the hope of Israel’s return to glory. One may find it interesting that even some of the patristic writers, most notably Tertullian, argued for the inclusion of some of the OTP (in his case, 1 Enoch) in what would later become the Christian canon of scripture (Adler, 227). Moreover, the OTP allows individuals to see how certain communities (most notably Qumran) utilized scripture as a group and how it shaped their theology and praxis.

For Mormon studies, the OTP has always intruiged Latter-day Saints for the reasons stated here, if not for others. Most notably is Hugh Nibley’s second volume in his collected works, Enoch the Prophet, in which Nibley draws various similarities between Mormonism and the book(s) of Enoch. The OTP, however, does contain much which would fiercely conflict with Mormonism, and caution may be the word of the day when utilizing it to illuminate the Restored gospel (cf. D&C 91, although in reference to the Apocrypha, not the OTP). Likewise, James Charlesworth himself notes that the OTP may be important for Mormon studies in that Mormons typically believe that the canon of scripture should remain open and fluid (Charlesworth, 1:xxiv).

Sources Consulted:

Adler, William. “The Pseudepigrapha in the Early Church.” Pages 211-233 in The Canon Debate. Edited by Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002.

Barnstone, Willis. The Other Bible: Ancient Alternative Scriptures. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1984.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1983-1985.

Delamarter, Steve. A Scripture Index to Charlesworth’s The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. New York: Sheffield, 2002.

Evans, Craig. Noncanonical Writings for New Testament Interpretation. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992.

Nibley, Hugh. Enoch the Prophet. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book & FARMS, 1986.

5 Replies to “Secular Sam’s Guide to the OT: the Pseudepigrapha”

  1. Much of the OTP was composed during the intertestamental period, and therefore sheds light upon some of the NT.

    Amen. Good post. There’s a lot more apocalyptic and wisdom in the NT than most folks realize, and it owes a great deal to the OTP. But some pretty serious doctrinal issues originate there as well.

    With regard to this week’s lesson, there’s a couple of citations from Ben Sira, 4 Ezra, and maybe Wis Sol that appear to reflect attitudes similar to Paul’s regarding the Adam event in Gen 3. David J. may know more, but to the best of my knowledge, Gen 3 didn’t become “the Fall” until the OTP.

    A question: I am always encouraged to do my own translations and textual analysis of that stuff because of text-critical decisions made by Charlesworth. Does that make sense to you?

  2. Mogget,

    Yes it makes sense, but for me, the translations will have to do because 1) the printed editions of the OTP in the original languages can be hard to come by, 2) some of the original languages I don’t know (and most folks don’t know, like Slavonic or Arabic [not you, Ben S.]), 3) my interest in OTP isn’t hard-core enough to want to slow down enough to read them in the originals (unless they’re in Hebrew or Aramaic, which are few), 4) Charlesworth and his team of cronies know how to translate better than I do at this time. But that’s just me.

    I do understand where you’re coming from, in that it might be best to render one’s own translation, but again, unless one’s use of it is heavy, it may not be worth it, unless of course we’re just translating for the fun of it.

    I wonder if there exists interlinear editions? Probly not…

  3. Mogget!

    I just remembered something over lunch. Last year, I read Jesus the Sage by Ben Witherington, and his entire book (and it’s a big one) deals with the subject of Jesus’ purported “wisdom influences” and sayings. Most of the beginning portion of the book deals extensively with the influence of Wisdom of Solomon on the NT authors and Judaism in general. Apparently, among the OTP, that’s one of the bigger, more important titles. If you have the time, and the interest, I recommend giving it a look when you’re not too busy.

  4. OK, I just pulled Witherington from the stacks. He’s done some work with Historical Jesus. The HJ always has something of a split over wisdom / apocalyptic, which is odd b/c they’re rather related. This might throw more light on some other work he’s done.

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