Many writers in antiquity presented their texts as the writings of other, usually famous, people—a practice scholars call pseudepigraphy. Influenced by the education they received and the scribal practices of their day, Jewish and Christian writers commonly used pseudepigraphy to interpret their sacred texts and figures.
Where is pseudepigraphy found in antiquity?
The act of imitation was woven into ancient Greek and Latin education. Papyri from Hellenistic and Roman Egypt demonstrate that students learned to write their letters by copying examples. By the time students were more advanced, they were tasked with writing speeches from the perspective of famous people from history and literature, imitating their voice and style. The impact of this education can be seen across Greek and Latin literature, especially in the number of works that interpreted and emulated more ancient writers.
When it comes to Hebrew and Aramaic, we have less surviving evidence for the stages of ancient education. What does survive is Jewish literary activity that should also be understood as pseudepigraphy. Ancient Jewish scribes wrote full texts in the voices of other people, including figures like Enoch, Ezra, and especially Moses (for example, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and the Assumption of Moses).
Christian writers were shaped by Greek and Latin education and by Jewish scribal practices and therefore continued to write pseudepigraphic texts. The apostle Paul inspired repeated pseudepigraphy, both inside and outside of the New Testament. One late example is a fourth-century CE collection that presents itself as a series of letters between the apostle Paul and the famous Roman philosopher Seneca. A Christian writer imagined this whole correspondence.
Beyond composing a new text, other literary activities could also attach texts to people besides the writer(s). Adding new material, editing, or correcting an earlier text and gathering an older text into a new collection were all means of presenting a text as belonging to someone else, as Irene Peirano and Hindy Najman have argued. When we define pseudepigraphy in this broad way, we find it across ancient literature—including texts written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin—and, more specifically, in many biblical texts.
Scholars have identified pseudepigraphy throughout the Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, for instance, pseudepigraphy can be seen in (1) the Pentateuch (specifically, Deuteronomy, much of which is attributed to Moses); (2) books of the prophets (many of which contain material attributed to prophets by scribes); (3) psalms (attributed to David and others); (4) Proverbs (much of which is attributed to Solomon). In the New Testament, pseudepigraphy is primarily found among the letters: (1) Ephesians, Colossians, 1–2 Timothy, and Titus (attributed to Paul); (2) 1–2 Peter (attributed to Peter); (3) 1–3 John (attributed to John); and (4) James (attributed to James).
Why did ancient writers present their texts as the writings of others? Is pseudepigraphy the same thing as “forgery?”
Ancient anxiety about forgery is well attested, as Bart Ehrman has argued, and certainly some writers used pseudepigraphy to deceive their audiences. But given the prevalence of pseudepigraphy in ancient Mediterranean literatures, we cannot describe all pseudepigraphy as forgery. Rather, a significant motivation for pseudepigraphy was interpretation, as Najman and Peirano have argued. Attributing a text to someone else was a way for writers to interpret famous figures and texts from the past. Writers might use pseudepigraphy to fill in details about a famous person’s biography, or they might take up the voice of an ancient figure to speak to new circumstances in the present. Pseudepigraphy’s ability to interpret past figures and give life to new texts can be seen across the texts of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament; it is one aspect of what Najman has called “the vitality of scripture.”
Image Credit: Jan Lievans, Aposteln Paulus, ca. 1627–1629, oil on canvas, 119 cm x 108 cm (cropped). Wikimedia Commons.