“Pseudonymity”, “Pseudepigraphy” and the New Testament

Letters were a common way of communicating in the first century.  The vast Roman Empire, with its excellent roads, efficient administration, reliable seaborne trade and generally peaceful interior made travel easy, and made mail both necessary and possible.

Papyrus, a paper made from the reeds in Egypt, was the favored vehicle for written communication.   Parchment, made from sheep and goat skins, and vellum, made from calves, was also available but much more expensive.  The scroll was the most common form, but occasionally books with bound pages (called codexes) were produced.  An author would usually dictate his book to a scribe called an amanuensis.  The ink was atramentum, based on carbon black (soot), gum and water.  Quills served as good implements.  Letters typically contained a greeting, address, a body, and a farewell.

Pseudonymity refers to “false naming” and occurs when a writer adopts someone else’s name for his work.  Authors might do this because someone else’s name would confer more authority, or because it might increase their chance of getting published.  Sometimes students of a great master might write a name in the name of their master out of humility and honor.  Though it was widely practiced in the Greco-Roman world, pseudonymity was rejected among careful historians, even in antiquity.

Pseudoepigrapha, on the other hand, is a term used to refer to writings that have false authors.  For example, 1 Enoch was not written by Enoch, and the Assumption of Moses was not written by Moses.   2 Thessalonians 2:2 warns about letters “supposed to have come from us”.   As was frequent practice, Paul dictated his letters, but then occasionally signed them himself to affirm their authenticity.  Critical scholars such as FC Baur felt that the four pastoral letters (1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon) were pseudonymous, and Martin Dibelius believed that 2 Peter was as well.  However, both men reached their decisions far more on the basis of internal factors such as vocabulary and themes used than on external factors such as acceptance in other areas.  While this criticism opens interesting questions, the preponderance of evidence suggests that the traditional view, that Paul wrote the pastorals and the Peter wrote 2 Peter, is the most likely.

Anonymity, on the other hand, means “no name”, which applies to writings for which we have no idea of who the author is.  Pseudonymity was considered deception and universally rejected by the church fathers, and no books accepted to the New Testament canon were pseudonymous.    On the other hand, anonymity bore no stigma among the church fathers.  As long as the book was widely viewed by the church as canonical and nothing in the book contradicted known OT and NT truth, the book could be accepted by the early church.  Hebrews and other books were anonymous.

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