Definition.

The term Pseudepigrapha refers to a body of diverse Jewish or Jewish‐Christian writings (there are others also of specifically Christian origin) that (a) are not included in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Apocrypha, and rabbinic literature; (b) are associated with biblical books or biblical characters; (c) are more often than not written in the name of some ancient biblical worthy; (d) convey a message from God that is relevant to the time in which the books were written; and (e) were written during the period 250 BCE to 200 CE or, if later than this, preserve Jewish traditions of that period.

The word pseudepigrapha is the transliteration of a Greek word meaning “with false subscriptions,” referring to books written under an assumed name. Although it is true that many of the writings in question are indeed pseudepigraphical, the word is inappropriate and misleading for at least two reasons: there are also nonpseudepigraphical books in any such list and there are pseudepigraphical books outside it!

It is much less confusing to use the word apocryphal, commonly found in ancient Christian usage, or the rabbinic expression “the outside books” (Hebr. ḥî⊡ônîm, “external”) signifying those books outside the canon. Certain of these “apocryphal” books that found their way into Greek and Latin manuscripts of the scriptures treasured by the church are known as the Apocrypha (among Protestants) or the Deuterocanonical books (among Roman Catholics and in Eastern Orthodox churches). Those that did not gain entry, together with others subsequently written, were much later designated “pseudepigraphical” (among Protestants) or retained the designation “apocryphal” (among Roman Catholics).

There is no agreed list of such writings if only because there are no agreed criteria by which they should be determined. The situation is all the more complex because there is no agreement concerning the content of the Apocrypha itself. It would seem best to include in the Apocrypha those “extra” books which appear in most Septuagint manuscripts but not those which appear only in the Vulgate.

Genres.

The writings of the Pseudepigrapha are varied in both content and literary form. A number of them are apocalypses, which emphasize the revelation of divine secrets relating to the cosmos and “the end of the age” (see Apocalyptic Literature). Among these are 1 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, the Apocalypse of Abraham, 2 Enoch, 2 Esdras 3–14 (= 4 Ezra) [traditionally included in the Apocrypha in English Bibles], 2 Baruch, and 3 Baruch. Some, like 1 Enoch, are composite in character and range over a period of some centuries.

Others take the form of testaments, purporting to be the words of the ancient worthy in whose name the book was written. Some of these contain apocalyptic sections or elements. The best‐known writing of this kind is the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which, though Christian in its present form, is in the opinion of many scholars a redaction of a Jewish work of the second century BCE. Other writings in this category are the Testaments of Job, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Adam, and Solomon, ranging from the first century BCE to the second or third century CE.

A third category comprises midrashic‐type comments on scripture, often in the form of stories picking up but going beyond the Hebrew texts. The most significant of these is the book of Jubilees, which comments on Genesis and part of Exodus. To this can be added the Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran, which comments on the story of Abraham in Genesis 12 and 13, embellishing the biblical text with colorful amplifications. Other books of this type are the Letter of Aristeas, the Apocryphon of Ezekiel, the Martyrdom of Isaiah, the Life of Adam and Eve, and Lives of the Prophets, Joseph and Asenath, the Book of Biblical Antiquities, 4 Baruch, Jannes and Jambres, Eldad and Modad, and the Ladder of Jacob.

The tradition of Israelite wisdom literature expresses itself in folklore and in philosophical musings in the story of Ahikar, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, Pseudo‐Phocylides, and Syriac Menander. The religion evidenced here shows the influence of Greek thought.

Hymns and prayers are also a medium of literary expression. Most important in this connection are the Psalms of Solomon dating from the middle of the first century BCE. To these may be added the moving Prayer of Manasseh, five apocryphal Syriac Psalms, the Prayer of Joseph, and the Prayer of Jacob.

The influence of the surrounding Greco‐Roman culture can be seen in many of these writings, not least perhaps in such books as the Sibylline Oracles (from the second century BCE onward) with their prophetlike predictions of gloom, and in the Treatise of Shem (perhaps first century BCE), which describes the characteristics of the year based on the twelve signs of the zodiac.

All these books named as “pseudepigrapha” are only part of a much larger literature produced from the second century BCE onward, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a continuing point of debate which of the latter, if any, should be considered as belonging to this classification. It may be conceded that the commentaries and other works peculiar to the life and ordering of the Qumran community ought not to be included; but there is good reason to include others that have much in common with the recognized pseudepigraphical writings. Mention has already been made of the Genesis Apocryphon, to which may well be added the Temple Scroll and the Book of Giants, together with certain other writings with an apocalyptic interest, such as the Book of Mysteries and the Description of the New Jerusalem. It is of significance that among the Dead Sea Scrolls many fragments have been found of 1 Enoch and the book of Jubilees, together with a Testament of Levi and a Testament of Naphtali. But whether or not they are to be classified as pseudepigrapha, it is clear that the scrolls and the known pseudepigraphical writings must be studied together if we are to gain a true picture of Judaism in the centuries immediately preceding and following the beginning of the common era.

Preservation.

For the most part, the Pseudepigrapha were preserved within Christianity, which went on to produce its own pseudepigraphical texts based on the model of the New Testament writings. Their preservation within this setting in the course of time created two problems difficult to solve, one linguistic and the other textual. Although written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek (in Palestine or in the Dispersion), such was their popularity in Christianity, especially in the east, that many survived only in such languages as Ethiopic, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Armenian, and Slavonic. This means that in a number of cases the language in which a book now appears may be once or twice or even three times removed from the language in which it was composed.

Not a few of them, moreover, are composite in character, containing Christian interpolations or substantial additions, or representing a fundamental redrafting of the entire book. The exact dating of such writings is not always easy to determine; but it must be borne in mind that late additions or even late documents may contain elements that illuminate an earlier period of Jewish history, and so should not be summarily dismissed.

The identification of these books is helped by quotations and other references in the early church fathers and by certain stichometries that emerged in Christianity which help to differentiate between canonical and apocryphal writings. Most of the books referred to are identifiable and already available, though a few remain unknown.

Significance.

It is increasingly recognized that the pseudepigraphical writings, taken in conjunction with other literature of the same period, are of considerable importance for a study of the growth of Judaism and the origins of Christianity.

The picture of Judaism presented here of the period 250 BCE–200 CE is complex, unlike the “normative” Judaism of later years when it came to be deeply influenced by rabbinic teaching. It is thus misleading to speak of heresy or of sects during this time, as if these could be set over against an accepted orthodoxy. What we have is a religion in ferment, true to the scriptures and tradition and yet open to winds of change blowing from many quarters. Alongside deep traditional piety we find a cosmopolitan concern that probes the mysteries of God's workings not only in the world but also through the whole cosmos. Indeed, one of the marks of this literature is that of cosmic speculation that reveals a surprising sophistication in religious thought and expression. The picture presented is that of a Judaism far from merely parochial and very much alive. (See also Judaisms of the First Century CE.)

Speculative theology is seldom systematic, and with vitality went variety. The Pseudepigrapha, and not least those books among them of an apocalyptic kind, show certain areas of particular concern: the perennial problem of the origin of evil and its outworking in the life of the world, the consequences of this for the Jews and indeed for the whole universe, the cataclysmic end that will result in the defeat and eradication of evil, and the final triumph of God in the coming of his kingdom and the age to come. Variety, not consistency, remains the hallmark of such speculations.

Christianity grew out of the soil of Judaism, and so the Pseudepigrapha, as expressions of Judaism, are of importance for an understanding of Christian origins also. Their relation to what came to be regarded as the canon of scripture is a particularly intriguing one. The letter of Jude is a case in point. There, in v. 9, allusion is made to an apocryphal story about a dispute between the devil and the archangel Michael over the body of Moses that may have come from a lost Assumption (or Testament) of Moses, and in vv. 5–7 and 14–15 reference is made to 1 Enoch, which is quoted as prophecy. This strongly suggests that, to Jude and no doubt to many other Christians, there was in fact no clear line of demarcation between certain of the Pseudepigrapha, regarded as inspired works, and other books that in the course of time came to be regarded as canonical. This is hardly surprising because, as we know from other sources, the limits of that part of the canon known as the Writings remained somewhat indeterminate for some time in contrast to the other two parts, the Torah and the Prophets.

D. S. Russell