Sunday, September 30, 2007

Authorship, pseudo-authorship, and acceptance in the canon

From time to time I hear the argument made that because pseudo-authorship was an accepted and honored practice in certain ages and places therefore it is likely enough that certain books of the Bible are works of pseudo-authorship. I have even seen an article suggesting that dispute of pseudo-authorship for any given work must be on "sentimental" grounds, as if the existence of the practice of pseudo-authorship in some circles was enough to settle the question as soon as the suggestion was made for any given work. Thankfully, not all discussions of authorship and pseudo-authorship are so dismissive of genuine discussion on the question of authorship.

In New Testament studies, the claim of pseudo-authorship is commonly made of various letters attributed to Paul as well as several other works included in the New Testament. The arguments about authorship are far too broad for a single blog post. Here I intend to focus on some assumptions that tend to be made implicitly during the course of discussions on pseudo-authorship: that the identity of an author was of little importance to those receiving or evaluating the works, and that anonymous works of pseudo-authorship were received in the same way and with the same authority as the works of a known author.

Pseudo-Authorship and the Muratorian Canon
The Muratorian Canon is one of the earliest Christian canons of Scripture, usually dated to the end of the 2nd century (i.e. late 100's A.D.). It contains two passages bearing on the question of pseudo-authorship. First, after listing the letters held to be written by Paul, it continues:
There is said to be another letter in Paul's name to the Laodiceans and another to the Alexandrines forged in accordance with Marcion's heresy, and many others which cannot be received into the catholic church.
Before commenting on the first passage, it would be good to review the next also:
But the letter of Jude and the two superscribed with the name of John are accepted in the catholic church; Wisdom also, written by Solomon's friends in his honor.
The Muratorian Canon was very early in its discussion of the list of books to be received in the New Testament canon, and later discussion made some few adjustments to this early list. Still the early date and the assessment of pseudo-authorship are relevant here. The letters "forged" in Paul's name are rejected in plain terms on the basis of their pseudo-authorship, while the book of Wisdom has a kindly remark on its pseudo-authorship that it was "written by Solomon's friends in his honor". The comments on John's letters may also express some mild doubt as to their authorship, though it is more subtly stated. This suggests that, very early, the Christian community may have had a nuanced approach to the practice of pseudo-authorship. If the book of Wisdom was received largely based on its content, then its authorship was unimportant. If the letters of Paul were received largely based on their authorship, then pseudo-authorship was unacceptable. On the other hand, if the pseudo-letters of Paul (Laodiceans and Alexandrines) were rejected largely based on their plainly non-Pauline teaching, then it remains an open question how pseudo-authorship would have been received in the case of more Pauline teachings. In any event, pseudo-authorship was a recognized phenomenon, and the question of real or pseudo-authorship was part of the consideration for how a writing would be received.

The Bishop of Antioch and The Gospel of Peter
One work of pseudo-authorship which is known to this day is the Gospel of Peter. The early church was aware of this gospel and of its circulation under the name of Peter. Some early comments on this gospel are recorded by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch (d. circa 211 A.D.):
We, my brothers, receive Peter and all the apostles as we receive Christ, but the writings falsely attributed to them we are experienced enough to reject, knowing that nothing of the sort has been handed down to us. (Recorded in Eusebius' History of the Church vi.12.2)
Here again we see knowledge of the practice of pseudo-authorship. In the case of Peter and the apostles, the question of authorship was a question of certainty and authority; the apostles of Christ were believed to speak with authority on the matter of Christ. Serapion's unapologetic and unreserved rejection of the Gospel of Peter is on the basis of its pseudo-authorship.

Pseudo-Authorship and Eusebius
Eusebius' History of the Church contains various comments on authorship and pseudo-authorship. Peter and Paul are the subject of much modern speculation about authorship and pseudo-authorship; the same questions were being reviewed and studied in the days of Eusebius. On Peter's writings, Eusebius makes these comments:
Of Peter one epistle, known as hist first, is accepted, and this the early fathers quoted freely, as undoubtedly genuine, in their own writings. But the second Petrine epistle we have been taught to regard as uncanonical; many, however, have thought it valuable and have honored it with a place among the other Scriptures. On the other hand, in the case of the Acta attributed to him, the Gospel that bears his name, the Preaching called his, and the so-called Revelation, we have no reason at all to include these among the traditional Catholic Scriptures, for neither in early days nor in our own has any church writer made use of their testimony. (iii.3.1-2)
Eusebius' research shows signs of familiarity with writings of earlier ages. He gauges a writing's antiquity by how early the writing was received. This may include knowledge of whether the writings were received by those who knew the apostles in person. Again Eusebius shows a nuanced treatment of pseudo-authorship, with more of a three-tiered approach than a two-tiered approach. Peter's first letter is undoubtedly genuine and so unreservedly accepted. His second letter is doubtful as to authorship but considered valuable in content, and with its mixed credentials has a mixed reception. Still others were undoubtedly works of pseudo-authors and had nothing to recommend them; these were plainly rejected. In the case of writings attributed to Peter, Eusebius shows that there is more to the question of authorship and acceptance in the church than a straight-line acceptance or rejection of pseudo-authorship. While genuine authorship by an apostle was a guarantee of acceptance, pseudo-authorship was a consideration which weighed against a writing but not always irreparably.

In the case of Paul's writings, Eusebius made the following comments:
Paul on the other hand was obviously and unmistakably the author of fourteen epistles, but we must not shut our eyes to the fact that some authorities have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, pointing out that the Roman Church denies that it is the work of Paul: what our predecessors have said about it I will point out at the proper time. As for the Acts attributed to him, no one has ever suggested to me that they are genuine. (iii.3.3)
Again we see the concern for authorship coupled with an open discussion of disputes of the day. Again we see that while certain authorship by an apostle is a guarantee of acceptance, uncertain authorship may or may not lead to the ultimate rejection of a book. And once again the early church already has singled out a book on which modern scholarship questions the authorship.

This is only the briefest of introductions to the topic of pseudo-authorship and how it affected the status of various writings. It is not meant to settle the question of the authorship or pseudo-authorship of any particular work, nor even to exhaust the materials available in the works cited. It is only meant to call attention to some early Christian perspectives on authorship and pseudo-authorship and how that issue affected the status and recognized authority of writings in general. The early appraisers of the church writings showed a subtlety, scholarship, and discernment with which they are rarely credited. They showed an interest in authorship together with a contemporary knowledge of the practice of pseudo-authorship which allowed them to make principled decisions regarding the acceptance and rejection of various works of uncertain authorship.

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