In response to the lecture on ancient practices of pseudepigraphy (writing in the name of a famous person when, alas, you are actually someone else), I received this important question, getting to the very basics – the heart and soul of the issue for students of early Christianity.
Dr. Ehrman, I know you have published and spoken on the topic, but would you mind sharing which NT books are pseudepigraphical?
Yes indeed, one of the reasons I’m so interested in this topic is that the use of pseudepigraphy, what today we would call “forgery,” was so much more widespread in antiquity than today, probably because there were far fewer people who were literate in the first place and so far fewer experts who could uncover a forgery; and those who could, of course, didn’t have our modern methods of analysis and technologies of data retrieval.
It was very common in the Christian world as well. Before answering the question directly at the end of this post, let me just say something about how widespread the practice was in Christianity from outside the New Testament. Here is how I introduce the matter in my scholarly book Forgery and Counter forgery. The paragraphs are accessible to the non-expert, but I do need to define a couple of terms, to go along with “pseudonymous” (= written under a false name): “anonymous” means written without any name, i.e. the author never says who he is; “orthonymous” means written under the “right” name, that is, the author claims to be who he really is (as I’m doing now); “homonymous” means written under the “same” name, that is, someone writes something in his/her own name but it happens also to be the name of a famous person and so is mistakenly thought to be by that one (so when someone named Stephen King writes a book under the name…Stephen King). It’s not the author’s fault: it just happens to be his name. The term subapostolic times just means “just after the time of the apostles”
Here’s how I open my book (afterward I’ll apply the nomenclature to the New Testament):
Arguably the most distinctive feature of early Christian literature is the degree to which it was forged. Even though the early Christians were devoted to the truth– or so their writings consistently claimed – and even though “authoritative” literature played a virtually unparalleled role in their individual and communal lives, the orthonymous output of the early Christians was remarkably, even astonishingly, meager. From the period of the New Testament, from which some thirty writings survive intact or in part, only…
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From the period of the New Testament, from which some thirty writings survive intact or in part, only eight go under the name of their actual author, and seven of these derive from the pen of one man. To express the matter differently, only two authors named themselves correctly in the surviving literature of the first Christian century. All other Christian writings are either anonymous, falsely ascribed (based on original anonymity or homonymity), or forged.
Matters begin to change with the second Christian century, even though orthonymity continues to be the exception rather than the rule. It is worth considering, for example, what Pre-Enlightenment scholars accepted as the writings of apostolic and subapostolic times. There were the Homilies and Recognitions of Clement, now known not to be works of the one who was reputedly the fourth bishop of
Rome, but to be forged in his name. There were the writings of the early Pauline convert Dionysius the Areopagite, also forged. There were the letters of Paul himself to and from Seneca, likewise forged.
And there were the thirteen letters of Ignatius of Antioch, six of them forged and the others falsely and severely interpolated. When we move deeper into the second century and on into the third and fourth, we see a heightened interest in the production of “apostolic” works — Gospels by Peter, Thomas, Philip, all forged; Paul’s letters to the Alexandrians and Laodiceans, forged; Jesus’ correspondence with Abgar, forged; Apocalypses of Peter and Paul, forged. We can move backward into writings forged in the names of the greats from antiquity, Isaiah or the Sybil, or forward into the writings forged in the names of orthodox church fathers – Basil, Augustine, Jerome. The list goes a very long way.
And so, now, to return to the question. How many books in the NT are pseudepigraphic, that is, “forged.” Different scholars will have different opinions, of course. Conservative evangelicals will say that none of them is. That’s one end of the spectrum. I’m very near the other end. Here is my breakdown:
Anonymous Writings (books whose authors never tell us who they were and we still don’t know who they were): Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts (though see below), Hebrews (though see below), 1, 2, 3 John (though see below).
Homonymous Writing (book written by the same name as a famous person): Revelation of John (written by someone named John, but almost certainly not “that” John, the disciple of Jesus, John the Son of Zebedee). I used to think the book of James fit into this category, but now I think the author really wants his readers to think he is *that* James, the brother of Jesus.
Forged Writings (authors intentionally/knowingly claiming to be someone other than who they really are): Acts (this is my view: the author is anonymous but he implicitly claims to be one of Paul’s actual traveling companions, which I think cannot be true); Letters falsely claiming to be by Paul: 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus; then also Hebrews (I’m not so sure about this, but a good case has been made by other scholars that the author is hinting that he is Paul when he definitely was not); James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1 John (again, the author doesn’t claim to be John, but he does claim to be an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, which cannot be right); Jude.
Orthonymous Writings (books written by the person who claims to be the author): seven of Paul’s letters: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon.
And so the grand totals (in terms of numbers) come out like this (depending on which way you go with the ones on the margins). Out of 27 books in the New Testament.
Anonymous writings: 6-9. (All of these have been “falsely ascribed” – that is, thought by later readers/editors to be written by people who in fact did not write them: e.g., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
Homonymous writings: 1
Forged writings: 10-13
Orthonymous writings: 7
I have to admit, it’s a sobering total.