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Pseudepigrapha (from the Greek words pseudos = false and epigrapho = write) describes texts whose claimed authorship is unfounded in actuality. The authenticity or value of the work itself, which is a separate question for experienced readers, often becomes sentimentally entangled in association. Yet few Hebrew scholars would insist that the Song of Solomon was written by the king of Israel, or ascribe the Book of Enoch to the prophet Enoch. Few Christian scholars would insist today that the Second Epistle of John was written by the "Beloved Disciple." Nevertheless, in some cases, especially for books belonging to a religious canon, the question of whether a text is pseudepigraphical elicits sensations of loyalty and can become a matter of heavy dispute: though the inherent value of the text is not called in question, the weight of a revered or even apostolic author lends authority to a text. This is the essential motivation for pseudepigraphy in the first place.
Pseudepigraphy also covers the false ascription of names of authors to works, even to perfectly authentic works that make no such claim within their text. Thus a widely accepted but incorrect attribution of authorship may make a perfectly authentic text pseudepigraphical.
On a related note, a famous name assumed by the author of a work is an allonym.
These at least are the basic and original meanings of the terms.
There have probably been pseudepigrapha almost from the invention of full writing. For example ancient Greek authors often refer to texts which claimed to be by Orpheus or his pupil Musaeus but which attributions were generally disregarded.
In Biblical studies, pseudepigrapha refers particularly to works which purport to be written by individuals mentioned in either the Old and New Testaments or by persons involved in Jewish or Christian religious study or history. These works can also be written about Biblical matters, often in such a way that they appear to be as authoritative as works which have been included in the many versions of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Eusebius of Caesarea Historia ecclesiae 6,12 indicates this usage dates back at least to Serapion whom he records to have said: But those writings which are falsely inscribed with their name (ta pseudepigraphs), we as experienced persons reject...
Many such works were also referred to as Apocrypha, which originally connoted "secret writings", those that were rejected for liturgical public reading. An example of a text that is both apocryphal and pseudepigraphical is the Odes of Solomon, pseudepigraphical because not actually written by Solomon but instead a collection of early Christian (first to second century) hymns and poems, originally written not in Hebrew in the Syriac language, apocryphal because not accepted either in the Tanach nor the New Testament.
But Protestants have also applied the word Apocrypha to texts found in the Roman Catholic scriptures which were not found in Hebrew manuscripts. Roman Catholics called those texts "deuterocanonical". Accordingly, there arose in Protestant Biblical scholarship an extended use of the term pseudepigrapha for works that appeared as though they ought to be part of the Bibical canon, because of the authorship ascribed to them, but which stood outside both the canons recognized by Protestants and Catholics. These works were also outside the particular set of books that Roman Catholics called deuterocanonical and to which Protestants had generally applied the term Apocryphal. The term accordingly as now used often among both Protestants and Roman Catholics, allegedly for the clarity it brings to discussion, may make it difficult to discuss questions of pseudepigraphical authorship of canonical books dispassionately with an unsophisticated audience.
To confuse the matter, some churches accept books as canonical which Roman Catholics and almost all Protestant denominations consider pseudepigraphical or at best of much less authority. And some churches reject books that both Roman Catholics and Protestants accept. The same is true of some Jewish sects. These are matters more appropriately discussed at Apocrypha.
There is a tendency not to use the word pseudepigrapha when describing works later than about 300<smallC.E. when referring to Biblical matters. But see Gospel of Barnabas and the author traditionally referred to as the "Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite", a classic example of pseudepigraphy. There is also a category of modern pseudepigrapha.
Examples of Old Testament pseudepigrapha are the Ethiopian Book of Enoch, Jubilees, both of which are canonical in the Abyssinian Church of Ethiopia); the Life of Adam and Eve and the Pseudo-Philo. Examples of New Testament pseudepigrapha (but here also likely to be called New Testament Apocrypha) are the Gospel of Peter, the attribution of the Epistle to the Laodiceans to Paul, and Acts of Thomas, which few would claim was actually written by Thomas.
Last updated: 08-17-2005 20:01:08