Evangelicals, Pseudonymity and the New Testament Today

There have been some interesting developments in the study of pseudepigraphy in evangelical circles over the past couple of decades. I’m speaking mostly as a sympathetic observer, since I confess I haven’t been keeping up with lots of evangelical scholarship – much of which is increasingly excellent – in the same way I once did. What one means, of course, by ‘evangelical’ is a tricky subject and one on which I won’t here embark. I intend the term in a sociological and theological sense, thinking particularly of conservative Protestant North American scholarship, with some connection to analogous though not identical movements in the UK.

For a long time in evangelical circles, to hold to pseudonymous authorship – particularly in the NT – was anathema. J. I. Packer, in discussing the possible pseudonymity of the Pastoral Epistles, wrote in 1958 in a way that many of his evangelical contemporaries would have endorsed:

if the Pastorals did not come from within the original apostolic circle, then they are no part of the authoritative exposition of the faith which Christ inspired His apostles to give for the guidance of the universal Church, and so they are not canonical….if the Pastorals are Scripture, then their claim to authorship, like all their other assertions, should be received as truth from God; and one who rejects this claim ought also to deny that they are Scripture, for what he is saying is that they have not the nature of Scripture, since they make false statements.[i]

Many since have taken up the cause of shoring up convictions about orthonymous authorship of the NT. One need only browse the NT Introductions (that of D. Guthrie above all, who made this a special interest) or virtually any evangelical commentary on the disputed books to see these arguments in action.

But then, convinced, presumably, by the arguments of critical scholars about the pseudonymous authorship of some NT texts, certain evangelicals – particularly of British extraction or training – began to argue for models of pseudepigraphy that were non-deceptive. Most influentially, J. D. G. Dunn’s student, David Meade, suggested that pseudepigraphy was a sort of accepted literary convention, known in Jewish circles from the prophetic schools, wisdom and apocalyptic traditions, and was, in a von Rad-ian style, a means of updating or actualizing (Vergegenwärtigung) the author’s voice for a new day with new concerns.[ii] Other prominent broadly evangelical scholars who endorsed some form of pseudepigraphy in the Bible (though varying in the precise ways in which they see it functioning) include Richard Bauckham, I. Howard Marshall, Andrew Lincoln and John Goldingay – once more, a notably British list.[iii]

Others, however, and perhaps the majority of North American evangelical scholars (though of course not exclusively North American), rejected these attempts to see pseudepigraphy enshrined in the canon. These arguments were multi-faceted and wide-ranging, but one finds a recurrent appeal to the dubious valuation of forgery in the ancient world – scoring a point against Meade’s suggestion that the notion of ‘intellectual property’ was sufficiently hazy in antiquity to preclude the idea that pseudonymity would be deceptive.

Some, like Conrad Gempf, countenanced the theological legitimacy of a position like Meade’s, but demurred on historical grounds.[iv] Others, like E. Earle Ellis, were more pronounced in their rejection of the very possibility of canonical pseudepigraphy. Ellis writes:

apostolic pseudepigrapha were a tainted enterprise from the start.  At no point in the church’s early history could they avoid the odor of forgery. Only when the deception was successful were they accepted for reading in church, and when they were found out, they were excluded, for example 2 Peter, by the minority who regarded it as pseudonymous. In the light of these factors scholars cannot have it both ways. They cannot identify apostolic letters as pseudepigrapha and at the same time declare them to be innocent products with a right to a place in the canon.[v]

In the claim that pseudepigraphy was not an ‘accepted literary device’ or an open secret between author and audience, but rather involved the author’s attempt to deceive the audience, Ellis’s view has been supported by the work of a number of other evangelical scholars, including most notably Jeremy Duff, A. D. Baum, and T. L. Wilder. In this, these scholars also agree with much work by non-evangelical scholars on the moral valence of forgery in antiquity – including Wolfgang Speyer, Norbert Brox and Bart Ehrman. In a 2004 essay, Annette Merz could breezily speak of this as ‘the majority scholarly position’.

This conflict was writ small in an exchange between Stanley Porter and Robert Wall in the Bulletin for Biblical Research in 1995. Wall opted for a canonical approach and suggested that the modern questions about authorship should be side-lined in order to focus on the constructive message of the letters themselves within the corpus Paulinum. In contrast, Porter contended that

If the church (and the scholars within it) is no longer willing to accept the Pastoral Epistles as written by Paul, perhaps it should, rather than creating strained theological justifications for their continued canonical presence, eliminate them as forgeries that once deceived the church but will do so no more.[vi]

Arguably in all this we see two sets of convictions in operation, both of which draw their conclusions from judicious assessment of the evidence. On the one hand, there are those who have become convinced by the standard arguments for the pseudonymity of certain books in the NT, and so have attempted to find some historical rationale for pseudepigraphy that would not threaten the canon. On the other hand, we have scholars who have taken seriously the virtually unanimous testimony of ancient authors that forgery is considered morally dubious and to be rejected, and so have attempted to argue that it must not therefore exist within the NT. Both parties seem to agree that it would be theologically problematic to hold that a) there are pseudonymous books in the NT and b) deception is a component part of pseudonymity.

But what happens to those who are convinced by half of each group’s argument, and so believe both a) and b)? My prediction is that more and more evangelical scholars will find themselves in this dilemma. Quite possibly, many of them  already do, but keep quiet because of institutional pressures, choosing not to publish on such topics that would cause controversy in their circles. But this is a question that will not go away, because the historical data does not easily resolve in favour of one party’s conviction against another.

Those who believe, as I do, that pseudonymity is a deceptive practice and is found within the canon need not collapse into a histrionic fit of canon rejection, threatened though this is by historical foundationalists like Ellis and Porter. There are probably a variety of theological strategies by which one can cope with this potential cognitive dissonance. I have my own thoughts, but will leave those for another time. The main point I wish to make here is that evangelical scholars (and others, of course) will need to face up to both sets of arguments and the historical data upon which they rest, and come up with a constructive way forward.


[i] J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 184.

[ii] See notably David C. Meade, Pseudonymity and Canon (WUNT 39; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1986; repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), taken up by J.D.G. Dunn, The Living Word (2nd. ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009 [orig. 1987]), 53-69.

[iii] There are certainly others who could be mentioned. For example, Arthur G. Patzia, “The Deutero-Pauline Hypothesis: An Attempt at Clarification,” Evangelical Quarterly 52.1 (1980): 27-42; cf. idem, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (NIBC; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1990), 8-10, 121-44. Patzia holds that Colossians is probably genuine, Eph depends on Col and is deutero-Pauline.  He concludes, “Rather than looking at the problem as a case of right or wrong, one needs to appreciate that though both sides are sincere in their approach, everybody possesses certain theological presuppositions that affect the approach to an understanding of God’s Word and, in this case, the Epistle to the Ephesians. Above all, one should avoid concluding that deutero-Pauline authorship of Ephesians makes this a false document that, consequently, has no inspiration, validity, or authority for the church today. Once the motives of a deutero-Paulinist are properly understood and appreciated, Ephesians can speak to the church with the same authority as Paul himself” (Ephesians, 127-28).

[iv] C. Gempf, “Pseudonymity and the New Testament,” Themelios 17.2 (1992): 8-10: “Although inspiration by the Holy Spirit and false claims of authorship do not seem to us to be compatible, we cannot, I think, exclude the possibility that God would work through such literary conventions. Pseudonymity need be only as deceitful as a parable, if the audience knows what’s coming.” (10). But he then stresses that he thinks this is unlikely given the negative judgments on pseudonymity in antiquity. “But, and this is important, I do not think that pseudonymity can be ruled out as a serious possibility. The cases against the traditional authorship of 2 Peter and the Pastorals in particular are strong and not easily dismissed. In the end, though, the books’ place in the canon was secured not by their authentic authorship claims but by their being inspired by the Holy Spirit. And we must always remember that his ways need not be our ways. In the light of the practice of ancient cultures, therefore, we must not take the point of view that anyone who thinks there are pseudonymous books in the NT necessarily has something wrong with their view of biblical authority.” (10).

[v] E. E. Ellis, “Pseudonymity and Canonicity of New Testament Documents,” in Worship, Theology, and Ministry in the Early Church (ed. M. J. Wilkins and T. Paige; JSNTSS 87; Sheffield: JSOT, 1992), 212- 24, here 224.

[vi] S. E. Porter, ‘Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: Implications for Canon’, Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995) 105-124; R. W. Wall, ‘Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: A Response to S.E. Porter’, BBR 5 (1995) 125-128; Porter, ‘Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: A Response to R. W. Wall’s Response,” BBR 6 (1996): 133-38. For another statement of a Porter-like position, see E. Schnabel, “History, Theology and the Biblical Canon: An Introduction to Basic Issues,” Themelios 20.2 (1995): 16-24. Note also Wall’s later developments of his ideas: Robert W. Wall, ‘The Function of the Pastoral Letters within the Pauline Canon of the New Testament: A Canonical Approach,’ in S. E. Porter, ed., The Pauline Canon (ed. S. E. Porter; Pauline Studies 1; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004), 27-44, and presumably in his commentary on the Pastorals in the Two Horizons Series (2012) which I have yet to read.

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