Book Review (part 5: Pseudepigraphy) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

Pseudepigraph-hpThis is the fifth installment of my recap/review of Dunn’s newest volume, Neither Jew nor GreekAfter finishing up his discussion on introductory issues regarding the four Canonical Gospels, Dunn turns to the remaining NT writings. Prior to an examination of those works, he offers a healthy and balanced discussion regarding the issue of pseudepigraphy in the NT [as a reminder, the following discussion deals with Dunn’s thoughts on the issue]. Dunn openly admits that the presence of pseudepigraphy within the NT poses a moral and a theological problem for the notion of an authoritative canon. However, he points to the large consensus within NT scholarship which currently (as of 2015) maintains that Ephesians, the Pastorals, and 2 Peter are pseudepigraphic. What follows is a summary of the various ways in which scholarship has attempted to understand the conflicting ideas of these writings within the NT:

Option one: ‘Writers in antiquity did not share our modern understanding of copyright.’ Earlier scholars used to trot this argument out, attempting to demonstrate that the understanding of intellectual ownership was different back then when compared to how we view it today. Unfortunately, the work of W. Speyer has pointed out that a manner of ownership was indeed recognized before the 1st century CE with the development of Greek culture. Passages like 2 Thes. 2:2 and Rev. 22:18 are suggested as evidence of this awareness within the pages of the NT itself.

Option two: ‘Pseudepigraphay was widely recognized as an acceptable literary device in the ancient world.’ Dunn notes that there is indeed evidence of this practice having merit with some readers, both pagan and Christian. However, he draws a distinction between not intending to deceive and the intent to deceive (and it seems that some ancients were well aware of the latter). This option seems to be the least helpful.

Option three: ‘Pseudepigraphy was acceptable when it embodied the writer’s claim to some link with the original author.’ This is an intriguing nuance to the first two options. Dunn notes that it was possible that ‘inspired’ persons could speak as the “I” of the one who inspired/possessed them in a manner which was acceptable. If this was the case, could not the authors have claimed that the Holy Spirit was influencing them in their act of pseudonymity, thus claiming authority? Dunn answers in the negative, noting that early Christianity would then be open to the charge of false prophecy. He also considers it highly questionable that this practice would actually work with the letter genre.

Option four: ‘The content of the writing was deemed as more important than its authorship.’ This argument ignores the early Church’s concern for apostolic authority and downplays the value placed upon eyewitness testimony. It would be strange to suggest that early Christians did not value authorship, as the attempts over the centuries to correctly identify the author of Hebrews prove the point.

Option five: ‘Tradition has accrued to a prominent historical figure, expanding the original oral/literary deposit by attributing further material to the original author.’ This was the primary argument by D.G.Meade in 1986. Dunn notes how Meade argued for this process within the biblical Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Solomonic corpus, Daniel, and in the Enoch traditions. He outlines this model with three shared characteristics: (1) a revered figure of the past; (2) the elaboration of that figure’s material with an acknowledged continuity; and (3) the new connection was not too distant, tenuous, or wooden. In other words, the overall motivation was to make present, contemporize, or renewedly actualize the already authoritative Petrine and Pauline traditions for the following generations.

Dunn eventually is persuaded with option five, remarking that “the developed tradition would have been recognized as sharing in the authority of the tradition’s originator and would have been accepted as also authoritative under his name.”


Whether readers of the Bible come to accept the notion of pseudonymity within the NT or not, it is important to honestly wrestle with the text on its own terms, as a collection of writings composed in the late first-early second centuries CE (when pseudonymous writings were aplenty).

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2 thoughts on “Book Review (part 5: Pseudepigraphy) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

  1. John Walton discusses a similar option to five, relating to authority figures rather than authors in his The Lost World of Scipture. Thanks for the reviews Dustin, they are great!

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