A Commentary by John Stott

1 Timothy. 3). The case for and against a pseudonymous author.

Everybody is agreed that in the Graeco-Roman world the practice of pseudonymity, that is, the false attribution of literary works to a great teacher of the past, was widespread. What is not so generally agreed is whether pseudonymous writing was always with a view to deception.

a). An attempted reconstruction.

P.N.Harrison posited as the pseudonymous author of the Pastorals ‘a devout, sincere and earnest Paulinist’, who lived in Rome or Ephesus, and who wrote the Pastorals at the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117). He knew and had studied every one of the ten Pauline letters, and in addition he had access to ‘several brief personal notes’ written by Paul to Timothy and Titus. ‘He believed honestly and wholeheartedly the Pauline gospel as he understood it.’ Faced with the doctrinal and ethical challenges of false teaching, he and ‘the best minds in the church’ longed for ‘a return of the old apostolic fervour and sanctity’ and for ‘a rekindling of the heroic courage’ of Paul. They considered that the best way to promote this would be ‘a letter written in the spirit, bearing the name, and recalling the very familiar words, of the great apostle’. If this is correct, the Pastoral Letters are ‘neither “genuine” (meaning the firsthand work of St Paul), nor “spurious” (meaning the work of a forger), but “pseudonymous” (meaning the work of one who made no secret of the fact that he was writing under an assumed name).

P.N.Harrison was also convinced that the very personal passages in the three Pastoral Letters were not fiction, composed by the pseudonymous author, but genuine Pauline fragments which the author, not knowing their original contexts, incorporated into his work. Harrison thought he detected five of these and suggested how they could all be fitted into the Acts narrative.

b). Pseudonymity in the ancient world.

Dr Bruce Metzger has distinguished between ‘a literary forgery’ and ‘a pseudepigraphon’. The former ‘is essentially a piece of work created or modified with the intention to deceive’. To which of these two categories would the Pastorals belong if they are pseudonymous? Scholars tend to insist that ‘forgery’ is an inappropriate word to use. Like P.N.Harrison they hold that the pseudonymous author of the Pastorals ‘was not consciously deceiving anybody; it is not indeed necessary to suppose that he did deceive anybody’. In this way Christian scholars defend the concept of pseudepigraphy on the ground that it was an accepted literary genre and a wholly innocent practice. Professor C.F.D.Moule writes of ‘what may be called well-intentioned pseudonymity. With no intention to deceive’, according to those who hold this view, ‘the pseudonymist writes in the name of the apostle, genuinely believing that he is conveying a message that would have been acceptable to the master…’ But he goes on to write of the insoluble problem of reconciling this concept of ‘honest’ pseudonymity with the fabrication of the personal Pauline references in the Pastorals.

Dr Metzger too has serious qualms about pseudepigraphy. He asks three searching questions. Ethically, ‘is a pseudepigraphon compatible with honesty and candour, whether by ancient or modern moral standards?’ Psychologically, ‘how should one estimate an author who impersonates an ancient worthy…?’ Theologically, ‘should a work that involves a fraud, whether pious or not, be regarded as incompatible with the character of a message from God?

It is difficult to maintain the notion of Pseudonymity as an accepted and innocent literary procedure.

c). Contemporary Christian responses.

First, although it has become a commonplace ever since Baur for defenders of pseudonymity to maintain that it was an acceptable practice, and that there was no intention to deceive, they yet offer ‘no historical evidence for their assertions that New Testament pseudepigrapha were recognised as such and were regarded as innocent compositions….’ On the contrary, as Dr. L.R.Donelson concedes, ‘we are forced to admit that in Christian circles pseudonymity was considered a dishonourable device’. A pseudonymous work was either believed and therefore esteemed, or exposed and therefore condemned. There seems to be no evidence that some pseudonymous works were both exposed and esteemed. Several commentators quote the judgment of Serapion, the early third-century bishop of Antioch. Concluding that the *Gospel of Peter* was not genuine, he stated this principle: ‘We, brothers, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ. But Pseudepigrapha in their name we reject…’

Secondly, the claim that a pseudepigrapher did not intend to deceive, and indeed did not deceive, appears to be self-defeating. If nobody was deceived, what was the point of the subterfuge?

Thirdly, in spite of confident assurances about the innocence of pseudepigraphy, many of us find that our consciences are not so readily pacified. We remember that Scripture lays constant emphasis on the sacredness of truth and the sinfulness of false witness. We are not comfortable with the notions of a deceit which does not deceive and a pseudepigraphon which is not a forgery. ‘The dictionary definition of “forgery” is fraudulent imitation.’ writes Dr. J.I.Packer, whatever people’s aims and incentives may be. ‘Frauds are still fraudulent, even when perpetuated from noble motives.

Tomorrow: 4). The case for active amanuensis.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.