If you’re not into Biblical scholarship, the word Pseudepigrapha may sound like some advanced disease your dermatologist told you to watch out for. Actually, it refers to a group of books that claim to be further revelations from God or mystic writings but aren’t in fact biblical. Because they are often associated with a group of books that Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians believe to be inspired Scripture, it’s not always easy to understand what defines the Pseudepigrapha. Let’s take a look at what the term means, and what it has to do with the Bible.
What Is the Pseudepigrapha?
Depending on what academic discipline a scholar is working in, the word can mean any written work attributed to an author who did not write it. In biblical studies, it refers to a collection of ancient Jewish books attributed to the patriarchs or other important figures from the Bible, but not actually written by those authors. To make that clearer, here are three classifications that biblical scholars use:
There are the 39 books that fit into the Old Testament, also called the Hebrew Bible or The Tanakh. These books are considered inspired Scripture, as are the 27 books that make up the canon of the New Testament.
Then there is the Apocrypha, books written in the same period or later than the Old Testament. The Apocrypha was included in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament, and in the Vulgate Bible (despite St. Jerome’s objections). The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and a few other groups regard the Apocrypha as Scripture but Protestants consider it useful but not inspired. Martin Luther reportedly said the Apocrypha “are books which are not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures but are useful and good to read.”
The Pseudepigrapha are books written in the same period or later than the Apocrypha, but they are not included in the Septuagint and with a few exceptions haven’t been regarded as inspired Scripture. Some of these works claim to include the full story of something mentioned in the Bible—for example, the Apocalypse of Adam describes a vision that Adam reportedly had and passed on to his son Seth.
Although the term often refers to books written between the Old Testament and New Testament period, New Testament scholars will also use the term to describe later books allegedly written by New Testament figures. The so-called “Gnostic Gospels” which claim to be written by Peter, Thomas, and other disciples would fit that definition.
A few of the books in the Pseudepigrapha are considered Scripture by smaller Christian groups. For example, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers the Book of Enoch to be Scripture, possibly because Jude 1:14-15 includes a saying of Enoch which may be from the Book of Enoch. Jude also appears to quote from The Testament of Moses.
With a few minor exceptions though, the Jews did not treat any of the Pseudepigrapha as Scripture, and the same holds true for Christians. No major denomination views the Pseudepigrapha as inspired Scripture.
What Books Are in the Pseudepigrapha?
Since the term can mean any book falsely attributed to a Biblical figure, it’s hard to get a good sense of how many books are in the Pseudepigrapha. Here is a list which covers most of the well-known books:
The Apocalypse of Abraham
The Books of Adam and Eve
The Apocalypse of Adam
The Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (or 2 Baruch)
The Greek Apocalypse of Baruch (or 3 Baruch)
The Biblical Antiquities (or Pseudo-Philo)
The Book of the Secrets of Enoch (or 2 Enoch)
The Fourth Book of Ezra (or 2 Esdras)
The Books of Giants
The Lives of the Prophets
The Fourth Book of Maccabees
The Testament of Moses (or The Assumption of Moses)
The Sibylline Oracles
The Testament of Solomon
The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
The Testament of Reuben
The Testament of Simeon
The Testament of Levi
The Testament of Judah
The Testament of Issachar
The Testament of Zebulun
The Testament of Dan
The Testament of Naphtali
The Testament of Gad
The Testament of Asher
The Testament of Joseph
The Testament of Benjamin
Most of these books were written in the pre-New Testament period but it includes a few pieces like The Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, which was written after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.
The various “later Gospels” (or apocryphal Gospels), which were mostly written in or after 200 AD (therefore after the first generation of Christians had all died), could also be considered part of the Pseudepigrapha. Here are some of the later Gospels:
The Epistle of the Apostles
The Gospel According to the Hebrews
The Gospel of the Ebionites
The Gospel of the Egyptians
The Gospel of Mary
The Gospel of the Nazarenes
The Gospel of Nicodemus
The Gospel of Peter
The Gospel of Philip
The Gospel of Marcion
The Gospel of Judas
The Gospel of Barnabas
Why Isn't it in the Canon of the Bible?
Since many of these books claim to be written by people mentioned in the Bible and to be “later revelations,” it’s worth wondering why the Pseudepigrapha isn’t considered Scripture. There are three basic reasons:
First, these works are not considered historically accurate. Many of these works claim to be written by people who appear in the Bible, but the best archeological research and other studies find no evidence to back these authorship claims. It’s traditionally believed that the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, were written by Moses. The Testament of Moses is written many centuries after the Torah and there’s no historical evidence that Moses actually wrote it. Similarly, the Testament of Solomon is a collection of folklore tales about Solomon, which includes stories like him using a magic ring to summon demons to build his temple. Similar points can be made about the Gnostic Gospels, which are supposedly written by the apostles and their circle but there’s no evidence they were written by Peter or Thomas or the other writers who supposedly wrote them. The fact that the Gnostic Gospels have all been shown to have been written decades after the four canonical Gospels, in periods when the original apostles and their associates were all dead, further shows how historically inaccurate they are.
Second, these books don’t teach the same things as Scripture. Some of these books contain ideas that are similar to ideas found in Scripture. Some of them may even have bits of truth in them. The fact that Jude apparently quoted the Book of Enoch and the Book of Moses suggests that Jude found individual ideas in those books that had value. However, at some juncture, these books all diverge from Biblical views. Many of them describe a Gnostic view of the world, which describes spiritual things and material things in a way that doesn’t fit the Biblical view of spirit and matter.
Third, there’s a line of verification from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The canonical books of the Old Testament were verified over and over again by Jewish prophets and scholars. In the early church period, many churches didn’t have a full collection of the New Testament, and some read books that are now considered part of the Pseudepigrapha. However, as multiple apologists and Biblical scholars have noted, when the New Testament was officially canonized at the Synod of Hippo in 393 AD, the leaders didn’t look at the various books and selectively pick the ones they liked for the canon. In fact, there was a lot less debate about which books to include than you’d think. The “later Gospels” had been treated almost by everyone as false for centuries, and the same thing applied to the older Pseudepigrapha books. Despite conspiracy theories used as big plot points in novels like The Da Vinci Code, there hasn’t been much debate amongst qualified scholars throughout the centuries about whether the Pseudepigrapha can be considered Scripture.
Why Should Christians Know about This?
There’s an interesting scene in the movie The Prophecy where Thomas Daggett, a policeman who planned to be a priest, is reflecting on his life. As he thinks about his earlier religious training he says this:
“Years later, of all the Gospels I learnt in seminary school, a verse from St. Paul stays with me. It is perhaps the strangest passage in the Bible, in which he writes: 'Even now in Heaven there are Angels carrying savage weapons.'”
Actually, Paul didn’t say that in any of his letters. As far as others have been able to figure out, it’s actually a quote from 3 Baruch, one of the Pseudepigraphal texts listed above. Despite that, a good number of people watching the film probably thought it was a biblical quotation, in the same way, that many people believe “The Lord doth helpeth those who help themselves” is in the Bible.
None of us know the Bible perfectly, and most of us don’t know it nearly as well as we think. This means if we don’t take the time to understand what is actually in Scripture, we can often be taken in by inaccuracies or pranks. Knowing what is in the Bible, and how it differs from books that are sometimes passed off as revelation, helps us be wise and avoid easy pitfalls.
For further reading:
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G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,000 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.