10 November 2020

Pseudepigrapha: Influential ancient Jewish fanfiction.

PSEUDEPIGRAPHUM su.də'pɪ.ɡrə.fəm noun. A document definitely not written by the author it claims, nor in the time it claims. Sometimes fraud; sometimes fanfiction.
2. A Jewish writing ascribed to one of the patriarchs or prophets of bible times, but actually written after 200BC.
[Plural, pseudepigrapha su.də'pɪ.ɡrə.fə noun; pseudepigraphic su.de.pɪ'ɡræ.fɪk adjective.]

The bible isn’t the only ancient Israeli book in history. Same as today—though certainly not in the same volume as today—tons of books were written, distributed, and became popular. And same as today, many were about God. Were they as Spirit-inspired as the bible? Nah. That’s why they’re not included.

For some, like the apocrypha, for a while they were included in the bible. Ancient Christians certainly thought they were bible, ’cause they were in the Septuagint and in the Vulgate, i.e. their bibles. In the article on the apocrypha, I went over why Protestants don’t include ’em in our bibles. It doesn’t mean they’re not still good ancient books about God; they’re just not on the same level as bible.

And then there are the ancient books about God which aren’t good.

Whenever I write about Jewish mythology, these books are where these myths come from. They were popular in ancient Judea. Popular even in Jesus’s day. Jesus’s followers grew up hearing about ’em, even reading them. There are even references to them in the bible. We have a full-on quote from one of ’em in Jude.

Jude 1.14-15 NRSV
14 It was also about these that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “See, the Lord is coming with ten thousands of his holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on all, and to convict everyone of all the deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”

Jude wasn’t quoting the Old Testament, ’cause the OT has absolutely no Enoch quotes whatsoever. And no, Jude didn’t have any special revelation from God about what Enoch did or didn’t say. Jude was quoting a popular book, 1 Enoch, specifically chapter 1 verse 9. Which claimed it was written by Enoch.

Wait, Enoch wrote a book? No.

How these books came to be. Still come to be.

Books like 1 Enoch (and the 1 should tip you off there’s more than one of them!) claimed to be written by various patriarchs, prophets, kings, angels, and other bible characters. Same as Muhammad claimed the Quran was dictated to him by Gabriel, or Joseph Smith claimed the book of Abraham was written by Abraham. But there’s no reasonable way these bible characters could’ve written these books. The books didn’t crop up till the time of the Hasmonean kings of Judea, written in a version of Aramaic or Greek which these bible characters wouldn’t have spoken or even known. Enoch certainly didn’t speak Greek!

“Well, but what if Enoch did speak Greek? What if Greek was the original Adamite language?” Yeah, kids have actually asked me this question. It’s like asking me whether 21st-century American English could’ve been the original Adamite language; it’s just as ridiculous.

Nope. These books are fiction. Now, the question is whether they’re innocent fiction, or malicious fiction. Were people making up stories about bible characters so they could tell fun, imaginative, Narnia-style stories to their friends and kids? Or were people claiming this stuff was all true, and trying to bend the Pharisee religion of the day into something weird and heretic? Because when people like Jesus’s brother Jude are quoting 1 Enoch in order to correct his church, we gotta wonder whether Jude was quoting it like a pastor quotes the latest Marvel superhero movie, or whether Jude was quoting it like a pastor quotes Braveheart—a movie which isn’t historically accurate at all, but you try telling that to a pastor who straight-up loves that movie.

I tend to give ’em the benefit of the doubt: Innocent fanfiction. Kids were clamoring for more stories about bible characters; inventive writers gave ’em some. Don’t take them seriously. But at the same time, it’s useful to know what they’re about, ’cause they’re part of first-century Israeli popular culture. Jesus and the apostles grew up with these stories. They’re like our superhero stories… where, sad to say, some Christians know ’em better than they do bible. And because these stories contain bible characters, it’s totally understandable if an apostle mixed up what a character did in the stories, with what a character did in the bible. Which is why we get weird quotes like this one:

Acts 7.53 NRSV
“You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

St. Stephen the martyr said this right before the Judean senate dragged him out of his trial and lynched him. It strikes Christians as weird because the scriptures never say angels ordained the Law; the LORD did. But in the Enoch myths, angels taught the Law to the Adamites. Stephen wasn’t referencing the bible. He was referencing fiction. Fiction everybody in his culture knew; fiction some Jews know even today. But it’s fiction very few people in popular Christian culture know.

No, I’m not therefore suggesting you sit down with a volume or two of pseudepigrapha (Greek for “fake writings”) and familiarize yourself with it. You can; I did. I got James H. Charlesworth’s two volumes, but other (and cheaper!) editions exist, and of course some of the pseudepigraphic books are posted on the internet. Some of these stories are super weird. Others are super boring. But my point is you oughta know this is where Jewish mythology comes from. We scholars aren’t just guessing what ancient Jews might’ve read for fun, and believed: We got the books.

And lest you scoff at them for this behavior, you oughta bear in mind we Christians likewise have our fanfiction… which heavily, heavily influence the way Christian popular culture tends to think about bible.

We got Frank Peretti’s novels on spiritual warfare, which still lead Christians to believe our prayers contribute to an ongoing swordfight in the heavens between angels and devils. We got Tim LaHaye’s novels on the End Times, which are already out of date when it comes to the technology they depict, but Christians still think that’s generally how the End is gonna come. We have John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which depicts how Satan fell because the bible doesn’t give us details—and it’s still how Christians depict how Satan fell. Christian fanfiction goes back centuries, and your average Christian has no idea that some of our popular beliefs aren’t based on bible, but on some poet or author who had a clever idea.

When humans don’t have all the details, we regularly fill in the blanks with whatever we can find. Often ourselves. And sometimes popular fiction. That’s what pseudepigrapha was. Still is. Heads up.