Anonymity and Pseudonymity

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Many ancient literatures displayed a strong preference for anonymity and pseudonymity, literary techniques whereby a writer either withheld his identity or published under an assumed name. Authenticity (publication under the true author's name) was admittedly frequent in Chinese and Roman writing, but gave way to anonymity and pseudonymity in the literatures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, Asia Minor, and Hellenistic Greece at a time when these cultures were providing literary models for the writers of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

Concealment of authorship could occur in a variety of ways, some of which were never exemplified in the Bible. For instance, many works of antiquity were anonymous only because the author's name, originally given, was later lost. Some pseudonymous productions appeared, not under the name of a celebrated personage of the past, but under a fictitious nom de plume. Still other pseudonyms were intended to deceive the reading public; thus, Jewish apologists in the Hellenistic Diaspora (see diaspora, jewish) published tracts purporting to be written by Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle, and the like, in praise of monotheism; similarly, heterodox Christian groups often published their sectarian doctrines under the guise of apostolic authorship, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of John. But anonymity and pseudonymity in Scripture were neither accidental, nor casual, nor fraudulent.

In the Old Testament. The name of the author of only a single book of the OT is known with certainty Jesus ben Elezar ben Sirach, whose Wisdom is commonly called the Book of sirach (for "ben Sirach"). Yet most of the books of prophecy, although later edited by others, are so integrally the work of the Prophets whose names they bear that they are best considered as authentic, for example, Ezekiel and most of the minor prophets. Some prophetic books, such as the Books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zachariah, have basic nuclei of oracular sayings deriving from the titular authors, plus large blocks of supplemental material inserted later; they are thus part-ly authentic and partly pseudonymous. Books of historical or fictional narrative, on the other hand, tend to be uniformly anonymous.

Not all anonymous works remained so, however. Since Solomon enjoyed the reputation of being a sage, many of the sapiential books came to be pseudonymously attributed to him, although they were compilations of materials originally anonymous (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Wisdom). By a similar process Moses, the lawgiver, became in tradition (not in the text itself) the putative author of the pentateuch; David, the bard, was thought to have composed the entire collection of Psalms; and Lamentations passed as Jeremiah's elegy over fallen Jerusalem. Finally, a few books alternated between anonymous passages in the third person and pseudonymous passages in the first person, such as Ezra, Tobit, and Daniel.

In the New Testament. The bulk of the Pauline corpus of letters is generally acknowledged as authentic. If one agrees that the hints in the Fourth Gospel point intentionally to John the Apostle as author, then this Gospel may be considered substantially authentic too. The Apocalypse claims to have been written by a certain John on Patmos, a claim one need not disallow despite later attempts to identify him with the Apostle. The authenticity of some NT books (Ephesians, Pastoral Epistles, and 1 Peter) is presently disputed. Eight were published anonymously (the three Synoptic Gospels, Acts, 13 John, and Hebrews). Nearly all critics agree that James, 2 Peter, and Jude are pseudonymous.

Most of the Biblical writings underwent considerable re-editing and interpolation before final publication. Thus authorship was more of a group activity than was once thought. Yet among the hundreds of men who lent their pens to this literary endeavor, certain individuals or, rather, classesstood out clearly as direct spokesmen for God. The Prophets and the Apostles generally did not conceal themselves behind anonymity or pseudonymity, but spoke or wrote in their own right and name. Other writers, on the contrary, conceived of themselves as collaborators in a group effort, rather than as men with a personal message to deliver. They compiled legal statutes, liturgical hymnody, moral aphorisms, royal chronicles, theological summaries of history, edifying fiction, homilies, and reinterpreted prophecy. They tended to publish these works anonymously, considering that they were transmitting, rather than shaping, a tradition. They sometimes pseudonymously attributed their own or others' writings to one or more of the recognized ancient, charismatic authors.

It has been conjectured that such pseudonymity was a device for endowing one's own works with authority, gaining for the authors a hearing they might otherwise not have enjoyed and lending their works enough antiquity to have them classified as sacred books. Such motives may possibly have been behind pseudonymous heretical literature, but fails to account for Biblical pseudonymity. Such intentions seem to be deceptive; and besides, a writer's contemporaries would likely be incredulous enough to reject such pious fraud. In actual fact, when unknown writers published under the names of Isaiah, Ezra, or Paul, they were asserting their solidarity with the tradition that they traced back to their fathers in the faith. Just as they were anxious in their preaching to preserve the "faith once delivered to the saints," so in their writing they resorted to this accepted cachet of orthodoxy, pseudonymity, which was why the heretics so assiduously imitated it. Far from being a devious ploy to shore up an author's deficient personal authority, pseudonymity signified his intention to convey the same authoritative message of Isaiah, Ezra, or Paul.

Bibliography: j. a. sint, Pseudonymität in Altertum (Innsbruck 1960); Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 8:867. k. aland, "The Problem of Anonymity and Pseudonymity in Christian Literature of the First Two Centuries," Journal of Theological Studies 12 (1961) 3949; et al., The Authorship and Integrity of the NT (London 1965). f. torm, Die Psychologie der Pseudonymität im Hinblick auf die Literatur des Urchristentums (Gütersloh 1932). d. s. russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, 200 B.C. to 100 A.D. (Philadelphia 1964). g. bardy, "Faux et fraudes littéraires dans l'antiquité chrétienne," Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 32 (1936) 523, 275302.

[j. t. burtchaell]