Not about Pigs

Pseudepigrapha always struck me as a great name for a pet guinea pig.  Neither members of the porcine family nor from Guinea, these rodents are remarkably companionable.  But like the word pseudepigrapha, this post isn’t about guinea pigs.  I’ve been reading various documents among this sprawling category of texts, and I can see the fascination they hold for scholars of Second Temple Judaism.  My own specialization was on the earlier end of the spectrum—Ugarit had ceased to exist even before a first temple was built and provided clues to how this whole religion got started in the first place, but that’s a story for another time.  The account of the pseudepigrapha  cannot be summarized easily.  Some of the documents have been known to scholars for a very long time.  Others have been (and continue to be) discovered, some quite recently.

Not a pig.

The documents classified as pseudepigrapha generally bear the name of someone who couldn’t have been their “author.”  We now know that ancients didn’t think of writing the same way we do.  They didn’t publish books like modern writers do, and scholars have been exploring how the category of “book” distorts even the Bible, let alone books that didn’t make the cut.  None of this diminishes the intrigue of these ancient texts.  The world into which Jesus of Nazareth was born contained many texts and traditions.  There was no Bible as we know it today—it was still being written (or compiled)—and no canon, literally a measuring stick, existed to determine what was holy and what was not.  

As discoveries in Mesopotamia have made clear, although few could read or write, writing itself was prolific, at least given the technological limitations.  Today if one wishes to specialize the literature of one subsection of one time period, and probably even some subdivision of that, has to be selected.  Universities don’t see the point, and much of this ancient material is understudied because there remains money to be made in looking at economically viable topics.  The pseudepigrapha have nevertheless come into their own.  Perhaps because some of the stories these documents contain have made their way into pop culture.  Even as I make my way through many of these texts that are young in my eyes, I realize the proliferation of writing made such growth almost inevitable.  There remains, however, a high-pitched squealing that demands attention, regardless of what the exact genus and species of the creature may be.

Nothing to Do with Pigs

Pseudepigrapha is not a word that flows mellifluously off the tongue, and the first time reader stops to give pause over its awkward beginning and several syllables. It comes from a couple of words meaning “false” and “letters” and it designates a book, usually ancient, falsely attributed to somebody important. Since most people in our post-modern world don’t even read the regular Bible (many Fundamentalists among them), throwing a false gospel out there and telling everyone what it says is a fairly safe bet for getting some attention. A friend sent me a link to a web story about the “Gospel of Barnabas” based on an allegedly clandestine Turkish manuscript, that has been circulating for a few years now. Let’s face it: how is a non-specialist supposed to find a copy of the Gospel of Barnabas, and how is the public going to know how to weigh one ancient document against another? After all, we as a society have determined that biblical scholars are more than useless, and they should be employed doing odd jobs just above minimum wage, the unbelievers!

Dante making Scripture

Dante making Scripture

The story on the promisingly named Liberaland website makes a Bill Maher of mistakes regarding the ancient document, however. Citing only vague “religious experts and specialists located in Tehram,” (after all, we all know that there are no religious specialists in North America or Europe) the article claims with an unattributed quote, that this 23-million-dollar gospel has been squirreled away for safe keeping because of its scandalous claims about early Christianity. Any biblical scholar knows, however, that truly original scandalous claims are difficult to come by. The Gospel of Barnabas has been known since the seventeenth century and it is likely a document with Muslim sympathies. It doesn’t help that actual ancient documents are sometimes held in secret (I know of one being kept in a Turkish monastery that is being held, literally, for ransom to help finance the place), and the general public is ill-equipped to know who’s telling tales outside of school.

There’s no point in denying that religions have made a plethora of mistakes and missteps over the centuries. New religions are emerging all the time and new mistakes and missteps will be made. Given that people are, according to the best evidence, programmed to believe, it would seem to this insignificant former scholar that keeping a few religion specialists on the payroll might not be such a bad idea. Of course, I am an interested party, and that makes me suspect from the beginning. I spent my early adulthood years learning to read a dozen dead languages and that has landed me in an obscure job that barely covers the rent. One thing it did prevent, however, is being taken in by claims of mysterious gospels that seem to surface several times a year. There will be those who dispute what I write, but then any document these days is liable to be called pseudepigrapha.