Pseudonymity was a common literary convention in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world, wherein a letter or book would claim to be written by a given author (usually a well-known figure of a previous generation) when in fact it was not. Our study will focus on the book of Ephesians and the question of Pauline authorship. Peter O’Brien, who rejects pseudonymity for Ephesians, nevertheless provides this helpful explanation:
“In the case of Ephesians, the author, who may have been a coworker or associate of Paul, perhaps even one of the members of a Pauline ‘school,’ was aware of the apostle’s thinking, and consciously worked with the heritage of his thought in order to preserve it and pass it on in a form that was adapted for his or her own time. Ephesians is an attempt by the author to present a timely reaffirmation of the essentials of Paul’s teaching to a later generation” (38).
Andrew Lincoln, who advocates pseudonymity for Ephesians, makes this comment:
“If Ephesians was written after the death of Paul [and Lincoln contends it was written between 80 and 90 a.d.; Paul was martyred in @ 65-66 a.d.], it is hard to believe that these churches of the Pauline mission in Asia Minor [to which Ephesians was addressed] would not have known of such an important event as his martyrdom. Rather they would have recognized this product of one of their trusted teachers as in harmony with the Pauline tradition that he and others had continued to mediate to them. Therefore both writer and original readers would have been knowing participants in this particular mode of communication [emphasis mine], in which the writer wishes to present his teaching not simply as his own but as in the apostolic tradition which has Paul as it source” (lxxii).
Be it noted that the issue is not whether pseudonymity existed in the ancient world but whether there are pseudonymous writings in the NT. It is highly unlikely that pseudonymity was acceptable to the early church when it came to the Scriptures. The following observations are critical:
· First, O’Brien points out that in the post-NT era “if a work was known to be pseudonymous it was excluded from the canon of authoritative writings” (40). "There appears to be no example of anyone in the early church accepting a book as truly canonical while denying that it was written by the author whose name it bears" (Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the NT, [Zondervan], 371).
· Second, “the early Christians knew how to pass on the teachings of an authority figure without using the literary device of pseudonymity” (O’Brien, 42-43). See, for example, the way Mark introduces his gospel (1:1) and the way Luke narrates apostolic teaching in the third person in the book of Acts without resorting to authorial deception.
· Third, consider the fact that if pseudonymity is used in Ephesians the author will have fabricated actual historical situations in Paul’s personal life. It is one thing to write another person’s theology in that person’s name for the sake of passing on that tradition; it is another thing entirely to make up situations and feelings which you have no way of knowing that person ever experienced.
· Fourth, and related to the above, is the request by “Paul” in Eph. 6:19-20 that the readers pray specifically for his needs! How can this be if both the author and the readers know that the apostle is already dead? “Either Paul seeks prayer for himself, or someone seeks to mislead the readers into thinking he does. And if it is the latter, how does this fit with the notions of honesty and integrity in prayer that is offered to a righteous, holy God?” (O’Brien, 43).
· Fifth, "if we may start with the New Testament itself, we find Paul instructing the Thessalonians to give no credence to any 'prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us' (2 Thess. 2:2) and telling them of 'the distinguishing mark' in all his letters (2 Thess. 3:17). This suggests that pseudonymous letters were not entirely unknown; on the other hand, it certainly shows that the apostle did not agree with the practice of pseudonymity -- at least in the case where someone was writing a letter in his name! He does not regard this as acceptable; in principle, he repudiates the practice, regarding pseudonymity as something to be guarded against, for he gives his readers a token whereby they might know which writings come from him and which make a false claim" (C,M,M, 367). As O’Brien also notes, “if that author [in 2 Thess. 2:1-2] was not Paul, but a later writer engaging in pseudonymity . . ., then he is condemning forgery while at the same time engaging in it himself!” (43).
· Sixth, in terms of non-canonical literature dating from the time of the NT, "there is not one such letter emanating from the Christians from anywhere near the New Testament period, and precious few even from later times. It may be correct that New Testament Christians commonly wrote letters in names not their own (an opinion that scholars routinely perpetuate), but we should be clear that it flies in the face of all the evidence we have about the way letters were written in first-century Jewish and Christian communities" (C,M,M, 368).
· Seventh, "the early Christians appear to have had no great urge to attach apostolic names to the writings they valued. More than half of the New Testament consists of books that do not bear the names of their authors (the four gospels, Acts, Hebrews, 1 John; even 'the elder' of 2 and 3 John is not very explicit). Apparently the truth in the documents and the evidence that the Holy Spirit was at work in the people who wrote them carried conviction, and the attachment of apostolic names was not judged necessary" (C,M,M, 368).
· Eighth, one must also take note of the strong warnings in the pastoral epistles about deceivers (1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:13; Titus 1:10). See esp. Titus 3:3. "Would a person who speaks of deceit like this put the name of Paul to a letter he himself had composed? Would he say so firmly, 'I am telling the truth, I am not lying' (1 Tim. 2:7)?" (C,M,M, 371).
· Ninth, “it is hard to believe that somewhere in the early church there existed a genius of a forger who blended the genuine writings of Paul into a composite so excellent in style, logical in arrangement, and lofty in content that he must have been at least the apostle’s peer in intellectual ability and spiritual insight, able even to provide the church with a further development of Pauline thoughts, and then leave no trace behind as to his identity” (Hendriksen, 53-54).
· Tenth, and finally, we must take note of Ephesians 1:1 in which the author identifies himself not simply as Paul but as an “apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” Both Lincoln and Best, who reject Pauline authorship, contend that the author refers to himself this way in order to give the letter an authority and power that comes only from one who held such high office in the church. But according to both, the very man who actually held such high office did not, in fact, write the book. My understanding of 1:1 is that we must listen to the content of this letter precisely because it is none other than Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, who is writing it. Those who reject Pauline authorship must then add, “Oh, but of course, that’s not true. Someone who is not an apostle is writing it. So just pretend that Paul did write it so that you will feel obligated to believe and obey its contents.” In effect, they are telling us that here is a man who has appointed himself to write as if he were the man who did not appoint himself, but was appointed by God. In other words, “Paul is an apostle by God’s will, whereas I, by my will, am pretending to be him so that you will feel justified in accepting as authoritative all that I say in his name.” What?! This alleged pseudonymous author is writing from his self-appointment to authority, which is precisely what he portrays Paul saying he, Paul, would never do!
Thus "the difficulty is not the idea of pseudonymity but the lack of evidence that the New Testament Christians gave any countenance to the idea. Nowhere is evidence cited that any member of the New Testament church accepted the idea that a pious believer could write something in the name of an apostle and expect the writing to be welcomed" (370).