How can scholars know if biblical books were written pseudonymously? Couldn’t they have had someone write their story for them?

The answer to your “pseudonymous” question is complex and varies with the figure. For example, we suspect that the gospels were all ascribed to the apostles long after they were written. One reason for that is that you don’t see them attributed to these people until the 2nd century CE. Another is that the gospels were written in Greek, and the apostles would most certain have had to be illiterate speakers of Aramaic. The author of Mark, the first gospel, refers to events that happened 40 years after Jesus died. It’s possible that someone could have lived that long, but not likely. Most of Jesus’s followers were executed. This author also explains Jewish customs to people who are unfamiliar with them. He translates Jesus’s Aramaic words to his Greek-speaking audience. 

At the end of the semester we’ll look at 2 Esdras, which is a prophecy attributed to Ezra. It refers to events in the first century CE, 400 years after Ezra lived, and it is not written in Hebrew. So usually, we assume something is pseudonymous because of the lateness of language or choice of the wrong language, and because of references to events we can date to a much later time. But we also know that in the Hellenistic period, both inside and outside Judea,  it was common to attribute works to famous people in order to get them read. Originality was not prized like we prize it today.

Another reason that attributing books to famous dead people was so common in the intertestamental period–that is, the 2nd century BCE through the 2nd century CE–is that direct prophecy was no longer encouraged or believed. Ezra and Nehemiah emphasize going to the Torah for answers because they understood that distinguishing between true prophecy and false prophecy was not possible. Even Jeremiah, who complained that the Israelites were listening to the wrong prophets, could give no criteria about which prophet was correct except this: The correct prophet is the one who turns out to be right. So when you read all the apocalyptic works of the intertestamental period, like Daniel, Revelation, 2 Esdras, the Book of Enoch, and others, you see prophecy put in the mouths of long-dead individuals. For example, the last parts of Daniel are most certainly written about 165 BCE, but Daniel is described as living during the Babylonian period. He interprets dreams for various Babylonian monarchs–identified wrongly, by the way–and yet all the dreams are about events happening in 165 BCE. All these pseudonymous prophecies are very similar: They are very specific about events that happened, say, between Daniel’s time and 165 BCE, and they use vague but vivid animal imagery to describe the near future after 165 BCE, the period leading up to the end of days. They speak to angels like Uriel who were unknown to the Hebrew people during the Babylonian period. And of course they are written in a language that was spoken in 165 BCE but not 586 BCE. These are just a few reasons why scholars deem various works to be pseudonymous.

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