Over the weekend, while reading an excellent book on the reception history of 1 Enoch (what a life, eh?), I found myself thinking through pseudonymous authorship and the nest of problems that it raises for contemporary readers in a new light. Of course, pseudonymity is an issue with a document that claims to be penned by a character from the primordial history of Genesis 1-11, but it is also an issue when we come to many of the books of Scripture (i.e. 2 Timothy, 2nd/3rd Isaiah, etc.). Posed in its sharpest form, the question that pseudonymity raises might be posed like this: “How can we ascribe the authority of divine revelation (which almost always functions as a guarantee of truth) to a text that contains an intentional deception about its author?” The standard apology for the practice—which I think is quite a good start—points out the cultural gap between our notions of the book as a finished product resulting from the creative effort of a single person (or discrete collective) and ancient notions of authorship and authority or the challenges of textual transmission.
The piece that Reed added for me was a careful attention to the fluidity and interchange between orality and textuality—something quite remote to our own practices. First of all, the practice of reading in silent solitude (primarily as a visual activity) is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ancient reading, even if it was done in solitude—though that would have been much rarer as well—was likely done aloud. Reading was an auditory activity as much as visual.
In addition, the relative rarity and prohibitive cost of books meant that even knowledge that was written down was likely passed on elsewhere as “oral” tradition. Many historians, biblical scholars, and theologians operate with a somewhat romantic notion of oral traditions being passed down through centuries until some enterprising figure has the temerity to put it down in writing, upon which momentous occasion the oral tradition is frozen and becomes a treasured piece of the communities literary legacy. Even stating it reveals it as simplistic. Even with the same stories or teachings, oral traditions and written traditions likely overlapped and were mutually informative. A text is “read” and interpreted even where it is repeated orally, and this “reading” affects the hermeneutical approach of the hearer to all subsequent readings/hearings of any related material.One person might recount a (textual) reading to another in some detail without the benefit of the text for reference. That “reading” may be passed along to several more hearers, before being integrated into another text. Where this is the case, oral and written traditions are mutually informative.
The role of the author in such a setting is profoundly more ambiguous than our preference for the solitary creative genius. Someone who is compelled to put a narrative or teaching to writing may have heard several versions, deriving from textual recitations and/or oral recitation. She may have a text in front of her that carries most, but not all, of the detail that she considers crucial to understanding and communicating the heart of the message. At any rate, where there is a fluid relationship between orality and textuality, and a concern to collect and pass on what one has received, it is actually an act of profound hubris to name oneself as the author of a text. Where traditions have been passed on in varying degrees of orality and their genealogy is not easily traceable, it is quite reasonable that teachings and stories should coalesce around a major figure, in whose name they are retold. In a context where orality and textuality commingle far more than our own, pseudonymous authorship is less likely a rhetorical ploy on the part of an unimportant author to gain credibility and readership for the text (by the way, this post has been guest-written by Ben Myers), and more likely a recognition that the text itself is only the transmission of a tradition that predates it by far.
 Annette Yoshiko Reed, Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity: The Reception of Enochic Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
h/t to a venerable teacher of my past, Bruce Fisk, for the title of the post.