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Today's Study

Jude :1-15: Are the Pseudepigrapha Authoritative?

One can search the Old Testament from one end to the other and nowhere find a prophecy of Enoch. Likewise, the archangel Michael is mentioned in the Old Testament (Dan 10:13), but not in connection with Moses. Nor do we ever hear of a dispute with anybody about Moses' body. It is therefore obvious that Jude is using sources outside of the canonical Old Testament. What are these sources? Did Jude think of them as canonical? And what does Jude's use of them mean for our concept of the canon of Scripture?

The first question is easier to answer than the others. First, the reference to Michael is probably from a pseudepigraphal work known as the Assumption of Moses or the Testament of Moses, also used by Jude in verse 16. This first-century work is extant today, but the problem is that the ending, which should contain this passage, is missing. However, the church fathers agree that this was Jude's source, and a number of Jewish traditions that parallel it enable us to reconstruct the essence of this ending as follows: After the death of Moses the archangel Michael was sent to bury the body. Satan came and argued that Moses was not worthy of a decent burial, for he was a murderer, having killed an Egyptian and hidden him in the sand. Michael's response, "The LORD rebuke you" (a phrase from Zech 3:2), was here, as in Zechariah, a call for God's commanding word, which would assert his authority over Satan.

Second, the prophecy of Enoch is more easily identified, for it comes from 1 Enoch 1:9. While 1 Enoch was probably not in its final form when Jude wrote his letter, it is clear from his citation that at least the first part of the book was finished. This first section also contains the tradition of the imprisonment of the "sons of God" (called "Watchers" in 1 Enoch) from Genesis 6:1-4, which is referred to in Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4, 9; and 1 Peter 3:19-20 ( see also comment on Gen 6:1-4). It appears that these stories were favorites in the churches that 1 and 2 Peter and Jude represent.

The other questions are difficult because we find these few references to pseudepigraphal works in such short biblical books. Clearly Jude parallels the prophecy of Enoch with the words of the apostles (Jude 17); likewise the story of Michael and Satan is not differentiated from the biblical stories he cites in Jude 11. Jude (and probably 2 Peter, which refers to both of these topics but does not use direct references) obviously considers these stories true and authoritative. In fact, in labeling the 1 Enoch reference "prophecy," Jude appears to recognize it as divinely inspired, for he certainly would not cite a prophecy that he believed was not from God. This much is clear.

But did Jude recognize the books these stories come from as canonical, or did he just cite the stories themselves as authoritative? That question is impossible to answer. We have no evidence that anyone in the New Testament period, Jew or Christian, wanted to include these works within the Old Testament collection used in the synagogue (or church), although the Apocrypha was bound into biblical codices as early as the fourth century. But the issue of what should or should not be in the canon of Scripture was not being asked in the church at the time Jude was writing. Even the Jewish debates about canon between A.D. 70 and 90 were not over issues that we would consider central to the canonical debate. This, of course, is the reason that Jude can make these citations so casually. He did not have to deal with our post-Reformation questions of canon.

What we can say is that Jude did consider the Old Testament authoritative. He also considered authoritative at least two pseudepigraphal writings and the tradition of the apostles (in whatever form he had it, written or oral). Even though he uses only two brief citations from these works, his failure to differentiate them from the Scripture he does cite indicates that in his mind there was probably no distinction to be made. Nor does he inform us that only these two passages are to be trusted, and the rest of the books rejected. However, all of this information we gain by "reading between the lines" in Jude. He does not say anything directly about the issue. While the later church did not believe that any of the pseudepigrapha were inspired Scripture, it did accept Jude with its use of them. In other words, it did not endorse whatever views Jude may have had about the works from which he took these citations, but it did endorse the explicit teaching in his letter.

This is not a clean and neat answer to our question, but no such answer is possible. First-century Jews used the Old Testament, but alongside it various Jewish groups read and valued a number of types of supplementary literature, ranging from the Apocrypha to the Dead Sea Scrolls to the pseudepigrapha. Early Christians likewise valued the Old Testament and gradually acquired collections of gospels and letters as they were produced and gathered. But they also read many of the works in the Apocrypha and other Christian literature such as the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, binding many of these works into their Bibles as such codices began to replace scrolls. The situation was relatively fluid and imprecise. Only as the challenge of heresy forced the church to decide which books should be read in church and which should not were the lines begun to be drawn more clearly. Jude was written long before this time. It is therefore wrong to expect in him the precision of the later distinctions. It is also wrong to look at his casual use of what was being read in his church and assume that he meant to equate these works with Scripture in the sense that we use the term. Rather, we need to accept him on his own terms, but also to accept that the Holy Spirit through the church has given God's people increasingly clear direction about what bears his full imprimatur and what does not.

Finally, this brings us to an issue in biblical interpretation. What is considered authoritative or inspired in a biblical author is what they intended to communicate or teach, as that can be determined from the text. Often we can discover information that the author accidentally gives us about what he believed, the social class he came from, or the way his church assembled. While this is interesting information and may give us background that helps us understand what the author means by what he does intend to communicate, it is not in itself inspired. It may form a historical precedent for how a church or person might live or might believe, but it is not normative. If Jude accidentally reveals that he saw 1 Enoch on a par with Scripture, that is interesting, but since it is certainly not in the least his intention to give us that information (in fact, he was totally unaware it would even interest us), it does not form part of the teaching of Scripture. The same can be said about the meeting of churches in houses in Acts or the indication in 1 Corinthians 15:52 that Paul at that time believed he would be alive when Christ returned. As interesting as this is, it should not form the topic for a sermon or the basis for a doctrine. It does provide information about the history of the early church and examples of what might be legitimate today, but it is not normative. Once we master this distinction, we will realize that the incredible wealth of information that can be gathered from Scripture (which makes it come to life as we see the writers as real people in a real culture) must not obscure the message from God that these men wished to communicate to their generation and that we believe is still a message for us today.

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The Apocrypha are the books and additions to books written during the intertestamental period that are found in the Roman Catholic canon but considered at best semicanonical in Protestant traditions. The pseudepigrapha are Jewish works, mostly from the period of 100 B.C. to A.D. 100, which no modern Christian group has included in their canon. Examples of Apocrypha include 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach, while 1 Enoch, Assumption of Moses, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and Jubilees are examples of pseudepigrapha.

For more information on this distinction, see Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1982), especially chapter six.

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