Was forgery treated seriously by the ancients?

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by Neil Godfrey

In relation to my earlier post Forgery in the ancient world:

It is sometimes argued by scholars of the New Testament that forgery was so common in the ancient world that no one took it seriously: since the deceit could normally be easily detected, it was never really meant to fool anyone. (p.115 of Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman 2009)

Ehrman continues:

I have spent the past couple of years examining the ancient discussions of forgery and have come to the conclusion that the only people who make this argument are people who haven’t actually read the ancient sources.

Ancient sources took forgery seriously. They almost universally condemn it, often in strong terms.

(My original post was an outline of Anthony Grafton’s first chapter of Forgers and Critics discussing the extent of literary forgeries in the ancient world — I picked this title up after reading a citation from it in Ehrman’s book.) 

Ten reasons for ancient forgeries (adapted from Ehrman’s list):

Money: Major libraries paid well to acquire “original” copies of texts since later hand-copies too often contained too many errors. “If librarians were paying cash on the head for original copies of treatises of the philosopher Aristotle, you’d be surprised how many original copies of treatises would start to turn up.” (p.116)

To denigrate opponents: A philosopher Diotemus was said to have forged and circulated 50 obscene letters in the name of his philosophical opponent Epicurus — to damage the reputation of Epicurus. Ehrman wonders if some of the more bizarre claims of Christianity’s “heretical sects” were similarly forged to discredit them.

To oppose other teachings: One of many examples is 3 Corinthians claiming to be by the apostle Paul to counter gnostic teachings that the general resurrection would not be “in the flesh”.

To give divine authority to one’s own teachings: Ehrman cites the ancient Sybylline oracles. Christians put their own teachings (e.g. the coming of the Messiah) into the mouth of ancient pagan oracles.

Humility – maybe but maybe not: A late argument is that followers of a famous teacher would write their own treatises under the name of their revered teacher or school’s founder since their arguments are what he would have said anyway. Ehrman observes that this argument is a late one rationalizing the many treatises written under the name of Pythagoras, and cites studies questioning its validity.

Love? Tertullian claims (in On Baptism) of the bishop who was found guilty of forging the stories of the Acts of Paul and Thecla: 

But if certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize, let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position. How could we believe that Paul should give a female power to teach and to baptize, when he did not allow a woman even to learn by her own right? Let them keep silence, he says, and ask their husbands at home. 

The fun of fooling others: Both Grafton and Ehrman retell the story of the 4th century b.c.e. philosopher Dionysius who claimed a play he wrote was actually by famed dramatist Sophocles. His intention was to ridicule a notable contemporary, Heraclides, who believed the play to be a genuine work of Sophocles. When Dionysius alerted Heraclides to an acrostic pattern in the text spelling out Dionysius’s own boyfriend, Heraclides responded that the pattern was purley coincidental Dionysius led Heraclides through other clues until he was forced to see a final acrostic that spelled out an insult against Heraclides personally. “When Heraclides had read this, we are told, he blushed.” (Grafton, p.4.)

To fill in the gaps: Many later Christian forgeries were of this kind. The missing childhood years of Jesus were filled in by accounts of Jesus’s childhood supposedly by “Thomas” (meaning Twin) and apparently referring to Jesus’ disciple brother, Jude. In Colossians Paul had mentioned a letter to the Laodiceans. A couple of letters claiming to be this work of Paul’s finally turned up in the second century.

To fight fire with fire: 4th century Emperor Maximinus ordered that a text, the Acts of Pilate in which Pilate is vindicated as justifiably crucifying Jesus, be read in all schools throughout the Roman empire. Christians responded with their own Acts of Pilate in which Pilate is said to have expressed his belief in the innocence of Jesus. The Apostolic Constitutions, a fourth century book claiming to be written by the Twelve Apostles, warns readers against reading anything falsely claiming to be by apostles. 2 Thessalonians, another forgery claiming to be from Paul, warns against reading letters falsely attributed to Paul.

To authenticate one’s own views: The most effective way to convince others of one’s own doctrinal views was to write a book expressing those views but claiming it is authored by an apostle. Hence early Christianity has produced many works among both the “orthodox” and “heretics” alike all claiming to be written by apostles or women followers of Jesus.


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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Was forgery treated seriously by the ancients?”

  1. I saw Ehrman give a talk earlier this year on NT forgery. One thing that bothered me afterward was that he classified the gospels as being incorrectly attributed to apostles, but not as forgeries, like 2 Thess or Jude. I understand the usefulness of the taxonomy in breaking down the motivations lurking behind the texts, but it gives some of them a pass at the same time.

  2. Mike, the ending of John probably originally read “this is that disciple who testified* these thingd and we know his testimony is true” without the additional word we read now where I placed the asterick, “and wrote these things.” As such it wasn’t originally a forgery in the strictest sense. Matthew isn’t a forgery because it makes no claim to being by Matthew at all, as is clear from the author saying “Jesus passed by and saw a man named Matthew…” Someone (Ireneaus probably) simply began clqiming it was written by Matthew and a whole bunch of people every since have been too lazy to notice that it contains no first person narration. Mark and Luke are made into apostles of 70 only by tradition, after tradition invented the very idea of the 70 and put it in Luke, yet again these aren’t forgeries inasmuch as neither work claims its author was an apostle (Luke admits to not being an eyewitness) and no first person narration is present neither real or forged. There is never an “I Matthew” or “I John” or “I Mark.” If these were even intended by their authors to be taken as eyewitness accounts then the authors must have been the stupidest forgers ever, yet people are made to believe by tradition mongers that what is not even written in first person is eyewitness testimony for fear of hell if they don’t confess that Matthew is inerrant even though Isaiah 7 is clearly limited to the time of Ahaz’s life and the defeat of his 2 enemy kings and cannot be a prophecy of Jesus’ birth 1000 years later.

  3. Even though what we have is not in complete text, we still have enough to consider the fact that historical evidence points to the real issue and the problem is man’s pride. Religion in words has had many frauds and diverse errors. What one needs is a Faith in the truth that we have. The Messiah did come. The truth is in our hearts and our hope. We as humans have no other path to hope in. We have failed with ourselves and this earth. We can do nothing to stop man’s self destruction. The Creator is our only hope in this life and the next one.

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