The Problem of Forgery in the Bible: 10 Myths to Justify False Authorship

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by Neil Godfrey

Is it really a problem if a book in the Bible claims to be written by someone who was clearly not the author? Did ancient authors work by different rules and ideas about copyright from anything we think appropriate today? Might not a lowly scribe in fact be acting in a praiseworthy manner (by ancient standards) if he attached the name of a revered teacher as the author of a work he himself had just composed?

Scholars agree (not counting those “conservatives” or “fundamentalists” who believe every word in the bible, including author attribution, is true) that Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus were not really written by Paul. So why do we read in those letters that Paul was their author? Was an unknown cleric so enamoured of Paul’s teaching, and so convinced that Paul would approve of everything in the letters, that he felt the best way he could honour the great Paul was to remove himself from the limelight and place Paul’s name on them?

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Saviour, and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope; unto Timothy, my own son in the faith (1 Tim 1:1 KJV)

Were the first readers of such letters well aware Paul was not the real author and that no attempt had been made to maliciously deceive anyone. Using names of great teachers was the custom, not a crime as it is today. Is that what they thought back then?

The justifications addressed above are still believed and repeated by many today.

But they are not true. I have posted before on forgery in the ancient world and with respect to the Bible:

Still, one of the books I am reading at the moment is Pseudonymity and Canon: An Investigation into the Relationship of Authorship and Authority in Jewish and Earliest Christian Tradition, an edited doctoral thesis by David G. Meade (1987), and very early in his book he addresses the same questions but from a different perspective. Meade’s interest is in the various ways the false names attached to biblical works have been justified by modern clerics and scholars. I counted ten different excuses moderns have concocted to justify or understand how it is that the Bible came to contain books with false author attributions.


Myth 1: Intellectual property was an alien idea to the ancients

A pre-critical attempt to resolve the tension, still found in isolation today, was to simply regard the writers of antiquity as unburdened with the “copyright” mentality of our modern era. The sheer bulk of pseudonymous writings was cited as proof that correct attribution was of little concern.

Myth 1 busted

This view has been decisively shattered by the work of W. Speyer9. He acknowledges that the vital element of our modern understanding of forgery is a sense of geistiges Eigentum or “intellectual/creative property”. This, he demonstrates, developed in Greek culture as early as the sixth century B.C. The rise of a book trade and the formation of large libraries in the Hellenistic era contributed to this development. By the Christian era, ancient critics had developed iterary tools for exposing forgeries not unsimilar to our techniques today. (p.4)


Myth 2: If intellectual property was of concern to Greeks it was an alien idea to Jews

A related attempt at appealing to a “pre-copyright” mentality is to restrict the phenomenon to oriental, and particularly, Jewish culture. . . . 

Myth 2 busted

However, by the Hellenistic era the concept was well established in Judaism. Even though an “Israelite literary tradition”, mostly characterized by anonymity, can be discerned12, the pervasiveness of Greek culture and the evidence of a consciousness of geistiges Eigentum in Jewish and Christian literature of the hellenistic era (cf.2 Thess 2:2; Rev 22:18-19) make this appeal untenable13


Myth 3: No one was deceived; it was an acceptable literary device

Another uncritical approach to the problem was to assert that pseudonymity was just a transparent literary fiction, not intended to deceive anyone. This idea found wide currency in the English speaking world, particularly through the works of H.H. Rowley (for apocalyptic) and P.N. Harrison (for the NT)14.

Myth 3 busted

Yet J.S. Chandlish put the lie to this approach as early as 1891, when he wrote,

… when any work was given out as of ancient or venerable authorship, it was either received as genuine … or rejected as an imposture … and the notion of dramatic personation as a legitimate literacy device is never mentioned, and seems never to have been thought of as a defence of such compositions. If any author wrote a pseudonymous book in such a way, he must have been very unsuccessful in his purpose; for it was generally taken as a genuine work, or else rejected as feigned and worthless15.

(link is to pdf)


Myth 4: It was necessary to attach the name of a venerable saint of old in order for one’s writing to be accepted alongside the other sacred writings

A more insightful attempt to explain Jewish pseudonymity (particularly apocalyptic) was that of R.H. Charles, who isolates three factors in its rise: (1) the belief that prophetic inspiration had ceased with Ezra, (2) the growing supremacy of the Law, and (3) the closure of the OT canon16. If books were to be accepted into the canon after the time of Ezra, they had to be written under a pseudonym that hearkened back before that time.

Myth 4 busted

Yet though the belief in the cessation of prophecy was widespread in the first two centuries B.C., that there was such a developed sense of law and canon is problematic17. If the purpose of pseudonymity was to get books accepted into the “canon”, then they would have all been written in Hebrew, not Aramaic and Greek as well. Of course, this theory has no relevance at all to the problem of NT pseudonymity18.


Myth 5: It was acceptable for an author to write in the name of another if he sensed he and the other were part of a larger corporate personality

Without question the broadest and most popular theory of pseudonymity has been the religious/psychological approach. Both English and German writers have their own distinctive contributions. Among the English writers the most pervasive influence has been the work of D.S. Russell19, whose theories on apocalyptic pseudonymity have been widely extrapolated to other Jewish and Christian writings. His psychological approach is defined in three concepts.

The first psychological concept is that of “corporate personality”, an idea developed by H.W. Robinson and applied by Russell to pseudonymity. Robinson had argued from texts in Hebrew law, wisdom literature, and the Psalms that in the Hebrew psychology there was a blurring or mixing of the identity of the individual and the group20. Noting that apocalyptic literature exhibits a self-conscious witness that it is indeed a bona fide message from an ancient seer, Russell regards this as evidence of corporate personality.

Just as all (in the apocalyptic tradition) could speak for the one (the ancient seer in whose name they wrote), so one (the individual apocalyptic writer) could speak for all. In this way the apocalyptists, in their writings, were trying to express what they believed the person in whose name they wrote would have spoken had he been living in their own day. As spokesman of the tradition, they were, in fact, spokesman of the seer himself, and could justifiably assume his name21.

Myth 5 busted

[A]ny concept of corporate personality . . . has been decisively refuted on both exegetical and anthropological grounds. J. Porter has examined the legal texts upon which Robinson builds his case, and demonstrated that every one can be explained in ways other than corporate personality22. The anthropological refutation came in a brilliant article by J.W. Rogerson23, who demonstrated that the concept is based on unsubstantiated foundations. “Corporate personality” is a legal term . . . . Robinson took this idea of legal identity and inappropriately applied it to psychological identity.  . . .


Myth 6: Authors felt they belonged to the same time as a famous figure so could attribute their work to that renowned person

A second and similar psychological concept offered by Russell is that of contemporaneity. Citing the work of T. Boman24, he contends that the Hebrew mind did not maintain the strong division of time into the past, present and future familiar to most moderns. They were more concerned with the quality of time than the quantity, the “psychic content”. If the “psychic contents” of the apocalyptist’s time and that of his hero were similar, they could be equated25.

Myth 6 busted

However, Boman’s arguments for contemporaneity were refuted by J. Bar 26, and Russell’s further arguments are unconvincing27. “Contemporaneity” was in fact more of a feature of Israel’s Near Eastern neighbours, whose religions were grounded in the cyclic timelessness of myth. Since Russell argues for the prophetic origin of apocalyptic, he himself should recognize that what distinguishes prophecy from myth is its tie to the peculiarity of history. That Hebrew writers could identify with historical events from the past is well recognized, but there is no way that they could equate them.


Myth 7: Authors felt they were an extension of the personality of their hero so could use their hero’s name

The third inter-locking psychological concept that Russell promotes is the “extension of personality”, as evidenced by the use of the proper name in Hebrew. He notes that the Hebrew name was not a mere appellation but an “extension” of one’s personality, indicating one’s essential being. Since in the Greek period, Jewish children were increasingly named after ancient figures, Russell suggests that it may have been possible for the apocalyptists to appropriate the name of their hero to become an “extension” of his personality. He maintains that the ecstatic experiences of the apocalyptists may have supported this identification.

Myth 7 busted

The “extension of personality” concept, however, falters simply for lack of substantial proof. There is no evidence that a Jew’s “personality” could be extended in his name beyond his own blood ties, and Russell’s demonstration of “extension” in Jubilees, 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra is extremely tenuous. Further, there is no evidence that the Hebrews could lose consciousness of their own individual identity and be taken over by another. . . . 


Myth 8: Authors felt themselves possessed by the spirit of the pretended author

Here we are thinking of the idea of religious inspiration or a type mysticism whereby the real author felt moved by an external spirit to whom he attributed authorship:

In Greek culture, a writer could regard himself merely as the instrument of a revealing God or Muse32. Yet this did not lead to pseudonymity. But in the Orient, the idea of a “writing God” was prevalent, which was not so much a literary form as an experiential reality. This attribution of authorship to God is especially prevalent in OT legal material and prophetic “I-sayings”. Religious pseudepigraphy found its highest expression in apocalyptic literature, with its visionary, ecstatic identification.

Myth 8 busted

[This theory sought to explain] Jewish pseudonymity by extrapolating from Greco-Roman literature, especially the orphic, hermetic, and sibylline material37. This phenomenological generalization leads to the mistaken use of a theory of unio mystica in Jewish writings, a concept which is not all evident. Though much Jewish literature is written under the conviction that God is the real speaker, there is no evidence that the author ever thought he was God. And even more damaging, there is no shred of evidence that a pseudepigrapher thought that he was possessed by the spirit of a pretended author.

Myth 8 busted

Perhaps the most damning criticism of the idea of religious inspiration as the source of pseudonymity is that, in fact, it makes it harder to explain, as M. Smith remarks, “had these authors really experienced such visions it is hard to understand why they would not have said so in their own names, as Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel did40.” Though a fruitful part of the religious/psychological theory does suggest that the sense of geistiges Eigentum may be altered by the author’s perception of a divine source of his information or ideas, the dependence on para-normal, mysterical categories has not really explained how this can result in pseudonymity, even in the literary genres that most conform with the theory. Of course, it utterly fails when applied to the non-oracular genres of most Christian literature. This is why Torm regards NT pseudonymity as “psychologically impossible” (and thus rejects its presence)41, Sint does not even deal with it, and Speyer regards almost all early Christian pseudepigrapha as forgeries42.


Myth 9: A member of a school tradition would write in the name of the master or founder of that “school”

This theory attempts to explain their attribution on the basis of the practice in antiquity of a disciple publishing in his master’s name43. . . . [S]ubstantiation of this theory is sought in Greco-Roman parallels, particularly the Greek philosophical schools. A number of similar NT schools are then suggested. There has long been proposed a Johannine school44, and a school of Matthew45. H. Conzelmann proposes a Pauline school as the source of the deutero-Paulines46, and E. Ellis suggests that Paul’s numerous co-workers formed its nucleus47.

Myth 9 busted

The evidence for a Pauline “school”, however, is not so straightforward. Only five out of over one hundred Pauline associates stand in explicit subordination to him48, and this is most likely a result of his instrumentality in their conversion, not a structured master-disciple relationship49. Indeed, we know from 1 Corinthians 1:12 ff. that Paul discouraged any organized form of personal loyalty. Certainly whole communities (e.g. the Pastorals) highly value Pauline teaching, but it is highly questionable whether these can be described under the rubric “school”.

There are essentially three weaknesses to the school theory as an explanation of NT pseudonymity. First, there is no demonstrable link between the pseudonymous practice of some of the Greek philosophical schools (not all used it) and the proposed practice in the NT. Culpepper’s extensive comparison really only demonstrates the parallel of the practices of reading, writing, teaching, and learning; hardly a sufficient foundation. Indeed, he admits that it is difficult to trace any direct influence of these Greek schools on (Johannine) Christian practice50. The most frequently quoted source to assert this link is Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 6.5, “it is allowable that that which disciples publish should be regarded as their masters’ work”. Yet this statement is not directed to pseudonymous documents, but rather to justify the apostolicity of the anonymous gospels of Mark and Luke. Furthermore, these remark are those of a second century Latin father, and may in fact have no real connection to the mind set of the (largely Jewish) writers of the NT51.

This leads to the second, related weakness of the school theory, which is the virtual exclusion of the OT background in its reckoning. Culpepper does treat the “schools” of Philo, Hillel, and Qumran, but goes no further. Yet surely the New Testament writers would have been at least as affected by their Jewish background as by the surrounding culture. There has, in fact, long been evidence of several types of schools in Israel’s history: legal52, wisdom53, and prophetic54. Though some would minimize or deny any presence of organized schools or master-disciple relationships in the OT55, the early association of prophetic guilds (2 Kgs 6:1 ff., 1 Sam 10:10), the later collection and redaction of legal, sapiential, and prophetic material, and the ample evidence of scribal schools in surrounding cultures makes it likely that at least some of the literature (or some parts of that literature) in the OT is due to “schools”.

Yet it is unlikely that even a revised school theory, taking into account the OT evidence, can serve as a helpful tool in explaining NT (or OT) pseudonymity. This is because of the third weakness: the term “school” itself. It is simply too technical to describe the complex phenomenon of the growth of tradition in Jewish and Christian writings. Even when we are able to isolate certain groups that might have been involved at various stages in the growth of collective works (in much of the OT, and in the gospels), there is little likelihood that even these works can be regarded as the sole product of these various “schools”. To ascribe the bulk of pseudonymous writings to the work of various schools in either the OT or NT demands a type of organization and historical continuity that is simply not present in the evidence we possess. . . . 


Myth 10: The eclectic theory of pseudonymity:

  1. The ancient authors’ love of antiquity inspired them to nominate past names as the authors of their works;

  2. Ancient authors respected the notion of a “noble lie” and that use of an authoritative name was justified for a good cause;

  3. Ancients held that content was more important than authorship and that’s where the readers’ attention belonged.

Myth 10 busted(?)

It is hard to see how “love of antiquity” or early origins could have been such a strong motivating force to pseudepigraphers in the first century, writing only a few decades after the death of their pseudonyms. Similarly, the pervasiveness of the Greek idea of “noble falsehood” is hard to judge in first century Christian writings of a mainly Jewish origin. Though there was in fact a stronger emphasis on content than authorship in the era of the fathers, pseudonymity appears still to have been disreputable and therefore discouraged60 

I leave these objections stand as proposed by Meade. I am reminded of the strong Greek philosophical and literary influences upon Jewish “religious” writings in my reading and writing about his book Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, so wonder if there is room to question the objections Meade raises.

But the blunt plain old forgery charge does carry a lot of explanatory power.


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “The Problem of Forgery in the Bible: 10 Myths to Justify False Authorship”

  1. For an religion that supposedly follows its deity’s orders, one of which is “You shall not lie”, it seems that Christians just don’t get their own preaching.

  2. Many of these points are pertinient counters to the claim by some that agreement between the synoptics doesn’t constitute plagarism (for example Mark was thought of as open source by the early christians). Are you aware scholars or sources who address that issue? I am aware of Latin authors (cited by Scott McGill in Plagarism in Latin Literature) but not Jewish sources. What is your view on this question?

    1. My view? I still have much more to learn about this question before I express anything too strongly. Meanwhile, I am reluctant to think that the different evangelists were working in harmony with the Gospel of Mark in the sense of trying to adapt it to new or alternative ideas. I see the differences in theology/christology as too trenchant for anything other than hostile re-writes and adaptations. We know Paul’s letters were treated that way — rewritten, chunks added, etc, in cutthroat theological wars. The gospels we have today, however, have been heavily redacted by the “porto-orthodox” to bring them into some approximate harmony, only partially successful, I think.

      I’ll have to think about who else has written about these questions.

  3. Just because a standard existed or was attested to in a society doesn’t mean it was universally applied or was even understood to exist in all quarters. I’m reminded of recent cases in which some kindergarten teacher puts up pictures of Mickey Mouse in her classroom and the Disney corporation somehow finds out and steps in, suing the school or the teacher or issuing a cease-and-desist. On the one hand, mountains of legal statutes and legal theory exist that have been developed by our ‘society’ that clearly attest to our own relatively sophisticated concept of intellectual property. On the other hand, none of those things existed for the poor kindergarten teacher.

    I think the case can be made that the concept of intellectual property – and general propriety when it comes to the attribution of texts – is broadly class-based. The literary class will have a keen desire (so long as the economics are there to back this up) to be more concerned with this sort of thing and develop customs and concepts around it. Meanwhile, the illiterate classes, should they get their hands on texts and find themselves with power in any way over them, are likely to follow the natural kitsch instincts of human beings. Illiterates who find themselves in charge of some old texts owing to a fluke in church hierarchy are liable to do anything and everything to them including burn them, edit them, re-attribute them, forget who wrote them, etc.

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