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.



The misuse of multiple independent sources

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by Neil Godfrey

Here are two quotations explaining how the criteria of multiple attestation supposedly gives us a sound reason for believing in the historicity of a gospel account, the first by conservative Craig Evans and the second by liberal Bart Ehrman:

What about those who would like to have sound, compelling reasons for accepting the Gospel narratives as reliable? . . . Thoughtful people rightly apply criteria for evaluating claims. So also historians for assessing the historical worth of documents. . . . Sayings and actions of Jesus that appear in two or more independent sources suggest that they were circulated widely and early and were not invented by a single writer. . . . [This criteria enables] historians to give good reasons for judging this saying or that deed attributed to Jesus as authentic. (Fabricating Jesus, pp.49-51)

But what if a story is found independently in more than one source? That story cannot have been made up by either source, since they are independent; it must predate them both. Stories found in multiple, independent sources therefore have a better likelihood of being older, and possibly authentic. . . . For example, both Matthew and Luke independently indicate that Jesus was raised in Nazareth, but their stories about how he got there differ, so one came from M and the other from L. Mark indicates the same thing. So does John, which did not use any of the Synoptics or their sources. Conclusion? It is independently attested: Jesus probably came from Nazareth. (Jesus, Interrupted, p, 155)

And here’s a third from a quasi-legal religious text:

by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established (Deuteronomy 19:5)

I like the third one, but the first two illustrate the logical fallacy of the false dichotomy or false dilemma. Granted the authors qualify their remarks with “suggest” and “probably”, but both consider only one set of alternative explanations for multiple attestation — unlikely coincidental fabrication or more likely genuine historicity.

Neither considers the possibility that independent sources could just as likely be independently addressing another theological debate or widely known unhistorical narrative.

Without attestation external to our gospel sources we have no way of knowing whether they were addressing historical events or other stories.

The only reason I can see for assuming the former and apparently giving no time for any other possibility is the desire to comply with popular religious and cultural belief systems.

The thousands of independent sitings of UFO’s do not establish that we really are being visited by aliens.


How the Gospels are most commonly dated (and why?)

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by Neil Godfrey

From Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 144-145 (number formatting is mine):

  1. Even though it is very hard to date the Gospels with precision, most scholars agree on the basic range of dates, for a variety of reasons . . . .
  2. I can say with relative certainty — from his own letters and from Acts — that Paul was writing during the fifties of the common era . . . .
  3. [H]e gives in his own writings absolutely no evidence of knowing about or ever having heard of the existence of any Gospels. From this it can be inferred that the Gospels probably were written after Paul’s day.
  4. It also appears that the Gospel writers know about certain later historical events, such as the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 ce . . . That implies that these Gospels were probably written after 70.
  5. There are reasons for thinking Mark was written first, so maybe he wrote around the time of the war with Rome, 70 ce.
  6. If Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source, they must have been composed after Mark’s Gospel circulated for a time outside its own originating community — say, ten or fifteen years later, in 80 to 85 ce.
  7. John seems to be the most theologically developed Gospel, and so it was probably written later still, nearer the end of the first century, around 90 to 95 ce.
  8. These are rough guesses, but most scholars agree on them.

Here we have in a convenient nutshell the basic reasons behind the widely accepted dates for the Gospels. Bart Ehrman explains he is not going into details here, and one can find in the literature more nuanced arguments for relative and other dates assigned to the gospels. But with these dot points we can say we are looking at the trunk of the tree.

Dating Paul

The grounds stated for dating Paul to the 50’s seems reasonable enough. The only problem is that there is no external attestation for Paul’s letters till the second century. Ditto for the book of Acts. It is unknown until Irenaeus cites it in the latter half of the second century. That leaves only the letters of Paul themselves. How certain can we be about a date that relies solely on the self-witness of the documents themselves? Especially when we know that at the time Paul’s letters do appear they are simultaneously embroiled in controversies over forgeries and interpolations. (Marcionites accused “orthodoxy” of interpolating Paul’s letters; the letters themselves warn of forgeries, and many scholars believe the Pastoral letters are forgeries.)

But the point here is that Ehrman does supply the reasons, the evidence, for dating Paul the way most do.

Dating Mark Continue reading “How the Gospels are most commonly dated (and why?)”


Fundamentalist error bedevils the liberals too

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman is certainly one of the most popular of “liberal” biblical scholars, but not even he can escape a logical fallacy that bedevils both the fundamentalist extremities (e.g. see my earlier post on Evans’ criteria) and mainstream of early Christian studies.

In Jesus, Interrupted, he has a section headed Criteria for Establishing the Veracity of Historical Material.

Point 3 in this section is: It is better to cut against the grain.

Here he asks a question without, apparently, grasping the circularity underlying it:

How might we account for traditions of Jesus that clearly do not fit with a “Christian” agenda, that is, that do not promote the views and perspectives of the people telling the stories? Traditions like that would not have been made up by the Christian storytellers, and so they are quite likely to be historically accurate. (p. 154)

This is flawed on multiple grounds. It is the same “logic” or argument that one sees at the root of much fundamentalist rhetoric.

To take just the most obvious level of error in this post, the argument in essence is saying nothing more than, “Since we can’t think of why a Christian author would have said X, he must have written it because it really happened and he wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, come what may.”

In other words, there is the presumption of historicity. The argument for historicity is circular.

It’s the same fallacy as N.T. Wright et al use for the resurrection. “The disciples would not have made such and such up, therefore it had to be true.” Or even, “No Christian would make up the story of a man of God being persecuted and betrayed by those closest to him and dying a shameful death (forget Joseph and other biblical characters, the Psalms of David, and the stories of the Maccabean martyrs), and who was so venerated he had to be followed and honoured by all, so it had to be true.”

The specific example Bart Ehrman uses to illustrate his point in fact is probably the best one to demonstrate its logical flaw.

You can see why Christians might want to say that Jesus came from Bethlehem: that was where the son of David was to come from (Micah 5:2). But who would make up a story that the Savior came from Nazareth, a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of? This tradition does not advance any Christian agenda. Somewhat ironically, then, it is probably historically accurate. (p.154)

René Salm, and others, have shown that there is a very plausible reason why the town of Nazareth was eventually linked to Jesus. See my previous post on The Nazareth Myth, and of course www.nazarethmyth.info. It was more than likely in order to deflect credibility from Jewish Christian sect(s) with a similar sounding sectarian name that had no geographical association at all. See an old Crosstalk exchange.

All written composition has an agenda of some sort. People write with a purpose, an intention. That is, with an agenda. One cannot write otherwise. The historians’ task is to investigate the agendas of what is written. And if one finds that the agenda is to record certain types of historical facts about Jesus, then we can add those to the history of Jesus and Christianity.

But we expose our lack of imagination, and unscholarly bias, if we presume to know an agenda has to be X simply because it does not fit in with the explanation we have designed and called Y.

(See also the book details for The Nazareth Myth)