Forgeries and the New Testament
It's a truism that those who come out on top in
the course of time tend to be the ones who write the history. This is
certainly true of the Christian Church. For by the time the Roman
Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion (325
CE) the Church had already eliminated all its main
rivals in the contest for "correct" or orthodox theology.
In the centuries leading up to that point, there had
been no shortage of rival doctrines. Many of these involved re-writing
or revising the slowly emerging canon (or standard) of what we now know
as the New Testament.
A good example of this sort of heresy (from a Greek word for "choice"
or "opinion" in contrast to the "givens" of revealed doctrine) is the
person of Marcion. He and his followers were a significant danger to the
orthodox Church in the latter part of the second century. Marcion held
that the entire Hebrew Bible and much of the New Testament should be
If Marcion went too far, there were others who went even further and
forged documents. Bart Ehrman notes that
Almost all of the "lost" Scriptures of the early Christians were
forgeries. On this, scholars of every stripe agree, liberal and
conservative, fundamentalist and atheist ... The same holds true for
nearly all of the Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses that came to
be excluded from the canon: [they were] forgeries in the names of the
most famous apostles and their companions. 
What few people know is that even parts of the New Testament which
made it into the canon are forgeries (though many Christian
writers don't like the term, preferring to call them "pseudonymous").
- The Letter to Titus made it into the New Testament even though it
was written by someone other than Paul. Another letter, now labelled
"Pseudo-Titus" but just as convincing, did not.
- Scholars are not confident that Paul's Second Letter to the
Thessalonians was written by him - even though the letter warns
explicitly against forged letters (2.2), perhaps in an attempt to
throw readers off the scent of the fraudulent author's own deception.
- The author of 2 Peter claims to be Simon Peter, the disciple of
Jesus. Few scholars think that this attribution is true.
- The same applies to 1 and 2 Timothy.
- If the letter of Paul to the Ephesians is a forgery, it is so
cleverly done that scholars don't universally agree on the question.
Having said that, few will deny that there are many clues pointing to
the distinct possibility that someone other than Paul wrote the
- There are many short passages in the canonical gospels and letters
which scholars conclude have been inserted over the centuries and
should therefore be classed as forged.
It is open to doubt that these documents should be accorded quite the
same condemnation that we give forgers today. We're used to striving for
objectivity, recognising that we're subject to all sorts of errors of
judgement. So anyone who deliberately makes up "what really happened"
comes in for criticism (notwithstanding the lies so frequently produced
by gutter journalists) and might even face jail. Writers in the ancient
world had a considerably looser idea of what might usefully be "made
Having said that, it's wrong to maintain, as do some, that early
Christians and others did not worry too much about forgeries. Not only
were many people concerned about forgeries, but they also did everything
they could to expose and condemn them. A story is told about the famous
Roman physician Galen (129-199 CE)
who one day heard two men arguing whether or not a book they saw was
truly written by him. One of the men was maintaining that it was a
forgery because it did not reflect Galen's distinctive style. Galen was
so pleased at his fame that he dashed off a booklet describing how to
distinguish his writings from forgeries. The booklet survives to this
Some of the most important guidelines to revealing a
- If a writing refers to an event which occurred
after the death of its supposed author, then we must conclude that
it's a forgery.
- Similarly, if a work refers to ideas of which we
have no record until after the attributed author died, we must
strongly suspect its provenance.
- Another clue to forgery would be if the style and
vocabulary of a writing differs substantially from that of a document
we know for sure was written by the attributed author.
- A much more recent way of testing a piece of
writing is to subject it to computer analysis, the speed and accuracy
of which can reveal inconsistencies not traceable by any other method.
A question remains: Why bother to forge a document?
One reason suggested by Ehrman is profit. Rich people
in the ancient world often competed with each other to have the best
library. In those days, long before the advent of printing, manuscripts
were hand-copied and therefore comparatively expensive. Original
documents were even more pricey. A really convincing forgery of an
original work by Aristotle, for example, might fetch a substantial
Another possible reason might be to destroy someone's
reputation. In World War II, for example, the Allies made an art out of
circulating forged documents which sought to undermine the trust between
Nazis in authority. Anaximenes in the fourth century
did the same thing when he circulated anti-Greek propaganda apparently
written by his arch-enemy, Theopompus. The latter quickly found that he
was persona non grata wherever he wanted to go.
We can easily understand such reasons. Less easy to get a grip on are
more honorable reasons such as the motivation of neo-Pythagoreans in the
second century CE. They argued that
their forgeries in the name of Pythagoras (570-495
BCE) were legitimate because they were merely
valid extensions of the master's work. To sign such work in their own
names would, they thought, have been insufferably presumptuous.
Even less understandable was the practice of signing
one's own work in the name of a famous person. In some cases this was
done because the person had agreed to be a sponsor of the writing. In
others, an author merely hoped that a famous person might become a
sponsor. More usually, however, the forgery was produced to give a
writer's views enough credibility to be read. So if a Christian bishop
had problems in a local church, he might write a letter to them and sign
it "Paul of Tarsus" in order to give his teaching some extra weight.
The vast majority of non-canonical Christian writings
are what we today call forgeries. They include gospels purporting to
have been written by James, Mary, and Peter. There are the gospels of
the Hebrews, the Ebionites and the Nazoreans, to name but a few. The
Gospel of Thomas, although it contains some passages which match or
reflect the canonical gospels, was probably not written by the Thomas of
the New Testament.
It's worth reflecting that the gospels of Mark, Luke
and Matthew are all in fact anonymous, the authors having been
attributed by tradition.
St John's Gospel has few parallels to the other
gospels. Indeed, it contains very little good history at all
. It turns out to be a long theological
reflection on Jesus of Nazareth - a reflection which gripped the
imagination of early Christians (it was written probably between 100 and
120 CE) and which is the
basis of much orthodox teaching to this day. But it nevertheless comes
perilously close to being open to charges of being a forgery in modern
terms. It was certainly not written by the John of the gospels, and it
attributes to Jesus long monologues which he certainly did not deliver.
The consequences of forgery on Christian thought and
practice have not been insignificant. As a simple example, for much of
the Church's history, it has been taught that women should obey their
husbands, shut up in church, and cover their heads. As Ehrman puts it:
... women earn salvation by keeping quiet and
pregnant: it is men who have the authority to teach.
Two passages are usually quoted to support this view:
1 Corinthians 14.34-35 and 1 Timothy 2.12-15. The Timothy
is a known forgery - but what about Paul's teaching to the Corinthians?
No reputable scholar says that Paul did not write this letter. But there
are good reasons for thinking that this passage has at some point been
inserted into the original text.
- In Chapter 11 of this letter, Paul (though
insisting that women cover their heads) encourages women to pray and
prophesy - both of which were done aloud. Why this contradiction?
- The passage is intrusively out of place. It comes
baldly in the middle of a section about prophets in the church.
- In our best manuscripts of Paul's letter, this
short passage appears in a number of other places. It's possible, if
not likely, that it was originally a marginal note and then inserted
by different copyists in different places.
Lest one thinks this issue of marginal importance
today, it should be noted that these and other passages are
fundamentally the basis of the objection by many Christians of women as
priests and bishops. The matter has caused, and is causing, much angst
in the worldwide Church.
To sum up: Forgeries were much more common in the
ancient world than they are today ,
if only because it was so much harder to detect them and to spread the
news of their existence. When they were detected, there were those who
cared enough to take action as far as they were able to do so.
Christianity has not been impervious to the activities of forgers; but
modern scholars have been able to expose most pseudo-Christian
forgeries. Despite that, some clear forgeries remain part of the canon
of the New Testament.
 Bart D Ehrman, Lost Christianities,
 See John's Gospel
 Having said that, a fascinating case in modern times is the 1903
book titled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion which, despite
having been clearly and repeatedly shown to be a forgery, is still on
sale in Russian bookshops and elsewhere (see