Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
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 scrapped.

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. [1]

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").

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The author of 2 Peter claims to be Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus. Few scholars think that this attribution is true.
  4. The same applies to 1 and 2 Timothy.
  5. 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 letter.
  6. 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 up".

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 day [1].

Some of the most important guidelines to revealing a forgery are:

  • 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 price.

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 BCE 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 [2]. 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 passage 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.

  1. 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?
  2. The passage is intrusively out of place. It comes baldly in the middle of a section about prophets in the church.
  3. 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 [3], 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.
[1] Bart D Ehrman, Lost Christianities, OUP, 2003
[2] See John's Gospel
[3] 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 here).

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