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A Christian Forger Caught in the Act

Next month I will be giving a keynote address at a conference dealing with ancient pseudepigrapha at the University of Laval, in Quebec City.  I have recently been discussing the topic (of ancient authors falsely claiming to be a famous person) on the blog in relation to the letter of James, and as you know, it was the subject of my monography Forgery and Counterforgery ten years ago, and my spin-off popular account Forged.   I haven’t worked seriously on the problem since then.

But now, because of this upcoming lecture, I’m having to think about it long and hard again, a decade later.  Lots of scholars simply don’t (or can’t?) believe that ancient people — especially Christians, but others as well — would lie about their identities.  It’s not that these scholars doubt that there are lots and lots of pseudepigrapha out there, Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian.  There are.  But these scholars don’t think that the authors were doing anything duplicitous.

There are different ways scholars have made this argument, but the basic line is pretty much the same, that everyone knew that pseudepigraphy was a practice, and since they knew it was a practice, they could see through it and and either weren’t deceived or weren’t bothered if they found out they were deceived.

I continue to think this view is absolutely and precisely wrong.   I will talk more about it in later posts, probably, since I’ll be reading up on what has been published over the past decade (already started: but the big reading starts today!).  For now I just want to point out that as far as I know, whenever ancient readers *talk* about the phenomenon, actually saying anything about it, they condemn it.  I’m not saying that the people who did it condemned it; I’ll be arguing that *they* thought that had good reasons.  I’m saying it wasn’t socially respectable or accepted.  It’s kind of like cheating (on an exam, on a lover, on a tax return): it’s done a lot, but when it’s talked about, it’s condemned.

To my knowledge no one in the ancient world eever approved of someone publishing a book in the name of some other famous person.   It might be hard for modern scholars to believe.  It may be not what we want to hear.  It may not be what “makes sense” to us.  But the reality is that no one approves of it.  It was seeing as lying, a kind of literary deceit, not something that anyone should do.

There is one instance in antiquity where an ancient Christian author forged a writing and then was discovered.  It didn’t work well for him.  Here is how I talk about it in my monograph (I’ve edited it a bit to make it more accessible):

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The author was a Christian presbyter of Marseille (France) named Salvian, who around 440 CE published a book Timothei ad Ecclesiam (in Latin, obvioulsy.  The title means “Timothy to the Church”).  The name “Timothy,” of course, had clear apostolic connections from Pauline times  (as one of Paul’s traveling companions and allegedly the recipient of two of Paul’s letters; ironically Paul didn’t write either one!).

In (Salvian’s) letter to the church, “Timothy” inveighed against a community that had grown rich and soft, and advocated radical almsgiving to the church, saying rich people should give up all their property for the poor. In his concern for total commitment to the gospel and an ascetic style of life, Salvian was not far removed from the concerns of another author, from about the same time, that we know of, a pseudonymous “Titus” (the other of Paul’s Pastoral companions) who wrote a scathing attack on Christians who indulged in the joys of the flesh, condemning anyone, married or not, who engaged in sexual activities. The author of the forged letter of Titus was never discovered. But the author of the forged letter of Timothy was, by none other than his own bishop, Salonius of Geneva.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 11, 2019

    When I first started reading “Fraud,” I was thinking about a person taking credit for something written by someone else, say a college term paper.. It took me awhile to adjust to the concept of using the same word “fraud” to apply to someone writing something and then claiming that it was written by someone else, for example a famous person having more authority than the author. That shift in meaning for the same word “fraud” takes awhile to grasp.

  2. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  August 11, 2019

    (Just a rhetorical question). When considering the sheer numbers of Paul’s converts, there is no doubt they were fervent. So why wouldn’t they be “bothered if they found out they were deceived”?

  3. Avatar
    cmdenton47  August 11, 2019

    After I had read some of your books (but was still a believer) it used to burn me when the lectors at my (Episcopal) church would begin a reading with “a letter to the Ephesians from the Apostle Paul” because you had pointed out that the minister knew very well that Paul never wrote it and could have easily changed the announcement to “a letter to the Ephesians”. Small lies eventually add up.

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  4. Avatar
    RRomanchek  August 11, 2019

    Great story! I “get” why forgeries were created, and why some became a part of accepted divinely inspired scripture. Interesting too that the anonymous gospels needed to be given an identity. A bit off topic, but I am surprised that God limited His/Her inspired literary output to a millennium over 2k years ago.

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  5. Avatar
    doug  August 11, 2019

    I suspect that few of today’s authors would be OK with writings forged in their name, even if it was known to be a common practice and that most people knew the writings were forgeries.

  6. Avatar
    forthfading  August 11, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you think it might be of interest and importance to discuss the modern situation with Professor Morton Smith? I would be interested in your views because I have only read the views of evangelical scholars. I am curious to how other scholars perceived the evidence of his alleged forgery. Morton Smith was a true scholar with reputable works and it makes the ordeal very intriguing to me.

    Thanks, Jay

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    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2019

      I’ll have to see if I’ve posted on this at any length. I have long suspected that Smith forged it, but other scholars are quite vehement in their claims that he didn’t. I devote a chapter to it in my book Lost Christianities, though my views have developed a bit since then, especially in an article on it I published in the Jouernal of Early Christian Studies, a number of years ago now.

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  7. Avatar
    qditt  August 12, 2019

    Good Evening Dr. Ehrman,

    I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing any insight on what influences (i.e. Zoroastrianism, Babylonian, etc.) that might have had the greatest influence in the intertestamental period. The world that Jesus existed in seems vastly different from the old testament. Even in Jewish circles there seems to be multiple gods, just lesser ones. The NT seems to add Satan, Devils, and more apocryphal views. What shaped John’s views and by extension Jesus’s views on religion?

    I understand that’s a lot for a short blog question, but any thoughts would be appreciated as I’m trying to better understand the religious context of the time leading up to Jesus’s ministry. Thank you, and an extra thank you for the work you do for those in need.

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    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2019

      I’ll be talking about this a bit in my new book on heaven and hell, coming out in March. I used to think that Zoroastrian thought played a big role. I no longer am at all sure about that: there may have been *some* impact, but hte main thing that changed is the development of Jewish apocalyptic thought, which was more of an internal development than based entirely on outside influences. Maybe I should post on that!

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      • Lev
        Lev  August 12, 2019

        “The main thing that changed is the development of Jewish apocalyptic thought, which was more of an internal development than based entirely on outside influences. Maybe I should post on that!”

        I would be very interested in reading your thoughts on that.

      • Avatar
        qditt  August 12, 2019

        That would be a great post on the development of Jewish apocalyptic thought! Very much looking forward to your new book. Thank you for your reply.

  8. Avatar
    dankoh  August 12, 2019

    I don’t know if you’re covering Jewish pseudepigrapha, but are you aware of the misattribution of the Zohar (XIV century kabbalistic work). It was written by Moses de Leon and uses a style of Aramaic found mainly in Spain at that time, but it was put in the name of Simeon bar Yohai, a II-III century rabbi (who was also a mystic).

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2019

      I deal only with ones in my time period, up to the fourth or fifth century, not later medieval or early modern works.

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