In a previous post I gave the introduction to my book about ancient forgery, Forged, written for a general audience. Posting it reminded me of a modern forgery that was done by a bona fide scholar — of a Gospel text! I heard the story numerous times because the fraud was exposed by my own teacher, Bruce Metzger. I think the first time I wrote about the story was in my book Lost Christianities (Oxford University Press, 2003). Here is what I said there:
Some forgeries have been perpetrated in modern times, of direct relevance to our current study of early Christian apocrypha. One might think that in our day and age, no one would be so deceitful as to try and pawn off any first hand accounts of Jesus as authentic. But in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Strange Gospels appear regularly, if you know where to look for them. Often these record incidents in the “lost years” of Jesus – e.g., accounts of Jesus as a child or a young man prior to his public ministry (this genre goes all the way back to the second century, as we’ll see in a later chapter), describing, for example, his trips to India to learn the wisdom of the Brahmins (how else would he be so wise? Not by spending his free hours with the illiterate peasants of a one-horse town like Nazareth!), or his exploits in the wilderness, joining up with Jewish monks to learn the ways of holiness.
These new Gospels don’t need to concern us overly much here; most of them are as artificial as you can imagine and are useful chiefly in showing that folks are not only strange but gullible – these tend to be the stuff of supermarket tabloids – and that there are still forgers in our midst who have no qualms about fabricating flat out lies, even about their own religion, in order to make a splash and possibly get across their point of view. Or, at least, to make a few bucks.
But what about serious forgery by intelligent people, trained scholars, experts in ancient languages and history? Does such a thing ever occur in the modern world? Do scholars ever forge documents to their own ends, whatever those ends may be?
The answer here again is quite unambiguous, for it occasionally happens and the forgers themselves are occasionally detected. It tends to be harder to pin forgery on a real scholar than a creative but unskilled lay person: no one attempts the deed without feeling reasonably good about his or her chances to pull it off, and given sufficient scholarly ingenuity, it is indeed sometimes possible to stay a step ahead of the skeptics. But not always.
An amusing instance involves an article published in a highly respected scholarly journal in 1950. The article was entitled, somewhat ironically, “An Amusing Agraphon.” The term “agraphon” literally means “unwritten,” but is a technical term among New Testament scholars to refer to a saying of Jesus that is recorded in some ancient source other than the canonical Gospels. There are a large number of such sayings, for example, in the non-canonical Gospels (as we are seeing), and other places. For example, in the book of Acts, Paul quotes Jesus as saying that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Jesus may well have said so, but the saying is not found in the canonical Gospel accounts of his teachings, and so is an agraphon.
The “Amusing Agraphon” of the article’s title was allegedly found in a manuscript that contained a set of sermons on the Gospel of Matthew. The author of the article was a respected professor of classics at Princeton University, Paul Coleman-Norton, who indicated that in 1943, while with the U.S. armed forces in the town of Fédhala, in French Morocco, he was visiting a Muslim mosque and was shown there a peculiar thick tome filled, as one might expect in that setting, with Arabic writings. But inserted among its leaves was a single parchment page containing a Greek text, a fragmentary copy of a Greek translation of a set of originally Latin homilies on Matthew chs. 1-13 and 19-25. Given the situation – war time in French Morocco – and the exigencies of the moment, he was not able to photograph the page; but he was allowed to make a careful transcription of it. Later, when he was able to study the text at greater leisure, he found that it contained a striking and previously unknown “agraphon.”
In Matt 24:51, after Jesus’ famous warning about the one who will be “cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” the manuscript indicated that Jesus’ conversation with his disciples continued. Here, one of the disciples, puzzled by his statement, asks Jesus the question that may have occurred to others over the years: “But Rabbi, how can this happen for those who have no teeth?” Whereupon Jesus replies: “Oh you of little faith! Do not be troubled. If some have no teeth, then teeth will be provided.”
It’s a terrific little agraphon, almost too good to be true. And in fact, it was too good to be true. My own professor in graduate school, Bruce Metzger, had been a student of Coleman-Norton in the classics department at Princeton before the war. As Metzger himself tells it, his revered Latin professor used to regale his class (in the 1930s) with the witticism that dentures would be provided in the afterlife for all those who were toothless, enabling them to weep and gnash their teeth.
No one else has ever seen the ancient one-page Greek text in French Morocco that allegedly contained the verse. Metzger concludes – and everyone appears to agree with him – that Coleman-Norton simply made the story up and published it, with an erudite philological analysis, in the respected Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Why? Possibly because he thought it would be both a good joke to play on his fellow scholars, possibly to see if he could get away with it. I suppose he nearly did.
Such as “The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ,” “The Aquarian Gospel” and “The Crucifixion of Jesus, By an Eyewitness,” all summarized and discussed in the terrific little book, Strange New Gospels, by Edgar J. Goodspeed (Chicago: University Press, 1931). See also the more recent discussions of Per Beskow, Strange Tales about Jesus: A Survey of Unfamiliar Gospels, (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1983; Swedish original 1979).
See Metzger, “Literary Forgeries,” 4.
For a full accounting of them, see William D. Stroker, Extracanonical Sayings of Jesus (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).
In addition to the work mentioned in note 3, see the fuller account in Metzger’s autobiography, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (Peabody MA: Hendrickson, 1997) 136-39.