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A Recent Argument that Ancient Pseudepigraphy Was NOT Deceptive (or Meant to Be)

I continue now with the lecture I gave on “forgery” in the ancient world, delivered at a conference in Quebec a couple of weeks ago.  I had planned for this to be the last post, but I will have one more after this, the conclusion of my lecture where I deal with the ancient ethics of lying.  In this one I talk about a brilliant recent attempt to argue that it was not (always) a deceitful practice to claim to be a famous person when writing a work in antiquity.



One of the most recent erudite and impressive attempts to defend at least one group of ancient pseudepigraphers comes in the study I mentioned earlier by Irene Peirano, a classicist at Yale, in her published Harvard dissertation, The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake: Latin Pseudepigrapha in Context.   Most of this important book provides detailed analyses of highly literary Roman pseudepigrapha, including pseudo-Virgil.  But she begins with a defense of her view that such works do not involve intentional deceptions but self-conscious “imitations” of the alleged author’s own work, neither meant nor received by informed readers as attempts at deceit.

Peirano’s study focuses on …

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Is It Ever Right to Lie? Or Was It? Even in Early Christianity? The Relevance for Forgery.
What Motivated Some Ancient Authors to Lie About Themselves?



  1. Avatar
    rburos  September 24, 2019

    Her point does sound interesting, and I’m glad for the kind words you used to describe it, but I agree that even if her point is true it doesn’t affect your research interests. I think it entirely appropriate that you include this point in your discussion because it gives us lay people an interesting and useful piece for understanding.

    I’m such a novice at koine (self teaching), but even I’m able to see the differences *even without understanding them* between the sentence structures of the various “Pauls” that I find the only fitting word for them is the rather criticizing use of the word “forgery”.

  2. Robert
    Robert  September 24, 2019

    I know you don’t watch much TV, but all this talk of forgeries has reminded me of a great movie that just recently became available on HBO. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” with a superb Melissa McCarthy in a serious role as Lee Israel.

  3. Avatar
    fishician  September 24, 2019

    One of the problems with the “authorial impersonations” in the New Testament is that they are not merely intellectual exercises or discussions; they were intended to influence and change the doctrines and practices of the early church. To me that constitutes an unrighteous deception, no matter how you try to dress it up.

  4. Avatar
    tadmania  September 24, 2019

    It seems odd (to my poor educated brain) that no ‘resonant’ or critical texts recognizing the relative qualities of these ‘pseudopygraphal sports’ remain to inform us of their intent. (Are there, professor?) Instead, it seems that the NT serves as a sort of punctuation, dividing the ancient arena of mythical religious artifice from the dawn of the increasingly literal modern age. I have long cited the fact that, following the establishment of Christianity ‘writ large’ via Roman/western dominance and the later discovery of couple of continents, people stopped making up new religions. The heresy-laden aberrations of the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness churches are just that – heretical aberrations of Christianity. Islam stands in plagiaristic opposition to Christianity in a sort of ‘half stance’.

    “Hey, great ideas there! But, we’d like our own version. Let’s fight about it more a few millennia.”

  5. Avatar
    Matt2239  September 24, 2019

    Jesus and Nazareth and his followers “probably” didn’t read or write Greek, but Jesus of Nazareth and his followers are the most improbable historical figures ever.

    • Avatar
      meohanlon  September 27, 2019

      Not really, unless you think all the miracles really happened that way.

  6. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  September 25, 2019

    Is it possible that some of the discrepancies between some of the gospels are a result of different people being in the light, each with their own story of entering back in the having the dame heart of Christ/Love?
    Is it possible there is a working way in the New Testament to become like Christ (not sinning, loving all, kind-hearted, goodwill towards all & eternal life)?
    The challenge may be pulling out that working way from the stuff that doesn’t work.

    I think if someone was in the light they would help others into the light. I think there were some people in the light with good intentions, some not in the light with good intentions, and some not in the light with harmful intentions.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 27, 2019

      My sense is that all the authors of the New Testament thought they were in the light. As did lots of other Christians with completely different oints of view.

  7. Avatar
    Zak1010  September 25, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    Is there any reference as to who authored the original scriptures sent to Abraham, Psalms of David, scriptures to Moses or the Bible to Jesus ?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 27, 2019

      Do you mean the books *about* those people? Or allegedly *by* those people? We don’t have any record of any of them having Scriptures sent to them. But not, we don’t know who actually wrote any of these particular books in the Bible.

  8. Avatar
    pmwslc  September 27, 2019

    Why are so many books in the NT anonymous? What would be the motivation? Was anonymous writing the thing to do in these Greco-Roman times?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2019

      My theory is that the Gospels and Acts were written anonymously because they were imitating the books of the Old Testament tha ttold the hisotry of the people of God and his working with them (Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings), which were always anonymous because they weren’t about the *author* and his views but about God and his actions. These NT books were, in the authors’ opinions, continuing the story. Other books (Hebrews, Johnannine epistles) were anonymous probably because the author was writing for his own small community and they knew who he was — didn’t need to sign his name.

  9. Avatar
    Nathan  September 30, 2019

    Bart, I wonder how your university or you yourself view the general requirements for a dissertation. My university has a statement along the lines that the dissertation must be defendable within the field. It doesn’t require the dissertation to be true, but if you are a mathematician you better believe you must go from true statement to true statement.

    Because of your posts on forgery and the debate with that minister who wasn’t using Greek properly, I’m under the impression that there are many scholars in your field who would not have passed muster with you as their supervisor because of their religious bias clouding their critical faculties.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 1, 2019

      Well, the problem with saying it has to be “true” is that in some fields of discourse there are no disinterested measures of truth. Is a poem beautiful? Is this view profound? Is this the proper way to interpret a text? etc. In other fields there are. If you get historical facts wrong, let along mathematical and scientific, then, well, that’s not defensible. So it would fail on the grounds of defensibility, but the reason for it being indefensible — one of the reasons — is that it’s just factually in error. There are other grounds, for example, that it’s completely implausible and crazy….

  10. Avatar
    barackobush  October 6, 2019

    When was the first version of the Bible that contained the Protestant 66 books? I’m asking when was it decided and by who that the Bible should contain the 66 books now in Protestant Bibles.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 7, 2019

      I’m afraid those are two different questions. Athanasius in 367 CE had our 66 books, and that became the standard view down to the modern era (with dissent here and there, of course, especially early on). But he didn’t produce an edition of the Bible with only those, since he wasn’t a Bible publisher. Most Bibles contained only parts of the Bible (e.g., a manuscript of the Gospels). We do have “pandects” from the fourth century, Bibles with all of the OT and NT, but off hand I don’t recall which one first contains the 66 and only the 66. Maybe someone else on the blog can tell us?

      • Avatar
        barackobush  October 10, 2019

        Finally found where I asked this. So Athanasius did not include the apocryphal books as contained in current Catholic Bibles? I thought the 66 book standard was not until the Protestant reformation.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 11, 2019

          That’s right, more or less. He had our 27 book NT, and our 39 book OT. BUT he numbered the 39 in the Hebrew fashion so they added up to 22 (e.g. the twelve minor prophets are all counted as *one* book) AND he accepted a couple of “additions” to the 22 that are not included in the Xn canon (e.g., “Baruch” as part of Jeremiah)

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