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Could Christian Forgers Justifying Lying?

Yesterday, in response to a question, I started to discuss the age-old problem of literary forgery (authors lying about their true identity), and specifically the question of why Christians would engage in it.  In my two books on the topic I spend considerable time trying to demonstrate that forgery was indeed understood – in antiquity – to involve lying, and that the authors who claimed (falsely) to be Plato or Galen or Peter or Paul knew they were lying.  But why would they do that?  Especially the Christians?

Here is a fuller answer that I give at the end of my book: Forged: Writing in the Name of God.  It follows a discussion of a number of modern (mainly 19th century) forgeries of Gospels, including the ones that claim that, for example, Jesus went to India as a young man to learn the ways of the Brahmins….



Christian Forgeries, Lies, and Deceptions

This issue of modern hoaxes brings me back to a question that I have repeatedly asked in my study of forgeries:  Who would do such a thing?  I hope by now you will agree with my earlier answer:  “Lots of people.”   And for lots of reasons.  And not just modern people.  We have instances of Christian forgeries not only today, but also in the Middle Ages, and in Late Antiquity, and in the time of the New Testament.  From the first century to the twenty-first century, people who have called themselves Christian have seen fit to fabricate, falsify, and forge documents, in most instances in order to authorize the views that they wanted others to accept.

My particular interest in this book, of course, is with the forgeries of the early Christian church.  No one doubts that there were lots of them.  Today we have …

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Early Christian Liars
Why Did Ancient Christian Forgers Commit Forgery?



  1. Avatar
    Hon Wai  May 6, 2019

    So that’s the origin of the story whereby Jesus went to India as a young man to learn the ways of the Brahmins. Just recently in a Buddhist reading group, I heard one British man who had spent some time in East Asia with interest in Buddhism and Taoism, maybe also Hinduism, confidently expounding his view that Jesus was a mystic who taught about the God-self, the Trinity, residing within everyone. I have heard this sort of thing before, and always wondered where on earth did they get this bizarre view from.
    I take for granted that there is absolutely no evidence Jesus ventured far from the Middle East. But do we have any evidence that Christians from the first few centuries ever had contact with or knowledge of Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism?
    How has been the reception from other scholars towards your book “Forgery & Counterforgery”? Convinced or outraged? I imagine even liberal Christian scholars would hesitate to view books of the canon to be outright deception.

  2. Avatar
    jhague  May 6, 2019

    We also have the issue of an author who does not lie about his identity but lies in the content of what he writes. Besides the fact that Paul writes these things, is there any reason to believe his visions that he claims he had, that he is a Pharisee among Pharisees, that he actually had the hardships that he describes, etc? It seems that most of what Paul writes is to boast himself up to his readers and exaggerate his credentials. It seems that some of his readers did not believe some of the things Paul said, in particularly that he was really an apostle.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2019

      Yes, another big issue. That wouldn’t be forgery, though, but “fabrication.” (It’s important to keep the terms straight, otherwise we don’t know what we’re talking about: are we talking about an author lying about his name/identity or about an author just makin’ stuff up? difference!)

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  May 7, 2019

        Professor, are you able to expand upon the ‘big issue” of Paul’s veracity (limited of course to the writings actually deemed to be Paul’s)?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 8, 2019

          Interesting idea. I’ve always thought there are good reasons for thinking he simply was truthful about what he believed (and believed he did and experienced), and no real reasons to suspect otherwise. But mayb I should post on it.

    • Rick
      Rick  May 7, 2019

      During Romney’s campaign I had the gall to ask a committed evangelical Southern Baptist why he thought it so absurd that Jesus and God appeared to Joseph Smith in New York in 1820 but so true that Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus? The credibility of neither Joseph or Paul was mentioned – just that I was going to hell but he would pray for me!

  3. Avatar
    fishician  May 6, 2019

    I am reading a collection of stories by Mark Twain, and he would have a vehement argument with Augustine! He contends that not only are there good lies, but also that everyone lies in some way, either by what you say or sometimes what you don’t say. Of course, he always couches his comments in humor. However, one of my disappointments in Christianity was when I would hear preachers share from the pulpit (or other places) stories or “facts” that were not true, and that they either knew or should have known were not true. There does appear to be this sentiment that hedging the truth is OK as long as it serves a greater purpose. If you have to lie to promote your “truth” then maybe you need to rethink your views. (Now we see it all the time in politics!)

  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  May 6, 2019

    New Testament Fan Fiction.

  5. Avatar
    AstaKask  May 6, 2019

    So we talked a month or two ago about how many ancestors Mary and Joseph would have to select from when they were trekking back to where everyone lived a thousand years earlier. Turns out that there are mathematicians that work on this problem (well, not exactly Mary and Joseph, but nevertheless) – and they made a video about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fm0hOex4psA

    It seems that you can argue on mathematical grounds that by the time Mary lived, either *everyone* in Palestine was a descendant of David, or *no one* was. Which I guess explains why there were no rooms at the inn.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2019


    • Avatar
      Eric  May 7, 2019

      I’ve read a geneticists work that reports the same thing. It turns out my mother was able to trace her geneology to the actual Lady Godiva (c. 1000 AD) (not her actual title in her day).

      The unusual part, it turns out, is not descent from her — as the mathematical geneticists say, since there is at leas tone descendant today, chances are every (Northern?) European alive today is, too — but actual finding records completely tracing one of hundred of millions of such valid lineages.

      And no, I haven’t shared these mathematical truths with my 81-year old mother.

  6. Avatar
    AntiochusEpimanes  May 6, 2019

    Do you get the sense that more often than not, ancient audiences were fooled? Are you aware of obvious forgeries in which people were fooled?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2019

      Oh yes, lots and lots. I discuss a good number in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

  7. Avatar
    AntiochusEpimanes  May 6, 2019

    Do we have examples of books that were seen as forgeries by the original audience, but were accepted by later generations because they claim to have been written by an earlier author? For example, it seems hard to believe that books like Daniel, Baruch, or Enoch would have fooled original audiences, because people would wonder why these books just appeared out of nowhere.I would imagine that a century later, readers would just have no idea Whether these books were 100 or 500 years old.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2019

      As it turns out, we have good evidence that these books *did* fool their audiences, both at first and for many centuries!

  8. fefferdan
    fefferdan  May 6, 2019

    Thanks for devoting considerable space to answering this question, Bart. You mention that the author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla admitted to writing it out of love [or respect] for Paul. But are you confident that he really admitted this, or only that someone [Tertullian?] reported it? Either way I get the feeling from outright forgeries like Ephesians [I place Paul and Thecla in the category of pious fiction rather that forgery] do give the impression that the author has a high degree of love/respect for Paul.
    So far, you haven’t addressed the question of channeling. In some cases it seems that this is what the writers are doing. The 7 letters to the churches in Revelation are an example. The author doesn’t claim these are physical letters from Jesus, but spiritual communications, which he has transcribed. We also get channeled revelations in the Hebrew Scriptures, often from angels but also in written form such as in the Books of Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah. I wonder if this sense of channeling might also be the case with letters purporting to be by Paul, James etc.

    There are also a number of acdtual letters supposed preserved in the Jewish bible — the letter of Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon for example, also various letters from one king to another. Are any of them real?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2019

      It can be debated, but my sense is that Tertullian is reporting general information. He’s always a tricky customer though. I do deal with the issue of channeling (without calling it that) in my books on forgery; the idea has been floated a lot, but I try to show why it doesn’t seem to work. (The author of Revelation reports letters Jesus dictated; he doesn’t himself send letters claiming to be Jesus; Ezekiel and the others didn’t claim to be God — the source of the information — but Ezekiel etc. So it’s not like someone writing a book claiming to be Paul when his name was actually Fred)

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  May 7, 2019

        So if I understand right, you are saying that channeling isn’t forgery. But does the fact that John of Patmos admits he received Jesus’ letters spiritually excuse him, while the guy who signed Paul’s name to Ephesians is not excused, even if he believed himself to represent the spirit of Paul? If there are white lies, are there ever truly “pious” forgeries?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 8, 2019

          No, I’m not saying one is excused and the other isn’t. I’m saying they are engaged into *different* kinds of deception, one is a fabrication and the other is a forgery. It’s important to have clear categories, otherwise everything mushes together.

          • fefferdan
            fefferdan  May 8, 2019

            Agreed about needing clear categories. But I tend to excuse channeling on the grounds that the person doing is also fooled, or at least may be fooled, by it. I don’t rule out the possibility that some channeling and prophecy is authentic as well.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 10, 2019

            Yes, my main problem is that channeling doesn’t explain the early Christian forgeries, since we don’t know of any of the dead apostles giving instructions or directing the writing of their later followers. What we do know is that lots of authors — Greek, Roman, Jew, and Christian — lied about their identity in order to get their views heard. That’s why that seems like the more plausible explanation.

  9. Avatar
    ksgm34  May 7, 2019

    I do wonder about Augustine’s mental state.

  10. Avatar
    godspell  May 7, 2019

    To be clear–since we’ve recently discussed the possibility that the gospels were not originally attributed to Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John–would that exempt them from charges of forgery? Can a book be retroactively forged?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2019

      That’s right, they are not forgeries. They are anonymous books that have been falsely attributed (to people who didn’t write them)

  11. Robert
    Robert  May 7, 2019

    Could Christian Forgers Justify[ing] Lying?

    I think you want an indicative verb here. Or delete the ‘Could’ at the beginning and the question mark at the end. Don’t worry, I’m sure no one else noticed; it’s only the title.

    I especially like these footnotes at the end:

    [1] See pp. xxx.

    [2] See pp. xxx.

    [3] See my discussion on pp. xxx.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2019

      Yes, I thought people would find them helpful. Or at least the one person who would read them!

  12. Avatar
    john76  May 8, 2019

    Justified lying was certainly part of the Judeo Christian tradition. For instance:

    1. God rewarded the Egyptian midwives for lying to the Pharaoh. (Exodus 1:18-20)
    2. Rahab was “justified” when she lied about Joshua’s spies. (Joshua 2:4-6); (James 2:25)
    3. David lied to Ahimelech when he said he was on the king’s business. (He was King Saul’s enemy at the time.) We know that God approved of this lie, since 1 Kings 15:5 says that God approved of everything David did, with the single exception of the matter of Uriah. (1 Samuel 21:2)
    4. Elisha told King Benhadad that he would recover, even though God told Elisha that the king would die. ( 2 Kings 8:8-10)
    5. In the Deuterocanonical book of Tobit, the angel Raphael lied to Tobias, saying “I am Azarias.” (Tobit 5:16-18)
    6. Jesus lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but then went “in secret.” (John 7:8-10)
    7. Even God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets. (1 Kings 22:21-22)

    Especially given number 7, it is certainly possible an ancient Christian may have thought God permitted/wanted them to lie in certain important situations.

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