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Different Kinds of Literary Deceit

In my presentation to the seminar on forgery at Rice University a few days ago, I dealt with a problem facing scholars who study literary deceit in antiquity.   On the most basic level, no one – even experts – seems to agree even on which terms to use to describe this or that kind of ancient deceptive practice.   It would be worth devoting a couple of blog posts to the issue.  As it turns out, it was also subject of a lecture I gave at a conference at York University in Toronto a few years ago.   Here is how I began the lecture.




All of us who labor in the fields of early Christian apocrypha know they are white for harvest.  But even as significant advances are made in producing critical editions, new translations, and significant studies, there are still some preliminaries that require our attention.  One of them involves devising and agreeing upon a sensible taxonomy of literary deceit, a set of discrete terms to refer to the wide range of literary phenomena confronting us when we deal with deceitful or potentially deceitful literary practices.[1]

The problems of recognition, definition, description, and delineation should be clear to all of us here today, and if not, I’d at least like to explain why they are clear to me.  For openers, many scholars simply don’t recognize the various ancient phenomena for what they are, and others don’t agree on what to call the phenomena once they identify them.

As an example of the former, I cite a popular publication of the Jesus Seminar, which ….

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The Different Terms for Literary Deception
A Forger Fooled By Forgery



  1. Avatar
    fishician  April 23, 2018

    This has given me a hankering to go back and re-read Forged. I would think one of the challenges would be defining when something crosses the line of being innocently passed along, or deliberately modified or invented. For example, when the author of Matthew takes the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem and tweaks it so that he rides two animal instead of one, is that a deceit? Or just an embellishment or amplification? But if he’s deliberately modifying the story to fit a prophecy, even that little detail seems like a deceit.

  2. Avatar
    postxian  April 27, 2018

    More of this article here:


    I just read Crossan’s Power of Parable. He analyzes each of the gospels as parables about Jesus as opposed to parables of Jesus. He gives an example of Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon as a story that gets increasingly parabolized by later re-tellers in order to establish literary precedent in antiquity for the practice. These parabolizations involved a lot of re-arranging, merging, editing, omitting, and embellishing of the sources they were derived from.

    These literary deceits were not restricted only to Christian writers of antiquity, as Crossan demonstrates and Bart mentions here. And though the practice may have been common, it was not necessarily condoned even then. But were the modern standards of journalistic objectivity and source attribution fully elaborated yet at that time?

    I too am thinking of reading Forged now.

  3. Avatar
    crt112@gmail.com  December 3, 2019

    Have you read the Jesus Seminar book – The Five Gospels ?
    If so , what did you think of it ?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2019

      Oh yes, I use it in one of my classes. I have my students read what the introduction says about how the editors think they know what Jesus really said. When my students pay close attention to what the editors actually say, they realize how problematic it is.

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