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Early Christian Liars

Yesterday I started explaining in some depth how forgers in early Christianity – that is, authors who falsely claimed to be, say, Peter or Paul or James (as in the case of the authors of 2 Peter, 1 Timothy, the Proto-Gospel of James, etc.) – could justify their lies.  I need to stress, the idea that they were lying is not just a modern one.  The ancients talk about forgery a good deal; they never approve of it and they explicitly called it lying.  Yet people did it, producing forgeries far more often than happens today.   How did they live with themselves – especially those Christians who insisted that nothing was more important than “truth”?

I pointed out yesterday that there were very broadly speaking two views of lying in early Christainity: 1) that it was sometimes acceptable; 2) it was never acceptable in any circumstance whatsoever.   It’s not hard to see where forgers lined up on the spectrum.

Here I continue the discussion, repeating the final paragraph of yesterday’s post for context.  This is taken from the end of my book Forged.



Other Christian authors, most notably Augustine, took precisely the opposite line, arguing that lying in all its forms was bad.  Very bad.  Very very bad.  It was not to be engaged in, no matter what.  For Augustine, even if a lie could guarantee that your young daughter would not spend eternity in the fires of hell, but would enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven, that was not enough to justify telling the lie.  You should never lie, period.

Most ancient Christians probably disagreed with Augustine, which is why he had to argue his point so strenuously.  And most people today probably disagree as well.  Most of us see lying as a complicated matter.   Ethicists, philosophers, religious scholars all disagree, even today, on when lying is appropriate and when it is not.[1]  At the end of the day, this is a question that each and every one of us needs to decide for ourselves, based on our own circumstances, and the specific situations that we find ourselves in.  Maybe sometimes it is okay to lie.

Maybe it is okay for parents to lie …

To delve deeper into this ethical quagmire, you will need to belong to the post.  Don’t lie — don’t you want to join?  It won’t cost much and all the funds go to terrifically good causes.  So why not?

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When Did Jesus Become Sinless?
Could Christian Forgers Justifying Lying?



  1. Avatar
    roger  May 7, 2019

    You may get a lot of insight on how they thought in the first century and later by reading about the bicameral mind. My guess is that they believed much of their insights were God given revelations. Even much of what they write about the afterlife also may not sound like they think they are speculating.

    • Rick
      Rick  May 8, 2019

      I was just given a copy of Jaynes “The Origin of Consciousness etc.” so have not started it yet and beyond checking out Wikipedia’s “crib notes” am I’ll prepared to comment. Notwithstanding that, does it support the transition to consciousness extending to as late as the first century CE? I had wondered about it viz Paul’s and other apostles visions of Jesus but it seems it might fit with Paul’s “received” knowledge of correct theology and that of others as well?

  2. Avatar
    wostraub  May 7, 2019

    I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard that Mormons justify lying if it promotes the faith. Perhaps this was also the motivation behind ancient Christian forgeries.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2019

      I don’t know about Mormons, but I’ve certainly known evangelical Christians like that…

  3. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  May 7, 2019

    One of my granddaughters who is 13 has a deep faith and has been in awe of God beginning as a toddler walking with me to preschool and admiring the flowers in bloom and other works of nature. She is attending a Catholic school. Lately she shared that as she studies science, she sees that the teachings of the church dont match up. She is of strong faith but clearly questioning some biblical interpretations. I told her that it was good to be open minded and to question doctrines and to remember that the church can be wrong and has been wrong, i.e. Galileo. I did not go into the extent of my own doubts.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2019

      That’s a great approach with her! She sounds like an unusually thoughtful child.

  4. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  May 7, 2019

    I remember a quote from the memoir of a run-away slave who was a committed Christian and knew that it is wrong to lie. Yet when confronted with slave captors, he lied to save his life. He said later that they had no more right to his private truth than to his purse.

  5. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  May 7, 2019

    “Oh what a tangled web we weave,
    When first we practice to deceive . . ”
    Tickles me (in a snarling, ugh! way) that the World’s Biggest Liars proclaim “The Immutable Truth” (as amended two dozen times since 325CE).

  6. Avatar
    fishician  May 7, 2019

    One of the most common misconceptions is that the Ten Commandments forbid lying. No, only false witness against a neighbor, which a specific kind of harmful lie, is mentioned. There are a number of examples of God-endorsed lying in the Bible. I’ve heard it suggested that a lie should be defined as withholding truth from someone who has a right and need to know. So, lying to the Gestapo about the Jewish family in your attic is not a lie, because they have no right to know and they intend harm. But telling people that God said something or Paul, Peter or whoever wrote something, when in fact they did not, is clearly a lie, because it is intentional deception to people who have a right to the truth and need to know the truth.

  7. fefferdan
    fefferdan  May 7, 2019

    A problem that believers [including me] have to face is that lying isn’t just something that happens occasionally in the Bible. It happens a lot, and some of our most important scriptures are probably in fact forgeries. Perhaps the most important is Deuteronomy, which most critical scholars think was written during the reign of King Josiah but was presented as having been a lost book of the Law penned by Moses. [2 Kings 22.8] One could say something similar for the entire Pentateuch, which in turn affected the basic attitude of the Bible toward God, women, other religions, and other nations. I think it was Hans Kung who said that after accepting the fundamental approach of historical criticism, he was faced with an agonizing quest to re-examine every aspect of the Christian doctrine he had formerly espoused. For some of us this even leads to a re-evaluation of faith itself. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In fact, I think God enjoys a good wrestling match, even if the person doing the wrestling doesn’t believe in him [or her].

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 7, 2019

    Good and thought provoking series on ancient forgeries. Thanks

  9. Avatar
    doug  May 7, 2019

    If someone believed that non-believers would be tortured for all eternity, they might believe telling a lie to save them was justifiable. Or – doing *anything* to them to save them was justifiable. Tragically, people have been tortured for not holding the “right” religious beliefs.

    • Avatar
      fishician  May 8, 2019

      Isn’t that tragic, that torturing someone now in the short-term is justified by “saving” them in the long-term? Proof once again that to make good people do bad things requires religion.

  10. Avatar
    Jayredinger  May 7, 2019

    Off topic, but I read this, do you know if this is true?

    “The story of Noah’s ark was copied almost word-for-word from the much older Sumerian Epic of Atrahasis.”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2019

      Nope, not word-for-word at all. But it is a flood story that is similar. Far more similar is the one found in the Sumerian (and then Akkadian) Epic of Gilgamesh (who has a Noah figure who builds a large boat to save the animals and his family when the gods send a world-wide flood). Its discovery in the 19th century, as you might imagine, made a *huge* stir….

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  May 8, 2019

    Albert Schweitzer:
    There has been a downfall of the Gospel of Mark as an historical source. It is evident that “the historical Jesus” is not a purely historical figure, but one which has been artificially transplanted into history.”

    Steefen to Prof. Ehrman:
    How do you explain overcoming the downfall of Mark as an historical source and use that gospel as grounds for an historical argument for Jesus of Nazareth in your book Did Jesus Exist?

    Schweitzer discussed the difficulty in forming a Life of Jesus, a biography of Jesus (a life of Christ is foredoomed to failure). With an impossible biography, a critic of the New Testament must admit fully establishing Jesus in history cannot be fully done if his biography cannot be formulated.

    Has it been the Dead Sea Scrolls published after Schweitzer’s survey and conclusion that for you has overturned Schweitzer’s assessment? If not that, what has overturned conclusion that a biography of Jesus cannot be fully formulated?

    In addition to Jesus’ foretelling of the destruction of Jerusalem being not original to Jesus but a later addition,

    “As early as the Sermon on the Mount, we find references to persecutions [that came later]. In the charge to the Twelve, there are warnings which undoubtedly belong to a later time.”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2019

      Schweitzer is referring to Wrede’s book on the Messianic Secret (which I posted on a number of times: just search for it), which showed that Mark is not simply a reliable account of what actually happened in the life of Jesus. And no, I’d say the Dead Sea Scrolls actually confirmed major parts of Schweitzer’s views about Jesus. Where he got it wrong was in the details of the reconstruction, based on the understanding of the Gospel sources at the time. A lot has happened since then!

  12. Avatar
    godspell  May 8, 2019

    Hmm. I think the most significant lies are the ones people tell themselves.

    And that applies to everybody. (Yes, even Marcus Aurelius.)


  13. Avatar
    Steefen  May 8, 2019

    Schweitzer is referring to Wrede’s book on the Messianic Secret (which I posted on a number of times: just search for it), which showed that Mark is not simply a reliable account of what actually happened in the life of Jesus.

    There is no mention of Wrede up to this point in chapter 18. Schweitzer does not even list him at the beginning of the chapter. He lists Oskar Holtzmann, Paul Schmidt, Otto Schmiedel, Hermann Freiherr von Soden, Gustav Frenssen, Otto Pfleiderer, Albert Kalthoff, Eduard von Hartmann, De Jonge, Wolfgang Kirchbach, Albert Dulk, Paul de Regla, Ernest Bosc.

    After the material from which I have drawn my question, the very next page, Wrede is only mentioned in a footnote. Here, Schweitzer argues that Frenssen professes to have covered a wide range of critical investigation but not to Schweitzer’s satisfaction. Frenssen virtually ignored Wrede.

    About 20 pages from this footnote, not in Chapter 18 but in Chapter 19, Wrede is discussed for approximately 20 pages.

    I look forward to applying your guidance at that point.

    The description of Wrede’s book: A ground-breaking academic study of whether or not Jesus actively identified himself as the Messiah, which when first published revolutionised attitudes to the New Testament.

    However, that is outside the topic of my question. There must be more to the downfall of Mark as an historical source other than “The Messianic Secret” by Wrede. True, whatever is the complete outline of “the downfall of Mark as an historical source” the result would be “thoroughgoing skepticism” which is part of the topic of Chapter 19 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

    You say a lot has happened since Schweitzer’s book. It will be interesting to see how/if the gospel of Mark and its failure to produce an acceptable “Life of Jesus” has been redeemed as an historical source.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2019

      As you probably know, Schweitzer’s book in German was not entitled “Quest of the Historical Jesus” but “Von Reimarus zu Wrede” — that is, “From Reimarus to Wrede.” That’s because the first figure he discusses is Hermann Samuel Reimarus and the final one is William Wrede. Reimarus started it all and Wrede showed why most of his 19th century predecessors had operated on a false understanding of the sources. Throughout the book Schweitzer critiques all the predecessors based on his own understanding of the situation, part of which was informed by Wrede several years earlier.

  14. Avatar
    fedcarroll77  May 9, 2019

    Interesting post and very compelling. We all use s compass inside ourselves to judge where and who to lie to to protect both ourselves and others around us. Question though concerning the idea of forged Christian documents.

    I watched a documentary which depicts the gospels being written by Josephus and sanctioned by the emperor Trajan I believe. I guess they try to demonstrate how they wrote them and why they did it. To me this seems a bunch of mythicists trying to find information to justify their stance concerning Jesus and the disciples. What are your thoughts on this notion? And is there any evidence to support/dismiss this hypothesis?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2019

      Amazing what they’ll do documentaries on. No, this is not a theory that any expert has — whether experts on the NT, Josephus, or Trajan. It’s a ludicrous idea, easily disproven.

  15. Avatar
    Matt2239  May 9, 2019

    Nowhere in the gospels does anyone claim authorship. They’re presented “according to” but not specifically authored by anyone. Is this an indicator that by the time the gospels appeared, those in leadership had determined that attributing authorship to works without absolute certainty of who wrote them was harmful to their religion? It seems obvious that something occurred between the letters which appeared in the decade after Jesus was crucified and the time when the gospels first appeared.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2019

      I don’t know what “certainty” would mean in this case. But yes, the books came to be attributed to certain writers much later, hence the “according to.” I would date our earliest letters (Paul’s) to, roughly, the 50s; Mark was probably 15-20 years after that.

  16. Avatar
    aar8818  May 10, 2019

    In this line of thinking (which I do not disagree with) most of the bible and the new testament is lies except for that which may represent the historical jesus. But the authors of gospels lied alot when they asserted their christological interpretations as absolute truth. Basically the whole upper room discourse in John (and most of the quotations of jesus) is falsely attributing words to Jesus that were not said when it comes to proclamations of divinity and that sort of thing. Am I correct in my assertions Dr. Ehrman?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2019

      I wouldn’t call all false statements lies. Lies are the kinds of false statements that a person makes knowing they are false. Most of the Gospels are filled with stories that their authors almost certainly thought were true. They may have been wrong about that but that doesn’t mean they were lying about it.

      • Avatar
        aar8818  May 13, 2019

        What literature would you recommend regarding the authorship of John?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 14, 2019

          A classic is the commentary by Raymond Brown in the ANchor Bible Commentary series.

        • Avatar
          aar8818  May 16, 2019

          It’s very good. Thank you.

  17. Avatar
    SScottb149  May 10, 2019

    Dr. Erhman,
    This topic may be somewhat off the subject, but I have been thinking a lot recently abt who might have been the actual author of Hebrews. I recalled a theory that one of my graduate school professors suggested, that later on in reflection, makes more sense to me. Later Christian “liars” believed that the unnamed author of the book was Paul… My professor thought (radically out of the box thankfully) that it may have been one of the rich, educated women that controlled the early house churches (say Priscilla for example). She would have had the money to purchase paper, the education to write in beautiful greek, would have been in the “Pauline School” of thought, yet did not attach her name to the book due to the growing prejudices against women in authority after Paul’s day. Do you think this is a plausible theory? I personally do, but I can not say for certain. I would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2019

      I don’t think people are lying when they claim that an author we know of wrote an anonymous book. Most of the time they are simply guessing or giving false information. Lying means claiming something to be true while knowing it to be false. I don’t think that would have been the case here. They were taking their best guess. But yes, Priscilla is sometimes mentoined as an option, but there is really nothing in the book to suggest it at all. (Or any other particular person)

  18. Avatar
    Brand3000  May 18, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You still hold that the 7 undisputed letters by Paul are legitimate, and that within them Paul tells the truth to the best of his knowledge, correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2019

      By “legitimate” do you mean “really written by Paul”? Yes, that’s why I group them with the “undisputed” letters. And are you asking if I think Paul was lying in them? No, not to my knowledge.

  19. Avatar
    Kakuzato  July 27, 2019

    “falsely claimed to be, say, Peter or Paul or James (as in the case of the authors of 2 Peter, 1 Timothy, the Proto-Gospel of James, etc.”

    Are Gospels any different then? They are not written by the people they are named after anyway.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      Yes, they are different because they authors do not *claim* to be Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (or anyone else). They are anonymous.

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