As I pointed out in my previous posts, taken from the Preface of my book Forged (HarperOne, 2011), we still have numerous forged documents that emanated from the early church, numerous Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses (these are the four literary genres of the New Testament) all of them claiming to be written by apostles.  Many of these non-canonical books are fascinating and still worth reading.[1]  I’ve talked about a number of them on the blog before, but here it may be worthwhile to give a quick summary of some of them.

Among the Gospels, for example, there is an account allegedly written by Peter, which gives a detailed narration of the resurrection.  This is striking because – most readers have never noticed this – the New Testament Gospels do not narrate the resurrection.  They do say that Jesus was buried, and they indicate that on the third day his tomb was empty; but they do not narrate the account of him actually emerging from the tomb.  There is such an account in the Gospel of Peter, however, where Jesus walks out of the tomb accompanied by two angels who are as tall as mountains, supporting Jesus who is taller still; and behind them, out of the tomb, emerges the cross, which speaks out to God in heaven.  Other “apostolic” Gospels tell yet other amazing stories about

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Jesus, or record bizarre teachings supposedly spoken by him, Gospels allegedly written by Jesus’ brother Thomas, his disciple Philip, or his female companion Mary Magdalene.  All of these books claimed to be authentic, but each of them was classified as a “forgery” by other early Christians who did not believe the apostles had actually written them.

There are also non-canonical Acts, books that narrate the adventures of Jesus’ apostles after his ascension, such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, in which Paul preaches that to have eternal life followers of Jesus must refrain from sex even if married, and avoid marriage altogether if single.  This was a book that was fabricated by a church leader in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the second century.  We know about it because a famous church father, Tertullian, indicates that the person was caught and put on trial in the church for producing the account, and then unceremoniously removed from his leadership position.[2]  Most church leaders did not appreciate fabricated documents.  But there were plenty to go around.  Today we still have extensive copies of Acts of John, Peter, Andrew, and Thomas, as well as fragments of earlier works that no longer survive intact.

There were also forged epistles, including a set of letters back and forth between Paul and the most famous philosopher of his day, Seneca, which showed not only that Paul was on intimate terms with the greatest minds of the Empire but that also he was respected and revered by them.  Some later church leaders maintained that these letters were authentic but others thought they had been forged for the purpose of making Paul look good.  There were also debates over the authenticity of other letters of Paul, and of Peter, and even of Jesus.  Some of these other writings still survive.

So too there were forged Apocalypses that dotted the Christian literary landscape, including a fascinating account that was discovered in 1886 in a tomb in Egypt, a first-hand account allegedly written by Peter in which he is given a personal guided tour, by Jesus himself, of heaven and hell and the respective blessings of the saved and the gruesome torments of the damned.  This is a book, as it turns out, that almost made it into the New Testament, as there were church leaders well into the fourth century who claimed that it was Scripture.  Others, though, claimed it was forged.

These are just a few of the documents that were disputed in the ancient world.  Some early Christians claimed they really were written by apostles and urged that they belonged in the New Testament.  Others insisted that they were not written by apostles but were forgeries.   How many other such documents were there?  We will never know.   At present we know of over a hundred writings from the first four centuries that were claimed by one Christian author or another to have been forged by fellow Christians.[3]

Most of the instances I have just mentioned are forgeries from after the days of the apostles themselves, from the second, third, and fourth Christian centuries.   Most of the books of the New Testament, on the other hand, were written during the first century.  Is there any evidence that forgery was happening in this earlier period?   In fact there is very good evidence indeed, and it comes to us from the pages of the New Testament itself.  I’ll talk about that in the next post.


[1] For a collection of some of the most interesting, see Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).  For a more comprehensive collection see J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993).

[2] Tertullian, On Baptism, 17.  See further pp. xxx.

[3] This is my own count.