8 votes, average: 5.00 out of 58 votes, average: 5.00 out of 58 votes, average: 5.00 out of 58 votes, average: 5.00 out of 58 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5 (8 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

Is It Ever Right to Lie? Or Was It? Even in Early Christianity? The Relevance for Forgery.

Is it ever morally acceptable – even desirable – to tell a bald-faced lie?  That was probably a topic covered in your Philosophy 101 course.  At a historian, I’m interested in the question from an ancient perspective.  What did people in antiquity think about it?  In particular Christians.  Did they think – based on the Ten Commandments, say, or the teachings of Jesus, that a person should never lie?  Or were they quite lax on the matter?  Or something in between?

I was actually a bit surprised to learn the answer to the question.  And as you might expect, the answer is complicated.  My original interest in the issue had to do with forgery.  A forger claims to be someone famous, knowing full well he is someone else.  That’s a lie, that is, it is a falsehood told intentionally.   How did forgers justify that?  It turns out, there appear to be answers.

This is how I dealt with the matter in my lecture on forgery given at the conference in Quebec a couple of weeks ago.  (I deal with the issue also in my books on forgery.)  This will be my last post on forgery for the foreseeable future.  And I don’t *think* I’m lying about that.




Let me conclude by reflecting briefly on the ethics of literary deceit, in an ancient context.  It is worth noting at the outset that in many ways ancient views were similar to our own.  There are a few people in the world today, though not many, who think that a person should never lie no matter what, under any condition whatsoever.  Others – the vast majority – think otherwise, that if, for example, a lie will prevent personal harm let alone death to another, or even to oneself, then of course it is justified.

Ancients usually thought so as well.  Casual observers of the Christian tradition have often not realized this, but have simply assumed that early Christian moral discourse objected to lying in every way and every context.  But that’s simply not true.

You’ve gotta be a member of the blog to read the rest of this post.  Not a member?  Join up!  The fee is reasonable and the benefits are substantial — five posts a week, over a thousand words each, on topics of important to anyone interested in the New Testament and the history of earliest Christianity.  And every penny of your fee goes to charity.  

You need to be logged in to see this part of the content. Please Login to access.

How Can You Still Believe? Guest Post by Judy Siker
Why It Is Hard To Publish a Translation of an Ancient Text



  1. Avatar
    fishician  September 29, 2019

    God told Moses to lie to Pharaoh. 1 Kings 22 has God putting a deceiving spirit in the mouths of the prophets. In John 7 Jesus lies to his brothers about going to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths. So, I can see why early, and modern, Christians sometimes think lying can serve a good purpose. It’s in the Bible!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2019

      Yup, then there Abraham about Sarah; and Rahab and the spies; and Jeremiah: “O Lord, you deceived me and I was deceived….”

      • Avatar
        jdmartin21  September 30, 2019

        And, of course, God lied to Adam in the garden: “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'”

        • Bart
          Bart  October 1, 2019

          Well, he did die. But I think God said it would happen on the *day* they ate of it. And what you’re quoting is actually the serpent’s twisting of what God said in 3:3; God’s own words are in 2:16-17 — and he doesn’t say anything about not touching it.

      • Avatar
        ShonaG  November 2, 2019

        Also lies depend not on whether they are true but whether you believe them to be true. Truth is the sense its used every day isn’t dependent on being true but the person believing it is true. That gets muddles up because there may be spiritual truths – something people may believe are true but are true whether or not we believe them. I don’t believe you can reach truths through facts even subjective facts.

  2. Avatar
    jwesenbe  September 29, 2019

    Although I believe telling a lie can be okay, better to tell a helpful lie that a harmful truth, the problem becomes where to draw the line. I think most falsehoods, as in the Bible, both New and Old (as well as other religious works) are there to persuade and pressure people to conform to a rule of law that benefits someone else, usually a ruler or religious leader. In those instances its intended for manipulation and is wrong.

  3. Avatar
    Todd  September 29, 2019

    I have a related question to that of forgery and lying that I have asked many times to those who might have an answer but I have never received an answer or even a guess. I am not sure if there even is an answer ! I may have asked you but I don’t remember. So here it is:

    This relates to oral tradition, but is a bit more specific.

    There are many instances in the New Testament where it is said that Jesus said this or that but no one was around to hear what he said ( or say what he did) to pass along his words or actions.

    An example could be where Jeses was speaking to Pilate personally at his trial, or when he was telling Peter that he was the Rock and would create his church or when Mary Magadelne found Jesus at the tomb whom she mistook for a gardener, and so on.

    In instances such as these, I ask myself, who was there to pass along the story or the words Jesus said? It would see very unlikely that Jesus had a stenographer to write down ever word or describe each event? However, in some way or another these events came into being and were passed along, as well as the words Jesus and others used when the event happened. Who was there to witness these private conversations or see the events…or, is everything just invented and is nothing more than a lie?

    I’m not sure there is any real answer to this question about how a saying of Jesus began or the first time an event in his live was retold, but I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

    (I do not always receive your daily message here on Facebook, but I will look here and also check your blog for a response. I do hope you have some helpful thoughts on this.)

    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2019

      I think the answer is that someone made the conversation up. There’s no way around it. They came up with what they thought was probably said, based on no hard evidence….

      • Avatar
        Todd  September 30, 2019

        Thank you for your direct honest comment. I fully agree.

  4. epicurus
    epicurus  September 29, 2019

    As someone who has been on this earth a fair while and observed human behaviour, this idea that people would and do forge things to get what they want or to get their views heard seems to me quite obvious. I can’t help but think scholars who dispute that are doing it for some kind of religious reason.

  5. Avatar
    Phillipos98  September 29, 2019

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,
    are there any books in the Old Testament that you think are forgeries?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2019

      The only one is Ecclesiastes; it’s the only book that claims to be written by a particular person who didn’t write it. The others are all either anonymous and/or falsely ascribed or authentic….

      • Avatar
        godspell  September 30, 2019

        But isn’t that your favorite book in the OT? (If not the entire bible)? 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  October 1, 2019

          Yes indeed. It nails it! We’re here for a very short time, like the mist in the morning. Then we dissipate. Better enjoy it while we can….

          • Avatar
            godspell  October 1, 2019

            So forgers, it seems, can be good writers in their own right. But is it really forgery? I think a charge of forgery must rest on someone gaining in some way, financially, or in terms of influence, by using a recognizible name that carries weight with the intended readership. Like if I wrote an epic fantasy under the name Tyrion Lannister, nobody would believe I was Tyrion Lannister (maybe they’d think I was Peter Dinklage).

            Why is Ecclesiastes a forgery, instead of a pseudonomyous work? Whose authority is the author claiming, for a piece of writing that speaks eloquently in its own right, and would do so if no author’s name was included? I know there was a school of thought that said Solomon wrote it, but that isn’t claimed anywhere in the book itself.

            Some of my favorite writers have used pseudonyms, often not widely known as such for some time afterwards, and for the record, I don’t think that is a dishonest act–because very often, writers can be more truthful, not less, when writing under an assumed name.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 2, 2019

            It is a pseudonymous work — that just means it goes under a “false name.” But wrongly ascribed works, originally written anonymously, are also pseudonymous (e.g., the Gospel of Mark). Ecclesiastes is written by someone claiming to be David’s son and the current king of Israel who is the wealthiest to have lived, etc… I.e. Solomon. But he knew he wasn’t (he was writing many centuries after Solomon was dead). So it’s *that* kind of pseudonmyous writing, a forgery, a book written by someone intentionally claiming to be someone other than who he was. And yes, whoever does that *always* is doing it for some reason.

          • Robert
            Robert  October 1, 2019

            Qohelet used to be my favorite book in the Bible and I still love it, but once I read the book of Jonah in Hebrew, I realized the author had a great sense of humor. It is easily the funniest book in the Bible. The genre of the book of Jonah is practically that of a Saturday morning cartoon, but with a profound wisdom message. Some very talented writers working on the Bible.

          • Avatar
            godspell  October 2, 2019

            First of all, the author of Ecclesiastes isn’t claiming to be Solomon, or any other Son of David (a term that might be applied to many, as you have made clear). He’s claiming to be quoting whoever this person is. (Paraphrasing, perhaps?) A distancing device. If forgery was the intent, why not just claim to be Solomon, or some later offshoot of David’s line?

            Secondly, my limited knowledge of how the OT texts came into being tells me many were composed for a small audience of literate people in the Jerusalem court, were forgotten for a time, and then taken as holy writ by later generations who rediscovered them. The author had to have an audience to write for, and can you really believe someone wrote such a majestic work and then didn’t let anyone know he’d written it? Just somehow disseminated it anonymously, and let people draw the conclusion it was Solomon or some other king, writing anonymously? Who would believe that? It was hardly a popular work. It isn’t advocating for any political agenda. It isn’t taking any conventional religious stance–to this day, some argue about whether it should be in the bible at all.

            Robert Graves published I, Claudius with a short introduction about the difficulties in writing it, thus claiming authorship for himself–later, however, he wrote another accompanying piece, saying that Claudius had appeared to him in a dream, and demanded he write it (and that he would have gold aplenty if he did). Whimsical, to be sure. And nobody believed him. But how much editing would it take to turn that admittedly fictional (and in many respects a-historical) recreation of the genuine Claudian autobiography that has sadly been lost to time into a forgery? It begins with the title character telling us he’s going to seal his book in a tube, after treating it with special preservative substances, and that it will be found again in 1900 years or so–just the time of the book’s publication.

            I think we don’t know enough about the context of how Ecclesiastes came to be written to call it a forgery, and I also think that it fails to identify the source of the material its anonymous author is purportedly quoting from.


  6. Avatar
    mwbaugh  September 29, 2019

    This is interesting territory. True and false are not as neatly defined as we often think. It sounds as if the biblical forgers were focussed on truth as meaning rather than truth as factuality. In a very broad way, that’s roughly similar to telling a fictional story or parable to convey a truth. John Dominic Crossan says that the Gospels should be thought of as parables about Jesus, often non-factual but meant to convey the truth of who he was.

    It makes the process of canon a lot more complicated than just applying the question of historicity.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  September 29, 2019

    I don’t agree with Augustine, but even less with Plato–there are no noble lies told by those in power. Necessary, perhaps, sometimes. But once leaders believe it’s noble to lie–how could Plato think any good would come of that? Of course, he didn’t believe rulers should ever be controlled in any way by the ruled. Many rulers and would-be rulers today would agree.

    Kant said, of course, that you shouldn’t do anything unless you’d make it a universal law that everyone should do it in all circumstances. Equally impractical.

    Paul said something along the lines that Christians shouldn’t lie to each other–but in Acts, he’s depicted as engaging in what could fairly be called dishonesty, turning the Pharisees and Sadducees against each other by saying he was on trial for being a Pharisee and believing in the resurrection of the dead.

    I’m struggling to remember anything Jesus said on this subject, though in John’s gospel he accuses his own people of being children of the devil who is the father of lies. Pretty sure that quote is itself a lie.

    Jesus’ guideline was to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. If I were being hunted by a mob, pretty sure I’d be grateful if somebody told them I’d gone the other way.

  8. fefferdan
    fefferdan  September 29, 2019

    I think it is morally acceptable to lie in certain cases. An obvious example is that in times of war, lives can be saved by espionage, in which a spy may lie about her identity, nationality, affiliation etc. In religion the issue is more difficult because it is harder to discern the lesser of two evils. In the New Testament, Jesus commanded his disciples to “tell know one he was the Christ” even though they had just recognized that he IS the Christ. He told them, in other words, to lie. I justify this on the grounds that I think Jesus did not want to be killed and needed to build up his movement before “coming out.” Traditional Christians can justify it on the grounds that “his time had not yet come” so the Messianic Secret [in other words, a lie] was still necessary. In the Old Testament, Tamar disguised herself as a temple prostitute in order to perpetuate Judah’s lineage. Jacob deceived Isaac in order to obtain the blessing meant for Esau. Rahab lied to the King of Jericho and saved the lives of the Israelite spies. There are many such examples, and I think most of them they are providentially justified either as an interim ethic or the lesser of two evils. I realize this leaves us with no True North, but I’m prepared to live with that ethical ambiguity.

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 30, 2019

      First of all, I question whether the story of Jesus instructing his disciples to tell no one he was the Christ happened, at least as related.

      But more importantly, if that did happen, keeping a secret told to you in confidence isn’t lying. If you promised to keep the secret and blabbed it, then you’d be a liar. I suppose if people asked them if Jesus was Messiah, and they said no, that would be a lie, but they could just refuse to answer, which come to think of it, would have probably been more effective PR. 😉

      There are always going to be moral conflicts, where it’s impossible to do the right thing in all respects, precisely because the world is immoral. Jesus would probably say in the Kingdom, everyone could tell the truth, because there would be no evil people you had to lie to sometimes in order to protect yourself or others.

      The guideline is to do good to others–if telling the truth is harmful to someone who has done no wrong, that’s arguably doing evil.

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  October 1, 2019

        “if Jesus was Messiah, and they said no, that would be a lie, but they could just refuse to answer, which come to think of it, would have probably been more effective PR.”

        37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one

        if they said “i can’t say,” they would be doing “more than this”

        if they were asked to take oath, they would have to say “i can’t swear, but neither can i say” they would be doing “more than this”

        • Avatar
          godspell  October 6, 2019

          He’s talking about whether people should swear oaths. Not whether they have to honestly and directly respond to every question asked of them by people they meet. You can respond or not respond to a question without taking an oath. So the quote isn’t directly relevant.

          But a later quote is. Remind me–in the same gospel you quote from, when Pilate asks Jesus if he’s King of the Jews–does he say “Yes yes” or “No no”?

          I am curious to see your answer. Yes yes, I am.


          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  October 7, 2019

            11 Jesus was brought before Pilate the governor, who asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

            “Those are your words!” Jesus answered. 12 And when the chief priests and leaders brought their charges against him, he did not say a thing.

          • Avatar
            godspell  October 8, 2019

            Interesting that you chose a translation which has Jesus refusing to answer either way (basically accusing Pilate of putting words in his mouth)–others have him agreeing that yes, he’s the King of the Jews, others more or less denying it, at least in the sense of being an earthly monarch. In reality, scholars have never been sure what Jesus would have meant by the words in Greek (a language he would not have responded in), if he said any version of those words, or if he and Pilate even briefly conversed, when in point of fact, the Sanhedrin had already convicted him, and it was only up to Pilate to pass the death sentence, which other sources say he was never reluctant to do.

            We are sure that Matthew and Luke both use this response, instead of Mark’s Jesus, who responds clearly in the affirmative. But Mark doesn’t have that earlier passage in Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples to always say yes or no. Mark was probably writing in less dangerous times than Matthew and Luke, and given that his Jesus never reveals himself as Messiah to any of his followers, it’s dramatically important that he do so to his accusers, when none of his followers are present.

            In point of fact, Jesus often answers a question with a question in the gospels (proving beyond a doubt that he was really Irish!). He responds with a parable, or an epigram (‘Render unto Caesar….”). Jesus understands very well that truly interesting questions can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. It’s dishonest to pretend that they can be. People either understand or they don’t. If they don’t, no simple answer you provide will be sufficient to create understanding where none exists. “If you have ears, hear!”

            Assuming he said the words about truthfulness in Matthew (which we shouldn’t), they were not intended to be applicable to all situations where you were asked a question, or Matthew wouldn’t have had Jesus respond this way. Not when he had the much clearer response in Mark (which may have been problematic for him, in that he wants to say that Jesus was Messiah (which refers to an earthly king in the Jewish tradition), but at the same time falsely accused of wanting power. Matthew has him take the Fifth. 😉

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  October 2, 2019

      You say “I think it is morally acceptable to lie in certain cases. An obvious example is that in times of war, lives can be saved by espionage, in which a spy may lie about her identity, nationality, affiliation etc. In religion the issue is more difficult because it is harder to discern the lesser of two evils.”
      “Obvious example” ?? – I’d say it’s only easier in war if you assume that one side is right – and usually you’d be assuming that’s “your side” and that’s not always true. There’s war where you are attacked, and there’s war where you attack and invade someone else’s home ground. So IMO lying remains harmful in most cases, cos once you start justifying, everyone can start justifying. The only solid ground is ‘no-one lies’ – all the rest leads to: Anyone Can Lie Any Time. They just need to justify by whatever suits them at the time. And if they’re talking to ‘their side’ they’ll get nodding heads. BTW: I’m very aware that WE ALL LIE – it’s human nature, but I don’t think that justifies it.

    • Avatar
      dannawid  October 5, 2019

      To lie to save lives in wars is one thing, but to lie about GOd is another thing. To add verses to scipture that is supposedly divinely inspired, is another thing, to fabricate lies about other religions is onther thing. Men of the cloth have been lying for ages. Portraying Jesus as blue eyed blond is an intentional lie. Sadly in the end the mighty and powerful make lies to be divine truth.

    • Avatar
      tefairfax15  October 12, 2019

      Since all wars are immoral anyway, any lie a spy would put forth in support of war is immoral as well. In regards to your statement that “Jesus commanded his disciples to ‘tell know one he was the Christ’ even though they had just recognized that he IS the Christ.” as being a lie, I don’t agree. It is not a lie, it is an omission. Had he said, “Tell everyone that I am not the Christ,” that would have been a lie. Telling someone to keep their mouth shut is different from telling them to lie.

  9. Avatar
    ddorner  September 29, 2019

    I’ve read Jesus Interrupted probably 2 dozen times, and every time i glean something new. And it occurred to me that if Luke doesn’t include the doctrine of atonement, wouldn’t that mean that salvation was achievable without the death of Christ? i’m sure you’ve answered this before elsewhere, but i was curious how he understood salvation. Did Christ HAVE to die for people to be saved, according to Luke?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2019

      Wow. That’s more than I”ve read it I think! 🙂 It’s a great questoin. Parts of Acts says the answer is absolutely yes (e.g., 4:12). So I’m not sure it’s a completely coherent view (Luke-Acts is like that: it is based on so many earlier sources that sometimes those sources do not completely cohere). It seems to think that one has to accept that Jesus is the messiah / prophet who came from God and was killed, but also that it is ultimately repentance in the face of one’s sins that brings salvation (rather than an atoning sacrifice)

  10. Robert
    Robert  September 30, 2019

    Wow, you guys almost tied Clemson! And yet they are now ranked 2nd and UNC is still unranked. This proves the apocalyptic worldview. OK, you also have two other losses, both to unranked teams, OK, but still. There is no justice in the world.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2019

      Yeah, I was at the game. Amazing. But right, if your record is 2-3, you ain’t gonna be ranked…

  11. Avatar
    CFSmith  September 30, 2019

    Couldn’t forgery be a bit like doping in sports? If X co-ops the name of Peter to lend authority to his views, then Y might feel that he has no choice but to promulgate his views under the name of, say, Paul in order to get a fair hearing.

  12. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  October 1, 2019

    is john contradicting mark?

    mark says that jesus said that he used to speak his important religious message in parables so that the public did not get it and then later explained it in private when he was alone with the 12.

    He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables

    so the important religious message is kept secret from outsiders.

    john says that jesus always explained the religious message in the public.

    “I said nothing in secret. 21Why are you asking me? Ask those who heard my message. Surely they know what I said.”

    but jesus clearly had IMPORTANT religious message which he kept secret.

    the emphasis is on the word “important”

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2019

      Yes, in Mark Jesus teaches *only* in parables (at least Mark 4 claims so) and in John he never tells a parable. Just as in mark he keeps many of his miracles secret but in John he intentinoally does them for all to see…

  13. Avatar
    kiloberg  October 1, 2019

    Hello Professor Ehrman,
    New member. I am actually finishing Forged and quite enjoying it. I like the part about early Christians shifting blame of Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jew as a way to ease their treatment by the the state. It reminded me of a question I always had reading the gospels. Why are the gospels defensive or ashamed that Jesus reportedly predicted the destruction of the temple? Mark 14:50-60. It seems to me like they would have a motive to embrace this prophecy like the tradition of the flight to Pella.

    Kyle Mills
    Florida Accountant

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2019

      I’ve never noted any defensiveness in these predictions. What do you have in mind?

      • Avatar
        kiloberg  October 2, 2019

        The idea that Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction is put into the mouth of a false accuser at the trial in Mark and Matthew and also in John 2:19-21 the idea that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple has to be “mythicized” into him talking about his death and resurrection. I think only Luke 21(not a stone will be left..) accepts Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple. It seems people were accusing the Christians that Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple and were holding it against them. This does not make sense to me. I thought that would be a feather in the cap of a prophet. Would it be a Zealot prophecy that they are distancing themselves from?
        I just thought it was interesting idea to explain without Robert Eisenman leaps of fancy.

        Mark 14
        Some stood up and began to give false testimony against Him, saying,
        58 “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands.’ ”
        59 Not even in this respect was their testimony consistent.

        Matt 26:61
        61and declared, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’”
        62So the high priest stood up and asked Him, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?”
        63But Jesus remained silent.
        Then the high priest said to Him, “I charge You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God.”

        • Bart
          Bart  October 4, 2019

          Ah, right. Jesus himself predicts it in Matt 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6 without any embarassment at all. It’s a straight prediction. The “false witness” in Mark 21:58 is false because they claim that Jesus said that he himself would destroy the temple and rebuild it, which is not what he said. So I don’t think the Gospels themselves have any embarassment about it. John is a special case, because John wants to show that Jesus replaces everything in Judaism — e.g., the Temple, the Passover lamb, the sacred feasts, etc. So he’s not denying a literal interpretation so much as giving a spiritual reading of it.

          • Avatar
            sjhicks21  October 4, 2019

            What I think is interesting about this discussion is the issue about what might constitute a legitimate reason for creating a forgery. It seems to me that the only possible “good” reason is to put out a text that one thinks will benefit the rest of humanity or at least a significant number of others, but given an authors lack of notoriety, there is no other chance his ideas will be heard. This had both the advantage of being humble, not taking credit for one’s own work and then also being of some service. Of course in this instance, the benefit to others is initially in the eye of the beholder and only time will actually tell whether or not the initial deception was justified. Thus while I think it is wrong under most circumstances, it definitely could be right if the result is a good one for the rest of us. I know that doesn’t sit well with those who believe in the slippery slope concept, but certainly the riskiness of the undertaking and the amount of work needed to make the deception work, not to speak of coming up with the text itself warrants some mitigating judgement especially if the result is a set of ideas that has a lasting impact. Think if Einstein had decided to publish his theory of relativity under the name of Sir Isaac Newton.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 6, 2019

            AS it turns out there were lots of reasons for writing forgeries — but yes, this is the main one among Christian authors in the early church.

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 4, 2019

    This Fraud series has been excellent. For those new to the blog, I highly recommend Dr. Ehrman’s book entitled “Fraud.”

  15. Avatar
    JDM  October 6, 2019

    Professor Ehrman, do other Christian writings from the first five centuries or so address lying? I’d be interested in the references.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 7, 2019

      Yes indeed. I have a discussion of some of the materials in my book Forgery and Counterforgery, with bibliography of scholarship on lying in antiquity there.

You must be logged in to post a comment.