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My Book on Literary Forgery

I am in Houston for a few days, giving talks at Rice University on the use of literary forgery in early Christianity.  To prepare for the talks I decided to read through my 2013 book Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics.  Of all the books I’ve written, I am proudest of this one.  It is the very best I can do in terms of real scholarship.   I don’t believe I’ve talked about it much on the blog, since it’s not a book for general audiences.  But I thought it might be worthwhile to say something about it in a post or two, and there’s no better way to do that than to give the opening few paragraphs.

As will be obvious, the study was written for scholars, but there’s nothing too difficult about it, except a couple of unusual words.  “Orthonymous” means “written under a correct name” so that an orthonymous writing is one that bears the name of the actual author – as opposed to a “pseudonymous” writing that is written in the name of someone other than the author; the term “homonymous” means “having the same name” and it refers to a writing written by someone who has the same name as another person who is more famous and is thus mistaken as coming from the other person (like if someone whose name really was Stephen King – but who was not THAT Stephen King – published a novel in his own name).

Anyway, here is how I start the book.

 

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Arguably the most distinctive feature of the early Christian literature is the degree to which it was forged.   Even though the early Christians were devoted to the truth– or so their writings consistently claimed – and even though “authoritative” literature played a virtually unparalleled role in their individual and communal lives, the orthonymous output of the early Christians was remarkably, even astonishingly, meager.  From the period of the New Testament, from which some thirty writings survive intact or in part, only eight go under the name of their actual author, and seven of these derive from the pen of one man.  To express the matter differently, only two authors named themselves correctly in the surviving literature of the first Christian century.  All other Christian writings are either anonymous, falsely ascribed (based on an original anonymity or homonymity), or forged.

Matters begin to change with …

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Comments

  1. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  April 20, 2018

    Orthonymous – sounds like the name of a dinosaur of the late Cretaceous Period! In your estimation is there any forgery that impacts, in any major way, any significant theological positions?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2018

      Sure. Big example: Paul’s views of women would be seen as very different if 1 Tim 2:11-15 were recognized as a forgery (which it is).

      • Avatar
        Ryan  April 22, 2018

        Hello. You seem so very sure 1 Tim is a forgery and I know that view (seems to be) a consensus. I found it interesting, then, that Luke Timothy Johnson (in his Great Course’s lectures on Paul) thinks otherwise, that essentially, we have to understand it as a letter to a very specific audience and so we should not expect it to conform to a overall philosophy of Paul’s. I know just enough about this to write about it on one-half of one side of an index card – so have no way of knowing what is true. But Johnson certainly seems to be in a minority.

        Peace

        • Bart
          Bart  April 23, 2018

          That’s right, he’s one of the few truly critical scholars who thinks Paul wrote the pastorals.

  2. Avatar
    James  April 20, 2018

    Your lecture last night was a lot of fun! Thanks for signing my books. So I take it the next lectures will be geared towards the scholars and students at Rice?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2018

      It was for a group of scholars who have spent the year discussing issues related to ancient forgery. Very stimulating!

  3. Avatar
    ddorner  April 20, 2018

    Just finished reading N. T. Wright’s book Paul: A Biography. I was surprised to hear that Wright accepts all the books attributed to Paul as legitimate. He says we don’t have enough surviving letters to do a critical textual analysis and that Paul could have changed his writing style based on the audience. But that raises the question, how many letters would we need?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2018

      Yes, that is surprising.

    • Avatar
      Ryan  April 22, 2018

      Hah! I read this post of yours just after I made a post above regarding L.T. Johnson’s (similar) view. So I guess that makes two scholars who do not dismiss 1 Tim out of hand. I have Wright’s book near the top of my ‘to read’ stack sitting next to me. I look forward to it.

      • Avatar
        stevenpounders  May 16, 2018

        Well, he didn’t just place Johnson among “scholars”, he placed him among “truly critical scholars”.

  4. Avatar
    Todd  April 20, 2018

    That is one of the books of yours I have not yet read…I must do that. If we want to take these writings seriously, it is then important to weed out the fake from the authentic.

    PS…I have not been receiving your posts on a daily basis…don’t know why. I need to go back and read what I’ve missed. I look forward to your posts.

  5. Avatar
    Radar  April 20, 2018

    I grew tired of my seminary simply brushing over and not discussing these matters, so I searched for a resource that would present the other side. Having found this book, I chose to read it rather than its smaller companion Forged, and I am happy with that decision. I’d rather have the evidence to weigh, rather than have the evidence suppressed. Thanks for providing it in one handy resource.

  6. Avatar
    Petter Häggholm  April 20, 2018

    I found that having already read Forged!, F&CF was not too difficult to follow. It might have been a challenge otherwise (obviously it’s hard to say since that was in fact the order I read them…), but with a lighter, lay-oriented introduction, the fuller work was accessible and fascinating.

  7. Avatar
    doug  April 20, 2018

    It always seems interesting to me that if there were a God, it lets so many people lie in its name, allowing so many people to be misled in its name, in sometimes harmful and deadly ways to the believers and to others.

    • Avatar
      Ryan  April 22, 2018

      Hello. That assumes a very specific type / nature of God. What about Free Will? If He does not eradicate childhood leukemia, why would He stop the hand of a forgerer?

  8. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  April 20, 2018

    Your talk for the public last evening on the Rice University campus was excellent.
    You had your “A” game going. Educational as well as entertaining.

  9. Avatar
    atherdm  April 20, 2018

    Who are the two authors that identified themselves correctly in the
    ‘surviving first century literature’? Paul, and..?

  10. Avatar
    Ryan  April 20, 2018

    Hello. I was not aware of this book of yours but I will definitely be getting it.

    By the way, there really is another ‘Seven King’ who writes horror books. Many an outraged customer commenting on Amazon.com, feeling ripped off (righfully so, as the books are clearly designed and promoted to look like they are from the ‘real King’).

  11. Avatar
    Charlesintexas  April 20, 2018

    Having viewed a couple of your Great Courses presentations, read a half dozen of your books (so far), and being a daily reader of your blog, it was a great pleasure to finally be able see you at your Thursday afternoon lecture at Rice university. We considered it well worth our 350 mile drive. Thanks for making New Testament scholarship available to the uneducated masses.

  12. Avatar
    HawksJ  April 21, 2018

    ‘“When we move deeper into the second century and on into the third and fourth, we see a heightened interest in the production of “apostolic” works — Gospels by Peter, Thomas, Philip, all forged; Paul’s letters to the Alexandrians and Laodiceans, forged; Jesus’ correspondence with Abgar, forged; Apocalypses of Peter and Paul, forged. “

    When somebody would forge a piece in the name of somebody long dead, how did they (usually) get it into circulation? Did they pretend to find it, saying something like, “hey, everybody look what I just found in Grandpa’s tunic drawer!”?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2018

      Yeah, something like that probably. We do have some “discovery narratives” attached to some of the forged apostolic works.

    • Avatar
      Kawfmin  April 23, 2018

      Something similar to that happens in the Old Testament (in Ezra?… can’t remember) where Deuteronomy is “discovered” by people who want some of the ideas in Deuteronomy to be circulated. At least that’s my sense of what happens

  13. Avatar
    Tobit  April 21, 2018

    Very interesting!

    I think what early Christians wrote about Papias is the perfect example of false attribution in action. It’s fascinating to see how Papias saying he met an elder named John evolved into the belief that Papias was John the Apostle’s disciple who wrote his gospel.

  14. Avatar
    godspell  April 21, 2018

    This all seems terribly modern to me.

    Without contesting that it’s important to understand this practice in the context of that time period, it’s quite easy to understand it in the context of our own time.

  15. Avatar
    forthfading  April 21, 2018

    Wow, I can tell right away this style of writing is different from the general audience books.

    Question, what are your thoughts about the possible forgery of Morton Smith’s Secret Gospel of Mark? Do you think the evidence is in favor of a forgery or hoax?

    Best

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2018

      Ah, I don’t think I’ve ever posted on that. Maybe I’ll do so — but it would have to be a kind of thread. I personally suspect that Smith forged it.

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 21, 2018

    1. I was wondering which book you considered to be your best one?

    2. I think the chairwoman of the Rice religion department has written on the Gospel of Mary.

    3. It is disillusioning that a tradition based on “truth” is filled with forgeries.

    4. If I remember your past writing in “Forged” correctly, your contention is that this Christian forgery was not considered to be par for the course for writing in ancient times, but was thought to be a “bad” thing.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2018

      1. Forgery and Counterforgery. 2. April Deconnick; she’s an expert on ancient Gnosticism and has started working/writing on how Gnosticism is influencing modern American religion. 3. Yup, know what you mean. 4. Yup, it was widely condemned.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 21, 2018

    I have started Joseph Priestley’s “A History of the Corruptions of Scripture,” but it has been heavy reading. Do today’s scholars think much of this book?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2018

      My sense is that almost no one even knows about it.

      • Avatar
        pagear  August 19, 2018

        I am new to this blog, and was going to ask this question! So good to see you have already answered it. I publish on Priestley and other 18th century ‘Rational Dissenters’. His ‘Corruptions’ book was very controversial. I might have a go at comparing it to modern scholarship. cheers, Anthony Page (senior lecturer in History, University of Tasmania, Australia).

  18. Avatar
    Pattylt  April 21, 2018

    Of all my issues with religion in general, lying for God is the top of my list. I realize all faiths do it and yet all faiths declare honesty as one of its greatest virtues. For some reason I find it so appalling that an author would try to to trick his readers by using the the authority of another… over and over again… we’ll, it just turns me away from any faith in the truth of that religion. While not all believers lie, the ones that gained authority via another’s name DID. So much for Gods guiding hand.
    And then to declare that it was common and acceptable! I agree that this is one of your finest books. It isn’t easy for a laywoman to read but do-able and so informative. It was worth the time and effort to read and understand. Thank you for this outstanding scholarship.

  19. Avatar
    RRomanchek  April 22, 2018

    “…only eight go under the name of their actual author….” Paul and …?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2018

      The book of Revelation was almost certainly written by someone actually named John.

  20. Avatar
    mannix  April 25, 2018

    I guessed what “orthonymous” meant, although it’s not in Webster’s 11th Collegiate. There are other words in “F&CF” Webster has missed also: “encratic” (p.233) and “Haustafel”. I’m almost 1/2 way through and usually have Webster by my side (as well as the Bible, of course) when reading it.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2018

      Yes, Haustafel is German and encratic is a technical term in early Christian studies!

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