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My Conference on Pseudepigraphy

I have just returned from four days in Quebec City, attending a conference called “Regards Croisés sur la Pseudépigraphie dans l’Antiquité” – “Perspectives on Pseudipigraphy in Antiquity.”    It was focused, obviously, on ancient practices of pseudepigraphy, the practice of writing a book in someone else’s name, claiming to be someone famous (while knowing full well you were not that person).  In the New Testament, for example, 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus all claim to be written by Paul, but they almost certainly were not.  They were written by other authors *claiming* to be Paul.  1 and 2 Peter were almost certainly not written by Peter, or James and Jude by their eponymous authors.  And so on.

It was a phenomenon widely spread in antiquity, among Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Christians.  The conference papers were all about particular instances, and were never really about whether the work in question really was authentic (i.e. written by the reputed author, or not); they were always about ancient books that have already been known for a long time to be inauthentic, or pseudepigraphic.   And the papers only rarely addressed the sticky question of whether the authors were actually lying or not (that is, whether ancient people – considered this kind of activity intentional deceit).  The papers were instead about how to interpret the works in question, and how to understand the function of the false authorial claims.   My final lecture was on broader issues, not on a particular pseudepigraphic text.

I only rarely go to small conferences – my normal conference is the Society of Biblical Literature meeting that occurs annually the weekend before Thanksgiving, always in the U.S., and with, I don’t know, 7000 or 8000 people attending, virtually all of them certified experts in biblical studies – that is professors, others with PhDs, and graduate students working on their PhDs.  I love that big conference – I’ve gone for 37 years in a row now, without missing a year, and I use it not only to hear academic papers on topics I’m interested in, but also to meet old friends and colleagues and former graduate students, most of whom all go.

But this conference was very different.  There were about 15 scholars giving papers, one after the other for two days, on one broad topic, with a handful of graduate students, mainly in classics, attending.  Just in a nice classroom.  Terrific.

I went because I had been asked to be the keynote speaker, to give the final address on the second day.   But going made me realize how much I just love the small conference.  You get to know everyone there, you have time to talk about academic topics you’re all really interested in, everyone there is a world-class scholar in their field, you have drinks and meals together, you learn tons about things you never knew about and acquire new ideas about things you do know about  – it’s an academic’s dream.

The majority of scholars there were from Quebec;  others were from France, Switzerland, and Italy, and one from Spain.  I was the only non-French speaking American there.   The conference languages were French and English, but, well, twelve of the papers were in French.   The only two who couldn’t follow them closely orally were the scholar from Spain and me, but luckily about half or more of the twelve were provided in written format, so we could follow along just fine (though some French speakers, like many English speakers, speak *really* fast, so it can be a bit hard to keep up even reading…).   In the question-answer periods I could catch some of what was going on, but not everything.

Which brings me to one of my main points.  Most scholars, in most countries, are fluent in two or usually more languages.  People at this conference could all speak English, fluently; all but two of us could speak French; most could speak Italian, and probably (I never asked around) German.  Some talked in Spanish (though there was just one native speaker).

Except the Americans.  Like me.  My language: English.  That’s kind-a it.  And it’s kind-a embarrassing.  Our educational system just doesn’t care.  I took a couple of years of Spanish in grade school, a year of Latin in junior high, a couple of years of French in high school, and frankly, by the end of 12th grade I knew *nothing*.  Couldn’t construct a full sentence to save my soul.

In college I took a couple of years of ancient Greek.  In graduate school I learned to read some languages, but not to speak any of them.  And that puts me at a *huge* disadvantage.  A lot of it – most of it – is my fault.  Forty years ago, I should have devoted myself to learning to speak at least German and French.  But alas, I did not.

Whereas at this conference, for example, there was an Italian scholar who teaches in Geneva Switzerland, who presented a paper on an ancient Armenian scholar (she speaks modern Armenian as well as reads ancient) who dealt with ancient Greek philosophy.   And so it goes.

Americans lead scholarship in many fields, including the study of antiquity.  And scholars from other countries are amazingly gracious and accommodating to us.  But it’s really not good that we are so insular.  I’m part of the problem rather than the solution.  But, on the other hand, the reason I’m part of the problem is that I myself had a problem: when I was in my 20s, I was so desperately eager to pursue my scholarship I just didn’t want to take months or years away from it to master spoken European languages.   I probably should have.  But I didn’t. And I still don’t.  I just have other things that I’m even more passionate about.  Still, I do think it’s not good.

In any event, in my keynote I did address the broader problem: how do we conceptualize pseudepigraphy in ancient contexts.  Was it, in fact a form of literary deceit, a king of lying, and was it widely recognized as such?  Or is that a modern construct that doesn’t make sense in an ancient context.  Most scholars, including those at the conference, think the latter.  But not me.  I agree with the experts who think it was indeed known to be a form of lying, and that the authors also knew it was.  And that as a result, it is indeed appropriate to use the modern term “forgery” for the activity.  But I also think that lying was not usually considered a necessarily bad think in antiquity, any more than it is necessarily a bad thing now, for most people.

I’m thinking that maybe I should give my paper here on the blog, so you can see how I make the argument.  It’s written for scholars, but it’s not terribly scholarly, or at least it’s not written at a level that is inaccessible.  It will take several posts (it was a 50 minute oral presentation).  But it summarizes my views of this important topic, especially in light of how other scholars argue the opposite, that in fact deceit was not involved, or at least usually, or at least always, involved in the practice.  One value is that the paper deals with a new attempt by an Italian scholar (writing in English!) to show why some ancient authors who claimed to be someone else did not mean to fool anyone and in fact did not fool the people who were reading their work.  Interesting!  Even if I disagree (for reasons I explain in the paper).

My Approaching Birthday
Some Pitfalls of Writing for a General Audience



  1. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  September 15, 2019

    I studied German for six years through high school, use it in my research, and still couldn’t speak it effectively. The problem isn’t just the education system, the problem is geography. In most of the eastern hemisphere, going to a place where a foreign language is spoken is a day trip. In the United States, opportunities to practice are much harder to come by.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2019

      Yup, I completely agree. It ain’t like living in the Netherlands….

    • Avatar
      Thespologian  September 17, 2019

      Add to that: Post WWII U.S. hegemony and the fact we work at least 50 weeks per year.

  2. Avatar
    mombird903  September 15, 2019

    Wow, wonderful post. I have often wondered about the lack of learning different languages in America. Many of us took languages in school but the problem is there is no where to use them, except maybe Spanish. I took French, a friend of mine took German but that’s as far as it went. When my grandparents came over from Italy they wanted a better life and their children wanted to be American all the way. That meant dumping the old language and any vestiges of the old country. They wanted to meld in and that included speaking English. Immigrants were discriminated against and I think that contributed to the problem of not wanting to use any other language or of being associated with the old world. Being American was a status symbol. So here we are today insular and somewhat arrogant. I’m looking forward to your latest paper, Bart.

  3. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  September 15, 2019

    I always feel guilty when I listen to how goofy my fellow fans think Yasiel Puig, Ketel Marte or Eduardo Escobar are because of their rough English in interviews ( baseball been belly, belly good to me” remember that?)
    Then realizing these guys came here from Cuba and Venezuela and in a couple of years time could communicate to me in my language but I couldn’t if I tried communicate with them in their primary language…
    Thanks for your very fascinating books and articles.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2019

      I know. I always get ticked off when Americans make fun of some guy from Poland or Russia speaking rough English. I always wanna say, Yeah, right — how well do *you* speak Polish or Russian!!

  4. Avatar
    bamurray  September 15, 2019

    Yes please!

  5. Avatar
    francis  September 15, 2019

    Hi Dr Ehrman…I took Latin in high school and the only thing I remember in a sentence is America est pulchra..

  6. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  September 15, 2019

    I think a lot of us would like to read your paper, so you should feel free to post it.

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  September 16, 2019

      Agree. We’re about to attend – sort of – a little conference in Quebec! Yay!

  7. Robert
    Robert  September 15, 2019

    “In graduate school I learned to read some languages, but not to speak any of them. And that puts me at a *huge* disadvantage. A lot of it – most of it – is my fault. Forty years ago, I should have devoted myself to learning to speak at least German and French. But alas, I did not. … I’m part of the problem rather than the solution. But, on the other hand, the reason I’m part of the problem is that I myself had a problem: when I was in my 20s, I was so desperately eager to pursue my scholarship I just didn’t want to take months or years away from it to master spoken European languages.”

    Best to kill two birds with one stone. Go to graduate schools in Europe and study in at least one foreign language. I did my first graduate degree in French and the second in Dutch, and took frequent trips to Germany. Made extra money translating articles for my professors who all wanted to publish in English. It was a lot of fun too!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2019

      Yup, that’s the way to do it. I’m completely envious. Are you about my generation? The one before us, at all the top NT grad programs, the thing to do was to spend a year in Germany. I just didn’t think I could afford the time. It’s one of my many scholarly regrets. The other is not becoming thoroughly trained in classics. I’m trying to make up for lost time now (with the classics), but if only I’d done this 40 years ago!

      • Robert
        Robert  September 16, 2019

        Yes, I’m only a few years younger than you. Biggest hassle was student visa, and of course the fear of not learning the language. But once one relaxes and learns to embrace humility and speak like a child, it’s a very natural process and very enriching. Would love to do it all over again. I still translate Hebrew into Dutch sometimes.

  8. Avatar
    plparker  September 15, 2019

    I look forward to your presentation on this topic in the next several blog posts.

  9. Lev
    Lev  September 15, 2019

    “I just didn’t want to take months or years away from it to master spoken European languages.”

    Speaking as an Englishman, I can assure you that you have mastered at least one spoken European language… even if you do insist on calling petroleum “gas”.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2019

      It’s just that it’s not ever clear if you’re supposed to say petrol or petro….

      • Lev
        Lev  September 16, 2019

        In common parlance, we would say “Let’s pull into this petrol station, I need to fill up.”

        If a civil servant is briefing his minister, he would say “A no-deal Brexit may present significant problems importing petroleum – we would last seven days at the most.”

        • Bart
          Bart  September 17, 2019

          Yup, got it. (I’m in England three months of the year!) I just meant for years I was never sure if they were saying petro or petrol. Obviously not an enormous linguistic issue….

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  September 16, 2019

      and liquid petroleum at that . .

  10. Avatar
    fedcarroll77  September 16, 2019

    Good day Bart,

    Great point about America and it’s people. We are narrow minded in our endeavors to achieve our dream. We try to stick to that path without broadening our scope further. I totally agree that we should be teaching more secondary languages and pushing that a lot more. That gives everyone the ability to communicate with others without forcing the other to communicate in a secondary language.

    Onto my question though…. I know you hold that certain letters in the NT were not certainly written by Paul (e.g. Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy and so on). How do you counter NT Wright argument in one of his recent book about Paul which he argues that those are not forgeries, but they are in fact authentically written by Paul? I know you are a critical scholar who studies the manuscripts and NT Wright is a theologian but he is a well respected NT scholar. Your thoughts would be great to hear and arguments.


    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2019

      Yes, Tom Wright is a highly informed scholar and well respected. He and I agree on very little, but I respect his intelligence and learning. I never find his arguments convincing though, and he always seems to end up arguing precisely what he personally (religiously) believes, and that is almost always the traditional view of this, that, or the other thing. I lay out very detailed reasons for thinking that these books are forgeries in my book Forgery and Counterforgery (and this is *not* the view I started out with!)

      • Lev
        Lev  September 16, 2019

        I would pay good money to see you and Tom debate. I think you did once over the internet but you were restricted in word limit and number of back and forths – and IIRC Tom cheated on the word limit! (He is known for his verbose style.)

        • Bart
          Bart  September 17, 2019

          We did one debate on the problem of suffering, but I didn’t know it was recorded!

  11. Avatar
    Judith  September 16, 2019

    The keynote speaker, no less!

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 16, 2019

    I would love to read your paper when you post it.

  13. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  September 17, 2019

    Even today, there are lots of ghostwritten books. And it can be unclear how much deceptive intent is involved, or how many people actually are deceived.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2019

      Ah, yes, that’s an interesting phenomenon. But it’s not the same as what I’m calling literary forgery, and I know of only one or two instances of it antiquity, all of them involving personal correspondence (when Cicero tells his slave to compose a letter for him in his name).

  14. Avatar
    cestmarrant  September 18, 2019

    How was your paper received? Were people open to your point of view?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2019

      Oh yes, very well received. Didn’t convince everyone, but at least we all agreed to disagree with a good sense of humor and respect.

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