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).