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My Lecture in Quebec: Did Ancient Authors Try To Deceive Their Readers?

I have decided to go ahead and post the address I gave last week to an academic conference in Quebec on “Pseudepigraphy” in the ancient world.  If you’re not familiar with the term (why would you be??) it refers to a book written by an author who falsely claims to be someone else (like if I wrote a book and claimed to be Stephen King) (which maybe I should do….).   Most scholars seem to think this was an acceptable practice in the ancient world.  I don’t.  My lecture was meant to show why.

This will take about four posts.  Here’s the beginning of the lecture (it came as the keynote at the end of two days of meetings/papers).  In the post itself I have translated the foreign language terms I use.


Over the past three days we have enjoyed a wide range of papers on numerous important texts, specific instantiations of ancient pseudepigraphy.  In this final address I will not be discussing a specific text but rather the broader phenomenon of pseudepigraphy itself, with two overarching questions.  The first, and more important, is how we conceptualize the practice.  Was it, in fact, understood to constitute a form of lying in the ancient Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian contexts with which we here are principally concerned?  The answer to that question will help us resolve the thorny second issue of what we actually call the practice.  In briefest terms, is it reasonable to call it “literary forgery,” or is that too crass a term, involving an outlook much too modern to be appropriate?

My answer to both questions will be the same: anyone in antiquity who produced and “published” a writing – that is, placed it in public circulation – under another name, the name of some other person who was famous either widely or locally, was normally understood to …

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Were Ancient Readers Interested in Detecting Forgeries?
A Readable Edition of the “Lost” (i.e. non-canonical) Gospels



  1. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  September 17, 2019

    It seems to me that you have made your case VERY convincingly– and there is very little wiggle room for those who might disagree. Since it appears that modern Christianity is based to a great extent on documents that were literary fictions, documents “inscribed with a lie”, those forged documents are certainly worthy of study and analysis. At least, if one wants to understand how Christianity crystallized into its current form. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Avatar
    Zak1010  September 17, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    From a historical perspective, you are convincing not only because you are credible but because you bring forth solid arguments… historically.
    However, we are talking about a sacred book not any old fashion book. A sacred book should have both theological and historical credibility and reliability. Ordinary lay people base their faith and belief in that.
    Although some discard the value in the miserly innocent errors in the bible, the major intentional theological errors are the great concern.
    Most, if not all early churches considered themselves orthodox and all others heretic and vice versa. It is here where theological opinions were inserted by most if not all churches to prove their theology over the other being correct and the one that should be followed. These are major errors and yes should be thrown out. Not God’s word. Human innovations and modifications leading to human conclusions..and more importantly theological errors in a colossal way.
    As a lay person seeking the truth, I am interested in what God says, not what a human says.
    Forged letters are forged letters whether legal or illegal – society accepted or not accepted.
    These discussions of the elaborations seem to deter from the sincere intention of the one seeking truth. God did not send us a scripture in a riddle requiring ingenuity in ascertaining the message.
    God sent scripture and messages through messengers, some believe to Noah, but for sure to Abraham, David, Moses, Jesus and some believe to Mohamed. What is in common ? … One God, one message. The message and truth is in these scriptures.

    What is more important Dr Ehrman? History of how and when the errant opinions were inserted into a sacred book ( although important ) or God’s message?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2019

      Interesting points! Two issues, for me. One is, I’m not actuallyjust talking about the Bible — I’m talking about all ancient writings. And second, for me the question is, historically, what makes the Bible “sacred”? My sense is that this is a theological belief, not a historical claim — in other words, when the books of the Bible were being written, they were not understood to be inspired by God (by their authors or their first readers). That is only a later belief, a kind of claim about them made by *later* believers. And so, from a historical perspective, my view is they need to be treated like all other books at their time. If anyone chooses not to do so, that’s perfectly fine, of course; but then I would argue they are embracing religious views rather than trying to figure out what happened in history.

      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  September 18, 2019

        You’ve just brought up something that might be worthy of another book, although the subject might have been treated already– if so I’m not aware of it: just how did the documents that comprise “The Bible”, both Jewish and Christian, come to be regarded as inspired by God? Surely the authors of these documents didn’t see themselves as God’s literary sockpuppets. But how did they see themselves? What did they think they were doing? How did they regard the documents they produced? And when these documents were compiled, were they regarded as “inspired”? It’s a question of what these documents meant, represented, in their very earliest forms, and how they came to mean what they do to most believers today.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 20, 2019

          Interesting question — and difficult to get at. But maybe I’ll take a stab in a blog post or two later.

      • Avatar
        Sixtus  September 18, 2019

        This is one of the best answers you have ever given to a blog question. Based on history, clear, concise and convincing. Thx.

  3. Avatar
    Cousiza2  September 17, 2019

    Dr Ehrman I know you have published and spoken on the topic, but would you mind sharing which NT books are Pseudepigraphy – unless you plan to discuss this in the remaining posts?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2019

      Sure. Maybe I should post on this! I think I will…

  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  September 18, 2019

    Isn’t Isaiah written by three different authors? Is this an example of a forgery or of three different texts being smooshed together by a later compiler?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2019

      Good question. Yes, three authors. But 2nd Isaiah (chs. 40-55) and 3rd Isaiah (chs. 56-66) don’t claim to be Isaiah (they are writing anonymously) so they aren’t forgers (since a forger is claiming to be someone famous, and they never make that claim)

      • Robert
        Robert  September 18, 2019

        Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah were forgers if they appended their work to that of Isaiah on the assumption it would be read as if it had been written by Isaiah. Otherwise, whoever appended these works onto that of Isaiah was perpetrating a fraud. Right?

        Apocalyptic writers who regularly assumed the identity of an ancient figure, eg, Enoch. Or Qohelet pretending to be Solomon. These seem like obvious literary tropes, either part of the literary genre or a pretense adopted for philosophical effect. Not the same as pretending to be a current or recent person. Would you put the authors of Enoch or Qohelet in the same category as the author of Timothy or James or Jude?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 20, 2019

          Yes, that would be right. But I don’t think there’s anything to suggest that they were planning for their writings to be combined with Isaiah’s; that was someone else’s decision, long after they wrote their work. At least that’s how I read it. If they *were* in fact writing “continuations,” wanting their readers to think they too were Isaiah, then yes, I’d call that a forgery.

  5. Avatar
    Hngerhman  September 18, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    The evidence in favor of your argument is so stark as to invite puzzlement of anyone taking the opposite stance. Looking forward to learning how the Italian scholar’s argument works, because it hard for me to see my way to it…

    I know it’s not possible to know for certain, but is it your sense that the majority of *critical* scholars, in the quiet outside of the gaze of other scholars, agrees with you but prefers the euphemism of ‘pseudepigrapha’, or they actually deep down think it’s not a big deal?


    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2019

      Yes, I’d say there’s a range: some don’t think it matters much, some don’t really know, some (maybe most) think it was basically an acceptable practice, some agree with me and are unwilling to use the word….

  6. Avatar
    Hngerhman  September 18, 2019

    And… is the Italian scholar’s attempt the best counter effort, or are there others you’d recommend to an interested reader?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2019

      It’s the best I’ve seen. Most of the time the position is simply stated/asserted, with no attempt even to provide evidence.

  7. Lev
    Lev  September 18, 2019

    Very interesting. Did the Apocalyptic texts belong to the same category of forged works you describe above?

    For instance, out of nowhere, there’s a whole bunch of works under the names of Enoch, Ezra, Daniel, and Bruach – figures who had been gone for centuries (or in the case of Enoch, for over 2’000 years). Wouldn’t those who saw these new works circulating know that they were forged on the reasonable grounds that no one had ever heard of these works before? Why did they win so much attention and were they not immediately rejected?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2019

      No, they didn’t know they were forged, as a rule, but simply assumed they really were ancient texts written by the alledged authors.

  8. Avatar
    rburos  September 18, 2019

    Harry Frankfurt probably wouldn’t have trouble calling it a forgery. . .

  9. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  September 19, 2019

    Question :

    if the roman soldier had the slightest doubt about jesus’ death, what would be the most effective means of guaranteeing death?

    1 stabbing the side
    2. breaking legs


    question two

    Jn 19: 32 Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him.

    Jn 19: 33 But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs.

    why not go in order?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2019

      We don’t know, of course, if Romans did anything to make sure the person was dead. We have no evidence, whatsoever. As to John – -who knows?

  10. Robert
    Robert  September 20, 2019

    I agree that it is probably later redactors, compilers, or appenders who perpetrated the fraud of the final form of the book of Isaiah. We don’t even know if or when the first prophecies of Isaiah were ever even ‘published’ in any meaningful sense, and even these original prophecies are introduced in the third person by some kind of scribe.

    Whoever belonged to this multi-generational team of writers, redactors, compilers, and scribes who produced the largely anonymous Hebrew scriptures, they were surely brilliant and not at all averse to playing with wildly improbable authorship claims: David, Solomon, Isaiah, Daniel, Enoch (too wild to be accepted as canonical). Surely these authors and some of their audience among their communal guild members were aware that these authorial claims were part of the literary game. Co-conspirators, then accessories after the fact, but not until the public was eventually deceived. But where and when do we draw the line between literary creativity with guild awareness and later deceived generations of readers? I like to think of some of the wild reinterpretations evident in so many humorous midrashim were in part inspired by an unconscious awareness that anyone clever enough could rewrite the story to suit their purposes. What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2019

      I actually don’t think that’s right — but we may just end up disagreeing. Have you read my book Forgery and Counterforgery? In the opening section I spend a good bit of time arguing against this (common) view. Among other things, I don’t know of any evidence for it from antiquity, whereas there is a ton of evidence that authors who were thought to have given a false name were (and were to be) outed for it. A point in the lecture I’ve been providing here is that history can’t be done on the basis only of what seems to make sense to us (common sense) but on the basis of evidence.

      • Robert
        Robert  September 22, 2019

        I have the book, have looked at sections, and generally agree with your views on forgery as expressed here, except perhaps for a few minor details here or there. I do NOT agree with David Meade’s application of the Jewish Vergegenwärtigung tradition evident in deutero- or trito-Isaiah or Qohelet or Daniel or Enoch to the deutero-Pauline letters of the New Testament. But I do wonder if some of the writers of these Jewish works and their colleagues were in on the secret, ie, worked in collusion with this idea of a literary trope, long before any of these works were ‘published’ for public consumption.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 23, 2019

          It’s possible, but since no one says, it’s hard to know. Meade. He was *completely* off base. Valiant effort, but simply doesn’t work….

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