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On Falsification and Forgery

On Friday I will be giving a talk at a symposium at York University in Toronto that will be focusing on the use of forgery in the early Christian apocrypha, sponsored by Tony Burke of York U. and Brent Landau at the University of Texas.  Website is here: http://tonyburke.ca/conference/  I thought it might be interesting to excerpt a portion of my talk here, as it covers some ground that I recently have gone over on the blog, but from a different perspective.  (More on the bloody sweat!  But in relation to early Christian practices of literary deception.)  In any event.  Here is a portion of what I’m planning to say.



I first became interested in the field of apocrypha and early Christian literary forgery about 25 years ago, when I was principally obsessed with New Testament textual criticism.  Almost everyone else at the time who was also obsessed with the manuscript tradition of the New Testament was principally obsessed with one question only:  how do we establish the original text of the New Testament.   I too, at the time, was largely interested in that question, but I realized as well that the reality is that we are not ever likely to get closer to the authorial texts of the New Testament than we already are, barring some amazing discoveries (such as the autographs) or some astounding transformations of method.  And so I became interested in a different area of research which had been paid but scant attention.  I was intrigued with the textual variants in our tradition not as chaff to be discarded as we tried to find the wheat of the original text, but as important in and of themselves as literary productions of the scribes who created, or at least preserved them.

The first textual variant I ever wrote on was…

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  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  September 23, 2015

    I aspire to one day use the word “emic” in polite conversation.

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    RonaldTaska  September 23, 2015

    You live a very interesting and a very full life. Have a good trip to Toronto. I have always thought that the “underground” businesses of Toronto are quite interesting as is nearby Niagara Falls..

    It really seems like a lot of the books of the New Testament were either initially, or later, attributed to authors who did not actually write them and, as you have described, this was not the accepted custom of the times. Obviously, this is still another problem that needs to be considered with interpreting the Bible too “literally” and too much as a “divine” product.

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    superJ  September 23, 2015

    thank you very much for all the inside you provide on your blog. I love it.

    As I read this post, I was wondering if the famous words in the book of Revelation (22, 18-19: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.” ) where written to scare away scribes from altering the text. Revelation is a pretty late scripture, if I recall correct. So, was the author maybe frustrated by scribes who has altered other texts that he thought “dude, don’t do that with my book – or else!” and that’s why he wrote that?

    Would you think that is a possibility?

    Greetings from Germany (and please forgive my lame English, it’s not my native language).

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2015

      Your English is superb! And yes, I think that’s precisely the reason he gives his warning.

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    jbjbjbjbjb  September 23, 2015

    Hi Bart, since you mention again the bloody sweat here, I cannot resist prodding you again for a post on quite why Luke might have wanted a passionless passion, contrasting perhaps with the Lukan predictions of suffering. Or is that problem to do with the historical Jesus’ predictions of the SON OF MAN suffering? Could Luke have been at pains to avoid confusion between Jesus and the Son of Man (that later copyists screwed up)?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2015

      Good idea!

      • Avatar
        jbjbjbjbjb  September 27, 2015

        Thanks! Except my idea seems to die a rapid death when faced with the problem of the Lukan Son of Man sayings that *would* show Luke to identify Jesus with the Son of Man (e.g. first instance in Luke 5, But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins [Jesus has just forgiven someone’s sin]…).

        So I feel I am still at square 1 with why Luke might have wanted a passionless passion. 🙁

        • Bart
          Bart  September 28, 2015

          It was probably (to give it in its shortest version) to show those suffering that they too did not really need to suffer if God was on their side. They too could be calm and in control.

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    Petter Häggholm  March 8, 2016

    I have two questions loosely connected to the post (but more connected than any other I can find on the forum). Both spring from the fact that I am currently reading Forgery and Counter-Forgery, as the first of your books that is not clearly aimed at a mass audience; and I am greatly enjoying it. In fact, I think I like it even more than your trade books—though I would lack the background to appreciate it if I hadn’t read a bunch of those, first.

    The first question: How was this book received by the Neutestlamenter community? (“Neutestlamenter”; what a marvellous word!) Appreciation? Embarrassed silence? Indignant protests? Substantive arguments? It seems to me, from my admittedly biased point of view, that there is a strong strain of apologetic insistence on not saying anything that might accuse authors of the “holy” New Testament of wrongdoing…

    Second: You mentioned in the foreword or introduction that you had originally intended to leave the quotations in Greek, but had been persuaded by your original readers to provide translations. I am very grateful to them, since I find the book perfectly accessible (not in the sense that I could critique it or anything, but as a layman it is not difficult to *follow*), whereas Koine is all Greek to me, and I know hardly a verba of Latin, unless it is porcine. Through a combination of Amazon and the city library, I hope to make my way through as much of your corpus as is accessible to a layman. Unfortunately, http://www.bartdehrman.com/books-published/ seems to contain only publicist descriptions. Do you think it would be possible to provide some sort of bibliography with a rough index of ‘prerequisites’, at least in a rough division of “accessible to anyone”, “expects you to have heard of important early Christian writers”, and “expects you to know Koine Greek and/or Latin”?

    My apologies if I seem to be spamming you with comments—I have a tendency to read in phases of one author at a time, and you make yourself unusually accessible…

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2016

      Neutestamentlers: the book has been reviewed extremely well. On my books: are you asking about which books are meant for a popular audience? (Generally speaking: the ones with the sexy titles!)

      • Avatar
        Petter Häggholm  March 8, 2016

        I think those are the books I *don’t* mean, but it depends on what one finds sexy in book titles—I quite liked “Forgery and Counter-forgery”. What I mean is: Some of your books are clearly aimed at a popular audience (Historicity; Peter, Paul…; Misquoting; etc.).

        I *think* that you wouldn’t include Forgery and Counter-forgery on that list—but I still find it accessible, albeit with a bit more reading effort (and I’m glad I had the prior introduction from the lighter Forged). But if you’d left the quotes in Greek, I wouldn’t be able to read it at all. I’m wondering what else is like F&CF: more scholarly, but not so dense as to require ancient languages or university courses as prereqs. I’m not qualified to be your student! but if I can read, say, The Ortodox Corruption…, I want to. In fact, I had a vague notion that I’d eventually read all your books…until I read in the introduction to F&CF that you’d considered leaving the quotes in Greek, which tells me you may have written books I’m incapable of understanding.

        So the question is: without having an actual copy in my hand, e.g. ordering online, which books (if any) have academic prerequisites, and which can even a layman read, popular audience or not?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 10, 2016

          yes, that was the qeustion I was trying to answer! I think I’ll answer the question on the mailbag post that I’ll be doing, possibly tomorrow!

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    seahawk41  July 12, 2016

    I joined the blog a few weeks ago, so I was going to apologize for sending a question re a post from nearly 10 months ago, but then noticed comments and responses from March of this year! So here goes: What caught my attention was your statement that there are far more textual variations in the Christian literature than in any other that has come down to us from antiquity. Can you provide any data on that? Is it possibly because we have so many copies of the Christian texts and so few of, for example, Greco-Roman works?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2016

      Yes, that’s almost certainly the main reason. We don’t know exactly how many variations are found in our manuscripts, but they number in the hundreds of thousands (of the New Testament). That can’t be true for, say, Euripides or Cicero, because we have so few copies.

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    john76  June 29, 2017

    One point I find particularly interesting is Dr. Ehrman’s argument in “Forged” and “Forgery and Counterforgery” that forgeries in that ancient period were definitely frowned upon, and yet some of the Christian writers were doing it anyway. I suspect, and this is just my guess, they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong because they believed God wanted them to lie. There is scriptural support for justified lying, especially when God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets:

    “And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him … I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so. (1 Kings 22:21-22).”

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      john76  June 30, 2017

      And since the Christian forgers way back then had no problem with lying for God, maybe the writers of the authentic Christian documents were also inventing material about Jesus to suit their theological needs and passing these tales off as historical. The pre Pauline Corinthian Creed, for instance, may be a noble lie too early to be an honest, innocent legendary embellishment.

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