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Problems with Thinking the “Letters of John” in the NT are Forgeries? Guest Post: Hugo Mendez

This thread of posts we have been having by Hugo Mendez on the writings of “John” in the New Testament has been unusually stimulating and in the world of scholarship, controversial.  If you haven’t followed the thread, just look at the four that have already been posted starting two weeks ago.  If he were to argue that 1 Timothy was not really written by Paul, but someone claiming to be Paul (i.e., that it was a “forgery”), not a single New Testament scholar in the country would raise an eyebrow.  But to claim the letters of John are forgeries?  Yikes — now *that* is something you don’t hear every day.  But can the claim be sustained?  Here Hugo answers some of the objections others might raise.

What do you think?  Convinced?

             NOTE: most posts on the blog are for members only.  This one is open to anyone who wants to see it.  Wanna see this kind of post five times each and every week, going back eight years?  Join the blog!  Free memberships are available!  And if you are willing to pay the small, regular membership fee, even better: every nickel of your fee will go to charities dealing with hunger and homelessness. So what’s the downside???

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Common Questions about the Johannines as Literary Forgeries

In my last post, I argued that the Gospel and Epistles of John may be a chain of literary forgeries. As I see it, these texts cast and recast a single invented character—an eyewitness to Jesus’ life—as the mouthpiece of different theological views.

This thesis has caused a bit of a stir in the field over the past two months, and it’s invited its share of questions and objections.

In this post, I’d like to address some of the most common questions I hear.

 

Question 1: Can these texts be “forgeries” when they don’t actually claim a name?

When people encounter my work, they’re often confused by the claim that the Gospel and Epistles of John are “forgeries,” since these texts are essentially anonymous. (John credits itself to an unnamed eyewitness “disciple whom Jesus loved”; 1 John never names its author other than suggesting he is an eyewitness, and the author of 2 and 3 John identifies himself only as “the Elder.” They’re much more used to forgeries like 2 Timothy or 2 Peter, which actually claim the name of “Peter” or “Paul.”

When presented with this question, I encourage people to set the Johannine texts beside a broader sampling of literature than merely the New Testament. As New Testament scholars, we work with an admittedly narrow set of materials—one that limits our knowledge of a phenomenon as broad and varied as pseudepigraphy. That’s where Bart’s Forgery and Counterforgery (2012) is so valuable as a nearly encyclopedic survey of the practice.

When we survey a broader sweep of ancient texts, we find many examples of what I call “anonymous/nameless” or “implicit” forgeries (Bart uses the term “non-pseudepigraphic forgeries”). These works “set forth clear, but false, authorial claims without actually naming an author” (Ehrman 2012: 35). They’re anonymous, but they present their implied authors in a false mold.

This type is so well represented in ancient literature that several examples appear in the Bible—among them, Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) and (in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles) the Wisdom of Solomon. Both of these texts are anonymous, but each strongly suggests that its author might have been Solomon. Ecclesiastes references its author only as “Qoheleth/the Teacher”—a title as opaque as “the Elder” of 2 and 3 John—but tantalizingly calls this author “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” and describes him as “very wise” person, who “set in order many proverbs” (Eccl 1:1, 12:9; cf. 1 Kings 4:32). The Book of Wisdom also never names its author, but several chapters in, its anonymous speaker writes: “you have chosen me to be king of your people… you have commanded the building of a temple on your holy mountain” (Wisdom 9:7–8). The implication is clear: the author is Solomon, who built the First Temple in Jerusalem.

In a recent book, Clare Rothschild has argued that Hebrews gestures at Pauline authorship in the same, indirect way. The book never claims to be written by Paul, but in the end, it offers a farewell that smacks of Paul:

“I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you…. Those from Italy send you their greetings.” (Heb. 13:22–24)

 

Question 2: Is it plausible that a forger would take up an invented identity rather than use an established name (e.g., Peter, Paul)?

Other forgeries in the New Testament take up the name of well-known historical persons—figures like Paul, Peter, James, and Jude. For this reason, some scholars ask me whether it makes sense that the author of John merely invented his eyewitness.

In fact, this isn’t unusual at all; we have other ancient examples of this practice. In a recent book, David Litwa calls attention to two examples of invented eyewitness narrators in Greek literature: Damis (Life of Apollonius) and Dictys (Diary of the Trojan War). Likewise, a text I teach in my courses on early Christian martyrdom—the Martyrdom of Marian and James—casts itself as the account of an eyewitness, but an invented one who is otherwise unknown, unnamed, and who corresponds to no known figure. This is very similar to the Johannine literature, which also takes up an anonymous, invented narrator.

 

Question 3: Is it plausible that multiple authors would contribute to the same forgery chain?

In the scenario I trace out in my article, at least two (but perhaps up to four) authors wrote under the guise of the “Johannine” eyewitness. Recently, a friend asked whether it is plausible to imagine a chain forgery like this—that is, a line of forgeries written by more than one author.

The answer, simply, is yes, and the proof is in your New Testament. Critical scholars agree that the author of 2 Timothy forged a letter in Paul’s name. That author did so partly by adapting the language of Ephesians, which he may not have realized was itself a Pauline forgery. And Ephesians, in turn, seems to have been dependent on a still older Pauline forgery, Colossians.

So yes, multiple authors can extend the same forgery chain, often unknowingly.

 

Question 4: Isn’t it a stretch to believe that [X specific detail] is merely made up?

I get this question a lot. People cite all kinds of details in the Gospel and Epistles of John—for instance, the name “Diotrephes” or the rumor that the “beloved disciple” would never die—and argue that they are just “too realistic” or “too specific” to have been made up.

Simply put, you can’t make a good argument against forgery from this angle. The reason, as I note in my paper, is that “there is no such thing as a detail too realistic to have been fabricated” (364, no. 29). Literary fictions can contain as many made-up details as you like, and those details can be as real and lifelike as one wants them to be. The whole category of fiction novels and short stories is possible because of this. And as it stands, surviving forgeries feel pretty lifelike. Take the forged epistles of Plato. They contain all sorts of vivid and specific details that resemble real life and experience (“verisimilitudes”), but that doesn’t make them any less false. Here are a few samples from Epistle 13:

  • “Once when you were feasting with the Locrian youths… you got up and came over to me…”
  • “I have had the Apollo made and Leptines is bringing it to you…. He had at his shop a piece which was, as I thought, very artistic”
  • ”I shall make use of your money, as I told you previously”

 

A closing thought

It’s surprising to me how easily leading scholars cite 1, 2, and 3 John in their reconstructions without giving a first or second thought to the question of whether these texts are authentic. What makes this especially surprising is that the doubts that I’m raising about these texts are hardly unprecedented or unusual. Even ancient Christian writers questioned the authenticity of at least some of these texts. For instance, as far as we can tell from the surviving fragments of his writings, the third-century writer Origen did not accept 2 and 3 John as authentic. He speaks only of “an epistle” of John; he doesn’t cite 2 and 3 John anywhere in his writings; and in one surviving fragment of his writings, it appears he claims that “not all think [2 and 3 John] are genuine” (cited in Eusebius, HE, 6.25.10). Even as late as the fourth century, Eusebius tells us that 2 and 3 John are “disputed” among Christians (Eusebius, HE 3.25.3)—that is, texts that some considered likely to be “spurious.”

Above all, my paper calls scholars to take a long, hard look at evidence the community hypothesis marginalizes—that is, evidence of literary contact and copying between these texts, evidence of false authorial claims, evidence of the ancient debates about these texts.

The problem is that if we follow these lines of evidence to their logical end, the idea of a “Johannine Community” becomes nearly impossible to sustain, as I’ll explain why in my next post.


Did Some *One* Forge the Writings of “John”? Guest Post by Hugo Mendez
Are the Gospel and Epistles of John *Forgeries*?? Guest Post by Hugo Mendez

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  May 18, 2020

    Your arguments are very convincing. Any good novel is full of little details. That’s part of the art or craft of writing– bringing the story to life and keeping the reader engaged. The question of whether a disputed document is fiction shouldn’t rest on such things because these convincing and life-like details have been a fiction writer’s staple, part of their stock-in-trade, as long as people have been making things up.

  2. Avatar
    Poohbear  May 18, 2020

    “Scholars” will tell you Jesus himself was a forgery. This proves letters and the Gospel credited to John are forgeries. Can’t Mendez see this? The only people of truth are “scholars.” Just ask Foucault or Derrida.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2020

      I (Bart) will answer this one directly, though Hugo is free to pitch in as well. I personally know or know of thousands of biblical scholars, and of many many more from, say, the last couple of centuries. 99.9% of them would never say or even imagine Jesus is a forgery. So whom are you thinking of? Neither Foucault nor Derrida ever said any such thing to my knowledge. So I’m not sure what you’re trying to say or why you’re saying it? If you have some scholars in mind, could you give us some references?

  3. Avatar
    WhenBeliefDies  May 18, 2020

    Keep them coming Hugo!

  4. Avatar
    Ficino  May 18, 2020

    Hugo, I notice that you say that the invented speaker/s is/are the mouthpiece/s of different theological views, rather than is/are mouthpiece/s of the author/s. Have you worked on the construct, “mouthpiece,” as used in criticism of didactic writing? I ask because a big issue in Platonic criticism some years ago was the question, whether Socrates and other characters in the dialogues can be treated as Plato’s mouthpieces. Some say no, in that the author is not a constituent of a fiction, and the dialogues are fictions. If we take at least gJohn to be fiction, in that it’s narrative, etc., is it justified to treat the character, Jesus, as the author’s mouthpiece? Or only as the mouthpiece of certain doctrines, leaving the author effaced? If so, does the interpreter need a theory of mouthpiece in fiction? This question might be too open-ended or OT, but if you have any publications to which you can point me, I’ll be grateful.

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 18, 2020

      Thanks! My language here was undertheorized. I’d be inclined* to say that invented speakers are more likely to be the mouthpieces of authors rather than of theological views, since authors are personal agents whereas views aren’t. But I’ve never engaged the discussions in Platonic criticism you’re describing. Thank you for bringing those to my attention! I’m quite interested.

      • Avatar
        Ficino  May 18, 2020

        The issue was big about 20 years ago, though it’s kind of died down. I think there might be relevance to NT scholarship from the angle of genre – are the gospels really “biography”? To what extent are they, esp. gJohn, like Aristotle’s category of mimesis w/o meter, in which Ari put the Socratikoi logoi? If gJohn can be considered in some sense fiction, then what theory supports inferences to the author’s speech from the character’s (Jesus’s) speech? As well, a “pagan” genre that might be of relevance from the POV of the problem of the author is maybe satire, having some affinity to epistles. In satire there is a speaker who is represented as author, but there we encounter the problem of “persona” – to what extent the author/speaker is itself an artifact of the text and not identical to the flesh and blood author.
        An intro to the Plato problem is the volume, Who Speaks for Plato?, edited by Gerald Press.

  5. Avatar
    timcfix  May 18, 2020

    A great work.

  6. Avatar
    brenmcg  May 18, 2020

    I think the fact that Origen doesn’t accept the letters works against them being a forgery. Looking at them there’s just no reason to think the beloved disciple or anyone important wrote them.

    Why would a forger write such a weak forgery – the letter’s are essentially valueless.

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 18, 2020

      In fairness, history preserves some pretty weak, transparent, and arguably “valueless” forgeries. Consider the brief “Epistle to the Laodeceians,” once included in copies of the Latin Bible/Vulgate, for comparison!

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  May 18, 2020

        But the epistle to the the Laodiceans claims to be by Paul. Origen accepts 1,2 timothy and titus. If you wanted you’re forgery to be accepted it probably didnt pay to be too subtle about who wrote it.

  7. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  May 18, 2020

    I asked professor Ehrman this question in an earlier blog, now I wanna know what your opinion is. When it comes to 2 and 3 John, is it possible that these two letters were written by a different author from 1 John? Professor Ehrman thinks all 3 were written by a single author. I personally have a hard time believing that. Because when you look at 1 John, the author never mentions he is the Elder, unlike 2 and 3 John. Also the letters of 2 and 3 John are attributed to a single Individual and not to members of congregation like 1 John. Another question I raised is, why are these two letters preserved in our canon list? The letters of 2 and 3 John don’t go into the specific details of the Individual’s problem they are having and that the Elder wants to see them in person to discuss about them. So we really don’t know what the situation was of concern. So why go through the effort of re-copying, put in circulation, and then be chosen to be placed in our New Testament?

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 19, 2020

      1. I agree with you (sorry Bart!)… My suspicion is that they do not share a common author with 1 John. It’s hard to be certain since the letters are so brief and the data limited, but the differences in form are significant (e.g., strict epistolary style, use of the title “Elder”). This is all the more true, I think, if my thesis is correct (why would a forger use “the Elder” in two texts but not another?). I also think the linguistic overlap between 1 and 2 John is more consistent with direct dependence than common authorship (see my brief discussion of that relationship on p. 358 of my own paper).

      2. I think these letters survive in our canon because people were ultimately convinced that they shared a common author with the Gospel and 1 John. Even if these letters are thin on content, their apostolic authorship mattered. (It’s the same reason the intensely personal and mundane letter of Paul to Philemon survives…).

      • stevedemarco
        stevedemarco  May 19, 2020

        That is very interesting you say that about the letters sharing a common link with the Gospel in which they were thought it was the apostle John. I wonder if the audience assumed it was John when the letters were first written or later in time by an interpreter of the letters.

        • Hugo
          Hugo  May 19, 2020

          I think the identification emerged later. It’s interesting that the Epistles themselves do not show a trace of a tradition attributing the letters to John the way some later “Johannine” forgeries will (e.g., the Apocryphon of John). It suggests the idea did not take hold at first, at least in some places.

          On a related note—our colleague Mark Goodacre at Duke thinks the Gospel wants* you to identify the disciple with John, but I’m not convinced. He plans to publish on this (and other John-related issues) soon, so stay tuned.

          • stevedemarco
            stevedemarco  May 20, 2020

            Thank you for your Insights.

  8. Avatar
    RichardFellows  May 19, 2020

    1. The lack of evidence for a Johannine community casts suspicion on the letters, not the gospel.
    2. Readers of your paper might think that one of your main arguments for false authorial claims in the gospel of John is that the beloved disciple appears only at key points where eyewitness testimony would be important. However, we do not know that he does not appear elsewhere in the gospel as a named individual (e.g. Lazarus) (ancients could refer to themselves in different ways, including in the third person, in the same text). A genuine eyewitness would want to show his audience that he was an eyewitness to the key events, while conforming to the convention of anonymity.
    3. Your other main argument is that the synoptics do not mention the beloved disciple. However, this would not be surprising if, as seems likely, the beloved disciple was a child or youth at the time in question.
    4. Yes, any realistic detail COULD be made up, but should not be dismissed, otherwise you have an unfalsifiable hypothesis. The rumor that the beloved disciple would never die is embarrassing so it is unlikely that the author created it. Could more be done to rebut this argument?

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 19, 2020

      Hi Richard! We’ve gone through some of this already, so I’ll try to be brief:

      1. Correct.
      2. That’s a possibility, though not an easy one to prove. (On a not unrelated note: Your enumeration of my arguments against the author being an eyewitness is missing one of the primary ones—namely, the suspect historicity of its discourse material especially… a level of invention/fabrication that compares strongly to texts like GThomas and GMary.)
      3/4. We’ve discussed these after a previous post… I think you know my thoughts! 🙂

      Thanks for engaging! I appreciate the push back.

      • Avatar
        RichardFellows  May 19, 2020

        Your thoughts on 3, and little on 4, have appeared on my computer.

        Do you think that the beloved disciple is cast as an adult or a child? If the beloved disciple was a child or youth, would that help explain why the synoptics (and John 19:25!) do not mention him? Children are often willing to ask questions that adults are too embarrassed to ask (13:21-25). I imagine it would have been dangerous for adult men to be at a crucifixion (19:26) (when I saw Israeli soldiers arresting a Palestinian no adult men approached the scene to console the one arrested or protest the arrest). Children need mothers more than adults (John 19:26-27). Children can live a long time (21:20-23).

        • Hugo
          Hugo  May 19, 2020

          Thanks Richard. I’m sorry to say, no verse in the gospel strictly hints at the age of the Beloved Disciple, but he’s definitely not a small child (BD can outrun Peter, an adult; 20:41). The balance of evidence says adult (BD “took [Mary] into his own home”—this gesture is not that of a “child” who “needs” a mother, but someone with a house ready to receive and care for an older woman and with some resources to do so)…. I’m also sorry to say that the evidence you offered is poorly suited to the context (e.g., Peter probably asks BD to relay a question in 13:21–25 because BD is seated more closely to Jesus—he is, after all, lying on his bosom… a symbolic place for him to be in a text in which the Son was in the bosom of the Father; the issue in 21:20–23 is not about youth but about a mistaken belief that Jesus promised the disciple “would not die”).

          In the end, I think those who would insist on the historicity of the BD have a true challenge… It’s statistically improbable that every other stream of gospel tradition would fail to mention a figure of this prominence—a disciple reclining at the most privileged and intimate position at the last supper, who alone among the males remained with Jesus to the foot of the cross, who cared for his mother after his death, and who was the first to arrive at his tomb(!)—especially since all these scenes are attested in detail elsewhere. I understand you believe the disciple is historical, and that you’re prepared to find a plausible explanation for his absence in so many other gospels, but there is a simpler solution. Rather than search out why the disciple is missing in other gospels, I prefer ask why he is present in this one alone. We may part ways there, and that’s fine.

          • Avatar
            RichardFellows  May 20, 2020

            Thanks for the detailed response. You say that I “believe the disciple is historical”, but actually I remain undecided. I hope that your work encourages further research and discussion.

          • Hugo
            Hugo  May 20, 2020

            I’m so, so sorry! My mistake.

  9. Avatar
    AstaKask  May 19, 2020

    So will Bart write a response to this? I would like to know what he thinks of the arguments presented. They seem convincing, but I’m so far from an expert as can be.

  10. Avatar
    ericmac  May 26, 2020

    Thanks!

    I have never understood why scholars give an anonymous writing, like one of the Gospels or like Acts, more credibility or standing than a letter written, pseudonymously, in another’s name, such as the Pastorals, Ephesians, and Colossians. Is there a reason to think otherwise?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2020

      The question is always “credibility for *what*”? If the question is, which writing is more likely to represent an author’s own views, then obviously one that he actually wrote is more “credible.” if the question is, which writing is more likely to be insightful, inspiring, interesting, important, etc, then in theory it should be a toss up.

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