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What Motivated Some Ancient Authors to Lie About Themselves?

I return now to my lecture on ancient Pseudepigraphy, the practice of writing a book falsely claiming to be someone else, a famous person.  I have been arguing that even in the ancient world this was considered to be a form of lying, the use of literary deceit, and authors who were detected doing it were outed and, if any moral judgment was passed, condemned for it.  Today we would call it “forgery,” and the ancient discussions of it were similarly negative.   Here is where I pick up in the lecture, part 3 of my 4 posts.  (I think one of my most important points comes half way through, where I explain the key difference between “intention” and “motivation” – i.e., what we intend to do and what motivates us to do so.




One could ask whether anyone on record in antiquity ever condoned the practice of pseudepigraphy.  To my knowledge, there is only one possible trace of approval, in a single sentence of the late antique neo-Platonist Iamblichus, who does say, in reference to the followers of Phythagoras, some 800 years earlier, that “It was a fine custom of theirs also to ascribe and assign everything to Pythagoras, and only very seldom to claim personal fame for their discoveries, for there are very few of them indeed to whom works are ascribed personally.”

It is an intriguing comment, and is one of the principle pieces of evidence used by generations of scholars to claim that it was a standard practice in philosophical schools for students to write in the name of their teachers as an act of humility.  In fact Iamblichus doesn’t say anything about …

It gets pretty interesting after this.  Why would someone be motivated to lie, if they thought lying was generally bad?  Keep reading!  If you’re not a member of the blog, you’ll need to join before being able to do so.  So join!  It’s a reasonable fee, and all of it goes to charity.

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A Recent Argument that Ancient Pseudepigraphy Was NOT Deceptive (or Meant to Be)
How Many Books in the New Testament Were Forged?



  1. Avatar
    Ficino  September 23, 2019

    “Some authors assumed a false name in order to have their books sold for profit, either in a bookshop (thus the witness of Galen and Martial) or to major libraries (Alexandria or Pergamum). If no one was deceived that the alleged author was not the real author, who would buy the books? The whole point is the purchaser wanted to own a particular author’s work.”

    Just a throw-in: the impact of this was huge upon types of writing like letters and speeches, which were of manageable length for a forger. Ancient critics of rhetoric like Dionysius of Halicarnassus talk about hundreds of spurious speeches and letters of famous Greek orators like Lysias or Demosthenes.

    One of my teachers was Morton Smith. He told us that he had solved the problem of the historical Jesus!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2019

      Yes indeed, he thought he did! Brilliant, brilliant man.

  2. Avatar
    crucker  September 23, 2019

    How common is the belief among scholars that using a false name in antiquity was a generally accepted practice? Small minority? Significant minority? Slight majority? Large majority?

  3. Avatar
    Brand3000  September 23, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    How do you authenticate Paul’s letters? I read that traditionally scholars took Gal. because it was autobiographical in nature and Paul attests to writing it in his own hand, and then tried to match up the others with the Gal. letter to see if it “sounded like Paul” is this correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2019

      No, not really. 2 Timothy is also autobiographical, as are the letters to Seneca, but the first is most probably not by Paul and the latter absolutely aren’t. The approach is more to see if there are letters that cohere will in terms of themes, theological views, writing style, vocabulary, and presupposed historical situation. to assume on those grounds that these letters all had the same author, and then compare all other letters to them on these grounds, one by one.

  4. Avatar
    Apocryphile  September 23, 2019

    First rule of thumb (for those with a limited budget anyway) – never go to the grocery store when you’re hungry!

  5. fefferdan
    fefferdan  September 23, 2019

    Thanks Bart, for these thought provoking articles. I wonder, however, if you go too far in saying ” the primary intention of forgery is almost always to deceive…” I mentioned in another thread that I think many spiritual ‘forgeries’ result from a belief that an author is channeling a person in the spirit world. I have personal knowledge of several contemporary mediums who have published messages and even writings from various departed authorities. I am fairly certain that they are not trying to deceive their readers, although it may indeed be true that they have deceived themselves. From biblical times we have examples where prophets claim to give messages from angels or biblical figures. Intertestamental literature is replete with this and I think it’s hard to know when it is sincere, when it is meant to be understood mythically, and when it is an outright deception. It the NT, we have a good example of channeling, I think, in John of Patmos’ supposes letters to the seven churches from Jesus. Of course, there is a distinction between this and letters published in the name of Paul where the forger hides his own role and consciously attempts to mimic the style of the author, even going so far as to include mundane information as part of the deception.
    Perhaps a separate category would include such examples as the Torah being attributed to Moses. Here it seems various sources have been woven together by an editor and then fraudulently attributed to a high spiritual authority. Something similar can be seen in the writings that were combined into the present Book of Isaiah. The basic point: we need to distinguish between outright forgeries crafted to deceive, and cases where the writer actually thinks he is acting on behalf of the person in whose name he writes, as well as cases where oral or written tradition gets attributed to a writer by later authors or editors.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2019

      My question for any theory about what happened in history is: What evidence is there? My major point is that something that *seems* to be right isn’t necessarily right, when it comes to history in particular.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  September 23, 2019

    Bart, I confess I haven’t weighed in much for your posts on this subject because I didn’t feel I had anything to contribute and because I agreed pretty much 100% with your arguments. But now I find I have questions.

    Regarding the pseudo-Pauline epistles–how much can we know about when they were written? Should we assume they were only distributed after Paul was no longer around to disown them? (Given that we know some forgeries were in fact published while the forged author was still alive and enraged by their existence).

    I’m curious because clearly the people writing them were Christians attempting to influence other Christians by claiming the authority of a widely respected fellow Christian. But that being the case, can’t we infer things about Christian belief in the time period they were written by what they do and don’t advocate in Paul’s name? For example, none of them talk about the Virgin Birth. Should we assume this means that belief was still not widespread for some time after Paul’s death? Or that they were trying as best as possible to avoid tipping their hand by stating things Paul was widely known to have disbelieved himself?

    I think you agree these are still valuable resources to historians of early Christianity, but only if their provenance can be more clearly understood. And I’m sure there are scholars working on this, but how much progress has been made thus far?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2019

      It’s usually assumed they were produced after Paul’s life — not so much because it is impossible to conceive of forgeries while a person is alive (it happens all the time, and did in antiquity) but because they seem to presuppose situations in the life of the church that *probably* took a while to develop: for example, they deal with theological views that appear to have developed out of earlier ones and that takes some time, or they deal with problems that appear to involve misunderstandings of what Paul himself argued in some of his writings, which requires time for the writings to circulate, or they appear to presuppose social situations in the churches that are more plausible toward, say, the end of the first century than closer to the middle, etc. etc. It’s all probabilities, of course, and case has to be made in each instance, separately.

  7. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  September 23, 2019

    Let’s pretend that some devout early Christian had a particular slant on the faith, feeling strongly about a doctrinal matter. With the very best of intentions, that early Christian frames an idea as a letter from Paul to some early church, and does it in a convincing way, emulating Paul’s style and providing enough internal evidence to make it fairly easy for someone to take the document seriously. But the bottom line is that the document produced in this way is FICTION. Paul wrote no such letter, and never espoused the ideas presented in that contrived, fictional, letter. And yet, the forgery is undetected for thousands of years, and the ideas become incorporated into Christian doctrine. Once the forgery is detected, and one can say definitely that Paul did NOT write that epistle, and we have no idea who did write it, what happens to Christian doctrine? You’re petty much in the position of denial, insisting that all of the evidence of forgery must be rejected, or, you have to adopt some peculiar position in which you assume that an unknown person pretending to be someone else was actually guided by the Holy Spirit and produced something that belongs in the Christian Canon, shaping doctrine. Even though they were making things up! Even though they LIED! No good alternatives for the true believer. I guess the third response would be to go crazy. And I think fundamentalists have in fact opted for crazy. Once you’re crazy, your faith is save forever. Logic and reason are out the window. Wheeeee!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2019

      I completely agree with most of what you say. I *would* argue that it’s not “fiction” strictly speaking, because fiction involves a kind of “contract” between an author and a reader, where the author does not claim to be presenting historical fact and the reader, for the sake of enjoyment, agrees to play the game. Here I think there is no agreement. But apart from this nit-picking about definitions (“fiction”), I obviously think you are right on target.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  September 24, 2019

        This got me thinking that allegory (in the case of fiction) might be a clear cut example of the contract you cite. Both author and reader understand that the characters, events, etc. are meant to represent something else. And that got me wondering if your scholarship ever uncovered any estimates about how much of the NT is allegorical. (I don’t mean that the forgeries should be considered allegories… it’s just me being tangentially inquisitive).

        • Bart
          Bart  September 25, 2019

          Normally allegory has ways of announcing itself as such — so that readers realize it is an allegory. You get almost nothing like that in the NT (closest thing would be something like Jesus’ parables or Pauls interpretation of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4:21-31)

  8. Avatar
    fishician  September 23, 2019

    I saw a program a while ago about the museum curator who cleverly forged a work by Galileo, and almost got away with it if not for some perceptive experts and their detective work. Clearly his motive was money and notoriety, judging by the way he gleefully described his work! Which brings to mind this question: isn’t this another type of forgery: recreating a document and claiming it is original? Do we see much of that either in ancient or modern Christianity? An example of that might be someone in the 3rd Century writing out the first gospel and then actually signing Matthew’s name to it! Since many fundamentalists are eager to prove the ancient origins of certain documents, you’d think they’d try, but with modern dating methods I gather it would be quite difficult. (The Galileo work was only about 400 years old, not 1900.)

  9. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  September 23, 2019

    “My reading of Papias is that he says that he both heard the elders himself as well as asked others who heard them to share what they heard also. Papias himself heard directly from at least one of the elders, namely the Elder John, who was not the Apostle John, but is yet described as a “disciple of the Lord”. He also claims to have heard teachings directly from the daughters of Philip the Apostle.

    Therefore Papias, if we believe his own testimony, claims to be a second-generation witness as well as a third-generation witness. He did not hear Jesus directly, but heard directly from at least one, likely more, of those who did hear Jesus.”

    Dr Ehrman,
    the above is from academic biblical.
    what does “disciple of the lord” mean ? who is Phillip ?

    source :

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2019

      It would mean “someone who followed Jesus” and the question is whether htat means, necessarily, one of the earthly disciples. Philip is an imprtant Christian leader (deacon) mentioned in the book of Acts, esp. ch. 8.

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  September 23, 2019

    Aren’t the NT forgeries performing the function of giving the apostolic imprimatur to developments in the faith that took place in subsequent generations of believers? Being convinced that Jesus is coming back next Tuesday after lunch relieves you from concern for a whole host of issues that suddenly present themselves when you realize you’re in it for the long haul. I’m not justifying the practice but given the privileging of apostolic authority weren’t the forgeries almost necessary for the faith in adapting itself to changing times?


    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2019

      Yup, pretty much — but not only because of the failure of the end to appear.

  11. Avatar
    Jarek  September 24, 2019

    “It is widely accepted by critical scholars that there are several ‘added’ or latter endings to the Gospel of Mark. Here I need not explore the various endings, but simply note that the best authorities suggest that the second, unknown author of the latter Mark was inspired to write a coherent narrative in defence of the Christian faith (Thomas & Alexander 2003;Kelhoffer 2000;Wall 2003). ”
    Was inspired….
    Communism was also good in this “holy fable and inspired forgeries” practice. Central Office for Control of Press, Publications and Performances in Poland since 1946 till 1990.

  12. Avatar
    dynamis878  September 24, 2019

    What would an ancient bookshop have been like? Did they have codices or scrolls?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2019

      Almost all literary texts (i.e. “books”) were written on scrolls.

  13. Avatar
    Pattylt  September 24, 2019

    Just out of curiosity…of all the NT books that are forgeries…not the falsely attributed or same name scenarios, which forgery would present the biggest problem for Christian doctrine or belief?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2019

      Ah, my personal opinion is 1 Timothy. Used still today to oppress women. (See 1 Tim. 2:11-15)

      • Avatar
        quadell  September 25, 2019

        I guess I agree. Other parts of 1 Timothy are valuable, pastorally, but his views on women are so invidious, and have caused so much demonstrable harm, that it may take the cake.

        Personally though, I’d consider Hebrews. In terms of “present[ing] the biggest problem for Christian doctrine or belief” it’s bad apology and bad analysis, with confusing and (in the case of Abraham and Melchizedek) clearly incorrect readings of the Torah. And passages like Hebrews 10:26-27 are so noxious in a pastoral setting that I truly wish they weren’t in the canon.

        Still, could be worse. We could have the Epistle of Barnabas in our canon! I suspect that our history of anti-semitism would have been (somehow) even worse if that had been more widely accepted.

  14. Avatar
    quadell  September 24, 2019

    I just read Forgery and Counterforgery, and my ears pricked up when you quoted Morton Smith regarding his opinions of forgery. I half suspected that when you reproduced that particular quote, it was an intentional tongue-in-cheek reference to the widespread suspicion that Smith was the most talented Biblical forger of our time. Now that I see you reproduced the same quote in this lecture, my suspicions are deepening…

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2019

      Yes, I suspect he may have forged the Secret Gospel of Mark. But really, he was an incredibly erudite scholar, way smarter than just about anyone on the planet…. (His Jesus the Magician is his most controversial book; his hard-hitting scholarship, though, is deeply learned and insightful)

  15. Avatar
    Thespologian  September 30, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, have you mentioned anything about the institutions that distributed/presented forged works? What research has been done on the judiciousness of the aforementioned “museums and libraries” where documents were sold and/or read? Would those employed not have the skills of discernment? Your argument suggests these attempts would have been frowned upon. How could a guy named Raul show up with the work of famous George and submit it?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 1, 2019

      Yes, the distribution mechanisms are interesting. part of the issue is that distribution of literature back then was nothing like now, with publishing companies and the like. Didn’t exist. An author would have copies made of a book and send them to friends and others. So if a “new book” turned up, one would assume that this is what the author had originally done, say 20 years ago. A librarian would get news of a book in the same way. So all you had to do is forge a book, claim someone had given it to you, give it to some one else to make a copy, which would be copied, etc.

  16. sschullery
    sschullery  October 27, 2019

    “… One of my teachers was Morton Smith. He told us that he had solved the problem of the historical Jesus! reply
    BartBart September 24, 2019
    Yes indeed, he thought he did! Brilliant, brilliant man.”

    Wow, I guess I am way more uninformed than I knew. Are you guys serious, or is this an in joke? If the former, please: who was Morton Smith, what specific aspect of the problem of the historical Jesus did he solve, what was the brilliant solution he proposed, and why don’t we believe it? Or, should I just start wading through what Google has to say? Thanks.

    Steve Schullery, amateur

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      Famous scholar, unusually erudite. See his book Jesus the Magician.

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