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Why Did Ancient Christian Forgers Commit Forgery?

Here is an intriguing question I received recently about the use of literary “forgery” in antiquity.  A “forgery,” in the technical sense I’m using it, refers to a very specific phenomenon: it is not simply making up a false story or perpetrating some other kind of falsehood.  It refers, specifically, to a book whose author falsely claims to be a (famous) person.   If I wrote a novel and claimed I was Stephen King, that would be a forgery.

Sometimes these books are called “pseudonymous” (which means “going under a false name”).  That sounds less offensive, but it means the same thing (literally: “the name is a lie”).   There were lots of forgeries in antiquity – many of which were uncovered back them, a number that have been exposed in modern times.  My books Forged and Forgery and Counterforgery discuss the phenomenon more broadly but with a special focus on Christian texts of the first four centuries (the first book is for a general audience, the second is a scholarly analysis).

Here is the question I was asked.



So many pseudonymous writers in the ancient Christian world show great concern for right doctrine and seemingly so little concern for what we today consider serious crimes such as fraud and forgery. Do you have a sense for how they thought of what they were doing? Did they think of themselves as authentic channels for the person in whose name they wrote [as many do today]? Or did they merely justify the means [forgery] by the ends [promulgation of right doctrine].



              I’ve thought about this a good deal over the years.  Here’s what I say in my book Forged about how authors who forged writings justified it to themselves(The first paragraph is summarizing what I showed in the previous section of the book):



From all of the discussions of forgeries in ancient sources, I think we can safely draw several major conclusions.  Forgery was widely practiced in the ancient world, among pagans, Jews, and Christians.  Forgers, motivated by a range of factors, intended to deceive their readers.  Ancient authors who discuss the practice condemn it and considered it a form of lying and deceit.   Forgers who were caught were reprimanded, or punished even more severely.


Possible Justifications for Forgery

The most thorough study of ancient forgery ever undertaken, by an Austrian classical scholar named Wolfgang Speyer, maintains the following: “Every forgery feigns a state of affairs that does not correspond to the actual facts of the case.  For this reason forgery belongs to the realm of lying and deception.”[1]

This view coincides perfectly well with …

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Could Christian Forgers Justifying Lying?
Constantine and the Christian Faith: My Fourth Smithsonian Lecture



  1. Avatar
    seahawk41  May 5, 2019

    I have a question: I am reading Morton Smith’s book, Jesus the Magician. This is the 2014 edition, to which you wrote a Forward. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a posting re this book or its thesis on the blog, and I’m wondering if you would comment on the book at some point. I find it very fascinating.

  2. Avatar
    brenmcg  May 5, 2019

    Off-topic question – in the parable of the sower Matthew tells us that the seed produced a crop “a 100, 60, 30 times what was sown”. Which seems a strange way of saying it; expectation should be built up.

    Either say “30, 60, 100 times what was sown” or if you’re going to start with “100” don’t bother mentioning the 60 and 30.

    Mark has “30, 60, 100 times” in his version of the parable and Luke just has “100” in his.

    Given that we have to understand this as two writers editing something they think is “wrong” in the first, isn’t the only way to understand these differences as Mark and Luke each choosing to “correct” Matthew in their own way? If Mark or Luke are writing first there’s nothing to correct.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2019

      My sense with these things is that you need to figure out why an author might want to change it, even if you like it the other (original) way; the reason for someone *editing* it to start with 100 is probably very simply to the reason for someone *writing* it (originally) starting with 100. Why did the author not start with 30, since that seems like a more convincing progression? The author would have a reason. And so would a later editor.

      • Avatar
        Nexus  May 6, 2019

        Do you read it like “30!, no 60!, no 100 fold!” or more like “30 time 60 times 100 times” (equals 180 000), or something else?

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  May 6, 2019

        It could just be an error. An original error is more likely here than editing a correct order to an incorrect one.

        Also its not just Matthew editing the original to 100, 60, 30 that needs to be explained, we also need a reason for Luke editing the original to just 100.
        No obvious reason could be given for either Matthew’s or Luke’s edits of Mark here but Mark’s and Luke’s editing of Matthew would both be perfectly understandable.

        Do you think the 100, 60, 30 order of Matthew might suggest its a translation from Aramaic (the original order being written right-to-left) ?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 7, 2019

          No, right to left would have no bearing on the question. Any more than “sentence a in words”

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  May 7, 2019

            If the original was written in right-to-left Aramaic then 100, 60, 30 would be the correct order.

            A translator into greek might conceivably translate this as a block and incorrectly keep the same order.

            This would give a reason for an original greek author to have “100, 60, 30” but which cant be reversed to apply to a secondary editor of a greek original.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 8, 2019

            No, that never happens.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  May 8, 2019

            It would just be a translation error – I think it’s possible.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 10, 2019

            Got it! But I think if you read both languages and had seen numerous translations from one to the other you’d think it was less possible.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  May 12, 2019

            ok, maybe – thanks

  3. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 5, 2019

    The shortest book title among your list of popular trade books has to be “Forged.” … Did your editors give you any pushback about using such an insensitive word for fundamentalist Christian eyes?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2019

      Yup, they came up with it! The bigger problem, I think is that the book has two subtitles (which are meant to deflect the in-your-face one-worder), which, in my view, is one too many: Forged: Writing in the Name of God. How the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.

  4. Avatar
    AntiochusEpimanes  May 6, 2019

    Do you think there were any exceptions at all to the idea that forgers were trying to fool their audience? For example, were all the apocalyptic writings in the 2nd century BC considered normal practice, or was it all deception?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2019

      My view, which I argue in my book, is that it was both normal practice *and* a self-conscious deception.

  5. Avatar
    AntiochusEpimanes  May 6, 2019

    There’s a story in 2nd Kings where Josiah ‘finds’ a copy of the law (Deuteronomy?) This sounds to me like something Joseph Smith would have come up with. Does this seem like the type of story a forger would have come up with, to explain why no one knew of its existence prior to this point?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2019

      Interesting idea. But the discovery story functions very differently, to explain not the invention of the new religion but the restoration of an old one. And it’s a fairly plausible story (I’ll leave to you the plausibility of the golden tablets): they “rediscover” (maybe not literally) the old ways and decide they need to return to them.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  May 6, 2019

    An important distinction–most forgers, like those who wrote early medical books under the (famous) name of Galen, were presumably doing so in the hopes of their books selling well because of it. They were seeking success and influence they could not easily achieve under their own names.

    The authors of the gospels and other falsely attributed early Christian texts, weren’t selling those books. They were distributing them for free, originally among a small circle, but to the extent they caught on, they were freely copied–there weren’t shops of professional copyists slaving away at them until much later. (Had there been, you’d have much less work to do figuring out who wrote what when.)

    Also, would the gospel authors, any of them, have really thought people would believe their books were written by the disciples named as their authors? The books aren’t written as first-person eyewitness accounts. And it’s likely that all those men were gone by the time the books were written.

    My name isn’t godspell. Obviously. I’ve written under many names on the internet. Most people have. One of them is the name of a fictional character created by a famous author. I even created my own short story in his style, utilizing characters he’d created, for the enjoyment of my readers, to illuminate certain aspects of his work. Is that forgery? Everybody knew it was me. But if the story were to somehow survive and propagate itself online, people might conceivably come to think someday it’s a lost work. My disclaimer at the start of it might be left out.

    Also, it’s interesting that Plato felt that lies in a good cause were moral, since most scholars are pretty sure he imputes to Socrates many statements and ideas that are entirely his own. Should we take this to mean Aristotle never did that? I wonder….

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2019

      In my book I give a long list of motivations for forgery: selling them was one of them, but not the main one. Lots of others. I also differentiate between “motivation” and “intention.” Their motivation may have been to make money, or to discredit an enemy, or to justify a religious practice, or to promote a “correct” teaching, or…. lots of other things. Their intention was to get their reader to believe the lie (so as to accomplish that end).


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