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.”
This view coincides perfectly well with …
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