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Why Would Christian Authors Write Forgeries?

In my previous post I cited the box in the new edition of my textbook that explained how Christian authors may have justified themselves in writing “literary deceits,” that is, books that claimed to be written by someone else, for example, a famous apostle such as Peter and Paul (as is almost certainly true of Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and 1 and 2 Peter, e.g.).   Several readers have asked me, though, why a Christian author would *do* such a thing as commit forgery.   It’s one thing to indicate how an author would justify such a deceit (the point of my last post); but why would he engage in the deceit in the first place?

In my books on forgery(both the trade book Forged and the scholarly monography Forgery and Counterforgery) I indicate a number of motives that ancient authors (for example, Jews and pagans) had for producing their forgeries: some did it to make money, some did it to attack a personal enemy, some did it to authorize a philosophical or religious institution, and so on – I give a bunch of attested motives.  The one motive that seems to apply to nearly all the Christian forgeries, in particular  – both those in the NT and those outside of it – is that authors wanted people to read their books and to accept their views as apostolic and, therefore, authoritative.  Below is how I phrase the matter in Forgery and Counterforgery.   First comes a quotation from my chapter 5; then comes the final two paragraphs of the book.




There is one factor that ties together most of the motivations discussed so far, and I give it here as a final category even though in fact it appears to have broad application.

Forgers typically produced writings in the name of others in order to…


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My New Discussion of Gnosticism: Introduction
A New Box on Why A (Christian) Author Would Lie About Who He Was



  1. Avatar
    prestonp  November 4, 2014

    “Small wonder, then, that forgers wrote so many Gospels, epistles, apocalypses, and other works in the names of apostles.” Dr Bart

    “And if the standard dating of his Gospel – and Matthew’s – is correct, they were writing about 50 years or more after Jesus’ death. John’s Gospel was even later.”

    Why would forgers try to cull authority in the names of dead men?

  2. Avatar
    Matilda  November 4, 2014

    This makes sense. Poor Jesus, the things that have been said and done in his name are just atrocious. Personally, I think it is abhorrent to do that and totally unfair. It is misleading, untrue, and a lie. A lie for the good of all is one thing but this pile of lies is just morally wrong and has led to religious disaster.

  3. Avatar
    Kabir  November 4, 2014

    Dear Bart,

    Great scholars it appears in the antiquity are often back up by forgers. Have you yet come accross any one amongst the “fundamentalist” forging in your name to change people perceptions on your scholarly views?

  4. Avatar
    Jana  November 4, 2014

    IF it was widely practice, then those reading must have also known that possibly the text at hand was the work of a forger. Did the culture itself accept forgeries under the guise you’ve described?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2014

      No, the reality is that most people were taken in by forgeries (though not always). One of the key points of my books is that when forgery *was* detected in the ancient world, and when it was talked about, it was always condemned. (Contrary to what we all learned in graduate school! But I give the ancient evidence.)

  5. Avatar
    Stephen  November 4, 2014

    I think you’ve explicated clearly the motives of writers who wished their works to be seen as authentic. But what about the other side of the equation? Why should these works be so readily accepted as authentic? Surely it took more than simply putting Paul’s name in a letter!


    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2014

      In my book I talk about the ploys used by forgers to make their books believable: for example, trying to imitate the writing style of an author, including off-the-cuff comments to provide verisimilitude, and so on….

  6. Avatar
    Tom  November 5, 2014

    I’ve always wondered about this.
    This answers all my curiosities in the matter.

  7. Avatar
    JBSeth1  November 5, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    Speaking of forgeries, I have often wondered if the initial Christians were nothing more than a group of people, acting on behalf of perhaps the Roman government or some other group, with the sole purpose of creating problems within the Jewish community.

    An example of what I’m talking about here was mentioned today in a news article in the Huffington Post.
    This news article is titled, “The Dalai Lama Gives New Yorkers a Lesson on Wisdom as Opponents Protest Outside”.

    See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com

    In this article, the Dalai Lama was commenting about a new breakaway group called NKT that was protesting his talk. In this article, it says,

    “The Buddhist leader has cautioned that the NKT may be spiritually misguided and politically divisive, and his supporters have accused the Shugden following of acting on behalf of the Chinese government to create schisms within the Tibetan community in exile.”

    I’m sure that this is not the first time that this type of thing has happened.

    Any thoughts?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2014

      It seems hard to think that the Roman government was behind the Christian movement when they were so intent on persecuting it!

      • Avatar
        simonelli  November 6, 2014

        Dr. Ehrman, No were in the NT. there is mention of a Roman persecution of the Christians, but there is plenty of mention of the Jews doing that, and steering the pagans to do the same. Paul lived in Rome preaching the gospel unhindered even to the emperor’s household. It appears that hollywood has the power to rewrite history.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 6, 2014

          It’s usually thought that 1 Peter and Revelation are clear instances of Roman persecutions….

  8. Avatar
    kazawolf  November 5, 2014

    In a curious way it is analogous to modern day believers admitting that much of the Bible can’t possibly be literally “true,” but that deeper truths can be gleaned from such prevarications.

  9. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  November 5, 2014

    I have to wonder whether sometimes an author produced an anonymous work, and then later copyists added an attribution to some well-known authority. Maybe it was the copyists themselves who sometimes wanted a work to get wider attention.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2014

      yes, it did happen. With Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for example!

      • Avatar
        Kevin Nelson  November 7, 2014

        Might that be the case, then, with some of the epistles attributed to Paul? Maybe the original authors of those epistles had no intention of passing themselves off as Paul, and the attribution to him came later.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 7, 2014

          No, there it is different. Unlike the Gospels, the Pauline letters all explicitly claim to be written by Paul.

  10. Avatar
    Rosekeister  November 6, 2014

    I’ve always thought 1st Peter was a forgery with a difference. James and the Pastorals could be thought of as writers who feel like they are passing on James and Paul’s teachings and have used their name to lend authority. But 1st Peter seems to be a writer who is intentionally changing Peter’s teachings to make it similar to Paul’s to show they were all teaching the same things about Jesus. This is similar to Acts whose purpose seems to be to make it natural to think of Paul’s teachings as a legitimate extension of the Apostles and the Jerusalem Church rather than a drastic change from a list of sayings of Jesus. When it comes to forgeries, is that a distinction you make?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2014

      Yes, pretty much. I have a long discussion of it in Forgery and Counterforgery.

  11. Avatar
    Jen  November 6, 2014

    I find that many fundamentalist Christians base much of their belief/theology on Biblical so-called prophecies. Do you believe that New Testament authors wrote in such a way to promote views that Old Testament “prophecies” (such as Isaiah, Malachi, and Daniel) had been, were being, or would be fulfilled? And/or do you believe that Christians and/or Jews later came to such beliefs?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2014

      Yes, I think the early Christians told their stories about Jesus with these texts in mind, so that Jesus was thought of and shown, by the stories they told, to have fulfilled prophecy.

      • Avatar
        Jen  November 7, 2014

        Thank you, Bart.

      • Avatar
        Jen  November 13, 2014

        Since asking you that question one week ago, I have read in it’s entirety your book “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium”. Considering that I have to read covertly on my computer, that has been quite a feat for me.

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