In my previous post I pointed out a major problem that confronted the earliest Christians, as I discuss in the Preface to my book Forged (HarperOne, 2011). From the beginning the followers of Jesus insisted that they had the “truth” and that it was only by accepting the “truth” about God as revealed by Jesus that anyone could have salvation. But they disagreed on what the truth was. There were numerous widespread views already in the earliest years of Christianity about who Jesus was, what his death meant, how one was to have salvation, whether one had to keep, or begin to keep, the Jewish law, and about lots of other things.
How was one to get around these problems? The obvious answer presented itself early on in the Christian movement. One could know what the apostles taught because they left writings behind. These authoritative authors produced authoritative teachings. And so, the authoritative truth could be found in the apostolic writings.
Even though this might sound like a perfect solution to the problem, the solution raised problems of its own. One involves a reality that ancient Christians may not have taken into account, but that scholars today are keenly aware of. Most of the apostles were illiterate and could not in fact write. They could not have left an authoritative writing if their soul depended on it. Another problem is that writings started to appear that claimed to be written by apostles, but that contained all sorts of bizarre and contradictory views. Gospels were in circulation that claimed to be written by Jesus’ disciples Peter and Philip and Mary, his brothers Thomas and James; epistles (that is, personal letters) appeared that were allegedly written by Paul (in addition to ones that he actually did write), Peter, and James; apocalyptic writings describing the end of the world or the fate of the souls in the afterlife appeared in the names of Jesus’ followers John, Peter, and Paul. Some writings emerged that claimed to be written by Jesus himself.
In many instances, the authors of these writings could not actually have been who they claimed to be, as even the ancient Christians realized. The views found in these writings were often deemed “heretical” (i.e., they conveyed false teachings), they were at odds with one another, and they contradicted the teachings that had become standard within the church. But why would authors claim to be someone they weren’t? Why would an author claim to be an apostle when he wasn’t? Why would an unknown figure write a book falsely calling himself Peter, Paul, James, Thomas, Philip, or even Jesus?
The answer should seem fairly obvious. If your name was Jehoshaphat, and no one (other than, say, your parents and siblings) had any idea who you were, and you wanted to write an authoritative Gospel about the life and teachings of Jesus, or an authoritative epistle describing what Christians should believe or how they should live, or an inspired apocalypse describing in detail the fate of souls after death, you could not very well sign your own name to the book. No one would take the Gospel of Jehoshaphat seriously. If you wanted someone to read it, you called yourself Peter. Or Thomas. Or James. In other words, you lied about who you really were.
It is often said – even by scholars who should know better – that this kind of “pseudonymous” (= falsely named) writing in the ancient world was not thought to be lying and was not meant to be deceitful. Part of what I’ll be showing in this book is that this view is flat out wrong. Ancient authors who talked about this practice of writing a book in someone else’s name said that it was both lying and deceitful, and that it was not an acceptable practice.
A lot of early Christian writings are “pseudonymous,” going under a “false name.” The more common word for this kind of writing is “forgery.” In the ancient world forgery was a bit different from today, in that it was not, technically speaking, against the law. But even though it was not an illegal activity, it was a deceitful one that involved conscious lying, as the ancients themselves said.
The million-dollar question is this: is it possible that any of the ancient Christian forgeries made it into the New Testament? That some of the books of the New Testament were not written by the apostles whose names are attached to them? That some of Paul’s letters were not actually written by Paul but by someone claiming to be Paul? That Peter’s letters were not written by Peter? That James and Jude did not write the books that bear their names? Or – a somewhat different case, as we will see – that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
Scholars for over a hundred years have realized that in fact this is the case. The authors of some of the books of the New Testament were not who they claimed to be or who they have been supposed to be. In some instances that is because an anonymous writing, in which an author did not indicate who he was, was later named after someone who did not in fact write it. Matthew probably did not write Matthew,, for example, or John John; on the other hand, neither book actually claims to be written by persons named Matthew or John. In other instances it is because an author lied about who he was, claiming to be someone he was not. As I have already intimated, some scholars have long been reluctant, and even opposed, to calling this authorial activity lying, and to call the literary products that resulted as forgeries. As I will explain at length in the following chapters, most of the scholars who have actually read what ancient authors say about the phenomenon have no such hesitancy.
It is true that the ancient authors who lied about their identity may well have felt they had a clear conscience, that what they did was completely justified, that they were ultimately in the right. They may have thought and believed , at least in their own minds, that they had very good reasons for doing what they did. But as we will see in later chapters, by ancient standards these authors engaged in fraudulent activities, and the books they produced were forgeries.
Let me conclude this preface simply by saying that I have spent the past five or six years studying forgery in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, especially but not exclusively within Christianity. These past ten months I have devoted all my research to this field, day and night, reading the ancient sources that discuss the matter. My goal all along has been to write a detailed scholarly monograph that deals with the matter at length. The book you’re reading now is not that scholarly monograph. What I try to do in the present book is to discuss the issue at a layperson’s level, pointing out the really interesting aspects of the problem, showing what scholars have long said about the writings of the New Testament and about the pseudonymous Christian writings from outside the New Testament. I do not to presuppose an in-depth knowledge of the subject, but try to explain all my terms and all the issues at a level that the guy across the street can understand. Once I finish writing this book, I will then produce the scholarly monograph that will be much more thoroughly documented, closely argued, and, generally, heavy duty. The present book, in other words, is not intended for my fellow scholars (that’s the next book), who, if they read this one, will be doing so simply out of curiosity. It is instead intended for you, the general reader, who on some level or other, like me, is interested in the truth.
 I will discuss evidence for this claim – the illiteracy of the apostles –in chapter two of my book.
 I discuss this at length in chapter four of my book.
 I give more precise definitions of these terms in chapter one.
 See pp. xxx.