uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Bible and Its Forgeries, Part II: A Quibble With Ehrman Over Ancient Fiction

On Monday I published a commentary that included a quasi-review of Bart Ehrman's latest monograph, Forgery and Counteryforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics. I enjoyed Ehrman's monograph quite a bit, and agreed with his overall premise that many of the canonical epistles (and other works of early Christian literature) written by others in the apostles' names should be considered "forgeries" that were intended to deceive their readers.

I also mentioned that I read Ehrman's monograph in part because it intersects with my own work on the ancient novels: in brief, I'm studying the intersection of deception and narrative story-telling within the Greek and Roman novels of later antiquity, and it is here that I found a minor quibble in Ehrman's concluding chapter.

Ehrman goes to great lengths to argue that these works were works of deception: that when authors wrote Ephesians, or Colossians, or the Pastorals (1-2 Timothy and Titus) in Paul's name, they were hoping to deceive their readers into thinking that Paul himself, someone invested with apostolic authority, wrote them. Based on all the evidence Ehrman marshals, and everything else I've read from antiquity, I don't see how anyone can disagree with this: people did not don pseudonyms for honorific purposes, and when things were falsely written in other people's names, they were condemned as spurious (if the false attribution was detected).

But in a parenthetical argument in his last chapter, Ehrman also dismisses the notion that these works can be considered "fiction," and here I have to disagree. It's understandable where Ehrman is coming from: he is responding to one of many rationalizations by theologians for how pseudepigraphy ("false writings") can be accepted in the Book of Truth, and one of them has been to suggest that these letters were written as literary fictions that the readers would have known were fictions, albeit divinely inspired ones. Ehrman starts off this discussion saying he "should stress again that forgery is not -- and was not -- simply an ancient form of transparent 'fiction'" (532-33).

I would agree that it's not "transparent" fiction in the way that people might read Harry Potter and know it is certainly fiction (though there are some arch-conservative Christians who fret that it is all too real!). But I would argue that fiction writ large in the ancient world was hardly "transparent" at all.

Ehrman is basing much of his discussion on a very handy compendium that has proven invaluable to my work as well: Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (eds. Gill and Wiseman). Here Ehrman asserts that "both in antiquity and today, 'fiction,' involves a kind of contract between the author and the reader, in which the requirement of factual reporting is, by mutual assent, suspended" (533). He acknowledges in a footnote that Gill's contribution to this book ("Plato on Falsehood -- Not Fiction") demonstrates that Plato's notion of "fiction" (or "myths") is deemed harmful not because it is "made up" (Plato allows for a noble lie) but because the stories themselves teach false things. Other myths (which Plato routinely employs) that teach right things are perfectly acceptable. With this, Ehrman is in agreement.

But then he quotes Michael Wood's prologue to Lies and Fiction in a less-than-helpful way. In the quotation, Wood notes that "Fiction is pure invention, any sort of fabrication. It is invention which knows it is invention; or which knows and says it is invention; or which, whatever it knows and says, is known to be invention ..."

The problem is that after Ehrman's quoted block, Wood goes on to say a few other things, including "it is a form of double-think, a game of truth in which we pretend to forget that lies are lies; or when the ordinary rules of truth and falsehood are both simulated and suspended," and yet other things I won't quote here. The point is that Wood is not making a conclusive statement; this entire paragraph is a summation of the sorts of views one will find explored in the book at large to answer the question, "how many meanings of 'fiction' are at play in this book?" Indeed, the paragraph begins with, "The first question, however, generates a flurry of quite different answers." He then goes on to write what is quoted in Ehrman, who cites it as though it is Wood's emphatic opinion, when it is anything but. It is part of an exploration of the question.

The problem with this assumption -- that fiction included an unwritten contract between readers and writers that what is being read is invented and not factually reported -- is that it is problematized by the sources we have (a good treatment of this can be found in J.R. Morgan's contribution to Lies and Fiction, "Make-believe and Make Believe: The Fictionality of the Greek Novels"). Our earliest extant novelist, Chariton, starts his novel Callirhoe by noting that he will "narrate an event that happened" (γενόμενον διηγήσομαι). He ends it by saying simply that "these are the things I composed about Callirhoe" (Τοσάδε περὶ Καλλιρρόης συνέγραψα). This is the same word Thucydides (1.1) uses when he speaks of writing his history (Θουκυδίδης Ἀθηναῖος ξυνέγραψε τὸν πόλεμον τῶν Πελοποννησίων καὶ Ἀθηναίων). Chariton also includes several actual, historical figures in his novel to provide it with verisimilitude (indeed, many surmise the novel developed out of historical narrative -- after all, it was written in prose, which until that time had been reserved for "non-fictional" history, rhetoric, or philosophy).

Thomas Hagg, one of the premiere scholars of the ancient novel, notes: “Admitting the general probability of the historical background for the love story, different readers will have judged differently where the line is drawn between fact and fiction, exactly as is the case with modern historical novels and modern readers. No doubt some believed the whole story to be authentic” (“Callirhoe and Parthenope: The Beginnings of the Historical Novel,” CA 6.2 (1987), p. 197).

Ehrman is right to note that "ancient persons did recognize that a history of Thucydides was not the same sort of writing as a novel by Achilles Tatius" (but see Chariton v. Thucydides above), though I would have modified that to some ancient persons. He notes Lucian's True History as an example (as I did in my first remarks on Ehrman's book), but what should not be forgotten is that Lucian is parodying history and novel precisely because he sees far too much overlap within them. He develops this further in his How to Write History, lamenting that the historiographers of his time strayed too much from the one aim of history: truth (ἓν γὰρ ἔργον ἱστορίας καὶ τέλος, τὸ χρήσιμον ὅπερ ἐκ τοῦ ἀληθοῦς μόνου συνάγεται, 9).

The average reader, however, was not Lucian, even if he was educated. Ehrman spends a lot of time quoting Augustine and his absolutist views on lying, but the great saint himself seemed at a loss as to whether the most fantastic of the ancient novels -- Apuleius' Golden Ass, about a man magically turned into a donkey and back -- was either reported history (indicavit) or invented fiction (finxit, City of God, 18.18).

And should we really be surprised? Even in our fact-obsessed, modern world, people have been known to read fiction intermingled with historical fact, and take away from it a gross misunderstanding of historical events -- mistaking the fiction of the book for fact, and failing to judge appropriately, as Hagg notes above, where the line should be drawn between invention and reality. Ehrman himself knows this well -- he felt compelled to write an entire book titled Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code expressly because Dan Brown's novel led to so much popular misinformation about the history of Christianity. In his words from the introduction, the book was a "fiction ... built on a historical foundation that the reader was to accept as factual, not fictitious."

I may be heaping too much onto this molehill of a quibble, I realize, but it strikes at the heart of my dissertation: that the Greek and Roman novelists routinely played a deceptive game, conscious or not, with their readers, and discoursed on that game repeatedly by commenting on narrative deception within the plots of their romances.

It's true that many theorists of the ancient world, including Lucian, knew of the distinctions between history, fiction, and myth (and indeed divided much of writing into those three categories). But it's also true that most histories included fiction and myth (much to Lucian's dismay) and that even those polemical biographies Lucian himself wrote (on Alexander and Peregrinus) no doubt contain a few whoppers. Again, in a day and age in which we are constantly exposing memoirs for containing fictional information, should we be surprised?

The forged writings Ehrman examines were, I agree, designed to deceive their readers into thinking that they were written by the apostles they claimed to be. But that does not rule them out as fiction (though perhaps "transparent" fiction) any more than Dictys' Account of the Trojan War cannot be considered fiction since no doubt many of its readers believed its writer's assertion that it presented a first-hand account of the war some 1,500 years before.

Some of them were, in fact, fiction -- fiction aimed to deceive the reader. And isn't all fiction, at some level, just that? Certainly any good fiction draws you in and solidifies your suspension of disbelief, and some (like The Da Vinci Code or the 1999 horror flick The Blair Witch Project) even succeed in duping a large number of people.

What exactly ancient fiction was remains a subject of debate, and probably always will. But until such time as it is resolved conclusively, many of the books of the New Testament, in part on in whole, whether pseudepigraphic or not, could be categorized as such.


  1. Do we have any extant evidence that the NT pseudepigrapha were ever categorized as fiction?

    1. Of the ancients calling it that? I don't know -- anti-Christian polemicists often referred to their stories as "myths," or "inventions" (Origen says this of Celsus), and Origen famously conceded that much of John was not historical. But that would be Ehrman's point -- they (ancient Christians) accepted that they were real letters, and those they rejected, they called "bastards" (νόθα). But when the term "invented" is used, that's the closest we come to what we might call "fiction." In Greek, πλάσμα, in Latin, ficta. So they might not have called the epistles fiction (especially since they thought they were, in fact, written by the people they claimed to be), but they wouldn't have called a lot of other things fiction that we do as well, which were equally "inventions." Does that make sense?

    2. So my point in part is that much of ancient fiction guises itself as history or a "real" account; the author knew he was writing fiction. Maybe even a sizable portion of his audience knew they were reading fiction. But at least some of them probably thought some, or even all, of what they were reading was "real." Hence Lucian's hand-wringing ...
      The main problem, which I failed to point out above, is that prose was reserved for history, philosophy, and rhetoric, while verse is what you used to tell myths and other tales. So when the novelists adopted a historical medium (prose) to write their stories, it muddied the waters a bit, much like the documentary format of Blair Witch fooled quite a few people ...

    3. It makes a great deal of sense that the lines between "fact" and "fiction" weren't as neat as we'd like them to be (and as you point out, those lines are still often blurred today). It also makes sense that the reception, understanding and interpretation of ancient writings wasn't uniform ... that different groups and different individuals would vary in those respects.

      Also what just came to mind was the popularity of strictly allegorical interpretations of Scripture in the early Church, where the "factual" meaning of a text was often irrelevant and the "spiritual" symbolism was what was important.

      I think it's frustrating to many people to not have neat categories to place everything in. But the question of whether something is "true" or not means much more than a simple matter of verifying historical facts.

    4. "But the question of whether something is 'true' or not means much more than a simple matter of verifying historical facts." Precisely -- I totally agree. But for those invested in "Biblical authority" and "infallibility" they are totally wed to this notion of "historical fact," so much so that they appear to subordinate Greater Meaning to Actual Occurrence.
      Origen in his remarks on John says this, right? That John didn't get things right historically or factually, but spiritually (he thought) he did. Because it was obvious to Origen just like to most people that the accounts in John often contradict the synoptics. So rather than find greater literary meaning in John's decision to move the cleansing of the Temple to the beginning of Jesus' ministry, they instead assert "it happened twice!" and rob the author of his own literary inventiveness.

  2. Thanks for this! I also think ancient notions of authorship and textuality have to be taken into account. Texts were edited and adapted relatively freely (as Ehrman has shown in other books) with no real sense that they were somehow abusing the work or the author. They were simply bringing the work more in line with their contemporary situation.

    I have not read Ehrman's book (it seemed to be an attempt to grab attention more than anything else) but I am now intrigued. Does he bring texts like 1 Enoch or the testamentary literature into the discussion?

    1. That's another issue, certainly. Although I would not say that there was "no real sense they were somehow abusing the work of the author." It happens, to be sure, but we do have indications that people did not always like it! Often texts would include a curse against anyone who monkeyed with it, as the author of Revelation does at 22:18.

      I would not say Ehrman's book is an "attempt to grab attention," any more than any other work seeks to call attention to the arguments it makes. This is a scholarly monograph (his popular works could perhaps fall victim to that accusation more readily) published by Oxford. It's serious stuff, heavily annotated, and includes some very detailed philological arguments. He's been working on it for years, so it's a genuine addition to the scholarly field, and, I would submit, a needed one.

      If memory serves, he only touches on 1 Enoch tangentially in relation to 2 Peter/Jude; he considers the Testamentary Literature (12 Patriarchs) to be of a different cloth than what he's examining, so he mentions them only to say just that.