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

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Bible and Its Forgeries

Nary a day on the internet goes by (and each day on the internet is really thousands of days) that I don't see someone quoting 2 Tim. 3:16 to browbeat someone else into accepting the Bible as the "final authority" on (fill in the blank): "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." Of course, the problems with this strategy are manifold, but have typically not occurred to the person regurgitating it for the umpteenth time, chiefly: what was considered "scripture" when this verse was written? Was the author including himself and his own words? Since there was no "canon" when the words were written, it's hard to tell.

But an even bigger problem is lurking behind such a maneuver: the fact that 2 Timothy is most likely a literary forgery in the name of Paul, making a citation of the verse to defend The Truth laden with thick irony.

Such forgeries and the motivations behind them are the focus of Bart Ehrman's latest monograph, Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, and it really should be required reading for anyone asserting arguments based on "Biblical authority." Here Ehrman lays out, in an impressively argued philological analysis, not only why most critical scholars consider a good number of the books of the New Testament "pseudepigraphic" (Ehrman prefers the term "forged") but also the underlying motivation for the vast majority of Christian forgeries we have from antiquity: to attack those with opposing views.

Ehrman's popular book Forged covered some of this same ground, but his scholarly monograph is exhaustive in its treatment of the material. Because so many Biblical scholars appear reluctant to call pseudepigraphy what it really is, he spends a good amount of his book laying out the case for calling the canonical works forgeries. The essence of his argument is this: that we have scores and scores of forgeries in the early Christian period; that contemporaries refer to said works as "forgeries," not honorific pseudepigraphy or any other less-damnable term; and that short of a theological compulsion to see them otherwise, there is no reason to consider many of the books of the New Testament (like the Pastorals -- 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus -- or 2 Peter) as anything other than forgeries.

The rest of the book explores why these forgeries were made, and in almost every case, it is a matter of polemics: that is, the author of the work wishes to condemn or attack another group or set of beliefs, and he dons the guise of an apostle or other Christian figure to give his writing authorization.

I read Ehrman's book in part because it intersects with my own work: my dissertation focuses on the relationship between deceit and fiction, and indeed, how integral the notion of deceit was at the birth of what we now call fiction. If anything, Ehrman could have hammered home this relationship even more: in the rhetorical handbooks used to educate most likely any author of the New Testament, students were instructed on how to lie and how to lie plausibly. As Nicolus the Sophist notes (2.6):

And so fable is a false account resembling the truth in its persuasive composition. The account is false, since it unapologetically is composed from falsehood. But it is resembling the truth, since it would not otherwise be like the truth. It should thus become like the truth from the credibility surrounding the invention.

The "fable" for Nicolus is μῦθος, something with which the pseudepigraphic writers of the New Testament appear especially preoccupied. Ehrman notes that the term appears never in the undisputed letters of Paul but four times in the short Pastorals, and again at 2 Peter 1:16 (this later use was the subject of a paper I presented at the regional Society for Biblical Literature last year). The authors of these works, then, which are richer and use more highly sophisticated language than the undisputed letters of Paul, are using rhetorical strategies almost identical to those of their pagan contemporaries, also schooled with the same handbooks. In short, they are using the training they received to make their accounts and fictions plausible and believable, something the author of the Pastorals and 2 Peter both do, asserting their apostolic identity and throwing in copious amounts of verisimilitude (personal anecdotes about things they witnessed and people they have visited) to pull off the deceit.

Perhaps Ehrman's most provocative claim is that the Acts of the Apostles is what he calls a non-pseudepigraphic forgery: that is, while it does not make an authorial claim (the author remains anonymous), it does insert first-person verbs at key travel points of the narrative. Here again, Erhman cites plenty of examples but could have cited even more, especially the True History by Lucian, a satirical travel narrative (to the moon!) that includes precisely the sort of faux personal authentication Ehrman sees the author of Acts doing. In Lucian, his entire purpose is to pillory fictional travel tales, as he tells us in his prologue (when he also tells us everything he will be writing is a lie).

In light of all the evidence from the ancient world, Ehrman shouldn't have even had to write this monograph. Anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about Greek and Roman antiquity knows that literary forgeries and literary deceptions were commonplace. The only reason this is a debate in the New Testament is because a good number of people are invested in a view of "Biblical authority," which they define to mean that every piece of every verse of the Bible is 100 percent true and factual, no matter the tensions, problems, and ambiguities that any honest reading of the texts lays bare.

There are all sorts of attempts to rescue the texts from these charges of pseudepigraphy (which are not new -- philologists in the 19th century noticed how out-of-place the Pastorals were, and books like Hebrews have been doubted since antiquity). The most notable is the "secretary hypothesis," which Ehrman ably dismantles, but which asserts that the Pastorals (whose writing style is too different to be ignored) must have been written from raw material by Paul that was polished up by a secretary. There is just so little evidence from the ancient world to support this that it does, as he points out, require "wishful thinking."

Those who argue against calling these works forgeries are thus backed into more and more specious hypotheses to resist it, but are also met with a reality too big to ignore in light of the textual discoveries over the past century. None of these Bible-authority ideologues would suggest that the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary or the Gospel of Peter or any of the other so-called apocryphal works out there are, in fact, apostolic. They would agree they are forgeries written in these apostles' names. So as Ehrman hits home over and again, which is more likely? That some obscure hypothesis with virtually no evidence can explain these anomalies, or that, like so many scores of other works from early Christianity and greater antiquity, they are merely forgeries designed to deceive their readers?

It should be pointed out that this is not something that many denominations struggle with. The mainline Protestant denominations accepted critical Bible scholarship, by and large, shortly after it appeared in Germany in the 19th century (hence the split with evangelical denominations that hew to "Biblical authority"). They treat the Bible as a received, sacred text, but one written by men with their own motivations and contexts. So they see in the Pastorals, for example, perhaps not ideologies to be emulated (as the Mark Driscolls of the faith do unthinkingly) but earlier understandings of Christianities that can be uncovered through the text.

For example, the Pastorals are written in part to assert imperial family ideologies regarding women, wives, and slaves, but they very well might have been written in response to other understandings of Pauline Christianity that empowered women more, embraced chastity, and eschewed the hard-line hierarchy asserted by the author. Thus an earlier Christian "truth" can be uncovered behind the attacks leveled by the texts, albeit in a way unintended by the author.

But whatever one decides to do with the Pastorals, the vast majority of scholars agree they were written by someone who went out of his way to pretend that he was Paul, putting on an act that is a literary fiction at best, an outright deception at worst. So asserting that the Bible is true because this forger asserts that it's true (leaving aside the problem of what he considered "scripture") should disqualify someone from serious conversation. 


  1. It's a shame, because 2 Tim 3.14-17 in its genuine historical context has a rather nice anti-Marcionite reading in defence of the OT (and presumably the Greek OT at that!). It would indeed be a lovely book without all the pseudo-Paul leasing.

  2. How do I know that you really wrote this post? ;)

    But seriously, thanks for this summary of Ehrman's work. Unfortunately, even mentioning his name in certain circles disqualifies you from the discussion. After all, don't you know that he's just writing this drivel to bolster his lack of Christian faith?

    I do appreciate your discussion of how the church can responsibly "appropriate" pseudepigraphal works that have made their way into the canon. The issue isn't that a certain letter appears between the cover of my Bible, it's how we understand the history and context of that letter. And that should really be the starting point for how we study any ancient document, regardless of whether we know who the author really is.

    1. Thanks, Dan. Yeah, to me the literary context just makes it that much more fascinating. And like you said, the polemical nature of it just gives us more to explore.
      It is unfortunate that some people have such a visceral reaction to Ehrman. I think he's made it clear that he is not anti-Christian (his wife is a Christian), but because so many people equate a certain ideology with Christianity, they assume he is. But then you know all that.