History, as any good student of it knows, is messy. Things often do not follow ordinary or orderly patterns. And the history of the composition of documents in antiquity is no different. Bart’s attempt in the first half of his book ‘Forged’ to force the read to choose between basically two binary opposites— either the NT documents were composed by who they claim to be composed by, or they were forgeries or fabrications, is frankly to limit the possibilities to too few options. I say this, not only because of what we now know of the many and varied roles scribes played in even composing documents in antiquity (see K. van der Tooren as previously discussed) but I say this on the basis of the prima facia evidence within the NT itself.
Take for example the complex case of the document we know as the Gospel of John. This document is formally anonymous (no direct internal naming of the author in the document), and it has the later attribution ‘according to John’. But which John? John Mark, John of Patmos, John son of Zebedee? The attribution does not specify. In the heat of controversy, trying to snatch this Gospel back from the Gnostics who apparently thought it was the best, Irenaeus and others attributed this Gospel to John son of Zebedee. But frankly, there are severe problems with that guess. Here is a document which uniquely among canonical Gospels claims within the document to involve the testimony of an eyewitness—the Beloved Disciple (see John 19-21). But this Gospel contains none of the crucial eyewitness stories we find in the Synoptics involving John son of Zebedee—not the calling of the Zebedees, not the raising of Jairus’ daughter, not the Transfiguration, not the asking for box seats in the kingdom when Jesus gets there—nothing like this is in John’s Gospel. In fact there is hardly a mention of the Zebedees at all in the Fourth Gospel (but see the passing reference in John 21). Yet when we get to the end of the document we have a very peculiar testimony—“this (i.e. the Beloved Disciple) is the disciple who is testifying to these things, and has written them down, and we know his testimony is true.” (21.24). What makes this sentence doubly interesting is that it comes after a very strange disclaimer—- Jesus did not say the Beloved Disciple would live until he returned.
Why in the world do we need that disclaimer? Apparently because the Beloved Disciple’s community thought he uniquely would do so. But why would they think that and why stress it here? The normal, and I think correct answer to this question is that the Beloved Disciple had finally died, and Jesus had not yet returned, and so the community he was a part of wanted to reassure people that Jesus had not falsely predicted the endurance of the Beloved Disciple longer than he actually lived. As to why the community of the Beloved Disciple would think he would not die before the return of Jesus, I can think of a very good reason— Jesus had already raised him from the dead once. Surely, he would not die again. You can read about my case for the Beloved Disciple being Lazarus in What Have They Done with Jesus. I think the case is a strong one, passing the case for John son of Zebedee in the fast lane. For example, there are no direct references to a Beloved Disciple before John 11.1-3, and quite a few there after, and in John 11.1-4 ‘the one whom Jesus loves’ is clearly said to be Lazarus.
Let’s pause for a moment on that phrase ‘the Beloved Disciple’. Jesus famously said he came to be a servant, he rebuked his disciples for their debate about which one of them was the greatest, he held up children as examples to his boastful disciples, and he preached humility. What kind of disciple would go around calling himself ‘the Beloved Disciple’? It’s a fair question. I think that this is not what that disciple called himself. It is what his family and later Christian friends and community called him. And that brings us back to John 21.24—‘who exactly is the ‘we’ in that verse? It’s surely the community of the Beloved Disciple testifying about the testimony the Beloved Disciple wrote down before he died. But as Sherlock Holmes would say, John 21.24 is the telltale sign that this Gospel in its final form was composed or put together and edited by someone other than the Beloved Disciple. Who, exactly?
Obviously, it is a literate person who has collected and edited the memoirs of the Beloved Disciple. He too seems to have been a person comfortable with calling this man, uniquely, the Beloved Disciple, amongst the many disciples Jesus had. He is indebted to him, and highly values his testimony. This person could be an ordinary scribe tasked with collecting, editing and presenting the Johannine community with this Gospel, probably the latest of all the canonical Gospels. Why then is the common name John added to this document?
Papias tells us there were two famous John’s— John the apostle, and the elderly or elder John. Only the latter had Papias met. If you study all of the fragments of Papias’ writings from both within the work of Eusebius and other sources, one of the things you learn about him, which Eusebius despises, is that Papias is a chiliast — that is, a person who believes in a future millennium or messianic age at the end of history and before history’s end. Of course the only person who clearly advocates such a thing directly in the NT is the author of Revelation— John the prophet or seer, John of Patmos (John 20).
Here is my theory about the fourth Gospel, but whether this theory is correct or not, John 21.24 must be accounted for, and it reveals the post-mortem collection and composition of this document by someone other than the Beloved Disciple, and someone not claiming to be the Beloved Disciple— the ‘we’ is not the ‘he’ in that verse. My theory in sum is that John of Patmos, after he returned from exile to Ephesus where the Beloved Disciple had died, collected and edited the BD’s materials and promulgated this Gospel. This fact was known well into the second century (the Gospel was probably only composed in the late 90s anyway) and it is the cause for it having the label ‘according to John’. Now if John of Patmos had been interviewed and asked if he was the source of the material in this Gospel, he would have said no — he was simply the scribe or editor who assembled after the death of the BD. In short, right before our eyes and within the canon in the Gospel of John, we have evidence of a composition history of a document that involves someone other than the source of the material in the document composing the document. This falls neither into the category of written by the genuine author nor into the category of forgery or fabrication. Those categories are too narrow and cramped to explain all the NT data.
Bearing this in mind, we can turn to Bart’s Chapter Five. In order to properly explain why there are so many forgeries or fabrications in the NT and in early Christian history, Bart takes the route of suggesting that Christians saw themselves as constantly embattled, and apparently the end justified the means, even if the means was forgery and fabrication. The truth would be defended by deceit and fraud. If Bart is right that there was no literary convention of writing pseudonymous documents in antiquity, and if he is write that the NT documents were not written by those to whom they are credited, then this is the sort of alternative one would expect Bart to come up with.
The problem is, he is partially wrong about the first theory, and extensively wrong about the second theory, and so we don’t really need this further rationalization of why Christians behaved badly and forged and fabricated documents. We especially don’t need it if one adequately takes the measure of the varied roles scribes played, even after the death of an authentic witness, in composing documents. He begins with Ephesians, once more, and suggests that there are an awful lot of references to truth in that book, which is ironic if someone falsely claimed to write this book after the time of Paul. He’s right about that, for the case for pseudepigrapha being a recognized literary convention is weak indeed. Fortunately, Paul did write Ephesians and so it doesn’t involve deception.
Bart is equally correct that when Jews largely didn’t accept Jesus, this led, especially in the second century and later to anti-Semitism among Christians, including the charge that Jews were Christ killers. Never mind that it was the Romans who executed Jesus (which did not lead to anti-Italianism). Bart is good at pointing out the sins of the early church, and this chapter is all about that, and about forgeries like the Gospel of Peter or the Gospel of Nicodemus (fourth century forgery), the Pilate Gospels which were used to beat Jews over the head.
Once again the purpose of spending so much time on later forgeries from the post- NT era is the guilt by association kind of argument— if there was this much deceit going on later, there must have been a bunch of it in the first century A.D. as well. The problem with this sort of argument by analogy is of course that each era of history, just as each individual person, has their own unique features. For example, as Jacob Neusner has so ably shown, you can’t retroject later rabbinic Judaism and all its practices back into Second Temple Judaism. Things changed dramatically after A.D. 70, and after 120, Judaism ceased to be a Temple and territory focused religion at all, focusing only on the third T—Torah.
I would stress that the historical conditions in earliest Christianity, with its apostles and eyewitnesses and co-workers, had quality control agents and a sufficiently large Jewish Christian population to make some of the later practices of anti-Semitic Gentile Christians unlikely or exceptional in that era. Paul’s impassioned argument in Romans 9-11 that God had not abandoned nor was he finished with his first chosen people shows what the apostles were teaching about such matters. That such arguments later fell on deaf ears should not stop us from recognizing the different character of the leadership in the earlier period. It is interesting that some of the documents Bart discusses in this chapter could be called attempts at Christian fiction or novellas a category of literature Bart mostly ignores (but see the discussion of the Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea on p. 161). This sort of literature was popular in the first four centuries of Christian history, but even if viewed that way, it does not exonerate them of their mean-spirited anti- Semitic ideas and emphases. Worse still, the Romans were already anti-Semitic, and this sort of literature just fed their despising of the Jews. This literature is a far cry from Luke-Acts where we are told that even the Jewish officials who did have something to do with Jesus’ death acted in ignorance not malice and could be forgiven.
As a prelude to dealing with later Christian writings alleged to have been written by Jesus himself, on pp. 159-6o Bart deals with the famous John 7.53-8.11 where he stresses that this text says that Jesus himself could write. Bart does not here comment on the historical merits of the story, but since elsewhere he says Jesus is an illiterate peasant, there is no doubt about how he views it. He does mention the recent theory of Chris Keith that this story was concocted to demonstrate that Jesus could write! But that surely is a minor motif in the story, we are not even told what Jesus wrote on the ground, so this theory while ingenuous is probably entirely wrong. Most Johannine scholars anyway think this is an authentic Jesus story, but not originally a canonical one. I agree with the latter opinion.
On pp. 162-63 Bart deals with the fascinating but fictional correspondence between King Abgar of Edessa and Jesus himself. It is interesting for many reasons, not the least of which is that a Christian pilgrim in the fourth century, Egeria, saw this document as displayed by the bishop of that place. What this shows of course is that Bart is right— there were many fictitious writings and indeed forgeries and fabrications in early Christianity. There is no denying it, and very many of them sadly have an anti-Semitic slant. This is not a part of Christian history that Christians should be proud of, or condone however fascinating these documents might be from a historical point of view. But the fact that there is such an abundance of these documents should tell us one thing—-estimates that the literacy of early Christians was something like 1-5% must be way too low. Somebodies produced these documents for some audiences, and they bespeak of a geographically widespread literacy in early Christianity, and not just among the elites.
On p. 164 Bart makes a point that is historically dubious. His is an argument from silence. His argument is that because there were no Imperial edicts banning Christianity specifically, that it is not true that Christianity was widely viewed as an illegal religion. This completely ignores the fact that the one thing saving Judaism from being proscribed was Imperial edicts saying the Jews could practice their own religion and need not offer sacrifices to the Emperor. Bart does not even reckon with all the things said in Roman literature about ‘religio licita’ and for that matter about superstitio—eastern and foreign superstitions. Beginning from Augustan on, there were indeed imperial efforts to ban and banish foreign cults, and when it became clear Christianity was not merely Judaism, it fell under such a cloud. Bart is right that actual persecution of Christians was sporadic and local in the first century, but the correspondence of Pliny and Trajan make perfectly clear that early in the second century, Christians were not being given the same ‘pass’ that Jews were given when it came to worshipping the Emperor. Why not? Because there were rules about how to deal with superstitions, and Christianity fell into that category. Indeed, when Christians urged people not to worship the Emperor they were in violation of Caesar’s decrees (see Acts), and notice how Paul in Athens in Acts 17 is on trial for promulgating false religion or false gods, gods not approved for worship by the Areopagus first. In other words, Bart’s portrayal of the first century situation for Christians has some historically dubious aspects to it.
As Christianity gained momentum and more and more followers, the need for apologetics became more urgent, as the faith became more visible in the Empire. Bart on pp. 165-73 makes a reasonable case for seeing some of the fictional and forged documents as attempts to exonerate Christians from pagan charges, counter claims, or contumely. For example the Acts of Pilate are held up as a possible response to a pagan document called the Acts of Pilate which paints Jesus in a very bad light. I suspect he is right about this. Christians resorted to rather transparent fiction as a vehicle to rebut false claims about their faith. What is not clear to me is that at least the more transparent of these documents would not immediately have been recognized as fiction rather than fabrication. That they were later, considerably later, in the Middle Ages (e.g. in the case of the Gospel of Nicodemus), viewed differently is another story. I think Bart spends too little time reckoning with the possibility and scope of early Christian fiction—which did not intend to deceive, and probably did not fool its original intended audience. But I agree we must take seriously that there were various forgeries and fabrications in early Christianity, and simply admit that this is not consonant with a strong commitment to the truth in all things.
Bart goes on to discuss the Sibylline Oracles on pp. 173-76 and he is quite right that both Jews and Christians fabricated oracles and inserted them into or created these collections. The original oracles were lost in temple fires before these monotheistic substitutes were created. There is nothing in this discussion which seems amiss. Christians were indeed prepared to create false prophecies to bolster their religion, as were early Jewish and indeed there was also an apologetic purpose in this, to convince pagans about monotheism.
One of the ironies about this book is that while Bart has no trouble showing that later Christians acting immorally created forgeries and fabrications, he does not show that such practices were indulged in by the apostles and original eyewitnesses themselves or by their co-workers. And surely, if you want to actually discredit Christianity, what you actually need to do is go back ad fontes and discredit the original Christians and their actual eyewitness testimonies. For example, you would need to discredit the content of, say, the seven undisputed letters of Paul. You would have to discredit his testimony not only that Jesus died and rose from the dead, but that he appeared to hundreds of people, some of whom, like himself, had been previously hostile to Jesus and his followers. This book does none of that. But it certainly does leave the odor of a skunk on many Christians who lived after the NT era. No wonder some people say I can believe in Jesus, but the church is simply unbelievable.
For the earlier parts of this series, see: