The first chapter begins with something of a disclaimer. “There was a good deal of that sort of activity in the ancient world [i.e. forgery]…although it was not a major factor in early Christianity. This was for a simple reason: Christian books were not, by and large, for sale” (p. 15) and as Bart points out, making money was even in antiquity one major reason for forgeries. On p. 17 Bart goes on to say that there is ‘scant’ evidence of Christians producing forgeries just for the sake of seeing if they could get away with it, as has and does happen from time to time. There seem to have been other motives in play, for clearly enough we do have forgeries produced in the second century A.D. for example the Gospel of Peter which Bart uses to make his point. Oddly, what he does not stress, but should have, is that when it was discovered by Bishop Serapion that the book was a forgery, he banned it from being read in church. According to Eusebius (vi.12.2) quoting from a pamphlet Serapion wrote concerning the Docetic Gospel of Peter, Serapion presents an argument to the Christian community of Rhossus in Syria against this gospel and condemns it:
“We, brethren, receive Peter and the other Apostles even as Christ; but the writings that go falsely by their names we, in our experience, reject, knowing that such things as these we never received. When I was with you I supposed you all to be attached to the right faith; and so without going through the gospel put forward under Peter’s name, I said, `If this is all that makes your petty quarrel, why then let it be read.’ But now that I have learned from information given me that their mind was lurking in some hole of heresy, I will make a point of coming to you again: so, brethren, expect me speedily. Knowing then, brethren, of what kind of heresy was Marcion… From others who used this very gospel— I mean from the successors of those who started it, whom we call Docetae, for most of its ideas are of their school— from them, I say, I borrowed it, and was able to go through it, and to find that most of it belonged to the right teaching of the Saviour, but some things were additions.”
Here is a Bishop who is indeed a truth-seeker, concerned that his flock not be misled. Of course the problem with forgeries is they may include some true material in them, at least for the sake of verisimilitude. And such was the Gospel of Peter. The early church was indeed concerned about the issue of forgery, and it is fair say while the relevant church fathers could be deceived, they would not willingly have passed along documents they knew were forgeries, much less agree to including such documents in the canon of the NT.
Truth was a commodity the early church was deeply concerned about, and as Bart admits, Christianity stood out like a sore thumb from Greco-Roman religionists who did not subscribe to a certain number of truth claims about their gods, and were often prepared to admit mythology was composed of myths! Yes, they believed gods existed, but no, they did not have sacred texts that they believed told the ‘Gospel truth’ about their gods.
While we could dispute some of the analysis of Bart about some of the forgeries claiming to be written by this or that apostle, the general point is without dispute. There were lots of forgeries between the second and fourth centuries in Christian history, and some of them were believed to be genuine (e.g. the Apocalypse of Peter). Bart counts as many as 100 such forgeries. One of the things they all appear to have in common is they were written by Gentiles, in a Greco-Roman setting where such practices were common. I would add, they were also written by people who by both first century and later Orthodox standards shouldn’t be called Christians—- I mean Gnostics, Docetists, Marcionites and the like.
There is a reason why these folks were called heretics in their own time— they were false teachers and not surprisingly they propagated their false teachings through forgeries. What I would especially stress is that they not only failed later Christian litmus’ tests for orthodoxy. They also completely failed the earliest tests for orthodoxy found within the NT documents themselves. Claiming these folks were ‘Christians’ is rather like claiming Deepak Chopra is a Christian theologian just because he talks about Jesus in some spiritual way. Sorry, but that dog won’t hunt.
Bart goes on on p. 19 to make clear that there were forgeries amongst first century Christians as well, and he is surely right. He is right to point to 2 Thess. 2.2 which indicates that there were false teachers usurping Paul’s name and writing documents claiming to be by him. This is probably the reason Paul used the practice of signing his own documents with his own hand, so there would be a way of authenticating the document. But of course Bart wants to suggest that some of the NT documents themselves with Paul’s name appended, deserve to be called forgeries.
Here is where I say ‘caveat emptor’—let the buyer beware when Bart begins to make sweeping claims like “Second Thessalonians… is itself widely thought by scholars not to be by Paul” (p. 19). I called Bart on this very point when we were debating at New Orleans Baptist Seminary last month. I pointed out, that if one does the head count of what commentators say about 2 Thessalonians, in fact the majority of commentators, even if one restricts one’s self to so-called critical commentators, still believe Paul is responsible for 2 Thessalonians.
Bart’s rebuttal was that he was not counting conservative or orthodox commentators. My response to the response was that in fact he was ruling out the majority of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, not to mention some Jewish scholars at this point. In other words, his ‘canon’ of critical scholars is small, a distinct minority of the total number of NT scholars around the world, with whom he has chosen to agree. My point here is, don’t believe such claims as ‘widely believed’ or ‘the majority of good scholars think’ without first doing the math. In fact, Bart’s math does not add up. Thus while it is true that often forgers throw people off their trail by warning about forgery in their own forged documents, in fact, there were plenty of genuine warnings of this sort by authors like Galen, who were really upset with people writing documents in their own name. Galen even published a list of his authentic writings to make clear what was a forgery. As it turn out, many ancients were very concerned about the dangers of forgery, and Paul was one of them.
On p. 21, Bart goes on to deal with the controversy over the book of Revelation. And again he is right, there was a dispute in the early church over whether John son of Zebedee wrote this book, with the church father Dionysius disputing it. He thought two different John’s had been confused. Now any time you get into a debate about authorship of a book, including NT books, it is important to observe from the outset that internal evidence of the document itself should always take priority over later external labels or arguments about the book.
Nowhere in Revelation is the claim made that this book is written by John son of Zebedee. Indeed, nowhere in this document is there a claim it was written by an apostle either. The claim in Rev. 1 is that it was written by John the seer, on the island of Patmos. That is all. And in fact most scholars today, including those who have written commentaries on the book, do not dispute this claim. What the man’s exact relationship may or may not have been with John of Zebedee or the Beloved Disciple can be debated, but the fact remains that even the best scholars of apocalyptic literature like John Collins (see his The Apocalyptic Imagination ) accept that someone named John wrote this book. So this book is not an example of a pseudonymous apocalypse, unlike the later Apocalypse of Peter. Apparently Bart recognizes this.
Again, Bart is right that several of the books now in the canon were disputed even in the early church. Besides Revelation, both Jude and 2 Peter are rightly mentioned by Bart as disputed by the church fathers, the former because of its citation of a tradition from the apocryphal Enoch literature. We will say more about this later.Bart is also right that there was a dispute about Hebrews, though that document is formally anonymous, makes no claims about authorship, and frankly the argument that Heb. 13.22-25 is trying to make some sort of weak claim that it is by Paul is a real stretch (see p. 22). The most you can get out of that text is it is probably written by someone in the larger Pauline circle, say an Apollos for example.
The fact that various modern scholars dispute the authenticity of the Pastoral Epistles is true enough. Indeed, modern scholars are pretty evenly divided about the Pastorals. By my count when I wrote a commentary on the Pastorals, a slight majority favored some sort of Pauline authorship, but that was a change from the situation in the 1970s when the majority seemed to favor seeing them as pseudepigrapha. There was a reason for this change in opinion as well—- more and more scholars had learned more and more about the way scribes were used in antiquity in the composition of documents, and also had learned a good deal about the latitude trusted scribes, like Cicero’s Tiro had in composition. Furthermore, as Luke Timothy Johnson pointed out, many writers were capable of writing in a style that suited the rhetorical nature of this or that discourse or document. Style and vocabulary reflected purpose, and could not be seen as a clear litmus test as to authorship. More on this as well.
The remainder of the first chapter (pp. 22-42) dwells on the subject of forgery in antiquity, the terms of the debate, the motives and justifications of the practice, and related matters. Pp. 22-24 provide us with a helpful glossary of terms and the real burden of this book comes to light. Bart is not primarily concerned with documents that were formally anonymous, but were later ascribed to someone, say an apostle. So for example Matthew’s Gospel is not attributed to Matthew in the document itself (vss. 1-to the end). The fact that it was later ascribed to Matthew can be debated, but it would not make it a forgery in the narrow sense in which Bart is using the term, namely a claim to authorship by the person who produced the document which is a false claim and deliberately a false claim. Bart is right in one of his main theses of this book— “that those who engaged in this activity in the ancient world were roundly condemned for lying and trying to deceive their readers.” (p. 25). This is correct, and interestingly it means that I agree with Bart’s critique of liberal scholars who want to claim such practices were mere recognized literary practices, not attempts at deceit, whatever genre of literature we might be discussing. I think there is a very limited scope of types of ancient documents of this sort that were not attempts to deceive. There does not, for example, appear to have been any literary convention warranting pseudepigraphical personal letters in antiquity.
On p. 26, we have a helpful distinction between intentions and motivations, one too little observed in scholarly writings. Intention has to do with what one wants to accomplish, motivation with the reasons one wants to accomplish it. Thus, the forger’s intention is to deceive, but his reasons for wanting to do so can be many and varied. As things turn out, I also agree with Bart that The Secret Gospel of Mark is indeed likely to be a forgery by Morton Smith (p. 27). It’s nice to find points of agreement with someone I usually disagree with.
On p. 30, Bart argues that not even in the case of apocalyptic literature can we argue for pseudonymity as a legitimate literary device without attempt to deceive. He argues this way because Tertullian once argued at length that the Book of Enoch was really by Enoch, and somehow miraculously survived the flood! He thinks there were other ancients who normally took apocalypses apparent authorship claims at face value.
But what if there were deliberate pulling back of the curtains so to speak in various such documents, which made evident the composer of the document was not the person to whom it was formally attributed at its outset? Richard Bauckham has argued this is precisely the case in 2 Peter, a document ascribed to Peter, perhaps because it includes a Petrine source in the first chapter, but then later in the document the author reveals his hand in comments about a collection of Paul’s letters (made after Peter’s death) and other things which the audience of the document would know were in reference to activities in their own day, not in the time of Peter (and no, these references are not presented as prophecies). In other words, there are reasons not to take at face value the claim that ‘all ancients took authorship claims at face value, even in apocalyptic literature’ and so we must assume forgery and an attempt to deceive.
What was the motivation for forgery in antiquity? To gain a wider hearing than one would otherwise have for one’s ideas, presumably. Here I think Bart is probably largely correct. There may have been many motivations, but in religious or quasi-Christian circles this was surely one of them. Here it will be well to remind my audience that recently on this blog I have talked about the ancient book trade, how small it was, the role of scribes and copiests and the like. These blog posts should be consulted as one works through this critique, as certain things said there, are presupposed here.
One of those things is that what we mean by authorship today, indeed what we mean by putting someone’s name on a document today, was not exactly the same as what was meant in antiquity. Sometimes a document was named or labeled after its most famous contributor (e.g. Moses when it came to the Pentateuch, or Matthew when it came to the Gospel in his name). Sometimes a document would be named after its most famous source (e.g. 2 Peter which has a Petrine source). Sometimes a document would be named after the person who actually wrote it— say Luke, in Luke-Acts. Now all of these practices were legitimate scribal practices, when they were putting tags on ancient documents to identify them and their sort or source or author. Van der Tooren is worth a close look on some of these things, and one can also read the Introductions in my commentaries on the Pastorals or on 1-2 Peter and Jude.
What I will be arguing as this review goes on, is that Bart is wrong, not about the many forgeries out there in antiquity. He is too narrow in his thinking about what the name label on a scroll might mean, and is therefore wrong that we have forgeries in the NT. No, actually we do not. We have documents authored by those so named, we have documents written by scribes on behalf of those so named, we have anonymous documents later mistakenly ascribed to Paul (e.g. Hebrews) or John son of Zebedee (e.g. Gospel of John, Revelation of John), we have composite documents that list the first or most important contributing source. In none of these cases are we dealing with forgery as defined by Bart Ehrman. It can be also stressed that pseudepigrapha which has a named specific audience was especially difficult to pull off because it involves not just a false author claim, but almost always as well a false audience claim, and if the recipients of the document knew any members of the alleged audience there is a high degree of likelihood someone would have spelled a rat.
Ehrman has done some very good homework for this book, and he is right that in antiquity forgery was roundly condemned in both Christian and non-Christian circles, repeatedly. And he is likely right as well that forgers wanted to deceive their audiences for one reason or another, and had the intent of doing so from the outset. And Ehrman is also right that when forgers were caught the penalties could be severe (defrocking, exile, even death), which shows how seriously some ancients took forgery.
At the very end of this first chapter Bart makes clear that he is not just interested in the historical question (are their forgeries in the NT), but the deeper philosophical one, is it ever justified to lie about something, and under what circumstances? The ancients, as well as moderns, have different answers to those sorts of questions. But there is an even deeper one Bart wants to probe—is it ever justified to lie for the sake of the truth, to promote the truth? Augustine of course said no, but surprisingly Origen and Clement allowed at least for the little white lie in the case of trying to get someone to take their medicine etc. More on this anon.