A World of Deceptions and Forgeries – 2

[Please read part 1 of Chapter One of Bart D. Ehrman’s book Forged: A World of Deceptions and Forgeries – 1  This continues that discussion. Reformatted and highlighted for post.–Admin1.]


Image from www.alwaysbeready.com

Image from www.alwaysbeready.com


MOST OF THE INSTANCES I have mentioned are forgeries from after the days of the apostles themselves, from the second, third, and fourth Christian centuries.  Most of the books of the New Testament, on the other hand, were written during the first century.  Is there any evidence that forgery was happening in this earlier period?  In fact, there is very good evidence indeed, and it comes to us from the pages of the New Testament itself.


There are thirteen letters in the New Testament that claim to be written by Paul, including two to the Thessalonians.  



  • In the Second Letter to the Thessalonians we find a most intriguing verse in which the author tells his readers that they are not to be led astray by a letter “as if by us” indicating that the “day of the Lord” is almost here (2:2).  The author in other words, knows of a letter in circulation claiming to be by Paul that is not really by Paul.  This other letter allegedly teaches an idea that Paul himself opposes.  Who would create such a forged letter?  Obviously someone who wanted to advance his own views about when the end would come and decided to do so with the authority of Paul, even though he was not Paul. But there is a terrifically interesting irony connected with this passage
    • Second Thessalonians, in which the passage appears, is itself widely thought among scholars not to be by Paul, even though it claims to be written by him (we’ll see the reasons for thinking this in Chapter 3).  
    • Is 2 Thessalonians itself a forgery in Paul’s name?  If so, why would it warn a forgery in Paul’s name?  There can be little doubt about the answer:  one of the “tricks” used by ancient forgers to assure readers that their own writings were authentic was to warn against writings that were not authentic.  Readers naturally assume that the author is not doing precisely what he condemns. We have other interesting instances of this phenomenon in early Christian literature.  
  • Three hundred years later, at the end of the fourth century, there appeared a book that scholars have called the Apostolic Constitutions.  This lengthy book, in eight volumes, gives instructions concerning how the church is to be organized and run by its leaders.  The book claims to be written by a man named Clement, who was allegedly the fourth bishop of Rome (i.e., an early “pope”), appointed by the apostle Peter himself to lead the great church.  But in reality the book was written three centuries or so after Clement himself was in the grave.  That is, it is a forgery.  
    • More than that, the book is called “apostolic” Constitutions because it passes along the advice and instructions of the apostles of Jesus themselves, often in the first person:  “I, Peter,” say to you this; “I, John,” say to you this; “I James,” say to you this, and so on.  One of the most fascinating instructions of the real-life author of this book (we don’t know who actually wrote it) comes at the end, where he warns his readers not to read books that claim to be written by apostles, but are not.  In other words, he’s telling his readers not to read books such as the one they are reading, an apostolic forgery.  Why insert this instruction  Once again, as with 2 Thessalonians, it is because by doing so he throws his readers off the scent of his own deceit.  
  • With 2 Thessalonians we are presented with a particularly interesting situation. No matter how one understands the matter, the book shows that there were almost certainly forgeries in Paul’s name in circulation all the way back during the time of the New Testament writings.  If scholars who think that 2 Thessalonians was not written by Paul are wrong—that is, if Paul really wrote it—then it shows that Paul himself knew of a forgery in his name that had come to the Thessalonian church. But if the other scholars are right, that Paul did not compose 2 Thessalonians, then this book itself is a forgery in Paul’s name that was floating around
  • in the church.  Either way, there must have been Pauline forgeries already in the first century.  
  • Are there other forgeries from the earliest of Christian times?  I deal with this question at length later in the book, looking into evidence that a number of the books of the New Testament were not written by people who are claimed to be their authors.  For now I’m interested in noting that this is not simply a finding of modern scholarship.  A number of the books of the New Testament were disputed already in early Christianity, among the Christian scholars of the second to the fourth centuries, who were arguing over which books should be included in Scripture.  
  • The most famous instance is the book of Revelation.  A third-century Christian scholar of Aexandria, Egypt, named Dionysius, argued that the book was not actually written by Jesus’ disciple John, the son of Zebedee. Dionysius’s argument was compelling and continues to be compelling to scholars today.  He maintained that the writing style of the book is so different fro that of the Gospel of John that they could not have been written by the same person (modern scholars differ fro Dionysius only in thinking that the Gospel too was probably not written by John.) Dionysius thought there must have been two authors of the same name who later came to be confused as the same person.  But it is interesting that Dionysius, according to the church father Eusebius, ha a number of predecessors who had argued that Revelation was written not by a different man named John, but by a heretic named Cerinthus, who forged the account in order to promote his false teaching that there would be a literal future paradise of a thousand years here on earth.  
  • The small letter of Jude, allegedly written by Jesus’s own brother, was also debated in the early church.  Some Christians argued that it was not authentic, in part, according to the famous fourth-century Christian scholar Jerome, because the book quotes an apocryphal book called Enoch as if it were authoritative Scripture.  
  • The book of 2 Peter was rejected by a number of early church fathers, as discussed by both Jerome and Eusebius, but none more straightforwardly than the notable Christian teacher of Alexandria Didymus the Blind, who argued that “the letter is false and so is not to be in the canon.”  Peter, in other words, did not actually write it according to Didymus, even though the author claimed to be Peter.
  • Other Christian teachers disputed whether 1 and 2 Timothy were actually by Paul, some claiming that their contents showed that he did not write them.  
  • The book of Hebrews was particularly debated; the book does not explicitly claim to be written by Paul, but there are hints at the end that the author wants readers to think that he’s Paul (see 13:22-25). For centuries its Pauline authorship was a matter of dispute.  The book was finally admitted into the canon only when nearly everyone came to think Paul must have written it.   In short, there were long, protracted, and often heated debates in the early church over forged documents.  


Early Christians realized that there were numerous forgeries in circulation, and they wanted to know which books were written by their alleged authors and which were not.  As we will see more fully later, practically no one approved of the practice of forgery; on the contrary, it was widely condemned, even in books that were themselves forged (such as 2 Thessalonians and the Apostolic Constitutions).  


Most of this book will focus on examples of forgery in early Christianity.  To make sense of the early Christian forgeries, however, we need to take a step back and consider the phenomenon of forgery in the ancient world more broadly.  That will be the focus of the rest of this chapter.  We begin with a very important discussion of the terms I will be using.  


Part III: The Terms of the Debate  

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