A World of Deceptions and Forgeries – 4


IF, AS I SHOW LATER, forgery was widely condemned why did people do it?  And how did they justify what they were doing in their own eyes? . . . The question of “why” they did it is a bit complicated, and here I need to differentiate between two ideas that people sometimes confuse in their minds. . . .


These are the notions of “intention,” on the one hand, and “motivation” on the other. . . . Intentions are not the same a motivations. The “intention” is what you want to accomplish; the “motivation” is the reason you want to accomplish it.


This is also the case when it come to forgers and their forgeries.  There is a difference between a forger’s intention and motivation. A forger’s intention, in almost every instance, is to deceive readers about his identity, that is to make readers believe that he is someone other than who he is.  But he may have lots of different reasons (motivations) for wanting to do that.


Authors have always had numerous reasons for wanting to write a forgery.


  1. In the modern world, as we have already seen, the principal motivation is to make money . . . This does not appear to be the main reason for forgeries back in antiquity.  The market for such “original books” was limited then, because the book-selling industry was so modest—books could not be mass-produced and widely published.  Still, there were instances in which forged books could turn a profit. . . .
  2. Political forgeries were usually not treated kindly. But sometimes they worked. . . .
  3. Sometimes the motivation for a forgery was less political than religious—to defend religious institutions or practices or to defend one’s religious claims against those of opponents.


An example of a Jewish forgery created to support Judaism can be found in the famous Letter of Aristeas.  Aristeas was allegedly a pagan member of the court of the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BCE). In this letter “Aristeas” describes how the king decided to include a copy of the Jewish Scriptures in his expanding library, and so he made arrangements with the Jewish high priest in Israel to send scholars to Egypt who could translate the sacred texts fro their original Hebrew language into Greek.  Seventy-two scholars were sent, and through miraculous divine intervention they managed to produce, individually, precisely the same wording for their translations of the Scriptures.  Since the Letter of Aristeas is allegedly by a non-Jew, giving a more or less “disinterested” account of how the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, it has all the appearance of stating the facts “as they really were.”  But in reality, the letter is a forgery, written by a Jew in Alexandria in the second century BCE.  It was written, in part, in order to show the divine inspiration of the Jewish sacred texts, even in their Greek translation.


4.  [S]ometimes forgeries were created with the express purpose of making a personal enemy look bad or getting an opponent into serious trouble.  As it turns out, this is one of the best-attested motivations for creating forgeries in the ancient world.

5.  Other forgers produced their work for more noble ends, for example, to provide hope for their readers.


One of the most common forms of forgery in Jewish writings around the time of early Christianity is the literary genre known as the apocalypse.  An Apocalypse (from the Greek meaning a “revealing” or an “unveiling”) is a text that reveals the truth of the heavenly realm to mortals to help them make sense of what is happening here on earth.  Sometimes this truth is revealed through bizarre and highly symbolic visions that the author allegedly sees and that are explained by some kind of angelic interpreter.


    • An example is the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible.  At other times the author is said to be taken up to heaven to see the ultimate truths of the divine realm that make sense of the horrible events transpiring here on earth.
    • A Christian example is the book of Revelation in the New Testament.


  • These books are meant to inspire hope in their readers.  Even though things seem to be completely out of control here on earth even though there is rampant pain and misery and suffering, even though wars, famines, epidemics, and natural disasters are crushing the human race, even though things seem to be completely removed from God’s hand—despite all this, everything is going according to plan.  God will soon make right all that is wrong.  If people will simply hold on for a little while longer, their trust in God will be vindicated, and he will intervene in the course of things here on earth to restore peace, justice, and joy forever.


Apocalypses are almost always written pseudonymously in the name of some renowned religious figure of the past.  In Christian circles we have apocalypses in the names of Peter, Paul and the prophet Isaiah.  In Jewish circles we have apocalypses in the names of Daniel, Enoch Abraham, and even Adam! Scholars typically claim that these books cannot be considered forgeries, because writing them pseudonymously was all part of the task; the literary genre requires them, more or less, to be written by someone who would “know” such things, that is, someone highly favored by God.  But I think this view is too simplistic.  The reality is that ancient people really did believe that they were written by the people who claimed to be writing them, as seen repeatedly in the ancient testimonies.  The authors of these books knew it too.  They assumed false names precisely because their writings would prove more effective that way.


This relates to the single most important motivation for authors to claim they were someone else in antiquity. Quite simply, it was to get a hearing for their views.  If you were an unknown person but had something really important to say and wanted people to hear you—not so they could praise you, but so they could learn the truth—one way to make that happen was to pretend you were someone else, a well-known author, a famous figure, an authority.


Thus, for example, if you wanted to write a philosophical treatise in which you dealt with some of the most confounding ethical problems facing the world, but you were not a famous philosopher you might write the treatise and claim that you were, signing it Plato or Aristotle.  If you wanted to produce an apocalypse explaining that suffering here on earth is only temporary and that God would soon intervene to overthrow the forces of evil in this world,, and you wanted people to realize this was a message that needed to be heard and proclaimed, you wouldn’t sign your own name (the Apocalypse of Joe), but the name of a famous religious figure (the Apocalypse of Daniel).  If you wanted to narrate a Gospel of Jesus’ most important teachings, but in fact were living a hundred years after Jesus and didn’t have any real access to what Jesus said, you would write down the sayings you found most compelling and claim to be someone who had actually heard Jesus speak, calling your book the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Philip.


The motivation was at work in both Christian and non-Christian circles.  We know this because ancient authors actually tell us so.  For example, a commentator on the writings of Aristotle, a pagan scholar named David, indicated: “If someone is uninfluential and unknown yet wants his writing to be read, he writes in the name of someone who came before him and was influential, so that through his influence he can get his work accepted.


This is the case with the one instance we have of a Christian forger who was caught and who later explained in writing what he did. In the 5th century a church leader named Salvian lived in Marseille.  As did many others in his day Salvian decided, with his wife, to express his devotion to God by renouncing the world and taking on an ascetic form of life.  Salvian was outraged by the worldliness of the church and by church members who were more concerned with personal comfort and wealth than with the demands of the gospel.  So he wrote a letter called Timothy to the Church. Written in an authoritative style, the letter seemed to its readers actually to have been written by Timothy, the famous companion of the apostle Paul four hundred years earlier.  But somehow Salvian’s bishop came to suspect that Salvian had written it.  He confronted Salvian with the matter and Salvian admitted that he had done it.


But Salvian was a defensive fellow, and so he wrote an explanation for why he had produced a pseudonymous letter.  As defensive individuals often do, Salvian made lots of excuses.  The name Timothy, for example, literally means “honored by God,” and so, he said, he used that name to show that he wrote for the honor of God.  His main defense though, was that he was a nobody, and if he himself wrote a letter to the churches, no one would pay attention.  Or as he put it in his written defense, the author had “wisely selected a pseudonym for his book for the obvious reason that he did not wish the obscurity of his own person to detract from the influence of his otherwise valuable book.”


By writing in the name of Timothy, on the other hand, he hoped to get a reading.  His views were important enough for him to adopt a false name.  There is nothing in the story to suggest that Salvian’s bishop accepted this excuse with equanimity (the story is related to us by Salvian, not his bishop).  On the contrary, if the bishop was like every other reader from the ancient world who comments on such things, he was not at all pleased that Salvian had lied about his identity.

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