MUST READ: Forged by Bart Erdman – 2

[Please read part I : MUST READ: Forged by Bart D. Erdman]


Chapter Eight

Forgeries, Lies, Deceptions, and the Writings of the New Testament

When I give public talks about the books that did not make it into the New Testament, people often ask me about apocryphal tales they have heard. What do we know about the “lost years” of Jesus, that gap of time between when he was twelve and thirty? Is it true that he went to India to study with the Brahmins? Was Jesus an Essene? Don’t we have a death warrant from Pontius Pilate ordering Jesus’s execution? And so on.


Very few of the apocryphal stories that people hear today come from the ancient forgeries I have been examining in this book. Instead, they come from modern forgeries that claim to represent historical facts kept from the public by scholars or “the Vatican.” The real facts, however, are that these mysterious accounts have uniformly been exposed as fabrications perpetrated by well-meaning or mischievous writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their exposure, however, has done little to stop laypeople from believing them.


I discuss four modern forgeries here, just to give you a taste of the kinds of things that have been widely read. All four, and many others, are discussed and demolished in two interesting books by bona fide scholars of Christian antiquity, Edgar Goodspeed, a prominent American New Testament scholar of the mid-twentieth century, and Per Beskow, a Swedish scholar of early Christianity writing in the 1970s.



There are of course many other modern apocrypha that try to report on what Jesus and those associated with him really did. A book called The Confession of Pontius Pilate tells the story of Pilate going into exile in Vienna, where he feels deep remorse for what he did to Jesus and eventually commits suicide. Among other things, this account refers to a story in which Mary Magdalene presents the Roman emperor Tiberius with an Easter egg dyed red. In The Gospel of the Holy Twelve Jesus is said to espouse a strictly vegetarian view in opposition to those who kill and eat animals. In this inventive narrative Jesus is said not to have eaten lamb at the Passover and to have fed the multitudes not with five loaves and two fish, but with five melons.


One could argue that hoaxes are created not only by obscure figures trying to sensationalize accounts of Jesus (Jesus studied with the Brahmins!) or to authenticate their particular worldviews (Jesus was a vegetarian!), but also by scholars who may have had obscure reasons of their own.

One of the wildly popular books about Jesus during the 1960s and 1970s was Hugh Schonfield’s The Passover Plot: A New Interpretation of the Life and Death of Jesus. Schonfield was a brilliant and widely acknowledged scholar of ancient Judaism, with a complete set of bona fide credentials. But his historical reconstruction of what really happened to Jesus reads more like a Hollywood production than serious scholarship.


The short story is that Jesus from an early age “knew” that he was the messiah and so manipulated events during his public ministry to make it appear that he was fulfilling prophecy. In particular, he plotted with his disciples to feign his own death for the sins of others. He arranged to be drugged on the cross (when he was given the gall and vinegar, it was medicinal), so that his vital signs would slow down and he would appear dead. He would then be revived and appear to have been raised from the dead. The plot failed, however. Jesus had not counted on a Roman soldier spearing him in the side on the cross. He revived only briefly and was removed from the tomb by prior arrangement with coconspirators (not the disciples). He died of his wounds soon thereafter and was reburied elsewhere. The disciples, however, discovered the empty tomb and mistakenly thought they saw Jesus alive afterwards. They then proclaimed that he had been raised from the dead. And thus started Christianity.


The Passover Plot is not a forgery, of course. The author of the account, who writes in his own name, is a serious historian and lets his readers know it. And it is not exactly a fabrication, in that he claims that he is basing his account on historical research. Moreover, he presents it as a historical study. But as creative as it is, the major premise of the account is completely made up; there is no historical truth to it.


As a final example I might mention, again, the case involving one of the twentieth century’s truly eminent scholars of early Christianity, Columbia professor Morton Smith. Smith claimed to have discovered a lost, alternate version of the Gospel of Mark. The account of the discovery appeared in two books Smith published in 1973, one a detective-like narrative for popular audiences and the other an erudite, hard-hitting research monograph for scholars. In them Smith stated that in 1958, while visiting a monastery near Jerusalem, he discovered a handwritten copy of a letter, in Greek, by a second-century church father, Clement of Alexandria, in which he claimed that the author of Mark had published a second edition of his Gospel. This “Secret Gospel,” as it came to be known, included a couple of stories not found in Mark, stories that sound mysterious and strange, about Jesus and his relationship with a young man he had raised from the dead.


Smith argued that his relationship was homosexual and that it provided evidence that Jesus had engaged in sexual activities with the naked men that he baptized during his ministry. Needless to say, Smith’s books caused quite a stir. His scholarly book provided serious evidence that this really was a letter from Clement of Alexandria and that Clement really did know of such a Gospel. But since Smith’s death in 1991, a number of scholars have come forward to argue that the letter is not authentic, that it was forged by none other than Smith himself. Two books have been published on the matter in recent years, both coming to the same conclusion, but on different grounds. Other scholars, including those who knew Smith well, do not think so, and the debate goes on.


Christian Forgeries, Lies, and Deceptions

The issue of modern hoaxes brings me back to a question I have repeatedly asked in my study of forgeries: “Who would do such a thing?” I hope by now you will agree with my earlier answer: “Lots of people.” And lots of reasons. And not just modern people. We have instances of Christian forgeries not only today, but also in the Middle Ages, in late antiquity, and in the time of the New Testament. From the first century to the twenty-first century, people who have called themselves Christian have seen fit to fabricate, falsify, and forge documents, in most instances in order to authorize views they wanted others to accept.


My particular interest in this book, of course, is with the forgeries of the early Christian church. No one doubts that there were lots of them. Today we have only a fraction of the ones that were produced in antiquity, as the vast majority of them have been lost or destroyed. But what we have is more than enough to give us a sense of how prominent the practice of forgery was. We have numerous Gospels, letters, treaties, and apocalypses that claim to be written by people who did not write them. The authors who called themselves Peter, Paul, John, James, Philip, Thomas, or—pick your name!—knew full well they were not these people. They lied about it in order to deceive their readers into thinking they were authority figures.


Some of these writings made it into the Bible. There are New Testament letters claiming to be written by Peter and Paul, for example, and James and Jude. But these books were written by other, unknown authors living after the apostles themselves had died. When the real authors of these books claimed to be apostles, they were consciously involved in deception. This practice was widely talked about in the ancient world and was almost always condemned as lying, illegitimate, and just plain wrong. But authors did it anyway.


I’m not saying that the authors who engaged in this activity were necessarily violating the dictates of their own conscience. We have no way of knowing what they really thought about themselves or about what they were doing. All we know is that when ancient people talked about the practice, they did not say positive things about it. Books that were forged were called false and illegitimate.


But one can imagine that the authors themselves may not have seen it this way. Whenever we have a record of those being caught in the act, they try to justify what they did. The second-century author who fabricated the story of Paul and Thecla, mentioned earlier, claimed he did it out of “love for Paul.” The fifth-century forger Salvian of Marseille claimed he thought no one would think he meant it when he called himself Timothy and that he didn’t mean any harm by it. And after all, no one would take seriously a book written by Salvian, whereas a book by Timothy might be widely read (see Chapter 1).


It is possible that many of the authors whose works we have considered, both within and outside of the New Testament, felt completely justified in what they were doing. If so, they were accepting the ancient view, held by many people still today, that lying is the right thing to do in some instances (as mentioned in Chapter 1). In the ancient world, this view was based on the idea that there could be such a thing as a “noble lie,” a lie that serves a noble cause. If a doctor needs to lie to a patient in order to get her to take the medicine she needs, then that can be a good form of deception. If a commander-in-chief needs to lie to his troops that reinforcements are about to arrive in order to inspire them to fight more courageously, then that can be a good thing. Some lies are noble.


Other Christian authors, most notably Augustine, took precisely the opposite line, arguing that lying in all its forms was bad. Very bad. Very, very bad. It was not to be engaged in, no matter what. For Augustine, even if a lie could guarantee that you young daughter would not spend eternity in the fires of hell, but would enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven, that was not enough to justify telling the lie. You should never lie, period.


Most early Christians probably disagreed with Augustine, which is why he had to argue his point so strenuously. And most people today probably disagree as well. Most of us see lying as a complicated matter. Ethicists, philosophers, and religious scholars all disagree, even today, on when lying is appropriate and when it is not. At the end of the day, this is a question that each and every one of us needs to decide for ourselves, based on our own circumstances and the specific situations we find ourselves in. Maybe sometimes it is okay to lie.


Maybe it is okay for parents to lie to their children about their own religious beliefs, to tell them that God exists even though they don’t actually think so. Maybe it is okay for a spouse to lie to her partner about her extramarital affair, if it will prevent him from going through great turmoil and pain. Maybe it is okay to lie to one’s parent about the prognosis after surgery, if it will keep the beloved parent from worrying about dying before their time. Maybe it is okay for church leaders to lie to their congregations about their personal beliefs or their less than perfect past, if they have to be seen as respected and stalwart leaders of the community. Maybe it is okay for elected officials to lie about budgets or deficits, shortfalls or windfalls, possible outcomes of policies, foreign intelligence, or the known outcomes of war—if the ends are sufficiently important to require lies instead of the truth.


And if lying is justified in some instances, what better reason for lying than to get people to understand and believe the truth? What would make better sense than writing a book that embodies a lie about a relatively unimportant matter (who really wrote this) in order to accomplish what really does matter (the truth being proclaimed?)


On the other hand, maybe the authors who forged these texts were wrong. Maybe they should not have tried to deceive their readers. Maybe it is better always to tell the truth, to stand by the truth, to be willing to take the consequences of the truth, even if you would much prefer the consequence of telling the lie.


Maybe children have the right to know what parents honestly believe. Maybe it is better for a spouse to tell her partner about an extramarital affair, if the alternative is to live a life of deceit and distrust. Maybe a dying parent (or grandparent, sibling, or anyone else) has the right to know that death is imminent, so he or she can prepare for the inevitable. Maybe it is better for church leaders not to mislead their people, but to tell them what they honestly know to be true (e.g., about church finances or about their own sinful past) or what they honestly believe (e.g., about God or the Bible). Maybe it is better for our elected officials to come clean and tell us the truth, rather than mislead us so as to be authorized to do what they desperately want to do domestically or on foreign soil. Maybe, on the whole, truth is better than lying.


To be sure, most people, in most circumstances, present, past, and very distant past, realize that there are times when it might be right and good to lie, if, for example, it can save a life or keep someone from physical harm. But the reality is that most of our lies are not so weighty. Certainly the lies manufactured by the forgers of early Christian texts were not told in order to protect life and limb. They were told in order to deceive readers into thinking that the authors of these books were established authority figures. If these texts were produced by reliable authorities, then what they say about what to believe and how to live must be true. True teachings were based on lies.


At the same time, the authors of these lies were no doubt like nearly everyone else in the world, ancient and modern; they too probably did not want to be lied to and deceived. But for reasons of their own they felt compelled to lie to and deceive others. To this extent they did not live up to one of the fundamental principles of the Christian tradition, taught by Jesus himself, that you should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Possibly they felt that in their circumstances the Golden Rule did not apply. If so, it would certainly explain why so many of the writings of the New Testament claim to have been written by apostles, when in fact they were not.

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