“Forgery” (deceit) or “pseudonymity” (admiration): Ehrman’s take (NT Apocrypha 12)

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One of the issues that has been raised in discussing Ehrman’s Lost Christianities is his free use of the term “forgery” in reference to early Christian literature (especially apocryphal literature; e.g. pp. 29-32 or thereabouts). Nor is he adverse to using accompanying notions of active “deceit” as well. He claims that ancient authors just about unanimously agreed in condemning the practice of presenting one’s own work as though by another respected figure (citing only the physician Galen, who had come across someone selling a work falsely in his name during his life-time). Certainly concepts such as forgery, deceit or related notions of conspiracy make for exciting reading, and Ehrman’s book is indeed intended for broad audiences (and still would have been exciting without these terms). Yet there is also a sense in which this take on writings that claim to be authored by some important figure of the past (apocryphal Gospels and Acts) is quite misleading.

More appropriate, I would suggest, is a recognition that, although moderns may see such practices of pseudonymity (“false-name” authorship) as improper or even criminal (I take plagiarism by students as a crime!), the ancients had very different cultural concepts when it comes to attributed authorship and the free use of figures (and their authority) from the past. The fact that the practice of attributing a work to some respected figure of the past was widespread in the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds, and that the ones doing this almost always liked or respected the figure whose identity they were “borrowing”, suggests that something other than deliberate deception and forgery was going on. Ehrman is far more on track when he briefly mentions, but does not explore in any detail, the fact that philosophers (neo-Pythagoreans) frequently produced writings in Pythagoras’ name with intentions involving (primarily) admiration and respect. Namely, they wished not only to give a hearing to their writings by calling on Pythagoras’ authority, but also to show just how well they (imagined they) could continue to express what Pythagoras would say if he were still around. They “forged” for the love of Pythagoras, so to speak, and their intentions were focussed on inspiring similar respect or honour for this philosopher on the part of their readers or hearers. This is, in large part, what was going on in the case of most early Christian apocryphal writings attributed to apostles or other respected figures. We are better off steering away from value-loaded terms in the study of religion and in avoiding misconceptions about active deceit or underhanded dealings in relation to writings of the past, even if the language of conspiracy would make things seem far more exciting.

(Excuse the lack of references to page numbers in Ehrman here [except the one section whose page numbers I remembered, hopefully], since I do not have the work with me at the moment. I had to express myself when it came to me nonetheless).

UPDATE: Definitely see the ongoing discussions in the comments section. Some time ago (1999) Edgar M. Krentz presented a “Pseudepigraphy Bibliography” on the b-greek discussion list, which may guide you to some important discussions of the pseudonymity or pseudepigraphy phenonenon.

CLARIFICATION (Mon, Sept 19): Just to clarify what I am or am not saying here (also see comments): I am saying that Ehrman’s blanket use of “forgery” to describe a variety of different writings is likely to obscure a variety of things that were actually going on, especially in terms of motivations behind writing a document in the name of someone else. In some, perhaps many, cases using the term “forgery” to describe apocryphal writings would give a false impression to the modern reader, especially implying negative motivations of deceit on the part of ancient authors in question. Motivations are very difficult to determine (even among contemporaries let alone someone living over a thousand years ago in a different culture), but in engaging in historical study we are better off not assuming negative motivations (on the part of our historical subjects) unless there is actual evidence of such. In other words, we need to approach writings that claim authorship by an important figure on a case by case basis, attempting to assess what is going on (and what motivations may be involved) in a particular case. There is a sense in which my objections to Ehrman’s approach arise more from historiographical concerns (from how I approach history) than they do from any specific concerns or positions about the pseudonymity issue. Hope this clarifies things even though there are so many more issues to deal with that will never be sufficiently solved.

I just pulled out my marked up version of Bruce M. Metzger’s classic article (“Literary Forgeries and Canonical Pseudepigrapha,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91 [1972] 3-24), which does begin to try to sort through the variety of motivations that may have been involved in pseudepigraphy (e.g. financial gain, malice and defamation, respect, modesty, practicing one’s rhetorical abilities, etc, etc), as well as the differing receptions of such writings. It is worth a read, if you’re interested.

(Sept 28): Now see Loren Rosson‘s ongoing discussion of lying and deceit, which includes a post on ancient pseudepigraphy (bouncing off of my post here). We’ll likely continue to disagree, but it’s certainly an interesting issue to explore.

(Oct 1): Stephen Carlson now weighs in on the debate with the view that “forgery” is the appropriate term (in contrast to my position). I disagree with his interpretation of the Serapion v. the Gospel of Peter case. The position of Rosson, Carlson, and Ehrman makes it very difficult to make sense of how it was that so many (educated) authors DID attribute their work to a respected figure of the past. Are we to imagine that, in an environment where (as they argue) almost everyone rejected the idea of pseudonymity, that so many authors (of the Enoch literature, of Daniel, of a lot of apocryphal literature, etc, etc) were doing so and would be very self-conscious that they were doing something “deceitful” or “bad” (which everyone else rejected–but not all the rest of the authors that were doing so, presumably–confused). This is just a minor, but important, problem with that position.

By the way, my position arose not from the Metzger article (which I had forgotten about and had read years ago [my memory is not that great;] and only dug out in hindsight to see what he said, and with which I disagree on important points). My position, as I have stated, arises from my problems with Ehrman’s position based on his interpretation of particular evidence (e.g. the Thecla case) and from my overall approach to history, which avoids imagining I can understand the motivations or intentions (whether “deceitful” or otherwise) of a large number of different persons in antiquity (see above and comments). The term forgery entails active and self-conscious deceit, with the implication that it is a “crime” (in my Webster’s dictionary and in popular usage, at least). This is not an appropriate blanket term to use in reference to writings in the name of a respected figure in antiquity, though there may be a few cases where it’s closer to the mark than some other terms.

3 thoughts on ““Forgery” (deceit) or “pseudonymity” (admiration): Ehrman’s take (NT Apocrypha 12)

  1. Phil Harland Post author


    At 4:52 PM, Jaume said…

    Actually Ehrman underlines in the introduction to the first part of the book that forgery and pseudonymity were as also and rejected in classical times as they are today. He even mentions 2 Tel as an example of distrust of unreliable sources, when 2 Tel may be a forgery as well! This discussion, perhaps too brief, on the acceptability of pseudonymity at that time is the very basis of his criticism in the first part.

    At 5:18 PM, Laura said…

    We are better off steering away from value-loaded terms

    True. We also need to recognize that certain words connote different meanings in different times. Like the word forgery today is probably more of a loaded term than it was back then.

    Also, as we’ll probably be discussing this week, a ‘biography’ meant something considerably different to Greco-Romans than it does to us now. So we can’t hold the gospels to modern day standards of biographies. (I can’t believe books have actually been written on this tiny yet important detail…).
    I’ll tell you alllll about it in my book review ;)

    At 6:33 PM, Phil Harland said…

    Thanks for those comments Jaume. Actually, Ehrman’s claim that forgery was clearly and almost unanimously rejected in classical times is precisely what I am contesting (and I don’t think he provides evidence in support of that position–rather assertions). A better way of putting this, I think, is that when someone _disagreed_ with the views expressed or practices advocated in a pseudonymous writing (or, as with Galen, actually were the person in question), they were likely to charge the author with the equivalent of forgery or being a fake (as in 2 Thessalonians’s talk of the other letters attributed to Paul, the passage to which I think you are referring). If someone _agreed_ with the views or enjoyed the story, then this would not be an issue, and nothing close to “forgery” would be the charge (there would be no charges). To use the term “forgery” in reference to all writings that use a “false-name” in the Greco-Roman world gives a false impression to modern readers, and it is certainly untrue that using an assumed name of a well-respected figure was universally rejected and viewed negatively in antiquity. Blog entries, by genre, must always be short;) Perhaps I’ll come back with more on this issue in another post. THanks again for engaging in the debate.

    At 8:45 PM, Angela said…

    I agree with Laura that certain terms mean different things in different time periods. I am wondering what the general response is to Ehrman’s designation of these apocryphal texts as “forgeries”. It seems easy to say on one hand that since they did not make it into the New Testament they must be “forgeries”. Would readers be willing to accept that New Testament texts could be labelled as “forgeries”? Having some religious people in my own family, I think that they might sooner pass out than admit that the Pastorals are “forgeries”!!!

    At 10:06 PM, glaserildiko said…

    I agree with Laura that concepts mean different things at different times; however I might have to disagree with Angela (sorry!) I too, have some religious members in my family, but to them it doesn’t really matter who wrote the Pastorals, or any other forgeries for that matter. It contains the words that they believe, profess their faith and (as they hope) live by. From what I understand, they don’t really care if it’s written by THE Paul, or if it’s written by some guy called Baba. And besides, we know that Paul dictated his letters, and didn’t write them. So, what if the scribe wrote his thoughts instead of Paul’s? There’s no real way of knowing, would there? Would Ehrman consider that a forgery?

    At 8:03 AM, Ken Penner said…

    Phil, you wrote,
    The fact that the practice of attributing a work to some respected figure of the past was widespread in the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds, and that the ones doing this almost always liked or respected the figure whose identity they were “borrowing”, suggests that something other than deliberate deception and forgery was going on.
    Do you have any examples of such practices being commendend or described positively in any way? I haven’t read Ehrman on this, but my impression is closer to than to yours. Of course forgery of letters is repeatedly condemned (e.g., in War 1.525); granted, these are not literary works. But Josephus also appears utterly convinced that the biblical prophecies attributed to Daniel were not pseudepigraphic (Ant. 10.266-281). Would you say no one believed the pseudepigraphic attributions? Would you say such mistaken beliefs were not anticipated by their real authors? Would you say such mistaken beliefs were anticipated but not considered problematic by their authors? Would you say such mistaken beliefs were anticipated but not considered problematic by the readers?

    At 8:49 AM, Phil Harland said…

    Thanks Ken. My focus in my entry was not on whether or not people BELIEVED that these writings were not by the people they claimed they were. I think, as your comments imply, that very few people were aware that a particular writing was not by the author it claimed (e.g. Josephus on Daniel). And there would certainly be people upset if they found out it was not by its claimed author, which they would never find out beyond the lifetime of the actual author.

    My main concern was with whether or not the term “forgery” with its negative connotations was an appropriate term to describe what was going on, especially with regard to the INTENTIONS (which are always hard to get at) of the authors that used assumed personalities of the past. My overall impression, from cases such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, for instance (in Tertullian), is that the intentions of authors do not fit with terms such as deceit and forgery. (In fact, since Ehrman builds so much on his interpretation of the Acts of Paul and Thecla situation in Tertuallian, and I strongly disagree with his interpretation of that, I should do another entry on that in the near future). Not only that, but the fact that many of the educated were engaging in this practice suggests that there were a number of people who were fine with it and would be aware that others were doing so (but would object if they disagreed with the contents). What average readers or hearers were thinking about is harder to get at.

    This does not really fully address your issues, which I’ll try to further address in subsequent entries, but it may clarify what I was trying to say in reference to Ehrman. Thanks again.

    At 8:57 AM, Phil Harland said…

    Oh, I forgot to give my quick, oversimplified answers to the questions offered by Ken:

    “Would you say no one believed the pseudepigraphic attributions?” (JUST ABOUT EVERYONE WOULD) “Would you say such mistaken beliefs were not anticipated by their real authors?” (THEY WERE ANTICIPATED) “Would you say such mistaken beliefs were anticipated but not considered problematic by their authors?” (ABSOLUTELY) “Would you say such mistaken beliefs were anticipated but not considered problematic by the readers?” (NOT USUALLY ANTICIPATED, BUT PROBLEMATIC ONLY IN CASES WHERE THE READER DISAGREED WITH THE CONTENTS OR MESSAGE. PRESUMABLY AUTHORS WHO ENGAGED IN PSEUDONYMITY WOULD HAVE AN EASIER TIME UNDERSTANDING SOMEONE ELSE WHO DID). As to evidence that people positively described the practice of pseudonymity, we have none from the readers (I think) but plenty of clear hints from the authors (e.g. the elder who wrote Acts of Paul and Thecla). More later. I also want to actually read the Galen material again.

    At 10:55 AM, Loren Rosson III said…


    Thanks for a very interesting post. This subject of forgery is quite a coincidence, since I’m beginning a series of posts on my blog which deal with “lying and deception”. The insistence on avoiding pejorative words seems (to me) to be part of the problem.

    At 10:15 AM, Angela said…

    While I agree that some people may not be concerned with New Testament texts being pseudonymous because they would be considered “divinely inspired”, I still think that religious people (or unreligious people) may have difficulty accepting New Testament texts as lying under the category of “forgery”. Because the word has a “negative” meaning and implies deceit and lies, I still hold that some people (including my religious family) would have great difficulty accepting that their religious book of worship contains books/letters that are deceitful. I suggest that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander”. It does not seem logical to call some texts “forgeries” and not refer to other texts that use the same pseudonymous technique as “forgeries”. If Ehrman is going to call apocryphal pseudonymous texts forgeries, I think that he should be prepared to label all texts as such!

    At 11:04 AM, Carole said…

    It has occurred to me that when the word “forgery” is used today, it usually denotes a criminal activity of some kind;“forgery” is not flattery. Pseudonymous, as Angela mentioned, is a much kinder description and does not have the negative attributes associated with the word “forgery”.

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