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

View other posts in the New Testament Apocrypha series.

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).

UPDATES AND CLARIFICATIONS: Definitely see the ongoing discussions in the comments section.

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.

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.