Neil Godfrey has provided a lengthy and highly detailed set of notes on the initial chapter of Anthony Grafton’s Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship which are well worth a read. While all scholars who work with ancient texts must address issues surrounding pseudonymity and forgery, I’m particularly interested in these topics due to my recent work on the Letter to Theodore—a purportedly ancient letter which some have identified as a modern forgery created by Morton Smith. It seems clear that the corpus of ancient Greco-Roman literature, and that of early Christianity, contain unmistakable examples of forgery. A classic example from the latter category is Tertullian’s reference to the hapless presbyter who created an edition of the Acts of Paul “thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation… for love of Paul” (De Baptismo 17.5), who was ultimately dismissed from his position following his admission of authorship. However, I wonder if the term “forgery,” which has acquired an exclusively negative connotation in modern language, is appropriate for every ancient document which may not have been written in whole or in part by its alleged author. We live in a world in which forgery, plagiarism, and other similar behaviors are clearly defined and universally scorned; was the situation in antiquity identical to our own? I suspect not, but I certainly need to research this topic further.
Building upon Grafton’s conclusions, he offers these musings of his own:
Not questioned by Grafton, but surely entitled to the question, is the traditional scholarly dating of the Pauline epistles and the canonical gospels. Scholars who rely on internal evidence only to say that Paul wrote in the 50’s or the gospels were written not long after 70 c.e. seem to me to be leaving the door wide open for the trap Grafton warns against here. Surely external evidence — when we can see OTHERS first knew of these texts — should surely carry much more weight than it currently does. But to be this careful, it would mean ascribing the letters of Paul — and all the gospels — to the second century! Oh no – impossible – . . . . That would change EVERYTHING! Yup! Especially if we can see how they so conveniently met the “timely needs” of those others! Woops . . . .
These conjectures seem a little more questionable. The emphasis upon internal evidence in the dating of all ancient texts (not simply those which make up the Bible) is necessitated by extremely low literacy rates and a lack of extant, contemporary copies. Given the virtually infinitesimal number of individuals able to read and write during this period, one cannot expect an overwhelming amount of testimony to the existence of any written document. This problem operates hand in hand with the absence of early manuscripts; the majority of documents have simply not enjoyed the combination of value and fortuitousness necessary to survive for millennia. The small number of manuscripts of Tacitus’ Annals date to the medieval era (the first six books are preserved in a single exemplar of the ninth century), but this should not lead to the assumption that the work itself dates to this time. In contrast to much of the Greco-Roman literature, the New Testament is well attested by early external witnesses. Extrabiblical texts such as 1 Clement, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the epistles of Ignatius, the theological treatises of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons—all dated to the late first or second centuries and written in a variety of locales throughout the sprawling Roman Empire—quote the majority of its books and establish a relatively low terminus ad quem for their creation and dissemination. The manuscript tradition of the New Testament, while fragmentary in its earliest stages, is also a suggestive external witness; the extensive papyri codex known as P 46, which was copied circa 200 CE and which originally contained all of the Pauline letters (and also the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews) with the exception of the Pastorals, indicates that letters originally written to a number of cities throughout the empire had been collected and were circulating together by the end of the second century. In a world without rapid transit, fax machines, or e-mail, these types of editions required significant time to prepare.
Finally, in response to Godfrey’s suggestion that second-century dates for the gospels and the Pauline letters could be implicitly supported by the ways in which they meet the “timely needs” of the early church, it should be noted that many aspects of these texts are not an ideal match for an increasingly structured, increasingly dogmatic Christian community. Indeed, one likely impetus for the author of the Pastorals was the failure of Paul to provide sufficient formal guidelines for ecclesiastical structure and praxis. Likewise the majority of the second-century church was moving away from the imminent eschatological expectations of both Jesus (as given in the myriad of references to the “kingdom of God” in the synoptic gospels) and Paul (as given in his early letters such as the First Letter to the Thessalonians). Paul’s struggles to comprehend and assert the continuing validity of God’s promises to the nation of Israel, which dominate the middle portion of the Letter to the Romans, are similarly unnecessary in a movement increasingly separated from its Jewish roots. The Pauline collection as a whole displays a remarkable dearth of traditions of the historical Jesus, a frequently undesirable situation which is virtually impossible to assign to a later milieu given the demonstrated pervasiveness of oral and written traditions of Jesus among Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and other early leaders. Any number of additional examples could be offered, but these are sufficient for general purposes. If the first bishops and theologians were in the business of constructing authoritative texts upon which to stand, one would expect them to produce products more directly suitable to their needs!
I’m looking forward to subsequent posts… it sounds like a fascinating book!