Issues of Forgery in the Ancient World

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!

4 Responses to “Issues of Forgery in the Ancient World”

  1. July 5, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Thanks for the discussion, Matthew. If I may respond to 2 points —

    1. I can’t locate the source at the moment, but I think it was Bart Erhman who writes a trenchant critique somewhere (will find it and add it to my blog) over the “quaint” notion that ancient forgeries were not quite the badies that they are in the modern world. He cites heated ancient complaints and indignation over the practice. Will try to track that reference down and add it.

    2. The model that Paul’s letters do not meet the demands of 2nd century Christianity is based on comparing them with the “orthodox” family tree of Christians, and not among those Christians where the letters were first found — the Marcionites. The Marcionites did have a much looser structure for worship. Then again we have Justin, without reference to Paul, so often addressing the same issues in very similar ways as we find in Paul’s letters.

    We also have Mark’s Little Apocalypse fitting much more neatly against the details of the Hadrianic war, not the Titus one.

    These are thoughts that won’t go away. I do not say they are conclusive. I really have absolutely no idea when Paul’s letters were written, and am prepared to settle anywhere between 50 and 100 approx. We simply don’t have the evidence available to settle matters of so much dating in this area.


  2. July 5, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Neil: You might be thinking of The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 22-24.

  3. 3 Matthew Burgess
    July 6, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Hi Neil,

    Thanks for introducing this topic… it’s unquestionably stimulating. I hope to read Grafton’s book in the relatively near future!

    As I indicated in my initial post, there’s no question that the modern term “forgery” is applicable to many ancient texts; my question concerns whether the negative connotations which this word has acquired in contemporary culture (a forgery is a document intended to deceive its reader, with negative results) are applicable for every document which may not have been written by its purported authors. Personally, I feel that I need to think this through a little more; I don’t know, for instance, if forgery was a crime in the ancient world in the same way that it is today. So for now, I’ll hold onto a bit of quaintness!

    As for your point regarding the Marcionites, I’m a bit confused. Are you suggesting that the Marcionite community produced the Pauline letters themselves? I think there are a number of problems with such a scenario, not the least of which being that they are not “those Christians where the letters [of Paul] were first found.” 1 Clement, the extrabiblical letter which most scholars date to the late first century (c. 90 CE), contains quotations from 1 Corinthians; the authentic epistles of Ignatius, written immediately prior to his execution in the early second century, also indicate a knowledge of Paul’s writings. Many aspects of Marcionism remain clouded in mystery due to the virulent responses of their opponents, but the extant sources state that Marcion had to edit the Gospel of Luke and the letters which he accepted–excising what he felt were illegitimate portions, such as Paul’s musings on Israel in Romans–in order to make them conform more fully to his theology. Clearly they were also problematic for him and his followers, not only for folks like Irenasus and Clement. As far as the nature of the community’s worship is concerned, John J. Clabeaux (in his article on Marcion and the Marcionites in the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary) concludes that “In the Marcionite liturgy water was used instead of wine, wine thought to be the product of the Creator. But in most other respects it seems that Marcionite worship resembled that of non-Marcionites.”

    Finally, it’s important to note that while Justin Martyr’s extant writings contain no explicit citations of Paul, this does not prove that he did not know his works. In an article published several years ago (“The Transformation of Pauline Arguments in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho,” HTR 92 [1999]), Rodney Werline argues strongly that Justin does know and utilize Pauline ideas. Robert Grant has suggested that he avoided quotations because of the “confusion over the epistles caused by Marcion’s radical revisions.”

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July 2009


© 2006-2009, Matthew Burgess. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use of the original content of this website is strictly prohibited. Quotations or citations should include a link to this website. The views and opinions given here are my own and do not represent those of the University of Virginia (or anyone else, for that matter).

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