Lies, Damned Lies, and Patristics†

David Lincicum on Bart Ehrman’s Forgery and Counterforgery

Bart D. Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, Oxford University Press, 2012, 624 pp., $39.95
Bart D. Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, Oxford University Press, 2012, 624 pp., $39.95

When John Mearsheimer investigated lying in international politics, what he found surprised him. Conventional wisdom suggested that taut international relationships spawn a frenzy of falsehoods between states and their leaders. But Mearsheimer discovered only a handful of demonstrable international lies. Leaders were more likely to lie to their own people than to other nations. That’s at least in part because the odds of success are better: citizens of developed nations tend to believe in the moral uprightness of their own country and so often lean toward credulity in the face of their leaders’ claims. (Weapons of mass destruction, anyone?)

Christian literature in the first few centuries after Christ is similarly littered with homegrown lies, deceptions leaders willfully foisted on the gullible faithful. So argues Bart Ehrman in his impressive and wide-ranging Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics. Although related phenomena come into view at various points, he zeroes in on works bearing a false authorial claim. The number is startling. Ehrman offers each only a brief treatment, and he still needs more than 600 pages.

The phenomenon of early Christian forgery has been known and studied for centuries. Already in antiquity, Christian and pagan alike betray an anxiety over authenticity. Prolific authors like Galen or Augustine wring their hands over the fate of their books: had they been interpolated, forged, replaced by spurious works of the same title? Readers, for their part, were mostly defenseless against the wiles of deceiving authors, save when a fraudulent work came under the critical scrutiny of a grammarian or theologian who could authoritatively declare it a nothos — literally, a “bastard,” though the term came more broadly to denote literary works with dodgy parentage.

Learned humanists exposed many more of these ancient frauds during the Renaissance, but the authenticity of the documents that compose the New Testament was not seriously questioned until the late eighteenth century. Since that time, there has been protracted debate about not only the presence of pseudepigrapha in the New Testament but also the possible motivations a pseudepigrapher might have had. Most critical scholars now acknowledge at least some pseudonymous texts in the New Testament, but the question of motive still rattles. Some contend that pseudonymity was practiced as an open secret, a transparent fiction, and that the audience was in on the ruse. Others claim that the students or co-workers of departed apostles wrote the letters, perhaps even with their blessing, the same way a philosopher’s student might write in their name.

There’s just one problem: this pretty much never happened in antiquity. Following a growing chorus of voices in recent years — though German Neutestamentler have been saying this a lot longer and with more consistency, significant voices have arisen in the Anglophone world as well — Ehrman rightly notes that whenever a forgery is uncovered in antiquity, it is condemned as deceptive. For too long, scholars have hidden behind the hazy notion that the idea of “intellectual property” didn’t exist in the ancient world — as though authors lived in a golden utopia of verbal communism, untroubled by the very possibility of plagiarism per definitionem, until all this came to a screeching halt in 1710 with the first copyright statute. The intention of pseudepigraphers, as Ehrman and others have demonstrated in convincing detail, is to deceive. You don’t begin a letter, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints … ,” unless you want the audience to think you’re Paul.

There is an obvious reason one may not want to conceive of pseudepigraphy as deceptive: there is potentially a cognitive dissonance that comes from affirming a lying or misleading text as “holy scripture.” Stanley Porter, a respected evangelical scholar, once argued, “If the church (and the scholars within it) is no longer willing to accept the Pastoral Epistles as written by Paul, perhaps it should, rather than creating strained theological justifications for their continued canonical presence, eliminate them as forgeries that once deceived the church but will do so no more.” For Porter, this is a sort of reductio ad absurdum argument, since he believes the historical Paul authored the Pastorals; others, seized by the same type of historical foundationalism, argue similarly from opposite starting points. For many in this debate, the stakes are high.

Today most of us are more or less sloppy Augustinians when it comes to lying, or at least Augustinians filtered through a Kantian mesh (recall the latter’s little essay On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives): lying, we learn from an early age, is always and in every circumstance wrong. If we can recall times when we have fudged the truth, we console ourselves with the assurance that these are white lies intended to achieve some good (hence, the sloppiness). But it is difficult for us to imagine, in this age of internet sock-puppetry, a persuasive defense of plagiarism or false representation as a legitimate means of achieving some spiritual or intellectual good. Anyone who doubts this should consider the public uproar following Germany’s series of high-profile plagiarism cases involving government officials who had the misjudgment of, erm, fuzzy attribution in their doctoral theses.

But some early Christians seem to have been gripped by a utilitarian logic rather than a deontological one. They may have justified their deception by appeal to Plato’s “noble lie,” or the widespread conviction that tactical deceit was acceptable in certain cases — as when a doctor misled patients for their own good, or a general employed tactical deception to best a military enemy. And after all, weren’t the Jewish scriptures themselves full of examples of less-than-forthcoming behavior — from Rahab the prostitute to Abraham and Jacob, all the way to God himself? If Plato could argue that rulers “will have to make considerable use of falsehood and deception for the benefits of their subjects” (Rep. 459c-d, a text to which Ehrman draws attention), might the early Christians have followed Plato’s lead? And, if pressed, would they have appropriated Aeschylus, claiming  “there is a time for (a) god to honor the rightness of a lie”? We know less about the motivations of these early Christians than we would like, for the simple reason that for pseudepigraphers to discuss their aims would blow their cover.

What we do have, and what Ehrman spends most of his book discussing, is dozens and dozens of texts that seem to have been forged on lots of different subjects. Ehrman is relatively maximalist when it comes to identifying pseudepigraphal texts in the New Testament, and there is room for legitimate scholarly disagreement in some instances. (For example, the “consensus” about 2 Thessalonians is hardly as strong as he suggests.) Nevertheless, he displays an impressive control of the critical issues surrounding a dizzying number of sources, ranging from the first to the fourth century and so straddling the traditional boundaries between the disciplines of New Testament and Early Christianity (or Patristics, as it is still called in some quarters), a hallmark of Ehrman’s career. And he demonstrates that the New Testament pseudonymous letters are merely the earliest examples of an ongoing literary practice in ancient Christian circles.

The texts chosen all display, according to Ehrman, a polemical edge, and, reminiscent of his earlier The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, he organizes the study into taxonomies of controversies. The focus on polemic prevents Forgery and Counterforgery from being a warmed-over and Englished version of Wolfgang Speyer’s great work, Die Literarische Fälschung im heidnischen und christlichen Altertum (though, to be fair, Ehrman has surpassed Speyer on a number of fronts). But this concentration on polemic raises two questions.

First, by the time Ehrman has finished cataloguing the pseudepigrapha he considers polemical (by his rather capacious definition), we are left with very few non-polemical pseudepigraphal works. This could mean, as Ehrman prefers to take it, that polemic was a dominant mode of engagement with other ideas in early Christianity, and the volume of these forgeries simply attests to that prevalence. Or, one might suggest — as I would — that polemic is at least partially a distorting lens through which to view this literature, one that tempts an author to over-read the texts under investigation. For example, Ehrman makes an interesting attempt to read the insipid Epistle to the Laodiceans as ultimately anti-Marcionite, but it would be difficult to find a more unspecific and bland forgery. If ever a forgery did not deserve to be called polemical, Laodiceans is it. And one would be hard-pressed to view many of his so-called “apologetic forgeries” as polemical. Most of Ehrman’s examples are admittedly stronger, but even in more straightforward cases “polemic” often shades into “strongly asserted view.” By the law of non-contradiction, any specific line of argument can be taken as a “polemic” against its opposite. But then the category begins to lose its analytical precision and its heuristic value.

This leads to a second, more substantive worry about the organizing category. Pseudepigraphal texts, as Ehrman deftly shows, achieve their rhetorical purposes through the legitimating strategy of verisimilitude. The Paul of 2 Timothy asks Timothy to bring Paul’s cloak with him from Troas. The Peter of 2 Peter recalls seeing Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. And so on. These legitimating strategies lend an air of reality to the letters, and so attempt to prepare a place for them to be favorably received. But if pseudepigraphal texts — or letters, at least, which make up the largest generic category in the book — have fictionalized authors and fictionalized recipients, why should we assume they have real situations in view? Might the polemical language simply be part of the “reality effect,” particularly since the authentic letters of Paul are not short on polemic? That something sounds specific does not necessarily mean it addresses an actual phenomenon; to hold otherwise may be making unsupportable assumptions. Polemical language in pseudepigraphal texts probably does sometimes have in view real-world situations, but the fraught process of mirror-reading — discerning a situation behind a letter by reconstructing the ostensible reality from the language the author uses — is clearly even more severe for these texts than for orthonymous letters (in which the author is correctly identified).

Ehrman, perhaps more than any other scholar of early Christianity, has made a name for himself by repeatedly invoking his autobiography and publically chronicling his pilgrimage from fundamentalist Christianity to religious agnosticism. With this in mind, some will be tempted to dismiss this latest work as one more of his popularizing shockers, as sensationalist and even perhaps itself as a specimen of the theological polemic it catalogues. But such a judgment could only be reached by a willful misreading of this rich book, a reading that assumes a correlation between criticism and theological hostility. There is very little sensationalism here, even if one should occasionally transpose Ehrman’s “certainlies” into “possiblies” or “probablies” — as in, to take one example at random, his contention that “James could almost certainly not write.” Forgery and Counterforgery can only with difficulty be taken as anti-theological or anti-Christian: though Ehrman repeatedly urges, somewhat flat-footedly, that he is doing “history, not theology” (one is tempted to imagine the conversations around the coffee machine at the National Humanities Center, where much of the book was written, that could have led to such defensive asseverations), he writes sympathetically, if not uncritically, of the possible motives that might have inspired these early pious forgers.

Like world leaders today, early Christian leaders sometimes lied to their own people. If it is unsettling to consider that a book that urges “each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor” did not abide by its own advice, Christians can also take comfort in the conviction that the God in whom they believe is the one who justifies the ungodly.

† Note on the use of “Lies, Damned Lies, and Patristics”: I smugly applauded my cleverness in happening upon this turn of phrase, but the anxiety of influence led me to a Google search that indicates I’ve probably plagiarized it from Kim Fabricius.