Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics

Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics

Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics

Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics


"Arguably the most distinctive feature of the early Christian literature," writes Bart Ehrman, "is the degree to which it was forged." The Homilies and Recognitions of Clement; Paul's letters to and from Seneca; Gospels by Peter, Thomas, and Philip; Jesus' correspondence with Abgar, letters by Peter and Paul in the New Testament - all forgeries. To cite just a few examples.Forgery and Counter-forgery is the first comprehensive study of early Christian pseudepigrapha ever produced in English. In it, Ehrman argues that ancient critics - pagan, Jewish, and Christian - understood false authorial claims to be a form of literary deceit, and thus forgeries. Ehrman considersthe extent of the phenomenon, the "intention" and motivations of ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish forgers, and reactions to their work once detected. He also assesses the criteria ancient critics applied to expose forgeries and the techniques forgers used to avoid detection. With the wider practices of the ancient world as backdrop, Ehrman then focuses on early Christian polemics, as various Christian authors forged documents in order to lend their ideas a veneer of authority in literary battles waged with pagans, Jews, and, most importantly, with one another ininternecine disputes over doctrine and practice. In some instances a forger directed his work against views found in another forgery, creating thereby a "counter-forgery." Ehrman's evaluation of polemical forgeries starts with those of the New Testament (nearly half of whose books make a falseauthorial claim) up through the Pseudo-Ignatian epistles and the Apostolic Constitutions at the end of the fourth century. Shining light on an important but overlooked feature of the early Christian world, Forgery and Counter-forgery explores the possible motivations of the deceivers who produced these writings, situating their practice within ancient Christian discourses on lying and deceit.


A rguably the most distinctive feature of the early Christian literature is the degree to which it was forged. Even though the early Christians were devoted to the truth–or so their writings consistently claimed—and even though “authoritative” literature played a virtually unparalleled role in their individual and communal lives, the orthonymous output of the early Christians was remarkably, even astonishingly, meager. From the period of the New Testament, from which some thirty writings survive intact or in part, only eight go under the name of their actual author, and seven of these derive from the pen of one man. To express the matter differently, only two authors named themselves correctly in the surviving literature of the first Christian century. All other Christian writings are either anonymous, falsely ascribed (based on an original anonymity or homonymity), or forged.

Matters begin to change with the second Christian century, even though orthonymity continues to be the exception rather than the rule. It is worth considering, for example, what Pre-Enlightenment scholars accepted as the writings of apostolic and subapostolic times. There were the Homilies and Recognitions of Clement, now known not to be works of the one who was reputedly the fourth bishop of Rome, but to be forged in his name. There were the writings of the early Pauline convert Dionysius the Areopagite, also forged. There were the letters of Paul himself to and from

1. I will be defining the term forgery, and related terms, soon, and justify the way I will be using them. See pp. 29–32. For now it is enough to state my general conception. A “forgery” is a literary work with a false authorial claim, that is, a writing whose author falsely claims to be a(nother) well-known person.

2. I am excluding for now the writings of Ignatius from this tally; were he to be considered—on the grounds that he probably wrote prior to the appearance of 2 Peter—then seven additional works and one additional author would be added to the totals.

3. See further, R. M. Grant, “The Appeal to the Early Fathers,” JTS 11 (1960): 13–24.

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