Faking the Canon

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • Forgery and Counter-Forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics by Bart Ehrman
    Oxford, 628 pp, £27.50, January 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 992803 3

On my bookshelves is a handsome set of late Victorian printed books in a plum-coloured binding. I take down a volume, and read on the spine the name ‘David Copperfield’; underneath, in slightly smaller letters, is another name, ‘Charles Dickens’. I open the book, and find the same combination repeated on the title page. I have heard of Dickens, and conclude that what I am holding is a novel written by Dickens about a character he has invented and named David Copperfield. I go on to read the book and note the way that every third chapter ends with something of a cliffhanger, inviting me to look forward to reading the next instalment. I know a little about the Victorian literary scene, so I am aware that this stylistic device derived from the original publication of the novel in a journal, and was designed to entice its readers into buying the next issue to see what happened. And so I read on, secure in what I think I am doing in experiencing this text.

But what if I had no such contextual knowledge? And what if the binding and title page had been torn away? It would be easy to imagine that the unbound text was the autobiography of a man called David Copperfield, and if I had grown to know the text intimately and love it deeply, perhaps because there were virtually no other books on my shelves, I might feel very angry if someone told me I had made a silly mistake. I would feel something similar if I had long been enthused by another book called the New Testament, which told me all I thought I needed to know about my Christian faith, and then an American scholar called Bart Ehrman seized me by the lapels to tell me that ‘the most distinctive feature’ of its content was ‘the degree to which it was forged’. That is precisely what Ehrman says, on the first page of his engrossing and learned analysis of early Christian literature, both within and beyond the covers of the Bible.

What Ehrman argues, in cumulatively convincing detail, is that many of the ‘books’ in the Holy Book of Christianity, in particular the Epistles or letters from named individuals, are doing something much worse than my coverless David Copperfield. Dickens had no intention to deceive, but the authors of the Epistles set out to do just that. Taking their cue from a nucleus of genuine letters written by Paul of Tarsus, they call themselves Paul when they are not Paul, Peter when they are not Peter, James when they are not James, Jude when they are not Jude. Sometimes they put in circumstantial detail to make their claims more plausible: so pseudo-Paul tells his gullible readers ‘I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write’ (2 Thessalonians 3.17).

The forged Epistles do these deceitful things for a variety of polemical reasons. They often comment obliquely but emphatically on other known texts in early Christian literature (some of which are also forged for polemical purposes), and their aim is to shape the future of Christianity by creating a fictitious past for it. Ehrman spends much of his energy seeking to recover and analyse the various preoccupations of the texts. One of them is the furious disagreement among members of the second Christian generation as to whether the Lord Jesus was or was not going to return to them very soon. By the end of the first century of the Christian era, this was turning into the first Great Disappointment (the first of many); he had not returned, and his followers would have to adjust their faith accordingly. Even before that had become brutally clear, there were bitter disagreements over the extent to which Christianity was a wing of Judaism, intended for the circumcised, or whether it was a new faith with a universal meaning. Paul of Tarsus was the advocate of universality, but how could Paul be given credence when he had never known Jesus in his earthly life? Surely the disciple Peter, who one Gospel text (Matthew 16.18) said was the rock on whom Christ would build his church, was a more convincing source of paramount authority? What about Jesus’s actual family, one of whom, James, became the leader of Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem? Much of the bickering, therefore, was concerned with establishing particular patterns of ecclesiastical authority, as a new institution calling itself a church evolved out of a Jewish sect.

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[*] Harper, 320 pp., £14.99, March 2013, 978 0 06 210452 6.

[†] Oxford, 256 pp., £16.99, August 2013, 978 0 19 978172 0.