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.

The four Gospels are not part of the industry of pseudonymity Ehrman is examining, for they make no special internal claims for their authorship. Similarly, there is no reason to believe that the wonderful vision contained in the Book of Revelation was not written by a man named John (even if he was a different John from the Gospel-writer or the author of three Epistles). The book known as Acts of the Apostles claims to be by the same author as Luke’s Gospel, but this is a vexed issue Ehrman chooses not to examine. His business concerns the Epistles and their place among the books of the biblical library, the canon (a group complete perhaps by the 120s), together with a number of comparable post-biblical texts which range in date up to the end of the third century.

In the case of some books in the New Testament canon, discriminating readers have been aware of these issues for many centuries. Origen, Christianity’s first great intellectual and pioneering biblical commentator, writing in the early third century, noted that not everyone considered genuine the second and third Epistles attributed to John. A century later, the historian Eusebius recorded that some disputed the authorship of the Epistle of James, since ‘few of the ancients quote it’; he also put a literary health warning on the Epistle of Jude. Many early Christians regarded Jude with suspicion because it confidently quotes as scripture a text allegedly written by the supremely ancient patriarch Enoch (it wasn’t). Most Christians have never accepted the Enoch literature as a legitimate part of the canon. The exception has been the Church of Ethiopia, which did eventually give Enoch the requisite thumbs-up in the hall of mirrors that is Christian history. Key to Ehrman’s argument is the contention that the ancients already understood the principles of analysis of literary style that we would recognise, and he provides abundant evidence that this was the case. Reformation Protestant scholars were equally clued up about style: Martin Luther, for instance, came down against the common opinion that the Epistle to the Hebrews had been written by Paul of Tarsus, since its Greek was so much more elegant than Paul’s (there was a good precedent for his scepticism: Origen said that only God knew who had written it).

Scepticism about parts of the canon greatly increased during the intellectual revolution in Western Christianity which formed a major part of the Enlightenment. In the early 18th century, stylistic criticism and speculation about the original context of biblical writings began to extend way beyond relative outliers like the Johannine epistles or Jude. At first, Christian Enlightenment biblical criticism was much more enthusiastic in debunking the historical authenticity of Hebrew books in the Old Testament than Greek ones in the New. But the tide of reverent reassessment did eventually march forwards through the text between the Bible-black covers. Some 19th-century scholars like Ferdinand Christian Baur of the University of Tübingen were radical in their hatchet jobs on authenticity: Baur contended that of all the Epistles attributed to Paul in the New Testament, the apostle had written only 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians and Romans. A century and a half of discussion has produced a slightly more generous consensus among Christian revisionists, but even so the corpus of genuine Epistle texts by Paul has been reduced from 13 to seven. The so-called Pastoral Epistles of Paul (two written to Timothy and one to Titus) were among the first to fall away, since they described a set of Christian communities that felt subtly different from those of genuine Paul: more settled, more structured, less convinced that the world would end soon.

The surgery on Epistles by authors other than Paul has been even more drastic. The apostle Peter has been left without either of his Epistles, which are patently in two different styles of Greek and so by two different authors. Neither of them is likely to have been a Galilean fisherman who might not even have been literate in Aramaic. The same is true of James, brother of Jesus and first leader of the Christian-Jewish community in Jerusalem, but an unlikely author of the sophisticated Hellenistic Greek Epistle that apparently bears his name. All this is a reflection of a greater truth: the Christians who knew Jesus in his lifetime (in other words, not including Paul of Tarsus) were Jews who spoke Aramaic and, if they were lucky, bad street Greek (koine Greek). Yet all extant New Testament books are composed in street Greek, of varying degrees of goodness or badness. There is a natural chronological and cultural hiatus between the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the writings they inspired.

Liberal Protestant scholars, having done the spadework, went on to devote much scholarly effort to providing respectable rationales for the disconcerting thought that some early Christians were not who they pretended to be. Some of them suggested that there was a recognised class of pseudonymous literature in the Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome, in which people who were admirers of great figures assumed their names while extending and enriching their ideas; Christians had merely adopted the cultural norms of their time in their reverent imitations. As an additional tribute, these early Christian acolytes might courteously snip out fragments of genuine text from Epistles which did not bear an especially edifying message and use them to decorate their own compositions, tactfully jettisoning the remainder. In the case of Peter, or other authors who seem unlikely to have spoken elegant educated Greek, it was suggested that a secretary sat down to mediate the thoughts of the great man, who presumably himself lay on a couch, Barbara Cartland-style, free-associating as the amanuensis created his text. Particular energy was expended on the case of the peculiar text now called Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, which is apparently constructed out of words and phrases from Paul’s genuine letters combined with a previous forged letter addressed to a church in Colossae. Some scholars saw it as a sort of literary wrapper or introductory covering letter to an edition of the Pauline correspondence.

Ehrman will have none of this. He sees such theories as wishful thinking: excuses for the brutal truth that forgery was known as forgery in the ancient world just as it is now, and that these biblical forgeries were designed to deceive. With patient ruthlessness, he sends one explanation after another crashing into ignominy; that is the real radicalism of his book, rather than any novelty in the number of Epistles he regards as ‘forged’. With a wit which deserves a word of explanation for the uninitiated, he habitually calls the perpetrators Neutestamentler, capturing the combination of solemn Teutonic scholarship and pious insulation from the rest of classical erudition that characterises the worst of this Protestant liberal commentary on the New Testament. His task is to call the bluff of the Neutestamentler by doing what they always claimed to be doing: establishing the historical context and nature of the Epistles, but in the process demolishing their evasions and special pleading. This is a book with a moral thrust, a sense of quiet anger about muddled thinking, which reflects the intellectual distance Ehrman has travelled from his own original conservative evangelical Protestantism.


Why does it all matter? Because Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, is a ‘Religion of the Book’ in a way that other great world faiths, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, are not. These other faiths have sacred books aplenty, but you can imagine them existing perfectly well as religious practices and ways of life in the absence of any particular one of their holy texts. Not so Christianity. The discovery that its scripture is full of literary deceit is unsettling to the foundations of Christian faith, at least for those who have staked their Christianity on a reliability that the Bible virtually never claims for itself. It is worth noting that the only unequivocal assertion in either Old or New Testament that ‘all scripture is inspired by God’ (literally, ‘God-breathed’, theopneustos) appears in one of the texts which, Ehrman argues, is a blatant forgery: 2 Timothy. As Ehrman observes, concerning the small portion of early Christian literature we still possess, ‘the side that wins preserves the texts.’ It is as if my coverless David Copperfield were the only text to have survived from some bitter Victorian ideological row, of which we now know only the broad outlines and a few accidentally preserved details.

The process did not stop with early Christianity. The Christian faith has had a habit of creating identities out of bad history and then seeking to defend them against all-comers. An entertaining example is the 11th and 12th-century industry of forgery carried out in the major Benedictine monasteries of Anglo-Norman England, which created brand-new ancient charters recording grants of large estates from long-dead Anglo-Saxon notables. And here is a clue to an element of the process on which Ehrman might have looked more charitably than he does, in his admirable determination to nail down his case. Abingdon or Westminster Abbey had wide and ancient estates which they needed to defend against aristocratic predators, but changing documentary practice or Viking destruction had deprived these venerable foundations of any proof that they had title to own their lands. So they had to make it up (thus providing gainful employment and hours of fun to many modern students of medieval ‘diplomatic’ style and content). One might say the same of New Testament forgeries: they witnessed situations the authors passionately believed to be true, but which lacked authentication in previous documents.

There is another charitable consideration: the law of benevolent unintended consequences. I think of Christianity’s greatest and most successful forger, who lies just beyond the chronological scope of Ehrman’s book. This is the mysterious sixth-century Miaphysite Syrian Christian who pretended to be Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian friend of Paul of Tarsus in the first century. The Syrian was seeking credibility for his writings, which sought in great detail to help us poor mortals approach the divine absence amid our pitiably specific and material existence. It was a very big lie to call himself Dionysius: we have never discovered his real name, which was hidden by his admirers even in his own time. For eight centuries pseudo-Dionysius fooled Christians in east and west who would have been additionally appalled to realise that the deceitfulness had been the work of a Miaphysite heretic. Luther and Calvin, realising that Dionysius was not who he said he was, sneered at him and his writings, and they also dismissed the rich and varied tradition of mysticism and contemplation of silent divinity he had inspired, thus throwing a great deal out with the Miaphysite bathwater.

Maybe Ehrman would accept the beneficial consequences of forgery with equanimity, since they do not affect his thesis. His task is more specific: to dismantle the web of deception which was built into Christianity’s most sacred literature when, in the course of the second century, it began developing a canon of scripture to supplement the holy books it had borrowed from Judaism. We should see his study as part of a wave of clear-sightedness among historians who seek to expound and re-present the first five centuries of Christian history. Another example is the work of Candida Moss on martyrdom, particularly her crisply written The Myth of Persecution.[*] Moss systematically takes an axe to early Christian martyrology, suggesting that most of it was made up in the fourth and fifth centuries during the Christian alliance with the Roman Empire. Challenging long established assumptions about ecclesiastical authority in a remarkably similar fashion to Ehrman, she suggests that the emphasis on martyrdom has created an unhealthy ethos within Christianity: a stress on the inevitability of conflict with the surrounding world, which justifies persecuting opponents within and outside the Church, and shuts down opportunities to enter into dialogue with other world faiths, or with those who lack faith.

Another fresh perspective is Timothy Michael Law’s When God Spoke Greek, a study of the Septuagint, the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture or Old Testament.[†] Law has much to say that will be news even to many students of church history, if their specialism is in a later period. He points out that the Septuagint became the authoritative Bible which Mediterranean Christians used once they cut their links with Judaism, and often this is traceable in New Testament quotations from Hebrew scripture which seem ‘wrong’ in comparison with the Hebrew. They are wrong because they are earlier: the long accepted Hebrew Bible which Jews and Christians have commonly referred to is actually a redaction of variant earlier texts, as has become apparent from the mass of earlier scriptural fragments known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it postdates most of the New Testament by perhaps half a century. When, in the 16th century, Protestant scholars excitedly returned to the Hebrew Bible, to expose popish error in understanding God’s word, they were unwittingly consulting a text later than the Greek Septuagint which lay behind the Latin Vulgate version of the Old Testament. Law thus brilliantly turns accepted wisdom about the nature of biblical text on its head. This trio – Ehrman, Moss and Law – kicks away the supports of both conservative Protestant and Roman Catholic scholarship, and leaves some old-fashioned liberal biblical scholars looking a little uncomfortable. All three are aware that good history is a solvent for lazy and often harmful promulgations of traditional ecclesiastical authority; they all write with an implicit moral purpose.

Ehrman’s arguments are at times a little overdone. In pursuit of his (fairly persuasive) thesis about the likely minimal educational levels among Jesus’s first disciples and apostles, he is very quick to assume illiteracy rates of up to 97 per cent in biblical Palestine, for which there isn’t much evidence either way. He might have taken into account the fact that coins from the region bear Greek inscriptions that were changed frequently, which presumably indicates that there were quite a few readers among the coin-using public. He writes with clarity and elegance, but expects a good deal of his readers: he assumes that they will have at least some knowledge of Greek words, phrases and sentences, which he does not always translate. He demands an outline acquaintance with early church history, to which he often refers fairly allusively, and takes for granted an ability to withstand such words as ‘miahypostatic’ or ‘gematria’.

Not all will stay the course, but those who do will have read a text that will have a material effect on the future of a faith that is currently experiencing one of its most interesting and fruitful phases of transformation. Few books have so effectively challenged the basis of scriptural authority in Christianity. Ehrman has embarked on a dangerous exercise, and he will be expecting plenty of vitriol to be poured on his efforts. Other Christians will thank him: there are many who seek to claim their full place within the Christian tradition, while their own understanding of scripture, reason and tradition forces them to repudiate ill-founded Christian dogma and all the harm that it has done over the centuries.

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

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