Saturday, 14 July 2007
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but did imitation take a step too far into outright fraud and forgery in the New Testament?
There certainly were forgers out there. Two documents claiming to come from the Apostle Paul are obvious examples: Third Corinthians and an alleged exchange of letters between Paul and the philosopher Seneca.
These guys could be tricky. A text emerged in the fourth century claiming to be written by the original apostles. Called the Apostolic Constitutions, it brazenly advises its readers to avoid reading books that make false claims to apostolic authorship. Talk about chutzpah!
But what about the documents that made the final cut for the New Testament? There are at least six books claiming to be written by Paul that display the tell-tale marks of being pseudonymous (a scholarly way of saying forgeries.) The suspect letters fall into two groups: the Deutero-Pauline epistles (2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians), and the Pastorals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus.)
That means, of the 13 letters attributed to Paul, nearly half are thought to be fabrications. That just leaves us with Romans, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon and 1 Thessalonians as genuine.
What about Hebrews? It's not by Paul either, but then it doesn't claim to be. Although it was included in the canon on the false assumption that Paul wrote it, it can't be considered a forgery as it makes no pretense to be from Paul (or any other apostle). Church father Origen wrote about the identity of the author: "God only knows." James was a common name at the time, and the letter bearing that name nowhere claims to be by the brother of Jesus; hence not pseudonymous. Revelation is in a similar category: John the apostle? Not likely. The Gospel of John is famously unconcerned with the end of the age, quite unlike the Apocalypse. While it's true that these books made it into the canon largely on wishful thinking about authorship, there's nothing in the way of such extravagent claims within these documents.
But there certainly do seem to be flagrant forgeries in the Pauline corpus. Unfortunately there's more. Chalk up 2 Peter as pseudonymous, along with Jude. Questions need to be asked about 1 Peter as well. The letters of John are also dubious affairs, most scholars optimistically attributing them to a later disciple of John.
Despite the special pleading of latter-day apologists, "forgery was almost universally condemned by ancient authors." The exception was in schools of philosophy where it was considered a bit of an art form to place your thoughts in the mouth of a great teacher of the past.
Bart Ehrman comments: "Many scholars are loath to talk about New Testament "forgeries" because the term seems so loaded and suggestive of ill intent. But... [it] is striking that few scholars object to using the word "forgery" for books, even Christian books, that occur outside the New Testament."
The beginning of wisdom in tackling the scriptures, whether the Old Testament or the New, is honesty. These ancient books are many things, but inflating their value by misrepresentation can serve no useful purpose.