In this two-parter, I aim to try something wholly original – to graphically show the extent of forgery in early Christian communities in various ways. I apply the label broadly to any group which would claim to be following Jesus Christ in the first seven centuries of the Church, though 165 of the 175 texts I surveyed for this post are from the late 1st to the late 4th century CE, to avoid the charge that my net has been cast too wide!
In a previous post on the Infancy Gospels (IGs), I discussed how early Christian communities were keen to know what the Son of God got up to in his childhood. I made two key points: (i) the IGs are fun, bizarre and worthwhile reading; and (ii) the IGs had a profound impact on both the development of Catholic dogma and the Islamic perspective on Jesus via paraphrased versions of the stories contained within them appearing in the Qur’an.
In the final part of that post, I dwelled on what the IGs could tell us about the topic of pseudepigrapha (a.k.a. ‘forgeries’). One observation would be how deep and how early the practice goes in an ancient Christian context. The Protoevangelium of James was written around 140-170 CE. A second point would be related to the likely motivations of those who were engaged in producing early Christian forgeries.
1. Why Would a Christian Tell a Lie?
The short answer: for exactly the same reasons why many modern Christians – and people generally –are economical with the truth. One of the reasons I enjoy ancient history is that it is simultaneously very bizarre and yet some stories, records and traditions are very familiarly human. While our modern mind tends to look down on ancient folk, believing them to have followed “primitive” deontological moral frameworks, this is far from true.
One way to ascertain the attitudes of contemporary Christians would be to look at the scriptures they would have had access to; the Hebrew Bible. One thing we could initially note is the 9th Commandment, which says: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.’ This technically refers to slander, perjury and perverting the course of justice. It does not refer to all falsehoods. Moreover, it appears that on occasion that Yahweh actually endorsed “white lies”.
Rahab indisputably lies to the King of Jericho’s men in order to protect the Israelite spies she was hiding on her roof.1 As a result, the spies’ lives are saved, Rahab and her family get incorporated into Israel as a blessing from God and no condemnation is spoken of her deceit.2 The author of the Epistle of James poses the rhetorical question, ‘Was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?’3 His answer would have been ‘yes’; her deceit facilitated the conquering of Jericho.
In the story of the birth of Moses, the Egyptian Pharaoh told two Hebrew midwives that ‘when you act as midwives to the Hebrew women… if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ The midwives ‘feared God’ and thus ‘let the boys live’. When quizzed by Pharaoh, they responded: ‘the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ The text tells us that the midwives were praised by Yahweh, who blessed them with children as a result.4
Numerous conservative voices have bent over backwards to avoid the suggestion that Yahweh was probably okay with lying in certain circumstances. For example, one says ‘the midwives may have told the truth’ because the ‘Hebrew women, fearing the commandment of the king, did not call for the midwives in a timely way’.5 Alternatively, ‘Hebrew women really were generally more fit and active than the Egyptian women’ or they got around the decree by ‘letting their apprentices… handle the key moment of truth’.6 For some reason, these commentators are so confident as to proclaim that their solutions are ‘more than likely’. Notice two things: (i) the psychological compulsion to harmonise texts, focusing on possibility rather than probability;7 and (ii) the text indicates that the midwives ‘let live’ (חָיָה), which is an active action requiring a decision to be made.
Even more fascinatingly, Yahweh personally commands a ‘lying spirit’ to deceive King Ahab in 1 Kings, promising it ‘you shall succeed; go out and do it’.8 (Read fn. 8 if you disagree with my interpretation.) The prophet Micaiah then declares ‘the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets; the LORD has decreed disaster for you’. The disaster which Micaiah speaks about is Ahab’s death in battle and utter disgrace, since ‘the dogs licked up his blood and the prostitutes washed themselves in it’.9 (Karma?!)
2. What About the New Testament?
What does the New Testament (NT) tell us about Christians and lying? One inference from the very last passage of Revelation (c. 81-96 CE) is that early Christians were adding to and taking away parts from the NT. After all, if they weren’t, there would be no need for the author’s warning:10
If anyone adds [to the words of this book], God will add to them the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from [them], God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
The notion of one’s share of the tree of life being taken away from them is clearly aimed at Christian readers. Ironically, there are many well-attested textual variants in Revelation, including the very verses which were attempting to ward off would-be interpolators and redactors!11
The most recent estimate of the non-spelling variants in the NT manuscripts stands at 500,000.12 That means there are roughly 63 variants per NT verse and 20 per extant manuscript.13 The earliest person to write about them was Origen, writing in the third century, who details his preferences among the variants he is aware of, usually for theological reasons.14
What about concealing one’s true identity and producing a forgery? Funnily enough, 2 Thessalonians (2:2) explicitly warns against forged letters. Ironically, many scholars think the epistle is itself a forgery and this verse is meant to throw others off the scent of the author’s own deceit!
Some might suggest that there are a plethora of texts demonstrating how lying was looked down upon in early Christian communities, such as the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts.15 This couple sold some property, yet kept back part of the value for themselves and lied about giving the Apostles the full amount. As a result, God kills them both on the spot. Certainly, the purpose of including this story in Acts is to engender a fear of lying, because it specifically tells us that ‘great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events’.
On the other hand, the target audience of Acts is a Christian one, which indicates that early Christians were being dishonest about important matters. This sort of scores my chain of reasoning another point, no? Furthermore, any comparison is not a fair one; Rahab and the two midwives lied to human beings for God, whereas Peter said to the couple, ‘You did not lie to us but to God.’16 An footnote in the NRSV indicates that the Greek actually reads ‘to men’, making the case stronger that there is a difference between lying to God and lying for him.
3. The Motivation for Forgery
Why do I say all of this? Well, one obvious suggestion for the motivations which drove early Christians to produce forgeries is that, if believing the right things is important, perhaps even vital to entering Paradise and avoiding Hell, then they might well have believed that telling a lie is justified. If you wanted to get your theological ideas accepted in the ancient world, it would make sense to attribute it to an Apostle, preferably one of the best ones like Peter or Paul!
As time went on, people began to become wise to Apostolic forgeries and so moved on to claiming to be those that knew the Apostles, such as Ignatius or Clement, called ‘Apostolic Fathers’.17 Out of those 67 texts I surveyed which are almost certainly pseudonymous, 57% claimed to be by Apostles, 15% by the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ or other early followers and 6% by the hand of Jesus himself! As seen in later Catholic doctrinal development, Apostolic authority and succession were critical to gaining acceptance of one’s theological ideas.
Consider the pseudonymous Gospel of Peter. Initially, Serapion, the 8th Bishop of Antioch, allowed the book to be read, since he ‘supposed that all were in accord with the orthodox faith’, given that it claimed to be from Peter’s hand.18 However, upon later discovering ‘Docetic’ heresies in the book, he declared that it couldn’t have been written by Peter and prohibited his congregation from reading it. This demonstrates that the chief method by which early Christians detected forgery was by pre-conceived ideas of orthodoxy. After all, they did not have the analytical tools of modern scholars and it is a very hard thing to be objective; we all believe our theologies and politics are right and are often very reluctant to accept the possibility that we may be wrong, including me!
I hope you enjoyed Part 1, where I have tried to show that: (i) there are plenty of clues in the New Testament (NT) that forgery was a known phenomenon in early Christian communities; and (ii) that lying for a higher cause is often seen favourably in the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. Old Testament). The latter point is vital for understanding the former. Now go read Part 2, where you can see the results of my endless reading and categorisation!
As ever, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my post. Please do comment, subscribe via the button below, like the Facebook page, and/or send me a message! I would be delighted to hear your thoughts, questions, heckling and so forth!
- Joshua 2:1-6 ↩
- Joshua 6:17, 22-25 ↩
- James 2:25; see also Hebrew 11:31 ↩
- Exodus 1:15-22 ↩
- Jackson, Jason. ‘Did God Reward Midwives for Lying?’. Christian Courier. Accessed on 07/02/17. ↩
- Churchill, David G. (2004). ‘Why Did God Prosper People in the Old Testament for Lying? (Part 1: Hebrew Midwives)’. Exploring God’s Word. Accessed on 07/02/17. ↩
- See my previous post: The Mad Maths of Inerrancy. The claim that the Bible contains no errors is so strong that nobody would be prepared to believe it if they stopped to think about it; it mathematically requires you to be sure that there is roughly 1 in 45,000 chance that there are no errors in each and every verse. As Carl Sagan said, ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ ↩
- 1 Kings 22:19-23; I should like to point out the consistent Jewish belief that Ha-Satan works for Yahweh rather than against him; the lying spirit was not ‘given permission to proceed’ as popular apologetics website GotQuestions argues, but rather the spirit was commanded. In both modern and ancient Judaism, there is no effective opposition to God and no spiritual warfare in the universe, at least not until Apocalypticism and Hellenisation and even then that was only in some circles, not all. ↩
- 1 Kings 22:38; it is gruesome poetic justice; another indication that the Hebrew Bible engages in good old-fashioned storytelling. It is not unlike the fate of Haman and his sons in the Book of Esther (5:14; 6:4; 7:9-10; 8:7; 9:13, 25; Greek 8:7), who is hung on the very same gallows he had constructed for Esther’s cousin Mordecai. (The repetition of the design of the gallows for Mordecai is good use of literary techniques to build up to the grizzly poetic justice.) The reason Yahweh wanted Ahab dead is because he worshipped Baal, killed Yahweh’s prophets and followed ‘false prophets’ instead. As for Haman, it is notable that he is a descendant of Agag, the King of the Amalekites, who were subject to brutal genocide as discussed in a previous post.On this subject, see: ‘Whoever Speaks Evil of Father or Mother Must Surely Die’, Right? (Mark 7:10). ↩
- Revelation 22:18-19 ↩
- Some textual variants in the Book of Revelation are found at – 1:5; 1:6; 1:8; 1:11; 2:20; 4:2; 4:3; 5:9; 5:14; 8:7; 8:13; 11:17; 11:18; 13:18; 14:5; 16:5; 21:24 and 22:14 and 22:19. Most of these are minor, yet not all. The penultimate one is somewhat curious, given its proximity to the warning, yet also the fact that it is very obviously a deliberate alteration, given that the exact same change is made many times. Codices Alexandrinus and Sinaiticus, along with a number of ‘minuscules’, have ‘those who wash their robes’, rather than ‘those who do [or keep] His commandments’. The last one in the list is pure irony, given that verses 18 and 19 are those giving the stark warning against changing the text! ↩
- Gurry, Peter J. (2016). ‘The Number of Variants in the Greek New Testament: A Proposed Estimate’. New Testament Studies. 62: 1. pp. 97-121. ↩
- We have c. 25,100 NT manuscripts, comprised of c. 5,800 in Greek, c. 10,000 in Latin and c. 9,300 in other ancient languages, e.g. Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopic. The vast majority of these date after the 10th century, with only 517 (2.1%) dated prior and only 93 dated prior to the 5th century (0.4%), which are (somewhat generously) the most important for reconstructing the text. The first complete New Testament is Codex Sinaiticus, which comes from c. 330-360 CE. ↩
- For example, Origen noticed two different readings of Hebrews 2:9 – “apart from God” and “by the grace of God”. Quite different things! ↩
- Acts 5:1-11 ↩
- Acts 5:4 ↩
- Barnabus is named an Apostle in Acts 14:14. ↩
- The pamphlet which Serapion wrote concerning the Gospel of Peter is preserved in the writings of Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, vi.12.2); you can read the pamphlet here. ‘Docetism’ refers to ‘the claim that Jesus did not have a physical human body, but only the appearance of such’. See: Gonzalez, Justo (2005). Essential Theological Terms. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 46–47. ↩