The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Forgeries and Pseudopigraphy

It's not always easy to accurately determine authorship of works in the ancient world. Sometimes works are unsigned or, quite commonly, they're misattributed. For example, among the 43 dialogues attributed to Plato, 14 are generally considered not to be written by Plato, with an additional 3 that are uncertain and debated. The remaining 26 scholars are quite comfortable with attributing to Plato and haven't much doubted, meaning about 60% of "Plato"s works were definitely written by the historical Plato. This misattribution is not just a matter of people mistaking who wrote these works, but of the authors themselves deliberately claiming that the author of the work was someone else, such as Plato. It's a practice called Pseudopigraphy. A similar situation occurs with the Pauline epistles in the New Testament. Of the 13 letters that are claimed to be written by Paul, only 7 are widely agreed upon to be definitely the work of Paul; the 3 pastoral epistles (1st & 2nd Timothy, & Titus) are widely believed to be not Paul's; and 3 are other epistles hotly debated (1st & 2nd Colossians & Ephesians). This raises the question of why people would do such a thing and what status we should give to these works.

There may be many reasons for doing such a thing. For one, people may assign authorship to an author when they are working in the tradition of that author. It may become conventional to assign authorship to the founder of the tradition. For example, it was quite common for authors in the Pythagorean school to attribute authorship to Pythagoras long after he died, making it very difficult for us today to determine what exactly the original Pythagoras actually contributed to philosophy and mathematics and what is the result of his followers. The reason for this may be part humility, part homage or part tradition.

Generally speaking, people have wanted to assume this as the model and motive for the Pauline pseudopigraphy because it's the most benign and virtuous. In other words, the Pseudo-Pauline authors were simply followers of Paul who believed themselves to be simply extending the words of Paul.

But there are other, less benign reasons why people misattribute authorship. For one, one might do it purely for personal gain. For example, it has been argued that Moses de Leon, who originally published the Zohar in Spain in the 13th century was actually the author, despite attributing the work to a famous 2nd century rabbi, Shimon ben Yochai. According to one account his wife confessed, after de Leon's death, that he was the author and that he attributed it to the much more famous rabbi because it would be more profitable that way. Why would anyone listen to an obscure Spanish Jew? But a famous rabbi who lived over a thousand years ago, that is someone worth listening to. Such was also the case with James MacPherson's Ossian and Thomas Chatterton's Rowley poems, two 18th century British poets who both claimed to have discovered long lost medieval poems.

And sometimes people misattribute authorship in order to attribute false beliefs to someone. For example, the famous Russian forgery, The Protocals of the Elders of Zion was written in 1903 to give credence to the idea of a Jewish plot to control the world. The book was presented as if it was the work of Jewish leaders spelling out their plans for world domination, clearly meant to give fodder to anti-Semites who genuinely believed in the idea of a Jewish world conspiracy.

As stated, pseudopigraphy was a common practice in the Ancient world, and certainly extends to the books of the New Testament. Scholars have long known about these issues. Doubted works include the pseudo-Pauline letters, as well as 2nd Peter and certain significant passages later interpolated into the Gospels. Most notable among the interpolations are the story of the woman taken in adultery, the last 12 lines of the Gospel According to Mark, and the so-called Comma Johanneum. But though scholars acknowledge that these are probably not original, they have been reluctant to call any of these forgeries.

Bart Ehrman has excited a lot of controversy by stating that these pseudopigrapha and interpolations are appropriately called forgeries, claiming that more than a third of the books of the New Testament were forged. From a certain perspective none of this is new. As I said, scholars have long doubted the authenticity of the pieces I've mentioned, as well as others. And, though there is debate about some of them, there are still passages that are widely acknowledged to be unoriginal and the work of much later scribes and authors.

But, by calling them forgeries Ehrman's trying to make a stronger claim. For one he's saying that these works are deceptive and they wouldn't have found their way into the canon of scripture if Ancient authors had realized it. The Ancient authors were concerned with authority, and did believe that certain people had genuine authority that others did not. They were on the lookout and rejected purported forgeries like Marcion's version of Luke.

Additionally, Ehrman argues that such pseudopigrapha were often motivated by clear ulterior motives. In the Pseudo-Pauline 1st Timothy, Paul supposedly wrote: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet"(1 Tim 2:12), and a scribe may have even interpolated, into the genuinely Pauline 1st Corinthians, that "women should remain silent in the churches"(1 Cor 14:34). In short, the authors may have been using the authority of more notable figures to give weight to their own ideas and make them appear to have divine sanction.

One, though, wouldn't want to say that of all such passages. For example, it's hard to argue that the story of the woman taken in adultery was added for some ulterior motive. It appears to have just been meant to emphasize Jesus prominent message of forgiveness, which is bolstered by other parts of the gospels. And there other interpolations which may have been interpolated accidentally. For example, it was common at the time for scribes to add notes in the margin. Since scribes would sometimes add in the margin text they'd accidentally omitted, later scribes would sometimes take this marginalia and reintegrate it into the text, believing it was supposed to be part of the text. The story of the woman taken in adultery may have started as a marginal note, recounting a well known story, that some scribe added to the margin and a later scribe integrated into the text. After passing through the imperfect hands of so many transcribers, corruptions seeped in.

So, what do we make of all this? For one, it does go to prove something that we were already aware of, that in the days of early Christianity it was a time of great controversy and divisiveness within the budding church, with many groups and theologies jostling for preeminence. On the other hand, whether we want to call this pseuddopgripha "forgeries" is a difficult question, but it does highlight the point that these are the works of genuinely very fallible men.

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