Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics
by Bart D. Ehrman 2012
About the Author
Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Widely recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on the New Testament and early Christianity, he has lectured at major universities throughout North America and has been
featured on CNN, BBC, the History Channel, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, A&E, major PBS stations, and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He is the author of the New York Times best-selling book Misquoting Jesus.
About the Book
“Arguably the most distinctive feature of the early Christian literature,” writes Bart Ehrman, “is the degree to which it was forged.” The Homilies and Recognitions of Clement; Paul’s letters to and from Seneca; Gospels by Peter, Thomas, and Philip; Jesus’ correspondence with Abgar, letters by Peter and Paul in the New Testament–all forgeries. To cite just a few examples.
Forgery and Counterforgery is the first comprehensive study of early Christian pseudepigrapha ever produced in English. In it, Ehrman argues that ancient critics–pagan, Jewish, and Christian–understood false authorial claims to be a form of literary deceit, and thus forgeries. Ehrman considers the extent of the phenomenon, the “intention” and motivations of ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish forgers, and reactions to their work once detected. He also assesses the criteria ancient critics applied to expose forgeries and the techniques forgers used to avoid detection. With the wider practices of the ancient world as backdrop, Ehrman then focuses on early Christian polemics, as various Christian authors forged documents in order to lend their ideas a veneer of authority in literary battles waged with pagans, Jews, and, most importantly, with one another in internecine disputes over doctrine and practice. In some instances a forger directed his work against views found in another forgery, creating thereby a “counter-forgery.” Ehrman’s evaluation of polemical forgeries starts with those of the New Testament (nearly half of whose books make a false authorial claim) up through the Pseudo-Ignatian epistles and the Apostolic Constitutions at the end of the fourth century.
Shining light on an important but overlooked feature of the early Christian world, Forgery and Counterforgery explores the possible motivations of the deceivers who produced these writings, situating their practice within ancient Christian discourses on lying and deceit.
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“Forgery and Counterforgery is to be welcomed as a substantial contribution to a controversial subject. Ehrman combines clarity of writing with profound scholarship, building up a detailed case on the basis of historical evidence that those with more a skeptical view must take into serious
consideration. Biblical scholars and historians of early Christianity will find much to ponder in this book.”–J. Samuel Subramanian, Review of Biblical Literature
“This is a significant study in English of a theme not normally explored by scholars, This book is vintage Ehrman: forthright and coherent, based on thorough research and enviably wide reading replete with rich footnoting.”–The Expository Times
“[An] engrossing and learned analysis of early Christian literature, both within and beyond the covers of the Bible…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.” –London Review of Books
“Impressive and wide-ranging.” –Marginalia
“This comprehensive study is a valuable addition to the field of scriptural literary criticism and will be very useful to researchers and lay readers in that field. It is both an insightful study of the use and usefulness of forgeries in polemics during the first four centuries of Christianity, and
a near encyclopedic survey of the forged texts themselves.” — Library Journal
“The book is excellent. It will make an enormous impact on the field of New Testament studies and also studies of pseudepigraphy in the ancient world. … The book will make a huge contribution to the field. There are comparable books in German, but this one goes beyond them all. And it will be the
only thing of its kind in English.”
–Dale B. Martin, Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University
“The book tackles an important subject–the nature of ancient Christian pseudepigraphy–and makes a significant contribution to it…. The author’s contribution lies in updating Speyer’s thesis that pseudepigraphy was usually, on the contrary, an attempt to deceive, and in establishing this thesis
in a comprehensive English-language monograph. The greatest strength of the book is its comprehensiveness.”
–Joel Marcus, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke Divinity School
“Examining over fifty examples of early Christian forgery and their polemical contexts, Ehrman uncovers the varied motives that prompted ancient Christian authors intentionally to deceive their readers. Whether these authors forged their works to support or critique the Apostle Paul, to oppose or
celebrate “the flesh”, to promote their own views of doctrine and church leadership, or to defend Christianity against hostile critics, the sheer magnitude of early Christian forgery startles the modern reader. Ehrman demolishes the claim that forgery was an acceptable literary practice in
Greco-Roman antiquity, as well as scholars’ attempts to “explain away” its prevalence in early Christianity. Ehrman’s remarkable and comprehensive account of a misunderstood practice is unparalleled in English-language scholarship.”–Elizabeth A. Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and
Professor of History, Duke University
“With Forgery and Counter-forgery, Bart Ehrman has decisively undermined the view that the early Christian pseudepigraphic writings are something other than forgeries. These works, however well-intentioned, were, quite simply, “bastards” and were viewed as such whenever their false authorial claims
were discovered. Based in flawed or faulty scholarship, modern attempts to excuse the New Testament forgeries are therefore misplaced, revealing the longings of contemporary readers for secure canonical authorities capable of defending their own points of view. This deeply engaging, carefully
documented and thought-provoking exposé of ancient forgery is required reading for anyone interested in understanding how, and why, so many Christian writers sought to pass off their works as the products of named authorities when they so obviously were not. Thoroughly convincing.”–Jennifer Knust,
“The quality is very high; it is very thorough and well-researched. … Ehrman has produced a learned and engaging survey of early Christian controversial literature from the vantage point of authorial identity and rhetorical deceit, asking why Christians lied about themselves when writing polemical
works and why scholars are so resistant to acknowledging their forgeries. … There is no other major scholarly study in English that tackles this subject with such thoroughness, and its usefulness to students of early Christian literature will be undeniable. … There is no comparable work in
English on forgery. … I also think general readers will pick it up and find it fascinating. … The prose is solid, the arguments are clear and effective, and the significance of this study is undeniable.”
–Andrew Jacobs, Associate Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Scripps College