Some observations on Bart Ehrman’s presentation of Salvian’s letter 9 and “Ad Ecclesiam”

The last few posts have been concerned with establishing some basic facts about the priest Salvian of Marseilles.  I have discussed his Ad Ecclesiam; the text of “letter 9”, which he seems to have prefaced to the work; about his relationship with his friend and pupil Salonius, bishop of Geneva; and about the manuscript tradition of his work.  A previous post discussed why Salvian used the pen-name of Timothy for the Ad Ecclesiam, and whether he intended to be mistaken for Timothy the Apostle, in which I concluded that we can’t know.

It is now time to review the cause of all this activity: the statements of Bart Ehrman in Forgery and counterforgery[1] on this matter.  E. mentions it on just 8 pages of his immense tome; but it is crucial to his argument and indeed is referenced on the final page of the conclusion.

The first mention is on p.84:

Sometimes forgers were called to account, as when the fifth-century ecclesiastic Salvian was caught by his own bishop forging a writing in the name of Paul’s companion Timothy. As we will see, Salvian wrote a self-serving justification in his own defense. For now it is enough to note that his bishop, Salonius, was not at all amused when he discovered that his former colleague and current underling had tried to promote his own views in the name of an authority who had been dead for four hundred years. That Salonius was upset and incensed is clear; how he reacted to Salvian’s self-defense we will never know. We learn of the incident only from Salvian himself.

It is not ideal that a scholarly writer should anticipate his conclusions without qualification so early in the book, as doing so is liable to prejudice the unwary reader. This is particularly the case when using emotive language, and imaginative speculation that such-and-such “is clear”. For, at this point, E. has yet to show whether any of these statements are true.

A number of questions arise immediately. Salonius was bishop of Geneva. Was he really the superior of a monk of Lerins? Did 5th century monks owe obedience to secular bishops? Likewise wasn’t Salonius a friend and pupil of Salvian, rather than merely “his own bishop”.  Elsewhere I have discussed these questions, and E.’s claims do not seem to hold water.

The prose saying that  Salvian “was caught … forging”; that Salonius was “not amused … upset and incensed”, is colourful, but does anything in the source record any of this? Is E. taking his own imagination for fact, the reader begins to ask. Certainly the long-term and friendly relationship between the two men does not preclude the idea that their friendship could not hit a bump; but nothing in the data justifies us in supposing that it did.  Again, all this tends to prejudice rather than inform.

The next portion of the book to mention Salvian is the main body of E.’s criticism of him, on p.94-6.  Here, if anywhere, Salvian may be described, and the claim of forgery made against him and evaluated from all angles.  What does E. say?

Before creating a kind of taxonomy [of the motivations of forgers] of our own, we might consider the one instance, from a slightly later period, in which a forger attempted to justify his actions once they were detected.


The author was a Christian presbyter of Marseille named Salvian, who around 440 CE published the book Timothei ad Ecclesiam Libri IV.[4] The name “Timothy,” of course, had clear apostolic connections from Pauline times. In his letter to the church, “Timothy” inveighed against a community that had grown rich and soft, while advocating radical almsgiving to the church (in the divestment of property). In his concern for total commitment to the gospel and an ascetic style of life, Salvian was not far removed from the concerns of another author, from about the same time, a pseudonymous “Titus” (the other of Paul’s Pastoral companions) who wrote a scathing attack on Christians who indulged in the joys of the flesh, condemning anyone, married or not, who engaged in sexual activities. The author of the forged letter of Titus was never discovered. But the author of the forged letter of Timothy was, by none other than his own bishop, Salonius of Geneva.

Long before the incident, Salonius and Salvian had been members of the monastic community at Lerins, where, for a time, Salvian was Salonius’ teacher. But eventually the student surpassed the instructor in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and when the letter of “Timothy” came to his attention, he immediately, for reasons never given, suspected that in fact it had been written by his former teacher and colleague. He evidently confronted Salvian on the matter, and Salvian wrote a letter in self-defense.

Note that forgery is presumed from the first line of the discussion.  But is E. a scholar making a judgement, or a prosecuting counsel hammering home his charges?  Surely the claim of forgery be the conclusion of whatever investigation E. proposes to do?

It is also unfortunate that he introduces a spurious “letter of Titus” (unreferenced); this merely helps to fix the accusation in the mind of the reader.  But this letter has nothing to do with Salvian, and it would surely be better to demonstrate forgery before alleging it.

The portrait of the relationship of the two men is colourful, but unsatisfactory.  No indication is given that much of this is merely speculation; the picture of Salonius discovering the work, suspecting Salvian, and “confronting” him is imagination, given by no source but based entirely on how E.’s interpretation of the text.  Likewise the reader will not learn from this parapraph that Salonius was a son of Bishop Eucherius, and was sent to the monastery at Lerins at age 10.  Far from being co-members, Salonius was Salvian’s pupil.

In this, his ninth letter, Salvian does not directly admit to having written Timothei ad Ecclesiam. But there is really no doubt about the matter, as he explains why the pseudonymous author (of whom he speaks in the third person) did what he did. That is to say, he explains his motivations.

That Salvian is the author is generally accepted, not least because of the similarities in style and content between the work and De gubernatione dei, which quotes it.  But it is surprising to find that E., so often referred to as a textual critic, is so uninterested in the question of linguistic style, and the relationship between the two ancient texts.   Something on this question would surely have been useful to the reader.  Few will accept the argument offered instead; E. claims that one man cannot know the motivations of another, and so discussion of motivation proves authorship.

On one hand, Salvian insists, the name of an author should not matter to a reader: “In the case of every book we ought to be more concerned about the intrinsic value of its contents than about the name of its author.” So too, “Since the name [of the author] is immaterial, there is no use in asking about the author’s name so long as the reader profits from the book itself.” These pleas ring hollow, however, in light of the rest of Salvian’s self-defense: If he really thought that an author’s name did not matter, why would he write pseudonymously? Why not write in his own name? Or even better, if names do not matter, why not write the book anonymously? The question is exacerbated by the fact that Salvian otherwise wrote extensively in his own name. His De gubernatione dei still survives, and other works were known in Christian antiquity.

Salvian certainly suggests that the reader should judge the work by its content, not by the name attached to it.  This was good advice and still is.  But it is not clear how this is connected to the question of why Salvian chose to use a pen-name.  His motive for not using his own name is stated in the letter; that he was so unimportant that the objects of his sermon — very rich optimates — would ignore his book as by a mean man.  Any name was better than his own.  So the objections raised here seem more like vituperation.

As the date of his works are not known, and De gubernatione dei is later than the Ad ecclesiam, the objection in the final two sentences seems to have no force.  Salvian may have found that it was safer than he first thought to speak openly; we cannot tell.

Still, Salvian’s answer is straightforward. He recognizes his own insignificance and knows that readers do in fact think it matters who produced a writing. He therefore “wisely selected a pseudonym for his book for the obvious reason that he did not wish the obscurity of his own person to detract from the influence of his otherwise valuable book.” If the authority of a book is rooted in the prestige of an author, then obviously a pseudonym is necessary: “For this reason the present writer chose to conceal his identity in every respect for fear that his true name would perhaps detract from the influence of his book, which really contains much that is exceedingly valuable.”

The abbreviation of Salvian’s argument here obscures what I believe we should understand Salvian to be claiming, as we shall see.  Since the letter is not long, and yet is one of the longest of his “proof texts”, E. would have been far wiser to follow Armin Baum in his Pseudepigraphie and give the texts that he is referencing in full, in the original language and in translation.

Given this confession of motivation, what Salvian claims next may seem a bit surprising, if not downright duplicitous. Why did he choose the name Timothy in particular? Readers naturally took the name to refer to Paul’s Pastoral companion, hence Salonius’ distraught reaction. But in clear tension with his earlier assertion that an unknown person would not be accepted as an authoritative source, Salvian claims that he chose the name purely for its symbolic associations. Just as the evangelist Luke wrote to “Theophilus” because he wrote “for the love of God,” so too the author of this treatise wrote as “Timothy,” that is, “for the honor of God.” In other words, he chose the pseudonym as a pen name.

The “distraught” Salonius — really, the language is so emotive that one imagines that E. must have had dinner with him, and dried his tears! — is again an invention; as, indeed, are the “readers”, plural, who “naturally took the name” to refer to the apostle.  Speculation as to duplicity does not advance the argument at all.

The final objection – that using the name of Timothy contradicts Salvian’s assertion that an unknown person would not be heard – seems to misunderstand Salvian’s point in letter 9.  He is well aware that Salvian the humble monk would not be heard.  A book under a pen-name might be, precisely because it could be by anyone, and so could not be dismissed so easily.  Important people have used pen-names, after all, he may have reasoned.

Even though many critics today continue simply to take Salvian’s word for it, the explanation does not satisfy. If Salvian meant what he said, that the reason for choosing a pseudonymous name was to authorize the account—since a treatise written by an obscure or unknown person has no authority—then how can he also say that the specific pseudonymous name was not that of an authority figure (Paul’s companion Timothy) but of an unknown, obscure, and anonymous person intent on honoring God?

We may wonder how many who have published on Salvian have taken E.’s line.  Sadly he does not say.

On the last point, there seems no indication in letter 9 that Salvian thought using the name of Timothy would gain him the authority of an apostle.  His point is rather that using his own would lose him authority.

Scholars determined to follow Salvian’s lead in getting him off Salonius’ hook have pursued various angles. Norbert Brox thinks it significant that Salvian claims in the letter to be humble (“we are urged to avoid every pretense of earthly vainglory. … The writer … is humble in his own sight, self-effacing, thinking only of his own utter insignificance”); for Brox, the choice of the pseudonym was consistent with ascetic practices of self-abnegation that Salvian, in part, endorsed in the treatise of “Timothy.” Brox notes that on two other occasions in his writings Salvian quotes himself, both times anonymously. He chose, in other words, to keep himself, and so his name, out of the limelight.

E. does not explain why he is certain — for what else does the reference to “scholars determined to…” mean? — that other scholars are merely prejudiced.

Brox’ article[2] is accessible through JSTOR, so may be readily consulted.  The reader who has seen only F&C may be surprised to learn that it does not discuss the forgery issue at all.  Instead B. examines how ascetic authors treat the issue of authorship.  He concludes that several consider that it is entirely acceptable to use evasion, not for advantage, but in order to avoid advantage, to avoid being credited for doing something good.  The self-sacrifice of reputation is aimed at.  In this way B. highlights that Salvian is following a tradition in what he says, not simply making a random excuse.  E. does not seem to have adequately understood the argument made, which renders what follows somewhat irrelevant.

There is some merit to this view, but it does not really solve the problem. Quoting oneself in the third person is not the same thing as writing in the name of someone else: if keeping out of the public eye was the key, then, as I have pointed out, Salvian could have written Ad Ecclesiam anonymously. Moreover, the other examples of the literary self-abnegation that Brox cites—starting with Pauls discussion of his ecstatic removal to the third heaven in 2 Corinthians—involve instances in which an author actually uses his own name (i.e., 2 Corinthians is orthonymous). Brox does not, that is, adduce anything analogous to Salvian’s letter. What is completely analogous is the slew of forged writings from the early Christian tradition, numerous texts put in circulation by authors claiming to be apostles and companions of apostles, including letters allegedly written both to and by Timothy and Titus, canonical and noncanonical. Moreover, it should be reemphasized that Salvian did write other books using his own name.

Again this fails because it does not grasp the point that Salvian is part of a tradition, where names are concealed.  The argument that this is not precisely the same in implementation is not relevant; Brox is showing that the motive is the same, and we may suppose that the same impulse might appear in many ways.

But E. then falls into a circular argument.  His book is intended to show that Christians habitually composed apocrypha – an idea which would be news to Salonius, whether angry as E. depicts him, or not — and so he argues that Salvian is an example of this.  But in fact E. is using the example of Salvian as evidence for his proposition.

Even less convincing is the more recent claim of David Lambert that Salvian’s ninth letter was actually written as a preface to Ad Ecclesiam. It is true that in the scant manuscript tradition it is located there; but one can easily imagine why a scribe might arrange Salvians writings in that order, so as to explain the true nature of the authorship of the tractate. It can hardly make sense for Salvian to have put it there initially: the letter is a response to objections raised subsequent to the publication of the tractate, a self-defense for having circulated it under the name of someone else.

Lambert’s article is also accessible online on Google Books, in part at least, and his suggestion is interesting but not as strongly stated as it might be.

The difficulty with E.’s argument here is that there is no trace of an independent manuscript tradition for letter 9; nor of a copy of Ad Ecclesiam under Salvian’s name.  A medieval scribe could not readily associate the two, other than by finding the two together already.  The reason that the letter must certainly have been attached to the work by Salvian is that otherwise it would not serve the purpose for which it was written, in highlighting that Ad Ecclesiam is a modern work.  This I have discussed earlier.

The argument from circulation is also misconceived.  It is possible that the text circulated before letter 9 was added to it, but we do not know of any such circulation.  What we do know is that a copy reached Salonius.  But surely the most obvious reason for this is that Salvian sent it to him?  Why multiply hypotheses?  The hypothesis of general circulation at that point is not based on any evidence, it should be noted.  It should be remembered that Salvian actually dedicated the next book, De gubernatione dei to his friend, which perhaps suggests that Salvian and Salonius were in some way linked in a literary sense on a regular basis.

We do not know how Salonius reacted to Salvian’s defensive ninth letter. But it is relatively clear how he reacted to the tractate Ad Ecclesiam itself. He considered it a forgery, he objected to the literary practice, and he called the author to account for it. Moreover, it is difficult to take Salvian at his word that he never meant anyone to think that he really was Timothy, the companion of Paul. Otherwise his explanation that no one would heed an unknown or obscure author makes no sense: Who is more unknown or obscure than a person who does not exist, or one whose name is not even given? But his explanation for why he could not write the book orthonymously is of considerable value: it shows that one of the motivations for producing pseudepigraphic works was to get a hearing for ones views, by claiming to be someone who deserved to be heard. That will be a fundamental point for the rest of our study.

Before stressing its importance for the polemical forgeries of early Christianity, we would do well to consider the range of motivations for forgery attested in our ancient sources.

And suddenly we have the end of the argument: a serious of assertions and pieces of speculation.  These are all rather unsatisfactory.  Where does E. intend to show that the claim of forgery, and only of forgery, is required to explain the statements in letter 9, if not here?  But he does not.

Firstly, nothing in the letter 9 of Salvian — our only source of information — tells us that Salonius considered it a forgery.  He merely warned that it might be considered an apocryphon, and so not read, unless Salvian added a statement explaining why it was written under the name of Timothy.  Nothing in it tells us that Salvian is “defensive” – this is more invention.  We have already addressed E.’s misunderstanding of the argument from a pen-name.

Of course E. may sincerely believe that Salvian ‘must’ have meant to play with the name of Timothy the apostle.  He is, of course, entitled to his opinion; we are entitled to disagree, unless evidence is forthcoming, out of simple good breeding.  But there is no evidence for the question; and the speculation that E. then gives us does nothing to help.

E. then goes on to generalise from what he understands Salvian to say; that this shows that works may be written under the name of an apostle in order to be heard.  In fact Salvian has made no such point; rather he has advocated concealing his identity as a poor monk in order to avoid being dismissed, not taking the name of an important person in order to be heard!   But suppose that he had: to use such a statement as a general rule outside of Lerins in 5th century Gaul requires more evidence than a solitary statement, surely?  One senses that E. is tired of Salvian, and eager to get on with other topics.

So what should we make of all this?  For these are the core pages in the book at which E. attempts to show that Salvian is not merely writing under a pen-name, but is engaged in deliberate, wilful, intentional forgery of a work as being that of Timothy the Apostle.  He himself states that this is his sole example of a forger explaining himself.  The stakes for E. could hardly be higher.

Clearly the argument is flawed at many points, as we have seen.  But a case may be made in a less than ideal manner, and still be valid.  Defects of detail should never derail us from examining the merits of a case in an objective and detached manner.

There is likewise nothing of contemporary importance at stake.  Emotion is out of place.  It should be of no importance to most of us whether an obscure 5th century presbyter was, or was not, engaged in something morally dubious.  Corrupt and vicious men holding a post of clergyman have existed from Caiaphas himself down to the Glasgow Presbytery of 2012 .  Corrupt clergy certainly existed in the 5th century in Gaul, as Sidonius Apollinaris tells us.  Let us suppose that Salvian was a forger, and that Salonius caught him at it.  What is the evidence?

The fundamental problem with E.’s argument is that at no point has E. attempted to argue his case.  He has instead relied primarily on assertion, made quite a number of arguments, and indulged in a rather excessive amount of imagination and speculation.  But he has not made an argument for his case.  He has merely claimed that Salvian must have intended forgery, and let the rhetoric take care of the rest.

Certainly we may suspect that the use of the name of an apostle was less than accidental.  But we do not know this because we have no evidence on the matter.

In general it is unseemly to allege deliberate fraud without evidence.  If E. finds himself shortchanged at his college canteen at the Christmas dinner, he will be well advised to presume the server is suffering from mistake, muddle, tiredness, and confusion rather than fraud in the first instance.

Let us review the other references to Salvian in F&C.  On p.119-20:

So too in the one instance we have from late antiquity of a Christian detected in the act of forgery, Salvian of Marseilles, who indicates that had he written the book Ad Ecclesiam in his own name, rather than in the name of Timothy, no one would have paid it any heed. And so he “wisely selected a pseudonym for his book for the obvious reason that he did not wish the obscurity of his own person to detract from the influence of his otherwise valuable book.” Or, as he then says, “For this reason the present writer chose to conceal his identity in every respect for fear that his true name would perhaps detract from the influence of his book, which really contains much that is exceedingly valuable.”

Here we have merely reiteration of the guilt of Salvian as a forger, and its use for a more general argument.

On p.113:

The one instance in which we have an ancient forger explain himself is the fifth-century Salvian of Marseille. As we have seen, Salvian refuses to admit guilt but states, as we have seen, that whereas readers should not assign authority to a mere name, he wrote in the name of Timothy because his own name carried no weight or authority. Salvian claims that he did nothing wrong: the “Timothy” named in the letter was not meant to be the apostolic companion of Paul but a pure pseudonym. He was writing “for the honor of God.” This claim, as we have seen, stands in direct tension with Salvian’s simultaneous insistence that for the book to be read it needed to be produced in the name of an authority. In any event, Salvian carefully avoids any admission of guilt, and if he refuses to acknowledge what he has done, then it is impossible for us to know how he justified it to himself. Possibly Salvian and most other forgers were so conflicted by what they were doing—deceiving others when they believed deceit was wrong—that they were unable even to explain to themselves why they did what they did.

This merely repeats the earlier claims, and misunderstandings.

Finally, on p.548, the very last page of the conclusions of the book, we find this:

At an early stage of our study we considered the one instance of a Christian forger who discussed his motives for lying about his identity, Salvian of Marseille, who, among other things declared: “For this reason the present writer chose to conceal his identity in every respect for fear that his true name would perhaps detract from the influence of his book, which really contains much that is exceedingly valuable.” He had an important book to write, and no one would read it if it were attributed to a nobody like Salvian. And so he wrote it in the name of Timothy, in hopes that it would have a wide influence.

It’s a long way from all those bland phrases in the opening chapters, where the existence of pen-names and novelisations is acknowledged.  Salvian is now not writing under a pen-name; he is a forger; and not just a forger, a liar too!  The reader is led to suppose that he probably cheats at scrabble too!  The stern moralist, who dared to criticise the vicious and powerful … is not even mentioned by E. in all this.

The characteristic in all of these passages which strikes the reader most forcibly is the closed-mindedness of the author.  Salvian is introduced as a forger in every single passage.  Not once does E. consider the possibility that the subject needs investigation.  On the contrary, the allegation is considered proven as soon as made.  Everything that follows is merely elaboration, or the brushing aside of objections.  The combination of narrowness and arrogance is really very repulsive to the critical reader.

Now most sensible people subscribe to the “cock-up” theory of history, in preference to the conspiracy theory in which every action must be interpreted as deliberate and malicious.  Indeed whenever we find someone engaged in interpreting the actions of another in the most negative way possible, we may be sure that we find a polemicist with an axe to grind.

There is nothing wrong with E. advancing the hypothesis of a dishonest presbyter attempting to pass off an apocryphon upon the church, and then examining the evidence for it.  Such people have certainly existed, although a little knowledge of human nature will suggest that the majority of those so described were probably muddle-headed rather than coldly malicious.  But others were dishonest and self-serving.  Let us, by all means identify them; and let us also point out that the church was very hostile to even the suggestion of such conduct.  Nobody is invested in attempting to show that every person ever associated with the Christian Church was above any moral failing whatever; the implicit accusation is a strawman argument if ever there was one.

But it is quite surprising that E. does not engage in a critical evaluation of his own hypothesis.  By all means raise the question: but then look at it from all sides, and ask what can be said against.  Of this there is no trace.

It is the task of the scholar, not merely to advance ideas, but also to inform the discussion of them.  He should examine his own ideas critically, from all sides, and with an open mind.

E. does not do this.  He puts forward his claim, elaborates it, and then moves on.  The claim itself is false in some minor particulars.  But if we look at Peter Brown’s discussion of Salvian and his circle and his aims, and then back at Forgery and counterforgery, we see at once that E. gives us no real information.  Salvian for E. is merely a stage villain, introduced to be hissed by the audience.  In a work intended to be scholarly this will not do.

Something must be allowed for the brevity inevitable in a book of this kind, of course; but why be brief, when the example is sufficiently important to the argument of the whole book?

We are driven to say, therefore, that E.’s treatment of Salvian is neither satisfactory nor scholarly.

  1. [1]Oxford University Press, 2013.  My thanks to the press for kindly supplying me with a review copy.
  2. [2] Norbert Brox, “Quis ille auctor? Pseudonymitat und Anonymitat bei Salvian,” Vigiliae Christianae 40 (1986): 55-65.

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