Ehrman’s use of the term “forgery”

Before I go further in reviewing Ehrman’s Forgery and Counterforgery, it would be good to look at what E. means when he uses the word “forgery” — a word which he uses very frequently — and what we mean when we use the word, and whether the two are the same and of the same extent.

If we think of instances of contemporary use of the word “forgery” in current English, we may imagine a number of instances: a forged will; the forged “Hitler diaries”; a forged and discreditable letter from a public figure; or some form of forged financial document; or a forged bank note.

The man who forges a will intends to obtain property belonging to another; the man who composed the supposed “Hitler diaries” hoped to obtain money for them; a forged financial instrument is created and submitted to cheat another of money.  A forged letter from a public figure intended to discredit him is intended to steal reputation, to obtain power or influence by removing it from another.

Likewise the man who creates a forged bank note does so in order to use it to obtain goods, stealing them from his victim.  On the other hand, there have been artists who have created “art” based around an image of a bank note.  The intent, and still more the use of the item, determines whether it is a forgery, or something else.

A google search will quickly confirm that the term is morally as black as black can be, indicating a fraud, something created maliciously with the purpose of injuring others in some way, or, at the very least, indifferent as to whether others are injured.  It is not a neutral term, but has a considerable emotional loading.  As such, in any scholarly study, it must be used with care, and only for items where the forgery is generally accepted, and in which none of the readership has any personal, political, religious or emotional investment.  To do otherwise can have no other effect than to turn a book into polemic against those sections of the readership, whether intentionally or not.  The book ceases to be scholarship at that point.

The google search to which I referred will also quickly reveal the existence of a 1930 book by a certain Joseph Wheless, entitled Forgery in Christianity: a documented record of the foundations of the Christian religion, which consists of extensive quotations from patristic writers with the intent of proving that the early Christians were determined and persistent liars.  The book may be found here.  Hate-literature very frequently levels an accusation of this sort at the object of its venom, whatever this may be.

Wheless, who had been an attorney, defines forgery in his introduction, and we might usefully quote it, in order to see what a malicious person intent on harm might do with the word.

Forgery, in legal and moral sense, is the utterance or publication, with intent to deceive or defraud, or to gain some advantage, of a false document, put out by one person in the name of and as the genuine work of another, who did not execute it, or the subsequent alteration of a genuine document by one who did not execute the original. This species of falsification extends alike to all classes of writings, promissory notes, the coin or currency of the realm, to any legal or private document, or to a book. All are counterfeit or forged if not authentic and untampered.

How, then, does E. define forgery?  Verbosely and diffusely, unfortunately, or I would quote him directly, rather than in excerpts.

First he defines (p.29-30) as “pseudonymous” writings where the name at the top is not that of the person who composed it.  The name may be a pen-name, or it may be that of a “well-known person who did not, in fact, write it.”

He then divides the latter class into two; (a) works originally published without a name, or under a name which is the same as a more famous person, and later ascribed by copyists or whoever to the “well-known person”; and (b) works published under the name of a well-known person, by someone knowing full well that he was not that person.

E. states that (b) is ‘typically meant to deceive the reader … this kind of pseudepigraphy is what I am calling “forgery,” when an author claims to be someone else who is well known, at least to some readers.  Forgeries involve false authorial claims.’  He then wanders off into justifications of his usage, of no special interest now,  and all rather vague and discursive.  He’s said what he wants to say, and the rest is detail.

Many will feel rather uneasy with these definitions.   These are not conclusions, or useful ways to summarise, based on what a study of the material has revealed.  This is only chapter three, is introductory material.  Rather these are guiding principles, invented ex animo by E., for the purpose of classifying the materials he proposes to deal with.

To label every writing composed by a man under another name as “forgery” is very aggressive indeed.   Do we know this?  Do we know that, in every case, 2,000 years ago, the author intended malice, fraud and deception?  That he sat there intending to cheat the public?  It seems most unlikely.  So why use this loaded term?

But can we test E.’s definitions?  Is there a case, where we do know the background and the author’s intentions?

Let us consider the case of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations.  These take the form of a dialogue between various persons.   We know quite a bit about the composition of the text from Cicero’s Letters to Atticus, in which he discusses it; but let us, for the moment, ignore this, and apply E.’s principles to the speakers in the text.

In the Tusculan Disputations, a number of speeches are atttributed to Scipio.  Did Scipio actually say this?  Let us say, after investigation, that the style is typically Ciceronian, and that Scipio did not write those words.  These, then, are pseudonymous.

Do these fit E.’s class ‘a’? — originally anonymous?  They do not.  The names of the speakers were always set forth as they are now.  So, by default, we come to the conclusion that Cicero was engaged in forgery, representing the opinions and words of Scipio when in fact they were his own.

Yet in fact no question of forgery arises; we learn from the Letters to Atticus that Cicero merely sought literary effect, that the speakers were all dead at the time he wrote, and that everyone understood that this was merely a literary convention.   In fact a reasonable man, reading the Tusculan Disputations, would not rush to judgement anyway.

It may be objected that speeches in a literary composition are not the same as a work transmitted independently.  This is quite true; we know from Justinus’ epitome of Pompeius Trogus that the speeches in Livy were so composed, for instance, and that this was acceptable.  It would be nice to be able to point to some similarly documented case of a whole work under another name; but none with such background comes to mind.  But the point here is that we have identified, very quickly, a case where ancient writers set forth material under the names of others, with no intent to deceive, and where no forgery is involved.  E.’s definitions fail as soon as we apply them to material where we do know quite a bit about the background.

Nor should we be surprised.  99% of ancient literature is lost.  Our knowledge of antiquity will often be rather tentative.  Our information about the authors and the process of composition of most ancient documents is minimal.  Anachronism is an ever-present danger.  Bad scholarship always starts by imposing a modern outlook onto the data.  A wise man will refrain from rushing in to denounce, to fingerpoint, to label, when he knows full well that five minutes in the company of the author would probably change his every assumption utterly.  To do otherwise is unscholarly.  Good scholarship avoids applying loaded terms to conclusions reached on the basis of little evidence.  Once emotion comes in, balance and judgement go out of the window.  Let the text speak; and let us walk warily.

Yet E. proceeds to apply these criteria of his own devising to texts where we have very little information.  He does so in order to brand the authors as forgers and – eventually – as liars.

Likewise E.’s purpose is to apply these categories, not to texts whose forgery is universally accepted and uncontroversial, but to the foundation documents of the Christian church, whose followers are everywhere.   This amounts to a direct religious statement on a matter of current controversy.  Indeed, as we have seen, he follows in the footsteps of a hate-writer in so doing.  At which point whatever scholarship E. brings to the subject is merely equipment for polemic.

This is a pity.  What it means is that, in the book as a whole, accusations of forgery will be thrown around without adequate evidence, in cases where the real position is actually unknown.  This is certain to render the book rather useless and misleading.

Finally we may reflect that E. has rather shot himself in the foot.  After all, someone who applied to E. himself the kind of black-and-white dogmatism that he proposes to apply to ancient texts might give him back some hard names at this point!  But a reasonable man would not.  E. no doubt intends no deception.  He has merely spent too much time brooding on a religious position that he does not share.   Such a process would make any man morose.

2 thoughts on “Ehrman’s use of the term “forgery”

  1. Well put.

    The book of Ecclesiastes may serve as another example, depending how we asssess its authorship. It is possible that its author, and original audience, were under no illusion that it contained traditions of Solomon the man. References to Solomon may have been for precisely the literary effect you are citing here, and only later generations have misunderstood it.

    Most authors of ancient documents that we now possess would be startled to discover that their work has so endured, and no doubt often would be shocked and amused at what we make of it.

  2. I don’t think we should start from biblical books, but rather from works where nobody has a stake invested in a particular outcome, positive or negative. It’s a hard enough subject without introducing contemporary concerns.

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