Did Theophilus of Caesarea in 190 AD state that Christmas must be observed?

Now here’s an interesting claim! It is rather seasonal, and was posted on Christmas Day, and is here:

Theophilus (A.D. 115-181), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine writes: “We ought to celebrate the birthday of Our Lord on what day soever the 25th of December shall happen. – Magdeburgenses, Cent. 2. c. 6. Hospinian, De origine Festorum Christianorum.”

The same words with the same references float around the web, and also in book form, but they are much older.  It appears word-for-word in ‘Pastor Fido’s (= Allan Blayney’s) Festorum Metropolis (1652: downloadable from 25thdec.info, here), p.16.[1]  There are all sorts of fake claims that circulate.  When a quote is only referenced to early modern sources, and no ancient source is ever mentioned, then it is usually wise to be suspicious.  Not infrequently even the references are wrong in these things.

Firstly, Theophilus of Caesarea is historical, although those dates are uncertain, and I have seen as late as 195 AD mentioned.  He’s mentioned by Jerome (De viris illustribus 43), who got a short quotation from Eusebius of a now lost work on Easter (HE 5, c.23, 25).  But we have no works of this Theophilus.  So how can the quote be genuine?

The answer is a slightly strange one.  I’ve looked up the references, and they are real.  But neither reference indicates where the words come from.  With a lot of googling, I have discovered that there is an early medieval forgery, written in Ireland around 600 AD, which purports to be the record of a synod at Caesarea, led by this Theophilus, discussing how to calculate the date of Easter.  These words come from one version of this obscure text.

There is no agreed title for this work.   We might call it pseudo-Theophilus, De Pascha; or maybe De ordinatione feriarum paschalium per Theophilum episcopum Caesariensem, (On the arrangment of Easter festivals by Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria) since that is the title under which a shorter version of it was first published, back in 1537.  The title does not seem to correspond to anything in the manuscripts, so was presumably dreamt up by the editor.  It’s not in the Clavis Patrum Latinorum, because the editors gave up once they reached the spuria of the Venerable Bede, among which it is sometimes found.

So that is our source.  The quote is not genuine – Theophilus never said it -, but it is not modern either.  This material is an abbreviated quote from a 7th century Irish text on the date of Easter.

That’s the conclusion.  So what is it based on?

The references

Let’s start with the references.  They are quite genuine, and they are reputable sources, although very elderly.

The first source is none other than the mighty Centuriae Magdeburgensese, the Magdeburg Centuries. This early modern history of Christianity dedicated a volume to every century of Christian history. It appeared between 1559-74.  The work was  rather a pioneer in the use of primary sources.  Volume 2 (1759) covered the second century, and in chapter 6, page 126-7, we find a section De festis Christianorum, ac primum de Paschate(On Christian holidays, and first, on Easter).  It’s online here.

The relevant section reads as follows:

Cum contra Galli diem vnum anniuersarium, qui fuit VIII. calend Aprilium, obseruarent, in quo pascha celebrarent dicentes, vt THEOPHILVS indicat: Quid nobis necesse est ad lunae computum cum Iudaeis pascha facere? Quin sicut Domini natalem quocunque die VIII Calendarum Ianuarii venerit: ita et VIII Calend Aprilis quando resurrectio accidit, Christi debemus pascha celebrare.

While on the other hand the Gauls were observing one day annually, which was the 8 kalends of April (March 25), on which they were celebrating Easter, saying, as Theophilus indicates, “Why is it necessary for us to make an Easter calculation of the moon with the Jews?  In fact, just as we ought to celebrate the birthday of the Lord on whatever day the 8 kalends of January  (25 December) shall fall, so also (we ought to celebrate) the Easter of Christ on the day of 8 kalends of April, when the resurrection happened.

The second source is Rudolf Hospinian, in his Festa Christianorum (1593), chapter 25, De Natali Domini ac Servatoris.  His account of starts on folio 109v – for the book is not paginated but foliated.  On f.110 here he writes:

Celebrata fuit à nonnullis 25 die Decembris, iam inde ab antiquißimis temporibus. Intelligitur hoc ex Theophilo Cæsareae Palestinae Episcopo qui docet, Gallos diem vnum anniuersarium qui fuit 8 Calend Apriliam in celebratione Paschatis obseruasse idque, hac ratione defendisse: “Sicut Domini Natalem quocunque die 8 Calend. Ianuari venerit, ita & 8. Calend. Aprilis, quando resurrectio accidit, Christi debemus Pascha celebrare.” Ex Caßiani verò argumento Epistolarum Theophili libris Paschalibus praefixo, apparet, Ægyptios Natiuitatem Domini & Baptismum eiusdem, eodem die quem Epiphaniam appellat, celebrasse: quod etiam Hugo in cap 1 Matthaei de Armenijs testatur.

It has been celebrated by some on the 25th December, indeed, from the most ancient times.  This is understood from bishop Theophilus of Caesarea in Palestine who teaches that the Gauls observed one day annually which was the 8 kalend April in celebration of Easter, and defended it by this reason: “Just as (we ought to celebrate) the nativity of the Lord on whatever day the 8 kalends of January shall fall, so also we ought to celebrate Easter on the 8 kalends of April, when the resurrection happened.”  However from Cassian, from the argument of the letters of Theophilus prefixed to the Paschal Books, it appears that the Egyptians celebrated the nativity of the Lord and also his baptism on the same day called Epiphany: as also Hugo gives as evidence in chapter 1 of Matthew to the Armenians (?).

Hospinian, then, is the immediate source of our quotation.  Most likely he is just paraphrasing the Magdeburg Centuries.  But neither the Centuriators nor Hospinian give any primary source for this text.

It is worth noting the mention of the customs of Gaul as if they were a source of authority.  A bishop of Caesarea in Palestine would not tend to see things this way.   This is a first sign that something is not quite right with this text.

My next step was to start googling for the Latin words quoted.  This led me to the Bainton article in JSTOR – of which more below.  But Bainton was extremely vague about just what text it was that he was quoting.  He referenced a book by a 19th century independent scholar, Paul de Lagarde, and his too brief reference – “Mitteilungen” – was a mis-spelling of the actual printed title, “Mittheilungen”, which effectively concealed the source.  The curse of poor referencing had struck again.  But once I had de Lagarde, then I learned that this text belonged to a group of texts, all forged, created in Ireland around 600 AD.

The Irish computistical forgeries.

To understand what we are dealing with here, we have to spend a bit of time on these texts as a group, and the circumstances that created them.

In early Dark Ages Ireland there was great interest in computus, the study of the calculations of Easter.  But in the same period, a new method for calculating the date was being propagated from Rome, based on the methodology of Dionysius Exiguus.  This caused disputes, which were resolved in the end at the Synod of Whitby, in 689.  There the Roman method prevailed.

In order to create a dossier to support the existing local Irish traditions, around 600 AD somebody composed a number of short works, attributed to early fathers of the church.  The texts are known as the “Irish forgeries” – although Irish scholars such as Daniel McCarthy and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, who have done a great deal of excellent work in this area,[2] tend to resist the term “forgery”.[3]  The works include those known as pseudo-Anatolius, pseudo-Athanasius, the letter of pseudo-Cyril, and one referred to as pseudo-Theophilus, our own text.

I can’t go into these computistical texts, not least because I don’t understand computus.  But I notice that another of the text, pseudo-Anatolius, also refers to practices in Gaul,[4] and also was  built around a short quotation from Jerome (using Eusebius) from the genuine but obscure Anatolius, which the forger modified for his cause.

There is no reason why real ancient authors in the civilised Greek eastern Mediterranean would appeal to the customs of little backward old Gaul.  But there is every reason why a forger in Ireland, Christian only for a short time, and outside the Roman empire, would see Gaul as the nearest point of the civilised world.  The presence of this in both texts seems suspicious.

It is only fair to add that there was recently a valiant attempt by Daniel P. McCarthy to assert that the Liber Anatoli de ratione paschalis is genuine, and that it is Eusebius’ quotation that is corrupt.  As a layman I cannot really evaluate this, but it seems improbable, because this text appears to link closely to other texts of precisely the same sort.[5]

Just to digress a moment, it is a common situation with falsifications, that the texts rely on not being compared with other works of the same kind.  Individually they can deceive.  Once seen as a group, they are nothing.  Thus Edgar Goodspeed did rightly to collect and study together the “modern apocrypha” in his book of the same name.  Individually these modern fake gospels seemed impressive.  Once they were lined up in a row, it became obvious that each was an example of a genre, with a common set of methods and characteristics.  They had a certain smell about them, a certain common way of doing things, once you’d seen a few.  Another example is modern books about “the real Jesus”.  Back in the 90s I remember searching a CDROM of reviews in the Times for books about Jesus.  I read a number.  After a while, it became clear that the books reviewed were really all the same.  The claims made in the books varied wildly, but each and every one used the same tactics to advance their cause and dodge investigation.

The editor of the Annals of Ulster vol. 4, had occasion to discuss the Irish computistical forgeries, which he did with verve.  From him I learn that these little texts were known to, and used by the Venerable Bede, in his De ratione temporum (On the Reckoning of Time) in 725 AD.  Indeed when we look at the manuscripts, we find that these forgeries often accompany works of Bede or Isidore.  Bede uses pseudo-Theophilus in chapter 47.  The pseudo-Anatolius text caused some real trouble ( p.cxv f.):

For textual distortion, resourceful invention and vituperative scorn, the spurious Anatolius stood peerless in the field of fabrication. Nor was his triumph confined to his own time. Columbanus quoted his dicta as binding on a Pope; the defenders of rival Paschal methods appealed to him in support of their respective contentions ; Bede(5) vainly taxed his skill to reconcile the contradictions of the “holy man”….

5. Bede.—De temp. rat. vi., xiv., XXX., XXXV., xlii. ; Ep.ad Wic. PL. 90. 599sq.

I won’t go further into the other texts, but that editor notes:

As the Acts of the Caesarean Council, convened at the instance of Victor by Theophilus, in the matter of the Quartadecimans, are lost, the fabricator may have known that his work was not likely to be detected by collation with the original. Be that as it may, he fatally betrayed himself in one particular: March 25 was the Roman, not the Eastern, equinoctial date.

What does Pseudo-Theophilus say?

The pseudo-Theophilus text is extant, we are told, in four different versions, and at least 36 manuscripts.  I’ll look at these in a moment. They do not all include the words in which we are interested.  In fact these words come from recension A, the long version

Here is the start of the A-text, as reprinted by wild-boy independent scholar Paul de Lagarde who printed both the A-text and the B-text on facing pages:[6]

Cum omnes apostoli ex hoc mundo transissent, per universum orbem diversa erant ieiunia. nam omnes Galli unum diem anniversarium VIII. Kal. April. Pascha celebrabant dicentes: Quid nobis est ad lunae computum cum Iudaeis facere Pascha? sed sicut domini natalem, quocunque die venerit, VIII. Kal. Ianuarii, ita et VIII. Kal. Aprilis, quando resurrectio traditur Christi, debemus Pascha tenere, orientales vero, sicut historia Eusebii Caesariensis narrat, quocunque die mense Martio quartadecima luna evenisset, Pascha celebrabant. In Italia autem alii plenos quadraginta dies ieiunabant, alii triginta: alii dicebant, septem diebus, in quibus mundus concluditur, sibi sufficere ieiunare: alii, quia dominus quadraginta diebus ieiunasset, illi horas quadraginta deberent, cum haec ergo talis diversa esset observatio, maeror erat sacerdotum, quod ubi erat una fides, dissonarent ieiunia. Tunc papa Victor Romanae urbis episcopus direxit, ut daret auctoritatem ad Theophilum Caesariensem Palaestinae provinciae episcopum, quia tunc non Hierosolyma metropolis videbatur, ut inde paschalis ordinatio proveniret ubi Christus fuisset in corpore versatus.

English translation of this by Roland H. Bainton from 1923, who also translated the start of the B-text:[7]

When all the apostles had gone from this life, fasts were differently observed throughout the world, for all the Gauls kept the Pascha on one day, March 25th, saying: “Why should we keep the Pascha with the Jews according to the moon? But as the birth of the Lord on whatever day it falls is kept on December 25th, so we ought to keep the Pascha on March 25th, when Christ is said to have risen.” The Orientals indeed, as the history of Eusebius relates, keep the Pascha on the fourteenth day of the moon on whatever day of March it might fall. But some in Italy fasted full forty days, some thirty; others said that seven days in which the world was made would do; others because the Lord fasted forty days kept forty hours. Since there was such variety of observance, the clergy were astonished that where there was a unity of faith there should be such diversity of practice in fasting. So Papa Victor, bishop of Rome, ordered that authority should be given to Theophilus of Caesarea, bishop of the province of Palestine, because Jerusalem was not then the metropolis, that the paschal rule might come from that region in which Christ lived.

The text continues, as the Acts of the Council of Caesarea, around 190 AD.  Indeed some of the literature refers to the text as such.

This, clearly, is where the Centuriators got their text, even though they did not say so.

Mind you, they were clearly hot stuff.  At the time of the Centuries, the A-text was unpublished.  One of the Centuriators must have been aware of a manuscript of the A-text, probably in Switzerland, and used that.  It is hard not to be impressed by this.

The other common version, the B-text, does not contain this remark about the nativity.

The versions of the text and where they may be found

It’s now time to talk about the various versions of the text.  In our internet-enabled age, much may be found online.

The classic study is that of B. Kursch, Studien zur christlich-mittelalterlichen Chronologie: der 84jährige Ostercyclus und seine Quellen, Leipzig (1880), p.303 f. (Online here)  In his time three versions of the text were known.  I will summarise what he says, and add a few bits of my own.  Here are the recensions that he gives.

  • A (the long version).  This was first printed by Baluzius, Nova Collectio Conciliorum (1683), in columns 13-16 (online here).  The text begins with these words (the “incipit”): “Cum omnes apostoli ex hoc mundo transissent…”.  Baluzius based his text on 1) a manuscript from St Gall.  Krusch thought this was St Gall 251, a 9th century MS., but that is in fact a B-text, as may be seen below.  2) a “codex Colbertinus”, which must be in the French National Library, if we could identify it.  He also knew of a third manuscript, from England, through a scholarly contact.  The same recension of the text also appears in Ms. Bern 645, from the end of the 7th century, on folios 72-74, where it is headed “incipit tractatus ordinis”.  Sadly this is not online.

Although most of our versions are transmitted with the works of Bede, another witness to the A-text can be found in volume 3 of the 1798 Arevallo edition of the works of Isidore of Seville.  This appears in his manuscript, after book 6, chapter 18, title 10, on p.272, where he gives a note about the “Acta concilii Caesariensis” interpolated at this point. Arevallo prints the interpolation – a text of ps.Theophilis – on p.515 here. In his edition it is appendix 8, “Ad lib. 6. cap. 17 Synodus Caesariensis de Paschate”.  He is using manuscripts from Rome; a “codex Albanius 4” (not sure what that is), Ms. Ottobonianus lat. 221 (sadly not online), and an unspecified “Caesenatum recentiorem”.  He also has compared it to the text printed by Muratori, the C-text, but this is clearly not the Muratori text.  And here it has the first sentence, missing from the Baluzius edition but found in the B-text.  I did look at at couple of online Isidore manuscripts (St Gall 237, f.98, and Karlsruhe Aug. pap. 103, f.122v), but these did not contain the interpolation.

  • B (the short version).  This was first printed by Johannes Bronkhorst, who called himself Noviomagus, as you would if you had a name like that.  The title is Beda Venerabilis: Opuscula complura de temporum ratione diligenter castigata, Cologne (1537) (online here).  Our text is on folio xcix, here, with the title “De ordinatione feriarum paschalium per Theophilum episcopum Caesariensem ac reliquorum episopum synodum”.  The opening words are: “Post resurrectionem uel/ac ascensionem domini saluatoris…”.  The editor worked from two Cologne manuscripts, 103 (9th c. – online here, ff.190v) and 102 (11th c.).  The first has no title in the manuscript, and it looks as if the title was invented by Mr Bronkhorst-Noviomagus.  This being the case, there seems no reason not to use it for the text generally.

The B-text was reprinted by Bucherius, De doctrina temporum, Antwerp (1633) on p.469, online here. On the previous page he lists the work as “Philippi cuiusdam de concilio Caesariensi, anno Christi vulgari 296 habito”.  He heads the text “Epistola Philippi de pascha”, and says that in the MSS it was called the “Epistola Philippi”, but he doesn’t know who that might be.

Krusch suggests that this “Philippus” must be a mistake for “Theophilus”.  I would like to suggest that perhaps “Theophili” became abbreviated to “Phili” by a scribal error, and was then “corrected” to this otherwise unknown and irrelevant “Philippi” by another copyist.

Nothing further is known of the manuscript of Bucherius.  But it is interesting that a Google search reveals another B-text manuscript, Ms. Geneva 50 (ca. 825 AD), fol. 132r (online here; catalogue here) which has this title “Epistola Philippi de pascha”, and even has a modern marginal note to the page number of the Bucherius edition!

Ms. Geneva 50, f.132r. Epistola Philippi de pascha

Krusch reports on another manuscript of the B-text, Vaticanus Reginensis lat. 586 (online here), second half of the 10th century.  Folio 1 begins with “Incipit epistola thophili epi | Post resurrection & ascensionem dni salvatoris”.  The text ends with “vobis iustum est celebrare”.

A google search reveals that St Gall 251 page 14 here contains the B-text:

St Gall 251, page 14: epistola philippi de pascha

Further google searches reveal B-text copies at:

  • Vaticanus lat. 3123 (13th c., online here) on fol. 32v also has an (untitled) copy of the B-text.
  • British Library Cotton Caligula A XV (1073 AD) on fol. 80v, here.
  • Paris, BNF lat. 16361 (12th c.), page 240 here.  The title is written in the  margin in a modern hand – there is a division but no title in the main text.
  • A catalogue online here tells me that the St Gall 459 manuscript also contains a copy of the B-text, with the usual incipit, on pages 112-4 and 127-142 (?).

These catalogues also reference a “Clavis Patristica Pseudepigraphorum Medii Aevi” – “CPPM III A vol. A n. 656, 722, 832”, but this is something to which I have no access.

There are doubtless many more manuscripts of the B-text.

  • C (interpolated version).  This is a copy of the A-text, into which phrases from the B-text have been interpolated.  Krusch lists all three texts in parallel on p.306, which demonstrates this nicely.  It was printed by Muratori, Anecdota Latina 3 (online here), p.189-191, based on Ms. Ambrosianus H. 150 inf, fol.64-66.  This is a 9th century manuscript from Bobbio – an Irish foundation – containing computistical texts.  Sadly it is not online.
Kursch, Studien, p.325. Comparing the A-text, B-text and C-text.
  • D – A fourth version, which I venture to call “D”, was discovered by Dom André Wilmart.[8]  Sadly I have no access to this – why is Studi e Testi not online? – so I can say nothing about it.

Nor is this all.  A google search reveals yet another very short version of the text, in Vatican Palatinus lat. 277, from Lorsch (8th c.).  The text begins on f.90v (online here), under the title “Item Computus”.  Extensive details are here.  The text differs again from the standard A-text, beginning “Cum omnes apostoli de hac luce migrassent, error erat in populo: alii ieiunabant XX diebus, alii uero VII, alii XL horas … “.  It seems to derive from the A-text, but chunks have been omitted, thereby creating a bishop “Eusebius of Jerusalem”.

Ms. Vatican Palatinus lat. 277, f.90v.

Critical edition

There is supposedly a critical edition of the text, based on the A-text, in Kursch’s Studien.  But Kursch produced no stemma, and I rather doubt that he had access to more than a handful of manuscripts and early editions. He does not describe the manuscript tradition.  He does not mention the Isidore tradition.  His text looks very much to me like a conflation of the Baluzius edition and a B-text.

Clearly it is time that a proper edition needs to be made, using a wider range of manuscripts.  I have read in a 2017 article that Leofranc Holford-Strevens is preparing one.[9]  Let us hope that it is so.


In conclusion, we have travelled from a supposed quote from the second century into the scholarship of the 17th century and the science of the 7th.  I think it was a worthwhile journey, don’t you?

Merry Christmas, everyone.

  1. [1]A modern transcription is online here.  Blayney refers to a work in two volumes by “Perkins”, but I don’t know what this was.
  2. [2]D. Ó Cróinín, “Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) and the history of the Easter controversy”, in: Late Antique Calendrical Thought And Its Reception In The Early Middle Ages (2017), p.318 f.  Online here.
  3. [3]See also O.M.Cullen, A question of time or a question of theology: A study of the Easter controversy in the Insular Church, PhD: Maynooth (2007), online here, p.135, n.75: “… see James Kenney, The Sources for the Early History and Bartholomew MacCarthy, Annals of Ulster, Vol. IV, for a discussion of the Acts of the Council of Caesarea, both these writers claim that the texts are deliberate Irish falsifications. It seems likely today that these texts were never intended to be deliberate falsifications. For the purpose of this work, it is the theological ideas that they contain that are of interest. Bede obviously thought of these documents as genuine.”  The Annals of Ulster vol 4, p.cxv, may be found online here and provides an excellent discussion of these curious texts.
  4. [4]Daniel P. McCarthy, “The council of Nicaea…”, p.188.
  5. [5]Daniel P.McCarthy, “The council of Nicaea and the Celebration of the Christian Pasch” in: Young R. Kim, The Cambridge Companion to the Council of Nicaea (2021), p.177-201.Google books preview here.
  6. [6]Paul de Lagarde, Mittheilungen (1889), vol. 4, p.274.  Online here.
  7. [7]Roland H. Bainton, “Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation”, Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 42, No. 1/2 (1923), pp. 81-134. See p.112.  JSTOR.
  8. [8]André Wilmart: Un nouveau texte du faux concile de Césarée sur le comput pascal, in: Analecta Reginensia. Extraits des manuscrits latins de la reine Christine conservés au Vatican (Studi e testi 59), (1933), p. 19-27.
  9. [9]Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, “Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) and the history of the Easter controversy”, in: Late Antique Calendrical Thought And Its Reception In The Early Middle Ages (2017), p.318, n.45.

The owner of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus unmasked!

Back in 2012 a Harvard “religious studies” academic named Karen King announced the discovery of a papyrus fragment containing a Coptic text which referred to Jesus having a wife.  It takes little knowledge of the methods of commercial forgers to see why someone would forge such a thing.  Nor is it hard to see why a US leftist academic with a background in “Womens’ studies” would promote it.  I was certainly sceptical.  More learned people pointed to the small problem that the text reproduced a typographical error from an online edition.  At that point pretty much everyone – aside from Dr King – felt the story was over.  It was never clear just where the thing had come from, or who owned it; Dr. K. professed that she was sworn to secrecy.

Via Alin Suciu, today, I learn that in this month’s issue of The Atlantic magazine contains a monster piece of investigative journalism that unmasks the owner, and probably the forger, of the papyrus.

The article is written by Ariel Sabar, who dedicated months of investigation to tracking down the background of this dubious item.  He discovered the owner was a silver-tongued salesman named Walter Fritz, and eventually got an admission out of him that he was indeed the owner of the papyrus.  Fritz had studied Coptic, had a grudge against scholars, and is, seemingly, a bullshitter extraordinaire.  He is also an admirer of – guess what – the Da Vinci Code, and all the stuff about Mary Magdalene being Jesus’ Wife.  He was also in financial trouble at the time when he produced the thing.

I will not attempt to summarise the article here.  It is, necessarily, a story of the process of discovery, and inevitably reads like what it is, a magazine article.  We need not agree with every opinion expressed in it, though, to see that a great deal of real hard information has emerged here.  Read it.

The conclusion seems convincing to me: the papyrus was forged by Fritz.  In fact Fritz has not admitted to composing it, but he has the skills, multiple motives, and the opportunity.  Few, I suspect, will now doubt that he did so.

Karen King does not come out very well from the article, and perhaps does not deserve to.  But let us be fair, and treat her as we would wish to be treated in such a case.  A bit of careful reading of Sabar’s narrative suggests that she was just a dupe – duped by Fritz.  In fact, Sabar suggests that she was chosen by him as a “mark”, precisely because he believed that she would be predisposed for ideological reasons to believe his nonsense.  He was probably right.  We can hardly blame Dr King for being persuaded by a man who, like all salesmen, was a professional persuader.  It could happen to most of us, I suspect.

It is a warning to all of us, always to be suspicious of what seems convenient to us.  “This is a benefit … it may be a bribe” is always a good thing to remember, in scholarship as in life.

This is one of the rare pieces of journalism that justifies all the claims that are made for the importance of a free press.  Few academics could have done this piece of investigation.  Well done, Mr Sabar.  You have done us all a favour.


A first century fragment of Mark’s gospel? Some thoughts by an outsider

An article in Live Science two days ago:

Mummy Mask May Reveal Oldest Known Gospel

A text that may be the oldest copy of a gospel known to exist — a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century, before the year 90 — is set to be published. …

This first-century gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy.

Some sensible words of caution are here; and here at ETC, where it is suggested that the article at Live Science may be entirely derived from some public presentations.  There has also been some curious snarking from one or two papyrologists, who are not involved in the discovery, presumably out of sour grapes.

Is this a genuine discovery?  Who knows?  But I have some concerns about all this, even based on the story as we have it.

Mark’s gospel was completed ca. 70 AD, in Alexandria, according to the ancient literary sources, and to me there seems no pressing reason to suppose that they are wrong.  So it is possible, in principle, that a piece of an early copy could be found in waste papyrus in Egypt.  There’s no real reason why not.

But … surely it is somewhat improbable that one of the few copies of this text in existence at that date should happen to turn up in the limited amount of mummy cartonnage that has so far been dismantled?  Isn’t it?  Consider the vast output of papyrus made every year in ancient Egypt, of which a certain proportion ended up as waste papyrus.  What, statistically, are the chances of a 1st century copy of Mark being in that proportion?  They must be slim.

We’re told that portions of Homer have turned up, and this is not a surprise.  Likewise that documentary texts are found: this too does not surprise.  But something that must always have been a very rare item?

Of course probability is just that; a calculation based on averages.  All the same, it’s troubling.

In general, when a discovery is made which bears on matters of current interest or controversy (rather than something which was controversial in antiquity), it is wise to consider the possibility of forgery.   In the renaissance people forged stone monuments supposedly from well-known figures of classical antiquity, in order to make money.  Forgeries of papyri are not at all unknown.

There is a fingerprint for forgery, noted by Stephen C. Carlson.  By its very nature, a forgery must be of something which is exciting to people in the period in which it is “discovered”.   That’s where the money is.  Nobody is going to forge something that nobody is interested in.  But it is often the case that this modern excitement is over something that would not have been exciting in antiquity.  It is this dichotomy that marks out a forgery.

So any “discovery” that is of current interest, that fits squarely into a matter of current agitation, or fits the political or religious views of the discoverer particularly well, must be scrutinised with rational but exceptional caution.  Otherwise we will all be hoodwinked by those enterprising gentlemen in Turkey and Palestine whose attempts at forgery regularly attract interest from specialists.

A discovery of a first century fragment of a gospel fits that profile squarely.  A first century gospel could not have been of special interest in antiquity, when they were composed, but it would be very interesting today!

It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to do things right; to establish the provenance of the item, to look for signs of forgery, to get a range of experts involved, and, above all, to shed as much light as possible on the item.

When P52 was identified in the 1930s, the discoverer, Colin Roberts, proceeded with extreme care.  He did not publish, nor did he announce his find, until it had been examined by all the leading paleographers of the day, and a consensus reached.  The wisdom of his approach is evident: his result has not been seriously questioned in 80 years, even though it contradicted the established wisdom of biblical studies at the time, and reinforced the fondest wishes of Christians.

By contrast the way in which this supposed first century fragment is being made known raises in me the worst suspicions.

The papyrus trade is a secretive one, partly because of the foolishness of the Egyptian government in declaring all finds the property of state officials, and partly because of the stupidity of western activists, who harass those involved in the black market that has inevitably arisen.  It is, therefore, entirely understandable that nothing should be announced until everything is ready.  And if that silence is used, as Colin Roberts did, to determine the facts and build consensus, then well and good.  That’s one way to publish.

The alternative is better.  It is to shine a bright light on everything.  Publish the fragments now, without any very firm attributions, as soon as possible, with the provenance, and crowd-source an examination of every element of it.  The truth will out, and a consensus will come into being rather rapidly, as it did for the forgery known as the “gospel of Jesus’ wife”.

Either approach is acceptable.  But we seem to have neither.  Instead we have the worst of both worlds.

On the one hand we have a drip-drip of non-academic reportage, excitedly making all sorts of claims, possibly based on no more than a video by somebody who may (or may not) be involved in the project at all.  This feeds the fever of speculation; which, of course, increases the price that may be asked for publication, and generally increases the commercial value of the property.  It seems to benefit nobody in any other way that I can see.

On the other hand, we have an entire silence on all the matters that would allow professionals to form a judgement.

It is reminiscent of some of the hype around the Coptic Gospel of Judas.  That was a genuine text, and this mixture of whispers and real information is what we tended to get.  I suppose, in fairness, that this may be how Americans do things, for all I know.

But it is also reminiscent of how forgers operate: people whose sole aim is to boost the value of their merchandise and make a quick buck while the going is good.  For all I know, there is some Turkish forger at work, using some clever Swiss lawyer (or whatever) to control the whole process via “confidentiality agreements”, and manipulating the scholars at the far end who seek merely to recover knowledge.

If the discovery is genuine, then it is wonderful.  Any recovery of lost texts from antiquity is a joy, and any very early witness to any important text is to be treasured.

But is it genuine?  We cannot say.  But the manner in which it is becoming known to the public does nothing to give me confidence.

So I think we need to hold our horses, and await proper publication.  To me, all this is too good to be true.  But let’s hope not.


Academic hoaxes, academic feuding – an article in the Oldie

The Oldie magazine is probably read by few of us, being mainly for people who are, well, old.  A correspondent has sent me a copy of an article in this week’s issue, written by the editor, Richard Ingrams.

Harvey’s revenge

We love a spot of academic intrigue and so were delighted to receive an email from one Dr A D Harvey. Harvey, who describes himself as a ‘failed academic’, won notoriety after publishing academic articles under various pseudonyms and inventing a meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky that fellow academics accepted as fact for years. American scholars finally uncovered the hoax and Harvey became the subject of a six page take-down in the Times Literary Supplement.

Not content to let sleeping feuds lie, Dr Harvey’s email to The Oldie is a copy of a letter he has sent to the TLS accusing it of running a hoax story in its own pages.  The piece in question, by Janetta Goldstein, is about an alternative ending to the Hans Christian Andersen Story, ‘The Invisible Robe’. But, Harvey writes, ‘The manuscript in Hackney Archives on which it is purportedly based seems to have no more physical existence than the new clothes the emperor was so proud of. I checked. Hackney Archives have a negative of a portrait of Mary Howitt but none of her papers, let alone a manuscript of a Hans Christian Andersen story with a previously unpublished variant ending.’ With some relish, Harvey adds, ‘It makes you wonder how many more bogus contributions have appeared in the TLS in recent months.’

Most would suspect that Harvey himself had a hand in the Hans Christian Andersen hoax, if indeed the alternative ending proves to be fake at all. But Harvey claims it bears none of his modus operandi — not that we can really take his word for that.

One thing we can be sure of: the TLS fact-checkers will be frantically searching for evidence of the Hackney manuscript and hoping that Dr Harvey has not been able to spectacularly settle his score with their scholarly journal.

The urge to twist the tail of the spectacularly aloof and patronisingly self-important is one that is probably common to most of us.  In this sense the activities of Dr Harvey are something that most of us will feel sympathy with.

Until we find that our own research has been compromised by such pranks, at any rate.

Verifying the raw data is never time wasted.


Worrying questions about the supposed new NT papyri from mummy cartonnage

In my last post, I noted that Peter Head pointed out that we have a forger active among us, who knows how to play to the predispositions of scholars.

I have just seen a very sound post by Roberta Mazza, discussing the supposed discovery of a bunch of interesting papyri from mummy cartonnage – papyrus reused to stuff the packing of mummies, and make up the coffins etc in the late period.  No doubt cartonnage contains much of interest.

But Dr Mazza is absolutely right in pointing out that we have NO previous examples of New Testament papyri from mummy cartonage; and noting the rather confused reportage coming out of the Green collection.

These are very sound questions.   Failure to see that the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” was too good to be true is what undid Karen King and Harvard.

A first century fragment of the New Testament?  Exciting if true.  But … too good to be true?  Quite possibly.  Particularly when we note that the recipient of the material is predisposed to believe that the material is genuine; just as the hapless Karen King was.

At the moment all we have is various bits of excited and not-too-knowledgeable comment from amateurs involved in helping in menial capacities.  I think the Green collection are absolutely right to be open-access with their finds; indeed it is essential to bring all available talent to bear.

We have an enemy of learning active in the world at the moment, remember.  Only a fool would neglect every precaution.  Particularly when a find might be too good to be true.


How to scam a scholar – the ps.Gospel of Jesus’ Wife affair

I expect many of us have watched the story of a papyrus fragment purporting to reveal that Jesus had a wife.  Coptologist Christian Askeland discovered clear proof of forgery, thanks to a bit of carelessness by the forger, and the story is now history.

Peter Head has an article here which is so useful that I will file it on my hard disk: Pseudo-Gospel of Jesus Wife as Case Study.

He asks the sensible question: now that we have evidence of a forgery which passed the science lab tests, what can we learn for next time?

The article is full of good points, but the first paragraph makes an unusual, and very interesting point (I have over-paragraphed it):

It is possible for a forger to get hold of papyri, mix ink according to ancient conventions, compose a semi-plausible pastiche of a text, and mislead scholars, academic institutions, the media, and the public. Exactly what he (or she) hoped to gain from it is not clear, but if it was simply mischief, then he has probably far exceeded his wildest dreams.

Given this possibility it is important that if someone approaches you with an unpublished text which meshes in with your own academic interests, then critical skepticism rather than credulity should control your responses. Nothing is innocent until proven guilty in this scenario.

Also the forger will target a scholar who he thinks is persuadable, not a manuscript expert, and who has wider credibility to make the discovery known (remember that in this case Prof King at first didn’t respond to the invitation, but the forger didn’t go to some other scholar, he waited a year and then went back to reel in Prof King).

In patristics, fortunately, there is no money to be made.  If someone turned up with “fragments” of Marcion’s Antitheses or a lost work by Justin Martyr, it is unlikely that it would atttract attention.

But one point is clear: we have a capable and determined forger out there, who is aware of what tests are likely to be applied, and how to fool them.

What can we tell about the forger?

  • He has some knowledge of Coptic, probably to undergraduate level, but is not an expert.
  • He has had a western education.
  • He has access to textbooks on Coptic (not too easy to obtain).
  • He has access to ancient papyri.
  • He has some sort of lab training.
  • He might be a Muslim – the forgery would be convenient to Muslim polemicists.
  • He is probably not a Copt – the forgery is a bit anti-Christian.

The motive was probably money; to create a sensation and then monetize it, as they say in the computer games industry.    I infer, therefore, that this is not a rich man.

This text acquired quite a following.  It nearly worked.  So I think we must expect more attempts at forgery.

In this light, I do hope Harvard involve the police.  This was an audacious fraud, and if it had succeeded would have garnered the author some real money, in sales,and with film rights, etc.  It would be very useful to have the author behind bars where he can do no more harm.

UPDATE: All of which makes the questions that Roberta Mazza is asking about the supposed NT papyri from mummy cartonage very pertinent.


The “forgeries of the Apollinarians”

This evening I stumbled across a book which few, perhaps, will have read: Georges Florovsky’s The Byzantine Fathers of the Sixth to Eighth Centuries.  Fortunately the book is accessible here, for it is otherwise quite uncommon.

What led me here was a question about the “forgeries” of the Apollinarians.  We know that in the 6th century, works were in circulation which were ascribed to Pope Julius I, Athanasius, or Gregory Thaumaturgus, but were in reality by Apollinaris or his followers.  We know this because of a dossier of quotations, assembled by Leontius of Byzantium as Adversus Fraudes Apollinistarum.  Indeed a correspondent kindly translated this text for us all, and it is accessible online.

Apollinaris of Laodicea lived in the second half of the 4th century A.D.  He wrote an excellent refutation of Porphyry’s anti-Christian work, and, when faced with Julian the Apostate, did what he could to frustrate the latter’s desire to prevent Christians acquiring an education.  However he must have found himself out of his depth in the increasingly vicious theological-political currents of the late fourth century.  The opinion now known as Apollinarism is given by the old Catholic Encyclopedia thus:

A Christological theory, according to which Christ had a human body and a human sensitive soul, but no human rational mind, the Divine Logos taking the place of this last.

“Apollinarism” was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381, or so the CE says.  After this point, it may well have been dangerous to circulate texts under his name.  In the circumstances those who still agreed with him chose to place the other names at the head of his and their works.  This had the unfortunate consequence that monophysite writers such as Cyril of Alexandria found themselves quoting Apollinaris when they believed that they were quoting Athanasius.  In the disputes of the 6th century, the supporters of Chalcedon made use of this to attack the monophysite position.

But did the Apollinarians intend fraud?  or merely to preserve their now illegal belief?  It would be extremely harsh, surely, to condemn them for the latter.  The later use of their works is nothing to do with them.

Another supposed Apollinarian forgery is the long recension of the letters of Ignatius.  Seven letters were interpolated, while a further eight were composed.  The identity of the interpolator is unknown, unless we accept the suggestion that it is an otherwise unknown Arian named Julian of Antioch, whose name appears as author of a Commentary on Job of the same period.  But the author of the long recension is not obviously Arian, any more than he is certainly Apollinarian.  His purpose in interfering with the text in this way is entirely unknown today.  It is entirely possible that it was for dishonest purposes, to put into circulation a text in order to make an argument based on forged evidence; but we do not know this.

At all events, I then came across Florovsky’s work, which includes a discussion of the Apollinarian forgeries:

One work ascribed to Leontius which may actually belong to him and which modern scholarship should consider carefully is Against the Frauds of the Apollinarians. In the history of Monophysitism the so-called “forgeries of the Apollinarians” played a major and fateful role. Many of Apollinarius’ compositions were concealed and “armored” under the forged inscription of respected and honored names. Faith in such pseudo-patristic writings very much hindered Alexandrian theologians in their dogmatic confession — it is sufficient to recall St. Cyril of Alexandria. Even if the work titled Against the Frauds of the Apollinarians is someday conclusively proven to be not that of Leontius of Byzantium, it is discussed here. Regardless of the authorship of this work — and it is very possible that it was Leontius of Byzantium — it was a significant work which deserves attention.

It is difficult to reconstruct the history of these “forgeries” but they became especially wide-spread in the Monophysite milieu. Even Eutyches in his appeal to Pope Leo at the Council of Constantinople in 448 refers to the forged testimony of Pope Julius, Athanasius, and Gregory the Miracle-Worker. He referred to them in good conscience, not suspecting any “forgery.” In his document to the monks of Palestine, Emperor Marcian observed that among the people books by Apollinarius were circulating which were being passed off as dicta of the holy fathers. Justinian also mentions some forgeries. The historian Evragius discusses the influence of these forgeries — the inscription of honorable names (Athanasius, Gregory, Julius) on Apollinarius1 books kept many people from condemning the impious opinions contained in them. At the famous “conference” with the Severians, which took place about 532 (between 531 and 533, in any case), Hypatius of Ephesus challenged a whole series of patristic references by pointing out their spuriousness, their the false inscriptions.

Under such circumstances the uncovering and demonstration of forgeries became a pointed and recurrent task of theological polemics. In performing this task, it is the author of Against the Frauds of the Apollinarians who occupies the most prominent place. The author gathered much material in this work. He adduces the false testimonies, and compares them with the original opinions of those persons to whom they are ascribed. (It is noteworthy that this same procedure is followed in the work Against the Monophysites, a work modern scholarship does not regard as that of Leontius of Byzantium). The author then collates these testimonies with the undisputed texts of Apollinarius and his followers and shows the points of correspondence between them. In this connection the author has to enter into a detailed critique of Apollinarianism. The author’s critical conclusions are distinguished by great precision and cogency.

Interesting indeed.