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Forgery and Counterforgery

The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics

Bart D. Ehrman

Publication Date - 14 December 2012

ISBN: 9780199928033

624 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

In Stock

The first major work in English on the widespread practice of forgery in early Christian literature


"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.

New to this Edition

  • This is a first edition.


  • This is the first comprehensive study of literary forgery in the early Christian tradition ever produced in English.
  • It establishes once and for all that ancient critics considered the use of false authorial names to be a form of literary deceit, lying.
  • It evaluates every major aspect of the phenomenon in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, including ancient Judaism: the extent of the phenomenon, ancient attitudes towards it, intentions of forgers, their motivations, the techniques they used to avoid detection, the methods critics used to expose them, and the reactions to forgers and their work once they were exposed.
  • It considers every instance of Christian forgery produced for polemical purposes from the time of the New Testament (nearly half of the New Testament books make false authorial claims) through the second and third centuries, and up to the end of the fourth century, with the Pseudo-Ignatian letters and the pseudonymous Apostolic Constitutions.
  • For works whose authorship is hotly debated among scholars (for example, 1 Peter; 2 Timothy), establishes decisive grounds for understanding the work as a forgery; in instances where there is now little debate (for example, 2 Peter, the Pseudo-Ignatians), summarizes the arguments that are widely deemed compelling.
  • Establishes the polemical use of every forgery he considers, whether in Christians' conflicts with Jews and Judaism, with pagans and paganism, or with one another in the heated debates over early Christian doctrine and practice.
  • Highlights in particular the phenomenon that he labels "counter-forgery," in which a forger directs his work against another work that is a forgery, seeing instances of the phenomenon from our earliest surviving traditions (2 Thessalonians) on up through the Fourth Century (the Acts of Pilate and the Apostolic Constitutions).
  • Shows that some well-known works not generally considered to be forged do in fact make clear false authorial claims, including the New Testament books of Acts and 1 John.
  • Set within the context of other related phenomena: the false attribution of otherwise anonymous writings (the Gospels of the New Testament), the fabrication of legendary narratives (the apocryphal acts of the Apostles, early Christian gospel traditions), the falsification of texts through scribal activities, and plagiarism - themselves maligned literary practices in antiquity.
  • Concludes with a detailed discussion of ancient Christian discourses on "lying," showing that widely disparate views of the practice were held by such well-known authors as Augustine, who argued that the Christian should never lie, under any circumstances whatsoever, and John Cassian, who, with the majority of Christians, maintained that there were situations in which it was, in fact, the right thing to do to deceive another. It is within these discourses of lying and deception that the forgers' self-justifications are probably to be situated.

About the Author(s)

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.


"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, Boston University

"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

Table of Contents

    Table of Contents


    Chapter One: Introduction


    Chapter Two: Forgers, Critics, and Deceived Deceivers
    Chapter Three: Terms and Taxonomies
    Chapter Four: Forgery in Antiquity: Aspects of the Broader Phenomenon
    Chapter Five: Forgery in Antiquity: Motives, Techniques, Intentions, Justifications, and Criteria of Detection


    Chapter Six: Introduction to Forgery and Counter-forgery in Early Christian Polemics
    Chapter Seven: Early Pauline Forgeries Dealing with Eschatology
    Chapter Eight: Later Forgeries Dealing with Eschatology
    Chapter Nine: Forgeries in Support of Paul and His Authority
    Chapter Ten: Forgeries in Opposition to Paul and His Message
    Chapter Eleven: Anti-Jewish Forgeries
    Chapter Twelve: Forgeries involving Church Organization and Leadership
    Chapter Thirteen: Forgeries involving Debates over the Flesh
    Chapter Fourteen: Forgeries Arising from Later Theological Controversies
    Chapter Fifteen: Apologetic Forgeries
    Chapter Sixteen: Lies and Deception In the Cause of Truth