Fakes, Forgeries, and Fictions

Writing Ancient and Modern Christian Apocrypha: Proceedings from the 2015 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium

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Tony Burke
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , May
     472 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Pseudepigraphy and apocrypha are inseparable categories in the study of Christian literature. Not only do questions of authorship and canonicity pervade analysis of ancient Christian texts, but  scholars have also profitably applied these inquiries to medieval and modern Christian literature.

Edited by Tony Burke, Fakes, Forgeries, and Fictions includes contributions from nineteen North American scholars who presented on Christian pseudepigrapha at the 2015 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium in Toronto. The symposium aimed to address the production and motivation of apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts from antiquity to the present, from the New Testament to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GJW). Is there evidence for intended deception? For inspired revelatory experiences? Do modern forgers have motives similar to those of their early Christian counterparts? What can these texts teach us about the contexts in which their authors produced them? What academic dispositions can the cases of the Secret Gospel of Mark and GJW reveal?

Burke’s edited volume contributes to the discussion of Christian apocrypha and pseudepigrapha by bridging the chronological gap between antiquity and the present; it gathers late ancient, medieval, and modern evidence under the umbrella of pseudepigrapha, offering helpful comparanda and insights into means and motivations for writing Christian texts under a false name.

The anthology begins with several different arguments for the motivation and intent behind ancient pseudepigrapha. Bart Ehrman, the symposium’s keynote speaker, reproduces the “taxonomy of literary deceit” (33) from his monograph Forgery and Counterforgery (Oxford, 2012), which represents a new direction in the field.

Amid his terminological complex, Ehrman claims that there is ample evidence for early Christian forgery —texts that claim to be written by a well-known person, although they actually are not, with the intent to deceive the audience. This practice was widely condemned among ancients, and Ehrman thinks it better to call it for what it was than to claim apologetically that forgery, as a concept, did not exist in antiquity. Alternatively, Pierluigi Piovanelli and Brent Landau find evidence for legitimate religious inspiration in apocryphal pseudepigrapha, the former in a 13th-century cabbalistic pseudepigraphon (50-60) and the latter in the possible use of hallucinogenic substances to produce visionary experiences in the first-person narrated Revelation of the Magi (79-94). These essays show that the debate over motive and intent in ancient pseudepigrapha is far from exhausted.

Broadening the category of apocrypha to modern compositions, Tony Burke, Bradley Rice, and Eric Vanden Eykel take on 19th- to 21st-century “lost gospels” and Christian novels. Burke shows that the proliferation of forged material relating to Jesus in the 19th century was spurred by rationalist Christians, discoveries of legitimate documents, and the lucre of book sales. Scholars exposed these documents as unauthentic by showing a lack of manuscript or photographic evidence, as well as by indicating internal marks of spuriousness (e.g., anachronisms, modern sympathies).

More recent cases like Secret Gospel of Mark and GJW, however, have manuscript or photographic evidence but have been declared forgeries, showing that scholarly methods of detection must always match the sophistication of production. Rice provides a detailed analysis of the context and motivational standpoint from which Nicolas Notovitch wrote the Life of Saint Issa, a 19th-century forged account of Jesus’ “lost years” in India. Notovitch’s personal commitments and the state of historical Jesus scholarship caused him to “remythologize” Jesus as a Jewish-sympathizing disciple of the Brahmins (283).

Finally, Vanden Eykel, contemplating whether modern novels concerning Jesus might be considered apocrypha, shows how these novels impact reader understanding of other texts. Most readers of these novels are not scholars of ancient literature and “unconsciously form connections” (302) between texts they read, even between apocryphal and “canonical.”

Juxtaposed to the ancient evidence for motive and intent addressed by Ehrman, Piovanelli, and Landau, these modern data raise several questions: If we can show that certain modern authors of pseudepigrapha intended to deceive readers, much like Notovitch, can we use this as an analog for ancient forgers?  If we find modern evidence for genuine religious inspiration, does this also pertain to ancient pseudepigrapha?  In the case of modern novels, the authors produce fictions which mimic ancient pseudepigrapha but also inscribe their own names, indicating entertainment as the authorial intent. Does this correspond to any ancient examples? Need we subscribe to one answer, or does the modern coexistence of several motives correspond to the early Christian situation?

Finally, four essays discuss the recent GJW controversy and its development primarily via the blogosphere and online media. Caroline Schroeder, James McGrath, Mark Goodacre, and Janet Spittler agree that digital forums facilitated quality academic discussion of the potential gospel fragment more quickly than traditional print forms. While Schroeder and Spittler note that gender-based discrimination within the academy is especially visible in online forums, these scholars generally noted that the higher online representation of non-elite and minority scholars was one major benefit of blog-based scholarship. They also agree that the forgery of GJW—and the scholarly and popular response to it—has allowed scholars, perhaps beneficially, a quite profound glimpse into all the aspects of pseudepigraphy which they typically examine in premodern texts: means, context, motive, intent, deceit, detection, and canonicity. 

Fakes, Forgeries, and Fictions abounds in thoughtful perspectives on the motivation for false authorship, the extension of boundaries of apocryphal texts, comparative data from across chronological periods, and lessons from the most recent forgeries. Presenting valuable data and posing critical questions—many of which remain unanswered—this volume demonstrates how fruitful future studies of Christian apocrypha will be, in all time periods, across genres, and in both traditional and digital scholarship settings.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michelle Sdao is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
April 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tony Burke is associate professor of Early Christianity at York University in Toronto, Ontario. He is the author of De infantia Iesu evangelien Thomae graece (2010), a critical edition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.


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