It's Not Just Benedict, Christian History is Full of ‘Forgeries’

Candida Moss
Osservatore Romano via Getty Images

This past week the Catholic Church has been abuzz with the announcement of the publication of a new book—From the Depths of Our Hearts—co-authored by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea. The book made a splash not just because Benedict, one of the most theologically and intellectually gifted Popes of the modern era, had published a book, but also because of its subject matter: clerical celibacy. In the book, Benedict and Sarah launch an impassioned defense of priestly celibacy. The timing is suggestive given that Pope Francis (the actual Pope, you’ll remember) has recently proposed that some married men be allowed to join the priesthood. The release of the book smacked of division and disagreement in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. So much for the mutual respect of Netflix’s The Two Popes.

The intrigue only deepened when it emerged that Benedict, who by all reports is growing increasingly frail, did not author the book at all. Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the retired pope’s personal secretary, told the press corps that Benedict had asked Cardinal Sarah to remove his name from the book and signature from the introduction and conclusion. According to Gänswein, “The emeritus pope in fact knew that the cardinal was preparing a book and had sent a brief text on the priesthood authorizing him to make whatever use he wanted of it. But he did not approve any project for a book under the two names, nor had he seen or authorized the cover.” Gänswein’s summary of the situation was that this was all a big misunderstanding. Cardinal Sarah, for his part, defended himself against accusations of deception.

This wouldn’t be the first time that someone has published something under the name of an important religious figure. In the ancient world people would regularly compose letters, divine revelations, or entire Gospels, in the name of more important and illustrious church leaders. The practice is often known as “pseudepigraphy”—literally, “false writing”—and there are even examples of this kind of thing in the Bible. Benedict wouldn’t be the first Pope to have someone use his name to publicize their ideas. 1 and 2 Peter, the New Testament letters attributed to the Apostle Peter, are believed by the majority of scholars to have been written by someone else entirely. 

It’s not only Popes who are vulnerable to this sort of thing. Of the twenty-one letters included in the New Testament, as many as thirteen of them were written by someone other than the named author.

Well-known New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has argued in his work Forgery and Counter-Forgery that literary deceit is a hallmark of the early Christian movement. Though this much is widely acknowledged, scholars are divided about the extent to which this kind of ancient forgery was acceptable in ancient world. The prevalence of pseudepigraphical writing among ancient Jews and Christians led many to argue that this kind of writing was a socially acceptable ancient literary convention. Those who wrote pseudepigrapha were trying to get attention and commandeered the names of those religious figures they admired and wanted to emulate. It was a kind of ancient fan fiction. In his work, however, Bart Ehrman gathered together all of the ancient Greek and Roman evidence to show that ancient people were aware and disproved of this kind of writing. Ehrman writes that Christians, and Christian scholars in particular, need to drop the vague term “pseudepigraphy” and call the phenomenon exactly what it is: lying.

Ehrman notes that forgery wasn’t always about emulating and appreciating the legacy of earlier figures with whom one agreed. Sometimes the deliberate misattribution of a text had polemical ambitions. The New Testament letter known as 1 Timothy (which almost all scholars agree was not by Paul) weighs in on the question of women’s roles in the Church and states that women should be silent in church. 2 Thessalonians (another Pauline forgery) seems deliberately positioned against the timetable for the end of the world that Paul laid out in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. Whereas Paul had argued that the “day of the lord” would come at the end of time 2 Thessalonians states that the day of the lord is already here (2 Thess. 2:2).

Sometimes the misnaming of an author wasn’t so much a case of forgery as it was one of misattribution. The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) originally circulated without titles. It was only in the second and third century that people began to refer to them as “The Gospel according to… .”  The attachment of the names of individuals who were either Apostles (Matthew and John) or were closely associated with those close to Jesus (Luke to Mary; Mark to Peter) gave these written accounts of the life of Jesus more credibility and authority. The case of Mark is especially interesting because some ancient Christians found Mark to be quite poorly written and, in the words of one intellectual giant, Clement of Alexandria, a bit like a rough draft. Arguably, as Brenda Deen Schildgen and Michael Kok have argued, it’s the association of Mark with Peter in the second century that ensured the survival of a gospel some thought was poorly written.

What’s interesting about Benedict’s case is that we have a sense of how it is that Benedict came to be associated with Cardinal Sarah’s book. Cardinal Sarah had some of Benedict’s writing on the subject and incorporated them into a book to which he attached Benedict’s name (Sarah himself says that his book “continues” Benedict’s “meditation.”) The same type of thing used to happen to ancient philosophers and writers. The second century doctor Galen—one of the most prolific ancient authors—complains that unsanctioned and erroneous copies of his work circulated in antiquity. Arrian the student whose classroom notes form the basis for the Discourses of the famous philosopher Epictetus, was irritated that his notes were published without his knowledge or consent. As Matthew Larsen has shown in his work, ancient texts were vulnerable to adaptation, expansion, and pre-emptive publication. Aulus Hirtius, a Roman consul and high-ranking military officer in Julius Caesar’s army, “reluctantly” added a final chapter to Caesar’s “notes” on the wars in Gaul (known to us as Gallic Wars) because he saw the book as incomplete and in need of revisions.

Misunderstanding or not, the attachment of Benedict’s name to Sarah’s book (even temporarily) has given Cardinal Sarah’s book added attention and authority. The firestorm of publicity it provoked means that even though Benedict is no longer the book’s co-author, the suggestion that he contributed to it means that many will read it for that alone. In exactly the same way as ancient Christians read the Gospel of Mark because they believed it contained the message of St. Peter. 

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