Fiction and Forgery

I first wrote this in 2009, but since fundy atheists never retire arguments no matter how stale they get, it's still relevant today.


In my recent radio debate with Ken Humphreys of "", one of his repeated assertions was that Christians were guilty throughout the ages of "forgery" of documents. Humphreys used this accusation as a way to imply, via guilt of association, that Christians forged other things as well, such as the reference to Jesus by Tacitus. 

The fallacy of the "associational" argument is manifest, but it also reminded me of something, which I made a point of in reply to Humphreys: How do we know that the authors of these "forged" documents intended for them to be taken as genuine?
The point is an important one. Long ago I noted that it is hardly the fault of someone like, e.g., Marjorie Holmes if someone picks up Two from Galilee and thinks it is non-fiction. It is not marketed as such, and only ignoring the truth leads to such a conclusion. If that seems a stretch, we may recall that Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code is frequently taken as relating fact in spite of the "fiction" label -- though that Brown often claims to include "fact" in his work is a significant factor as well. 

But in terms of ancient documents such as those listed by Humphreys, it remains to ask: What evidence is there that the authors actually intended for their works to be taken as genuine? 

Short of an account of the authors trying to foist off their writings as genuine -- which is very rare -- I simply don't know of any evidence for such intent. Let's take the example, one posed by Humphreys, of the correspondence of Paul and the Roman philosopher Seneca.

The correspondence of Paul and Seneca (hereafter the PAS) isn't a particularly exciting read. Seneca and Paul mostly compliment each other, and little of substance is said, as commentators will agree. Most commentators also agree that they are not genuine letters of Paul and Seneca; they pass the "internal evidence of attestation" test, but are equivocal on the "external evidence of attestation" test (see below) and fail miserably on the "internal evidence of style" test. So who did write them, and why? 

That, precisely, is the problem. We don't know why they were written or by whom. We don't even know when they were discovered. This leaves open the question of why they were written.
  1. Were they forged by someone intending them to be accepted as genuine?
  2. Were they composed as "food for thought" by someone intending to get people to think of how the worldviews of Paul and Seneca would have interacted -- after the manner of Steve Allen's old show Meeting of Minds?
  3. Were they composed as some sort of theoretical exercise by a literary student?
  4. Were they meant as a fictional "what if" scenario, like a Harry Turtledove novel?
As best I can find, arguments regarding the intent of "forgery" simply aren't made that much. The finding of inauthenticity is sometimes all that is offered to justify a judgment of "forgery". But we do find some arguments by implication which are used to render a judgment of forgery.

People accepted them as genuine later; therefore, the intent was to forge them to fool people. But as noted, this places a burden on the reader which needs to be settled on the shoulders of the author. Marjorie Holmes, again, is not responsible for someone taking her fiction to be non-fiction. So likewise, simply because people accepted the PAS as genuine does not mean it was intended to be taken that way.

Where the PAS are concerned, it ought to be noted that the earliest witnesses to them, Jerome and Augustine, are not exactly vehement in attributing them to the authentic Paul and Seneca. Augustine refers vaguely to, "....Seneca who lived at the same time as the Apostles and from whom there are a number of letters..." which simply acknowledges their existence without any analysis. There is nothing like the analysis of Papias regarding Matthew and Mark here; arguably, Augustine accepted them as genuine, but did so taking their authenticity for granted, without analysis.

Jerome offers a little more detail, but is no less equivocal. He writes of Seneca, and says that he would "not place [him] in the category of saints were it not that those Epistles of Paul to Seneca, and Seneca to Paul, which are read by many, provoke me. In these, written when he was tutor of Nero and the most powerful man of that time, he says that he would like to hold such a place among his countrymen as Paul held among Christians. He was put to death by Nero two years before Peter and Paul were crowned with martyrdom."

But as Lightfoot noted in his comments on the PAS, Jerome:

...does not commit himself to any opinion at all about their genuineness...When it is remembered how slight an excuse serves to bring other names into his list, such as Philo, Josephus, and Justus Tiberiensis, we cannot lay any stress on the vague language which he uses in this case. The more probable inference is that he did not deliberately accept them as genuine. Indeed, if he had so accepted them, his profound silence about them elsewhere would be wholly inexplicable.
After this, Lightfoot notes that the PAS are "mentioned or quoted most frequently as genuine, but occasionally with an expression of doubt, until the revival of learning, when the light of criticism rapidly dispelled the illusion."
Jerome's statement may seem stronger, since he seems to speak of Seneca as the actual author ("written when he was tutor..."). But at the same time, his judgment seems to be based on what he has known of the letters second-hand ("read by many") rather than his own analysis. In the end it is not clear that either he or Augustine ever saw or read the PAS, much less read them closely enough to decide if they were genuine.

But even so, even if they acknowledged them as genuine, this would say little about whether the original author of the PAS intended for them to be taken as genuine. To argue for that, some appeal to a second argument:

There is a clear motive to make Paul look good and have him be acknowledged by a leading pagan thinker. Otherwise Paul is never mentioned by pagan writers.

This argument, however, is a variation upon the fallacious one that assumes that a "bias" in a document renders it automatically suspect. The motive is assumed to verify the "crime".

But it is a non sequitur to drive from the argument of motive to the specific nature of the action performed. It is just as well argued that the author of the correspondence composed the letters as fiction to make the point, "this is what Seneca would have thought of Paul had they corresponded." What is needed, still, is direct evidence of intent. This argument does not provide evidence for intent; it assumes that intent.

It is questionable even so just how clear the supposed motive of "promoting Paul" is in the letters. It is true that Seneca is portrayed as polite to Paul, and often highly complimentary -- as for example, in Letter 1, where he says:
These thoughts, I take it, are not uttered by you but through you, but surely sometimes both by you and through you: for such is the greatness of them and they are instinct (warm) with such nobility, that I think whole generations (ages) of men could hardly suffice for the instilling and perfecting of them. I desire your good health, brother.
But then again, Paul is hardly standoffish to Seneca either, as for example in letter 2:
I beg, therefore, that you will not think yourself neglected, when I am respecting the dignity of your person. Now in that you somewhere write that you are pleased with my letter (or, write that you are pleased with part of my letter) I think myself happy in the good opinion of such a man: for you would not say it, you, a critic, a sophist, the teacher of a great prince, and indeed of all -unless you spoke truth.
The correspondence may as well be argued to have been written by a Christian admirer of Seneca who hoped that it would help Seneca's image with Christians if he had been endorsed by Paul. While it would be fair to say that Seneca praises Paul more than vice versa, he also manages to give Paul advice a couple of times on composition, and sends him a "book on elegance of expression," apparently to help him become a better letter-writer. Thus in letter 13:
Much in every part of your works is enclosed in allegory and enigma, and therefore the great force that is given you of matter and talent should be beautified, I do not say with elegance of words, but with a certain care. Nor should you fear what I remember you have often said; that many who affect such things vitiate the thought and emasculate the strength of the matter. But I wish you would yield to me and humour the genius of Latin, and give beauty to your noble words, that the great gift that has been granted you may be worthily treated by you.
This would be a polite way of saying, "Paul, your writing isn't that good" -- and that doesn't fit very well with an idea that the PAS were written just to glorify Paul.

Nevertheless: Most of the correspondence is, as has been noted by some critics, without any substance. The entirely of letter 4, for example, from Paul to Seneca, is nothing but this:
Whenever I hear your letters read, I think of you as present, and imagine nothing else but that you are always with us. As soon, then, as you begin to come, we shall see each other at close quarters. I desire your good health.
Reading most of the material puts to mind the episode of Leave It To Beaver in which Theodore started his own diary, and for nearly every day, his entries consisted of nothing but, "Woke up. Went to school. Ate dinner. Went to bed." It is highly pedantic, and it is hard to see how Paul (or Seneca, for that matter) would get any credit out of polite, pointless epistles like the PAS. And in one case (letter 12), Seneca seems more concerned with the fate of Christians than for Paul himself.

One final point may be made. If the PAS were indeed supposed to be real letters of Paul, or presented as such, then it seems odd that they do not have the manuscript evidence for accepted letters of Paul. Rather than thousands of manuscripts (as part of the broader NT package), within 200-300 years of the writing, Lightfoot reported:
Manuscripts as old as the ninth century exist, and of the twelfth--fifteenth centuries there are many. The composition is of the poorest kind: only its celebrity induces me to translate it once again.
This poses a conundrum for the intentional-forgery thesis. If early peoples so widely regarded these as real letters, why aren't there as many copies as there are for Galatians or Romans or even Titus? Where is the discussion of their worth in Eusebius or Origen? If these were presented as real letters of Paul, it seems strange that they were not ever treated as such in practical terms.

In the final analysis, the PAS is but one of many examples of allegedly "forged" documents for which illicit intent is assumed rather than proved.


very interesting post JP. excellent work.I have posted a couple of times about Humphreys, he is a real idiot. He's the father of Paul mytherism.
im-skeptical said…
As best I can find, arguments regarding the intent of "forgery" simply aren't made that much. The finding of inauthenticity is sometimes all that is offered to justify a judgment of "forgery". But we do find some arguments by implication which are used to render a judgment of forgery.

- We also find that there has been historical analysis on this matter that is more substantial than what you have indicated. See this summary.
J. P Holding said…
Good parody of a stupid fundy atheist as usual, IMS! There's not a thing in that link that refutes what I say, and in fact, what little there is that is relevant to my point supports it. It would alsi be very typical of a fundy atheist to just post a link and not extract a quote or perform any analysis whatsoever. Mindless sloganeering, yep, great parody. Keep up the good work!
im-skeptical said…
Clearly, you didn't read it. There is clear evidence that it is a forgery, and that strongly supports the consensus of historians.
where's the beef? you both agree it;s forged right?

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