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Hoaxes from the Past (that Keep on Re-appearing)

August 9, 2011

While awaiting more bookshelves for my office move, another book from the past that is worth knowing about:  Famous Biblical Hoaxes, or, Modern Apocrypha, by Edgar J. Goodspeed (1931, reprinted 1956).  Goodspeed was a shining star of NT scholars in the University of Chicago, and among the most important (if not the most important) American NT scholars of his time.

In this book, Goodspeed discusses a number of “curious frauds that when they first appear  . . . are promptly unmasked; but a generation, or a century, later, long after their exposure has been forgotten, they are revived by somebody and make a fresh bid for acceptance” (viii).   Though ignored by scholars as unworthy of attention, such texts get peddled to the unsuspecting (or credulous) general public, and in these internet-days they can be touted around the world in a matters of weeks.  To his credit, Goodspeed took the time to research, describe, and examine critically a number of these items.  His book is no longer in print, but is worth perusing still.

Among the hoaxes are “The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ” (originally published in French, 1894, and translated and re-published thereafter), supposedly translated from a text “Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men” discovered by a Nicolas Notovitch in an Asian monastery; “The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ” (first published in 1911), written by a Levi H. Dowling on the basis of his communications with the “Universal Mind”;  “The Crucifixion of Jesus, by an Eye-Witness” (which purports to be written by an Essene monk, discovered in Latin in an old Greek monastery in Alexandria, published initially in German (1880) and translated and re-published thereafter; “A Correct Transcript of Pilate’s Court” (published by a W. D. Mahan in 1879, a 32-page supposed report of the trial and death of Jesus from Pilate sent to the Emperor Tiberius), which was followed by Mahan’s further “discovery” of a body of further such works in 1884 which Mahan solemnly claimed to have consulted in the Vatican Library and other places; “The Confession of Pontius Pilate” (published in English by B. Shehadi in 1893 and reprinted 1917), a fictional account of Pilate’s time in Jerusalem; “The Letter of Benan” (published 1910, claimed to have been translated from a Coptic papyrus of the 5th century, itself a translation of a Greek original from 83 AD), Benan supposedly a priest of the temple in Memphis who relates his friendship with Jesus; “The Twenty-Ninth Chapter of Acts” (purporting to be translated by a C. S. Sonnini from an ancient Greek manuscript found in the archives at Constaninople, published in 1871, and promoted by British-Israelite groups); “The Letter from Heaven” (represented as a letter written by Jesus some 50-60 years after his crucifixion (which seems to have appeared first in Latin ca. 600 AD, and then repeatedly down the centuries); “The Gospel of Josephus” (which purports to be the source from which the four canonical Gospels derive); “The Book of Jasher” (at least three texts bearing this title, a 1934 version promoted by Rosicrucians from an 1829 edition, a work with a number of humorous errors); “The Description of Christ” (probably originating in the 13th century as part of a supposed letter from a Publius Lentulus, Governor of Judea); “The Death Warrant of Jesus Christ” (various editions, a text originating in French in the 19th century); “The Long-Lost Second Book of Acts”  (an imaginative fiction purporting to set forth the teachings of the Virgin Mary, translated from an ancient manuscript); “Oahsspe” (a bizarre work in 36 books and 890 pages, published in 1939 with the  claim it is “a revelation from the Higher heavens . . . the miracle of the century”); and “The Nazarene Gospel Restored” (a ponderous work written by Robert Graves and Joshua Podro published in 1954 and aiming to re-write the history of early Christianity by invoking a non-existent Nazarene Gospel).

Another interesting (but little noted) study is by J. K. Elliott, Codex Sinaiticus and the Simonides Affair (n.l.: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1982), which describes the career of perhaps the most famous fraudster of ancient manuscripts who succeeded in marketing his “finds” to various museums and libraries before being unmasked.  When confronted with his frauds, Simonides even claimed also to have written the Codex Sinaiticus!

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  1. Paul permalink

    Secret Mark will make its way onto this list in time. Morton Smith didn’t mean for it to last forever…..

  2. James Ernest permalink

    Bruce Metzger, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, adds a couple more good stories.

  3. A museum in Liverpool still holds one of Simonides’ fakes (a supposed first-century copy of the epistle of Jude) and they actually thought it was authentic when I asked for an image (of the faked Jude)!

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