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A Master Hoaxer: Constantine Simonides

April 29, 2014

All the hubbub about the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment brought to mind the story of a 19th-century master of manuscripts-fakery:  Constantine Simonides.  Simonides really came to worldwide attention when (in 1862) he claimed to have written Codex Sinaiticus himself (in 1840).

J. K. Elliott has written the Simonides story, full of primary-source references from the 19th century in a volume hard to find but fascinating:  Codex Sinaiticus and the Simonides Affair:  An Examination of the Nineteenth Century Claim tht Codex Sinaiticus Was Not an Ancient Manuscript (Thessaloniki:  Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1982).

What makes Simonides’ claim so interesting is that he did in fact produce a number of fake ancient manuscripts that, for a good while, fooled a good many people.  In the section, “Simonides the Forger” (pp. 122-72), Elliott itemizes major examples of Simonides’ work.  These include a purported first-century papyrus roll containing part of 1 John and 2-3 John, a “History of the Kings of Egypt up to the Reign of Ptolemy Lagus” by a “Uranius of Alexandria” (which received widespread attention in various countries, initially accepted as genuine in Leipzig and then rejected), a purported early manuscript of Hermas, plus Simonides’ claimed discovery of important biblical manuscripts in Mayer’s museum in Liverpool (portions of Matthew and epistles of James and Jude on papyrus purportedly from the lst century), as well as other forgeries.

It’s interesting, too, that when challenged Simonides gave a spirited defence of himself, maintaining the authenticity of the items, often replying in newspapers to accusations from scholars.

I intend no direct connection or similarity at all between Simonides and anything under disputation at the present moment.  I merely note that in the history of scholarship there is this fascinating and bold figure who impressively passed off as genuine some fakes that fooled some people and obtained widespread attention in their time.  So, I guess the lesson is that we always need to treat critically any new item; and the greater the claim for an item, the greater the critical scrutiny required and justified.

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10 Comments
  1. From the plates in Simonides monograph Fac-similes of certain portions of the Gospel of St. Matthew, and of the Epistles of Ss. James and Jude, his simulated ancient writing is weird looking (was he left-handed?). He doesn’t seem to know about nomina sacra: ιακωβοϲ θεου και κυριου χριστου. The letters are crowded at the top, and more evenly written and the leading more generous in the lower half of the Ps.Pap.”James” , the opposite of the usual pattern. The letter forms are an odd mixture of tall and short (pi is sometimes very tall, sometimes very short. The odd combination of letter forms look to be from more than one style and period . The seems anxious not to split too many words between lines, leaving as many as three letter spaces at a line end to do so.

  2. Tommy Wasserman permalink

    Curiously, when I was working on an edition of Jude I wrote to the museum in Liverpool to have copy of the papyrus containing Jude, which they sent me. They weren’t aware that it was a forgery! I can say that it has a number of odd readings. I am no palaeographer but the hand is awkward and does not look as anything I have seen.

  3. Not every interesting new item needs to receive the “Jesus’ wife” treatment. Some papyri – an unfortunately small minority – come from well documented excavations. Others at least have a documented and publicly-available acquisition history. The Jesus’ wife fiasco has highlighted the importance of transparency when it come to acquisition history.

  4. James Ernest permalink

    Chapter 11 of Bruce Metzger’s memoirs (Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, Hendrickson, 1997) is titled “Literary Forgeries.” He says that Simonides’ attack on the authenticity of Sinaiticus was revenge against Tischendorf, who had played a part in exposing CS’s forgeries, which “included a copy of Homer in an almost prehistoric style of writing, a copy of the Gospel according to Matthew, written fifteen years after the Ascension (!), and other parts of the New Testament–such as portions of the Epistles of James and of Jude from the first century.” Sections of Metzger’s chapter are given to Morton Smith and Secret Mark (though he does not pronounce a final verdict); the “Partridge manuscript” (a remarkable hoax pulled off by students at Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, MA, in the 1930s), and “an amusing agraphon” published in CBQ in 1950 (after A. D. Nock at HTR and Amos Wilder for JBL had turned it down, apparently on Metzger’s advice) by Metzger’s own Doktorvater!

    Metzger recalls learning in the Latin epigraphy seminar that he took as a graduate student that “the proportion of spurious or suspected Latin inscriptions to authentic inscriptions is about one to thirteen.” I myself recall being amazed at the number of dubia and spuria in the patristic corpus. It seems to me now that anyone who is inclined to presume newly discovered ancient writings innocent until proven guilty is either unaware of history of excessively generous. –One lesson of Metzger’s chapter is that a certain percentage of the faking is motivated neither by malice nor by any more complex motive than a simple will-to-fun. Scholarship can be dreary and stuffy, and for some the temptation to liven things up becomes irresistible.

    Any interested in further reading, apart from the book Larry references and this little chapter in Metzger’s memoirs, might want to track down two of Metzger’s references: his own 1971 SBL presidential address, published in the opening pages of JBL 1972, and “J. A. Farrer’s classic book Literary Forgeries” (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907).

  5. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, if Simonides could fool the populace then, why could someone not have done the same with the NT?

    • Geoff: I have no clear idea what you’re asking. But I’ll try! If you’re asking about NT manuscripts?? Then the answer is that the early NT manuscripts were often obtained from ancient sites (e.g., St. Catherine’s monastery by Tischendorf). Also, all of the items have been subjected to careful analysis of handwriting, material, etc., and weren’t delivered by anonymous owners refusing to make clear who they were and how the items came into their possession. Finally, under the same types of inspection, Simonides’ fakes were found out! (Again, Geoff, you seem quite surprisingly uninformed about matters in which, despite this, you seem to have pre-formed opinions, suspicions (that aren’t based on information), etc. It’s a very curious stance, Geoff.)

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Well Larry, I was talking about NT manuscripts, as you surmised. Just suppose that a Simonides had been up to his tricks way back in the first century, originating NT manuscripts. What then?

      • Geoff: In the first century there was no “NT” and so no one could offer copies of it then! What we have from that period are various literary texts (e.g., letters of Paul, letters written in his name posthumously [per most scholars], gospels, etc.), each of which had to obtain its own acceptance and circulation. Why imagine scenarios instead of investigating the data, Geoff? (That wasn’t an invitation to continue this, somewhat pointless, exchange!)

    • Scott F permalink

      Gee, Geoff. That is exactly what we have in the NT. A number of letters attributed to Paul but some thought to be forgeries (pious or otherwise?) That doesn’t mean every manuscript is a fake. In fact, the situation is exactly as one would expect with so many humans involved – wheat and chaff both.

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