4 Gospels or 4 Forgeries

by C Michael Patton

My name doesn’t carry much weight. I’m not that big of a deal in popularity or authority. There is no need for a press release when the words “by C. Michael Patton” appear on a post.

Because of my lackluster, I could have tried to manipulate things in order to ensure that you read this post. I could have said John Piper wrote it. After all, I do have control of the admin panel and could create Dr. Piper as an author. He’s so busy, he’d probably never know.

I might do that because my name doesn’t have as much weight as John Piper’s. I might have thrown out a broader net and said this post was by Billy Graham. Or I could have gone for a whole different audience, if I said it was by Pope Benedict XVI. In any case, were I to pull off such deception, my message would (in theory) be held in higher esteem. Now, I am a Christian. While sinning is something I (unfortunately) practice, I don’t think I could ever stoop to such a low place, even if it gave me more credibility (at least initially).

Forgeries, Pseudepigrapha, and Plagiarism in the Early Church

The practice of taking credit for the work of another is called forgery. Pseudepigrapha (“false writing”) is the formal name of the genre. Today, we simply call it plagiarism. It may surprise you to know that this practice was not unheard of in the early centuries of the church. Very often, people of undignified stature would attempt to give strength to their ideas and beliefs by attaching another’s name to it. This is especially the case in the story of Jesus.

Within a hundred years of Christ’s death, pseudepigrapha began to arise. Among the earliest known forgeries is the Gospel of Thomas. The author of this work claimed the Apostle Thomas as its originator in mind and hand. The work begins with these words: “These are the secret sayings that the

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living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” The general consensus of scholarship, both conservative and liberal, is that Thomas did not write this work. It probably does not date before A.D. 100, many years after Thomas died. This is not the only work which claimed the name of an apostle. Dozens sprang to life over the next few hundred years:

  • The Gospel of Peter
  • The Acts of John
  • The Acts of Paul
  • The Apocalypse of Peter
  • The Gospel of Judas
  • The Infancy Gospel of James
  • The Gospel of Mary (who would be more credible than the mother of Christ?)

Piggybaking Someone Else’s Fame

The common characteristic of all of these works is that they attempted to solidify their testimony by tagging it with the name of a credible eyewitness. After all, if someone in the third-century wants to teach some new idea about what Jesus did or said, it wouldn’t do much good unless it came from an eyewitness. Why? Because if the person was not there. At the very least, they need to have received their information from someone who was and would vouch for them. We have no reason to believe them if they came hundreds of years later.

Many people would claim to be Apostles when they penned their work. Often, they would name their writing the “lost” or “secret” teaching, hoping this would explain why it took so long to surface. The early church hardly gave these spurious writings a second thought. Why? Because they knew that they were not written by a credible source. They knew they were fakes…

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4 Gospels or 4 Forgeries – Does Anonymity Help or Hurt? | Parchment and Pen