Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Bible Is a Forgery

Last week, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that a Muslim Egyptian publisher has released a new version of the Bible that, its editors claim, proves Christian scripture to be a forgery.

In the text's introduction, the Islamic Enlightenment Publishing House's Abuislam Abdullah writes that there are many versions of Christian scripture and argues that the texts included in his "Bible" predate the Tanakh. Their existence, he concludes, proves that the Bible as Jews and Christians know it is a fabrication.

Of course, most Biblical scholars--even devout ones--agree with Abdullah's contention that scripture exists in many versions. (For reference, see the variant copy of Isaiah found with the Dead Sea Scrolls.) Further, early reports suggest that the "forged" Bible is actually of 16th-century Arab origins.

Nonetheless, Egypt's Coptic Christians--who make up 10% of the country's population--are outraged at the implied critique, and at least one Coptic leader has considered filing a complaint with Egypt's attorney general. (I can imagine it now ... "Dear Egyptian Attorney General, Abuislam called our book fake. Can you yell at him? Love, Christians")

But this miniature debate obscures a simple fact: much of the Bible is "forged," at least by contemporary standards.

Most simply understood, a forgery is a fraud, an inauthentic object passed off as authentic. Discussions of forgery usually begin with either money--where good fakes can earn a bank, or fill one--or art.

Regarding the latter, one of the most frequently forged painters is Corot, whose style is easily aped. (That's his "Interrupted Reading" above.) Though Corot himself produced just a few thousand original works, it is said that thousands more "Corots" circulated during the height of his popularity. A Louvre curator once joked, "Corot painted three thousand canvases, ten thousand of which have been sold in America."

Forgery persists in the modern era because with paintings, sculptures, or even books, there is a huge difference between real value and symbolic value. Three charcoal lines on a placemat are worthless ... unless Miro's signature floats beneath. A scrap of poetry is doggerel ... unless T.S. Eliot scribbled it down in his youth. Certain artists have cache, and works attributed to them are extremely valuable, no matter their putative quality.

The same can be said about many of the early heroes of Judaism and Christianity. And quite a few Biblical books attributed to these heroes--but not necessarily written by them--made it into the Bible.

Take, for example, the New Testament writings of Paul. Paul was the epistolary genius of the early church, and his letters both spread the message of Christianity around the Near East and articulated the earliest Christian theology. However, most scholars argue that of the fourteen letters traditionally ascribed to Paul, only half were likely written by the man himself (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians).

Significant stylistic, theological, and historical variations suggest that the other seven were written later, likely by students of Paul trying to capitalize on his fame and influence. The authors of these deutero- or pseudo-Pauline letters were not trying to steal Paul's thunder; instead, they were attempting to keep his word alive. Examples from the ancient Greek world suggest that such pseudonymous authorship was an acceptable--if not laudable--way of carrying on a teacher's message.

In similar fashion, many books of the Hebrew Bible are traditionally ascribed to its most notable characters. Many orthodox Jews still believe that Moses wrote the Torah, that David wrote the Psalms, and that Solomon wrote the Song of Songs. Historical research has made all these claims extremely doubtful--as scholars can confidently date the composition of many Biblical books to centuries after the lives of their "authors." Nonetheless, such traditions persist.

And why shouldn't they? There is a poetic allure to imagining that David wrote Psalm 51 while atoning for the murder of Uriah. Or that Moses dictated the Torah from his deathbed with God's help. Or that Ephesians is as much a part of the Pauline corpus as Romans. Such claims--whether they are "true" or not--only deepen the meaning of scripture and open up new interpretive possibilities.

So I agree, Mr. Abdullah. The Bible is a forgery. But not because of your book.

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