More on Literary Hoaxes

Stephen Carlson reviews my list of top 20 literary hoaxes on Hypotyposeis. We continue to quibble over terminology. He prefers distinguishing between forgeries and hoaxes, the former involving cheating in order to get ahead (whether for money or fame), the latter involving the testing of others for amusement’s sake.

We need to be careful in redefining words. Generally speaking, a forgery involves false authorship, while a hoax is even more general — something false passed off as genuine. Forgeries can easily be hoaxes and often are. Where Stephen uses “hoax” to refer to something more specific, I would use the term “prank”. He writes:

Of the list of twenty literary fakes [on Rosson’s list], I would classify the following as a hoax proper:

• No. 2, The Secret Gospel of Mark, by Morton Smith
• No. 6, Parthenopaeus, by Dioynisius the Renegade
• No. 11, The Malley Poems, by James McAuley and Harold Stewart
• No. 15, Transgressing the Boundaries, by Alan Sokol
• No. 20, An Amusing Agraphon, by Paul Coleman-Norton

I say these are pranks. Here the hoaxers wanted to have a good laugh and assess the critical acumen of their peers. (And, as I noted in my blogpost, one of them is not a forgery: Alan Sokol’s postmodern hoax, since he signed his own name to it.) Smith fabricated a gospel out of intellectual disdain for his colleagues. Dionysius invented a play to make a fool out of Heraclides. McAuley & Stewart wrote some god-awful poetry just to see if randomly plagiarized lines would be accepted as artistic. Sokol wanted to fool the postmodernist crowd with an essay of nonsense. And Coleman-Norton just loved his own joke a little too much.

Other hoaxes are done for attention or fame (#s 3, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17), to justify an ideology (#s 1, 5, 9, 13, 18), or for profit (#s 4, 7, 16, and 19). There’s overlap in some cases. Mark Hofmann forged his Salamander Letter (and other anti-Mormon tracts) out of ideological hatred, but mostly he did it for money. Pierre Plantard was also motivated by profit and ideology, but more the latter in his case. But these are all hoaxes, even if they involve cheating or getting ahead as opposed to just “having a good laugh”.

Carlson also mentions the unidentified forger from the fifth century who wrote books and epistles in the name of Dionysius the Areopagite (in Acts 17:34). This actually made my original list but I ended up omitting, because I wanted to avoid any hoaxes that edge into the “forgery out of respect” territory (otherwise many of the NT authors would be eligible). But Stephen makes a good point. In terms of lasting influence, pseudo-Dionysius could well deserve a place on the list, and I originally placed him at #14, where Thomas Chatterton now resides (and who, coincidentally, just happens to be the one Carlson would oust in order to make room for pseudo-Dionysius).

Stephen has great observations, as always, and I have added his recommendation of Joseph Rosenblum’s Practice to Deceive to my reading list.

Eight Essays on the Resurrection

James Crossley calls attention to the latest issue of the Journal of the Study of the Historical Jesus here. It’s a special issue focusing on the resurrection, with the following contributions.

Dale C. Allison, Jr, “Explaining the Resurrection: Conflicting Convictions”

Gary R. Habermas, “Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?”

David J. Bryan, “The Jewish Background to The Resurrection of the Son of God by N. T. Wright”

James G. Crossley, “Against the Historical Plausibility of the Empty Tomb Story and the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus: A Response to N. T. Wright”

Michael Goulder, “Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins”

Larry W. Hurtado, “Jesus’ Resurrection in the Early Christian Texts: An Engagement with N. T. Wright”

N. T. Wright, “Resurrecting Old Arguments: Responding to Four Essays”

Craig A. Evans, “Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus”

Weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading James’ essay, in which he makes a fine case against the historicity of the empty tomb (though I’m not persuaded). It’s nice to see the entire spectrum represented, from the atheist (Goulder) to the apologist (Wright, Evans). According to Crossley, Dale Allison’s article examines the other articles. But of course — who is better equipped to stand back and assess the entire lot? After I get a copy of this issue, I’ll no doubt be blogging heavily on the subject.

Quote for the Day: Jesus and Us

“What can historical Jesus research do for us? Well, maybe this will surprise everyone, but my view is: very little… Too many expect too much from historical Jesus research. We also have ethics professors, theologians, and philosophers. How come? Why do we need them if historical Jesus research gives us our answers? We need them because it doesn’t… I truly think the big issues are best addressed by philosophers, scientific theorists, theologians, poets, and novelists, not historians. Cut my own throat there, didn’t I?” (The Allison Seminar, April 3, 2003; Dale Allison’s response to Bob Schacht)

Blog Comments

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers cites Carl Zimmer as follows:

“People who start a blog and don’t have a commenting function – I just think they’re cowards. I mean, if you’re going to be out there, you’ve got to have a real blog. Everybody else does! It’s kind of pathetic to be a professional journalist and feel like you can’t handle the heat. All those amateurs out there allow comments, and that’s what makes a blog really interesting, because it’s a conversation.”

Jim Davila might have a few things to say about this, and “cowardice” may be a harsh judgment, but I agree with that Zimmer is getting at. A blog without a comments section is like a presentation without a Q&A session. Dialogue makes the blogosphere what it is.

The King Kong Diaries

iFMagazine reports some pleasant news. Peter Jackson will be releasing a detailed account of the making of King Kong a day before his film opens in theaters.

“For the first time in the history of cinema, film fans will have the opportunity to experience the production of a major motion picture from the unique perspective of a master filmmaker with King Kong: Peter Jackson’s Production Diaries. The three-time Academy Award winning director (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) personally invites viewers to immerse themselves in this unprecedented project, which combines a full-color book with more than 50 pages, four stunning production conceptual art prints, and two DVDs to create a step-by-step, first-hand account of the film’s intense eight-month production process. In another first, King Kong: Peter Jackson’s Production Diaries will be released December 13, 2005, a day before the movie opens in theaters.”

Top 20 Literary Hoaxes

Guardian Unlimited has a list of Top 10 Literary Hoaxes, which prompted me to double their efforts, as I find the choices somewhat lacking. So here’s my own top-20 list, rated in descending order, with notoriety, how successful the hoax was (and for how long), and lasting cultural influence in view. I also throw in a couple of personal favorites, like Coleman-Norton’s hoax. One of the most successful literary forgeries, of course, has been recently debunked by one of our bibliobloggers.

But before this, a word about motives. In Lost Christianities, Bart Ehrman describes four motives for forging literary documents in the ancient world: profit, malice, admiration, or to support one’s views (see pp 30-31). The hoaxes on my list also owe to one of four motives. Five of them are pranks (which may owe to malice); six involve the hoaxer seeking attention or fame; five support ideologies; and four were done for profit. Forging out of admiration has obviously faded from the human scene.

1. The Donation of Constantine, in the fourth century. Fabricated in the eighth century by the papacy. Debunked by Lorenzo Valla in 1440. The most famous forgery in European history, describing Constantine being cured by Pope Sylvester I, and then rewarding him by giving the papacy power over temporal rulers. Valla was a pioneer of certain debunking techniques, involving the study of word usage variations.

2. The Secret Gospel of Mark, cited by Clement of Alexandria in the second century. Fabricated by Morton Smith in the 1950s and placed in the Mar Saba library in 1958. Disbelieved by Quentin Quesnell in 1973. Debunked by Stephen Carlson in 2005. Smith’s prank fooled many scholars and called forth intriguing theories about early Christians who used an unorthodox version of Mark’s gospel. Carlson finally spotted the hilarious confessions Smith planted in “Clement’s” letter.

3. Fragments of Ancient Poetry, by Ossian the Bard in the third century. Fabricated by James Macpherson in the 1760s. Disbelieved by Samuel Johnson in 1775. Debunked at the end of the 19th century. As with Secret Mark, some scholars were too smart to be hoodwinked, but it took almost a century and a half to put to the ghost to rest.

4. Letters of Historical Figures — Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, Cleopatra, Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot, Joan of Arc, Cicero, Dante, etc. All fabricated by Vrain Denis-Lucas between 1854-1868. Debunked in 1869. Relatively short-lived, but one of the most embarrassing hoaxes ever: all these letters were written in French, yet not only did people buy into them — they bought them, and Denis-Lucas ended up making hundreds of thousands of francs off the fools.

5. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, by “Jewish elders”. Written by Hermann Goedsche in the 1860s, and redacted by Matvei Golovinski in the 1890s. First printed in 1897. Debunked by Lucien Wolf in 1920. But these anti-semitic legends of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world (and using the blood of Christian children for passover) continued to find adherents, mostly because the hoax played on prejudice more than gullibility per se.

6. Parthenopaeus, by Sophocles in the 5th century BCE. Fabricated by Dionysius the Renegade in the 4th century BCE. (Dionysius confessed.) One of the most amusing hoaxes, whereby Dionysius set out to fool his rival Heraclides and succeeded with a vengeance. Heraclides insisted that Sophocles wrote the play even when told it was a fake. Only when Dionysius pointed out the nasty insult embedded in an acrostic (“Heraclides is ignorant of letters”) did his rival realize he’d been had in the worst way.

7. The Hitler Diaries, published in 1983. Fabricated by Konrad Kujau. Debunked soon after extracts were published in magazines like Time. One of the most notorious hoaxes, especially for having fooled an expert like Hugh Trevor-Roper. Stern magazine paid about ten million marks for the diaries.

8. Vortigern and Rowena, by Shakespeare in the 16th century. Fabricated by William Ireland in 1790s, along with Shakespeare’s love letters to Anne Hathaway, a letter to Elizabeth I, and early manuscripts of other plays. Debunked soon after by Edmond Malone. But that didn’t prevent it from being performed in 1796 to a packed house. Ireland had done all the forgeries to please his father.

9. Pedigree of the Merovingian dynasty, recorded by Godfrey de Boullion in the 11th century. Fabricated by Pierre Plantard in the 1960s, along with other forged manuscripts relating to the “Priory of Sion”, all of which were placed in the Paris National Library between 1965-1967. Discredited in the 1980s. Thoroughly debunked in a 1996 BBC documentary. This hoax has had lasting influence in the conspiracy theory promoted in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which in turn was used as a basis for the blockbuster novel, The DaVinci Code.

10. The Diary of His Excellency Ching-shan, and other Chinese memoirs, found in Ching-san’s study in 1900. Actually fabricated by Edmund Backhouse around this time. Denounced as a forgery in 1963. Debunked by Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1976. Backhouse ended up donating tons of bogus manuscripts to the Bodleian library between 1913-1923, and used other forgeries to establish himself as an Asian scholar.

11. The Malley Poems, published in 1944. Fabricated by James McAuley and Harold Stewart. McAuley and Stewart confessed that “Ern Malley” never existed, and they had written nonsense simply to prove how easy it is to fool people with pastiche and randomly plagiarized lines. Interesting anecdote: the American poet John Ashbery asked his students to read a Malley poem in conjunction with one of Geoffrey Hill’s poems and decide, without knowing in advance, which was fake. Half the students thought Malley’s poem had to be the genuine one.

12. Fragments: Memories of a Childhood, by Holocaust survivor Benjamin Wilkomirski, published in 1995. Wilkomirski’s real name is Bruno Dossekker, and he’s neither a Holocaust survivor nor Jewish. Debunked by Daniel Ganzfried in 1998. Many people have excused this hoax for being emotionally honest, a lie pointing to a greater truth which can help victims of the Shoah.

13. The Education of Littletree, an autobiography of a Cherokee published in 1976. Actually written by KKK member Asa Carter. Debunked the year it was published. This book continues to inspire children and is still considered good literature by some teachers, regardless of authorship and the racist stereotypes it promotes.

14. Poems by Thomas Rowley, a 15th-century monk. Fabricated in 1769 by Thomas Chatterton. Debunked soon after, and Chatterton killed himself. He was romanticized after his suicide; many people were so moved by his poetry and didn’t care if they were forgeries.

15. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, by Alan Sokol. Published in 1996. Sokol soon confessed that what he had written was nothing more than a postmodern joke. (Sokol’s hoax differs from the others on this list in that it’s not a forgery; he submitted the hoax in his own name. But it’s a great example of an academic prank done for the sake of testing one’s colleagues.)

16. The Salamander Letter, by Martin Harris (companion of Joseph Smith) in 1830. Fabricated by Mark Hofmann in the 1980s. Debunked in 1985. Hofmann forged other anti-Mormon documents, as well as a poem by Emily Dickinson. Motivated partly by his hatred for Mormonism, he did it mostly for the money, and Mormon leaders were indeed willing to pay considerable amounts to sequester these heresies. Hofmann was a murderer too, and perhaps got his just deserts when wounded by one of his own bombs.

17. Notes and Emendations to the Text of Shakespeare’s Plays, from Shakespeare in the 16th century. Fabricated by John Payne Collier in 1852. Disbelieved by Samuel Singer and Alexander Dyce right away. Debunked by Clement Ingleby in 1861.

18. Irenaeus Fragments from the second century. Fabricated by Christopher Pfaff in 1715. Disbelieved by Scipio Maffei. Debunked by Adolf von Harnack in 1900. Pfaff used these extracts to support his views during Pietist-Lutheran controversies.

19. The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, written in 1971 (never published), co-authored by Hughes and Clifford Irving. Actually written by Irving alone. In 1972 Irving confessed that he never met Hughes. But before this, many authorities who read the manuscript pronounced it genuine “beyond doubt”, and leading handwriting experts said the signatures possessed by Irving were indeed those of Howard Hughes. Experts declared: “It is beyond human capability to forge this mass of material.”

20. “An Amusing Agraphon”, about a verse in the Gospel of Matthew. Fabricated by Paul Coleman-Norton in 1950. Debunked by Bruce Metzger soon after it was published. [EDIT: see below] Known as the “denture joke”, this is one of my favorite hoaxes, in which Jesus assures people that in the afterlife God will provide teeth to the toothless, so that everyone will be able to weep and gnash their teeth.

EDIT: With regards to #20, Stephen Carlson pointed out to me that not only did Bruce Metzger deduce the hoax before it was published, he didn’t go public with it until 1971, after Coleman-Norton’s death. So I stand corrected on two accounts. Hoax debunked in 1971.

Quote for the Day: Exegetical Amnesia

(See previous quote here.)

“The past is certainly full of nonsense to be unlearned, and surely our predecessors were ignorant of all sorts of things now known. And of course they had prejudices we cannot tolerate. But then all this will likewise be the future’s verdict upon us, and we like to think that we still have some useful things to say. I submit that it is the same with those who came before us, and sometimes we may move forward by going backwards.” (Dale Allison, “Forgetting the Past”, The Downside Review, Vol 120, No 421, p 269)