A statue discovered in Rome in 1551 and falsely identified as Hippolytus (they added that head; it’s probably a lady)

Today we finish our first “Pseudo” in this journey through the Church Fathers. Pseudo-Ignatius will not be our last, however — indeed, on Wednesday we will start the Epistle of Barnabas which was written neither by St Barnabas, companion of St Paul, nor by another church father of the same name.

Pre-modern literature has many writings either pretending to be by someone else, or attributed to someone else by tradition. For example, the book of Hebrews in the New Testament never claims to be by St Paul, but it is attributed to him in tradition by the fourth century.  This is different, of course, from writing as though you are the other person, as with Pseudo-Ignatius or Pseudo-Dionysius (a very important, influential sixth-century writer not, sadly, included in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers).

First things first then: These are not all religious or Christian-era documents. We have texts falsely attributed to Homer, Virgil, Plato, and more. Pseudepigraphy continues throughout the Middle Ages, of course. Most famously in the Donation of Constantine, but also in a group of forged papal letters whose collector was an alleged person called ‘Isidorus Mercator’, now called Pseudo-Isidore, previously believed to have existed — and his forgeries to have been authentic.

Why make a forgery?

In the case of the Donation of Constantine, the document was clearly forged to further the interests of a specific party — the papal state. By forging a document in the name of the first Christian emperor, the pope was able to legitimise the temporal (that is, worldly) power he had accrued in the Middle Ages. Similarly, the Pseudo-Isidorian forgers were also out to provide a set of documents that furthered their agenda, although they also combined them with a large and rich collection of authentic material.

In the case of Pseudo-Isidore, however, we enter an area tinged with grey. The false decretals (as we call these forged papal letters) promote a certain agenda, to be certain. But the agenda they pursue is, theoretically, one that the forgers will have argued is the way canon law ought to operate, anyway. They were simply clarifying the situation as a way of protecting themselves from unjust Metropolitans and overreaching secular rulers. They would probably have defended themselves by saying that the popes in question may not have written the documents that they forged, but the false decretals all contain canon law material with which those popes would have agreed.

In other words — if an explicit law does not exist that upholds how you think society should function, make one in keeping with your interpretation of how the existing law should be read.

This moves us into the realm of documents such as the Pseudo-Ignatian or Pseudo-Dionysian corpus. Setting aside the clues that enabled modern scholars to determine that the pseudonymous Ignatian letters are not his, they say many of the sorts of things we would expect St Ignatius to say. They are also, however, very clear about certain subjects that either Ignatius himself never addresses or that were not yet issues in the church of his time, such as docetism. No doubt the forger of these letters decided to write what he (or she) thought Ignatius would have said on these subjects, if only he had written about them. And choosing a revered church father and martyr was a way to ensure that the letters got read.

The fate of forgeries today

Unfortunately, as soon as a document gets ‘Pseudo-‘ attached to it, its popularity begins to wane. I say that this phenomenon is unfortunate because many ancient and medieval forgeries are worth reading. Pseudo-Virgil may not be as good as Virgil, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read these poems. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite may not have been converted by St Paul in Athens, but that does not mean that there is not important and even true theology in his writings.  The prayers and meditations that accrued in time to those St Anselm may not be original, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable devotional aids. The Ambrosian hymns may not all be by St Ambrose, but that doesn’t mean we should no longer sing them.

That is to say: The actual text of a forgery may be worth your time, regardless of its false attribution.

Some of the patristic “pseudos” we’ll read

After Pseudo-Ignatius and the Epistle of Barnabas, here are some other pseudepigrapha we’ll read:

  • Pseudo-Tertullilan, Against All Heresies
  • Possibly Hippolytus (the Hippolytan corpus is a tangle of authentic, disputed, falsely attributed, and forged, and I do not know just now where any consensus stands)
  • Pseudo-Cyprian
  • Pseudo-Gregory Thaumaturgus
  • Apostolic Constitutions
  • Pseudo-Clement
  • Protoevangelium of James
  • Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew
  • Infancy Gospel of Thomas
  • Gospel of Nicodemus
  • Pseudo-Pontius Pilate
  • Various other “New Testament Apocrypha” (a related but somewhat different category)
  • Pseudo-Irenaeus, Letter of the Churches of Vienne