How do we edit forgeries?

In a week’s time, a group of scholars from around the world will gather at Macquarie University to discuss fake manuscripts in our Forging Antiquity conference, ‘Manuscripts from the Margins’. Part of this will comprise a workshop focusing on forged texts, at which – among other issues – we’ll consider the practical issues involved in editing forgeries. The seeds for this were sown at our first Forging Antiquity conference, ‘Imagining the Real’ in 2017, where I presented a paper called ‘How do we edit a forged papyrus?’. To set the scene for this year’s conference and forecast some of the issues we’ll be addressing, I’ve drawn on my paper from last year in the post below, reproducing mostly the questions I asked, rather than the possible responses to them I posited: we’ll revisit the issue in the wake of this year’s conference.

Discussion of editing forgeries involves consideration of both ethics and practice. We study textual artifacts by editing them; those editions, sometimes accompanied by further examination of the manuscripts, form the basis for further academic work on these texts. When we come to forgeries, however, there is more reluctance to edit them, for a range of reasons. Traditionally, they have been ignored in favour of genuine artifacts. But the rise of multiple scholars and research teams working on forged texts of many sorts has demonstrated the relevance and importance of working on them.

Yet this interest has not necessarily resulted in textual editions of these fake papyri, and opinion varies, with commentators sometimes calling for their publication, and sometimes suggesting they be suppressed. So we may legitimately still ask: should we edit forged manuscripts? And if we do, how should we do it? Here there are a range of issues to be considered, which we might group round questions of priorities, ethics, and practice.

Firstly, in terms of priorities, should we work on forgeries at all? Some would say we should eschew work on fakes in favour of genuine artifacts. This might be thought to be a matter of personal choice, with each person able to decide their own research topic. But with a limited amount of research funding available (a fair bit of which in various places, it must be said, has been awarded to projects on forgeries), how should we as a guild prioritise our efforts?

Secondly, should we reveal to forgers what we know about their work by publishing on it? Will this simply tip the next generation of forgers off to items to avoid when making their fakes? This is an interesting and difficult issue, but I do wonder about the practicality of keeping forgers in the dark about advances in detecting their handiwork, and think this issue needs to be set in the context of the long engagement between forgers and authenticators and the way that has at times driven fields forward.

A further important consideration is that the publication of such texts can pollute the data pool: this has certainly happened in the case of the Dead Sea Scroll-like fragments, as work by Årstein Justnes and the Lying Pen of Scribes project has revealed. But this is so only if they are published as genuine texts; those clearly signaled as forgeries should not do so.

More cogent, I think, are ethical issues. If forgeries are in collections of unknown provenance (by which I mean the items within them contain little or no proper collection history), or collections of anonymous ownership, should we work on them? Current ethical standards in biblical and ancient world studies (at least as expressed in official policy) would give a decisive ‘no’ to this question: transparency over ownership and provenance is the basic starting point for work on any textual artifact: but debate remains, and this is far from the universal position. Although – as is well known – I have worked on a papyrus later proven to be fake in a collection whose owner was at that time unknown, I was uneasy with engaging with the broader collection of papyri (later revealed to be owned by Walter Fritz, something unknown to me at that time), precisely because of this lack of transparency and the distinct possibility that some or all of the papyri were recent unprovenanced acquisitions (Fritz later told me that all the documentation concerning their acquisition had been – somewhat conveniently – stolen by burglars). Had I investigated that collection more thoroughly, I might have noticed the presence of a number of fakes (not only the ‘Lycopolitan Gospel of John’ fragment which severely compromised the authenticity claims for the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’) and been more critical of the ‘Jesus’ Wife’ papyrus itself. But the same could apply in many cases wth regard to genuine papyri, and the reasons many within the discipline now refuse to work on unprovenanced material or those owned by anonymous collectors are cogent and not to be lightly ignored. We’re told, rightly, not to work on papyri of unknown provenance: but then how do we track forgers and their work? Should we work on these collections but not publish the papyri? Or ignore them entirely?

So, we need to ask ourselves if we do want to edit forgeries; if this process, and increased academic attention, will help us understand them better, and assist in solving the very real problems that the circulation of forgeries have produced. These are questions which should be the subject of further discussion. In the rest of the post, I’ll outline some of the challenges that arise from the construction and nature of fakes if we do work on such texts, and specifically if we try to edit and publish them.

First among these is the vocabulary we use. Do we use the term ‘scribe’? Or ‘forger’? If the latter, then we foreclose debate: sometimes we know, or are virtually sure, of the outcome, but often we are not. It could be suggested that if we use as far as possible the tools of palaeography we use for uncontestedly genuine papyri, it will provide a more sound methodological foundation for our investigation of alleged fakes.

Beyond this, different types of forgeries present different challenges. Many fakes are in nonsensical simulated alphabets: how do we represent them? Line drawings? How do

P.Mich.inv. 1879
P.Mich.inv. 1879, fake papyrus in simulated script. Courtesy of University of Michigan Library.

we describe them? Can we identify ‘hands’ among the nonsensical alphabets? If we deal with composite papyri, composed of more than one genuine papyrus (sometimes augmented with fake script), to what extent can we describe the product, and not its components? How should we describing fibre direction for papyri composed of fragments from more than one original document?

Some of the same, and also a different order of events arise when discussing papyri with readable text. Here, I’ll highlight only one: the ‘Lycopolitan Coptic Gospel of John’ fragment produced, probably recently and presumably by its owner, Walter Fritz, owner of the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”. This papyrus, ‘COPT 01-11’ in the inventory system of the Fritz papyri, is currently MS Coptic 12 in the papyrus collection of the Houghton Library at Harvard, which has placed high quality digital images of the papyrus online (see also the catalogue record).

As is now well known, the handwriting of this certainly forged papyrus, whose text has been copied from that in a codex of the Gospel in Lycopolitan published by Herbert Thompson in 1924 (see Christian Askeland’s work here and here) is the same as that on the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’, which provided a crucial step in uncovering the true nature of the latter papyrus. I’m going to leave aside here the manifold problems with the reconstruction of this imaginary codex, although this is also a major problem with describing the materiality of forgeries (for an excellent discussion of which see the work of Stephen Emmel here), and concentrate on how we might present the text of this papyrus in an edition.

In a text such as this, we know what the text should be: not only because we know it’s the Gospel of John, but because we know exactly what the forger’s model was, so, despite some odd deviations from it, should we read what we expect when there are only traces, even if they don’t resemble to letters at all? (In what follows, I reproduce Coptic text in Unicode, which hopefully displays properly in your browser).

P.Fritz. COPT 01-11 = Houghton Library MS Coptic 12, front (→), ll. 1–2.

For instance, in l. 1 on the front (the side written along the fibres), ⲛⲉϥⲉⲝⲟⲩⲥⲓⲁ is expected: should we read ⲛ̣ⲉ̣[ϥ]ⲉ̣ⲝ̣ⲟ̣ⲩ̣[ⲥⲓⲁ or simply provide dots to indicate unreadable letters after the preceding word (ⲁϥϯ)? In line 2, ⲙ̅ⲡⲣⲣⲙⲁⲉⲓ is expected: should we corral the traces into ⲙ̅ⲡ̣ⲣ̣ⲣ̣ⲙⲁⲉ̣[ⲓ, or print ⲙ̅ⲡ̣ⲣ̣ⲉ̣ . ⲉ̣[?

P.Fritz. COPT 01-11 = Houghton Library MS Coptic 12, back (↓), l. 9.

On the other side (that written against the fibres), ⲙ̣ⲁ̣ⲙ̣ⲏ̣ⲉⲡⲉ is expected in line 9: but the text is highly unclear: should we print . . . . ⲉⲡⲉ ? Or assimilate it to what we think was intended?

P.Fritz. COPT 01-11 = Houghton Library MS Coptic 12, Front (→), l. 5.

Restoring lacunae creates even more problems: on the front in line 4, ⲛⲉⲛⲧⲁⲩⲉⲓⲣⲉ is expected on the basis of the model. But there is insufficient space for [ⲛ]ⲉ̣ in the scribe’s normal hand, which would require letters that in the next line (and on the back (↓) at lines 1 and 7) take up nearly a centimeter to have fit into a gap c.4 mm wide. The observation that the nu of -ⲛⲧⲁⲩ- seems to ‘stoop’ to avoid the hole (but on the other side a letter is made of be lost in this hole) was made by Frederic Kruger of Berlin (as reported in this post by Joost Hagen). This raises an issue of what to print in the text: [ⲛ]ⲉ̣? Or ⲉ̣? We are no doubt meant to understand [ⲛ]ⲉ̣, but as it was almost certainly never there, and would not fit anyway, should we print what can be seen and reasonably restored on the basis of the lettering elsewhere on the papyrus?

P.Fritz. COPT 01-11 = Houghton Library MS Coptic 12, back (↓), l. 5.

Similar issues arise elsewhere: on the verso, in line 5,  ⲁⲩⲥⲁⲩ is expected, but there is no trace of an alpha: should we print ⲩⲥⲁⲩ or [ⲁ]ⲩⲥⲁⲩ? (we cannot print ⲁ̣ⲩⲥⲁⲩ)

P.Fritz. COPT 01-11 = Houghton Library MS Coptic 12, Front (→), l. 9.

A different sort of issue is raised at recto line 9:  should we restore text where there never was any? The preservation of the top (horizontal) layer of fibers is not quite clear, but it seems at least to survive immediately to the left of ⲉϣⲱ̣[, where one expects ⲉϣⲱ̣ⲡ̣ⲉ̣ (or at least the remains of the tops of these letters). Do we restore the line from the model?

A lot of the same issues arise with the study of the papyri forged by Constantine Simonides, about which Rachel Yuen-Collingridge and I will speak at the forthcoming conference, taking advantage of our own work, and our collaboration with Tommy Wasserman (for whose recent article on Simonides see here).

In genuine papyri, our principle is, or should be, to observe what is on the papyrus, and then interpret that: not to force traces to what we think it should be. But in the case where we know or suspect a forger has copied an existing text, the temptation is almost unavoidable: ‘we know what they were trying to do, so we’ll print that’: the question is, should we?


*Edited 14/9/18 to make more clear what I mean in the section on provenance and ethics.

One thought on “How do we edit forgeries?

  1. First and foremost, a forgery is a text. If one does not wish to take it seriously, the best place for it is the waste basket. Otherwise, subject it to all the criteria to which a non-forgery is also subject, with the caveat that the forged text may tell us about the forger than the non-forged text does, for example why the forgery was made. Consider, for example, the 12th cent. Codex Eberhardi in the Fulda Monastery claiming title to donations that were never actually made to the monastery from the 8th cent. foundation of the monastery to the time of the forgery. Similarly the Donatio Constantini.

    If there is nothing obviously to be gained from the forgery, it may be classified as ‘vanity forgery’. The most outstanding example of this may be Morton Smith’s work.


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