This page considers forgery and fraud relating to religious
texts and artifacts.
It covers -
- belief, psychology and commerce in the pre-industrial
sacred relics trade
and revolution - forged scriptures and the Protocols
questions - artifacts from the Holy Land, Mormon letters,
the 'Priory of Sion' forgery and other 'hidden histories'
As indicated earlier in this profile, forgery has been
a recurrent mechanism for substantiating (or undermining)
claims to spiritual and temporal authority.
A landmark in the development of forensics is Lorenzo
Valla's Declamitio de falso credita et ementia donatione
Constantini, a renaissance exposure of the 'Donation
of Constantine' that purported to be a grant by the Emperor
Constantine transferring control of Italy and western
Europe to the Papacy as appreciation for being cured of
leprosy. It is available as The Treatise of Lorenzo
Valla on the Donation of Constantine (Toronto: Uni
of Toronto Press 2000) edited by Christopher Coleman.
The Donation is discussed in Anthony Grafton's superb
Forgers and Critics: Creativity & Duplicity in
Western Scholarship (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press
1990) and Richard Landes' Relics, Apocalypse, and
the Deceits of History: Ademar of Chabannes, 989-1034
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1988). Context is provided
by Alfred Hiatt's The Making of Medieval Forgeries (London:
British Library 2003).
At a less elevated level the Council of Rome in 745, considering
claims by supposed bishop Adelbert,
read aloud a "miraculous letter" from Jesus
Christ which had very conveniently fallen from heaven
and been picked up by the Archangel Michael, who passed
it on to Adelbert.
Peter the Hermit (circa 1090) showed his followers a letter
supposedly given to him by Christ at the Church of the
Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Jacob of Hungary, organiser
of the anti-semitic Crusade of the Shepherds (1251), claimed
that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him and provided
a personal letter. Alas, she did not gift him with the
skill to read that correspondence and it has not survived
his campaign of rape and pillage. Similar himmelsbriefs
were used in early chain letter scams. Erasmus forged
St Cyprian's De Duplici Martyrio ad Fortunatum.
More prosaically the Bancroft Library UC Berkeley disclosed
that a "supposedly priceless manuscript" - a
Luke gospel lectionary purporting to date from 1328 AD
- was in fact concocted after 1900. Anthony Bliss, in
'Cyclotron Analysis and a Fake Gospel Lectionary of 1328'
in XXXVIII Scriptorium: Revue internationale des études
relatives aux manuscrits described use of a cyclotron
to generate x-rays for forensic analysis of inks, paper
and pigments. That examination indicated that the lectionary's
blue ink was cobalt blue (in general use from 1800), the
'gold' was brass powder and the 'parchment' was merely
tinted 19th century paper.
Forgery of documents and artifacts has not, of course,
been restricted to Christianity. Hua Hu Ching: The
Unknown Teachings of Lao Tzu (San Francisco: Harper
1995) edited by Brian Walker is for example considered
by many scholars to be an eighth century imposture. Forgery
of Buddhist documents in China is considered in Dunhuang
Manuscript Forgeries (London: British Library 2002)
edited by Susan Whitfield.
An account of the Turin Shroud - claimed to date from
the time of Christ but first recorded in about 1389 by
the Bishop of Troyes (who described it as a cunning fraud)
and recently dated to the 1350s - is given in Clive Prince's
In His Own Image - the Real Story of the Turin Shroud
(London: Bloomsbury 1995), Report on the Shroud of
Turin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1983) by John Heller
and more persuasive Inquest on the Shroud of Turin
(Buffalo: Prometheus 1983) by Joe Nickell.
The Shroud is merely the most prominent of Western relics,
which prior to the French Revolution included
14 versions of the Holy Prepuce (at Antwerp, Coulombs,
Chartres, Charroux, Metz, Conques, Langres, Anvers,
Fécamp, Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne, Hildesheim, Santiago
de Compostela and Calcata)
Holy Umbilical Cords,
Spears of Longinus,
Crowns of Thorns,
large number of Holy Toenail clippings,
rods used by Moses and Aaron,
from the feeding of the 5,000,
arms of St Francis Xavier,
shirt of John the Baptist (and a mere three of his heads),
of milk from the Virgin Mary,
of Christ's blood,
204 bits of babies massacred by Herod
what Calvin in one of his more irascible moments described
as enough authentic nails from the Crucifixion to fill
several barrels. (Oversupply seems eternal: AA Insurance
for example reported in 2008 that more Rolex Oyster watches
have been recorded as lost in the Costa del Sol than have
ever been manufactured.)
His 1543 Traité Des Reliques sniffed at
claims to possess fragments of the True Cross
is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen. In some
places there are large fragments, as at the Holy Chapel
in Paris, at Poitiers, and at Rome, where a good-sized
crucifix is said to have been made of it. In brief,
if all the pieces that could be found were collected
together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel
testifies that a single man was able to carry it.
Pardoner, in The Canterbury Tales, is described
Which he asserted was Our Lady's veil.
He said he had a gobbet of the sail
That Saint Peter had when he went
Upon the sea, till Jesus Christ pulled him out.
He had a cross of metal set with stones
And, in a glass, a rubble of pig's bones.
And with these relics, any time he found
Some poor up-country parson to astound,
In one short day, in money down, he drew
More than the parson in a month or two
And thus, with feigned flattery and japes
He made the parson and the people his apes.
de Nogent's 1106 Treatise on Relics had earlier
Bishop of Bayeux, eagerly desired the body of St Exuperius,
his predecessor, who was honoured with special worship
in the town of Corbeil. He paid, therefore, the sum
of one hundred pounds to the sacristan of the church
which possessed these at relics that he might take them
for himself. But the sacristan cunningly dug up the
bones of a peasant named Exuperius and brought them
to the Bishop. The Bishop, not content with assertion,
exacted from him an oath that these bones brought were
those of Saint Exuperius. "I swear," replied
the man, "that these are the bones of Exuperius:
as to his sanctity I cannot swear, since many earn the
title of saints are far indeed from holiness."
Thus the thief assuaged the Bishop's suspicions and
set his mind at rest.
'Lentulus Letter' supposedly endorsed by the Vatican in
1454 featured correspondence by Publius Lentulus, a fictive
predecessor of Pontius Pilate, to the Roman Senate regarding
Christ's physical appearance - blonde and blue-eyed, but
of course - and "raising of the dead". It is
one of several frauds skewered by Edgar Goodspeed's Modern
Apocrypha: Famous "Biblical" Hoaxes (Boston:
Beacon Press 1956), a successor of Guibert of Nogent's
1126 De Sanctis Et Eorum Pigneribus and Jan Hus'
1405 De Sanguine Christi.
In the East Marco Polo - whose memoirs have been questioned
as inauthentic - claimed that Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan
was fobbed off with not one but two fake teeth of the
The trade in relics - and pious frauds by figures such
as Rainald of Cologne, who 'discovered' the remains of
the Magi in Milan during 1162 and shipped them to Cologne,
greatly pleasing Emperor Frederick Barbarossa - reflects
contemporary greed and different perceptions of authenticity.
Provenance was less
important than the miracle-working powers of relics: what
made a relic authentic was less what it was than what
Many art forgeries have been identified because in retrospect
they simply look wrong. Relics have instead often reached
a 'use-by date' simply because they ceased to manifest
healing or other powers.
In 2006 forensic specialists debunked the supposed remains
of Joan of Arc - a charred fragment of bone and piece
of cloth claimed to have been recovered from the Seine
at Rouen after Joan was incinerated in 1431. Alas for
true believers, who have revered the objects since they
were over to the archdiocese of Tours in 1867, the cloth
was dyed rather than burned and the blackened bone appears
to have come from a domestic feline rather than a cross-dressing
saint. Scientists in 1909 had declared it "highly
probable" that the remains were those of Joan.
For historical perspectives see Medieval Hagiography:
An Anthology (New York: Garland 2000) edited by Thomas
Head, Jewel in the Ashes: Buddha Relics and Power
in Early Medieval Japan (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press
2000) by Brian Ruppert, The Cult of the Saints: Its
Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago:
Chicago Uni Press 1981) by Peter Brown, Living with
the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell Uni
Press 1994) and Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the
Central Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press
1990) by Patrick Geary, Restless Bones: The Story
of Relics (London: Constable 1985) by James Bentley,
Pilgrimage: An Image of Mediaeval Religion (London:
Faber 1975) by Jonathan Sumption and The Holy Blood
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2001) by Nicholas Vincent.
Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks
(Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2006) by Annabel Wharton
includes contemporary relic commercialisation, such as
sale on eBay of purported True Cross fragments. The author
of this site encountered an eBay offer, in 2007, of a
package of relics from the Holy Shroud, Mary's Veil, Joseph's
cloak - a snap at US$2,980 but alas lacking a hair from
the tail of the donkey or a flake of rust from Longinus'
The same vendor offers a splinter from the Holy Crib,
part of the Holy Reed, a rock from Calvary and a stone
from the site of the Resurrection - "Bid with confidence,
the authenticity is guaranteed!".
racism and revolution
Forged scriptures or religious documentation appears to
be less common.
A salient example is the antisemitic Protocols of
the Elders of Zion, manufactured by the Tsarist secret
police (with first publication in 1903) but lovingly propagated
by Henry Ford and the Nazi Party among others. They have
proved more durable than the antisemitic Book of Jasher,
a UK forgery first published in 1750 and again in 1829.
Much of the Protocols was lifted from Maurice
Joly's 1864 satire Dialogue aux Enfers entre Machiavel
et Montesquieu, itself adapted from Eugène
Sue's 1849 potboiler Les Mystères du peuple
about a vast conspiracy by the Jesuits rather than the
The Protocols are discussed in Norman Cohn's exemplary
Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World
Conspiracy & the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
(London: Paladin 1976), A Lie & A Libel: The History
of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Lincoln:
Uni of Nebraska Press 1997) by Binjamin Segel and A
Rumor About the Jews: Reflections on Antisemitism and
the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (Oxford:
Oxford Uni Press 2003) by Stephen Bronner.
Regrettably they are still being peddled by neo-Nazi groups
and appearing in major newspapers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt
and other nations in addition to online publication.
Distinguished US academic Morton Smith has been accused
of concocting a hitherto unknown letter
by Clement of Alexandria, claimed to have been discovered
in 1958 at the monastery of Hagios Sabbas (aka Mar Saba).
The letter - available only as a post-1700 copy - controversially
refers to a hidden version of the Gospel of St Mark and
features a quotation of a distinctly unorthodox text.
Smith's claims are articulated in his Clement of Alexandria
and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard Uni
Press 1973) and The Secret Gospel (New York:
Harper & Row). For criticism see in particular Stephen
Carlson's The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's invention
of Secret Mark (Texas: Baylor Uni Press 2005), Mark's
Other Gospel (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier Uni Press
2005) by Scott Brown and The Secret Gospel of Mark
Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death and Madness in
a Biblical Forgery (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2007)
by Peter Jeffery.
Pious forgeries in the classical period include the supposed
Mardochaeus Letter, discussed in 'The Letter of Mardochaeus
the Jew to Alexander the Great: A Lecture in Memory of
Arnaldo Momigliano' by A. C. Dionisotti in 51 Journal
of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1988) 1-13.
Within the last five years we have seen the so-called
Tablet, an archaeological relic supporting some contemporary
claims regarding Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, and the
'James Ossuary', promoted as having once held the bones
of "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
The Brother of Jesus (New York: HarperCollins 2002)
by Hershel Shanks & Ben Witherington thus offers
dramatic inside story of what may well be the most momentous
archaeological discovery of our time: the first-century
ossuary of Jesus' brother, James, the head of the Jerusalem
church. Reportedly found just outside ancient Jerusalem,
the fragile limestone burial box bears the inscription
"James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
The ossuary and its inscription are now regarded as
authentic by top scholars in the field; they represent
the first visual, tangible, scientific evidence of Jesus'
A different view was taken in Mary & the Ossuary:
Beneath the 'Brother of Jesus' forgery (New York:
Xlibris 2003) by Ian Ransom.
Some things are perhaps better taken on faith. Israeli
authorities moved in December 2004 against what they claimed
was a forgery ring responsible for the Ossuary, Tablet,
an ivory pomegranate supposedly dating from Solomon's
temple and other items. Controversy is discussed in Nina
Burleigh's Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith,
Greed & Forgery in the Holy Land (Washington:
Since its establishment the Mormon church has been plagued
by forged documents alleged to substantiate or undermine
key dogmas. The most prominent in recent years involved
Mark Hofmann, the subject of The Poet & the Murderer:
A True Story of Literary Crime and the Art of Forgery
(London: 4th Estate 2003) by Simon Worrall, 'Latter Day
Taints: the Mark Hofmann Case' by Kenneth Rendell in 40
Manuscripts (1988) 5-14, Salamander: The
Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders (Salt Lake City:
Signature 1988) by Linda Sillitoe & Allen Roberts,
Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofman Case
(Urbana: Uni of Illinois Press 1992) by Richard Turley
and The Mormon Murders - A True Story of Greed, Forgery,
Deceit & Death (London: Sphere 1989) by Steven
Naifeh & Gregory Smith.
Antisemite, embezzler and forger Pierre Plantard
- supposed descendent of Merovingian king Dagobert II
(and Jesus and Mary Magdalene, since you apparently cannot
have too much of a good thing) - successfully planted
'Prieuré de Sion' forgeries in the Bibliothèque
Nationale in Paris during the 1960s.
Nonsense about the grail and a secret cult involving the
usual suspects - Newton, da Vinci etc - and figures such
as priest Bérenger Saunière of Rennes-le-Château
would be truly laughable if it had not been lapped up
by readers of works such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail
(New York: Dell 1983) by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln
& Richard Leigh or Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code
(New York: Doubleday 2003), aptly dismissed
by Laura Miller as
cheesy thriller, with all the familiar qualities of
the genre at its worst: characters so thin they're practically
transparent, ludicrous dialogue, and prose that's 100
journalist Nicholas Notovitch's 1894 The Unknown Life
of Jesus Christ more modestly claimed to be based
on scrolls in a Tibetan lamasery 'proving' that Christ
studied the Veda in India before mastering the Buddhist
Scriptures in Kashmir and Tibet. That tale is debunked
in The Issa Tale That Will Not Die, Nicholas Notovitch
and His Fraudulent Gospel (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield
2003) by Louis Fader.
Forgeries are not restricted to the long-dead. In 2007
for example Italian police and religious authorities complained
about sale on eBay and in Rome shopfronts of purported
relics of Pope John Paul, including supposed snippets
from his robes and funeral pall (complete with fake certificates
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