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section heading icon     religious forgery

This page considers forgery and fraud relating to religious texts and artifacts.

It covers -

  • introduction
  • relics - belief, psychology and commerce in the pre-industrial sacred relics trade
  • racism and revolution - forged scriptures and the Protocols of Zion
  • contemporary questions - artifacts from the Holy Land, Mormon letters, the 'Priory of Sion' forgery and other 'hidden histories'

section marker     introduction

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.

section marker     relics

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

  • around 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)
  • three Holy Umbilical Cords,
  • four Spears of Longinus,
  • three Crowns of Thorns,
  • a large number of Holy Toenail clippings,
  • the rods used by Moses and Aaron,
  • leftovers from the feeding of the 5,000,
  • three arms of St Francis Xavier,
  • the shirt of John the Baptist (and a mere three of his heads),
  • phials of milk from the Virgin Mary,
  • quantities of Christ's blood,
  • His milk teeth
  • some 204 bits of babies massacred by Herod

and 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

There 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.

Chaucer's Pardoner, in The Canterbury Tales, is described as offering

... a pillow-case
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.

Guibert de Nogent's 1106 Treatise on Relics had earlier noted that

Odo, 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.

The '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 Buddha.

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 it did.

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' spear.

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!".

section marker     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 Jews.

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.

section marker     contemporary questions

Within the last five years we have seen the so-called Jehoash 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

the 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' existence.

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: Smithsonian 2008)

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

a 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 percent cliché.

Russian 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 of authenticity).

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version of October 2008
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