Tommy Wasserman on the most notorious New Testament forger
In 2014, when the so-called Gospel of Jesus Wife had been exposed as a forgery, the prominent papyrologist Roger Bagnall who had earlier defended it as authentic now stated, ”I don’t know of a single verifiable case of somebody producing a papyrus text that purports to be an ancient text that isn’t. There’s always the first.” However, this was certainly not the first time a papyrus text had been forged. In this brief essay I will offer a few glimpses of one of the most notorious manuscript forgers in history: Constantine Simonides. Simonides lived 1820–1867 (or was it perhaps 1824–1890? He seems to have lied about his date of birth and faked his own death). Recently, he has come to the fore again as the Italian classicist Luciano Canfora proposed that Simonides had forged the Artemidorus papyrus allegedly containing the Geographoumena of Artemidorus of Ephesus. Today most scholars think that papyrus is genuine, but the case is not settled.
In the introduction to his facsimile edition of the so-called “Codex Mayerianus,” a purported first-century papyrus manuscript containing portions of Matthew, James, and Jude, Simonides describes in vivid words how he made this amazing discovery in February 1860 as he was searching through the collection in its owner Joseph Mayer’s (a Liverpool goldsmith and collector of antiquities) private museum:
Meantime, after an illness from which I soon recovered, I began to search through the papyri in the Museum itself. These were, for the most part, so torn and damaged, lying pell-mell together, and offering neither connexion nor continuity, . . . After separating the papyri into their different languages and their various subjects, and finally adjusting the comminuted fragments, I dipped a sheet of calico in water, stretched it on a board, and nailed it to the edges. Next, I softened the fragments in tepid water, and fastened them with paste on the frame prepared as above; others I pasted upon paper, and having completed these preliminaries, I commenced the deciphering and careful transcription, beginning my labours with the Greek portion. Herein, to my surprise, I discovered first three fragments, and subsequently two others, containing a portion of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, written about the fifteenth year after the Ascension of our Saviour, by the hand of Nicolaus the Deacon, that is to say, in the forty-eighth year after the Incarnation of the Divinity.
This “discovery” marks the peak of Simonides’ activities as a forger of Greek manuscripts, where he introduces to the world an actual autograph copy of the New Testament written no later than 15 years after Christ’s ascension and dictated by the evangelist Matthew himself. Curiously, Simonides claimed that fragments from the letters of James and Jude came from the same manuscript; he refers to “Codex Mayerianus” in the singular as he presents its various parts. Texts from Matthew, James, and Jude are particularly fitting to represent the earliest Jerusalem church and Simonides would prove, by reference to another fake manuscript, that all three were among Jesus’ twelve apostles. Besides the fame and fortune that this discovery would inevitably lead to, if he could persuade the world of its genuineness, Simonides clearly had several other aims in creating this bold forgery.
In his introduction to the published edition of the codex, Simonides seeks to establish two facts about the Gospel of Matthew concerning the date and language of the gospel that were now “proven” by his discovery. One of the fragments contained the ending of Matthew followed by a colophon, “The writing by the hand of Nicolaus the Deacon, at the dictation of Matthew, the Apostle of Jesus Christ. It was done in the fifteenth year after the Ascension of our Lord, and was distributed to the believing Jews and Greeks in Palestine.” It is worth noting that dated colophons are unattested in Greek manuscripts before the eighth century, but such early manuscripts were hardly known at the time.
Nevertheless, Simonides had now found a first-century colophon by which he could date the entire manuscript precisely to 48 CE. Both the date and language of the Gospel of Matthew were debated by contemporary scholars. William Cureton and Samuel P. Tregelles were among those who argued that Matthew was written in Hebrew, and that the Old Syriac translation, represented by the Curetonian manuscript in the British Museum, reflected this translation of a Hebrew Matthew. According to Simonides, this was “a most erroneous and ridiculous notion” entertained by “Dr. Cureton,” and “his friend Dr. Tregelles” – two of his many enemies.
Simonides did not stop there – he certainly planned to publish more papyri (and sell more editions). In the same collection he claimed to have unrolled other New Testament papyri, most of which have never been seen by anyone else. These contained parts of 1 Peter, 1 John, 2 and 3 John, Revelation chapters 1-3, “besides one, the most recently opened, but perhaps the most interesting of all, which contains portions of the last chapter of the Gospel of St. John.” The latter manuscript is still extant in the Liverpool collection but has remained unpublished to this day. Interestingly, it contains the ending of John followed by another fantastical colophon. Malcolm Choat and I presented the manuscript for the first time at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston.
Simonides also listed other ancient manuscripts that he supposedly found in the collection, some of which were presented and examined by other scholars. The standard practice in many collections at the time, to fasten the papyri with paste on frames on calico or paper, was particularly suitable for Simonides’ purposes. A special committee of the Royal Society of Literature, appointed to examine the papyri, reported that “it was impossible to see what had been on their reverse sides; and that, thus, no opinion could be formed as to the state of the papyrus when first unrolled . . .”
However, in one of Hermippus’ epistles (now in the Liverpool Museum), C. W. Goodwin, one of the members of the committee, found some lines of genuine Hieratic writing in the midst of a completely unrelated Greek text. Goodwin referred to the lines of hieratic writing as “an island of truth floating in the midst of a red sea of falsehood.” Goodwin further noted traces of pink tint and flecks of blotting paper on the surface, evidence of Simonides’ tampering, and, finally suggested that the reason Simonides could have found a sufficient quantity of papyrus was that he had erased some rolls and written on the backs of others, which would not be noticed when pasted down.
The committee therefore concluded, that “in reference to the statements contained in Mr. Goodwin’s letter, it is observed there can be no doubt, whatever judgment may be passed upon the other papyri in this collection, that the one examined by Mr. Goodwin is a rank forgery, probably of very recent date.” This development parallels the more recent affair of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus, as scholar of Coptic Christian Askeland discovered that a fragment from a Coptic Gospel of John which emerged simultaneously from the same collector, copied by the same hand on ancient papyrus, was an exact reproduction of the famous Cambridge Qau codex edited recently by Herbert Thompson. The exposure of one forged manuscript from the same source cast serious doubts on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment.
Nevertheless, Falconer Madan, Bodley’s Librarian from 1912 to 1919, characterized Simonides as “the greatest forger of this century,” and referred to the kind of skills this enterprise required:
To meet the requirements of modern critics who know styles of writing, the colours of the ink and paints of different times, and the very kinds of parchment used, there is need of such a combination of intellect with versatility, industry with ingenuity, as is rarely found.
For a modern scholar trained in paleography and textual criticism, Madan’s judgment may seem to be a strong exaggeration in light of the fact that Simonides’ papyri are rather obvious forgeries. But we must remember that Greek paleography was in its infancy in the mid-19th century – hardly anyone had ever seen a New Testament papyrus.
The first discovery of Greek papyri in the modern era was made in 1752 at Herculaneum. A number of discoveries were made in the period from 1821, when W. J. Banks acquired a roll containing Homer’s Iliad, to 1856, when Henry Stobart acquired the Funeral Oration of Hyperides. Frederic Kenyon calls this era “the first age of papyrus revelation,” though it had not yet brought to light any biblical papyri. It was not until 1862 that Constantine von Tischendorf discovered, for the first time, an authentic New Testament papyrus, today registered as Nestle-Aland 𝔓11 containing parts of 1 Corinthians and held at the Library of St. Petersburg. Tischendorf thought that the papyrus was copied no later the fourth century, though today it is assigned to the seventh.
In other words, there was no precedent for Codex Mayerianus. This was the first edition ever published of a New Testament manuscript written on Egyptian papyrus – “an unquestionable token of the highest antiquity,” as Simonides points out. In addition, it happened to be the original edition of Matthew’s text, and to have been written some three hundred years before than the pandect bible on parchment which had recently been discovered by Tischendorf. Simonides claimed that the Codex Mayerianus and other amazing papyrus manuscripts in Mayer’s collection were brought to England from Thebes by Stobart in 1856, “whose name is universally known.”. Mayer had acquired papyri from Stobart, but neither of them would confirm any of Simonides’ claims concerning the particular content. On the contrary, Stobart later denied that he had sold these papyri to Mayer.
A few years earlier Simonides had succeeded in duping several prominent scholars, collectors and librarians. Among his greatest victims were the renowned German professors in Lepzig, Rudolph Anger, Leopold Gersdorf, and Karl Wilhelm Dindorf. In July 1855 he had showed Anger and Gersdorf Greek manuscripts and sold them a copy of the Shepherd of Hermas (part of which Simonides himself had copied at Mt Athos) which the two professors subsequently published in 1856. Before the publication of Hermas, Dindorf was informed by Simonides of another very important palimpsest manuscript entitled “Three Books of Records of the Egyptian Kings, by Uranius of Alexandria, son of Anaximenes.” When Dindorf had inspected it, he came to Simonides in the company of Anger, full of excitement and offered to buy the manuscript for the Bodleian library.
The Athenaeum, February 23rd, 1856, reported that “Simonides presented the palimpsest of Uranius to the Academy of Berlin.” Apparently, the Academy appointed a commission to examine its genuineness “with the assistance of some of the first chemists of the day” and they declared it to be authentic, and proposed that the King of Prussia acquire it “at a very high price,” which amounted to 5,000 thalers. The sum was never transferred, although Dindorf had paid 2,000 thalers to Simonides in advance. Dindorf was so eager to make the discovery known to the world, The Athenaeum continues, “that he had a specimen of it printed without delay.”
In the meantime, Tischendorf had declared the Uranius manuscript a forgery on paleographic grounds, whereas Professor Karl Richard Lepsius, while delighted at first that it confirmed his system of Egyptian chronology, eventually realized that “the coincidences between Uranius and the writings of Bunsen and himself were of too startling a nature.” He travelled to Leipzig with a policeman to arrest Simonides and take him to Berlin. Simonides was soon released from the prison in Berlin and was under the radar for several years before he appeared in England to find new victims of his scams. While in England, he would also try to get back at Tischendorf, now his sworn enemy.
Tischendorf announced his discovery of Codex Sinaiticus at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in 1859. It was then the earliest extant copy of the New Testament, dated to the fourth century. By way of retribution, the next year in 1860 Simonides claimed not only to have found a three hundred year older New Testament manuscript on papyrus – Codex Mayerianus – but he also claimed that he himself had copied Codex Sinaiticus on Mount Athos in 1839 before it was deposited at St Catherine’s, where Tischendorf discovered it. Both issues were subject to lively debate in British and German journals and newspapers for several years. In one letter to the Allgemeine Zeitung of December 23, 1862, Tischendorf reminded the readers why Simonides could not be trusted because of his terrible track record:
Any one in Germany who recollects the palimpsest forgeries of Simonides, by means of which, notwithstanding previous brandings and imprisonments in Greece, he contrived to outwit some of the most renowned German savants, until he was unmasked by myself towards the end of January, 1856, and arrested as a forger in consequence of similar convictions obtained against him simultaneously in Berlin, will probably find it incredible that this same [we refrain from translating the epithet used in the original] should yet at this present moment find in England papers ready to print his insane fancy, that he had in his youthful days (in 1856 he gave his age as thirty-three years . . .) the pleasure of writing the Codex Sinaiticus.
There are still groups and individuals today who hold the conspiracy theory that Codex Sinaiticus is not a fourth-century manuscript (which is the scholarly consensus), but was copied entirely or in part by Simonides in the 19th century. This is part of a larger argument for the superiority of the text of the King James Version as the exclusive word of God.
The Uranius affair in Leipzig was not the first time Simonides had been exposed. Apparently he had been in Athens in the 1840’s as reported by a Dr. Mordtmann, who was Charge’-d’-Affaires of the Hanseatic Towns at Constantinople. According to Mordtmann, Simonides, who had acquired an “almost incredible mastership” in paleography, had appeared in Athens offering “a mass of the rarest MSS. of lost works, and some very important MSS. of the Classics, all very ancient.”
Simonides had already started to construct a credible story of provenance applied to most of the manuscripts he was trying to sell, some of which were authentic, namely that they originated from a monastery on Mount Athos where Simonides’ uncle Benedikt had discovered them, and that Simonides had access to more manuscripts which he had brought to Athens. The Greek government had appointed a commission to examine his manuscripts for offer, including an ancient copy of Homer. The commission declared it to be genuine, but there was one dissenting scholar. Therefore a new inquiry was made, and now it turned out that the manuscript was “a most accurate copy of Wolf’s edition of Homer, with all its errata.” Simonides would not repeat this classic mistake, which has exposed several forgeries in the past including the so-called Archaic Mark which turned out to be a copy of a 1860 edition of the Greek New Testament by Philipp Buttman, including errors.
On the other hand, Simonides appealed to no fewer than six other fantasy manuscripts described in the introduction and cited in the apparatus, to give further credence to Mayerianus, the earliest being “a copy of Hermodorus” (allegedly one of the 70 disciples sent out by Jesus). In fact, Simonides even included a plate of this manuscript which he claimed to have inspected at St Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai! Is it a coincidence that the text of Hermodorus is arranged in parallel columns of 49 lines just like in Codex Sinaiticus? The plate shows the portion with the title, another portion from chapter 10 where James and Jude are included among the twelve apostles, and the colophon giving its date – “in the fifteenth year after Matthew’s death.” There is also another part of chapter 19, including verse 24 where Hermodorus confirms the peculiar reading also attested by Mayerianus saying that “it is easier for a cable (κάλως) to pass through the eye of a needle . . .” (virtually all MSS read κάμηλον, “camel”). This was clearly a sensational new reading, with which Simonides could set to rest an old crux interpretum.
As I studied Simonides’ edition I wondered why he had invented another first-century papyrus (with plate) to confirm the reading in Mayerianus – it seemed like overkill. In an extensive note in the apparatus to Matthew 19:24 I found a clue to the answer: even before he invented Codex Mayerianus, Simonides had already invented a host of imaginary manuscripts, including that of Hermodorus, in order to solve the riddle in Matthew19:24. Simonides had stayed with a Greek priest in Liverpool, Samuel Nicolaides, who would later make a statement that Simonides had the Mayer papyri in his house for a long time. Nicolaides had written a commentary on Matthew and incorporated various notes from Simonides including an earlier version of the note on Matthew 19:24 (in Greek) without acknowledging the source – something which Simonides complained about as he took credit for the note and supplied a slightly different version in English.
It is highly instructive to compare the two versions of this note, the Greek by Nicolaides and the English by Simonides. In the first version, Codex Hermodorus is called “the remarkable and truly the archetype Gospel of the Evangelist Matthew . . . written in the fifteenth year after Matthew’s death. It is written on Egyptian papyrus, which is an unquestionable token of its antiquity.” In the rewritten note in the edition of Mayerianus, Hermodorus, the “archetype Gospel,” is now introduced by Simonides as a “most ancient manuscript.” In the Greek note, several other imaginary manuscripts which reappear in Simonides’ edition are mentioned, reflecting the fact that Codex Mayerianus fit into a previously invented scheme of manuscripts existing in Simonides’ world of imagination. Further, in the older note Simonides states that the reading “cable” is found in the oldest manuscripts, although some have “camel,” whereas the later note states the opposite, “in most ancient manuscripts the reading is ΚΑΜΗΛΟΝ, but in some it is ΚΑΜΙΛΟΝ” (indicating the words in the accusative).
The background to the selection and solution of this passage is likely a bitter conflict with Tregelles (who took the side of Tischendorf in defending the antiquity of Codex Sinaiticus against Simonides’ claim to have copied it). Contemporary scholars, including Tischendorf, had thought that κάμιλος was the reading of the sixth-century Codex Dublinensis, following the editio princeps. However, Tregelles had applied chemicals to the palimpsest in order to reveal the underwriting which had been erased and overwritten and could correct several uncertain readings including this variant in Matthew 19:24, where the codex had read ΚΑΜΗΛΟΣ. It seems that Simonides was made aware of this at a time between the two notes, and that it triggered him:
Dr. Tregelles has publicly boasted of his discovery, by chemical means, that the word supposed to be κάμιλος in the Dublin Codex (Z), is really κάμηλος, but if he considers the reading κάμιλος an important one, and things that only the Dublin Codex possesses it [sic], I refer him to Pl. VI., and description, p. 147, for three fac-similes which contain the reading κάμιλος, . . . I know that he [Tregelles] has sharpened against me his critical pen with mistaken expectation of the applause of his countrymen, but he has done it with little judgment or discretion, relying too much on his supposed reputation; . . . It must be remembered that it is not in the Codex Mayerianus alone that the reading κάλων is found, but also in that of Hermodorus, and many others of great antiquity, which were discovered by myself many years ago and communicated to others—among the rest, to the former pastor of the Greek church (Nicolaides) in Liverpool, of which circumstance mention has been made in the note on page 45—this took place seven months before my introduction to Mr. Mayer.
It is crucial when exposing a forged manuscript to examine the textual character. For the New Testament text in Codex Mayerianus, Simonides apparently used an existing edition again as a textual base – the Textus Receptus (Henry G. Bohn’s edition of 1859) – but he made sure to modify it with a number of additions and substitutions, though virtually no omissions. In this connection it is to be noted that the authentic New Testament papyri that we know today are very different from the kind of text Simonides used. The authentic textual variants cited in the apparatus he provided are mostly recorded in Tischendorf’s 7th ed. (1859), to which he must have had access, and otherwise cited from Simonides’ imaginary manuscripts. The apparatus is highly selective and includes comments on etymology, in particular of the meaning of names.
In addition to the textual variant in Matt 19:24 (“cable”), a few other readings are quite spectacular. For example, there is a textual variant at 27:19 that reveals the name of Pilate’s wife, “Pempele.” Simonides’ editorial practices are generally idiosyncratic, he provides lacunose text in red color (provided from Textus Receptus), he makes errors in the transcription as well as the translation of text and variants. The number of reconstructed characters on each line are highly irregular. There are peculiar vertical lines that divide the columns, such as have never been seen on any papyrus.
Measured against our current knowledge of ancient scribes and manuscripts, Simonides’ forgeries fall short in many ways, not to speak of the various kinds of “supporting evidence” he tried to provide, such as idiosyncratic inscriptions and citations from undocumented patristic writings or other imaginary manuscripts which he claimed to have examined in Greek monasteries. Consequently, he was exposed over and over again during his career by scholars in various parts of Europe. His strategy was then to look for new hunting grounds in a different country, and, indeed, he often succeeded to fool collectors, librarians, and scholars alike, who saw in these fantastic manuscripts treasures to take pride and glory in, and, in the case of New Testament papyri, a vindication of Christianity. As Simonides’ example shows, the study of forgery must not be limited to the technical aspects that focus exclusively on the artifact and its production, but should include a “sociology of forgery” which attempts to understand the social world to which the forgery is introduced and received or rejected.
Tommy Wasserman is Professor of Biblical Studies at Ansgar Teologiske Høgskole.