Photographing a Forgery?

One warm October day last year, I got an unusual email from Ed Bianchi, the chairman of the board of Christ for the Nations. This school, located in south Dallas, has been preparing young people for the mission field for many decades. About ten years ago, the school was bequeathed an unusual gift from a donor. It was seven leaves of excellent quality vellum, with very faint writing on one side only. The unbound leaves came with a typed cover letter that looked to have been produced in the 1960s or 1970s on an electric typewriter. The letter told an amazing, though rather improbable story of a man named Louis Meccia who was given a 31-leaf Greek manuscript by a stranger because of a simple act of kindness on Mr. Meccia’s part. This event took place in 1919, the letter stated. The manuscript was allegedly written by Joseph of Jerusalem, a disciple of Jesus. It was wrapped in a Latin cover sheet, allegedly written by Constantine’s mother. Whether the documents now in Mr. Meccia’s possession were supposed to be the autographs of Joseph’s narrative or Constantine’s mother’s notes is unclear by the letter that Meccia wrote.

Although I dismissed the preposterous claims of Meccia’s letter, I was nevertheless intrigued by the mystery of what the document really might be. Dr. Bianchi was kind enough to send me some photographs of two of the leaves, but the quality of the images was so bad that I could hardly make out a thing. What I could tell him was that one of the leaves was from the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, and the other was from Luke 15. In addition, the script was clearly minuscule, thus eliminating the possibility of this being some ancient autograph. But more than that I could not tell, since the photographs revealed so little.

A date was set up for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) to send a team to Christ for the Nations to examine and photograph the manuscript. On December 29, with Dr. Jeff Hargis, Mr. Peter Gurry, and Ms. Dana Cooper joining me on the team, we drove the short distance from our offices just north of Dallas to Oak Cliff. For the second time in a week, the city of Dallas was blanketed in snow. Normally, we only get snow once or twice every other year. To get it twice in a week could have made the journey a bit hazardous since Texans haven’t a clue how to drive in the white stuff. But it wasn’t sticking too well, which was fortuitous for the venture. We brought in two large suitcases, one smaller case, and three backpacks—all filled with photographic and electronic gear.

We met Ed at about 2 PM and soon got started on setting up the equipment for the shoot. Dana and I examined and prepared the manuscript for photographing. Almost immediately, a number of curiosities began to surface.

The manuscript was written on a fine vellum, but only on one side. As we examined each leaf closely, we determined that the script was always on the flesh side, never the hair side. To have a Greek New Testament manuscript written only on one side would be a most remarkable find. I only know of one such manuscript, P91, which was written on the verso of a papyrus that was surely used for some other text on the recto of a roll. But at the juncture where the extant scrap of P91 appears, there is nothing on the recto. Most likely, some sort of gap between books explains the lack of data on the recto.

The text of this manuscript was so faint that we needed UV photography to make out much of the text. This proved rather successful, allowing us to see virtually all the text, though with difficulty. Under black light we noticed that the lettering was thick, as though the text was written with a reed instead of a pen (similar to how Codex 69 was most likely produced, according to Bruce Metzger). All the diacriticals were there, and the punctuation looked modern for the most part. But what was missing at first stunned us: We came across the Greek word for ‘heaven,’ which was written out fully. Normally, ‘heaven’ and over a dozen other words are contracted with a horizontal bar across the top to indicate to readers that such words should not be simply read but expanded first, then read. Such nomina sacra developed from a primitive use of just four words in our earliest manuscripts (Jesus, God, Lord, Christ) to as many as fifteen words that were regularly abbreviated in later manuscripts. ‘Heaven’ was one of them. But ‘heaven’ almost seems to be an optional nomen sacrum at times, since many medieval manuscripts write it out plene each time.

First Leaf of Christ for the Nations Manuscript

>Photographed with Normal Light

When we came across the word for ‘Father,’ then ‘Spirit,’ however, we noticed that these words were also not abbreviated. The development of nomina sacra most likely had these words abbreviated in the second development, while ‘heaven’ came later. We were left with two likely scenarios: either this particular manuscript was a direct copy of a very ancient text (similar to codex 1739), or it was a clumsy forgery written by someone who was unacquainted with New Testament manuscripts and their invariable use of nomina sacra for at least some words. That was a major clue that I should have paid much more attention to when I came across ‘Jesus’—and on more than one occasion. Never was it a nomen sacrum. In fact, I never came across any nomen sacrum in this manuscript (though the whole thing has not been transcribed yet). The scent of a fake was beginning to rise up from the dusty pages of these old vellum leaves.

First Leaf of Christ for the Nations Manuscript,

Photographed using UV Light

The quality of the leaves was so good, however, and the fact that the text was written only on the flesh side of each leaf, suggested to me that this manuscript was prepared for a well-to-do patron. But the margins were so tight that this belied such a possibility. Why would someone who had enough wealth to order a manuscript written on only on side of high-quality vellum want to have minimal margins on all four sides of the text? It didn’t make any sense. At first, we simply assumed that the leaves had deteriorated to the point that the margins continually got chipped away. But all the leaves were relatively uniform in having next to no margin, yet having virtually all the text intact. Needless to say, there were no marginalia, though this is customary in medieval manuscripts.

Another curiosity would later reveal itself. The text seemed to be a pastiche of Gospel snippets. It was neither continuous text nor a lectionary. The snippets might be only one or two verses at times—way too short for a lectionary. Further, there were no incipits—the traditional introductory phrases used at the beginning of a lection. All of this came to light only later, since our initial task was just to photograph the manuscript and make out what it said later. Even the UV light images required some patience to decipher. At first I thought that this manuscript may have been a minuscule Gospels text, judging by the lack of incipits. Although it had been paginated in pencil, and leaf 18 had a portion of Luke 15 on it while leaf 5 had some of Matthew 5, I assumed that the penciling was done in fairly modern times (from the 18th century on), after the manuscript had lost most of its leaves. But under UV light we saw that the leaves had been numbered with Greek letters, written by the scribe himself. And these Greek letters corresponded to the Arabic numbers, leaving no doubt that in the original manuscript Luke 15 came only thirteen leaves after Matthew 5. Although the amount of text on each page (somewhere between 44 and 48 lines per page) was extensive, even if this manuscript had been written on both recto and verso, there is no way it could have clipped along through 54 Gospel chapters in a mere thirteen leaves.

Thus, my revised preliminary guess was that this was an incipitless lectionary. But a single column lectionary, with narrow margins and four dozen lines per page—not to mention having a blank backside—didn’t add up. Lectionaries are often, if not usually, two columns per page, and they typically have ample margins and spacing.

Another thing that was inexplicable was that the leaves had not been ruled with an awl. This was done for manuscripts to give the scribe a sense of where to hang the letters from. Much like our ruled paper today, this was an ancient custom that, rather than using ink, used straight horizontal indentations to guide the scribe. Now, to be sure, there are plenty of manuscripts that lack this ruling. But they are generally written on poorer-quality parchment. Before we looked at the manuscript under UV light, I noticed that there were no prickings in the margin—holes that marked where the awl was supposed to line up. At first I assumed that this was due to the wear of the leaves, yielding minimal margins on the outside. This would explain why no prickings would be found. But when I looked at the photographs, I noticed that the lines were uneven and that there was no scoring with an awl or some other instrument. Why would such high-quality vellum have so many inconsistencies to it? No nomina sacra, written on only one side, narrow margins, a single-column incipitless lectionary? Again, all the signs were there that this was either a rather unusual find, or it was a forgery. The latter option was gaining in popularity among us, though I was still reticent to call it a fake.

At the same time, there were three signs that suggested a hoary age to this document: First, the parchment had the look and feel of finely produced sheets, something that, if I recall, would most likely have been produced during the height of parchment book-making. My guess was that this could be from as early as the fourth or fifth century. I have examined both Codex Vaticanus and Codex Cantibrigiensis in the flesh; the craftsmanship of this vellum was almost comparable to those codices. But it could surely have come in later centuries as well. Judging by the skins alone is hazardous business. But I was fairly sure that this one was at least old. Second, the text on every page had faded so much that it required UV light to be read. If this were a modern forgery, why would someone go to the trouble to make the text illegible? If it were, say, a 19th– or even early-20th century forgery, why would the perpetrator reduce its readability in a way that would make it largely unrecoverable in that day and age? At first, judging by the fade of the lettering I assumed that the manuscript had been entirely written in red lettering. I have noticed that second millennium manuscripts generally used much poorer quality red ink than first millennium manuscripts did. The minuscule rubrication fades fast, and often it is simply unreadable. Some manuscripts were written in only red letters, others only in silver and gold, while most were written with what would become brown ink for the lion’s share of the document. But the faded ink, along with the likelihood that it was red originally, suggested that this manuscript was both old and was intended to be a special production. Third, what seemed to be wax drippings appeared on every page. Each was dirty, suggesting that this manuscript had been looked at repeatedly. None of them interfered with the text, requiring the scribe to work around the wax drippings. Instead, the wax obviously came after the scribe had done his work.

On the verso of each leaf was a stamp that we at first presumed was the library to which it at one time belonged. But it turned out to be something quite different. “Ri Questura Di Foggia” were the words on the stamp. This referred to the state police in the town of Foggia in Italy. Was this at one time a stolen document? I have written a letter to the police in Foggia, and asked a friend to translate it into Italian. Perhaps that part of the story will be resolved soon enough. Besides the stamp was handwritten a name that looks like Benigay. But the ‘a’ is rather uncertain, and the ‘y’ may be uncertain, too.

During our examination, I asked Dr. Bianchi if he knew what happened to the other leaves and the Latin cover letter. He had no information on such. At the end of our time at Christ for the Nations, I was convinced that the parchment was old (because of the reasons outlined above), but I left with more questions than answers.

When I got home, I spent several hours deciphering just the sixth leaf. This was when I discovered that the manuscript only had snippets—one or two continuous verses from one Gospel, then one verse from another, followed by three or four from another. This was no lectionary. Jeff Hargis also found the same thing. And he noticed that instead of ekthesis, the paragraphs were indented, suggesting that it was a modern fabrication. The punctuation also seemed to follow modern Greek texts. As I transcribed leaf 6, I noticed that not only were there Gospel snippets joined together, but to some degree they seemed to follow the order of Tatian’s Diatessaron. I didn’t know of any Gospel harmonies in Greek, let alone any that were copies of the Diatessaron. If this were authentic, it would be a significant find. But the matching wasn’t exact, leaving things still a mystery.

The passages quoted on leaf six are as follows (‘ll’ means ‘lines’): Luke 7.47–50 (ll. 1–4); Matt 14.1 and Luke 9.7-9b (ll. 5-8a, combined seamlessly); Matt 14.3a & c (l. 8b); Mark 6.21-29 (ll. 8d–19a); Matt 14.12 (ll. 19b); John 5.1? (l. 20a); Luke 9.51b–54 (ll. 20b–23); Luke 9.56–57 (ll. 25–26); Matt 9.18-20 (ll. 26–27); ?? (l. 28); John 3.1–12 (ll. 29–41); John 11.18 (ll. 44–45a); Luke 10.38–40 (ll. 45b–48).

This only mirrored the Diatessaron on one or two occasions. For example, both in this manuscript and Tatian’s harmony Matt 14.12 follows Mark 6.21–29. But in a very significant way, the manuscript was completely unlike the Diatessaron: it involved bridge phrases and clauses that are not found in our Gospels.

Sixth Leaf of Christ for the Nations Manuscript,

Photographed with Normal Light

Sixth Leaf of Christ for the Nations Manuscript,

Photographed using UV Light

Sometimes the bridges were long sentences. One or two involved an agraphon (a saying of Jesus not found in the canonical Gospels). For example, on lines 42–43 of leaf 6, the manuscript reads, “Now the Son of Man came in order that he might testify to the truth, and everyone who receives his words enters into the kingdom of heaven.” This was clearly an amalgam from John and Matthew, not something that should be seriously taken as from an early and independent source.

As far as the biblical text was concerned, it looked fairly decent overall. The scribe seemed to prefer Alexandrian readings, with one or two Caesareans thrown in for good measure. As I was wrestling with whether this could be a forgery, it occurred to me that an early-20th century scribe (or earlier) would have to be aware of some readings that would only be found in Tischendorf’s text or von Soden’s, and perhaps not even then. There were also singular readings, but these clearly looked secondary. For example, when quoting from John 3.2, this manuscript has ‘to Jesus’ instead of ‘to him’ (the latter being what virtually all other manuscripts have)—a predictable variant since it clarifies the text. The scribe also reduces the double ‘amen’ in dominical sayings from the Fourth Gospel to a single ‘amen,’ something not to be found in most other manuscripts of John. He also abbreviates some texts, and may be caught in one or two instances of homoioteleuton.

Other times, the Greek was simply bad, even gibberish. When quoting from Mark 6.25, the scribe wrote επ φιναχ for επι πινακι. Not only was the morphology incorrect, but there is no word φιναχ (phinach). This had the earmarks of either a forgery or of someone who was not at home in Greek. A πίναξ (pinax) is such a common word in medieval and later Greek, referring to the table of contents or other table in a book, that no native Greek-speaker would triply misspell it in this verse! In Mark 6, it referred to the plate that John the Baptist’s head was to be presented on. There were two telltale signs that seemed to suggest that this manuscript was a fake. First, at one point κε or κι seems to be used for καί. The former is the modern pronunciation of the latter (ke for kai)/or a shorthand way for the latter, both meaning ‘and.’ This looked like a mental slip on the part of a forger, who perhaps knew just enough modern Greek to fall into this error, but not enough to spell πίναξ properly. Second, at least one line was so bad that what it was saying is a mystery to me. It’s at the beginning of a new paragraph, so there’s no mistaking it for a sentence fragment with some previously missing text. It says, “And after two days, they of them might come Jerusalem [.] Jesus was teaching in their synagogues through saying things of the scribes.” Besides what is seen in English, there are blunders in the inflections in Greek in this nonsensical sentence.

At this point, I began to get more and more convinced that we were dealing with a forgery. I thought that if the bridge texts were poorly constructed Greek phrases and clauses, then this would be the straw that broke the manuscript’s back. Why would the biblical text be good Greek, but the bridges be bad Greek? That would suggest that a forger had created the text and had done the seams poorly. I could not identify the hand. It didn’t fit any century that I was familiar with, including modern Greek. And there were no ligatures, abbreviations, or symbols for Greek words. This suggested that the scribe knew Greek from having studying printed texts only, rather than looking at manuscripts.

When I completed the transcription of the 48 lines of text on leaf 6, I began to search for clues found in Mr. Meccia’s cover letter. And bingo! Mr. Meccia and the heir to this manuscript, Mr. Riggi, were found together on a few websites. Most significantly, this manuscript was discussed by J. Edgar Goodspeed in his 1937 volume,New Chapters in New Testament Study. On pages 197–201, he tells how he came across the manuscript. He learned that Mr. Meccia had forged the document, taking flyleaves from an ancient codex for his parchment, then cleverly aging the manuscript after he wrote on it.

In the least, this once-famous forgery (Goodspeed even mentions the rumor that Henry Ford wanted to purchase it), presumably lost for decades, has now shown up again. Had I simply googled Meccia and Riggi to start with, I could have saved myself a heap of trouble. But the exercise was fun and profitable, for it revealed a little of how one forgery can be found out for what it is.

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