Pious Fraud, Vegetarian Style

Bart Ehrman’s book “Forged” deals mostly with ancient forgeries, but also with some modern forgeries

NOTE: this post discusses Nicholas Notovitch and Edmond Bordeaux Szekely. For G. J. R. Ouseley and “The Gospel of the Holy Twelve,” see the next post.

The New Testament includes many books whose actual authors are other than they are claimed to be. That is, they are forgeries — but made it into the New Testament anyway.  Paul’s two “letters to Timothy,” for example, were not actually written by Paul.  Forgeries are in a different category altogether than channeled works such as Rev. Ouseley’s The Gospel of the Holy Twelve or Levi’s The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In the case of channeled works, the author is being straightforward: I had a dream or vision, in which God (or Anna Kingsford, or the Akashic Records) revealed these things. But in the case of forgeries, a manuscript is being advertised as being written by someone who in fact did not write it. Forgeries in the realm of religion are sometimes called “pious frauds.”

Two distinguished examples of modern “pious frauds” are the gospels by Nicholas Notovitch and Edmond Bordeaux Szekely. Both are sometimes innocently quoted by vegetarians to prove that Jesus went to India or that Jesus was a vegetarian. But neither of them constitutes real evidence about Jesus, or about anything else before the nineteenth century.

Nicholas Notovitch

Nicolas Notovitch was a French explorer who, in the late nineteenth century, created a sensation by publishing a book called The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. In it, Notovitch describes his travels to Tibet, where after breaking his leg, he was brought to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in which he finds an unusual manuscript. It is about a Saint Issa, and Notovitch quickly realizes that Issa is simply Jesus. In this gospel, Issa travels to India and studies with the wise men in that country before returning to Israel and proclaiming his message and ministry. Notovitch’s book was first published in French in 1894 and created a sensation; it was then translated into English and various other European languages.

From a vegetarian point of view Notovitch’s book is not that helpful, even if you accept it as gospel. There is no explicit reference to vegetarianism, though Saint Issa does, at least, condemn animal sacrifices (at 7.14). Vegetarians might be tempted to use this gospel to prove that Jesus lived in India, though, where he presumably received some vegetarian influences.

In The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, Saint Issa as a young man goes to India, Persia, and finally comes back to Israel.  In Israel, spies monitor him closely to find an excuse to have him arrested, but for three years they are unable to. Finally Issa is hauled before Pilate and condemned. He is buried, but Pilate sends his soldiers to get the body and bury it somewhere else, so the rumor spreads that his body has been removed by angels.

This sounds really fascinating. But, to make a long story short, the book was soon discredited. Several people traveled to Tibet to find out more at the monastery that Notovitch claimed to visit, and if possible have a peek at the manuscript, including an academic professor. The whole story unraveled. The chief lama said that not only was there no such manuscript, but they had never been visited by Notovitch or any other European during that period. Notovitch, confronted with the evidence, admitted that he had lied, and tried to put forward a different story, about finding fragments of the manuscript in different monasteries. But obviously Notovitch was discredited, and the controversy faded. Notovitch did, however, make quite a bit of money off his book.

However, Notovitch’s book remained available in libraries, and later researchers “discovered” the book without being aware of its earlier history, or of the fact that Notovitch had been discredited. Holger Kersten wrote Jesus Lived in India which is largely based on Notovitch’s book. Kersten is apparently completely oblivious to the history of the controversy over Notovitch’s work. Zombie-like, Notovitch’s hoax continued to have a life of its own even after it was discredited.

Edmund Bordeaux Szekely

The Essene Gospel of Peace, written by Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, is the most famous modern example of a pious vegetarian fraud. It is still used by some today to “prove” that Jesus was a vegetarian. There is a clear vegetarian message.  Killing animals is allowed in self-defense, but not for food or for hides or tusks, or any other purpose (1981 edition, p. 34-35). There are also various other unusual themes in this gospel, promoting natural living, a theology of the Earth, and so forth.

It was first published in 1937, and then again in 1977, and has been reprinted since then. The title page of the 1981 edition announces it as “The Third Century Aramaic Manuscript and Old Slavonic Texts Compared, Edited, and Translated by Edmond Bordeaux Szekely.” (Inconsistently, though, the 1937 edition dates the manuscript to the first century.) Szekely claims to have found the manuscripts in various locations, including the Vatican Library, where he first encountered the manuscripts in 1923, and then also in the Royal Archives of the Hapsburgs in Vienna, and the monastery at Monte Cassino. Szekely identifies Hebrew, Aramaic, and Old Slavonic versions of the manuscript.

There are two key problems with Szekely’s story. The first is the contents of the manuscripts themselves. Yes, at least it’s vegetarian; but it also has a number of clearly modern “natural health” ideas. The second is Szekely’s own accounts of the manuscripts. His accounts are inconsistent, and most alarmingly, no one has documented anyone other than Szekely who even claims to have seen these manuscripts.

A number of people have written to the Vatican Library or the Hapsburg Archives; no one has found any such manuscript. The Monte Cassino monastery, as is well known, was destroyed during the Second World War. Conveniently, Szekely only revealed the existence of the manuscripts at Monte Cassino after the war, even though the first edition was published before the war. In the 1937 edition, Szekely dates the Aramaic to the first century; in the 1977 edition, to the third century. Well, how does he know, and why did he change his mind?  What, exactly, is going on here?  Are we just supposed to take his word for it, or what?

Looking at the manuscript, we see that it is full of modern “natural” health ideas. For example, Jesus is quoted as advocating enemas, complete with a graphic description of how to perform them! Here is a quote (from The Essene Gospel of Peace, Book I, 1981 edition):

Seek, therefore, a large trailing gourd, having a stalk the length of a man; take out its inwards and fill it with water from the river which the sun has warmed. Hang it upon the branch of a tree, and kneel upon the ground before the angel of water, and suffer the end of the stalk of the trailing gourd to enter your hinder parts, that the water may flow through all your bowels. (P. 16)

In fact, Jesus says that unless you perform these enemas, you cannot come into God’s presence:

No man may come before the face of God, whom the angel of water lets not pass (p. 14).

He also advocates a raw-foods diet:

“Master, where is the fire of life?” asked some of them.

“In you, in your blood, and in your bodies.”

“And the fire of death?”

“It is the fire which blazes outside your body, which is hotter than your blood. With that fire of death you cook your foods in your homes and in your fields. I tell you truly, it is the same fire which destroys your foods and your bodies . . . Eat nothing, therefore, which a stronger fire than the fire of life has killed.” (P. 36)

Jesus goes on in this vein, explaining how you can make raw bread (by sprouting wheat, basically). Jesus also allows us to drink dairy milk (p. 36–37). Presumably this milk would be non-pasteurized. Every seventh day, we are to fast altogether (p. 41).

Sometimes there are modern forgeries (or alleged forgeries) which really do puzzle even the scholars. These include Dr. Morton Smith’s The Secret Gospel of Mark, and the inscription on the James ossuary, “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” The James ossuary inscription resulted in accusations of forgery and a lengthy trial. In both cases scholarly opinion was at least initially divided and expert opinion really was required. Scholarly opinion seems to be that The Secret Gospel of Mark is a forgery, but that the inscription on the James ossuary is genuine; the owner of the ossuary was acquitted of the forgery charges.

But it does not require specialist knowledge to see that there are some major problems with The Essene Gospel of Peace. Szekely has come up with a clearly contrived story: a mysterious manuscript, the physical condition of which Szekely never described, which no one except Szekely has ever seen, which Szekely quickly and effortlessly translated, and which the libraries at the Vatican and in Vienna deny having, is supposed to have fabulous revelations about Jesus? And Jesus wants us to drink raw milk, eat raw food, and give ourselves enemas? This can’t be taken seriously as evidence about Jesus. Readers interested in pursuing this topic further should read Strange Tales About Jesus, by Per Beskow (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), which discusses this and other modern gospels.

Why did Szekely do it? We don’t know. Perhaps Szekely thought that “the end justifies the means,” and just wanted to promote his own raw-food ideas claiming “Jesus” as his authority. Perhaps he did it just because he could; the man is long gone, and we cannot cross-examine him. But we absolutely cannot rely on The Essene Gospel of Peace as any sort of historical information about Jesus or for that matter anything else before about the year 1920.

6 thoughts on “Pious Fraud, Vegetarian Style

  1. Drew Hensley

    Even the conservative scholar Ben Witherington has endorsed this Erhman book, except he believes these books were written by the original Christians; ie, they aren’t forgeries at all. My own pastor is ultra liberal (Jesus Seminar) but he would argue Paul wrote 1 Tim. I wouldn’t use the word “know” when it comes to authorship. Otherwise I pretty much agree with you here.

    1. Keith Akers

      The authorship of I Timothy is still debated by some, but the basic argument looks pretty clear to me. I Timothy, and the other pastoral epistles II Timothy and Titus, have a very different vocabulary from that of Paul in his seven authentic letters (Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and I Thessalonians). He uses the term “faith” in a different way in the pastoral epistles (as a body of doctrine, not a relationship to Christ).

      Paul in his authentic letters also expects an imminent end to the world, and advises people not to marry. But in I Timothy, he says that bishops and deacons (two titles which probably didn’t exist in the earliest church) must be married! So whoever makes this argument would need to explain why Paul changed his mind and his vocabulary.

  2. Rico

    Thanks Keith, this is interesting, although i was aware there were some doubts about the authenticity of the manuscripts. While the Essense Gospel never rang true to me, it’s pretty disappointing all the same, to think that an someone who spent time as an academic would indulge in fraud.

    That said, in another book of Szekely’s, The Essene Origins of Christianity, which is a book of biblical criticism – that is, about the conventional idea of Jesus Christ – he talks a lot about manuscript fraud. Here’s an excerpt, discusing the work of Ernest Renan: “If fraud, according to Renan – and Renan, moreover, is a so-called liberal critic – exists to a certain degree (he does not tell us to what degree), I have the right to declare, not from any desire to cause offense, but simply as a clearly established fact, that religious history is fraudulent legend. Renan hardly substantiates the fraud; to him it is “pious.” But for me, a historian, fraud is just plain fraud.”

    So this sits at marked odds with him forging the documents. At the end of the book he includes excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls and Essene Gospels of Peace. As such, he would’ve had a lot of nerve denouncing forgery for the majority of the book, then just giving in to it at the end. It’s a mystery.

    On a slightly related note, i wonder whether you have any thoughts on the authenticity of The Essene Code of Life? I think it’s a really interesting book, which EBS says is translated from, “the Aramaic, of the manuscript discovered by Count Volney during his travels in Egypt and Syria, 1783-5; giving a record of the discourses between the famous Roman Historian, Josephus Flavius, as pupil, and Banus, the Essene, as master, during Josephus’ three years’ sojourn with Banus in the Desert of the Dead Sea, for his initiation into the Essene Teaching and Traditions.”

    1. Keith Akers Post author

      Szekely’s authority, in my mind, is fatally compromised. If he’s going to make up stuff like this, why should we take anything else he says seriously? The overwhelming burden of proof is on anyone who wants me to take anything written by Szekely as serious historical evidence. I have no evidence that Szekely had a personality disorder (e. g. was a “sociopath”), but that is as good an explanation of any for his statements about fraud.

      The practical problem is that if you allow yourself to be distracted by Szekely, after this display of deceit, you can be distracted by anything and everything. It is much, much easier to create a problem and create doubts with some obscure, difficult-to-disprove ideas and references, than it is to prove them wrong. Sometimes I am tempted just to write my own fake gospels just to prove my point. But then someone might believe me, and how would I undo that? So it is easier just to speak the truth.

      Look at Gary Taubes’ writings, for example, as discussed on the “Plant Positive” web site. (This is a completely different area, namely nutrition instead of religious history, but the basic principle is the same.) Taubes provides endless footnotes, but you have to be an expert to be able to disprove every single one. It requires much, much less effort to create doubts, than it does to resolve them. Once you’ve seen several obvious problems, though, you stop worrying about whether this other statement or that other statement made by Taubes is wrong. You just study the subject independently of Taubes’ authority and reach your own conclusions.

      The same principle applies to Szekely, or to Hegel, or nuclear physics, or anyone and anything else. Just because someone can produce a bunch of learned-sounding references in support of some obscure thesis, doesn’t mean we are obligated to research each one in order to disprove it. If you want to tell me something about Volney, just tell it to me without reference to Szekely at all. Does Volney, for example, refer to the Essenes or to Banus at all in any of his known writings? What does Volney say? Give me some references. Let’s skip over the part about what Szekely said in The Essene Code of Life and just get straight to the subject matter itself.

  3. Rico

    There’s nothing i have to say about the Count. He seems like an interesting character from what i can find on the internet – that’s the extent of my knowledge. He was in Egypt and Syria at the time EBS mentions in the quote i gave above, but of course that’s no proof that he came back with any Essene manuscript – in fact, that seems to be another document that’s hard to locate.

    Josephus did however spend 3 years with Banus, and Josephus says in The Life of Flavius Josephus that Banus, “lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord.” So that *suggests* Banus ate a vegan diet, if nothing else.

    Philo, Josephus and Pliny also say a number of things that support the Code of Life. Even so, i guess EBS could have taken those things and fashioned a text around them in retrospect.

    Whatever the case, i continue to think The Code of Life is a fascinating book.


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