The Transfiguration - An eyewitness account?

A sermon preached by Martin Carr at St John the Baptist, Holland Road, 5 August 2012

We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

On the 22nd of April 1983, the German newspaper Stern announced to the world a sensational discovery. Recovered from an aircraft crash in Dresden and hidden in East Germany for decades, the newspaper had tracked down, and now revealed publicly, the diaries of Adolf Hitler. It was the find of the century, and the newspaper had the backing of the eminent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who had, in a letter to the Times, declared the documents genuine. Not all was quite as it seemed however. On the eve of publication Trevor-Roper began to have doubts; other experts noted historical inaccuracies; finally analysis of the paper and ink conclusively proved the diaries to be 60 volumes of elaborate forgery. The forger, Konrad Kujau, was jailed. When released he made a comfortable living on his reputation, selling, ironically, original Kujau forgeries from his studio.

The forgery of the Hitler diaries makes for an interesting tale, but what relevance does it have today as we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration? Well, shocking as it may sound, there is a forgery in our midst, at the heart of our liturgy. Its perpetrator successfully deceived Christians for the best part of two millennia, and even today, to the unwitting or uninformed, his crime often evades detection. Step forward then, the author of our epistle, written in the name of the apostle Peter, Jesus’ closest companion.

He writes: “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” What more proof might we need of this miracle, you may think, than to have a first hand account from the Prince of the Apostles? But it is not genuine, and scholars have known for decades that it is not genuine. Leaving aside the fact that a Galilean fisherman would have difficulty writing in such grandiose literary Greek, the whole situation presumed in 2 Peter is wrong considering Peter himself died in the seventh decade AD. Its references in chapter 3 to a collection of Paul’s letters considered as scriptural, and to fears in the Church that the second coming had been delayed, point to a dating for this letter towards the end of the first century. Furthermore, it has nothing in common with the themes of the first letter of Peter, rather seeming to be dependent on the shorter letter of Jude. The Alexandrian scholar Didymus the Blind, writing in the fourth century, sought to expose the fraud. “The letter is false”, he wrote, “and so is not to be in the canon.”

In short the second letter of Peter is a deception, a fraud, a forgery in the name of the apostle Peter but most certainly not by him. When the author makes the claim to be an eyewitness of our Lord’s transfiguration, he is not being truthful. We might call it, in fact, a lie.

In the earliest days of the Church, forgeries abounded. The authors were motivated not so much by money, as Kujau was when he forged the Hitler Diaries, but by the desire to get their ideas heard and accepted as authoritative. An epistle of Fred, or a gospel of Colin would be unlikely to get much of a hearing, but a letter from a leading apostle, or the Acts of a close companion of Jesus, well, surely they would be worth reading? Among the hundred or more forgeries of the early Church which have survived into modern times, we have a Gospel of Peter, containing an account of the moment of Jesus’ resurrection; the Acts of Paul, in which sexual renunciation rather than the death and resurrection of Jesus is central to salvation; letters between the philosopher Seneca and the apostle Paul, in which Seneca admires the splendid reasonableness of the Christian faith, and the Apostolic Constitutions, in which the twelve lay down detailed guidelines for the ordering and discipline of the Church. Most of these documents have come to light only recently; they are instructive about the diverse views held in the early Church; without exception they are forgeries.

 Most Christians, I think, are happy to accept that gospels attributed to Mary Magdalene, Peter or Judas are fakes. In fact, surely it shows how wise the Fathers were in selecting only genuine material for inclusion in the New Testament? But the truth is that forgeries lurk within the pages of the Bible as well as without. If the second letter of Peter were the only forgery in the Bible, would it really matter? After all, it’s a very short letter, no-one really reads it very often, so maybe we could just studiously overlook it. But the same cannot be said when we realise just how many forged documents have made their way into Scripture. In Galatians for example, a genuine letter by Paul, the apostle writes “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Strange then that in the first letter to Timothy, Paul should abandon this egalitarian language, instead writing: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.  But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” Salvation through childbearing? It’s not quite the Paul we are used to, and indeed, as it turns out, this letter too is a forgery, written in a later period and invoking the name of Paul to give it legitimacy.

None of what I am saying is particularly controversial, scholars have known it for a long time, and introductions to the Bible will describe letters such as 2 Peter or 1Timothy as pseudonymous – that is, written under a pseudonym. However, often it is said that such false attribution  was common at the time the Bible was written, that the authors did not really intend to deceive, and that, in fact, they honoured their teachers by writing in their names. But these approaches are very problematic. Whenever the ancient authors refer to forgery, they condemn it. Just as Konrad Kujau set out to trick us with the Hitler diaries, so the author of the second letter of Peter, or the first letter to Timothy, or the many other forged letters, gospels and Acts I have mentioned, also wanted their writings to be accepted as having apostolic authority. The author of the second letter of Peter was not Peter, but he wanted his readers to think that he was, and for many centuries he succeeded. What higher honour could the Church bestow on these forged documents than to accept them among our canonical Scriptures and print them in our Bibles?

There is much more to say, but I will end on one final question. What does it matter for our reading of the Bible that some books are not quite what we thought they were? Have we simply undermined the authority of Scripture? The answer to that is, I think, more subtle. Christianity involves a quest for truth – truth about the world, truth about God, and truth about ourselves. To see the text of 2 Peter, or indeed any of the Scriptures, for what it is, can help us to better understand and appreciate it, and then to learn from it. The author of 2 Peter lived at a dark time for the Church – one at which Christianity remained a small and illegal sect; Christ had not yet returned in glory, and no single interpretation of what the Christian faith stood for had been established. The author was willing to adopt a false identity in defence of what he thought to be the truth of that faith. Knowing what we do about his identity, about the time in which he wrote, and entering into a dialogue with the text, rather than accepting it at face value, will open up for us questions about what it means to be a person of faith in our own situation. Forged, maybe, but worthless, absolutely not. Such moral ambiguities open up for us questions about the nature of truth and morality. Is it ever right to lie? Can we pursue a moral goal by means which are ethically dubious?

By questioning the text and the motivations behind it, we can come to a better and fuller knowledge of ourselves, and of the God we worship. God has spoken, and continues to speak, through the Scriptures. To find they contain textual problems and moral compromises reveals their human origin, but through study and prayer we can reach behind them to their inspiration, the God who stands behind their words. It is this God who was revealed in glory on the holy mountain, whom we celebrate today, and into whose likeness and love we pray that we too might be transfigured. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice