How to Spot a Forgery

René’s recent post on The Gospel of Judas reminded me of an amazing story about the art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi. Beltracchi, for those of you who haven’t heard, is considered by many to be the world’s best art forger.[1] Over the course of his lucrative 40-year, multi-million dollar career, Beltracchi painted a staggering number of canvases, imitating artists like Cezanne, DaVinci, and Rembrandt while pawning them off as his own. Beltracchi’s ingenious idea was that he never copied the works of these painters exactly as they were. Rather, Beltracchi painted what he imagined other great artists may have painted had they lived a little longer. Envisioning what a newly discovered Ernst or Monet might have looked like if it suddenly appeared on the market, Beltracchi and his co-conspiring wife Helene launched into a high-stakes career of art forgery that made them millions, until they got caught.

beltracchi painting

This kind of chicanery makes us think twice about what we believe to be authentic. Applied to the world of biblical texts, learning about potential forgeries like this may shake our confidence in the claims of the Bible. After all, whether it’s the Gospel of Judas or the DaVinci Code, how certain can we be that the words we have in Scripture are accurate representations of some divine truth?

Suffice it to say that reading the next couple paragraphs won’t magically transform you into an expert on biblical texts. (If you’re one of those already, my sincere apologies.) But because forgeries exist then and now, we need to develop good skills that can help us determine the real from the fake. The reason skills like this are needed is because spotting a forgery is not easy. Just ask any number of Beltracchian victims out there, and they’ll tell you the same thing. In fact, as we learned for those who lost millions at Beltracchi’s expense, not spotting a forgery can turn out to be a very costly mistake.

So assuming we think it’s important to distinguish the true from the false, where should we begin? First, when it comes to the Bible, we should remember that it’s a foreign book written by people who spoke different languages a long time ago. That may seem obvious, but if we only draw from our modern sensibilities when we make our interpretations, the depth of what we glean will be limited. While the Bible is definitely written for us, it was not written to us. Therefore, some familiarity with Greek and Hebrew, ancient literary genres, and important historical events can go a long way in helping us understand what the Bible says.

Second, biblical interpretation can be an arduous process that should not be done in solitary confinement. While some can read the Bible for hours alone, a trusted mentor is an essential asset. Learning is as much a social endeavor that involves a teacher-student relationship, I believe, as it is the accumulation of facts. If you want to study science, find a credible, well-educated scientist and start asking questions. If you want to know more about Christianity, track down a churchgoing, well-educated Christian and see what they think.

Finally, if we’re going to spot forgeries in the broadest possible sense, we need to be open to having old worldviews and mental landscapes changed. From a Christian perspective, we need to be willing to be renewed and redeemed. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”[2] Obviously, discerning God’s will with perfect clarity is not something that happens overnight, but oddly enough, there’s a good art analogy to go along with this. Jamie Martin, a forensic art analyst who eventually blew the whistle on Wolfgang Beltracchi, told Bob Simon of 60 Minutes that Beltracchi’s forgeries were some of the best fakes he had ever seen. Even so, when asked how Beltracchi was able to evade capture for over 40 years, Martin said this: “Nobody was was examining them closely enough.” Whether it’s a Beltracchi or the Bible, it seems, if we’re going to spot a forgery, we need to get as close as we can and examine it for all it’s worth.

Paul McClure




[2] Romans 12:2


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