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The apocryphal Bible hoax that won’t die

Between 1879 and 1896, the Rev. William D. Mahan, a minister in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, issued three editions of previously unknown contemporary accounts of Jesus Christ’s life. There’s virtually unanimous agreement that his work is a fraud, and Mahan’s church suspended him for falsehood and plagiarism. Yet the last version, The Archko Volume, is sold today to readers who praise its historical documents and their importance.

Mahan issued the first work, a 32-page pamphlet called “A Correct Transcript of Pilate’s Court,” in 1879. Its origin story is unusual. Mahan said he met Henry Whydaman, a German, in Missouri in 1856. Whydaman told Mahan of spending five years in Rome and coming across a document called Acta Pilati (“The Acts of Pilate”) in the Vatican library. He said it was an official report from Pontius Pilate to Roman Emperor Tiberius of Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

Many called it a fraud. Later investigators also did, including Goodspeed, the author of several books about Apocrypha. He pointed out that, among other things, neither the name of Mahan’s brother-in-law nor the bank he used to transfer money to Whydaman appear in New York City records. Additionally, there was no record of a Father Freelinhusen at the Vatican, and darics were ancient Persian coins not used in the 19th century. In analyzing the content, Goodspeed was blunt: “The whole work is a weak, crude fancy, a jumble of high-sounding but meaningless words, and hardly worth serious criticism.” In 1941, Goodspeed discovered an 1842 pamphlet published in Boston virtually identical to Mahan’s work. That pamphlet, in turn, copied a short story published in Paris in 1837.

The criticism didn’t dissuade Mahan. In 1884 he published The Archaeological and the Historical Writings of the Sanhedrin and Talmuds with nine more previously unknown works joining “Pilate’s Court.” Mahan said they were the result of a 10-year investigation and trips he and two experts made to Rome and Constantinople. The new documents included interviews with “the shepherds and others at Bethlehem” when Jesus was born, an interview with Mary and Joseph (reportedly living in Mecca at the time), and a report from Jewish high priest Caiaphas on the resurrection of Jesus.

The book quickly drew even more fire.

“Pilate’s Court” was some 1,200 words longer than the original pamphlet. Mahan said they reviewed the original in the Vatican library. While it was “more than satisfactory,” he claimed seeing it allowed the expansion of what he’d published. Apparently, the “true copy, word by word” from Father Freelinhusen wasn’t.

Perhaps the most damning evidence came from Rev. James A. Quarles, then president of the Elizabeth Aull Seminary in Missouri and later a philosophy professor at Washington and Lee University. About one-quarter of the book was “Eli’s Story of the Magi,” taken from a parchment Mahan said he found in Constantinople. Quarles established that much of that story was copied verbatim from Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, published four years earlier. Goodspeed would later observe, “The freedom and extent of Mr. Mahan’s copying of ‘Ben-Hur’ are almost beyond belief.” Quarles also presented evidence indicating Mahan didn’t travel to Rome or Constantinople. Mahan never proved he went nor the existence of the two experts accompanying him.

Mahan’s response was odd. In a November 13, 1884, letter, he told Quarles there were some “misprints” in the book he hoped to revise but stood by its authenticity. Yet he also wrote that the book was:

paying us about 20 dollars [$641.50 today] per day, and its prospects and popularity are increasing every day. You are bound to admit that the items in the book can’t do any harm, even if it were false, but will cause many to read and reflect that otherwise would not. So the balance of good is in its favor.

This good outweighs falsity argument didn’t impress the New Lebanon Presbytery, which governed Mahan’s ministry. On September 28–29, 1885, the Presbytery heard evidence on four charges against Mahan, including plagiarizing Ben-Hur and not going to Constantinople. The 17 members unanimously agreed that he copied “Eli’s Story,” but a slight majority acquitted him of the travel charge. The Presbytery suspended him for one year, and Mahan promised to no longer sell the book.

Mahan still wasn’t deterred. On September 10, 1886, the Presbytery said the suspension “was more the result of sympathy for him and his family than a desire for rigid administration of the law.” It learned, though, that Mahan continued selling the book and planned to bring out new editions. As a result, the Presbytery suspended him indefinitely or until he complied with the Church’s dictates. Church records contain no evidence of reinstatement.

The Presbytery was right. Several new editions, all without “Eli’s Story,” were published from 1897 to the end of the 19th century. By then, the work was known as The Archko Volume. Some 90 pages containing seven letters “regarding God’s providence to the Jews” written by “Hillel the Third” replaced the Ben-Hur plagiarism. If Hillel the Third existed, the letters indicate he was “writing before he was born” and some 450 years after, according to Richard Lloyd Anderson, a professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University.

One of the book’s ten documents, a letter from Emperor Constantine requesting 50 copies of the Bible, was authentic. Even then, Mahan ventured into the incredible, claiming he transcribed it from the first page of one of Constantine’s Bibles in Constantinople. The identical letter, though, first appeared in a 4th-century biography of Constantine.

Mahan died in 1906 without proving the original documents existed. He wrote in The Archko Volume that “the time has been too long and the distance to the place where the records are kept is too great for all men to make the examination for themselves.” Apparently, the “Eli’s Story” parchment “evaporated,” Anderson observed, and no one ever found the other documents.

Yet The Archko Volume still lives. At least six editions were published in the U.S. in the last ten years. Moreover, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and Walmart all sell new copies online. “The book obviously thrives because it is too easy to confuse what we would like to find with what is authentic,” Anderson said. In the end, Mahan created what may be the Bible hoax that won’t die.


Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.

Isaac Asimov, Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Life in Letters

(Originally posted at Medium)

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