A Bible hoax that won’t die

Between 1879 and 1896, the Rev. William D. Mahan, a minister in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, published three tracts of previously unknown contemporary accounts of Jesus Christ’s life. There’s virtually unanimous agreement that his work is a fraud, and Mahan’s Presbytery suspended him for falsehood and plagiarism. Still, the last version, The Archko Volume, is readily available today, and some modern readers praise it for providing information from historical documents.

Mahan’s first work, a 32-page pamphlet called “A Correct Transcript of Pilate’s Court,” has a unique origin story. According to Mahan, he met Henry Whydaman, a German, in 1856. Whydaman said he’d spent five years in Rome and came across a document called “The Acts of Pilate” in the Vatican library. He mentioned he probably could obtain a transcript of it, which he said was an official report from Pontius Pilate to Roman Emperor Tiberius of Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

During a three-year exchange of letters, Whydaman told Mahan that Father Freelinhusen, “the chief guardian of the Vatican,” would copy the document for 35 “darics,” or $62.44 (equivalent to $2,002 today). After Whydaman provided “a true copy, word for word,” in 1859, Mahan sent it to his brother-in-law in New York City, paying him $10 ($320 today) to translate it from Latin. Without explaining why he waited 20 years, Mahan published it in pamphlet form in 1879. According to University of Chicago theologian Edgar J. Goodspeed, it seemed well-received and was reprinted at least four times within a year.

Many called the pamphlet 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 transmit money to Whydaman appear in New York City records. Additionally, no one at the Vatican had heard of Father Feelinghusen, 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. It is difficult to see how it could have deceived anyone.” Moreover, in 1941 Goodspeed discovered a pamphlet published in Boston in 1842 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. “Pilate’s Court” was joined by nine additional previously unknown works Mahan resulted from a 10-year investigation and trips he and two experts made to Rome and Constantinople. The new items included interviews with “the shepherds and others at Bethlehem” when Jesus was born, an interview with Mary and Joseph, who were living in Mecca at the time, and a report from Jewish high priest Caiaphas on the resurrection of Jesus.

The book quickly drew more fire than the “Pilate’s Court” pamphlet.

That story was some 1,200 words longer than the original pamphlet. Mahan said the Vatican library promptly brought them the original document. While it was “more than satisfactory,” he claimed seeing it allowed them to expand what he’d published. The “true copy, word by word” from Father Freelinhusen evidently 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,” a parchment Mahan said he found in Constantinople. Yet Quarles established that much 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 casting serious doubt on whether Mahan went to Rome or Constantinople. Mahan never proved he went nor the existence of the two experts accompanying him.

Mahan’s response to Quarles 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

is 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 any falsity argument didn’t impress the New Lebanon Presbytery, which governed Mahan’s ministry. On September 28-29, 1885, the Presbytery held a trial on four charges against Mahan, including plagiarizing Ben-Hur and not traveling to Constantinople. The 17 members unanimously agreed that he plagiarized “Eli’s Story of the Magi,” 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 again 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,” hoping he would work to heal the wounds he caused. It learned, though, that Mahan continued to sell his book and was planning to bring out new editions. As a result, it suspended him indefinitely or until he complied with the Church’s dictates. There’s no record 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. Of the ten documents in it, only one, a letter from Emperor Constantine requesting 50 copies of the Scriptures, is authentic. Even then, Mahan ventured into the incredible, claiming he transcribed it from the first page of one of Constantine’s copies when in Constantinople. The letter, though, appeared in a 4th-century biography of Constantine.

Mahan died in 1906. He never proved the original documents existed. Mahan 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.” Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson, a professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, observed that the “Eli’s Story” parchment “evaporated.” 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 hoax that won’t die.

[P]erversions of fact contaminate virtually every page of this book.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Fraudulent Archko Volume,”
15 BYU Studies Quarterly 1 (January 1975)

(Originally published at History of Yesterday)

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