I Have a Question

    “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Oct. 1974, 45–46

    A speaker in Church last Sunday quoted from a book called The Archko Volume about the life of Christ. I had not heard any of the kinds of things he said before. Is the book authentic?

    Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Professor of History and Ancient Scripture, Brigham Young University: Most people won’t buy stock or used cars without investigation, but several scriptural imitations are too often believed without their claims being checked. One is The Archko Volume, containing supposed reports on Jesus’ trial from the officials who judged him. The book obviously thrives because it is too easy to confuse what we would like to find with what is authentic.

    One classic work on New Testament apocrypha indexes the blunt opinion that The Archko Volume is “ridiculous and disgusting,” a clumsy fraud. Edgar Goodspeed has called the Archko documents “modern apocrypha” because they were only recently invented.

    The Archko documents were invented in the nineteenth century and published by a minister who pretended to discover original manuscripts in Rome and Constantinople. Born in 1824, William Dennes Mahan was a Cumberland Presbyterian minister by 1860, serving at least two decades in upper central Missouri, mainly at Boonville.

    He published the Correct Transcript of Pilate’s Court in 1879. The methods he used in this work undermine the credibility of The Archko Volume, published in 1884. Mr. Goodspeed found that the Correct Transcript of Pilate’s Court was taken from a Boston pamphlet printed in 1842, which falsely claimed to be a translation of an old Latin manuscript at Vienna. Mr. Mahan gave as his source “records in the Vatican at Rome.”

    His success at copying the work of others led to overconfidence. He so openly plagiarized that he was removed from office. A tale of how part of The Archko Volume came to be is an example of his methods.

    In the 1884 edition, 87 pages were prefaced with the statement that he found the “parchment, written … and signed Ben Eli.” He should have signed it “Ben Hur,” since most of it was lifted from Lew Wallace’s novel published in 1880. Anyone comparing Ben-Hur with Mr. Mahan’s 1884 edition will find the pages are word-for-word extracts from the novel.

    When his writings came under attack, mostly from other ministers, Mr. Mahan privately requested that they discontinue their complaints about his work because he was getting $20 per day and “you are bound to admit that the items in the book can’t do any harm, even if it were false.”

    Even this private request became public, and Mr. Mahan was brought to trial before the New Lebanon Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. As a result, his license to preach was taken away for one year because the “cause of Christianity” was at stake.

    One cynic suggested that history without lies is extremely dull. The Archko Volume proves that “invented” history can also be tedious. Parading as fact, it is really fiction, and unhistorical fiction at that. Yet the book continues to be sold and occasionally quoted in church.

    The ultimate weapon against such falsely advertised products is not legal action, but public information. Thus, one who has sincerely believed in The Archko Volume should be courteously but firmly informed of the truth.

    There are many authentic documents from Jesus’ period, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the works of the Jewish historian, Josephus. But The Archko Volume is genuine counterfeit.