In 1879 the Rev. William Dennes Mahan published a pamphlet based on documents he had in his possession. Mashan was a presbyterian minister from Boonville, Missouri in the United States, a family man and by all appearances an upstanding member of the Boonville community.
His pamphlet however, and what came after, changed everything. For in the 32 pages he titled A Correct Transcript of Pilate’s Court, Mahan claimed to have found original documented and recoded evidence of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
What was this strange document? And what could it tell us of the last days of Jesus?
The Transcript and the Archko Volume
The transcript contained a report of the trial and death of Jesus in first century Jerusalem. The report was made directly to the Roman Emperor Tiberius and was from Pontius Pilate, famously the governor of Judea at the time.
Such reports of course must have existed as part of the administrative function of the Roman Empire. But now and suddenly a Missouri minister had found, amidst all the detritus of empire, a document of little importance to the Romans but surpassing importance to the modern world.
Mahan claimed to have come into possession of the document from a German scholar named Henry C. Whydaman, whose brother-in-law, C. C. Vantberger, had been sent the pages in New York to translate. Vantberger had received the pages from one Father Peter Freelinhusen of the Vatican.
The document was explosive but nothing compared to what came next. In 1884 Mahan published The Archaeological Writings of the Sanhedrin and Talmuds of the Jews, Taken from the Ancient Parchments and Scrolls at Constantinople and the Vatican at Rome, Being the Record Made by the Enemies of Jesus of Nazareth in His Day: The Most Interesting History Ever Read by Man. This is the famous Archko text.
Here, alongside the re-edited Pilate text published five years earlier, could be found other historical documents which beggared belief. Mahan claimed to have found documentary testimony from the shepherds who attended the birth of Christ, as well as other documents surrounding the life of Jesus, important in filling gaps in the biblical narrative.
Most amazingly of all, the Archko Volume contained an interview with Joseph and Mary. If true, these texts would provide the most revealing account of first century Judea and the life of Jesus in almost two thousand years.
That was becoming an increasingly big “if” however, and serious doubts were soon raised about the Archko Volume. Scholars were starting to look in detail at the text, and it seemed that things were not lining up at all.
For a start, the Volume referred to ancient figures who are not attested anywhere else, such as the Greek philosopher Meeleesen. Furthermore known historical figures are misquoted, as for example with the first century Jewish scholars Josephus or Philo of Alexandria.
Chronologies were mixed and error-strewn. Locations such as the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople are inaccurately described, and instructions such as on the manufacture of papyrus also contain mistakes.
Mahan claimed to have found these texts while on a trip to Europe, during which he visited both Rome and Constantinople. He was aided in this by two scholars, named by him as a Dr. M. McIntosh of Scotland and Dr. Twyman of England.
The problem was that these eminent scholars did not, in fact, exist. Similarly Henry C. Whydaman, C. C. Vantberger and Father Peter Freelinhusen, who had provided Mahan with the text of his first pamphlet, were also found to be fictitious.
The final nail in the coffin however came when Mahan was found to have never visited Rome as described. Instead, he had been staying on a farm in Illinois, and the true scholars of the Vatican Library had never heard of him.
Mahan was tried by his church for forgery and plagiarism in 1885. Suspended from the Presbytery for a year, Mahan retired from the church and lived out the rest of his days promising to withdraw the forgery from publication.
But he never did, and the Archko Volume was republished many times in his lifetime. It seems people will prefer colorful fiction to drab truth, even when they are presented with the facts.
Top Image: Pontius Pilate and Jesus: the first interview. Pilate’s report to his emperor was supposedly included in the Archko Volume. Source: James Tissot / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green