The enfant terrible of the Biblical scholarship world, former Evangelical-turned-skeptic Bart Ehrman, is at it again. Now he is hawking a book which claims that much, if not most, of the New Testament is made up of “forgeries”:
The Bible might be the best-selling book in history, but it may also be full of lies. At least, that’s the claim being made by biblical scholar and former evangelical Christian, Bart Ehrman, in a new book titled, “Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.”
According to Ehrman, at least 11 of the 27 New Testament books are forgeries, while only seven of the 13 epistles attributed to Paul were probably written by him. Moreover, none of the writings attributed to the Apostle Peter could have been written by him, and even the authenticity of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John can be questioned.
This is the type of claim that gets the media all in a lather, but any serious look into the claim shows it is more full of holes than Swiss cheese or the Chicago Cubs defense. Let’s take a closer look at some of Ehrman’s claims:
“The Bible not only contains untruths of accidental mistakes. It also contains what almost anyone today would call lies,” writes Ehrman, who is also currently a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Okay, we already have one problem here: Ehrman says, “what almost anyone today would call lies”. But we should not judge ancient writings by today’s standards, but by the standards of the times. So if it was common for a writing to be done in someone else’s name, and everyone knew this, then that practice would not necessarily be a “lie”. This is a minor point to the overall issue, but it is an important one – we judge things based on their own context, not based on later cultural norms and practices.
Ehrman builds his case by noting scores of inconsistencies in the writing styles among authors of the New Testament. Discrepancies in the language and content among books attributed to Paul are particularly glaring. For example, Ehrman’s analysis shows that the text in the book of Ephesians, which has been attributed to Paul, is filled with long Greek sentences, which is unlike the style found in many of Paul’s confirmed writings. The content of Ephesians also doesn’t seem to jive with what is known about Paul’s own thought, says Ehrman, and sounds more like something written to conform to the Ephesians.
This is one of my pet peeves – scholars today judging whether or not Paul really wrote something based on whether the scholar thinks it jives with their conception of Paul. There are two points to Ehrman’s critique here: writing style and theological consistency. Let’s consider each one in turn:
Writing Style: Although the letters attributed to Paul make up the bulk of the New Testament, we need to remember just how little of Paul’s writings we have. All we have are a maximum of 13 short letters he wrote over a period spanning a dozen years (assuming for the moment that Paul actually wrote all the letters attributed to him). From this, we are supposed to know all the details of his writing style? Furthermore, is Paul’s writing style stagnant, or can it not evolve over time? Consider two of my own writings – a paper I wrote on Catholic Scripture Interpretation back in the mid-90′s and my book Who is Jesus Christ? I’m willing to be that some future scholar 2,000 years from now would not be able to conclusively prove that the same person wrote them.
Theological Consistency: Ehrman’s claim that the content of Ephesians “doesn’t seem to jive with what is known about Paul’s own thought” is rich. How do we know what is “Paul’s own thought”? If some of these letters could be forgeries, how do we know for sure which ones are legit and which are not? Perhaps Romans was not written by Paul but Ephesians is? Furthermore, what Ehrman really means is that Ephesians doesn’t jive with his interpretation of Paul’s thought. Considering the diversity of theories about what Paul “really meant,” it seems to me that there is more consistency between Romans and Ephesians than between the scholars who follow him. Finally, we have so little of Paul’s writings that one cannot construct his complete theology from just his letters. He was writing each letter for specific purposes, and so each one contains only parts of his overall theology. Scholars for too long have assumed they knew all of Paul’s thoughts from a very small group of letters.
Moving on, Ehrman makes a claim next that only an idiot or a PhD* could make:
Meanwhile, Ehrman claims that the authenticity of any book attributed to Peter should be doubted since Peter was, like just about every other fisherman raised in rural Palestine at the time, most certainly illiterate.
I really don’t know how he can say this with a straight face, and how a reporter can report it at face value. There are two really obvious flaws in this specious argument. First, Peter did not remain a fisherman raised in rural Palestine. As the most reliable history tells us, he became the prime spokesman for the fledgling Christian Faith and ended up traveling throughout the Empire, eventually settling in the hub of culture and learning of the time, Rome. Does Ehrman really think that over the course of forty years with such extensive contact with others, that Peter could not have learned how to read and write? Perhaps if he had a PhD that might not have been possible, but it probably would not have been too difficult for most people.
Secondly, even if Peter didn’t bother to learn to read and write, that doesn’t mean that his letters are “forgeries”. Has Ehrman never heard of dictation to a secretary? We know that at least some of Paul’s letters are dictated, so why can’t Peter’s be as well? One does not need to be literate to talk, after all. In fact, many believe that the 1st Letter of St. Peter was originally a homily of Peter’s that was turned into a letter. This of course does not make it a “forgery”.
(Also, we should not assume that a fisherman raised in rural Palestine was necessarily raised illiterate. The Jewish people highly prized literacy, so there is a decent chance that Peter in fact learned to read and write at an early age).
Ehrman’s “proofs” of forgery don’t get any better:
So the question remains: Who did write these books and why did they attempt to conceal their identities? Ehrman points out that early Christian sects, struggling to legitimize themselves, would have had plenty of motivation to fabricate their religious texts.“If your name was Jehoshaphat and no one had any idea who you were, you could not very well sign your own name to the book,” said Ehrman. “No one would take the Gospel of Jehoshaphat seriously. If you wanted someone to read it, you called yourself Peter. Or Thomas. Or James. In other words, you lied about who you really were.”
*Note: Nothing in this post is meant to denigrate PhD’s. Some of my best friends are PhD’s. Some of them even have common sense. But the evidence is clear that only PhD’s are constitutionally able to make such silly claims with a straight face. Must be something that happens to them during the dissertation process.