Bart D. Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why The Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011), 307 pages: a Review by Michael R. Licona, March 27, 2011
On March 22, the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman published his latest iconoclastic book challenging the traditional Christian view. In Forged, Ehrman’s bottom line message is that literary forgeries were plentiful in antiquity, many of which were written by Christians and that approximately 70 percent of the New Testament writings were not written by those to whom they are attributed. Ehrman is well read on the subject, citing from a number of doctoral dissertations, scholarly monographs, and journal articles in both English and German.
Why is the subject matter of this book important? For years, a significant number of biblical scholars have contended that the traditional authorship of a large portion of the New Testament literature is mistaken. This raises an important question: If, lets say, Peter was not at all involved in writing 2 Peter and the letter was not written until several decades after Peter’s death, should it be included in the New Testament canon and regarded as authoritative to the Christian? After all, if God does not lie, it would seem that he would not have inspired a letter written by someone who was deceiving others by claiming to be someone he was not. So, if it can be soundly concluded that some of the New Testament literature were not written by the traditional authors, should the guilty literature be removed from the New Testament canon?
This is a fair question and discussions among scholars concerning canonicity have been occurring for the past several years at papers read at annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Institute of Biblical Research, and even the Evangelical Theological Society. It is just a matter of time before the issue is placed in the public spotlight. Ehrman’s book may serve as the catalyst for more serious discussion. He’s a good scholar who writes clearly and compellingly. Readers who are unfamiliar with the topics of authorship and canonicity will find Forged a fascinating and/or threatening read, depending on which theological camp they fall into.
The issue of authorship is discussed at length in most introductions to the New Testament, which differ from surveys and are usually written for graduate students. These books explain the pro and con arguments for the traditional authorship of all of the New Testament literature. They also discuss the identity of the original readers to whom the book was addressed, where they were located, why it was written, and when it was written. For those interested in wrestling with the issue of authorship, it’s a good idea to look at a few New Testament Introductions that are written by scholars abiding at differing points on the theological spectrum. Ehrman’s New Testament introduction is a good choice for reading from a rather moderate to skeptical viewpoint. Although he likes to think of himself as a moderate scholar, many of Ehrman’s positions are to the left of the middle. The small percentage of New Testament literature to which he grants traditional authorship is one example. Granted, he’s not out there hanging off the edge of the theological left where some of the members of the Jesus Seminar abide. But he’s certainly not in the middle. Moreover, his view of who Jesus regarded as the apocalyptic Son of Man is closer to the Muslim view than the Christian one. The New Testament Introductions by Luke Timothy Johnson and Raymond Brown are good choices from a moderate-to conservative view and the introductions by Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles and D. A. Carson & Douglas J. Moo are good at presenting the issues from a conservative view. I’m providing these references because it’s not my intention in this review to examine all of the arguments for and against the traditional authorship of the New Testament literature in question. However, I will be interacting with a few of the new arguments offered by Ehrman.
My approach to the traditional authorship question is that there is evidence of varying weight in support of the traditional authorship of each of the 27 books and letters in the New Testament. For example, there is stronger evidence that Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome than there is that Peter wrote 2 Peter. This was apparent even to the early Church. In the fourth century, the Church historian Eusebius placed early Christian literature in four categories: the certain/accepted literature, the uncertain/disputed literature (though still canonical), the illegitimate /rejected literature (false but not heretical), the heretical literature. In the certain/accepted literature, Eusebius included the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, 1 John, 1 Peter, Revelation (?). The uncertain/disputed literature included James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John. Illegitimate/rejected literature: Acts of Paul, Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter, Barnabas, Didache, Revelation (?), Gospel according to the Hebrews. Finally, the literature regarded as heretical by the fourth century Church included several Gospels such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Matthias and other Gospels, the Acts of Peter, the Acts of John, and Acts attributed to other apostles. As you may have noticed, some in the early Church placed Revelation among the accepted literature while others included it in the rejected literature. Allowing a book to be included in the New Testament was a big deal to the early Church and was not taken lightly. The general tendency in the early Church was to exclude rather than include.
Given this caution in the early Church, my approach is this: Before jettisoning belief in the traditional authorship of any of the 27, the arguments against it must be reasonably stronger than the arguments for it and be able to withstand the counterarguments. Some like Ehrman appear to take a different approach, assuming that all of the 27 are guilty of false attribution until nearly unimpeachable evidence to the contrary can be presented. Evidence of this approach can be seen when the evidence for traditional authorship is dismissed too quickly or when arguments against the traditional authorship are strikingly weak.
For example, in his discussion pertaining to the authorship of Ephesians, Ehrman contends that Paul speaks of the resurrection of believers as a future event and provides Romans 6:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 15 in support (that Paul wrote these letters is undisputed). He then states that Ephesians teaches that the resurrection of believers has already occurred (2:5-6) and adds “[t]his is precisely the view that Paul argued against in his letters to the Corinthians” (111)!
Ehrman is correct that Paul thought of the resurrection of believers as a very real and physical event that would take place when Jesus returns. Romans 8:11 and 23 teach this even more clearly than the reference cited in Romans by Ehrman. He appears unaware, however, that Paul also spoke of the resurrection of believers in a symbolic sense. Consider Romans 6:13, the same chapter in the same letter Ehrman cites for Paul’s teaching that the resurrection of believers is a future event:
and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.
Paul’s teaching concerning the resurrection of believers in Romans is completely compatible with what we find in Ephesians and Colossians. Many of the teachings in the disputed letters of Paul that Ehrman regards as contradictory to the teachings in his undisputed letters are solved just as easily with a careful look at the texts in question. Unfortunately, because many of Ehrman’s readers will go no further than reading Forged, they will fall prey to some very poor arguments.
Let’s now take a quick trip through Forged. In the book’s introduction, Ehrman tells readers of his journey from being an evangelical undergraduate student at Moody Bible Institute to the point when he jettisoned his faith while teaching at Rutgers. In chapter one, Ehrman informs readers of the abundance of forgeries authored by Christians in the first few centuries of the Church. There were even some forgeries like the Apostolic Constitutions that instruct readers not to read forgeries (20)! Ehrman also discusses how some in the early Church questioned the authenticity of some of the New Testament literature. The traditional authorship of Revelation, Jude, 2 Peter, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Hebrews were all questioned for different reasons.
Ehrman then turns to providing a few definitions so that he can be clear in what he’s contending in this volume. Literature that is falsely attributed to a certain author is pseudepigrapha. Literature that was at first anonymous, that is, it was not attributed to any author, and was later attributed to someone who did not write it, carry this label. However, if the literature in question claimed at the outset to have been written by someone who was not involved in its authorship, that literature is not only pseudepigrapha, it is forgery. Ehrman states, “My definition of a forgery, then, is a writing that claims to be written by someone (a known figure [as opposed to someone who writes using a pen name]) who did not in fact write it” (24). What qualifies pseudepigrapha as forgery, then, is authorial intent. With only a few exceptions, the ancients condemned forged literature once they knew it had been forged (36-40).
In chapters 2 and 3, Ehrman discusses forgeries composed in the names of Peter and Paul respectively. Forged literature attributed to Peter includes the Gospel of Peter, The Epistle of Peter, and The Apocalypse of Peter. Forged literature attributed to Paul includes 3 Corinthians and a series of 14 letters between Paul and Seneca, the latter of which may have been the brightest mind of first-century Rome.
Ehrman goes on to argue that some forged letters attributed to Peter and Paul made it into the New Testament. Both letters attributed by Peter, that is 1 & 2 Peter are forgeries, and six of the 13 letters attributed to Paul “were probably not written by Paul” (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus; 92-93).
In chapter 4, Ehrman turns to a discussion of the various ways in which biblical scholars have attempted to explain the uncomfortable presence of forgeries in the New Testament. The first attempt claims that when a letter was written in someone else’s name, say Paul’s, deceit was not the intent but rather the author either was trying not to promote himself or thought no one would read an important message from an otherwise unknown person. But Ehrman rightly (in my opinion) replies that, whatever reason the forger had in mind and however noble it may have appeared to him, it is still deceit. Moreover, the evidence suggests that the early Christians always rejected known forgeries. A second attempt to get around the scandal of forgeries in the New Testament has been to state that the Holy Spirit still inspired the book in question even if it is a forgery. I agree with Ehrman that this is a desperate move. For me, at least, if this is the extent one must go in order to preserve the canonicity of forged literature, it is perhaps better to question whether that piece of literature should remain in the canon.
A third attempt is to claim that the forger has taken a genuine apostolic teaching and has rewritten it in order to address a different situation. In other words, because the teaching is still apostolic in a sense, the book should remain canonical. In reply, Ehrman asks “What is the evidence that ‘reactualizing the tradition’ by assuming a false name was a widely followed and acceptable practice” (126)? A fourth attempt contends that students in the ancient philosophical schools often penned literature in the name of their teacher since they had learned the content from them. Ehrman observes that there are only two examples often cited in support. The first does not actually say what is claimed and the second does not prove that this was a practice within the philosophical schools much less outside them. Moreover, there is evidence that students in these schools often wrote in their own names.
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