Part 1 of 3
The James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina Chapel Hill, Dr. Bart Ehrman, is the most recognized evangelical-turned-agnostic in the world today. He has written more than twenty books, though in recent years he has focused on popular writing more than academic. This is a strategy that will eventually backfire. His most recent iteration is yet another provocative trade-book hostile to the Christian faith. His most popular previous books have attacked the reliability of the New Testament (NT) manuscripts as witnesses to the original text (Misquoting Jesus), the historicity of the NT (Jesus, Interrupted), and the problem of theodicy—how there can be a good God with so much evil in the world (God’s Problem). Forged takes head-on the authorship of many of the books of the NT, arguing that the ancient church got it wrong on most of them.
The book has eight chapters that, at first glance, look like discrete units. This gives the impression, reinforced by the subtitle to the work, that Forged marshals hundreds of pages of evidence that the writings of the NT are forgeries. But there is extensive overlap between chapters 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8. Furthermore, most of Forged is about books other than the NT: forgeries in early Christianity written both by the orthodox and heretics, other Greco-Roman forgeries, even modern forgeries. To the undiscerning reader, Ehrman’s relentless revelations about ancient forgeries will seem like rock-solid arguments—by their sheer volume—for NT forgeries. But surprisingly there is comparatively little on the NT itself.
Ehrman’s argument that there are forgeries in the NT is threefold: First, the ancient church, as with the rest of the Greco-Roman world, always rejected pseudepigraphical writings (or forgeries) whenever they were detected as such. Second, sophisticated computer-generated statistical tools have demonstrated that Paul, for example, did not write the Pastoral letters—1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. (Actually, Ehrman provides other arguments, but this one caught my eye since his claims regarding statistics were more than I had heard before.) Third, there is no evidence that the secretaries (technically known as amanuenses) for any ancient letters—including the NT letters—had any role other than to copy down what the author dictated. They did not do any significant editing, nor were they coauthors or composers of these documents.
This threefold argument—if true—would have devastating ramifications for the Christian faith. If Ehrman is right, we would need to toss out several books of the NT: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, James, Jude, and 1–2 Peter. That’s ten letters assigned to the flames, since, according to Ehrman, the real authors of these letters deceived their readers into thinking that they were someone else. A brief examination of Ehrman’s arguments and evidence is therefore in order.
What Ehrman has to say about forgeries in the ancient world and in early ‘Christian’ circles—he gratuitously includes Gnostics and other heretics under the rubric Christian—from the second century on is quite accurate and very informative. This is an excellent primer on why ancient forgeries were produced, what forgeries were produced, what their contents are, and how we know that they are forgeries (though this last item has a rather lean discussion overall). Most of the book is actually about such non-NT forgeries. He very carefully defines a variety of categories—forgeries, fabrications, falsifications, pseudonymy, pseudepigraphy, false attributions, etc. Ehrman has been working for years on a scholarly tome on forgeries; Forged is a kind of first fruits of this scholarship and here he demonstrates a well-thought out organization of the data and what appears to be an enviable command of much of the literature.
Along these lines, Ehrman makes important distinctions between the anonymous books of the NT—the Gospels, Acts, Hebrews, and 1–3 John—and those that claim some authorship. This distinction is important: Although the traditionally assigned authorship of the Gospels, for example, has ancient and unequivocal testimony, it is not part of the original text. All the Gospels were originally anonymous. Thus, for those who hold the Bible in high regard, there is still room for debate over the authorship of these books.
What the subtitle of the book claims, however, is related only to the Bible: forgeries abound in the Bible (specifically the NT). This, of course, is where the interest and the battle-lines are drawn. But surprisingly, Ehrman sides with evangelicals against most liberal theologians for one very important point—indeed, for his main thesis—that the ancient Greco-Roman world, including the ancient church, decidedly rejected any documents written in someone else’s name. This view has been held by evangelicals for a long, long time. Moderate and liberal scholars have rejected it, finding at best paltry evidence to support their claims that the ancient church embraced benign forgeries. In his important work, The Making of the New Testament Documents (Leiden: Brill, 1999), evangelical NT scholar E. Earle Ellis discusses the possibility of benign forgeries, or “‘Innocent’ Apostolic Pseudepigrapha.” He concludes (324):
“In the patristic church apostolic pseudepigrapha, when discovered, were excluded from the church’s canon. This applied whether or not the pseudepigrapha were orthodox or heretical.
The hypothesis of innocent apostolic pseudepigrapha appears to be designed to defend the canonicity of certain New Testament writings that are, at the same time, regarded as pseudepigrapha. It is a modern invention that has no evident basis in the attitude or writings of the apostolic and patristic church…”
In this regard, Ehrman has aligned himself with the historic evangelical position, though he never acknowledges this. Significantly, his argument against liberal scholarship on this point is that the evidence doesn’t support their view, even though their position would be what Ehrman often refers to as the consensus of critical scholars. That phrase is loaded: it essentially means the consensus of those people who normally agree with Ehrman on various issues regarding Scripture (hence critical). Rather conveniently, it ignores the great body of scholars who would disagree with him and with other liberal scholars—namely, evangelical as well as many Catholic and Orthodox scholars. Indeed, if one were to poll all NT professors, there would be no consensus over the authorship of the Pastoral letters, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, or Colossians (though for all of these letters, when all three confessions of the Christian faith are considered, most biblical scholars would probably see them as authentic; see Ben Witherington’s discussion on this here and here). And for the non-Pauline letters, the only NT book that would achieve anything close to a consensus against apostolic authorship would be 2 Peter. Even here, there are many notable exceptions. By reducing the pool to what Ehrman euphemistically calls critical scholars (as though evangelicals cannot be critical), he is able to shape public opinion by systematic misinformation.
Interestingly, where appeal to the consensus suits his purposes, sometimes that is his only argument. But when it goes against his views, he brings in evidence—evidence that evangelicals have long embraced.
Ehrman’s fundamental thesis, then, is refreshing in that it devours a sacred cow of liberal scholarship and puts the issue of the authorship of NT letters on an evidential basis. Finally, here is one liberal scholar with whom evangelicals can find common ground: If these books are not written by their purported authors, then they are intentionally deceptive and the early church was wrong to accept them. This focuses the debate on the data rather than sidestepping it with banal, worn-out diatribe about the canonicity of pseudepigrapha. As T. L. Wilder has argued (Pseudonymity, the New Testament, and Deception: An Inquiry into Intention and Reception [Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004] 254-55), if it is true that some NT books are forgeries, such books must be expunged from sacred Scripture.
Ehrman puts himself at risk at this very point; he has to back up his assertions with other arguments that certain NT writings are forgeries. Major gaps in his presentation, however, are seen: Nowhere, for example, does he discuss the patristic testimony about the authorship of the thirteen letters by Paul. Routinely, biblical scholars wrestle with internal evidence (indications within the disputed NT letters) and external evidence (patristic testimony). And it is here that the evidence is overwhelmingly in support of apostolic authorship: the unequivocal testimony of these ancient authors—some reaching back to the late first century—is that Paul wrote all thirteen NT letters that bear his name, Peter wrote 1 Peter, and John wrote 1 John. As for the rest, there is some doubt raised about authorship from time to time—particularly over 2 Peter—a fact that shows that the ancients were not duped dolts but engaged in reason and research on the matter.
The massive amount of forgeries written in the apostles’ names that Ehrman produces demonstrates that the early church looked at the matter cautiously, since none of these forgeries—or, in Ehrman’s view, only a few of these forgeries—made it into the canon. Ehrman never mentions the fact that the ancient church sifted the documents, even though the evidence is clear. Further, he never mentions that the overwhelming majority of orthodox writings throughout church history were not forgeries, while the same cannot be said for heretical writings. Nor does he mention that it is the orthodox who unmasked the forgeries of both the orthodox and heretics; as far as I am aware there is zero evidence of any heretical group admitting forgery for any of their own writings—in spite of the fact that heretical works allegedly by Thomas, Mary, Philip, Peter, and many other of Jesus’ disciples have been found.