I have something of a love/hate relationship with the work of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. Ehrman writes extensively about textual criticism and the early church, and many of his books are geared toward a popular audience, rather than scholars. He does a fabulous job of breaking down the issues in these realms and explaining them in a way readers with little background in church history and theology can understand. I’m a particular fan of Misquoting Jesus, which delves into textual criticism of the New Testament and the challenge of determining what exactly the original texts said.
My problem with Ehrman’s work is with what seems to be his agenda. In Misquoting Jesus, he writes of his own turn to agnosticism when he realized the Biblical texts as we know them may contain mistakes. That’s a fair turn for someone to make, but when I read that book I wished he’d given more time and space to the views of Christians who are aware of the scholarship he discusses but choose to believe anyway. I often feel that his work presents his findings as Shocking! New! Discoveries! that the church has either kept hidden or been too stupid to notice when much of what he writes about is well-known by scholars but not as well publicized to lay people as it could (or perhaps should?) be. The sensationalistic titles and subtitles of much of his popular work (such as Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible [And Why We Don't Know About Them]; God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer; and today’s book, Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are) makes me feel like he’s more interested in poking holes in the Christian faith than in providing people with information to help them better understand the roots of that faith. I realize that providing this information can have the effect of disrupting people’s faith, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of someone deliberately trying to make it happen instead of just providing the information and letting the chips fall where they may.
So that brings me to Forged, the most recent book discussed at my church book group. (Unfortunately, travel and sickness forced me to miss most of the discussions.) In Forged, Ehrman writes about the problem of determining authorship of various books of the New Testament and how books commonly attributed to Paul, Peter, John, and so on may not be by those authors at all. These books fall in different categories. There are anonymous books, such as the four gospels, that do not claim to be by particular authors but that the church at some point decided are probably by particular people (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in the case of the gospels). Then there are homonymous books, books that name an author in the text that later readers assumed was someone else of the same name. So John who wrote the Book of Revelation was not necessarily John the apostle. The books Ehrman is most interested in here are the books biblical scholars have termed pseudoepigraphical, that is, books that claim to be written by Peter or Paul and so on but that are by someone else entirely. These books, Ehrman says, are better described as forgeries, works intended to deceive.
The idea that some books are pseudoepigraphical is not new, although there is some debate among scholars as to which books are pseudoepigraphical and what the nature of the authorship means. What Ehrman does that is new (to me) and potentially controversial is to eschew the neutral term, pseudoepigraphical, in favor of the term forgery. Ehrman employs his usual clear style to explain why many scholars do not believe, for example, that Paul wrote the books of 2 Thessolonians, Ephesians, and Colossians. He notes differences in writing style and theological contradictions. He also discusses why traditional explanations of these differences are, for him, unsatisfactory.
Ehrman’s arguments are absolutely worth considering, and I found them persuasive to varying degrees. I could buy many of his reasons for believing Paul and Peter didn’t actually write the books attributed to them. Again, this information isn’t new to those familiar with the scholarship. But Ehrman also argues against the usual explanations for these misattributions. For example, some scholars have said that views of authorship were different in ancient times and that is was acceptable in to write in someone else’s name. By bringing up other ancient forgeries that were condemned for being forgeries, Ehrman demonstrates clearly and, in my mind, convincingly that ancient people considered false authorship claims to be deceitful.
His argument against the secretary hypothesis is less persuasive. This hypothesis states that the biblical authors did not necessarily write the books themselves but employed a secretary or scribe who took the author’s ideas, organized them, and wrote them down, much as a modern-day secretary might actually be the one to write a letter for his or her boss. This explanation would account for the stylistic differences between, say Romans, which scholars agree is probably written by Paul, and Ephesians, which is probably not. Ehrman points out that there are not any known examples of secretaries taking such an active role in the writing of long essay-type letters as those in the New Testament. That’s a point worth considering, certainly, but it’s an argument from silence and thus not enough to rule out the possibility. And apparently other scholars disagree with Ehrman about the use of secretaries in the ancient world.
In addition, I found some of Ehrman’s arguments about theological differences unpersuasive. People’s beliefs change. Paul’s beliefs about the immanence of the end of the world probably changed when the world didn’t end as quickly as he expected, so it doesn’t seem fair to say that the books that reveal a need to hunker down and establish structures for the long haul couldn’t be by the same Paul who said Jesus was coming again soon. I certainly wouldn’t say that papers by the once born-again Christian Bart Ehrman could not be by the man who wrote Forged because the theology is different! Ehrman doesn’t consider this possibility at all.
Besides discussing Biblical texts, Ehrman spends some time on works that didn’t make it into the canon, and this material is fascinating. My favorite is the Acts of Paul and Thecla, in which a woman named Thecla miraculously escapes being thrown into a pit of man-eating seals for her beliefs! And then there’s the Gospel of Peter, in which the cross walks out of the tomb and preaches. Ehrman already wrote about some of these books in Lost Christianities, and I own the collection he edited, Lost Scriptures, which includes many of them. I recommend them both if you’re interested in the variety of beliefs within the early church, many of which eventually were deemed unorthodox.
And as an aside, lest you think Ehrman is all about debunking and criticizing, Forged includes one of the best and clearest explanations I’ve come across of the seeming contradiction between the Book of Romans and the Book of James when it comes to faith versus works. The explanation is not original to Ehrman; I’m sure I’ve come across it before, but it’s as clearly explained as I’ve ever seen. (The gist is that Paul and James mean different things when they speak of faith and works.)
For me, Forged is a typical Ehrmanian mixed bag. Readers interested in questions of New Testament authorship could certainly learn a lot from this book, as long as you keep the possibility of an agenda in mind. Alas, agenda-free writing on these topics is probably impossible to find; I don’t think anyone is likely to study this stuff in depth unless the answers matter to them. A healthy dose of skepticism and argumentativeness is probably always in order when reading New Testament scholarship, no matter who’s doing the writing.