Forged

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.

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14 Responses to Forged

  1. Jenny says:

    This is a great post for me because I’m always interested in reading Ehrman and then have these reservations whenever I read an editorial or article he’s written. So it’s good to have this small overview of what the benefits and drawbacks of his approach are. (Also cause it’s the non-canonical literature that interests me the most, of the books he’s written.)

    • Teresa says:

      You could always get a copy of Lost Scriptures, which is just his collection of the noncanonical literature, with brief introductions by Ehrman.

      And I could see why his opinion pieces might give you pause about the rest of his work. I think he tries to be provocative and sensationalistic.

  2. Jenny says:

    Our priest Bill did a good overview of the Bible in our adult forum last year and dealt with a lot of these issues. He took a slightly different approach, which was kind of “Paul didn’t write these later letters, they are departures from Paul’s theology, but they were written because they were vitally important to the church at the time, so let’s look at why they were important and why they were written by whoever wrote them, and how we think we can react to them as Christians today.” It was really helpful.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s pretty much the approach one of my professors took. Another spent more time on explaining different ideas about authorship, the secretary hypothesis, etc. I was glad to get multiple points of view, and I personally don’t have a strong opinion about the issue. The books have something to offer, no matter who wrote them.

      The concern Ehrman expresses is whether an author who lied about his identity could be a trustworthy source of spiritual guidance or whether these “forgeries” could be considered acceptable deceptions.

  3. jenclair says:

    This is a fascinating subject, and one that I have not read much about. I definitely will add Ehrman to my list of authors. On the “secretary” debate, I recently finished The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman. According to tradition, Aharon Ben Asher vocalized the Codex, and the rabbi Shlomo, “known as the swift scribe” wrote the codex.

    • Teresa says:

      It is interesting stuff to learn about, and Ehrman explains it well. I haven’t read much at all about these issues in relation to the Hebrew Bible, but I imagine there are some similar theories about how the manuscripts were written and passed down.

  4. I love Bart Ehrman, and I do have to disagree with you a little bit on his “poking holes in the Christian faith”. As you mentioned, Ehrman writes theological nonfiction books aimed at the general public. To me, the sensationalist titles and even some of that that comes up in the writing itself is because otherwise, hardly anyone would read it. Authors often don’t come up with the titles of their works – a marketing team does. If it gets people interested in reading more about the history of Christianity, etc. then I am all for it. Would as many people have read The DaVinci Code (fiction, I know) if it hadn’t promised scandalous “truths” about Jesus and Christianity? (By the way, Ehrman wrote a great companion book to The DaVinci Code that explained/corrected some of the biblical “information” Dan Brown included. It’s called Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code.)
    Much of the scholarship within theology is theory-based anyway. It’s difficult to say “for sure” that something did or didn’t happen a certain way for a certain reason, etc. An author can’t cause someone else to lose faith, just as the truly faithful won’t give up because of one book touting one theory. But it sure is interesting to read about the different theories and hear cases for the evidence to support them.
    True, everyone has an agenda, but an information literate reader will recognize that fact and take everything with a grain of salt.
    Thanks for the great discussion!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a fair point about the titles not necessarily being Ehrman’s, but the tendency to sensationalize gets on my nerves, no matter who is responsible for it. My bigger concern is more in the way Ehrman focuses on how his research contrasts with the Evangelical perspective without talking much about how more mainline denominations have known about and taught this stuff for years. I think a lot of readers will get the impression that his research directly refutes the beliefs of most Christians, when it’s old news to many.

      And I forgot about Ehrman’s book about The DaVinci Code. It was excellent! I think it was the first book of his that I read.

  5. I agree with much of what you say about Ehrman, especially about the reason he gives for becoming an agnostic. Many years ago I took seminary courses in which I learned all of the things Ehrman writes about, and no one who taught in the seminary had become an agnostic because of it! Nor, obviously, are his thoughts, as you say, “Shocking! New! Discoveries!” Ehrman has a lot of detractors and I think that is justified, but I also think he does a service in bringing to light things that might only be available in esoteric formats. So I totally agree with you on the mixed bag thing.

    (Unfortunately this comment will register as being from Rhapsodyinbooks but actually as you know it is from a J person, since I see you only are having comments from J people today – :–) )

    • Teresa says:

      I thought Misquoting Jesus was interesting partly because it was so revealing regarding why learning about textual criticism shook Ehrman up so much when it didn’t have that affect on me at all. (Plus, textual criticism fascinates me, much more so than the authorship debates.) And I agree with you that Ehrman is doing a service by making his research more available to laypeople. I think people get the idea that church leaders are hiding this stuff, when in a lot of cases, it’s just that the people knowledgeable about it are scholars who write for other scholars. When I was in seminary, one of my dreams was doing exactly the kind of accessible writing Ehrman does because I think it is important–and really, really interesting!

  6. Deb says:

    Full disclosure: I’m a regular churchgoer, active in church activities and mission/outreach, a person who looks to the Bible for spiritual comfort & sustenance. I find Erhman’s works somewhat exhausting because, regardless of his subjec matter, his subtext is often, “Hey, how can you believe this stuff when it wasn’t written by the person you’ve always been told it was?” or “See, there are contradications!” I realize he’s writing for the “general” public, perhaps for him that means people who don’t read the Bible or attend church on a regular basis, but he never seems to want to address why millions of people do continue to lead “Christian lives” even in the face of acknowledged contradictions and fuzzy authorship. I think I’ll have to give this one a pass.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s the subtext that bothers me too. He does a great job laying out the arguments, but I often bristle a little at his interpretations of the arguments. As you say, he doesn’t address why Christians continue to stay in the faith even while knowing all this.

  7. I often feel this way about these books that bridge the divide between Biblical scholars and the “general public”; sometimes I find it is just more rewarding to find scholarly works written for small religious presses. You get the scholarship, lose the sensationalism, and I like the sense I often have of spending time with people wise enough to know that the inner truth of scripture is enhanced and illuminated by a clearer understanding of where, why, and by whom it was written. Simple example: a lot of ugly anti-Semitism has looked to the Gospel of John for credibility, as John puts some nasty slurs into the mouth of Jesus. But then one learns that the gospel was probably written shortly after the early Christians were cast out out of the Temple. As a Jewish sect, the early Christians had previously enjoyed freedom to practice their faith; but their insistence on the coming of the Kingdom had drawn the attention of the Roman governors, who naturally tarred ALL Jews with the same brush. leading to persecution of the Jews, who naturally had no desire to suffer for the transgressions of this liberal sect. So when the author of John’s gospel portrays a Jesus angry with the Jews, well – it helps one to see just how much credence to give to those verses.

    I too get the feeling that Ehrman has an agenda – and that he is one of those people who, once doubt is cast on any part of his faith, is unable to consider that, rather than destroying the faith altogether, the new information might be welcome as leading to be new (and perhaps better and deeper) ways of understanding that faith. I like Marcus Borg better – and, for a femiinist take, Megan McKenna or Sandra Schneiders. Maybe I will take advantage of Other Jenny’s Blogging Hiatus to review a few of those – which will make me reread, so a win-win!

    • Teresa says:

      I need to read more Marcus Borg sometime. The only book of his that I’ve read is the one about Jesus that he co-wrote with N.T. Wright (The Meaning of Jesus). It’s a sort of point-counterpoint about different Christian beliefs about Jesus. I loved it and liked Borg’s writing a lot, even though I didn’t find all his arguments convincing and ended up agreeing with Wright more. But the neat thing about that book was that both authors were always respectful and didn’t seem to have an agenda other than a desire to explain what they believed and why. I can get behind that!

      And yay for guest reviewing during Other Jenny’s Blogging Hibiscus! I want to hear about McKenna and Schneider because I’m not familiar with them at all.

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