Bart Ehrman’s new book, Forged (Harper, 2011, 307 pages) has hit the bookstalls and has been hovering in the 300s in the list of top sellers, eclipsed by another Harper book that came out at about the same juncture—- Rob Bell’s Love Wins which has been reviewed in detail already, chapter by chapter on this blog. Ehrman’s new book will receive the same sort of chapter by chapter analysis.
This book should not be confused with some of Bart’s previous efforts, in particular Misquoting Jesus, as Bart is not arguing in this book merely that are errors or mistakes in the Bible. No, in this book he takes the next step in arguing that there is deliberate fraud going on in the canon, deceitful practices undertaken to convince or bamboozle some audience into believing something, on the basis of the authority of some apostle or original disciple, who in fact did not write the book in question. In other words, Bart is taking on not merely the conservative view that the NT is written by those authors to whom it is attributed but also the widespread notion that pseudonymity was a regular and widely recognized literary practice in antiquity, and that no one was deceived, nor was there an intent to deceive by such a practice. This book is likely to addle scholars and lay people all across the spectrum of belief, including quite liberal ones who have for a long time argued that pseudonymity was an accepted practice in antiquity. To judge from the early reviews on Amazon, those who are looking for an excuse to call the early Christians liars and deceivers are delighted with this book.
I need to say from the outset and on first glance that there appears to be a rather large lacunae in the argument of this book, namely the failure to do this study after having studied in depth ancient scribal practices and the roles of scribes in producing ancient documents in ancient Israel. For example, I see no interaction whatsoever in this book with the landmark study of Karel Van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, in which it is demonstrated at length that scribes played a huge role in collecting, editing, and producing ancient documents, and that it was indeed a regular practice to name a scroll after either the originator of the tradition, or the first or a major contributor to the tradition, not after the scribe who actually produced the document, often decades or centuries after the tradition had first been formed.
This was neither a deceitful practice nor a blatant attempt at forgery, but rather a normal practice in a culture with a deep reverence for ancient traditions which in a largely illiterate society relied on scribes to be the conservators, copiers, preservers and presenters of the tradition, in written form. Inasmuch as the writers of the NT appear to have been almost entirely Jews or God-fearers deeply steeped not only in the OT but in Jewish ways of handling sacred traditions and sacred texts, it is rather surprising that this book does not spend more time actually examining such things. Perhaps in the scholarly monograph that is to follow this popular level book, this rather colossal oversight will be remedied.
I need to also say, that I am all for the search for truth about such things, and as Bart says in this Introduction, Evangelicals are rightly credited with being some of the most persistent truth hounds in the world. And I will add this. Bart is also right that there was plenty of forgery or production of pseudonymous documents, depending how you look at the matter going on in the Gnostic movement and other offshoots of Christianity. Bart is absolutely right about this, and right to stress it. And I agree that in various cases, there does indeed appear to be the intent to deceive the audience. You probably thought it unlikely that I would begin this review by agreeing with Bart on something other than the merits of Carolina basketball. You would be wrong.
Lastly, I want to say that having begun to read Bart’s latest salvo, I spent some time with my friend Richard Bauckham asking him what was the evidence, especially the internal evidence, from early Jewish and early Christian literature that pseudonymity was a received and accepted literary practice. We will say more about this as we go along, but Bauckham is quite clear there was such a literary practice that was not intended to be deceitful or an attempt at forgery in any sense. For example, he pointed me to a book like the Wisdom of Solomon which makes clear internally that it was not by Solomon at all, but stood in the tradition of his wisdom. I would add that there is as well evidence of this in Jewish apocalyptic materials. More about this later, but in the meantime, if one wants to read something I have said at length about such matters, one should read the Introduction to my Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, Volume One. While there may not be a great wealth of things I agree with Bart Ehrman about, I do agree that it is helpful to question the acceptability of pseudepigraphical letters. On to the argument itself.