FORGED: CHAPTER TWO—- WHAT IS TRUTH?

IntroductionChapter One

Bart begins his second chapter (pp. 43-77)  by making the good point that truth is complex, and that there can be stories that may never have historically happened, but are true in some other or deeper sense.   Obviously any kind of good fiction, say parables, is a good example of this point.  Parables are not attempt to describe things that have actually happened and were observed to have happened.   There has never been a harvest like the one recounted in the parable of the sower, not even with modern fertilizer, and there has never been a woman who put that much yeast in the dough, and so on.   These are literary fictions that are not true in the sense of being true to life.  No they are true about God and the Gospel of the Kingdom, a different matter.  As Bart puts it on p. 45— truth is more than just correct historical information.   It is however not less than that if the author is making historical truth claims.   Much depends on the genre of the literature and the aims of the writer.

On p. 47, Bart makes an assertion about speech material in antiquity that should be challenged.  Here is what he says:  “If an event took place decades or even centuries earlier…how was a historian to know what the character actually said?  There was in fact no way to know.” If we were to apply this reasoning to the NT,  all of which documents were likely written within 70 years of Jesus’ death,  we would have to reject this conclusion.  The conclusion could certainly hold in the case of many documents written centuries after an event or a speech,  but not always in those cases either.

Why not?   Because in the first place, the NT was written at a time in which a person could either be in contact with eyewitnesses, or with those who had met eyewitnesses.  Even Papias in the early second century A.D. is able to say he contacted such people.   The point is that in the case of the NT, we must not imagine a long gap between the occurrence of the event and when it was written down.    But the second point to make is that we are dealing with Jewish oral cultures, and part of the discipling process in that setting was the memorizing of large chunks of the master’s teaching.  One doesn’t need tape recorders when you’ve got people who can certainly remember large quantities of given teaching, especially when it was repeated on various occasion.  The image of Jesus running around Galilee and Judea with his disciples and never repeating himself in his teaching is a myth.  And those running around with him were his ‘learners’.

In my Acts of the Apostles, commentary  (Eerdmans)  I deal with exactly how ancient historians and biographers dealt with speech material, including people like Thucydides and Polybius whom Luke imitates in methodology.   They sought to present the major points  (not just the gist)  of ancient speeches, and did not simply make up appropriate speeches right, left, and center.   What we have for example in Acts is, in any case, rhetorical summaries of speeches telling us important bits of what was said.   In short,  the way to evaluate this issue of the passing on of oral traditions is not on the basis of 20th century German form criticism based erroneously on how Balkan folklore was passed on, but rather on the sort of procedures first century writers, including especially Jewish writers, followed in such matters.

And here I must draw a line and say that Bart’s evaluation of what Thucydides said about speech writing is both unfair, and absolutely inaccurate.   Bart says “Thucydides explicitly states that he simply made up the speeches himself.” (p. 47).  WRONG.   You will notice that Bart does not bother to quote Thucydides at this juncture, nor in his notes.    The crucial passage in Thucydides is found in Pelop. War. 1.22.1-2. Here Thucydides does say that at times it was difficult to adhere to the verbatim of what was said, but that he was claiming ‘to adhere as closely as possible to what was actually said, or what it seemed likely that they said’. In short Thucydides is claiming that he presented his speech-makers as saying what it seemed likely that they did say, adhering as closely as he could to what he knew of what they actually spoke.   This is a far cry from Ehrman’s ‘he just made up speeches’ claim.    In his very helpful article J. Wilson (“What Does Thucydides Claim for His Speeches”  Phoenix 36 (1982), pp. 95-103) what can be called the majority position among classics scholars about what Thucydides means: 1) he offers reporting of speeches in his own style, not that of the speaker necessarily; 2) he makes a selection from among the various speech material he has historical evidence for; 3) a selection is then made of which ideas from the speech are reported, for he gives speech summaries for the most part;  4) he will take everything in the speech material into account and give not merely the main thesis, but various of the main points (the gnome ); 5) he will add some words to make these points clearer; 6) abbreviating or expanding is fine so long as the gnome is clear;  7) he will cast these main points in a form that makes the historical points he, Thucydides, wants to make by citing them.  In other words, Thucydides does not handle his speech material in a radically different way than he handled his narrative material,  and in both cases, he is a careful Greek historian adhering to his sources, and consulting those  who know the sources.  Luke in Lk. 1.1-4 in fact claims to do as good or better than that.  He claims to have consulted eyewitnesses and the original preachers of the message at some length.   In other words,  while the claim on p. 47 is used to set up what follows in Bart’s argument, his argument is flawed from the outset.   There was no convention in ancient Greek history or biography writing of ‘making up speeches’.   Did some people do it— likely so, but it was not part of the normal operating procedure of such writings.  See again Bauckham’s  Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Having misread Thucydides,   Bart turns around and gets Polybius right, on p. 48.  Polybius however was standing on the shoulders of Thucydides when he said the historian “should simply record what really happened and what really was said” (Hist. 2.56-10-12).

One of the methods of operation of Ehrman in this book is to compare documents that are not really alike, and claim the same thing is going on in both.  For example the fictional letter from Titus to Peter which comes from at least 400 years after Paul’s letter to Titus.  Now no one that I know of in the whole scholarly world is claiming that the letter ‘by Titus’  is anything other than a pseudepigraph.   But there are plenty of scholars who have written commentaries on the Pastorals who do not accept at all that they are pseudepigraphs, whether written by Paul, or for Paul by one of his close co-workers.   Indeed, there are whole monographs about the Pastorals that show that the style and grammar and vocabulary of the Pastorals seems to be Lukan, but the substance is Pauline.  In short, the hands are the hands of Luke,  but the voice, is the voice of Paul.

And this brings us to a crucial point about NT letters.   Paul, and Peter, and others used scribes, sometimes giving them more license to write, sometimes dictating more in a verbatim way, depending on the situation.   In these circumstances, in order to provide a plausible argument that the Pastorals are not from the voice of Paul, one has to come up with better evidence than vocabulary usage and style, because the style could be that of the scribe, not the speaker.  One would have to come up with clear contradictions between the later Paulines and the earlier ones  in thought and substance.   This, Bart Ehrman is not able to do,  and indeed, he has to ignore the many many commentaries and monographs about the Pastorals, written by good critical scholars from all over the spectrum that argue that the voice speaking in the Pastorals is indeed Paul.  One may wish to compare the extensive list I provide of such scholars in the Introduction to Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians Vol. One.

I have no issue with Bart arguing that the letter by Titus or the Acts of Peter from the 2nd century are pseudonymous documents.  Fair enough, but they have nothing to do with the evaluation of  1-2 Peter in the canon.   The attempt however to project back into the first century the sort of situation in life that existed centuries later when the church was overwhelmingly Gentile will not work.   The reason pseudonymous documents could be produced an nauseum in the later second century and thereafter is because there were no eyewitnesses or apostles or co-workers, or those who had talked to eyewitness around to call people on their forgeries and frauds.   There were indeed restraints in the first century, even though clearly there were some attempts at forgery in the first century Christian context as well.

On p. 52,  Bart shares with us his conviction as to why so many Christians made up fictional documents about the apostles— “Different Christians had competing assumptions, outlooks, practices, and theologies, all of which needed apostolic authority behind them. A writing in the name of Peter could authorize one set of views in the name of a great authority, named as its author.”      I think there is some truth to this.   In the post-apostolic  era, there was indeed a concern for human authority amongst Christians making competing claims.

It is however more difficult to demonstrate this for the first century A.D. for three good  reasons: 1) there were still apostles around and their co-workers etc. and it was these figures who had authority in the rather tight-knit social networks of this minority religion which came to be called Christianity; 2) it is clear enough, especially in Pauline communities that it was not at all necessary to claim apostolic backing or authority to make prophetic or inspired remarks about a whole host of things.   There was a pneumatic dimension to early Christianity, seen in both Acts and Paul especially, but also in Revelation,  which obviated any necessity for artifice, like falsely claiming one was speaking in the voice of an apostle.  One had the Spirit, and it was God’s authority in the speaking, not the human authority that was of greatest importance. The felt need to create pseudonymous documents is largely lacking in such settings in the first century; and again 3)  the commitment of early Jewish Christians to truth and keeping their testimony and story straight in a world full of doubters in the surprising idea of a dying and rising messiah is crucial.   In other words,  the ethos of first century Christianity had some very large inhibitors to the likelihood of there being a regular and successful practice of creating pseudonymous documents.  In his notes Bart also makes the off-handed comment that Paul did not think he was writing Scripture.  Well he did think he was speaking and writing the Word of God (see 1 Thess. 2.13 and 1 Cor. 7) and that it had the same authority as either Scripture or the teaching of Jesus.  This suggests Paul would not have been surprised when his letters later ended up in a canon called Scripture  (see my The Living Word of God).

Bart’s discussion of the Gospel of Peter is basically correct and does not need to be debated.  One of his historical assumptions, an assumption that has cropped up from time to time in his earlier works as well,  reappears on p. 60—“Many scholars have thought of the early church as seriously divided.”    First of all, yes there have been a good many scholars, influenced by the Hegelian approach of  Bauer and other German scholars of the early 20th century to see dueling banjos  (between Jewish and Gentile Christians)  in the early church.    It would be incorrect to dispute that there were some tensions between Paul’s approach to the Gospel and some of the Judaizers from Jerusalem.   What does need to be disputed is first of all the anti-Semitic analysis of Bauer and others which wanted to disparage early Jewish Christianity and exalt early Gentile Christianity.   The actual historical situation was complex,  and frankly very different from the situation in  the second century and later when the church was overwhelmingly Gentile. In the first place,  Paul himself had Jewish converts, and he cared deeply about Jews coming to Christ, even said the Gospel he preached was for them first.   So, it is not so easy or correct to divide up Pauline Christianity from Jewish Christianity.  Secondly,  Paul himself, our earliest source, is just as clear as Acts is, that there was a meeting of the minds in Jerusalem between the pillar apostles and Paul on his Gospel.  Galatians says so clearly.   That there were Judaizers who didn’t like the compromises of James the brother of Jesus, or Peter, or other apostles,  is neither here nor there.   They were a part of the Christian movement, but they were not its core or originators, and did not represent even the leadership of the Jerusalem church.   Furthermore, they did not produce any of the documents in the NT itself, all of which can be traced back to about 8-10 persons who were either apostles, eyewitnesses, or co-workers of apostles and eyewitnesses.      So the image of the leadership of earliest Christianity being deeply divided,  and in the same state of disarray as say in some quarters in the late second century, is not historical accurate.

The discussion on pp. 62-63 of the Epistle of Peter (not to be confused with 1-2 Peter in the canon)  is unobjectionable, and Bart is right to point out how different the relationship between Peter and Paul is painted in that document (they are enemies) than say in Acts.   Likewise the discussion of  the Gospel of Peter is basically on target.   But in terms of procedure one may rightly wonder what the rhetorical strategy is by dealing with all these much later pseudonymous Petrine documents, and then finally turning to the canonical Petrine documents.  It would appear that Bart wants to imply that the burden of proof must be on those want to claim authenticity for 1-2 Peter in light of the dubious track record of the other Petrine documents.  This is forgetting that those canonical documents are earlier than all these other documents, and cannot be said to be following the examples or same practices as the creators of these later, and in some cases much later documents.

pp. 66-68 summarize some of the main themes of 1 Peter, and it becomes clear that Bart wants to argue that both 1-2 Peter are forgeries.   The only initial reason given (p. 68)  is that it refers to Rome as Babylon,  and  Bart questions whether it would have been called that before the fire of Rome, the persecution of Christians in A.D. 64 and the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.    There is however a good reason why it might be so called—- in A.D. 49— Christians were sent ‘into exile’  from Rome, by the Emperor Claudius,  Christians who were Romans.  They were able to come back only after the death of Claudius in A.D. 54.  A Roman Emperor who sent people into exile could well remind a figure like Peter steeped in the OT of the earlier exile producing pagan rulers as well.   This is not a good reason to late date 1 Peter,  nor to claim it was not by Peter.   And frankly, there are just too many good scholars who think that the voice of Peter is heard in 1 Peter to simply dismiss that whole line of argument with the wave of a hand and a citation of one commentary from 1992 to the contrary.

Towards the end of the chapter Bart will attempt to play the ‘Peter was a peasant and couldn’t have written this card’.   This is bogus, since the document itself suggests  Peter used a scribe or amaneuensis, and indeed Papias tells us he did so when he related the stories about Jesus’ life,  using Mark as his scribe.  That Peter was illiterate, can certainly be doubted since businessmen who worked in Galilee, such as fishermen,  often had need of literacy to have a successful business.  The archaeological evidence is even clear that fishermen could be quite prosperous, as is shown by the fisherman’s large house excavated at Bethsaida.

The discussion of 2 Peter is equally brief (pp. 70-72) and here Bart is nearer to the position of many scholars.  If there is one document in the NT for which a strong case of pseudonymity can be made it is this document.  The reasons are several and are clear: 1) it refers to a collection of Paul’s letters; 2)  it uses Jude in 2 Pet. 2 as a source;  3) it is written at a time when people are scoffing at the notion of the return of Christ, surely more likely toward or at the end of the first century A.D. than in the 60s before Peter died; and 4) the reference to ‘your apostles’  seems to be a deliberate indicator this was not written by Peter, but by someone later than Peter although this could be a reference to those non-Petrine persons who had been the audience’s apostles.     So then, should we agree with Bart that this must be a pseudonymous document?     Here is where I stress that this is a composite document, as almost all the commentators who have written commentaries on this book have noted.   It clear uses Jude as a source.  Could it have used other sources as well?  The answer is yes.   In Chapter One we have a testimony by Peter about the Transfiguration, a testimony not simply copied out of some Gospel that we know of.   A careful study of the Greek of this testimony material shows it matches up extremely well with the Greek of 1 Peter, but not with the Greek of the rest of this document.    What should we conclude—-  this document includes an important Petrine source, just as 1 Peter reflects the voice of the real Peter,  and the document is therefore attributed to Peter as the first and most important source of this document.   In short,  not even 2 Peter is pseudonymous   (see my Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians Vol. 2).

The end of this chapter is full of all sorts of strong assertions that Peter could not be the voice speaking in either 1-2 Peter because he was an illiterate peasant.  Let’s start with the supposed evidence found in Acts 4.13.    This text does not say Peter was illiterate.  It says, and means he was not educated in a school, in this case a school in Jerusalem, so he could be a ‘grammateus’. Thus he is called  ‘agrammatoi’ which means unlettered.   This is not the same thing as claiming he is illiterate.    What surprises the audience in Acts 4 is not Peter’s handwriting skills, it is his argumentation and use of Scripture.   They had no way of knowing whether Peter was literate or not, but they did have a way of knowing if he had shown up in Jerusalem and been trained to be a ‘lettered’ person or a scribe.   This they could confirm he was not.     This evidence then does not in any way support Bart’s case that Peter could not be the person speaking in 1 Peter or a part of 2 Peter.

What about the argument that 1 Peter appears to be composed in Greek, and surely Peter did not know Greek?     Let’s think about this for a minute.  The Holy Land had been Hellenized long before the time of Peter, and there were plenty of  Jews in both Judea and Galilee who knew at least conversational Greek, which is indeed the language they would have used to talk with centurions and Roman officials of any kind who came around collecting taxes.     While Mark Chancey I think is right that some scholars have over-emphasize the presence of Gentiles in Galilee,  even if it were true they were simply found in Tiberias and Sepphoris— guess what?  The former is right next door to Capernaum and the latter right next door to  Nazareth, and in both cases artisans and fishermen did indeed sell their wares and practice their trade in the vicinity, and certainly some of their customers would have been Greek speakers without any doubt.   There is a reason why the inscriptions in the floor of the Sepphoris synagogue are in Greek, even though that synagogue is from even later than Peter’s period.  Greek still had influence in Jewish settings in Galilee.    And frankly,  what about all those nice inscriptional honorific columns found in Capernaum?  Was it just a Galilean backwater in no contact with next door Tiberias, and with no Greek speakers in it?    I don’t believe this for even a minute.  The fishermen did business all up and down the northwest coast of the sea of Galilee and we are told in the Gospels they also went across to the Golan, where there were certainly plenty of Gentiles.     In other words, the attempt to insist Peter was a peasant, was illiterate,  couldn’t have known any Greek, and so on is a dog that won’t hunt as an argument.

But let us take the further argument that 1 and 2 Peter are too sophisticated to be by Peter.     It is here at the very end of  the chapter (see pp. 76-77) that Bart drops the bombshell that he believes there is no evidence of scribes composing letter-essay documents for others?    I suspect he will be forced to back off this  extreme claim if he ever bothers to read all the evidence that Tiro did this for Cicero with regularity.      And in fact,  the latest studies of scribes by  van der Tooren completely rule out such a claim when it comes to Jewish scribes.    Furthermore, we have plenty of evidence from Paul’s own letters that he used scribes, such as Tertius, mentioned in Romans 16,  or probably Sosthenes mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1.     The scholarship of  E.R. Richards on scribes and also J. Murphy-O’Connor  make perfectly clear there were scribes composing all sorts of documents, including letter essays in the first century A.D.     What we see at the end of this chapter is someone who has to push his argument too far, to make his case, running roughshod over a lot of evidence to the contrary.     It’s too bad, because  there is also a lot of useful material in this book to interact with.  Sadly,  it’s more extreme claims will cause many to dismiss this book out of hand as simply a polemic.

IntroductionChapter One

  • http://davehershey.wordpress.com/ DaveH

    Thank you for these solid posts Dr. Witherington! Your work here, and in your books, is greatly appreciated.

    My only question would be…I am not sure how to state it…I checked and Ehrman’s book is currently #3 in religion on Amazon. For a public that is familiar with him and his work, each of his last few books have been bestsellers, do the failures in his argument matter? He seems to be tapping into a cultural stream of skepticism in regard to Christianity. As you capably show, his arguments lack substance. But does the public care about such depth and nuance?

    I thank you for helping to equip people like me who interact with college students on a daily basis. I guess I partly answer my own question by saying that while we can’t do much about this book being a bestseller and people buying the arguments, we can help the people we meet face to face, in our churches or communities, see that Ehrman’s arguments are weak. And again, for your help in that I thank you.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Exactly Dave. We can’t control the general public, but we can do better evangelism and discipleship based on a good understanding of the weaknesses of such arguments. But I can tell you the body count amongst college students from Ehrman’s books is apparently high.

    Ben W.

  • Trey

    I fail to understand your reluctance to label 2 Peter a pseudonymous (i.e. forged) document but rather a composite document on the grounds that it contains information from Jude and potentially other canonical sources. Is this not exactly what forgers do – incorporate elements from sources considered to be legitimate then embellish with their own material to give the appearance that the message being conveyed originated directly from the person who the fraud is being committed against?

    Further the letter begins with a personal greeting from Simon Peter and makes it clear that this Simon Peter is not just any Simon Peter but an apostle of Jesus Christ. In the letter Peter not only provides doctrinal council but personal information when he talks about the need to refresh the memory of those to whom the letter is addressed as long as he lives in ‘the tent of his body’ because he knows that it will soon be put aside. One wonders why a scribe who simply wanted to convey received teaching from Peter would try to personalize the information in this way.

    Finally, I am not a bible scholar but a lay reader, so I checked a few sources online to see how 2nd Peter is viewed by various scholars. Raymond Brown – Introduction to the New Testament – “The pseudonymity of II Pet is more certain than that of any other NT work”. Werner Kummel in Introduction to the New Testament rules out Peter’s authorship definitely and further notes that it could not have been written by one of Peter’s helpers or pupils under his instructions, not even at some time after the death of the apostle. Among critical scholars the consensus appears to be unanimous that 2nd Peter is indeed pseudonymous with agreement on this from at least some conservative scholars as in the two I cited.

  • laurie

    Hello Ben,

    I also thank you for your posts.
    Can you clarify something for me. You write “But I can tell you the body count amongst college students form Ehrman’s books is apparently high.” Are you saying college students are reading and accepting Ehrman’s teaching or reading and rejecting Ehrman’s teaching. Sorry my comprehension is not the best.

    thanks

    Laurie

  • J.J.

    Thank you for taking such time, space, and energy to post (freely) such careful, detailed analysis. I’m afraid too many simply think, “Bart said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

  • Konstantin

    Why don’t you ask some publisher to add your reviews of Ehrman’s newest “masterpiece”, with reviews of other Christian scholars and compile some sort of an anthology?
    It seems Bart is not getting enough rebuttals in popular literature.
    I would buy such a book.

    It seems like Christians are lagging behind to respond in print to guys like Bart.
    I like books like “Heresy of Orthodoxy”, but we need more of those.

    In any case, thanks for taking time to respond to the Bart who grows more and more radical and hostile!!!

  • Konstantin

    … I say that because, most people will find book by Ehrman on amazon.com or barns and nobles… or alike place, but will they find this blog, or similar one.
    Also, people receive printed works with more formality/respect than blog posts.
    [this is of course my subjective observation]

  • Maim

    I’m with Trey on this one. I actually am a Biblical Studies major studying at Gordon College, and this past semester I studied under Dr. Steven Hunt in New Testament Survey; he mentioned Raymond Brown talking about the pseudonymity of 2 Peter, too. It seems that within Biblical scholarship, most immediately dismiss anyone (who is probably evangelical like yourself). To be fair, you’ve made a reference to one of your works, but from what you’ve pointed out here, I’m skeptical.

    However, I appreciate you and the work you’ve done on this blog, and that you have been taking Ehrman to task on these matters. It seems true that Ehrman is more read by the public than his critics.


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