Introduction | Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four

History, as any good student of it knows,  is messy.   Things often do not follow ordinary or orderly patterns.  And the history of the composition of documents in antiquity is no different.    Bart’s attempt in the first half of his book ‘Forged’  to force the read to choose between basically two binary opposites— either the NT documents were composed by who they claim to be composed by, or they were forgeries or fabrications, is frankly to limit the possibilities to too few options.    I say this, not only because of what we now know of the many and varied roles scribes played in even composing documents in antiquity  (see K. van der Tooren as previously discussed) but I say this on the basis of the prima facia evidence within the NT itself.

Take for example the complex case of the document we know as the Gospel of John.  This document is formally anonymous (no direct internal naming of the author in the document), and it has the later attribution ‘according to John’.   But which John?  John Mark,  John of Patmos,  John son of Zebedee?   The attribution does not specify.   In the heat of controversy, trying to snatch this Gospel back from the Gnostics who apparently thought it was the best,  Irenaeus and others attributed this Gospel to John son of Zebedee.   But frankly, there are severe problems with that guess.  Here is a document which uniquely among canonical Gospels claims within the document to involve the testimony of an eyewitness—the Beloved Disciple  (see John 19-21).   But this Gospel contains none of the crucial eyewitness stories we find in the Synoptics involving John son of Zebedee—not the calling of the Zebedees,  not the raising of Jairus’ daughter,  not the Transfiguration,  not the asking for box seats in the kingdom when Jesus gets there—nothing like this is in John’s Gospel.   In fact there is hardly a mention of the Zebedees at all in the Fourth Gospel  (but see the passing reference in John 21).    Yet when we get to the end of the document we have a very peculiar testimony—“this (i.e. the Beloved Disciple) is the disciple who is testifying to these things, and has written them down, and we know his testimony is true.”  (21.24).   What makes this sentence doubly interesting is that it comes after a very strange disclaimer—- Jesus did not say the Beloved Disciple would live until he returned.

Why in the world do we need that disclaimer?   Apparently because the Beloved Disciple’s community thought he uniquely would do so.   But why would they think that and why stress it here?   The normal, and I think correct answer to this question is that the Beloved Disciple had finally died, and Jesus had not yet returned,  and so the community he was a part of wanted to reassure people that Jesus had not falsely predicted the endurance of the Beloved Disciple longer than he actually lived.    As to why the community of the Beloved Disciple would think he would not die before the return of Jesus, I can think of a very good reason— Jesus had already raised him from the dead once.   Surely, he would not die again.   You can read about my case for the Beloved Disciple being Lazarus in What Have They Done with Jesus. I think the case is a strong one, passing the case for John son of Zebedee in the fast lane.   For example,  there are no direct references to a Beloved Disciple before John 11.1-3, and quite a few there after, and in John 11.1-4 ‘the one whom Jesus loves’  is clearly said to be Lazarus.

Let’s pause for a moment on that phrase ‘the Beloved Disciple’.   Jesus famously said he came to be a servant, he rebuked his disciples for their debate about which one of them was the greatest,  he held up children as examples to his boastful disciples, and he preached humility.  What kind of disciple would go around calling himself ‘the Beloved Disciple’?   It’s a fair question.  I think that this is not what that disciple called himself.  It is what his family and later Christian friends and community called him.  And that brings us back to John 21.24—‘who exactly is the ‘we’ in that verse?  It’s surely the community of the Beloved Disciple testifying about the testimony the Beloved Disciple wrote down before he died.  But as Sherlock Holmes would say,  John 21.24 is the telltale sign that this Gospel in its final form was composed or put together and edited by someone other than the Beloved Disciple.   Who, exactly?

Obviously, it is a literate person who has collected and edited the memoirs of the Beloved Disciple.  He too seems to have been a person comfortable with calling this man, uniquely, the Beloved Disciple, amongst the many disciples Jesus had.  He is indebted to him, and highly values his testimony.   This person could be an ordinary scribe tasked with collecting, editing and presenting the Johannine community with this Gospel, probably the latest of all the canonical Gospels.  Why then is the common name John added to this document?

Papias tells us there were two famous John’s— John the apostle, and the elderly or elder John.  Only the latter had Papias met.   If you study all of the fragments of Papias’ writings from both within the work of Eusebius and other sources, one of the things you learn about him, which Eusebius despises, is that Papias is a chiliast — that is, a person who believes in a future millennium or messianic age at the end of history and before history’s end.  Of course the only person who clearly advocates such a thing directly in the NT is the author of Revelation— John the prophet or seer, John of Patmos (John 20).

Here is my theory about the fourth Gospel, but whether this theory is correct or not, John 21.24 must be accounted for, and it reveals the post-mortem collection and composition of this document by someone other than the Beloved Disciple, and someone not claiming to be the Beloved Disciple— the ‘we’ is not the ‘he’ in that verse.  My theory in sum is that John of Patmos, after he returned from exile to Ephesus where the Beloved Disciple had died, collected and edited the BD’s materials and promulgated this Gospel.  This fact was known well into the second century (the Gospel was probably only composed in the late 90s anyway) and it is the cause for it having the label ‘according to John’.   Now if John of Patmos had been interviewed and asked if he was the source of the material in this Gospel, he would have said no — he was simply the scribe or editor who assembled after the death of the BD.  In short, right before our eyes and within the canon in the Gospel of John, we have evidence of a composition history of a document  that involves someone other than the source of the material in the document composing the document.  This falls neither into the category of written by the genuine author nor into the category of forgery or fabrication.  Those categories are too narrow and cramped to explain all the NT data.

Bearing this in mind, we can turn to Bart’s Chapter Five.   In order to properly explain why there are so many forgeries or fabrications in the NT and in early Christian history, Bart takes the route of suggesting that Christians saw themselves as constantly embattled, and apparently the end justified the means,  even if the means was forgery and fabrication.  The truth would be defended by deceit and fraud.  If Bart is right that there was no literary convention of writing pseudonymous documents in antiquity, and if he is write that the NT documents were not written by those to whom they are credited,  then this is the sort of alternative one would expect Bart to come up with.

The problem is, he is partially wrong about the first theory, and extensively wrong about the second theory, and so we don’t really need this further rationalization of why Christians behaved badly and forged and fabricated documents.  We especially don’t need it if one adequately takes the measure of the varied roles scribes played, even after the death of an authentic witness, in composing documents.  He begins with Ephesians, once more, and suggests that there are an awful lot of references to truth in that book,  which is ironic if someone falsely claimed to write this book after the time of Paul.  He’s right about that, for the case for pseudepigrapha being a recognized literary convention is weak indeed.  Fortunately, Paul did write Ephesians and so it doesn’t involve deception.

The burden of this chapter is first of all to show that there were reasons why most Jews in the first century did not accept Jesus as the messiah: 1)  he was not the messiah they were looking for, and he did not kick the Romans out of the land, instead he died a shameful death on a cross.  Early Jews were not looking for a crucified messiah, among those who were looking for a messianic hero at all; 2) of the OT texts used by early Jewish Christians to demonstrate that Jesus was the Jewish messiah, some had not been interpreted messianically before,  some were not prophecies, and some were prophecies that did not refer more specifically to a messiah  (mashiach). Bart is right about both of these points.   The dying and rising messiah is hard to find in the OT unless Isaiah 52-53 is talking about him but even that text says nothing about gruesome crucifixion.  Jesus did not match up with various essential early Jewish expectations.

Bart is equally correct that when Jews largely didn’t accept Jesus, this led, especially in the second century and later to anti-Semitism among Christians, including the charge that Jews were Christ killers. Never mind that it was the Romans who executed Jesus (which did not lead to anti-Italianism).   Bart is good at pointing out the sins of the early church, and this chapter is all about that, and about forgeries like the Gospel of Peter or the Gospel of Nicodemus (fourth century forgery), the Pilate Gospels which were used to beat Jews over the head.

Once again the purpose of spending so much time on later forgeries from the post- NT era is the guilt by association kind of argument— if there was this much deceit going on later,  there must have been a bunch of it in the first century A.D. as well.   The problem with this sort of argument by analogy is of course that each era of history, just as each individual person, has their own unique features.    For example,  as Jacob Neusner has so ably shown, you can’t retroject later rabbinic Judaism and all its practices back into Second Temple Judaism.    Things changed dramatically after A.D. 70, and after 120, Judaism ceased to be a Temple and territory focused religion at all,  focusing only on the third T—Torah.

I would stress that the historical conditions in earliest Christianity, with its apostles and eyewitnesses and co-workers,  had quality control agents and a sufficiently large Jewish Christian population to make some of the later practices of anti-Semitic Gentile Christians unlikely or exceptional in that era. Paul’s impassioned argument in Romans 9-11 that God had not abandoned nor was he finished with his first chosen people shows what the apostles were teaching about such matters.  That such arguments later fell on deaf ears should not stop us from recognizing the different character of the leadership in the earlier period.   It is interesting that some of the documents Bart discusses in this chapter could be called attempts at Christian fiction or novellas  a category of literature Bart mostly ignores (but see the discussion of the Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea on p. 161).  This sort of literature was popular in the first four centuries of Christian history, but  even if viewed that way,  it does not exonerate them of their mean-spirited anti- Semitic ideas and emphases.  Worse still, the Romans were already anti-Semitic, and this sort of literature just fed their despising of the Jews.  This literature is a far cry from  Luke-Acts where we are told that even the Jewish officials who did have something to do with Jesus’ death acted in ignorance not malice and could be forgiven.

As a prelude to dealing with later Christian writings alleged to have been written by Jesus himself, on pp. 159-6o  Bart deals with the famous John 7.53-8.11 where he stresses that this text says that Jesus himself  could write.  Bart does not here comment on the historical merits of the story, but since elsewhere he says Jesus is an illiterate peasant, there is no doubt about how he views it.  He does mention the recent theory of Chris Keith that this story was concocted to demonstrate that Jesus could write!  But that surely is a minor motif in the story, we are not even told what Jesus wrote on the ground, so this theory while ingenuous is probably entirely wrong.  Most Johannine scholars anyway think this is an authentic Jesus story, but not originally a canonical one.   I agree with the latter opinion.

On pp. 162-63 Bart deals with the fascinating but fictional correspondence between King Abgar of Edessa and Jesus himself.   It is interesting  for many reasons, not the least of which is that a Christian pilgrim in the fourth century, Egeria, saw this document as displayed by the bishop of that place.   What this shows of course is that Bart is right— there were many fictitious writings and indeed forgeries and fabrications in early Christianity. There is no denying it, and very many of them sadly have an anti-Semitic slant.   This is not a part of Christian history that Christians should be proud of, or condone however fascinating these documents might be from a historical point of view.  But the fact that there is such an abundance of these documents should tell us one thing—-estimates that the literacy of early Christians was something like 1-5% must be way too low.   Somebodies produced these documents for some audiences,  and they bespeak of a geographically widespread literacy in early Christianity, and not just among the elites.

On p. 164 Bart makes a point that is historically dubious.  His is an argument from silence.  His argument is that because there were no Imperial edicts banning Christianity specifically, that it is not true that Christianity was widely viewed as an illegal religion.   This completely ignores the fact that the one thing saving Judaism from being proscribed was Imperial edicts saying the Jews could practice their own religion and need not offer sacrifices to the Emperor.   Bart does not even reckon with all the things said in Roman literature about ‘religio licita’  and for that matter about superstitio—eastern and foreign superstitions.   Beginning from Augustan on, there were indeed imperial efforts to ban and banish foreign cults,  and when it became clear Christianity was not merely Judaism, it fell under such a cloud.   Bart is right that actual persecution of Christians was sporadic and local in the first century, but the correspondence of Pliny and Trajan make perfectly clear that early in the second century, Christians were not being given the same ‘pass’ that Jews were given when it came to worshipping the Emperor.  Why not?  Because there were rules about how to deal with superstitions, and Christianity fell into that category.   Indeed, when Christians urged people not to worship the Emperor they were in violation of Caesar’s decrees  (see Acts), and notice how Paul in Athens in Acts 17 is on trial for promulgating false religion or false gods, gods not approved for worship by the Areopagus first.   In other words,  Bart’s portrayal of the first century situation for Christians has some historically dubious aspects to it.

As Christianity gained momentum and more and more followers, the need for apologetics became more urgent, as the faith became more visible in the Empire.  Bart on pp. 165-73 makes a reasonable case for seeing some of the fictional and forged documents as attempts to exonerate Christians from pagan charges, counter claims, or contumely.  For example the Acts of Pilate are held up as a possible response to a pagan document called the Acts of Pilate which paints Jesus in a very bad light.    I suspect he is right about this.   Christians resorted to rather transparent fiction as a vehicle to rebut false claims about their faith.  What is not clear to me is that at least the more transparent of these documents would not immediately have been recognized as fiction rather than fabrication.  That they were later, considerably later, in the Middle Ages (e.g. in the case of the Gospel of Nicodemus),  viewed differently is another story.  I think Bart spends too little time reckoning with the possibility and scope of early Christian fiction—which did not intend to deceive, and probably did not fool its original intended audience.   But I agree we must take seriously that there were various forgeries and fabrications in early Christianity, and simply admit that this is not consonant with a strong commitment to the truth in all things.

Bart goes on to discuss the Sibylline Oracles on pp. 173-76 and he is quite right that both Jews and Christians fabricated oracles and inserted them into or created these collections.  The original oracles were lost in temple fires before these monotheistic substitutes were created.  There is nothing in this discussion which seems amiss.  Christians were indeed prepared to create false prophecies to bolster their religion, as were early Jewish and indeed there was also an apologetic purpose in this, to convince pagans about monotheism.

One of the ironies about this book is that while Bart has no trouble showing that later Christians acting immorally created forgeries and fabrications, he does not show that such practices were indulged in by the apostles and original eyewitnesses themselves or by their co-workers.  And surely, if you want to actually discredit Christianity, what you actually need to do is go back ad fontes and discredit the original Christians and their actual eyewitness testimonies.  For example, you would need to discredit the content of, say, the seven undisputed letters of Paul.  You would have to discredit his testimony not only that Jesus died and rose from the dead, but that he appeared to hundreds of people, some of whom, like himself, had been previously hostile to Jesus and his followers.    This book does none of that.  But it certainly does leave the odor of a skunk on many Christians who lived after the NT era.  No wonder some people say I can believe in Jesus, but the church is simply unbelievable.

For the earlier parts of this series, see:

IntroductionChapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter Four

  • Rick C

    If Lazarus is the Beloved Disciple then why wasn’t he at Gethsemane with the others of Jesus’ inner circle, Peter, James and John. That’s what I would expect of such a close friendship in such a difficult moment in life. But he wasn’t there or if he was it wasn’t recorded. So, was Lazarus truly the beloved disciple in terms of life’s actions/needs supporting role? And if wasn’t the Beloved Disciple that would rule him out, I would think, as a candidate for the position of gospel writing. Secondly, throughout the NT story Lazarus wasn’t a participating disciple as were Matthew, John Mark, and Luke. Lazaraus has even less of a connection to the overall played-out-over-time historical story of the NT than does John Mark and Luke so why would he be considered a gospel writer? Thirdly He wasn’t an integral in the day to day play out of the NT story other than being an example of God’s miraculous capabilities which by anyone’s account it is quite a miracle. But does his miracle make him an author/recorder of the events of the NT? My view is no it doesn’t! How many others received and yet are not connected to the written form of the NT? Jesus being the greatest example of this. He himself didn’t dictate a first person account of the trial, death, burial, resurrection and post res appearances. Fourth after Lazarus was raised from the dead he disappears from written NT history. Fifth if he did write the 4th then why didn’t he claim his miracle victory and then precede from there. Surely the word had widely and quickly spread about him and they not only saw and touched him but now they have his written account. Rising from the dead is something I would shout about and every day. But that isn’t what is seen in the book of John. There may be good reasons to doubt that John son of Zebedee was the author of the 4th but there are some good reasons to doubt that Lazarus was the author, at least in my mind.

    Thank you for letting us all participate in your blogs. I wish more scholars were as amiable and accepting of the lay public as you are.

  • Craig

    I agree with Dr. Witherington that the internal evidence in the fourth gospel best supports Lazarus being the Beloved Disciple. What I find curious is any lack of external evidence that Lazarus was ever in Asia Minor. If Lazarus is the Beloved Disciple who ended up in Ephesus (with Mary?), where the fourth gospel was likely written, then it seems strange that he is never mentioned by Papias, Ignatius, Polycarp, or anyone else (at least to my knowledge).

    In any case, I continue to appreciate Ben’s review of Ehrman’s book. Great critique!

  • ben witherington

    Actually the BD is mentioned as the BD in Ephesus. Rick I think you need to do a re-read of the 4th Gospel. There is no reference to the BD before John 11.1-3. None. And this whole Gospel is suffused with the perspective of a person who sees Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life in a way that is not true of the other Gospels. The author is looking at the whole story with Easter eyes. As I have pointed out. John 21 makes clear someone else other than the BD put his memoirs together in the form we now have them,,,, and that someone was John of Patmos who absolutely had been and was in Ephesus and was in a position to know who the BD was. Notice that the BD is called ‘the other disciple’ a very odd term pointing to only two disciples—- Peter the head of the Galilean disciples and Lazarus the leader of the Judean ones. There basically is no Gethsemane story in John, as you perhaps know, because the BD wasn’t there. On the other hand, there is no reason he could not have been one of the ‘other disciples’ said to be present in the garden of Gethsemane, and certainly it is he and Peter alone who follow those who take Jesus to the house of Caiaphas.


  • RickC

    As my mentor Zaphod Beeblebrox might say…some days one learns by paying attention and on some days one learns from not paying attention, but either way one learns! This was one of those days. :)

    I should have reread John before I commented! As always thank you very kindly for allowing us to participate whether or not we are properly tuned in and tuned up.

  • Joe

    Again, not to diverge on a tangent here since the main point of these blog posts is a discussion of Ehrman’s book, but I have to ask about your theory on Lazarus and John of Patmos. I’ve always liked the Lazarus theory, or at least, seeing Lazarus as the least unlikely candidate as the BD. But your take on John of Patmos editing the BD’s materials seems truly novel. How do you account for the major difference in eschatological perspective? Revelation is so thoroughly apocalyptic in perspective, but the Fourth Gospel isn’t at all, but instead is so “realized” and “now” and “present tense” in it’s eschatological perspective. And also how do you account for the letters of John? Yes, they’re anonymous, but the content is so similar to the Fourth Gospel (especially, 1-2 John). Do you think those 3 letters were from Lazarus or John of Patmos? I guess I’m wondering to what extent you think John of Patmos edited and “promulgated” the materials of the Beloved Disciple.

    Thanks for the very detailed critiques and reasoned arguments in these blog posts. It is great to see such a well-read and top-notch scholar being willing to present so much information freely on the internet for interaction.

  • Barry S.

    As much as I enjoyed reading and discussing about all possibilities, let us remember that even without any challenges, the material should speak for itself. Christians believe that the author of the gospels is the Lord Himself, using fallible human writer as His tool. Therefore, the gospels are labeled only as “according to…” There is not direct claim as who wrote them, so how can they be forgeries?

    Apparently it is easy to forget all the meticulous works completed in the past of those who challenged and found satisfactory answers for the trustworthiness of the Bible.

    On the other hand, it is very simple to throw accusations to anyone, that he/she didn’t “write” the book himself/herself later in the years when the person is no longer able to testify personally. Everything can be forged. Handwriting proof? can be forged. Picture of someone writing? can be photoshopped. Video? can be forged with a good actor and makeup. However, the quality of the work and the personal touch speak loudly for the material. The gospel of John with distinctive 7 signs of our Lord. Book of Revelation with many 7′s. Those are some types of signatures that defend the authenticity of the works.

  • hotshot bald cop

    I never thought of it that way, well put!