I have already warned against Bart’s penchant to make global claims which cannot be substantiated by the evidence, and Chapter Six begins with another example of this tendency. We read on p. 181—“everywhere Paul went, he confronted Christian teachers who thought he preached a false gospel”. Really? In fact, this is far from true. In an important study, Jerry Sumney in 1990 wrote a book entitled Identifying Paul’s Opponents. One of the things he most definitely warned against repeatedly in this book is finding opponents of Paul under every rock and every letter in the Pauline corpus. Frankly, there are no opponents in Philippians or Philemon or really in 1 Thessalonians or in Romans, and we could go on. Paul was not swatting gadflies at every turn either when he was in a city or when he wrote to congregations in cities. Controversies he had, but not everywhere or all the time or with everyone. Paul was not an ‘Athanasius contra mundum’.
Sometimes of course it is true he had opponents and controversies, we see this for example in Galatians (but even there Paul has to ask— Who has bewitched you?). But it is important to note Bart’s penchant for: 1) considerable exaggeration not supported by the facts; 2) trying to force binary opposite choices when in fact there are more than two legitimate options.
Bart says at the beginning of this chapter that he is a good debater, and of course rhetorical hyperbole is a good debating tactic to whip the opposition into submission especially if they don’t know the evidence as well as he does, but frankly this is not what I would call either fair fighting or in accordance with a deep concern for truth. No, it’s the sort of polemics that Bart himself intimates he despises about some early Christian apologetes. It’s the pot calling the kettle black, I’m afraid.
Bart is however correct that some of the most heated debates by Christians were with other people who claimed to be Christians. It needs to be said however, that some of them were in fact not Christians by any NT definition of the term. Take Marcion or the Gnostics for example. They did not accept the OT as God’s Word as the earliest Christians, who were Jews, all did, so far as we can tell, nor did they accept the Biblical concepts of monotheism, or for that matter the earliest confessions about Jesus being the crucified and risen Lord, who made historical appearances to various people in various places. My point is simple— neither James nor Peter nor Paul nor John nor any of the other earliest Christian leaders would have recognized Marcion or the Gnostics as Christians at all. There was indeed a standard of orthodoxy, especially Christological and monotheistic orthodoxy and a standard of soteriology in the early church, and even if one wants to call it proto-orthodoxy, nonetheless it was a measuring rod, the regula fidei, and various of the people Bart chooses to talk about in this chapter frankly do not measure up, never did measure up, and do not deserve the title Christian.
At the same time, they also did not deserve to be hated and vilified. Christians themselves always need to even love their enemies, and in fact many early Christian writers fell short of that mandate or even violated it. About this, Bart is quite right. But the notion that there was no standard of orthodoxy in earliest Christianity, and that the Jerusalem apostles were at odds with Paul on major theological issues, and not just issues of Christian praxis are both gross exaggerations of the facts. The debates between the Jerusalem Judaizers and Paul were not about Christ, or the validity of what Paul believed about Jesus, or about monotheism or even about whether Christ was the savior and messiah necessary for salvation for everyone. The debates were about whether Gentiles needed to become Jews, getting circumcised and keeping the whole Mosaic law, in order to be saved, or not. This is of course an important matter, and there were heated debates, no doubt. But there was also a resolution of even that debate with James forging a compromise as Acts 15 makes clear.
The attempt to suggest that later diversity and debate between Christians and heretical offshoots of Christianity was not different than the sort of differences we find in the earliest church amongst its leaders, is false. False teachers in earliest Christianity were labeled as such by all of the Christian leaders such as Peter, James, John, Paul and so on, and there was considerable agreement as to what constituted false teaching on matters of the faith and its ethics. The old Bauer hypothesis about Hebrews vs. Hellenists, and Jewish Christians vs. Gentile Christians has been disproved long ago, and should not be retreaded in 2011. It is simply false to say that what we find in the NT canon is the theology of the ‘winners’. On the contrary, what we find is both the considerable diversity in early Christianity, and also its Christological and soteriological unity. We have books by both Jewish and Gentile Christians, by both apostles and their co-workers, by both Jewish missionaries and Gentile ones. As I have made clear in What Have They Done with Jesus, there are no Gnostic books in the canon because there were no Gnostic heretics in the first century so far as we can tell. And if Marcion had shown up in the first century rather than the second, he would have been called a false teacher immediately by Peter or James or John or Paul all of whom revered the OT as God’s Word.
What we find in the NT is first century documents written by eyewitnesses, or apostles, or their co-workers and colleagues. The reason they are in the canon is because they are our earliest and best witnesses to what Jesus and his first followers were like. They are not in the canon because of some later struggle with Gnostics or others. The criteria for acceptance was these books needed to be by one of the three aforementioned groups, and what that in effect meant was the canon was effectively closed at the end of the NT era because of the criteria applied. Gnostic documents were never even considered for inclusion, and there was no movement within the church to do so at any point, because they were: 1) too late to be by apostles etc.; 2) too heterodox to comport with what the earliest documents claimed; and 3) were generated in order to actually attack Christian orthodoxy and redefine it. We are not talking about a long historical struggle in which Christianity seriously entertained Gnostic or Marcionite texts for inclusion in the canon, but in the end were rejected. On this one can check the various essays in my What’s in a Word? Volume and What Have They Done with Jesus, and the Gospel Code. In short, the picture Bart paints of the first four centuries of church history is tendentious and often just inaccurate.
You know someone is running out of bullets when he recycles what he has said earlier in the book. P. 185 recycles what was said about Colossians, and Bart’s view is we will never know who the opponents are that are attacked in this book. He is right that there are lots of different views on this amongst scholars who have written monographs on the book. Now if Colossians is a forgery, this vagueness is quite strange. If you want to use Paul’s name to attack some specific kind of false teaching, then you are going to delineate it better than is done in Colossians. The very inability of modern scholars to figure out who the false teachers are shows: 1) Paul is writing in a context where the audience will already know who he is talking about and so 2) he doesn’t have to be more specific. But in a pseudonymous document with a falsely attributed author and also a falsely attributed audience, how was this document going to be any clearer to the actual audience of the document than it is to modern scholars? In other words, the nature of the critique and its allusiveness must count against the suggestion this is a later forgery.
Next on pp. 186-88 Bart takes on the little document known as Jude. His view is it is a post-apostolic writing because it refers to ‘remembering the teaching of the apostles’ but he forgets that Jude was not among the Twelve, did not believe in Jesus during his lifetime (see John 7.5) nor do we even know if Jesus appeared to Jude, as he did to his brother James. Under these circumstances, we would hardly expect him to call himself one of the apostles. He is simply the brother of James.
In order to make clear just how radical Bart’s views are about Jude, I would suggest you look at some of the best and most detailed commentaries on Jude written in the last twenty or so years. You will discover that almost every one of these commentators concludes Jude is by Jude, and is not a forgery of any sort. One should especially consult the commentaries by Bauckham, Bill Brosend, and check the bibliography in my commentary in Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians. There is absolutely nothing in this document the historical Jude, who seems to have lived well into the first century, couldn’t have written or said. Bart also dismisses its authenticity with the ‘peasant’ argument. Even if Jude were unable to write Greek, there were scribes aplenty in Judaism he could have used to compose this document. It will take more than a hastily mentioned argument without real substance to convince people he is right about Jude. It needs to be remembered that Jude is a barely mentioned figure in the NT. If you are going to make up a name of an early Christian to give your document some authority, pick a big and famous one, not an obscure one, and in fact this is what we normally find in pseudonymous documents. Jude doesn’t qualify. He is a passing reference in the Gospels.
pp. 192ff. Bart presents his case for James being a forgery, and again quite against the trend of many recent commentaries on the little homily called James, including the work of John Painter, a good friend of mine, whom Bart relies on for some of his analysis. In an interesting argument, Bart contends that James is not reacting to Paul himself, who would not have disagreed with the notion that good deeds are important, but rather to the forgery called Ephesians which presents not the historical Paul but a later caricature of Paul. On p. 198 Bart plays the literacy card again as the most important proof this couldn’t be by the historical James, again completely neglecting the possibility the document was written for James by a skilled Jewish Christian scribe, of which there surely were some in the Jerusalem church, converted from Judaism. He also contends that James is responding to later garbled Paul. But a moments reflection will show that the very view being critiqued here was probably the caricature of the Judaizers of what Paul said. In other words, the ‘garbled Paul’ alluded to here need not be from a time after James’ life at all.
Equally novel is the theory put forward on pp. 199-200 that 1 Peter was written as an apologetic to show that Peter and Paul in fact were in agreement. If that were the purposed we would have expected a pretty different content to this document which certainly does not much sound like Paul, and unlike Paul relies heavily on Isaiah 52-53 in the way it views Jesus’ sufferings. Were the purpose of this document rapproachment with Paul, we would have expected statements about how Peter came to agree with Paul about the non-necessity of keeping kosher and so on. There is nothing like this in 1 Peter. Bart argues that the territories listed at the beginning of 1 Peter were Pauline territories. However this is ignoring that the division of missionary labor announced in Galatians was not geographical but rather ethnic—- Peter to the Jews, Paul to the Gentiles. It can be debated whether 1 Peter is written primarily to very Hellenized Jewish Christians or to Gentile ones, but in any case there is no reason to see 1 Peter as a later attempt to mend fences between Peter and Paul. And while we are at it, 1 Corinthians suggests that Peter did visit places Paul had evangelized, and so we have no reason to think he might not also have gone to various places in western and northern Turkey, evangelizing largely Diaspora Jews. Bart tries out this same argument (pp. 200-202) on 2 Peter, it too supposedly written to suggest Peter and Paul were buddies. The problem with this is that we would never know this was even a possible focus of this document before its very end where Paul is mentioned. No one would guess this listening to the document being read out seriatim. And besides all this, 2 Peter 2 quotes Jude at length, and gives it much more attention than the passing reference to Paul at the end. This composite document was put together by someone who indeed used Petrine, Jude, and Pauline sources and thought highly of all these early Christian leaders, probably sending this out as an encyclical at the end of the first century. It may have been one of his purposes to suggest the original leaders were in harmony. But he is even more concerned with dealing with false teacher’s and their bad eschatology and cosmology, to mention but one subject.
The case for Acts being a forgery is made on pp. 202-209, and Bart is perfectly well aware that here he represents a decidedly minority opinion. Why in the world would any body pick the Luke, a non eyewitness, non-apostle, marginal figure and only occasionally a companion of Paul (who was also not one of the Twelve) to attribute two huge and hugely important early Christian books to? This idea in itself is a stretch. Why not attribute it to someone more important, say a constant companion of Paul like a Timothy or a Titus if we are making it up as we go along? That would account as well as the existing label for the focus on admiration of Paul in Acts? In short, Bart knows he is paddling upstream here, hence the need to paddle harder.
On p. 204 we have once more a caricature of the data relating to Peter and Paul. According to Bart, Acts wants to show that Peter and Paul are in complete agreement about the Gospel. Peter has no problems with eating Gentile barbecue, any more than Paul did. In fact however that is not what Acts says. Acts 10 tells us that except for divine intervention in the form of a vision, Peter would never have gone to Cornelius’ house at all, never mind eaten with the man. And of course Bart completely fails to tell his audience that there is a debate about the dating of Galatians. Many scholars, myself included, think it is a very early letter of Paul, from the late 40s, and written before the Acts council mentioned in Acts 15 when these matters of praxis were sorted out. On that showing, the picture of Peter in Antioch in Gal. 1-2 is like the picture of Peter before the Acts 10 vision and so the portrayal in Acts does not significantly differ from Galatians on this point.
On p. 295 Bart sees a flat contradiction between Gal. 1 and the portrayal of things in Acts 9. In Galatians after his conversion, Paul says he went off into Arabia. According to Bart, after a brief stay in Damascus, Paul made a beeline to Jerusalem. Gal. 1, it is true, does not mention a return to Damascus at all. This is however mentioned in 2 Cor. 11.30-33. The omission in Galatians does not mean it did not happen, nor for that matter does the omission of Arabia in Acts 9 mean that did not happen. Furthermore, Luke leaves the clear impression not only that Paul spent some time in Damascus, but in fact Luke says nothing about Paul making a beeline from Damascus back to Jerusalem. There is no time reference at all mentioned in Acts 9.25 or 26. What happened in Acts 9.26 could have happened three days or three years after the Damascus Paul in a basket episode. Luke does not say. So what is going on here? Bart has taken a silence from the Galatians text and a silence from the Acts text, and come to the conclusion that the two texts must contradict one another. Sorry– nothing plus nothing allows you to conclude nothing of the kind. Reading a contradiction into two silences is really a bridge too far. It’s not even good logic. Bart then goes on to say time fails him to mention all the numerous contradictions between Acts and the letters of Paul. A pity really, because the list he gave in his Jesus Interrupted pp. 53-58 was pretty easy to rebut (see the earlier discussion on this blog on that book), and furthermore, I have dealt in great detail in my Acts commentary on these alleged contraditions, and frankly they are ephemeral. But don’t take my word for it. Look at the Anchor Bible Luke and Acts commentary by Joe Fitzmyer. He concludes Luke-Acts is indeed written by someone who was only a sometime companion of Paul on his second and third missionary journeys. The Paul we have in Acts in any case is Paul the missionary and church planter, not the Paul of the letters which exposes us to his ongoing correspondence and relationships with the churches he founded. We have no missionary speeches in Paul’s letters and we have only one speech to Christians by Paul in Acts at Miletus, and wouldn’t you know, it is the one speech that sounds the most like the Paul of the letters? And finally there was no convention of inserting ‘we’ passages into account, or someone else’s travelogue for the sake of versimulitude. This is as much a myth as Bart says the convention of pseudepigrapha as a recognized convention was. Were a forger to insert himself into Acts itself to make it look like an eyewitness account, why not make him present at the colossal events in Acts 2, or at Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, or with Peter in Acts 10? But none of that happens. Instead we have only a brief ‘we’ section in connection with Paul in Troas and Philippi on his second journey, and a more extended ‘we’ section for the third journey. This hardly looks like the best efforts of a forger to introduce the suggestion he was an eyewitness to important things. I have already repeatedly warned about Bart’s propensity to ‘overegg the pudding’ as the British would say— make enormous claims that neither his arguments nor the evidence will bear out. Listen to this one “At just about every point where it is possible to check what Acts says about Paul with what Paul says about himself in his authentic letters, there are discrepancies.” (p. 208). The real upshot of such extreme exaggerations is that it raises the question—why? ‘Me thinks he doth protest too much’, and frankly it discredits his whole case in regard to forgeries in the NT. One could as well say with only very slight exaggeration “at just about every point where it is possible to check Bart Ehrman’s comparison of Paul and Acts, there are unwarranted conclusions and over-reading of evidence again and again.”
On pp. 209-16 Bart goes on to discuss some Gnostic forgeries that are attacks on orthodoxy Christianity, and then he turns around and deals with some anti-Gnostic documents (pp. 217-18) that serve as a sort of rebuttal. He has no trouble showing the polemics flying in both directions, but these later boxing matches are of little or no help in our deceiphering whether there were or were not forgeries in the NT period, or in the NT itself.
The conclusion to this chapter (p. 218) is an argument that says early Christianity was a group of hopelessly antagonistic people constantly arguing and contradicting one another, even on fundamentals like monotheism. This view is frankly only possible if you include under the term Christianity all sorts of persons and groups that were acknowledge by orthodox Christians to be heretics, not real Christian at all. Bart however is prepared to call them all Christians, which leads to this conclusion. And the assumption by the assertion is that there was no standard of orthodoxy before the fourth century when Constantine came to the rescue and the canon was closed. Unfortunately for this view, it involves a reading of first century Christianity which is almost a total distortion of the facts, and the proper interpretation of the facts. This is not to deny there were false teachers, heated arguments, and the like in earliest Christianity. Indeed there were, and over some important matters of practice as well. It is however to make clear that none of the later heretical groups and documents discussed by Bart would have been accepted by the original apostles, eyewitnesses, and their co-workers as genuinely Christian, any more than Simon Magus in Acts is viewed that way. The history of earliest, largely Jewish Christian, Christianity is markedly different from the history of a largely Gentile church expanding through the Empire in the second-fourth centuries. And the failure to see or recognize this, leads to many mistakes in this latest book by Bart Ehrman.
For other parts of this series, see: