Review of the Book Forged by Bart Ehrman

Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They AreI am grateful to Harper Collins for providing me with an advance review copy of Bart Ehrman’s forthcoming book, Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. After apologizing for the pun in the title of this post (although I am obviously not really sorry, or I would have changed it), I need to say a few words about the subtitle, before I can set that matter aside and offer an appreciative review of what is an important book, not only for the general public (Ehrman’s primary audience) but also for New Testament scholarship.

The subtitle gives a misleading impression of what the book is going to be about, in three important respects. First, it sounds like it could be addressing the issue of people claiming to write in God’s name, when in fact they aren’t. No, the book is about forgery in the more mundane sense – people writing in the name of other people and trying to pass their work off as genuinely by some other person.  Describing the book’s focus as on “the Bible’s authors” is also misleading, both because there is little about the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (there is a brief mention of Daniel) and because a great deal of attention is given to forgeries and pseudepigrapha outside of the canon. These are, to be sure, helpfully brought into the picture as examples of the broader context of New Testament forgery. But it remains the case that readers may find themselves surprised, given the subtitle, by just how much space in the book is devoted either to non-Biblical examples, or to phenomena other than forgeries in the strict sense. Finally, whether the Bible’s authors are or are not who we think they are depends on whether one has kept up-to-date on Biblical scholarship. While there are certainly a few new or distinctive suggestions in the book, for the most part the works which are discussed as not having been written by their purported authors are ones that most scholars would agree with Ehrman about.

So what is the book about? It is about forgery in early Christianity, with primary (but not exclusive) interest in the New Testament. The most distinctive component is summed up well by the book’s title: Ehrman argues throughout that the attempt to sugar-coat pseudepigraphy as something acceptable, non-deceptive – in short, something other than forgery – is problematic. As Ehrman himself puts it, “The Bible…contains what almost anyone today would call lies. That is what this book is about” (p.5). The irony that Christianity historically presents itself as being focused on and offering “the Truth” is highlighted throughout. Ehrman mentions that he is working on a scholarly monograph on this topic – and emphasizes that this book is not it – but nevertheless, scholars will definitely find that even in this format, Ehrman makes suggestions that are worth reflecting on and engaging.

The first chapter discusses forgeries in general, including relatively recent examples like the Hitler Diaries, as well as ancient ones such as Dionysius the Renegade’s elaborate hoax to discredit Heraclides. Ehrman has written books about post-New Testament forgeries, and this book covers some of that same material, but in the service of a different point: to show that forged Christian writings are not a purely post-New Testament phenomenon. 2 Thessalonians is offered as a first example, and its condemnation of forgery (2:2) is shown to be a feature in other forgeries, such as the Apostolic Constitutions, which warn against other works claiming to be by apostles but which aren’t – a description as apt for the Apostolic Constitutions themselves as for any of the works its author was warning about. 2 Thessalonians 2:2 is crucial evidence of forgery in earliest Christianity even if one believes the letter is authentic, since it mentions a letter “as though from us.” Either way, there were letters of Paul being forged.

This, Ehrman emphasizes, is not only an issue raised by post-Enlightenment scholarship. The early church discussed the authenticity of most of the works about which modern critical scholarship has also raised doubts. And the evidence we have from ancient Christians (and others writing about forgery in antiquity) provides a crucial context for the discussion. Ehrman sets out some key terms so that it will be clear what he means and what he is focusing on. There are works that are anonymous, homonymous (by someone with the same name, not pretending to be the other person) and orthonymous (the author having been rightly identified), and among pseudonymous works there are those who write under a pen name, rather than in the name of another individual. It is the writing of works in the name of someone who is not in fact the author that is Ehrman’s focus. Ehrman discusses what motivates forgers, some of which are more relevant to early Christianity than others. Profit, for instance, is less of a motive in early Christianity (would anyone have paid money for letters of Paul?) Other common motives – such as making an opponent look bad – may or may not have been a factor. But one common motivation clearly was at work in Christianity, namely getting a hearing for one’s views and lending the authority of a famous person to them. And in the case of apocalypses, we see deception engaged in for a noble end: to give people hope.

Towards the end of the first chapter, Ehrman provides a summary of conclusions for which he will argue more fully in chapter 4: the ancients disliked forgery when it was perpetrated on them as much as now. They refer to falsely-attributed works as “lies” and “bastard offspring.” Then as now, those who engage in forgery often can come up with arguments to attempt to justify what they have done. But that should not be mistaken for an indication that forgery was widely regarded as acceptable.

Chapter 2 focuses on forgeries in the name of Peter, but it begins by emphasizing that truthfulness and falsehood are not simply two simple and antithetical categories. There are different kinds of truth, and different kinds of falsehood as well. In antiquity there were different views of what historians should do. Thucydides famously made a case for his own practice of creating realistic, historically-appropriate speeches for characters. But even in antiquity not everyone thought that historians ought to do that, Polybius for instance differentiating between the historian and the “tragic poet.” What matters for the present purposes, Ehrman argues, is genre, which represents a “contract” between the author and reader – and forgery in essence represents a breaking of such a contract.

Ehrman works his way up to the New Testament epistles in Peter’s name by way of later, extracanonical forgeries in Peter’s name. After a surprisingly brief discussion of 1 Peter (he will return to it later), Ehrman turns his attention to 2 Peter, indicating that there is little disagreement among scholars about this letter not having been written by Peter. Very brief arguments against authenticity are offered, before turning to a more substantive and general issue: the unlikelihood that the historical Peter could read and write Greek. General information about literacy (or more importantly the widespread lack thereof) in the Greco-Roman world is offered, as is information specific to Peter and his context – such as the fact that no inscriptions have been found at Capernaum. As we have no evidence for the existence of adult education classes in the ancient world that might have allowed Peter to learn to compose in eloquent Greek, and the letters of Peter do not read like translations from Aramaic, the most straightforward explanation is that these letters were neither written nor authored by Peter, but were falsely written by others in his name.

Chapter 3 begins with fabricated stories about Paul before turning to its principal topic, forgeries written in the name of Paul, working its way from post-NT examples to the New Testament itself. Within the New Testament, Ehrman begins with the Pastoral Epistles, providing a brief overview as well as a history of scholarly suspicions about the authenticity of the letters and a discussion of their relationship to one another. Ehrman mentions the differences in frequency of words between these letters and others attributed to Paul, and the different meanings that some of the words have even when the same terms are used.  The relationship between the Pastorals and the Acts of Paul is also discussed.

I found particularly interesting Ehrman’s discussion of 2 Thessalonians. While many English translations give the impression that this epistle is arguing against some who say that “the day of the Lord has already come,” Ehrman renders the phrase in 2:2 as “the day of the Lord is at hand,” which is a possible  rendering of ἐνέστηκεν ἡ ἡμέρα τοῦ κυρίου and one that some commentators have preferred. Understood in this way, it becomes possible that the target of 2 Thessalonians may well be 1 Thessalonians, with the later forger attempting to counter the authentic Pauline letter’s expectation of an imminent end.

The chapter concludes with a discussion of Ephesians and Colossians. Scholars will know that those who are resistant to the idea of pseudepigraphy in the New Testament – to say nothing of calling it “forgery” – are hard to persuade even when one offers extensive focused discussions of the evidence in detail. And so the relatively brief treatment Ehrman offers of the evidence against the authenticity of the Petrine and Pauline epistles may well leave some readers unpersuaded. To be fair, however, Ehrman has probably included as much information about the details that lead scholars to their conclusions – such as frequency of different types of conjunctions – as can be included in a book for a general readership.

Chapter 4 is in a sense the heart of the book, and Ehrman’s distinctive contribution. The evidence for New Testament works being pseudepigraphal is well-known (among those who read New Testament scholarship, if not a wider public). But often times these same scholars will try to put a positive spin on pseudepigraphy, suggesting that what seems to modern readers a worrying and deceptive practice may not in fact have been so viewed in the time when they were written. While it is understandable why scholars would have tried to break the news of fraudulent authorship as gently as possible to people who are used to expecting truthfulness from New Testament authors, Ehrman offers a critique of what have become scholarly commonplaces, and makes the case that forgery was viewed as negatively in antiquity as it is today.

Ehrman begins with a bit of autobiography, indicating that his own mind has changed on this subject over the years. Against those who argue that the Bible must be inerrant and truthful since God does not lie, Ehrman approaches the matter more logically: “If God created an error-free book, then the book should be without errors. If what we have is not an error-free book, then it is not a book that God has delivered to us without errors” (p.117).

Ehrman then turns to several scholarly claims, such as that pseudepigraphy was not considered deceitful in ancient times. What is often not noticed is that scholars who make this claim consistently fail to provide any evidence to support it. Ehrman looks to the ancient sources, and finds that they consistently condemn it – the only real exception being some who engaged in the practice and got caught. The claim that pseudepigraphy was an expression of humility (which doesn’t work out well for Paul!) is addressed. Ehrman pays particular attention to the claim that in some philosophical schools, it was customary for students to give the credit for their work to their teacher. There are only two texts that have been cited in support of this. One, from an Arabic translation of a work by Porphyry, in fact says the opposite, condemning those who fabricated “false books.” The other, from Iamblichus, is from later than the New Testament, and its claim about what the Pythagoreans did in earlier times does not seem to correspond to reality, much less provide evidence of a widespread practice in New Testament times.

The hypothesis that works which differ in style from that typical of their purported author may reflect the influence of secretaries is considered next. It is problematic because we have almost no evidence that secretaries were given such authority, and the one possible example of such a practice – namely Cicero – was wealthy (and thus could afford to have someone write for him) and did so for short, stereotypical letters, not the lengthy sermon-treatises we find in the New Testament, which in many instances just barely qualify as letters at all. And so Ehrman suggests that the best explanation for what we find in the New Testament is what we today and ancients would agree in calling forgery. And given the evidence, I cannot but conclude that Ehrman is right about this.

Chapter 5 is focused almost exclusively on extracanonical forgeries produced in the context of Jewish-Christian controversies. It begins, however, by observing the irony that Ephesians, written falsely in Paul’s name, places so much emphasis on truth. Chapter 6 looks at forgeries produced in the context of conflicts with false teachers, noting that the hottest arguments are about things we care about and with people we are close to. In addition to extracanonical texts, works such as Colossians and Jude are also surveyed. The treatment of the letter of James is interesting, since Ehrman detects that its argument, focused on good works rather than the “works of the Law” that Paul was concerned with (circumcision, food laws, Sabbath, etc.), seems to be arguing against a misunderstanding or reinterpretation of Paul’s letters that we find in later forgeries such as Ephesians. On this basis, Ehrman suggests that the letter of James may be a forgery written as a response to such pseudo-Pauline writings. The chapter then turns to pro-Pauline forgeries, among which are the epistles forged in Peter’s name – the first of which sounds very much like Paul, and the second of which treats Paul’s writings as Scripture. Ehrman also includes the Acts of the Apostles, broadening at this point the notion of “forgery” in discussing evidence that he feels suggests that the author intentionally insinuated that he had been a companion of Paul’s (the “we” passages) when this is unlikely to have been the case. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Gnostic and anti-Gnostic forgeries.

Chapter 7 focuses on phenomena related to forgery: false attributions, fabrications and falsifications. Ehrman explains why he finds unpersuasive the claim that the early church would not have invented the traditions that Mark and Luke wrote the works attributed to them, since these were obscure and relatively unimportant figures. For Luke-Acts, the author had to be someone who could be included in the “we” sections of Acts, and so a travelling companion of Paul’s was the only option. As for Mark, we do not know exactly when the tradition that Mark served as Peter’s interpreter arose, and whether it was an attempt to connect Mark’s Gospel with an authoritative apostolic source, or rather a tradition which led to the assigning of the Gospel to Mark in the first place. Fabrication (and how it was viewed) is also discussed, as are deliberate changes to manuscripts made by scribes/copyists, since they caused readers of their copies to believe that their additions/modifications were the work of the author of the original. Plagiarism is also discussed, and Ehrman offers evidence that, contrary to what is frequently claimed, copying another’s work and passing it off as your own, whether in its original form or with superficial modifications, was condemned in antiquity, providing as examples Polybius, Martial, and Diogenes Laertius. Ehrman writes at the conclusion of the chapter, “[T]here were numerous ways to lie in and through literature in antiquity, and some Christians took advantage of the full panoply in their efforts to promote their view of the faith. It may seem odd to modern readers, or even counterintuitive, that a religion that built its reputation on possessing the truth had members who attempted to disseminate their understanding of the truth through deceptive means. But it is precisely what happened. The use of deception to promote the truth may well be considered one of the most unsettling ironies of the early Christian tradition” (p.250).

Chapter 8 turns attention to more recent forgeries, such as The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. Ehrman somewhat inexplicably includes Hugh Schonfield’s The Passover Plot for consideration here, even though he acknowledges that it is neither a forgery nor a fabrication in the strict sense, but simply a historical reconstruction that creatively goes beyond anything the evidence can sustain. Nevertheless, the examples given in the chapter usefully illustrate that forgeries today, like forgeries in the distant past, have often been successful in persuading significant numbers of people to treat them as though they were genuine.

The final chapter concludes with a discussion of when different people think it may or may not be appropriate to lie. Most would not regard the motives that led early Christians to forge works in the name of apostles and other authoritative figures to be of the sort that justify lying. Ehrman concludes with reference to the Golden Rule. Christians have regularly upheld the principle of doing to others what we would want done to us, and have regularly condemned forgery by others. And so to treat forgeries by Christians as something acceptable, or to claim that such activities would have been acceptable in the past, seems to be at odds not only with the historical evidence, but also with a central Christian moral principle.

The deliberate combination for consideration in Forged of canonical and extracanonical works, even though this fits less well with the subtitle’s reference to “the Bible,” is nevertheless definitely a positive feature. While scholarship by and for the church may have reason to single out works that are considered by that group to be canonical, historical scholarship needs to blur the lines between works within and outside a canon, since at the time the works were produced, the canonical boundaries did not exist. Nevertheless, to the extent that the book’s subtitle leads readers to expect a focus primarily on the Bible, some will find the amount of attention given to Biblical texts to be less than they expected.

As for the question of whether “forgery” is the appropriate/best term to use in reference to early Christian pseudepigrapha, Ehrman makes a persuasive case that the answer is yes. While Ehrman’s book will probably change few minds about the authenticity of a work if they have already looked into the matter in detail, regarding the question whether those which are pseudepigraphal were likely written with the intention to deceive, and whether the readers taken in by the claim to authorship would have resented being duped in this way, Ehrman’s answer in the affirmative is convincing, and I expect that this will mark the beginning of a sea change in the scholarly realm on this point.

To sum up: For a scholarly audience, Ehrman’s discussion of forgery is an important one, and worth pondering in this popularized form, even before Ehrman’s anticipated scholarly monograph on the topic. For a general audience, the book provides a helpful introduction to the reasons why scholars are persuaded that a significant number of works in the New Testament are not by their purported authors. As always, Ehrman does a good job of mediating scholarship to a wider public, in an informative and readable style.

Finally, let me say this: As readers of this blog read Ehrman’s book once it is released – and I hope you will – I invite you to return here to share your thoughts on the issues Ehrman raises, and look forward to those discussions.

  • Angie Van De Merwe

    It would be so nice to "get on" with talking about what we, as a society, think would be the best for us, as Americans, humans and future generations, without "inerrant, infallible texts" to battle. It muddies up the discussion and clouds believers views, hindering them from even considering certain options, or thinking…

  • Alan Lenzi

    One of these days, James, you'll have to tell us all why you're a Christian. . . . Or is such a statement somewhere on this blog?

  • James F. McGrath

    Alan, there are indeed some posts on that subject, although I suppose quite a bit of time has passed since I wrote them, and so it may be time to post something on that topic again – especially if those earlier posts aren't easy to find, so do let me know!

  • Anonymous

    I'm not sure if we should consider this a big deal or not. Forging back then allowed others to share their voice and by attributing it to some old authority they would have had a good chance of being listened too. So perhaps Bart's book will allow others to reconsider our opinion on forgery and be sympathetic on those who because of their "insignificance" were not given the opportunity to share with us their own thoughts.But I'm not sure what Bart wants us to do, is he suggesting that we cut these text out of the canon since they aren't true [in the sense of being written by their alledged authors]? Anyway I sense a trap, James when this man asked you tell us why you are Christian, even though I cannot detect one's tone online, it seems secretly mean spirited.Bian

  • James F. McGrath

    Brian, I don't think that is where Alan is coming from at all. He's a nice guy, and I think you should talk to him directly instead of speculating about his motives in the third person in a conversation that he is part of.What I understood him to be asking is why I consider myself a Christian when I can review a book about forgery in early Christianity so favorably. :)

  • Anonymous

    I was being slightly faceitious. But again, our tone doesn't translate well online.Besides I ask you about your faith more than anybody here.Brian

  • James F. McGrath

    I tried [SARCASM]tagging my sarcasm[/SARCASM], before HTML got so advanced that it treated my spoof code as code. :)

  • Anonymous

    Well moving on…I in response to your review would insist that forgery really isn't that big of a deal especially when we look at how society worked back then. People who were denied the opportunity to speak because of whatever reason should at least be looked at with sympathy. Though Ehrman is right to say that forgery is a no-no I feel [from your review] that he is making to big of a deal over it. They for the most part were not trying to deceive or gain profit because as you said who would buy Paul's letters? But they wanted to like James condemn the irresponsibility of others by showing that it goes against the opinion of an authority figure instead of a lowly individual like themselves.Brian

  • Jay

    Thank you for the review, James. I have this book on pre-order and am looking forward to it. I think a great deal of the significance of this area of study rests on the question of whether or not the contemporary people reading the works, and giving it authority, were aware that they could be reading/hearing forged/inaccurately attributed works. I suspect they didn't, and I tend to think that arguments that forgery was common and accepted are overselling their claims.A parallel question can be raised with respect to modern readers – if they were aware of the uncertain authorship of much of the content in the Bible, would their views of it change?In any case, it's important for modern readers to understand that the Bible has a much spottier pedigree than many believe.

  • John Hobbins

    Alan's question, of course, is perfectly sincere. In the first instance, if one grows up a fundamentalist, and discovers that neither the Bible nor life are what fundamentalism makes them out to be, it's possible to come to the conclusion that the Bible is nonetheless a unique resource for understanding the meaning of life, an excellent rule of faith and practice. The Bible, in other words, seems perfectly capable of being light before one's path without being error-free in the sense both fundamentalists and Ehrman want it to be.But if one goes down the road Ehrman does, a road exemplified in the book as presented to us above, and comes to the conclusion that the New Testament is full of forged writings and fabrications of various kinds, that is a game-changer. It is not clear to me how or why such a person would remain a Christian. In short, I agree with Alan's question.

  • Mr. Eason

    James-Thanks for the wonderful and thorough review. As an amateur NT "scholar" I usually don't read Ehrman's books as they seem to simply popularize in sensational form what most students in religious studies learn and accept pretty early on. I am of course also familiar with his more scholarly work, which is generally quite good. If nothing else he has put together some fine collections of primary source reading in early Christian studies. A couple of questions: first, clearly the most intriguing chapter, as you note, is the one in which Ehrman makes the case for using the controversial term "forgery." Aside from it being intensely pejorative (which, if it is accurate, so be it), is it really accurate? On the one hand, forgery to me suggests either taking a genuine article and passing it as one's own (say, forging a check). In a sense closer to Ehrman's it seems to mean falsely bringing into existence something which is *already thought* to exist. Say, for example, the early church knew Paul had written a letter to the Ephesians, they couldn't find it, so someone put one together and slapped Paul's name one it. Maybe I am too specific in my definition. As I write this it seems difficult to define the term with its connotative meaning. Perhaps I simply think that "forgery" presumes a moral stance that a scholar of any stripe ought to avoid assuming.In any case, what reasons does Ehrman give for choosing to abandon the term "pseudepigrapha?" Seems pretty accurate and unbiased to me.Second question: does Ehrman make use of Anthony Grafton's book "Forger's and Critics." I reviewed in a seminar class several years ago and, based on your comments, couldn't help but think that Grafton's work would effectively engulf what Ehrman does here.Thanks again for the blog. I find it intriguing as a continuing student of the NT and informative as an educator.Joe

  • James F. McGrath

    John, it is a good question, but I think I can even answer from Ehrman's book, in a paraphrase of a quote from Rabbi Harold Kershner. The New Testament's Golden Rule sets up such a high standard that even some of the New Testament authors failed to live up to it. Their failure, or my own failure, doesn't seem like it requires a repudiation of the ideals.

  • James F. McGrath

    Joe, thanks for your comment. I don't recall any explicit mention of Grafton's book, and a quick glance just now at the footnotes failed to find any reference to it. So I don't think Ehrman interacts with him at all.You may be right that the term pseudepigraphy is perfectly adequate while forgery has connotations that don't quite correspond. I think Ehrman is less concerned with the terminology than to indicate that pseudepigraphy was not something that either was considered acceptable or that didn't fool anyone in ancient times. And so, at the risk of speaking on his behalf and doing a bad job, I think his concern is less with substituting one term in place of another, and more with how the act of pseudepigraphy is construed by many New Testament scholars, who claim that it was a perfectly acceptable practice and/or that it didn't fool anyone.

  • Anonymous

    I already said I was joking about Alan, geesh guys.Well James is right in my opinion, not everyone can live up to the golden rule but I would add that maybe NT forgery was a necessary evil. I mean what parts of these forged letters are henious? And forging in Paul's name [along with Peter, Jude, and James] helped Christians express their opinion. I don't think we should ignore their contributions and if we were, hypothetically speaking, how would this effect us? But maybe I have it easy, as I am a Catholic and we make use of the sacred tradition which isn't apostolic. So in a way I see it in the same way.Brian

  • Paul D.

    Thanks for the review. I'm looking forward to reading the book.Addressing Dr. Hobbins's comment — even if an NT author used deception or forgery to disseminate his ideas, the content can still be evaluated and appreciated for its own merits, it seems to me.

  • Hjalti

    I would like to ask the same question that I've heard Ehrman ask (and this is a verbatim quotation): "Why did we have to wait for an atheist biblical scholar in the 21st century to "debunk" all this liberal christianity apologetics of "forgeries were cool back then"?""

  • Mike Gantt

    Assuming your review to Ehrman's book is fair, and I have every reason to believe that it is, I am shocked that neither he – nor you – have addressed the most obvious question that his thesis raises: that is, given an ancient world in which forgery was viewed as negatively as it is today, how did forgeries make it into a canon whose most significant criterion was apostolic authenticity?The sheer volume of alleged apostolic documents that were rejected, along with the contention regarding the antilegomena, in and of themselves indicate a process quite concerned with rooting out forgeries. Ehrman would have had an easier time alleging that forgeries are present in today's canon had he left alone the idea that pseudepigraphy was acceptable in ancient times. However, since he has gone out of his way to insist that folks back then didn't like to be duped any more than we do (a point I am quite glad that he has emphasized for it means the canonization process was even more rigorous than supposed), he has inadvertently strengthened the case for believing that there are no forgeries in the 27 NT books we have today.

  • Mike Gantt

    Paul D,Regarding your challenge to Dr. Hobbins' comment (and, by implication, to Alan's as well), I find your position untenable. You said:"…even if an NT author used deception or forgery to disseminate his ideas, the content can still be evaluated and appreciated for its own merits, it seems to me."On this point, again I side with Ehrman, who repudiates the idea that deception in the cause of truth is acceptable. I cannot say it better than Dr. McGrath did on Dr. Ehrman's behalf:"The final chapter concludes with a discussion of when different people think it may or may not be appropriate to lie. Most would not regard the motives that led early Christians to forge works in the name of apostles and other authoritative figures to be of the sort that justify lying. Ehrman concludes with reference to the Golden Rule. Christians have regularly upheld the principle of doing to others what we would want done to us, and have regularly condemned forgery by others. And so to treat forgeries by Christians as something acceptable, or to claim that such activities would have been acceptable in the past, seems to be at odds not only with the historical evidence, but also with a central Christian moral principle."

  • James F. McGrath

    Mike, that is an excellent point. My answer (which I suspect would be the same as Ehrman's) is that the forgeries for the most part were detected by early church fathers, but there were also people then as now who had used works believing them to be apostolic, and preferred to argue for their authenticity rather than admit that they were duped. The latter carried the day, but not without opposition. Hjalti, I've only ever heard Ehrman describe himself as an "agnostic" and so, given the topic of his book and this post, I suppose I should ask for the source of the quote and check its authenticity. :-). But it is worth putting out that the harder work of making the case for these works be inauthentic, which Ehrman builds upon, is largely the work of liberal Christian scholars, and so at best I think the quote is uncharitable, although not without a valid point. But the situation is better described as one in which some things became commonplaces that were not supported by evidence, and even Ehrman probably heard them and assumed they were correct at one point. Now that he has pointed out the issue, the question is whether his point will be resisted or embraced. Unless it generally turns out to be the former, then I don't think there is much to be offered by way of criticism. As scholarship improves our understanding, I fully expect liberal Christians to change their minds as a result.

  • Paul D.

    Mike: point taken.

  • John Hobbins

    It's always interesting to see the extent to which one's scholarly conclusions can be understood as the fruit of one's spiritual autobiography, but I'm more interested in seeing the extent to which they are not.If I were to develop a context in which to understand pseudepigraphy in early Christianity, I would start on the one hand with a thorough review of attribution in Second Temple and rabbinic literature, with attribution to Moses and particular tannaim as test cases, and a like review in Greek and Roman literature, with attribution to Socrates and Plato as test cases.I would then explore and contextualize the views of Didymus the Blind, a Church Father who understood 2 Peter to be a forgery.Finally, I would explore the fact that "literary attributions are always hermeneutical constructs, and are always meant to be taken seriously within a specific set of cultural assumptions. Deception, like love, is in the eyes of the beholder."I began a discussion of attribution in this post:

  • Gary

    Since I am reading "Who Wrote the Bible" (Friedman), I have to add a comment. Friedman talks about "Pious fraud" attributed to De Wette which is more a deliberate attempt to fool, which is too strong. I think the term we are more familiar with is "spin", which all humans tend to do, whether intentional or not. We hear it every day from both Fox on the right and MSNBC on the left. They are dealing with the same facts historically (usually), but they want to interject their views into the mix. And you have to relate the historical facts behind the spin to understand the writer's motivation. Friedman deals with E, J, D, and P, but the history reflects it. E and J came from the two kingdoms, north and south. Same basic facts, but they both needed to express their own views of how the facts came about. E and J, Moses and Aaron. When Israel is taken over by Assyria in 722 BC, refugees who reflect the Shiloh (Moses) priests come to Judah under Hezekiah's rule. The Aaron priests want to reaffirm their superiority and job in the temple, so they write and interject the P source into scripture. The Dtr1 gets interjected into scripture with Jeremiah's influence during the reforms under Josiah. It isn't fraud. The people consider all writings about their basic original oral (oral always comes before written) history as sacred, and too valuable to destroy. So the scribes that follow try to combine and keep all writings, even though they might tend to contradict one another. So Israel/Judah, Moses/Aaron priests, to quote Friedman, "The laws and stories of P reflect the interests, the actions, the politics, and the spirit of the age of Hezekiah the way that D reflects the age of Josiah."

  • Evan

    But the situation is better described as one in which some things became commonplaces that were not supported by evidence … Noted without comment.

  • Gary

    BTW, there is an interesting CNN article on Crossan – nothing to do with this post.

  • mikew1584

    I look forward to the book. Given that large amount of suspected psuedographical work in the New Testament I hope his work will shed light on why they were made and how authors disseminated them. With so little known about the period they emerge from there are so many questions.

  • Mike Gantt

    Dr. McGrath, in that case I'm all the more interested in your answer to Alan's and Dr. Hobbin's question, especially if you're willing to include your personal canon (since presumably it would match Ehrman's, thus exclude forgeries, and not leave you much with which to fend off the mythicists).

  • James F. McGrath

    Mike, I am not sure what the canon has to do with mythicism. The fact that works are in the canon is one of the excuse mythicists use for ignoring what sources say. But the issue with respect to mythicism is history not canonicity, and Ehrman in fact makes a brief swipe at mythicists in the book.As for me, on the one hand, I have no interest in redefining the canon. It reflects a historic tradition of use. But in practice, we all have a "canon within the canon" in the sense of there being some things which might as well not be in the canon, since we ignore them or do nothing with them.

  • Anonymous

    And despite the apostles not writing the Gospels they remain our best sources for Jesus.And perhaps I should write in some authority figures name it might result in my voice being heard.Brian

  • Mike Gantt

    Dr. McGrath, since canonicity is supposed to be a proxy for apostolic authenticity doesn't it have a great deal to do with history? As for your fending off the mythicists, my focus was on your cache of historical documents with which you in your own mind resist their claims (their resistance to anything in the canon being beside the point).As for everyone's "canon within the canon" I thought yours might be of particular interest since it would represent maintream critical scholarship. My current very unofficial tally has the count from 27 down to maybe 7 (mostly letters of Paul). I'm not sure that's accurate but don't have a basis to correct it.

  • James F. McGrath

    Mike, our information about Jesus within the New Testament comes largely from four anonymous texts and the authentic Pauline letters. It isn't clear to me that the elimination of the Pastoral Epistles and some others from among our earliest sources has any relevance to the existence of Jesus.But I suspect that I may once again be failing to detect what is behind your comments. Or were you blurring the anonymity and possible false attribution of authorship to Gospels in later times, with the issue of forgery in the case of epistles which explicitly claim someone is their author by name?

  • Mike K.

    Nice review James, I must check the book out sometime since I am presenting on 1 Peter which I take to be pseudonymous as well. But I wonder how you might respond to John Hobbin's posted link above or an older post from Dr. Harland with links to further debate ( And a couple issues that I can think about off the top of my head. Having just read Maurice Casey's take on "Authorship and Pseudonymity" in "Is John’s Gospel True?" (on google preview), can we possibly draw a distinction between Jewish views of collective authorship and attributing works to the fountainhead of the tradition (e.g. all wisdom literature attributed to Solomon) and Greek views that may have prized individual authorship more strongly, with different Christian views on authorship influenced by one or the other? And to be as neutral as possible, since pseudonymity is found in so many Jewish, proto-orthodox, Nag Hammadi or other Greco-Roman texts, can we really judge them all as conscious intentions to deceive? If, lets say, the Petrine epistles are late first century/early second century, can we know if its first readers did not know that Peter had long been dead and that the author genuinely wanted to preserve what was believed to be "orthodox" tradition and naturally attribute it to the fountainhead the apostle Peter?

  • Anonymous

    That's another reason why forgery to me isn't that big of a deal. But nevertheless Bart's points must be wrestled with and we must be honest as well. Brian

  • James F. McGrath

    Mike K., thanks for your comment – I hope your presentation on 1 Peter goes well. There certainly are discussions that are worth having about how to nuance our treatment of pseudepigraphy and other related matters fairly. For instance, is a movie about Jesus – whether "Jesus of Nazareth", "The Passion of the Christ" or "The Last Temptation of the Christ" fabrication, history, something else or some combination. I think that Ehrman presents good evidence that those who gave thought to matters such as forgery and wrote about them did not appreciate writing in someone else's name. But Ehrman seems to acknowledge that writing in Daniel's name to give hope in a time of persecution may not be viewed in precisely the same way as simply writing something in Paul's name to get your views a hearing. And so I think Ehrman has offered something helpful, but his work on this should presumably be the start of a wide scholarly discussion, rather than the last word on the subject.

  • Mike Gantt

    Dr. McGrath, let me try to come at this a different way. Ehrman says (and I'm getting this from a recent presentation he gave at the U of Tenn on material covered in the book; Title = "Are There Forgeries in the NT" Link to video w/ppt = says there are only 7 or 8 authentic writings (Rm, 1-2 Co, Ga, Ph, 1Th, Phile; Rev is questionable because it was written by a John other than the apostle of that name). He says the rest are either falsely attributed or else forgeries (8 or 9 in the first category and 9 or 10 in the second). He also says this is not his view but rather the common view among critical scholars.This is how I came up with the tally of 7 (I'm not sure what to do with his categorization of Rev).Therefore, my question is, as a historian, since you only have seven documents for which you know the identity of the author and believe he had a personal relationship with Jesus, where does this leave you with respect to what you can know about Him?

  • Anonymous

    steph says…she can't figure out how to leave a nonanonymous comment, yeah well… sounds like ehrman's trangressed the important distinction between pseudopigraphy in an ancient culture, which is accepted, and 'forgery', which is not. A bee in a bonnet? Maybe, maybe not. However you James are a Christian apologist – oh whoops no you're not – you're a raving blasphemous atheist for giving him such a favourable review. You're a heretic with fundamentalist Christian leanings. Gosh you must get so confused… 'how can you call yourself a Christian'. Poor you!! ;-)again, in sympathy,steph

  • Mike K.

    James, I agree this is a start of a scholarly discussion, since the existence of pseudonymous writings is old news but the use of the loaded "forgery" is the controversial item.Mike, I think you could add to the list of 7 authentic works since the Johannine epistles probably are the work of the anonymous "elder" (not a pseudonym) and the gospels are not technically pseudonymous as they are anonymous with the ascriptions Matthew/Mark/Luke/John added later (but there can be debate on whether the "we" in Luke-Acts or the Beloved Disciple in John is a claim to authorship). And you can make a reasonable case for the authenticity of some other debated epistles (e.g. Colossians). But I don't think it affects the mythicist debate because our earliest writings are the authentic Pauline letters from the 50s which claim to know some of the original followers of Jesus (Cephas, the Twelve, James the Lord's brother) and pass along early sayings, creeds, etc and the Synoptic Gospels while anonymous clearly utilize earlier source materials.

  • James F. McGrath

    Mike Gantt, if you want to know things about the historical figure of Jesus, you use the tools of historical criticism and investigate. Josephus and Tacitus are not in anyone's canon of Sacred Scripture, but that doesn't make them irrelevant. And the Gospel of John is in the canon, and claims to have eyewitness testimony behind it, but that doesn't mean that someone approaching this matter historically can overlook the fact that Jesus, John the Baptist, and the narrator all speak in the same distinctive way.Presumably you are referring to the seven Pauline epistles that are generally considered authentic? As you point out, in the case of the Gospels we are dealing with anonymity, and in the case of Revelation it may be homonymity (although given that all other apocalypses we know of are pseudepigraphic, we cannot but wonder about Revelation).Steph – Welcome to my world! :)

  • Anonymous

    Really? Even though all three go off on long discourses with a lot of parallelism and repetitions I always understood that Jesus, The Baptist, and the Narrator all have distinct voices. But that could just be me.But why would anyone want to change the cannon? The only other work I would possibly put in would be First Clement and possibly a few of Ignatius' letter's. Brian

  • Anonymous

    oooooooonononononono – I keep out of that … just remain perching in the peripherals scanning the godless and fungusments and chatting to the MG about his latest…(steph)

  • Anonymous

    Hmmm. Ehrman's argument seems to be something like the following:(1) The authors of certain NT books were not who they clamied to be(2) If an author writes a book and claims that someone else is the author of said book, the book is a forgery(3) Most people back then thought that forgery was unethicalTherefore, (4) The authors of certain NT books committed the unethical act of forgery in attributing the authorship of such books to others.(1) seems uncontroversial. (2) of course hinges on what constitutes a "forgery," but let's grant the term for now. (3) seems dubious, but let's grant it for the sake of argument. (4), however, is crucial for Erhman's argument, and highly implausible. For why should anyone think that the general consensus on "forgery" is ethically binding? There are all sorts of reasons why forgery might usually be wrong, without being wrong in every case. And if our NT authors had sufficient reason to make an exception to the general prohibiton agains forgery, then they did nothing wrong.It seems, then, that even if we grant Ehrman all his controversial premises, that his argument fails.

  • Anonymous

    What?That made no sense. Writing in somebody elses name when you aren't them is considered a forgery, it doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing but it still counts as one. Beside's Bart's argument was just that back then people didn't like being duped. But he also shows that people back then like today fail to appreciate the reasons why people forged.Brian

  • Anonymous

    Is forgery necessarily an unethical act? My claim is that it is not, though it might usually be wrong. But whether or not a given act of forgery is unethical has nothing to do with whether most people in a given culture like being "duped."-Danny (also wrote the above anon. post)

  • James F. McGrath

    Danny, please do say more. What would constitute a sufficient reason for forgery, in your opinion?In fact, Ehrman does discuss this, and so I should mention that, lest the discussion proceed on the assumption that he doesn't even consider this. he actually discusses various sorts of lies that many would consider justified, as ll as some about which there would be considerable disagreement.It might also be worthwhile for commenterrs discussing this particular point to say what their moral framework is. I would be particularly interested what other Christians think about this. to give a modern parallel, I have no doubt that the person who fabricated the story of Darwin's deathbed renunciation of evolution thought that such a lie was justified as a response to a theory that was itself felt to be problematic. Young-earth creationists regularly forge and fabricate and misconstrue, convinced that it is OK because they are sure that their claims must be true even if they have no scientific proof, because they believe the Bible itself demonstrates that evolution must be wrong.As someone previously duped by young-earth creationism, I can't say that I view such deception favorably. But it may be that others would disagree.One thing is almost certainly true – most of us have far more toleration for deception in favor of something we believe is true, than for deception perpetrated on us in favor of something we disagree in. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we ought to consider this tendency of ours as constituting moral justification.

  • Anonymous

    I think that writing something that appears to have been written by someone else is perfectly fine. I also like to drink WD-40.-Danny

  • Matt

    Have any of you read the book News of a Kidnapping? I believe one of the subjects in the book has been accused of falsely claiming events that happened to other people happened to her. If doing so, however, brought international attention to the drug cartels in Columbia would that be legitimate forgery?Maybe we can see the letters as something like this? Good information that needed a way to get read. Maybe a little dishonest but we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  • James F. McGrath

    Henry, if your friend Danny does not have the sense and decency to post with a registered profile, there is no way to confirm his identity. But of course, his argument was that it may be justifiable to write in another person's name, and so he is being consistent. You, however, have ignored your friend's logic and condemned someone for posting in his name – which seems rather ironic.For future reference, if you blurt something out when speaking then there is nothing to do but apologize. If you write a comment and use foul language, then your choice not to use backspace but instead to write an apology and leave the foul language there indicates that you are not really sorry. And the only reason I released your comment from the spam filter in spite of the language you used was to make this point.

  • Danny

    Hi Professor McGrath. This is the 'real Danny'. (FWIW I am not posting under a registered profile because I do not have one.)"Danny, please do say more. What would constitute a sufficient reason for forgery, in your opinion?"There are all kinds of possible reasons. To name a couple:(1) Our authors knew that their teaching was true, and essential for the Church, but realized that under their own names their writings would not be accepted (2) They were not aware of the 'scholarly consensus'. Perhaps they knew that their teachings were consonant with Paul, or whoever, and thought it appropriate to sign his name. (Again, I grant that there was such consensus for the sake of argument. If Ehrman himself admits that believing in such a consensus is a minority view, so much the worse for his overall case.) Unfortunately, many are stuck in some sort of Kantian or pseudo-Kantian rule based ethic, and like to believe in universal prohibitions. Perhaps Ehrman is stuck in this mode of ethical reasoning, perhaps not. If not, however, it should be easy to recognize that forgery being wrong in general does not entail it being wrong in a given particular case. I am highly doubtful whether we could have the evidence to determine such NT authors's motivations. (Of course, maybe Ehrman has this, but from this review it does not appear that he does.) In the absence of such evidence, I prefer a charitable attitude toward our New Testament authors, whoever they were. -Danny

  • Mike Gantt

    Dr. McGrath, I take your point to be that there is an historian's "canon" (which would include sources like Josephus and Tacitus, but exclude the Gospel of John) which differs from the church's canon. Leaving aside the reliability of all three of the sources mentioned, isn't the historian thereby giving up great deal of material in exchange for very little? That is, what can you say you really know about Jesus from Josephus and Tacitus (especially since the Josephus references are contested as textually tainted by Christian redaction)?Of course, if truth is your aim you can't leave reliability aside for long and have deal with such questions irrespective of how one-side the exchange might be. Going back to Alan's and Dr. Hobbin's question, I'm assuming you have faith in Christ. I assume further that your faith is based on your understanding of certain historical facts about Jesus which you accept as valid. My curiosity has to do with what is in that historian's canon and how much does it tell you about Jesus? For example, is it 30% of His picture we see in the NT Does it include His bodily resurrection on the third day? You obviously see enough of Someone to believe in. (But maybe not – please correct me if I've assumed to much.) Ehrman, who shares your canon, does stand with you against the mythicists, but he himself does not see a Jesus He can believe in. On the contrary, though he says he is an agnostic about God he also makes clear that he is "atheistic" about the Christian God. That is, he says he knows enough to reject the Christian conception of God. Since you and he seem to be relying on the same evidence, I'm wondering what enables you to come to a different conclusion – and what exactly your conclusion is.I am not "calling you to account." I am not setting you up for an argument. Rather, I am trying to understand your point of view – particularly in light of this book you have reviewed which seems to underscore the critical scholarly consensus that there is not nearly as much reliable historical material in the NT as many believers have supposed. This question does not commend itself to Ehrman because he has seen enough unreliability in the NT documents to give him warrant to reject its main thesis. The question does commend itself to you, however, assuming I am right about your having faith in Christ. Thus, to repeat it, the question is what exactly is in that historians' "canon" that gives a basis for faith in Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah of Israel raised from the dead?

  • James F. McGrath

    Danny, thank you for commenting. Given the issues related to "forgery" I would definitely encourage you to register for a Google/Blogger identity or find some other OpenID that you can use, lest anyone think that you really do drink WD-40. :)I agree that forgery, like plagiarism, is something the wrongfulness of which is far less obvious than other matters. Ehrman seems to indicate this too, and raises the issue and points out what ancient authors who wrote about the topic thought about it, rather than trying to make a case for an absolute ethical stance on this.I have no doubt that at least many who composed works in the name of others – whether within or outside the canon – sincerely believed that they were continuing the teaching of the person in whose name they wrote. But others then and now disagreed – for instance, on whether some later works accurately reflect the historical Paul's view of women's possible roles in the church.But I suppose I ought to take this as an opportunity to be self-critical. I suspect that many of those of us who work in the domain of exegesis are doing something not entirely unlike fabrication or forgery, since the meanings we attribute to New Testament authors surely reflect our own perspective as much as theirs, however much we try to be objective.

  • Mike Gantt

    …Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah of Israel raised from the dead and Savior of the world?

  • James F. McGrath

    Mike, I don't think it gives an accurate impression to speak of a historian's "canon." Whether we're dealing with Mark's Gospel or Josephus' Antiquities, they are read critically, and there is no assumption that even a source that is generally reliable is therefore trustworthy in every detail.Historical study assesses evidence, much as is done in a court of law. And so the issue is not how many witnesses can one get on the stand, but how many of them provide testimony that can be corroborated beyond reasonable doubt.As for your last question, I do not see how a historian today could ever conclude that it is more probable that Jesus' body was not in the tomb because of an unprecedented miracle than because of some other means. Historical study cannot prove miracles do not happen, but since it deals in probabilities, it is bound to acknowledge what I think people of faith would also say: miracles are in no sense probable events.Even if historical study could offer a positive judgment about the resurrection, it would be something like "Jesus probably rose from the dead." This too would presumably seem inadequate to many as a grounds for faith.And where that leaves Christians today is something I continue to wrestle with. But one thing I am not willing to do is to stop approaching the evidence using the best available tools, and drawing on the best available scholarship, simply because it doesn't allow me to draw conclusions that I might have liked to.

  • Henry

    You should have let it go to the spam folder, for it was written in an exhausted state in the middle of the night, did nothing to further the conversation, and was frankly embarrassing. I am sorry. My friend can defend himself, and I can slink away to not comment for a while, and especially not in the middle of the night.

  • James F. McGrath

    Henry, I probably should have left it until morning to respond too. Sorry. There were severe thunderstorms, a tornado warning, and the creek behind our house flooding over its banks last night – or I should say in the early hours of this morning.No need to slink away! :)

  • Jon

    Okay, so color me convinced about the previous apologies made by Christian scholars for the forgeries in the NT. Their creation under false names seems not to have been within generally accepted ethical boundaries. But I still have some questions:First, if Christians produced forgeries, it was only in the continuance of the grand post-exilic Jewish tradition in which forgery had thrived in similar ways for at least a few centuries. Even among the larger community of contemporary religious nuts, Christians forgery was not exceptional. This doesn't make it okay, and I realize Ehrman is, after all, a Biblical scholar, but is he fair for singling out Christians for their hypocrisy?Also, what about Plautus and Terence and other Roman authors whose work was basically just translations of preexistent Greek works into Latin. Roman literary critics don't seem too bothered by this, so is it possible that a work had more to recommend it in the ancient mind than its authorship and provenance?Relatedly, why do so many early Christians put more emphasis on content than authorship in questions of canonicity? Perhaps this is where Ehrman's point picks up that if someone likes or believes what they read, forgery is more easily overlooked. But I'm thinking here of Serpaion's comment in Eusebius about the Gospel of Peter. Thought Serpaion is clearly bothered by the forgery, he does not reject it on that basis, but rather on the basis of the heresy it contained.

  • Mike Gantt

    Dr. McGrath,I don't know from what source you're receiving pressure or temptation "to stop approaching the evidence using the best available tools, and drawing on the best available scholarship, simply because it doesn't allow me to draw conclusions that I might have liked to" – but it is not me.

  • James F. McGrath

    Jon, it does indeed seem that the practice was not uncommon, and Ehrman does talk about that wider context of ancient forgery. His reason for focusing on forgeries related to the Bible is precisely that it is his field. In looking at modern parallels, he notes some non-Christian or anti-Christian forgeries claiming that Jesus went to India, or taught reincarnation, or other things.Mike, I was not making an accusation, but was talking about what I once felt the desire to do in the interest of making a case for beliefs that I held dear.

  • Charles Hedrick

    I have mixed feelings about this. Obviously it's not news that attributions of Biblical books is questionable. But the implications seem to depend upon the works. And on one's theory of Biblical authority.At a minimum, what we want from the NT is access to early traditions about Jesus, and to how the 1st Cent Church interpreted his message. We can get something even if we don't give the authors any real personal authority, but just expect them to represent several of the major 1st Century Christian traditions.However Paul has always seemed a bit odd. What do we make of him? He's the earliest written witness to Christ, but that's only a small part of his writings. The rest is his personal take on the Christian life, and on various questions that came up in the churches he advised. If we can't trust him personally, it would seem to matter, although I suppose as long as he shows us how at least some of the next generation after Jesus interpreted and applied his message, that deserves some attention, whether we think Paul has personal authority or not. But Protestants normally place much more reliance on Paul than that. We treat him as inspired, and hang on his every word. I'd find it hard to take that attitude towards the supposed Pauline letters whose authorship is disputed.

  • Anonymous

    I think a forgery is: 1) an imitation of something ‘real;’ 2) passed off as ‘real;’ 3) for a reason. Reasons for forgery might include money (sale of forgery, such as an artwork), fame (‘discovery’ of the forgery gives entre to groups of professionals or experts), power (limited access to the forgery), ideology (change the world in a good way as a result of the sharing of the forgery with a community or society), craftsmanship (‘I’m good enough to create a forgery’), or vengeance (I reveal the forgery-accepted-as-real as a forgery at a later time to make others look foolish, or to get even for a perceived wrong). My favorite story about forgery is Irving Wallace’s The Word.The purpose of a forgery is, in some fashion, to change the future.I would argue that by my understanding of forgery, the book of Mormon, the book of Daniel, and the prologue and epilogue of the book of Job could be considered forgeries.Scott Gray

  • tzvee

    What an excellent summary! Thank you. Observations: Most people here are writers of one sort or another who believe or ought to believe that the veracity of an attribution of authorship is pivotal to any system of cultural transmission. Once the reliability of attribution breaks down, the knowledge base of the culture crumbles, since we can never know if an authority or an idiot wrote something. Accordingly, false attribution is a cardinal sin against any society that places relative values on its knowledge. The moral debate on "forgery" could easily turn into a game of gotcha, something that appears to be a real likelihood here, e.g., just how many of the Ten Commandments does the writer of a biblical book break when he forges authorship? There is no cognitive value to this line of investigation, just the satisfaction that you have made hypocrisy-points against an adversary.Nowadays a person can claim and collect substantial damages for copyright violation, not precisely analogous to what forgery is about, and not applicable retroactively to antiquity, but indicative of the material value that we assign to intellectual products today, as mentioned in the discussion, and not to be underestimated for antiquity.

  • Gary

    tzvee said "just how many of the Ten Commandments does the writer of a biblical book break when he forges authorship?" I guess I do not think this is a big deal at all. Moses didn't write the 1st 5 books of the bible. When the text quotes "God said this", or "Moses said that", or "Moses said that God said this", I don't expect that an actual eye witness is writing about it. Kind of hard to write when wandering through the desert. Although I realize authorship of NT scripture titled "letters of XXX" could be viewed differently. But an original letter written in those days didn't get emailed or faxed to the multiple churches, and didn't get photocopied. I still believe preserving text in those days ended up being more preserving the main points orally, and then other people wanting to document it as a relic in individual churches at a much later date, with their own spin. For the first Christian churches, didn't they meet in member's houses, so they didn't have an organized group of synagoges and scribes to both document and copy? The original documents were probably stored under someone's bed till it fell apart. So original text of letters is a moving target. Unless the early Christians were so organized, that they were like the Essenes, and made their main job copying text. But I doubt it.


    you wrote:"Ehrman writes at the conclusion of the chapter, “[T]here were numerous ways to lie in and through literature in antiquity, and some Christians took advantage of the full panoply in their efforts to promote their view of the faith. It may seem odd to modern readers, or even counterintuitive, that a religion that built its reputation on possessing the truth had members who attempted to disseminate their understanding of the truth through deceptive means. But it is precisely what happened. The use of deception to promote the truth may well be considered one of the most unsettling ironies of the early Christian tradition" (p.250)."you mean, like this?: still happens every day.

  • Mike Gantt

    @robertcargill,I began reading your linked article but had to give up because your indictment was muddled. That is, some of the time I thought you were objecting to compromised archaeological methodology – which, whether such criticism was valid or not, was at least germane to your field of study. However, the rest of the time it seemed that your objection was to the very search for Noah's Ark, as if believing its remains might actually exist was a sin against archaeology. If your objection is that archaeologists should not be lighting their way with an ideological torch, you need look no farther than the end of your nose to find a culprit.

  • Brad Jaeger

    I finished reading this last night. I think Ehrman handled the subject quite well, and he went to painstaking efforts to differentiate the various forms of authorship, i.e whether a text is orthonymous, homonymous, anonymous, one of two forms of pseudonymous, or one of two forms of pseudepigraphal. Bart only labels a text a forgery if it is a pseudepigraphal writing in which the author knowingly claims to be someone they are not (usually done in order to try and pass off their text with the authority of an apostle such as Paul, Peter, or James).I'm very much looking forward to his scholarly monograph on this subject.Anywhoo, off to go write my review. Love the blog, Dr. McGrath!

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks! When you write your review, do come back and share a link to it!

  • Brad Jaeger

    Will do. I still need a bit of time to polish, but I'll probably have it up within a few hours, or early next morning. Either way I'll link you.By the way, I just read about your grant to translate the Mandaean Book of John from Mandaic into English. Is there a timeline in mind as to when this will be finished and the results published? I'm intrigued!

  • Brad Jaeger^ The link. I think you did a much better job though (not to mention a much more thorough one!)

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks! This is the first year of the Mandaean Book of John translation project, and we anticipate having a translation online by the end of two to two and a half years. But we have a blog set up for the project and we'll be sharing snippets and samples along the way. And we hope that we'll be able to continue the project and eventually publish a print volume with typed Mandaic text, English translation and commentary.

  • Anonymous

    The bottom line of this book is this: Bart Ehrman, the "happy agnostic," has made it his lifelong ambition to pull the rug out from under Christianity. THAT is his primary modus operandi, not some unbiased, "scholarly" approach to the evidence.

  • James F. McGrath

    The problem with that claim is that people who are not agnostics or atheists but people of faith study the same subjects using the same methods and reach the same results. In fact, the vast majority of what is in Ehrman's latest book are simply the results of mainstream scholarship, what is taught in religion programs and seminaries around the country and world, and in no way reflects a distinctive contribution of Ehrman's at all. And so my guess is that you are trying to connect the contents of the book with Ehrman's agnosticism so as to be able to dismiss it. But that simply won't work. Most of what is in the book is what you would learn in a divinity school, and is not the result of approaching things from some sort of anti-Christian perspective. But alas, it seems anti-Christian to some who are determined to protect their views about the Bible from the evidence in the Bible itself.

  • rob

    Very informative review. Thanks. Very good point about "pseudopigraphy was allowed in the ancient world" (that term itself now becomes problematic!), and yes, now that I think of it this is a much asserted but never demonstrated claim. But there might by a slight mixup here: I'm getting the vibe that this sloppiness about pseudopigraphy is being laid at the feet of the Fundamentalists, as if they themselves invented it to protect their scriptures. In fact this is not the case for Fundamentalists never believed or believe alternate claims about the authors of the NT. I kind of doubt that progressive scholars came up with that spin as well. So where did it come from? Catholic defense of their unique canon? Maybe BE gives an answer.I have trouble, though, with the use of terms such as forgery and lies. Another commenter pointed out that these documents are not by any means intended to deceive people for negative reasons. At least there is no evidence of this. So it is not really fair to use pejorative language to describe them. Further, some NT books might have been attributed subsequent to being penned, in which case it would hardly be fair to label them as lies and forgeries. Isn't this a major problem with these labels? And wouldn't it just be one lie (the false claim of authorship)? The document's are no "lies" but rather the singular claim would be. We know too little about how they were penned to view the process with such negativity, that's all I'm saying. The fact that an epistle like Ephesians, as mentioned, makes much of truthfulness suggests that the author does not really think he is "forging" or "lying". It's psychologically unlikely. Personally, I'm much more traditional about the NT authors, so this is a bit of a theoretical discussion for me. But one small observation: BE paints it as though only backward people reject non-traditional authorial attributions. That's just not accurate or fair.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for your comment, Rob. Ehrman distinguishes between later attributions of authorship to anonymous works, and works which actually make claims about who wrote them. And he also provides evidence that people in the ancient world didn't like it when someone claimed their work was written by someone else. The letter of Jude seems to suggest that at least some people were indeed misled by the claims to authorship or antiquity made in the case of works like 1 Enoch. And forgets seem historically to have emphasized the importance of not being duped by forgeries, as a way of throwing readers off the scent.While I certainly do think that ancients and moderns have room for fictionalized accounts about historical people, or using writing as though an ancient person or group as a creative exercise that doesn't intend to deceive (the books You Wrethed Corinthians and In The Shadow of the Galilean come to mind as examples) it seems unclear that that is what 2 Peter was, to give but one example. The author draws on the Gospel precisely in order to convince readers that Peter was the author.

  • Beau

    Both in the comments on this post, and across the web, it seems that Christians who disagree with Ehrman, do so in two completely different ways:Either they disagree with the whole notion of pseudepigraphy, believing that every book of the NT was written by exactly the person to whom it is traditionally attributed.Or they concede that pseudepigraphy exists in the NT, but do not consider it “forgery”. For example, Ehrman’s mentor Dr. Bruce Metzger, in the Oxford edition of the NRSV, calls this an accepted practice of antiquity and suggests that the pastoral epistles (1&2 Timothy and Titus) were written by a devoted disciple of Paul.While NT scholars have been aware of these issues for years, I think it is admirable that Ehrman brings this to a lay audience. Whether or not one thinks “forgery” is too strong a term, there are issues here that Christians must grapple with.For example Ehrman proposes that only the falsely authored Pauline epistles call for women to be silenced in the assembly (he also points out that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 seems to be an interpolation, as these lines appear in different places in ancient copies). Even if we assume that a falsely authored text carries a truthful “message”, shouldn’t the authorship of the text influence common Christian assumptions about inspiration and inerrancy (concepts that vary widely among Christian denominations anyway)?Mike G. suggested that the early church fathers would have rooted out forgeries, by Ehrman’s argument. Ehrman addresses this. Though forgery, when detected, would have been considered wrong, common orthodoxy would have been of far more importance to the early Christians selecting the canon. I always find it interesting when protestants call on the authority of early church fathers in the selection of the canon. By the time the canon was authorized, the “early” church was three or four centuries old, and the men who selected the canon books were bishops well on the way to catholic church organization. Like the catholic church today, their view of inspiration and authority would have been very different from that of 20th century protestants.

  • Anonymous

    Hi,I am a cradle Catholic and a very good one. I have studied thought the years the books of the bible and I would like to share a couple "insider" tips but, before I do so, let me tell you that I agree with you in the sense that the word forgery might well misguide some out there. As well understood "forged" money is made after "real" money that had to exist first for it to be forged.Anyway, here are the two cents I have to offer: During my studies with the Catholic Church, we know very well that people changed their names after baptism, that they were persecuted and killed, and that some dictated texts to others to write for the because of the lack of knowledge of a particular language, or because of illiteracy.For example the book of Revelation, or Apocalypse as I know it, was written by someone of the name John, but not the John that wrote the epistles and the gospel (gospel that was edited by someone else as well). So as, you can see, the inconsistencies noted, have various explanations that I can pick apart one by one if need to be.Thank you,

  • Alfred

    Just finished it. The message is very clear; the Bible is not ordained by God. This book will probably not change many people’s opinion, but it does provide HOPE that we should focus on God’s values; not religion.

  • Alasandra Alawine

    I am enjoying this book tremendously.  Ehrman does an excellent job explaining why he believes certain books to be forgeries and that forgery was considered unacceptable at the time the forgeries were produced.

    • Geoff Hudson

      Unacceptable by whom?  The forgers?  I won’t be buying the gas bag’s book.

  • Joseph Ratzinger

    I just finished Forged, and enjoyed it very much. Most of the information in the book has been known and accepted by NT scholars, but not the general public, for many years. It’s nice to see this subject consolidated into an easy to read format, that is accessible to anyone. I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about the history and origins of the New Testament and associated early Christian literature.

    • God

      Cardinal Joe Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI? In any case, thanks for your note of support for this valuable work.

  • Sam

    So if so much of it is a forgery, what do we have left to believe in? This is the problem with Ehrman. He deconstructs the entire 1st century, and then acts like there’s anything left to call Christianity. It’s a self-serving, self-indulgent, and just plain bad historical method, not to mention completely outside the realm of historic, orthodox Christianity. Ehrman knows this. His followers apparently aren’t as intelligent.

    • Beau Quilter


      I would agree that Ehrman’s conclusions pose challenges for contemporary religious views of the bible; but how does it fail in historical methodology?

      Even a scholar can’t say that Ehrman’s historical method is “bad” without backing up the claim with evidence.

    • James F. McGrath

      First, Ehrman is not offering a vision for Christianity, so that aspect of your comment seems strange. But so does the rest of it. Even if some works in the NT are forgeries, they are Christian forgeries, and so they still tell us important things about the early history of Christianity.

  • Scott Miller

    Erhman gives the answers to his questions in his book, but he just doesn’t accept them. Personally, I do not believe the Apostle Paul could write, but I believe he could read. The solution is simple to me, Paul had different Scribes write and edit all of the letters with his name on them, and each Scribe had his own respective style and usage of grammar.

    Galatians 6:11

    “See the size of the handwriting which I myself have made use of in writing to you.”
    For me this is an indication that Paul was learning how to write, but others have questioned whether or not Paul was losing his eye sight, which I strongly disagree with.

    With regards to Peter, he could not likely read or write, so it would be reasonable to assume all of his writings were dictated to Scribes as well. Not knowing how to read or write does not mean that Peter wasn’t educated as Erhman would lead us to believe. As Erhman himself says in his book, a lot of knowledge was passed orally between people. One other factor is the Holy Spirit, which I don’t see Erhman addressing yet in the book,( I am at the fifth chapter and find it quite boring), and Jesus said when the Holy Spirit was sent, He would lead each believer into all Truth. We know the same Peter that denied the Lord three times was the same Peter that stood up on the Day of Pentecost and boldly proclaimed the gospel to many, after he received the Holy Spirit.

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  • melvin brookes

    Prof. Ehrman has several axes to grind, and is biases in a fundamental way. First, he has acknowledged openly that he is an agnostic. This, I think, fundamentally disqualifies him from serious biblical and theological research. And, it gives him a serious axe to grind, because he wants to show us that these are mere words, and not the received word of Christ, God and the Holy Spirit. Second, Prof. Ehrman was brought up as an Evangelical Protestant Christian. Yet he specializes in Early Christianity. He especially has an axe to grind against the Emperor Constantine, the Church Fathers and the Establishment of the Church. Every single one of his writings and lectures focus on these issues. Ehrman’s entire academic output is essentially an insult to the nearly two billion Catholic and Orthodox Christians who believe in the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the divinity of Christ, God and the Holy Spirit, and in the Seven Sacraments. And, in the received word of God. Third, no one who is a member of the Catholic or Orthodox Churchs believes that salvation is through the Bible–that is a Protestant idea. Salvation is through the church. Consequently, it is utterly irrelevant if books of the bible were changed or mis-attributed. Having said that, Saint Athanasius, a Saint, essentially did the cataloguing of what was canonicical in the 300s (as well as drafting the Nicene Creed and having it adopted at the first Ecumenical Council), and to criticize St. Athanasius, is to criticize the Church and a Saint. So here again, Ehrman has an axe to grind, and is insulting the entire Catholic and Eastern Christian Communities in a sense that is utterly befuddling.

    Finally, Ehrman seems to have little sense that the Bible used by the official Church was the Septuagint, in Greek. There was no Masoretic text until 500 AD and no English bible until 1400 AD and no King James Bible for longer than that. the Canonical bible of the Official Church was the Septuagint, containing all of the Apocryphal Books. In addition, the non-canonical books, while not in the bible, ascribed to the Church Fathers, were not banned or condemned as Ehrman suggests. Rather, they were suggested to be read as good reading, and in some churches, they were clearly canonical–the Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian, Syriac and Nestorian Churches each had their own versions of what the canon was. Thus Enoch 1 & 2 made it into the Ethiopian Bible, along with the Coptic. Most of Supernatural is based on events in Enoch 1 & 2. Apparently Ehrman, a biblical scholar, does not watch Supernatural. Even after ten seasons. Maybe he thinks Enoch 1 & 2 are “forgeries”.

    The Syriac church had important ramifications for western civilization. the Syriac scholars translated Greek philosophical treatises into Syriac, then into Arabic. Thus Al-Farabi and Al-Kindi were able to read Aristotle and Plato and Euclid and transmit Greek medicine, science, geometry and physics over to Cordoba and Avicenna during the Middle Ages. It’s doubtful those were forgeries. If the Medieval church was given over to forgeries, as Ehrman suggests, then all of Aristotle, Plato and the greek philosophers we have received thru the Arabs must also be forgeries.

    Doesn’t seem bloody likely. Rather, the Church fathers were careful scholars, and the most educated men of their time. Anyone who has spent any actual time reading the works of St. Basil on the ancients, or St. Clement, or Eusebius’ history of the Church, knows these were good, decent men and scholars of the highest order, trained in the greek rhetoric of late antiquity, and using not koine greek but classic attic greek and rhetorical devices in their letters and speeches. Again, not very likely to have forged anything.

    I find Prof. Ehrman’s thesis, conclusions and book to be unpersuasive, and motivated by personal biases of an unconsionable level. Add to that that he has a background as championship HS debater from Kansas (I was a championship NDT debater from Harvard) and well, you have the sense that his work has a certain tendency, to quote to the late Thatcher Longstreth, to “polemicize” rather than be a dispassionate work of academics.

    Perhaps the difference between us is that I have faith–faith in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, faith in our church, and faith in the beauty of the Greek words of the Septuagint and New Testament. I am not a religious scholar–i am a molecular biologist actually–but the more I see of the world’s complexities–the more I am convinced of the need for our church and our salvation.

    • James F. McGrath

      I find it ironic that you complain that Ehrman has an axe to grind, but seem unaware that a figure like Athanasius had an axe to grind.

      Your suggestion that faith in God goes hand in hand with faith in the church is one that would be is not self evident. And I can’t make sense of your discussion of “Enoch 1 and 2″ which I presume intended to refer to 1 and 2 Enoch but even then gets the details wrong.

      And I’m not sure what your overall point was, other than to say “I disagree with Ehrman because I believe the church of the past without question rather than the work of modern scholarship.”