On the Malleability of Gold Plates: Mormonism and Modern Biblical Scholarship

From the time I first came to understand the nature of  pseudepigrapha, I felt comfortable with the idea that many of these extra-scriptural writings were written under assumed names. Somewhere I had picked up the idea that it was a common and accepted convention for works of antiquity to be attributed to someone famous. There are ancient books of Adam, of Enoch, of Abraham, all written by later authors under a prophetic moniker to give their writings authority and status. Even our book of Psalms in the present canon includes poems with headings “A Psalm of David”—(lᵊ dawid).  This has traditionally been understood to denote Davidic authorship, even though Biblical scholars agree that some of these were post-exilic. As Jana Riess puts it:

The Hebrew preposition “l” can, like many Hebrew words, mean a variety of different things. Often translated “of,” it can also mean “to” or “for” (a Psalm for David) or “in the manner of” (a psalm that’s like something David might have written if he were still with us; R.I.P.).

In his work, “The Book of Psalms,” UC Berkeley Hebrew professor Robert Alter taught that “it was a regular practice in the later biblical period to ascribe new texts to famous figures of the past.” This is what I had always heard.

Not so! says Bart Ehrman in his groundbreaking treatment of the subject. In the 2011 book Forged,  Ehrman asserts that writing in the name of a famous prophet or biblical figure was just as scandalous in ancient times as any forgery would be today.

“…ancient authors did see this kind of activity as fraudulent, they recognized it as deceitful, they called it lying (and other even nastier things), and they often punished those who were caught doing it…. My use of the term “forgery”… refer[s] to one kind of pseudepigraphical writing, one in which an author knowingly claims to be someone else. One of the overarching theses of my book is that those who engaged in this activity in the ancient world were roundly condemned for lying and trying to deceive their readers.” (p. 25)

This idea pushes against my comfortable understanding of  the propriety of the pseudonymous authorship of ancient texts. But Ehrman then goes even further — exposing which New Testament books he considers to be outright fakes! For example, chapter 2 deals with 1 and 2 Peter. The author goes into great detail to back up his claims that these writings were “forgeries.” Frankly, I find his argument very convincing. Here are just a few examples Ehrman uses:

  • In 1 Peter, Babylon is used as a code word for Rome. Christians and Jews only began this usage after the martyrdom of Peter in 64 CE and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
  • The author of 2 Peter must explain why Jesus delays his coming, a concern which was not raised until the people who lived “within this generation” began to all die off.
  • There are some very compelling reasons to believe that Peter (a lower-class Palestinian Hebrew) did not know how to read and write, not the least of which is the description in Acts 4:13 of Peter and John as“agrammatoi”  – that is, unlettered, or illiterate. Peter likely spoke only Aramaic, yet the letters attributed to him seem to be originally composed in excellent Greek, and utilize the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament.

By contrast, Latter-day Saints customarily attribute the various books in the Biblical canon to their traditional authors.  This is evident in the case of 1 and 2 Peter in the following LDS resources:

  • The LDS New Testament Teacher Resource Manual (here and here) specifically states that Peter was the literal author of the epistles which bear his name. The manual gives as historical background the information that “Peter wrote [his first] letter from “Babylon,” which probably means Rome,” and that “Peter probably wrote his second Epistle from Rome sometime between A.D. 64 and 67.”
  • A 1991 Ensign article by Richard Anderson discusses the historical placement of the epistles and their authorship by the Apostle Peter.
  • The Encyclopedia of Mormonism provides an apology for why Peter’s epistles were composed in fluent Greek: “Living in a region where, in addition to the native Aramaic, Greek was widely used as a language of business and trade, Peter may have been conversant with the tongue in which his scriptural writings were later penned. Although Peter was a fisherman by occupation, and despite the description of Peter and John by the elders of the Sanhedrin as being “without learning” (Acts 4:13), the Galilean apostles were literate men, probably without normal rabbinical training but with broad general understanding and capability.”
  • The Prophet Joseph Smith said that “Peter penned the most sublime language of any of the apostles” (HC 5:392).

Currently, Mormons are obliged by their tradition to read the scriptures as literally and historically true. For many Christians in general and for Mormons in particular, the central message of the Bible hinges on the factuality of every recorded detail of a specific historical event: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Was Jesus literally resurrected from the dead? We run into a problem if we question the reliability of the witnesses. For, if the authors are not who they say they are, might we not also logically question the historical veracity of the text so falsely attributed?  Modern LDS scripture provides an added challenge to this already-difficult situation for Latter-day Saints. The Restoration is closer to us in time than biblical history; the Doctrine and Covenants is seen as an historical narrative of the Restoration. And the Doctrine and Covenants treats Biblical characters and events as literally true.

I wonder what effect modern biblical scholarship will eventually have on Mormon approaches to scripture. How malleable is our own tradition? Will the numerous competent scholars such as Ehrman writing popular biblical studies for the general reader lead to shifts in LDS views? The very word “forged” causes a strong reaction in the Mormon heart. It will be difficult to give up the strict literalism which has so long characterized LDS hermeneutics.

What if we were to discover that the scriptures were quite a different thing that what we’d been told? Eventually, we will be constrained by biblical scholarship and our own move towards modernism to confront this problem. We may fail to recognize the inevitability of change, or realize the shape of what is to come; yet as we sit in our Sunday School classes and study the New Testament,  the process of transformation has already begun. When we face this question, what will become of us? Are we ready for this much change and open-mindedness? Will Latter-day Saints ultimately reject the critical approach to scripture (much as their Christian fundamentalist counterparts do), or is it possible to value a text without demanding that it maintain complete historical integrity? Many of us are skilled at seeing interior truth in scripture. We find that it can strike us with great power — forcing us to consider what it means to live a human life, illuminating for us the very meaning of what it is to be human. Perhaps, if a scriptural text teaches true principles, there is benefit which can be derived from it without regard to its literal historical accuracy. But will our tradition ever be able to accommodate such a view?

 

 

 

  • JohnH

    There are good reasons that Mormons haven’t accepted and Fundamentalist have rejected most biblical scholarship and critical views of scripture and that is largely because there are certain assumptions that must be held in order to accept most of the scholarship. Assuming that the Apostles thought that Jesus would return immediately means that all scriptures where the Apostles say otherwise couldn’t have been written by the Apostles is circular reasoning (bad scholarship). Assuming that all prophecy is post-event means that all scriptures where an Apostles has a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem (or which references a book that has that prophecy) must have been written after the event and therefore can’t really be written by the Apostles is also circular reasoning (assuming the conclusion). With the dating of 1 Peter and 2 Peter being completely dependent on such circular reasoning why should we feel the slightest desire to accept such so called scholarship?

    The assumption that the Apostles only spoke Aramaic has been challenged repeatedly; It is highly likely that the Apostles knew both Aramaic and Greek previously. Also given that Christ died in ~33 AD and Peter died in ~67 AD it seems very odd to me to judge the reading and writing abilities of Peter based on what he was able to do in 33 AD. It really doesn’t take that long to learn to read, or write. John writing even later being assumed to still be illiterate because he was illiterate as a young man is sort of silly.

  • Bored in Vernal

    JohnH:
    I have heard these arguments before, of course. I’m sorry that my synopsis has done so little justice to Ehrman’s argument. I highly recommend his book, though I don’t agree with him in every particular.

    The case Ehrman makes for Peter’s illiteracy is compelling. The assumption that “it doesn’t take that long to learn to read or write” is a conceit of the modern age. I was surprised to learn that we actually know quite a bit about literacy in the ancient world. Ehrman relies on scholarly studies, such as William Harris’ in Ancient Literacy, which shows that in Athens, a center of learning, at the height of its intellectual power, only about 10 percent of the population was reasonably literate. This was the very “best of times” and other periods and locations lagged far behind. For the entire first century (the time of Simon Peter), we know of only two authors who produced literary works, Josephus and Justus of Tiberius (whose works do not survive). Peter was simply not in this class. A fisherman from Capernaum had zero chance of being as educated as the writer of the epistles we are speaking of. Archaeological digs at Capernaum show an insignificant rural village with no public buildings, with no inscriptions of any kind and no materials associated with social elites (plaster surfaces, decorative frescoes, marble, mosaics, red ceramic roof tiles). The village did not lie along any trade routes, thus no Gentile population or opportunity for learning Greek. 1 Peter was written by a highly educated and native Greek-speaking author who had great facility with the scriptures in their Greek translation. Ehrman further states:

    It is theoretically possible, of course, that Peter decided to go to school after Jesus’s resurrection. In this imaginative (not to say imaginary) scenario, he learned his alphabet, learned how to sound out syllables and then words, learned to read, and learned to write. Then he took Greek classes, mastered Greek as a foreign language, and started memorizing large chunks of the Septuagint, after which he took Greek composition classes and learned how to compose complicated and rhetorically effective sentences; then, toward the end of his life, he wrote 1 Peter.”

    This is facetious, to be sure, but it points up the fact that there was no system in place at the time whereby a humble fisherman would have been able to develop the skills needed to produce this kind of work. In the ancient world there is no other example of this happening. Travel and preaching to many different people may have given Peter the rudiments of other languages, but not the skills requisite to write 1 and 2 Peter.

    Ehrman continues in the chapter to explain why the theory that Peter used someone else as a secretary is also implausible.

    Your comment is interesting, because it shows the kind of thought process that the majority of Latter-day Saints will exhibit when faced with modern biblical scholarship. There is a great investment in this point of view, and a reluctance to look at any evidence to the contrary.

  • JohnH

    At that time period Israel had been under Greek speaking rule for about 400 years making it relatively implausible that Peter did not know how to speak Greek, regardless of how much he did or did not know how to write Greek. There is in fact many scholarly arguments that Jesus taught largely in Greek, with some arguing that the Septuagint in Greek was the commonly used scripture at the time in the Synagogue.

    Where Jesus grew up was much more of an insignificant rural area but we do not find it odd when Jesus stands up in the Synagogue and reads a passage of scripture, when it is clearly stated that Jesus was not schooled in the Rabbinical tradition. That is, Jesus clearly appears to have known how to read, and this is clearly not odd to the other people around him, but he also was clearly not schooled in the Rabbinical tradition. In the middle ages, when scholarship and reading ability was even lower then during the 1st century Roman empire, the Jews were nearly universally literate; that tradition came from somewhere and could easily have already been in place at the time of Jesus and the Apostles, it would explain the observation that they are unschooled but that no one found it odd that Jesus knew how to read. There is the question of whether they knew how to read only Aramaic, which would mean only their own scriptures, or if they knew how to read Greek, which was the common language and had been for 300 years at that point.

    In fact if Peter knew Greek at all then he might have committed large chunks of the Septuagint to memory from the time he was little; We can not judge the Jews based on the Greeks, but looking at the Jews behaved in slightly later settings could be a better indication of what they were like. It was not uncommon for Jews that were not scholars to have committed large portions of their scriptures to memory and it was very common for the Jews to be literate even when pretty much no one else was. Peter apparently knew how to speak in complicated and rhetorically effective sentences in the book of Acts, so assuming that he could not write it if he knew how to write or dictate it otherwise seems quite odd to me.

    There are some that argue that literacy among the Jews only became common after the destruction of the Temple, however some of the best records of the practice of the Jews before (or around the time of) the destruction of the Temple is the New Testament and the New Testament shows a surprisingly high degree of literacy in it.

    Furthermore, you should really learn more about the social structure of Athens when compared to the Jews; It is not at all surprising that only 10% of the population of Athens was literate given the number of women, slaves, freed slaves, and other non-citizens in Athens, as in 10% is about the amount of people that could participate in the Assembly anyways so that means they had near 100% literacy among those whom it was legal and acceptable to know how to read.

    Listing authorship of books in the 1st century is not at all impressive. For a book to survive requires that it be copied, books that got picked up by scholars were the ones most likely to get copied other then religious books, the Jews at the time were more concerned about religious issues then scholarly issues, we have extensive examples of surviving Jewish religious texts both in the New Testament, the writings of Jews themselves, the gnostic gospels, and so on and on and on. Remember, anything that survives is likely to be an extremely small percentage of what was actually written so given the thousands of pages of texts that are existence from Jewish culture from the first century means quite a lot more then that was written. That is we know of the New Testament, many writings that didn’t make it into the new testament, references to many writings that didn’t make it that are now non-existence, writings of gnostics, writings of Jewish religious scholars, references to others of both of those that don’t exist, other epistles from other church fathers with references to ones that we don’t have, and you list two literary texts as examples of the Jews not being literate?

    I have looked at quite a bit of evidence to the contrary and it is all largely of the nature that you give, it is not at all convincing. I am sure you did great justice to his arguments as I have encountered them many times before, just not from anyone that claims to be LDS.

  • http://trevorprice.net Trevor

    Also important to keep in mind is that many of the scribes who copied those manuscripts weren’t even literate enough to read them. I’m not sure how that factors into the satiated 10% literacy rate.

  • http://trevorprice.net Trevor

    Re: Mormons, I think fundamentalism and modern biblical scholarship are mutually exclusive. I also think that many Mormons who’ve tentatively embraced the arguments of textual criticism in books like Misquoting Jesus haven’t pondered the full implications in the way Mormons view and have viewed scriptures.

    IMO, it’s possible to simply accept the fact at Joseph Smith and others were biblical literalists and thus interpreted revelation through that lense, without having to necessarily embrace literalism myself. Joseph believed in a literal global flood? I question the historicity of a great deal of the OT? Sure.

    If my neighbor in Sunday School thinks the good Samaritan was a living, breathing man, whereas I think the whole thing’s a parable, we can both still draw spiritual lessons from it. Of course, there are other “historical” events that serve as important foundational stories, and they admittedly complicate things…

  • Bitherwack

    Why illustrate this article with a photo of the Voynich Manuscript?

  • http://timesandseasons.org Ben S

    “A fisherman from Capernaum had zero chance of being as educated as the writer of the epistles we are speaking of. ”
    NT is not my area, but I assume Jerome Murphy O’Connor’s sharp disagreement position represent a minority position. He concludes that Peter and Andrew “came from a prosperous, assimilated Jewish middle-class family. Speaking both Aramaic and Greek, they were brought up to serve in an administrative as well as a practical role in an essential major industry. They knew how to plan and organize. As experienced businessmen, they were astute enough to move their home in order to take advantage of a tax break. Such shrewdness, one can be sure, also manifested itself in the way they handled competition from the many other fishermen on the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. They were anything but “uneducated, common men.”

    Does Ehrman address scribes? It’s quite anachronistic to assume name-on-paper means wrote-every-word-himself-by-hand (e.g. scribes, speechwriters, etc.)

  • http://ldsanarchy.wordpress.com/ LDS Anarchist

    I was expecting an article on the properties of gold and the use of gold plates in antiquity…

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I would like to second the arguments made by JohnH. The traditions about the location of Peter’s home in Capernaum place it next door to the synagogue which still stands at the site. Peter and Andrews and James and John were apparently disciples of John the Baptist before being directed by John to Jesus. They had a particular interest in prophets and prophecy, and it seems likely they would have expressed that interest in becoming familiar with the Hebrew scriptures. Peter and John certainly demonstrated their knowledge of the scriptures when they preached sermons, including preaching to Jewish leaders at the Temple after Peter healed the lame beggar. Was Peter in some sense an autodidact, self-taught in many ways rather than a person who had studied in a formal school under a rabbi? And why not? Many of the men in 19th Century America were largely self-taught, including Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Abraham Lincoln. Their lack of formal education was overcome through diligent study of the few books available to them, including the same Old Testament that Peter and John had available in Greek or Hebrew. Joseph Smith’s literary output was prodigious, Young left hundreds of pages of correspondence in addition to his sermons, and Lincoln is recognized and admired for the eloquent prose that is engraved on the walls of his Memorial. Could Peter and John be as smart as those three? Why not?

    As for learning commercial koine Greek, that seems like a natural thing for anyone who conducted a business in a land that had been ruled by descendants of Alexander’s generals for three hundred years, where there were complete communities of neighbors who spoke primarily Greek. The fish caught on the Sea of Tiberius were shipped off to customers hundreds of miles away.

    One of the reasons to believe in widespread Jewish literacy was the fact that, in the First Century, there were Jewish communities spread all through the Roman Empire, including up into Gaul and Iberia. There were several million Jews living in those scattered communities. Commerce was a major activity of the network of Jewish communities, commerce which required correspondence and records, which required literacy.

    The existence and growth of the Christian Church is testimony to the reality of Peter and John. There were numerous people through Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome who knew them through personal conversations. If Peter and John were known personally throughout the Church of their day, and if they were known to be illiterate, it would have been passing strange for their disciples throughout the Roman empire to receive a letter, a gospel, or a book of Revelation from men they knew to be unable to write sentences. As Ehrman says, the people of the early Church who knew the apostles would have immediately denounced such documents as forgeries. The fact that the broad Church where they were known personally could accept these writings as authentic means, it seems to me, that the members of the Church scattered from east to west knew that they could write. Whether they wrote the particular documents attributed to them is a separate question, but surely a total lack of literacy would have revealed a stunning lack of intelligence in any forger. It would be like attributing a painting to a famous blind man. The forgery would have been laughed out of church immediately, if the attributed authors were broadly known to be illiterate. The fact that they were accepted as probably authentic means that they were plausible, which means people in the Church who knew Peter and John knew they could write.

  • Bored in Vernal

    #6 Bitherwack: Guess again.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor jupiterschild

    JohnH:
    What is the evidence *in favor of* authenticity? Tradition? Vs. Acts 4:13? Where is the evidence that Peter went to school? Where is the evidence of continuing education in Palestine? “It really doesn’t take that long to learn to read, or write. John writing even later being assumed to still be illiterate because he was illiterate as a young man is sort of silly.” What’s silly is the assumption that adults in this period regularly learned to write literary tracts. Even in the modern period literacy as an adult is an uphill battle. Fact is that we’re not just talking about basic literacy with most of the NT texts: we’re talking about sophisticated composition that goes well beyond learning abcs. And, Acts 4:13 wasn’t written when Peter was in his 30s. Luke, supposed to be a companion of Peter, surely would have indicated a change in his ability to write. But he doesn’t. The conjectures you propose are just that.
    Raymond: The synagogue you’re talking about at Capernaum is at least 4th century. And it’s not built on top of an earlier one, like everyone wants to believe. The archaeology is clear–with 4th century coins under the floor and earlier domestic dwellings beneath that. “but surely a total lack of literacy would have revealed a stunning lack of intelligence in any forger” — ? Unless we’re talking about *much* later attribution, well after the deaths of the purported authors and all who knew them personally. And, I might add, this doesn’t stop journalists from misquoting their sources while the sources are still alive and able to cry foul–that is, the presence of eyewitnesses and the like isn’t a check on what people could or did write. Doesn’t Paul himself attest to forgers of his letters?

    The fact that people were interested in scripture has nothing to do with their ability to read and write. Memorization is one avenue, as we see with Bar Mitzvahs all over the world. Liturgical texts could be and were memorized. Scribal activity was generally highly specialized. “Commerce was a major activity of the network of Jewish communities, commerce which required correspondence and records, which required literacy.” Sure commerce requires records, but that doesn’t mean that the merchants/owners/fishermen themselves had to do it, and, if they could make their way around business records, that’s still a far cry from sophisticated composition.

  • Bored in Vernal

    #11 jupiterschild:
    I’m glad you made that comment about the synagogue, that was the first point I was going to jump on!

    I’ll address some of the other comments with Ehrman’s arguments in Forged, since this is clearly not my area of expertise. We should keep in mind, however, that it is a grave error to read back into the first century things that were common 100 years later, or even things that are common in the modern age.

  • Bored in Vernal

    Greek in Galilee

    # At that time period Israel had been under Greek speaking rule for about 400 years making it relatively implausible that Peter did not know how to speak Greek, … the Septuagint in Greek was the commonly used scripture at the time in the Synagogue…Greek, which was the common language and had been for 300 years at that point…As for learning commercial koine Greek, that seems like a natural thing for anyone who conducted a business in a land that had been ruled by descendants of Alexander’s generals for three hundred years, where there were complete communities of neighbors who spoke primarily Greek. #

    Ehrman says that it is a misconception that Israel was overrun by Gentiles in Jesus’ and Peter’s day. He cites the most recent thorough studies of Gentiles in Galilee by Mark Chancey. Chancey’s research of every archaelogical find and piece of writing he can discover dating from the first century demonstrates that Gentiles in Galilee were almost exclusively located in the two major cities, Sepporis and Tiberias. “All the rest of Galilee was predominantly Jewish. And since most of Galilee was rural, not urban, the vast majority of Jews had no encounters with Gentiles. Moreover, Greek was not widely, let alone normally, spoken. The vast majority of Jews spoke Aramaic and had no facility in Greek.”
    The findings of archaeologist Jonathan Reed, Ehrman states, show that Capernaum, Peter’s home town, was a village of about a thousand residents. “The town is on none of the major international trade routes. The Roman roads in the area date from a hundred years after Peter’s life. There is no trace of any pagan or Gentile population int he town. There are no inscriptions of any kind on any of the buildings. ..the inhabitants were almost certainly ‘predominantly illiterate.’”

    As to the Septuagint being used in the synagogue, what evidence do you find for this notion? F.F. Bruce has stated that the Septuagint was used and preserved in Christian circles. The Pharisees, a group formed to keep Hellenist philosophies and beliefs SEPARATE from Judaism would have rejected any Greek texts.

  • JohnH

    Bored in Vernal,
    You realize that Forged is a popular text and not a scholarly text right?, He is not making a scholarly argument but is essentially writing a propaganda piece for his type of Biblical scholarship. If all you are familiar with is Forged then this conversation isn’t that useful as you don’t know what has been responded to in other scholarly works or what is strong or weak about the argument.

    Jupiterschild,
    Again, you are making assumptions about the reading capabilities of Jews by comparing them to other groups; that is not very good practice. If you want to show that Jews were generally illiterate in the first century then you have to do it with Jews and not with Gentile populations as having nearly 100% literacy at other time periods (as in a few centuries later) when nearly everyone else was illiterate places the burden on those that want to show that Peter, John, Jesus, etc. were not literate.

    Also, what does public schooling have to do with anything? Even many scholars of the day were not schooled at academies but by tutors. Tradition and Acts is more evidence in favor of authenticity then what has been shown about the counterclaim as to claim they are false requires showing that Peter could not read or write, that the early church (by about 100 AD) was willing to accept forgeries of Peter who was known not to read or write, and why it was accepted when it was known that Peter could not read or write (or that John could not, which is worse as we have writings of some people that reference the writings of John AND WHO KNEW JOHN PERSONALLY, which seems sort of problematic to me in claiming forgeries).

    Also what evidence do you have that an illiterate could not have a great understanding of scriptures and of rhetoric? That is more of a modern assumption then any assumption that they could have learned to read or write. There are evidences of great orators that could sway crowds and organize huge efforts but which could not themselves read or write; illiterate does not mean unlearned, stupid, or incapable of knowing large tracts of text or of composing long speeches or complex arguments.

  • Bored in Vernal

    Jews were literate in the First Century

    # …Jesus clearly appears to have known how to read, and this is clearly not odd to the other people around him…In the middle ages, when scholarship and reading ability was even lower then during the 1st century Roman empire, the Jews were nearly universally literate; that tradition came from somewhere and could easily have already been in place at the time of Jesus and the Apostles…it was very common for the Jews to be literate even when pretty much no one else was…One of the reasons to believe in widespread Jewish literacy was the fact that, in the First Century, there were Jewish communities spread all through the Roman Empire, including up into Gaul and Iberia. There were several million Jews living in those scattered communities. Commerce was a major activity of the network of Jewish communities, commerce which required correspondence and records, which required literacy. #

    Ehrman shows that modern assumptions about literacy are not applicable to ancient times. There were only two classes, and lower class people did not learn to read (with the exception of slaves who were occasionally taught to carry out household duties which required some literacy). Even in the upper class, reading and writing were taught as two different skills, and those who could read could not necessarily compose an ethical essay, a learned philosophical discussion, or an involved religious treatise. “Far fewer than 1 percent of the population could do it. It is sometimes thought that Palestine was an exception, that in Palestine Jewish boys all learned to read so that they could study the Hebrew Scriptures, and that since they could read, they could probably write…Recent studies of literacy in Palestine, however, have shown convincingly that none of these assertions is true. The fullest, most thoroughly researched, and most widely influential study of literacy in Palestine during the period of the Roman Empire is by Catherine Hezser. After examining all of the evidence, Hezser concludes that in Roman Palestine the best guesstimate is that something like 3 percent of the population could read, and that the majority of these would have been in the cities and larger towns. Most people outside of the urban areas would scarcely ever even see a written text. Some smaller towns and villages may have had a literacy level of around 1 percent. Moreover, these literate people were almost always the elite of the upper classes. Those who learned to read learned to read Hebrew (not Greek). And what is more, once again, far more people could read than could write.”

    I think we should remember that just because a person in the First Century was illiterate (unlettered), it did not follow that he/she was unintelligent. One could be a shrewd businessman or an eloquent preacher or even a student of the scriptures without having the skills to write a religious treatise.

  • Bored in Vernal

    #14 JohnH:
    “You realize that Forged is a popular text and not a scholarly text right?”
    This is the point that I make in the OP. Now that these types of arguments are being brought out of the scholarly arena and into popular consciousness, how will the Latter-day Saints respond? Will they continue to ignore the best of archaeological evidence and scholarly research, which authors like Ehrman are presenting on a popular level, or will they be open to looking at scripture in a new way?

  • Bored in Vernal

    It strikes me that a more important argument here is not whether Peter was literate. It is whether some of the New Testament canon could have been written by someone other than those traditionally thought to have written them. JohnH, can you reject this idea completely?

  • RT

    Yes Bored in Vernal, that gets more to the heart of the issue. What this discussion is really about is whether we LDS can learn to negotiate and constructively deal with the methods and arguments of biblical scholarship.

    If JohnH had his way, we as members would understand most scholarly discourse about the origins of the biblical texts as merely “assumptions” and “suppositions”, while his arguments that such and such “may have happened” and “if this… then that could have been the case” would be construed as logical and grounded in close examination of the historical evidence.

  • JohnH

    I will admit to not being any sort of expert in literacy of 1st Century AD Jewish populations. I know that by the time of the fall of the Roman Empire literacy was very high among the Jews, but I don’t know when that tradition started. I am not sure but based on my understanding of new world Archeology I seriously doubt that any study of literacy from that time period (even of language spoken by the common people) is likely mostly conjecture and not a rigorous academic argument, but I would have to do more studying or ask someone that was familiar with such things. I know that getting any sort of evidence of such things is generally nearly impossible. I don’t think you know much on the subject either as your response is nearly verbatim from Forged.

    It would appear that you have just been introduced to popular Biblical scholarship as it has been in the popular sphere for quite some time. Rejecting James, John, Revelation, Hebrews, Jude, and Luke and Acts aren’t really on the table for discussion as to whether or not they are valid, even if the authorship of Hebrews is up for question and may not be Paul. The scholarship that he presents in Forged is very heavily influenced by Protestantism. It is attempting to get the ideas championed primarily by Evangelical thought (though in a more critical manner) in regards to faith and only faith saves. I realize the author is now Agnostic but Forged clearly shows his roots.

    I fully expect that more archeological finds of ancient texts will continue to happen and that these additional finds will give us a better understanding of the New and Old Testament and a clearer picture of how edited, forged, and incomplete our current scriptures are. Anything other then that which challenges the canon is likely to be agenda driven and/or based on assumptions that I am not likely to hold in common with the person doing the scholarship. Revelation from God on the subject could also change my understanding, and perhaps some of the Biblical scholarship is preparing for further revelation, but the vast majority of anything similar to Forged is probably not from God.

    RT, My arguments are just as much based on assumptions as Forged’s arguments are; I believe there is more evidence for my arguments then Ehrman’s but that evidence itself is based on my assumptions, as well as on shared beliefs among Latter Day Saints. Any possible argument that could ever be made on the subject will be grounded in assumptions, that is true of really any argument regardless of what topic is being discussed; even (especially?) such obvious truths as 1+1=2.

  • Jessica F
  • RT

    JohnH: You’re correct that everyone has assumptions; no one can be entirely free of them. But you fundamentally misunderstand the nature of biblical scholarship when you equate your arguments with Ehrman’s (a scholar I may not always agree with, but who does practice a form of scholarship that tries to derive his conclusions from the available evidence). Based on the kinds of statements you make above (“Anything other then that which challenges the canon is likely to be agenda driven and/or based on assumptions that I am not likely to hold in common with the person doing the scholarship.”), yours is a very traditional quasi-fundamentalist argument that begins with certain religious assumptions that are treated as sacrosanct and beyond scholarly inquiry and then which tries to find evidence in the scholarly and historical record that supports those assumptions.

    The whole point of modern biblical scholarship, however, is to try to be open to evidence that may challenge our prior assumptions.

  • http://timesandseasons.org Ben S

    I’m not opposed to pseudepigrapha in theory. I think there’s room for it even among the more conservative areas of Mormonism (and often that conservatism is a function of lack of exposure, not a carefully-considered position.) You can get a foot in the door with Pres. Clark.
    “I am not really concerned, and no man of faith should be, about the exact authorship of the books of the Bible. More than one Prophet may well have written parts of books now collected under one heading. I do not know. There may have been “ghost writers” in those days, as now. The Lord gave Aaron to Moses in an equivalent capacity, and spoke to Israel through Moses by the mouth of Aaron. He may have done the same in other cases. If so, what of it?”- President J. Reuben Clark, On the Way to Immortality and Eternal Life, 209-210.

    On the other hand, I recognize the necessity of assumptions, and that without them, we end up in a solipsistic hermeneutic dead end. But I share a bit of cynicism about some scholarly assumptions that are often in play when evaluating authorship.

  • g.wesley

    so many interesting topics.

    like, is there such a thing as innocent pseudepigraphy, ancient or modern, especially when it comes to sacred/canonized texts?

    and, what constitutes ‘good scholarship’ as opposed to ‘so-called scholarship’?

    furthermore, can popular or trade books be considered ‘scholarship,’ and if not, why?

    also, if the religious background of one person, let’s say a (a former) protestant, is presumed to influence his reading and writing too much, what about the religious background of any other reader and writer, such as a mormon? does it not influence his reading and writing? what is it that disqualifies the one’s reading and writing, but not the other’s?

    it’s almost as if there should be some sort of critical standard that would ideally make it so that people from any or no religious background could have a rational discussion. a critical standard that need not be hostile to faith claims but would at any rate bracket them. too bad nothing of the sort exists.

  • http://www.mormonsundayschool.org Jared

    I would need to do more research to back this up, but isn’t Ehrman talking mostly about condemnation of pseudepigraphy/forgery in *Greco-Roman* culture? The tradition of anonymity and pseudepigraphy seems the norm in Jewish culture of the time.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    BIV: “Currently, Mormons are obliged by their tradition to read the scriptures as literally and historically true. ”

    I believe that just is not the case. Further, while I believe that 1 and 2 Peter are based on knowledge of Peter’s teachings, I believe that there are compelling reasons besides Ehrman’s very flimsy arguments to support the view that they were written after Peter’s death. Thus, much of these works is likely directly attributable to Peter while still reflecting knowledge of later events and circumstances. It is funny how Ehrman just fails to mention the prevailing view in his assessments of these books. I should add that for years the consensus was that James was not written by James, the brother of Jesus, and now there is a very significant number of biblical scholars who see it as compilation or pamphlet of his teachings based on the the earliest teachings in the nascent Christian community before the Christians went to Syria circa 60 C.E..

    Further, Ehrman’s assertion that pseudepigraphic works were in the same category as forgeries is nonsense. The sheer number of such works and the fact of wide acceptance of the Book of Enoch and Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs – not to mention the Book of Daniel. They were the norm in many Jewish sect communities (think Essenes and at Qumran).

  • JohnH

    RT,
    Absolutely my position is not scholarship; I am indeed placing certain things as being beyond scholarly inquiry when speaking of my own position. Based on my faith in reality of the first vision, of the accuracy of the Doctrine and Covenants, of the Pearl of Great Price and even of the Book of Mormon there are something in the New Testament that I feel I have to assume are outside of the question of whether or not they are actually inspired and scripture; 1 Peter, Revelation, John, Luke, Acts, and James all being at the least based on documents which were written by the Apostles among them.

    In criticizing Ehrman there I can resort to some scholarship and there I can resort to meta-criticism of some of the assumptions that are going into the scholarship. If I were to attempt to write a Biblical criticism piece that tried to be scholarly then I would be the first to admit that even in my attempt to be scholarly and critical that my other assumptions and my prior beliefs have influenced what I think of other studies, which ones I give weight to, and the work that I myself did. I would likely choose articles and studies from those that are sympathetic to my beliefs while downplaying (or even ignoring) those that run counter to the results that I want, even if both would not necessarily be conscious decisions. What journals I published in, who refereed the paper, everything would be more or less influenced by the background position which I hold, as this is very true of lots of scholarship in a very wide range of fields (such as Economics, Archeology, and even Applied Math). If I were a scholar in the subject I would be just as open to criticism of assuming the conclusion in somethings as I feel Ehrman is in some of what he says.

  • JohnH

    ” can popular or trade books be considered ‘scholarship,’ and if not, why?”
    No, because trade books can make claims without support, aren’t peer reviewed, aren’t required to even acknowledge that their is opposing views, and are generally written as though a subject is settled, even beyond dispute, when it may be pure conjecture.

  • RT

    Blake: “Further, Ehrman’s assertion that pseudepigraphic works were in the same category as forgeries is nonsense. The sheer number of such works and the fact of wide acceptance of the Book of Enoch and Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs – not to mention the Book of Daniel. They were the norm in many Jewish sect communities (think Essenes and at Qumran).”

    I think you go a little too far there Blake. The development of pseudepigraphic religious texts seems to have been an inner Jewish development of the late Second Temple period that ultimately stems from the pattern of the testament of Moses found in the book of Deuteronomy. They had a particular semantic, rhetorical, intertextual, and ideological valence in that context. Outside of that, pseudepigraphy should probably be categorized as something different.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    RT: Outside of the context of the Jewish community, these pseudepigraphic texts were virtually unknown during the period addressed by Ehrman. So you assertion that outside of the context of the communities that created and used them they should have a different meaning is rather meaningless. Further, there is zero evidence that the pseudepigraphic literature somehow “stems” from the so-called testament of Moses in Deuteronomy. It is customary to at least have some evidence to back these kinds of claims. It may be that the testament of Moses is pseudepigrapic, along with the entire book of Deuteronomy, but that hardly shows provenance or influence.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I have enjoyed reading Ehrman’s works and thinking about his insights, but on the issue of Peter or John’s literacy, it seems to me that he is arguing that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. He does not have Peter’s school transcripts, so Peter never went to school. To be literate in any way would be unusual for a Jew of Galilee in the first century, and Peter (Ehrman asserts) was NOT unusual in this way.

    But since Peter was clearly unusual in other ways, why should we rule out the possibility that he was unusual in becoming literate and even articulate? According to the Gospels, Matthew was a publican, and presumably literate. Is it not possible that he might have taught Peter and the other apostles how to read and write during the three years they traveled together prior to Jesus’ death? Didn’t Peter have a powerful motive to become literate as the responsibilty for leading a far flung church and missionary effort took off? Wouldn’t that have been one of the ways in which Peter would obtain the skills to obey the Savior’s injunction to “Feed my sheep”, an injunction referred to in the epistles?

    Joseph Smith was able to read as a young man, but Emma later wrote that at the time they first married, and he began translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph could not compose a detailed letter with any facility. He was 24 when most of the work of producing the Book of Mormon took place. In the short 15 years that followed before his death at age 38, Joseph developed significantly in his ability to express himself in writing. He had powerful motives to learn, and it resulted in growth in his abilities, with him seeking out instructors and investing time into his studies.

    How old was Peter when he began following Jesus? Was he 24? Would he have taken advantage of opportunities to learn as he took on a new role as a disciple, and then as a leader of thousands of disciples spread around the Roman Empire? Did he have time to learn to read and write effectively over the next 30 years? Did he have a motive to do so? Were there Jews in communities outside Palestine who spoke Greek rather than Aramaic (the reason for the gift of tongues opn Pentecost)? Were there literate people among the early Saints who would be willing to help him? If Peter wrote the epistles named for him, he clearly did so after Paul had authored a number of epistles to various churches. Peter had plenty of time and plenty of motive and plenty of teachers. He was not an ordinary fisherman, but the leader of a new religious movement that included Greek-speaking Jews and Greek-speaking Gentiles, and had received a vision that had convinced him that he needed to offer the gospel to the Gentiles. If he was not already fluent in Greek and literate before that vision, surely he had plenty of motive, method and opportunity to become fluent and literate afterward. Why shouldn’t we give him the benefit of the doubt?

  • JohnH

    Chris,
    I can write a book claiming to be an authority on whatever I want and someone can choose to publish it. There is no reason to assume that it will be (or has been) peer reviewed, and I can say whatever about whatever however I want and there is no real recourse for anyone to claim otherwise that will reach the same audience that will read the book. As in why the WTF? what exactly is wrong with that? Have you even read some of the popular books out there and then looked at what the actual evidence on whatever subject was?

  • g.wesley

    i think there is certainly a *general* difference in the kind of scholarly writing found in popular and trade books, when compared to articles and monographs written solely for an academic audience. and i would not be surprised to find that the kinds of vetting and review leading to publication are different.

    but it’s not as if the writer in question is merely claiming to be an authority. he is an authority, with the proper credentials (which includes having published articles and monographs solely for an academic audience in this same field).

    and it’s not as if the book in question was picked up by a ‘someone.’ harperone of harper collins is hardly a fly-by-night.

    and it’s not as if the book in question does not have some 30 pages of endnotes, which presumably point to some kind of evidence besides whatever is marshaled in the chapters.

    all of which is not to say that any of this makes the book undeniably factual. only that the arguments cannot be dismissed based on conspiracy theories about incompetent or devious writers and scheming publishers.

  • http://calba-savua.blogspot.com Allen

    “A fisherman from Capernaum had zero chance of being as educated as the writer of the epistles we are speaking of. Archaeological digs at Capernaum show an insignificant rural village with no public buildings, with no inscriptions of any kind and no materials associated with social elites (plaster surfaces, decorative frescoes, marble, mosaics, red ceramic roof tiles). The village did not lie along any trade routes, thus no Gentile population or opportunity for learning Greek.”

    Honestly? Nonsense. I lived a couple of hours’ walking distance from Capernaum for more than a decade. My parents still live there. Several of my schoolteachers found the 2,000 year old boat, and I’ve been reading up on local history for years. Mendel Nun had uncovered compelling archaeological evidence for the bustling, prosperous nature of the Sea of Galilee settlements. Capernaum was no exception, it exported fish, and Peter had his own boats. Peter was no mere working class stiff. According to the gospel accounts he was able to leave his business pursuits and host Jesus in the family’s home. Running a business, even on a modest scale, would require at least a primitive ability to read. I think that Ehrman is, ironically, reading his own modern assumptions into the word. Let us also not forget that Tiberias was within walking distance of Capernaum, and easily reachable by boat.

  • http://Pathos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor Jupiterschild

    JohnH: if you’ve got no direct evidence, analogy and estimates are all you’ve got. What is the evidence you would point to that would meet your criteria for acceptability? How is “John could have been literate even when it says he’s not” not conjecture? Where *is* the evidence?

  • Tom

    Good thing we have a living prophet…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor jupiterschild

    Tom, all due respect, but I’m asking about the issues JohnH raised about “bad” scholarship and (mis)use of evidence, not about claims to revelation.

  • D. Horne

    So far the Church has done a pretty good job of burying its head in the sand when it comes to reinterpreting scripture in light of newly established fact. A clear example of challenges to the Bible that directly effect the BoM is the story of the Tower of Babel. Our current knowledge of the history of human language in no way allows for the sudden appearance of thousands upon thousands of languages in the Middle East circa 2300 B.C. and yet the BoM uses this tale to justify the exodus of Jared and his family to the New World. To believe the events of the BoM requires a belief in the historicity of the confounding of languages, despite the linguistic proof that “the whole earth” was ABSOLUTELY NOT “of one language, and of one speech” (Gen. 11.1). There’s nothing subtle about this predicament – no contested authorship, no revised dating of manuscripts, no debating over the translation of terms – it’s a Galilean-like issue.

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