As Bart Ehrman points out in Chapter Seven of his study, there are in fact a lot of anonymous documents in the NT, including all four Gospels, Acts, Hebrews, and 1 John. The practice of presenting documents anonymously, as Bart says, was a great deal more common in antiquity in our age where we even have intellectual property lawyers and plagiarism is a serious crime under certain circumstances. In this chapter then, Bart mentions the possibility that the later attributions of these books to one person or another might be perfectly innocent, even if they were misattributions (pp. 222-25). He is right about this, and it is worth asking why this anonymous book trend did gain more momentum in the second century than it seems to have done. Why in fact was there some felt urgency to suddenly label previously anonymous documents? The reasons are probably multiple, but in fact clearly one of them is that heretics began using these documents, and claiming them for their own causes, and there was a felt need to rescue them from the clutches of the false teachers. Of course some, or perhaps most of the anonymous NT documents may not originally have been anonymous at all— the audiences may have known very well who created them. What we can say in the case of these documents is that it is clear their authors didn’t feel compelled to throw their weight around in terms of their personal or apostolic authority by identifying themselves. But it is also possible to conclude they didn’t identify themselves because, as the preface in Lk. 1.1-4 suggests, they themselves were neither eyewitnesses nor the original apostles or prophets or teachers in earliest Christianity. This too might explain the anonymity.
Bart on pp. 224-25 suggests the interesting theory that perhaps some of these documents like Acts are anonymous because they are seen as continuations of the great OT narratives of a similar ilk— say the narrative in Samuel or Kings. Thus the story of Jesus is seen as the continuation of the story of Israel and its kings. This is possible, perhaps especially in Luke-Acts.
Now one of the unspoken but worthwhile considerations is that the insistence on labeling all these documents, and especially the insistence on connecting them with known authority figures such as the apostles or the Twelve suggests that the authority of the documents to some extent hinges on the author. And this leads to a further query, namely if this is so, then it would seem these documents were not viewed as having inherent divine authority, which might mean they were not viewed as if they were Scripture, like the OT books which were happily anonymous and no one felt any need to remedy that situation. This line of thinking is worth pondering, but on the other hand we also have 2 Pet. 3 which suggests that that editor or author already thinks of Paul’s letters as Scriptures, or as comparable to ‘the other Scriptures’. On p. 227 Bart makes the plausible suggestion that the reason the 4th Gospel came to be said to be John’s is that it was felt it needed to be by someone who was close to Jesus— the closest being Peter, James and John, and since James was already dead, and so too Peter, perhaps John was the label chosen by default. This is possible but it doesn’t account for the internal evidence in this Gospel pointing to a Judean eyewitness disciple, as we have discussed in previous posts.
The anti-Semitic second century document which began as an anonymous document and came to be called the letter of Barnabas is discussed on pp. 229-32 and there is nothing here to dispute. Bart makes the interesting conjecture that this document may have been in response to Marcion, attempting to counter the notion that the OT does not reveal Christ. It is possible. The author of Barnabas is clearly not Barnabas, and just as clearly it is supercessionist in character— God has replaced his first chosen people with a second group. Bart then treats a variety of other pseudonymous documents such as the Proto-Evangelium of James, Pseudo-Matthew, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (up to pp. 238-39). There is nothing really problematic about these analyses and sometimes they have some helpful new insights about these apocryphal documents. Bart is not sure whether a document like the Proto-Evangelium of James would be seen as fiction or fact, but he suggests it could be both, depending on who is doing the reading.
Of course you knew it was coming. Just as he had done before, Bart deals with later documents clearly agreed to be full of fables by scholars of all points on the spectrum, and then he says ‘and we see the same sort of thing in the NT itself’. For example, on p. 239, he points to the story of the census by Augustus, saying it never happened. This unfortunately shows how little he knows about Romans when it comes to censii and tax collecting. Censii were certainly done throughout the Empire in preparation for taxing people, and further more, in just the next province over, in Egypt, people were enrolled in their ancestral towns. You can look up the info in the articles in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels or in the forthcoming Luke commentary I have done with A.J. Levine. Bart no doubt is thinking that because Quirinius is mentioned in Luke’s account but Quirinius was only governor well after the birth of Jesus (A.D. 6 or later) that Luke has made a muddle of things and on top of which has talked about a worldwide census, which never happened. In fact, Caesar did decree that each province should be enrolled and taxed, one by one, with the exception made of Asia Minor. The Greek of Luke’s account can be read to mean, ‘this was the census before Quirinius was governor (the famous census then provoked the revolt of zealots like Judas the Galilean). And as for Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents, anyone who knows the character of Herod (he killed his own children and some wives) and the tiny nature of the village of Bethlehem in Jesus’ day (it would likely have not had more than 10 males 2 and under at the time) can perfectly well believe the paranoid Herod would have them killed. The fact this event is not recorded elsewhere is no surprise. It wasn’t some massive slaughtering of innocents, and in any case Herod was a butcher. This would have been seen as a minor crime on the radar screen of his life compared to a variety of his other deeds. I could go on, but I have answered some of Bart’s objections to these sorts of stories already in my earlier reviews of Jesus Interrupted and of Misquoting Jesus.
One of the problems is of course the assumptions Bart is prepared to make, without defending them at all here, or in full elsewhere. For example, he suggests that the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7.53-8.11 must be a fabrication by a later scribe, in part because it is not an original part of this Gospel. He claims that the Greek style of this story differs from the style elsewhere in this Gospel, but where is the evidence for either of these claims? It is not presented. It is not presented because Bart does not know this to be true, he simply asserts it. In fact, most Johannine scholars who have written on this subject think: 1) this is authentic story from the life of Jesus, and 2) the Greek is not different in any significant way from the range of Greek we find in the rest of this Gospel; and 3) it was probably one of the many free-floating Johannine traditions, alluded to at the end of this Gospel which says Jesus did many other such signs (20.30) and says there are not enough books to contain all the info about Jesus (21.25). As Martin Hengel pointed out very long ago, the problem for the Evangelists is not that they didn’t have enough material (and so had to make some up) but that they had way too much to get on a single scroll. It was thus a matter of boiling all the material down, and some of it was left out of the canon necessarily, with no suggestion it wasn’t an authentic Jesus tradition. But of course this view Bart does not even consider, much less rebut.
On pp. 244-45 Bart turns to the old conundrum of 1 Cor. 14.33b-36. He thinks it is an example of a falsification, an insert by a later scribe attempt to keep women from speaking in church. This is not impossible, but in fact there is no evidence for the omission of these verses. We do have evidence for displacement for there are some manuscripts that have part of these verses a bit later in the text. But do we necessarily have an interpolation here? What does the text really say? It says that during the prophecying and teaching the married women in question should be silent, and if they have any questions they should ask them at home. As Bart rightly points out, Paul had already authorized in 1 Cor. 11 women to pray and prophesy in church, so it is unlikely he would turn around and place a universal silence on them here. Suppose however that we are dealing with a common problem when it came to Gentile women and prophecies? By this I mean the normal way to approach a prophet was with some question in mind you wanted to ask them. This is why you went to the oracle at Delphi not far from Corinth. In other words, these women had brought there assumption about what should happen during the time of prophets speaking and their words being weighed. Paul says no— if you have questions ask at home. Let’s not turn worship into a Q+A session. Now if it is this specific problem Paul is addressing, then we certainly do not have here a ban of women speaking in church. Furthermore, it should be noted that the command to silence has to do with being silent when God’s Word was being spoken. It has nothing to do with being silent in the presence of males. There is no OT statement that women should be silent and subordinate to men. But there is definitely a statement in the OT commanding ‘Be still and know that I am God’ which is the issue here. Don’t interrupt the prophet, as Paul has already said earlier in this chapter. 1 Tim. 2.5-11 is likewise a correction of a problem (in this case high status women with blink who want to speak and teach and exercise authority before they learn). Paul says he is not now allowing them to teach or usurp authority over the male leaders there, and instead they are to be quiet, learning, and in submission to the teaching (nothing here either about being in submission to men in worship). On this see my commentary on 1 Corinthians and on the Pastorals. My point is that Bart ignores or dismisses many of the other options possible to the conclusion we have a fabrication and interpolation in 1 Cor. 14, and a whole forged document in 1 Timothy.
In his final chapter, Bart deals with the problem of modern forgeries, fabrications and falsifications. This is quite helpful in various ways, and I can honestly say I agree with most of this chapter. He points to good resources by legitimate scholars like E.J. Goodspeed that expose these frauds for what they are. I will let you peruse his skewering of the myth about Jesus going to India, or the hoax about finding Pilate’s death certificate for Jesus, and the like. We also hear about Morton Smith’s secret Mark, but here, surprisingly he does not simply say it was probably a hoax. It is clear enough to me, it was, and Morton Smith was having us all on.
What this book finishes with is the philosophical question of whether it is ever justified to lie, say to save a life, or even is it justified to lie for the sake of a larger truth. Bart’s answer is probably not, and I agree with him. If you are committed to Truth with a capital T, lying is basically out of the question, and so is deception, forgery, falsification, and fabrication. In my estimation this is Bart’s best book so far, and if does nothing else than keep devout Christians honest about the truth, than it has served a useful purpose. It raises a lot of uncomfortable questions, and it does a pretty good job of questioning whether pseudonymity was an ancient literary convention, particularly when it comes to document like letters. I have shown along the way the problems with Bart’s case when it comes to various NT documents, and here is the short list of some of these problems already mentioned:
1) Bart’s overall historical analysis of the first four centuries of Christianity does not adequately take into account the unique features of the first century A.D. nor the important roles that apostles, eyewitnesses and their co-workers played in the formation of the Christian movement and its source documents. All of the NT documents, with the possible exception of 2 Peter, can be traced back internally or indirectly or directly to a very small group of literate Christians, some of them of some considerable status.
2) Bart grossly underestimates and seems ignorant of the vast number of roles scribes played in the ANE, in second temple Judaism, and probably in early Christianity, including composing documents for other persons. He needs to go back and read Scribal Culture and do a rethink about the range of possibilities with the use of scribes.
3) Many of the supposed historical and literary problems Bart thinks he finds in the NT are ephemeral or in some case just not what he thinks they are. Bart has a good critical mind and he tends to problematize things too much, in order to pursue a particular line of argument. This is tendentious, to say the least, and it leads to over-reading weak evidence and making global claims that the evidence does not at all support (e.g. ‘almost all scholars think…..’ and fill in the blank)
4) Bart does not adequately come to grips with the phenomena of ancient fiction of various sorts. Some of the documents he is examining could be said to fall into this category, but he wants to disallow it. Sometimes he seems to think that just because some gullible people believed something was a true history when it was a fiction, it must have had the intent to deceive. This is not at all necessarily so.
5) Bart seems to think he can play mind-reader when it comes to some of the writers of early Christian literature. The proper question to ask is— How in the world do you know these documents were created as deliberate forgeries or falsifications, or fabrications when the author does not suggest this in the document, and we can’t interview him now? Most of the time this conclusion is based on mirror-reading of the documents themselves looking for telltale signs of deceit sometimes more successfully than others.
6) This book could easily be called Gullible Travels for it reveals over and over again the willingness of people to believe even outrageous things at times. It reveals as well the deep desire in the human heart to trust someone or something about ultimate Truth. Human gullibility however widespread in both antiquity and modernity however does not prove something about the intentions of the writers of this or that document.
7) There is in fact some evidence in early Jewish literature, as pointed out by Richard Bauckham, that some kinds of literature, particularly apocalyptic did seem to have had pseudonymous authorship as a part of the literary convention. It is a different story with pseudepigrapha and here I think Bart is on basically target. As Bauckham says, when it comes to a false attribution in a letter, it necessarily must involve both a false attribution of authorship and of audience (i.e. it must be a later and different audience) for the conceit and deceit to work. See the long discussion in my Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians Vol. One, Introduction.
8) Time and again Bart fails to take into account major factors that count against his argument. Let’s take the argument about Greek style for a minute. Nowhere in this book does he really acknowledge that what we have in most of the so-called letters in the NT are actually discourses, rhetorical discourses set in the framework of epistolary features since they were sent at a distance. These discourses are oral texts, and they follow the rules of such rhetorical texts and their structures and furthermore, the copying of these texts by scribes follows procedures already well known from the practices of someone like Tiro with Cicero. Yes indeed, scribes did write down speeches, and notes on speeches, and then reframed them in more eloquent prose. You cannot for example conclude Paul didn’t write Ephesians on style grounds, just because it uses Asiatic style rhetoric and epideictic rhetoric at that. It follows those conventions. Of this sort of thing, Bart says nothing.
9) The arguments about Jesus, James, Peter being peasants will not fly. They were Jews taught to read the Scriptures, and every bit of actual evidence (not arguments from silence or what must have been the case in bucolic Galilee) suggests they had at least basic literacy. Peter is called unlettered in Acts 4, not illiterate. And in any case, there were scribes aplenty to make up with the deficiencies one had in one’s own literacy and those scribes could turn a sows ear of a speech into a silk purse. If we are going to talk about forgery and falsification seriously, it will have to deal almost exclusively with flat contradictions of substance between documents, not the willow of the wisp of analysis of Greek style. A good writer in Greek altered his style to suit the type of rhetoric and the occasion. Christianity had some of these scribes as converts, say a Tertius who helped Paul.
10) In this book Bart ‘over-eggs the pudding’ rather too often, as the Brits would say. Had he restrained himself, he would have had a stronger and more plausible case. But by trying to rule something completely out of bounds or impossible, he appears too strident, too tendentious, and stepping on toes liberal, conservative, and others. It’s not good rhetoric when you alienate most of your more learned audience. The danger with this book is people will see some of its extreme rhetoric and fail to take seriously that there is a lot in this book worth considering, and many things that Bart gets right. It is not simply a skree but sometime it sounds that way.
11) I do not recommend people to read this book who are not already well familiar with the evidence and other points of view, as it is liable to damage a young Christian’s faith not because it easily discredits Christianity but precisely because the naïve reader has no evidence with which to meaningfully critique the book and see it has severe problems. For those of you well grounded, even you must read the book critically and carefully and compare other view points in detail.
12) As for the average lay person wanting to know the truth about early Christianity, this is not the book to start with, since it is as likely to mislead and discourage you as help you get at the truth. About one thing Bart and I definitely agree—the truth will set you free. But as Pilate says, you need to know how to ask ‘What is truth?’ and is what Bart Ehrman says about it actually the Gospel truth? My answer is sometimes yes (when he talks about Christian pseudepigrapha from the second to fourth century) but mostly no (when he talks about the NT and the period when it was written).