Review of the Book Forged by Bart Ehrman

Review of the Book Forged by Bart Ehrman February 26, 2011

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.

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