Bart Ehrman’s Keynote Address at #YCAS2015

Bart Ehrman’s Keynote Address at #YCAS2015 September 25, 2015

After a delightful dinner, we returned to the main conference venue. Tony Burke introduced Ehrman, saying that he needs no introduction but it would be rude not to offer one. Burke said he is not one of the Johnny-come-lately Ehrman fanboys. He was a fan since The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, and then Misquoting Jesus became a hit, and it was like being a fan of a band which then goes mainstream. The address tonight relates most directly to his recent book Forgery and Counterforgery.

Having been at a debate recently where the audience came hoping he would be defeated by his Evangelical debate opponent, Ehrman said it is nice to be at an academic conference. The focus of his talk is the character of forgery in the ancient world. Ehrman says the claim of the Jesus Seminar that the concept of plagiarism was unknown in antiquity is demonstrably false. Too many ignore forgery when found in the canon. But we also lack a universally agreed-upon taxonomy of forgery and related phenomena. For instance, the Acts of Thecla is an example of fabrication, not literary forgery. No one claimed that the Acts of Paul and Thecla were composed by Paul, or Thecla. We need categories that we agree on. Ehrman suggests a range of categories including, among others: Falsification, fabrication, pseudepigraphy, literary forgery, pen names, embedded forgery, redactional forgery, and non-pseudepigraphic forgery.

As an example of falsification, Ehrman looks at the sweat like blood in Luke, which was probably added by a scribe, as this is the only agony of Jesus in Luke. This is pretending that his addition is the work of the original author of the Gospel. And so scribes who made additions were engaged in falsification. Ancient Christians denounced those who tampered with texts. The question of intent to deceive is a separate issue from whether changes to a text, even if unintentional, are falsifications and deserve to be so named. It is also a fabrication, since it makes something up and presents it as a historical event. We have many stories and need categories for them. This is separate from the question of whether all history is on one level “fabrication.” Pseudpigraphy has to do with the claim that the author is someone who did not actually write it. Authorial claims are muddier waters. Ehrman suggests that we might distinguish between orthnomy, homonymity (e.g. the assumption that the John who wrote Revelation was John son of Zebedee), and anonymity, and then also pseudepigraphy, pseudonymity, forgery, and pen names. Anonymous works rarely remained anonymous, but there was no deceit on the author’s part even if there was later false attribution. Motives can be complicated – use of a pen name is explicable, for instance, in the case of female authors in a rigidly patriarchal context. Pseudonymity should be a broad umbrella term, with pseudepigraphy a subset thereof.

His main point, made more than once, is that we need a clear taxonomy, and so if you do not like the one he proposes, that is fine, as long as you propose something else, and ideally something better. It is also interesting that Tertullian claimed in the case of Mark and Luke that the work of disciples can be regarded as stemming from their masters. This does not mean what is sometimes claimed, as is clear from other things Tertullian wrote about false attribution. In context, he was saying that Mark and Luke gave the views of Peter and Paul, not that it would have beem OK for them to write in the name of Peter and Paul.

The epistle of Barnabas may be seeking to associate with Paul the opposite claim to Marcion, i.e. that the “Old Testament” is a Christian book and not a Jewish book.

Ehrman emphasized yet again that the ancient terms for forgeries are even harsher than that modern English term (e.g. nothos, “bastard”). If authors did not want to deceive readers into thinking they were someone else, they would not have written under the name of someone else.

There are three kinds of forgery which have rarely been identified as discreet phenomena: embedded forgery (inclusion of first-person narrative without differentiating speaker from author, leading reader to conclude that they are one and the same, as for instance in Ascension of Isaiah); redactional forgeries (a later editor or scribe adds an authorial claim to a text which did not do so originally, as for instance the Infancy Gospel of Thomas); and non-pseudepigraphic forgeries (e.g. Ecclesiastes, which never calls author by name but hints at being the wealthy son of David ruling in Jerusalem; or the Martyrdom of Marian and James). Literary fictions (e.g. a student given an assignment to write like Cicero – it could be literary fraud or mere rhetorical homework) and plagiarism also need to be mentioned. Plagiarism is in fact known and condemned in antiquity, called theft – one notorious ancient plagiarist also wrote a treatise On Virtue. Empedocles was expelled for commiting plagiarism. Would Matthew and Luke have been considered plagiarists? If an anonymous work uses another anonymous work without attribution, is it plagiarism? Some works do not line up nicely with taxonomies ancient or modern – but we need taxonomies nevertheless. Ehrman suggests that forgery as a term should indicate intent to deceive. “Deceit comes in many guises” (in view of the topic, let me say emphatically that that is a quote from Bart Ehrman).

There was time for questions. Philip Harland (a fellow blogger whom I met in person for the first time earlier today) asked the first question, and it was about the use of value-laden terminology in reference to literature. The fact that Tertullian viewed things in a particular way does not mean that modern scholars should take sides in his ancient battles. Ehrman replied that he does not know of any instance of people approving the practices that at least some condemned as forgery. No one says that writing in the name of someone else is an acceptable practice – not just when they disagreed with the content. See Diogenes Laertius. Harland said that the fact that some did it indicates that people did not think it was wrong. Ehrman responded that people commit adultery while knowing it is wrong. Intention is what you want to achieve, motivation is why you want to achieve it. Ehrman says that people want to deceive, but sometimes there can be a noble lie. I really want to propose a scenario in which Nazis knock on your door and ask “Did Paul write the Pastoral Epistles.” Brent Landau asked about the parable of the good Samaritan, and Ehrman said that parables are a known literary form and so were not to be mistaken for history. I was also tempted to ask about “thus says YHWH” in the prophets and where that falls in the proposed taxonomy, if anywhere, since if he would not object to someone genuinely beleving they head from the LORD writing that way, why could someone not believe that they had had divinely revealed to them what Thomas or Paul had done? Pierluigi Piovanelli suggested that switching between “they” and “we” is a common feature and so need not be considered a kind of forgery. I found myself thinking about a bit of satire based on the Ashley Madison website hacking, in which it is exposed that various Christian leaders were looking to write texts in the names of other people. In the discussion, it was interesting that Ehrman was less inclined to categorize prophetic books like Jeremiah as involving deceit. Tony Burke asked where self-deception fits into the picture. In response to another question about the role of secretaries and scribes, Ehrman mentioned that Morton Smith took more or less the same line that he does, that these kinds of works are forgeries. Carrier Schroeder asked about methodology and what is achieved by catgorizing deceit. Ehrman responded by saying that one aim is to identify who is being deceitful, whether the author or someone subsequently. Hebrews is a different case than 2 Peter. If someone thinks an anonymous work sounds like a particular author and proposes that they are, it might be deceit in a sense, but it is not necessarily something that is morally blameworthy and deserving of condemnation. The last question was from Stan Porter, about how plagiarism relates to intertextuality. Ehrman concluded by acknowledging that ancient people may have thought things for which we do not have evidence, but historians must go with the evidence.



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  • John MacDonald

    Thanks for all the updates. I haven’t been to an academic conference in about ten years, but still remember how interesting they can be. You have an amazing memory to be able to recall everything in such detail !

    • Well, I wrote as the sessions were going on, and so these are really notes to help me remember, rather than evidence that I have a good memory! 🙂

  • John MacDonald

    Ehrman would appear to be right about the addition of the “sweat-like blood and agony” to Luke. This is especially the case if we contrast the words from the cross in Mark and Matthew with Luke. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus, quoting scripture, cries out to God in desperation and terror: “My God My God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke, Jesus forgives his killers, reassures the penitent thief, and calmly commends his spirit to the Father.

  • Great summary of the session – thanks for sharing!

    I remember reading “authoritative” commentaries and bible footnotes that deal with pseudepigraphy by making statements like “the practice of crediting one’s writing to a beloved teacher or patron was common in the first century and not considered a form of deceit.” It’s interesting, now, to see through Ehrman’s research, that such statements were apologetic and had no basis in reality.

    I’ve sometimes called Matthew or Luke plagiarists of Mark, and have often been told (usually from someone with a patronizing air of authority) that plagiarism was an unknown concept in the first century, and writers of the time would not have understood it as a form of deceit.

    Some of the responses that Ehrman received in the session sound like people trying to hang on to some sense of legitimacy in their canon, without the taint of deception.

  • Here! I found one of those common commentary descriptions of pseudepigraphy as something innocuous with honest intent. This is a paragraph from an introduction to Second Peter, in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version, edited by Ehrman’s old teacher Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy:

    “It should be borne in mind that in antiquity pseudonymous authorship was a widely accepted literary convention. Therefore the use of an apostle’s name in reasserting his teaching was not regarded as dishonest but was merely a way of reminding the church of what it had received from God through that apostle.”

    Ehrman shows very clearly in “Forged: Writing in the Name of God”, that pseudonymous authorship was most certainly seen as dishonest and reprehensible in the 1st century; and I don’t think any research has been shown to refute this.

    It’s amazing to me how such false apologetic commentaries on biblical authorship can find their way into otherwise authoritative texts, with absolutely no research to back up the notion. It now looks like an unscholarly attempt to protect canonicity – and a little deceitful in it’s own right.

    • Gary

      Just as a note….things change in viewpoints. From The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with The Apocrypha, Fourth Edition, Michael D. Coogan. editor, 2010.
      2 Peter Commentary:
      “Like 1 Peter, 2 Peter is named for its supposed author, Simon Peter, the most prominent figure among the twelve apostles of Jesus. But there is little historical or literary evidence to connect the author of this letter either to Simon Peter or to the author of 1 Peter. The author wrote in the name of Peter, not to transmit a particular form of tradition associated with him, but to defend the common apostolic tradition of the church against a challenge to that tradition. Such pseudepigraphical attribution is frequent in the bible and in other ancient literatures.”

      “Patrick A. Tiller”

      Although not negative in faux, certainly truthful, and not defending the practice as legitimate. Only saying the church does it! What can you say. A bible stating negative comments on the the author as a scum bag, probably wouldn’t sell too well!

      • Thanks for updated version! Very interesting!

        Even Metzgers’s earlier version may have rocked the boat for those Christians who trust biblical authorship claims completely. Both are very carefully worded.

        • Gary

          Your welcome. I also have The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version, editor Herbert G. May and Bruce Metzger, 1962/1973/1977. RSV has since disappeared. One contributing reason is the Isiah translation of “young woman”, instead of “virgin”. Fatal mistake, although from what I understand, “young woman” is the correct translation.

          The RSV on 2 Peter says “In antiquity pseudonymous authorship was a widely accepted literary convention. Therefore the use of an apostle’s name in reasserting his teaching was not regarded as dishonest but merely a way of reminding the church of what it had received from God through that apostle.”

          Bruce Metzger was the editor (commenter) on the NT. I wonder if he felt the same way after fundamentalists trashed his RSV?

          • How do you say something like “pseudonymous authorship was a widely accepted literary convention” without having any research to back it up. I mean, even Metzger must have known that some of the apocrypha was rejected by early Christians on the very basis of it’s false authorship claims.

          • Gary

            All I can say is, 1962 to 1977.
            Metzger must have realized he was working within the system of the time.
            As an example, one of Ehrman’s books (I forgot which) makes the statement on the verses:
            Luke 22:43-44 And there appeared unto him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.

            Bruce M. Metzger (2005): “These verses are absent from some of the oldest
            and best witnesses, including the majority of the Alexandrian manuscripts. It is striking to note that the earliest witnesses attesting the verses are three Church fathers – Justin, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus – each of whom uses the verses in order to counter Christological views that maintained that Jesus was not a full human who experienced the full range of human sufferings. It may well be that the verses were added to the text for just this reason, in opposition to those who held to a docetic Christology”.

            Note the cautious approach, “It may well be…”
            I think he could have made a stronger statement, if he wasn’t apparently such a nice guy. Just guessing.

    • arcseconds

      Until reading about Ehrman’s objections, which I haven’t seen a good counter-argument to (not that I’ve been looking, particularly, but the objection that James records here isn’t all that good), I definitely had this understanding: that it was a widely accepted literary convention.

      And I didn’t just invent this, I’m pretty sure I was taught it (or read it) in school 🙂

      (and it wasn’t in a religious context, either… it was most probably in the brief period where I was studying (mostly pagan) neoplatonism).

      So my take is that this was (and still is, it seems) a piece of commonly accepted (in the academy, not just in religious circles) ‘knowledge’ that Ehrman is in the process of attacking.

      It still seems the case that not everyone has the same attitude towards attribution that we do, or that (Ehrman argues) the literarti of the classical world did. The Talmud is widely suspected of not caring too much about exactly which rabbi it attributes things to. My understanding is that it’s a capturing of an oral tradition in textual form, and oral traditions are definitely not (in general) careful about attribution: look at ‘Homer’ (or the copious works of ‘anon.’) for example… or for that matter the manner in which quotes are attributed to people on the internet.

      Also, Pythagoras: again things are attributed to him which are thought to be the accomplishments of his followers or even likely preceded him.

      It still strikes me as possible that in some circles it was regarded as kind of OK, a sort of noble lie, as James points out. The neoplatonists in particular were dreadfully elitist, and it would not be all that out of character for them to suppose the wise will be convinced by the arguments so the name is irrelevant to them, but hoi polloi may need guidance in the form of an authoritative name.

      • Have you read Ehrman’s “Forged”? He writes about the same claim you mention: practices of the Neoplatonics and the Pythagoreans. But according to Ehrman, this claim boils down to only two quotations from two Neoplatonic philosophers:

        One is a statement by Porphyry which is not found in his Greek writings, but only survives in a thirteenth century Arabic translation of one of his works. Ehrman collaborates with an Arabic scholar to show that the statement actually says nothing about followers of Pythagoras attributing their work to him. On the contrary, the passage numbers books by Pythagoras, numbers books by his followers, and then (ironically) numbers twelve books that are condemned for falsely using Pythagoras’s name. In other writings, Porphyry takes great care to determine what books are authentic and which are forged.

        The other is a passage by another Neoplatonic philosopher, Iamblichus. In this case, Iamblichus does seem to have one single statement claiming that Pythagoras followers attributed their work to him. But Ehrman points out that such a tradition is not mentioned by any other author in the eight centuries between Pythagoras and Iamblichus, that Iamblichus makes no mention of such a tradition in the NT era 200 years before him, that it is a single claim about only one of many philosophical schools, and that recent scholars of Pythagoras have even shed doubt on Iamblichus’ claim altogether.

        Do you know of other evidences of Neoplatonic philosophers or Pythagorean philosophers having an accepted tradition of false authorship claims?

        I’m no expert, but it does seem that Ehrman is doing his homework in this area, and is showing that years of scholarly assumptions about “accepted literary conventions” of pseudonymity, actually have no basis in evidence. Most tellingly, he musters a wealth of evidence that such practices were, in fact, condemned by numerous ancient writers, including quite a few early Christians.

        • arcseconds

          OK, that’s interesting, no, I haven’t read it.

          In case it’s not obvious, I’m accepting Ehrman’s arguments as they seem the best available. I wasn’t aware that he’d also argued against the Pythagorean attributions. I’m only arguing that it was (and probably still is) received wisdom across the board, not just in religious circles. You can find the stuff about Pythagoras all over the place, for example.

          My statement about the neoplatonists is more of a possibility argument than anything I’d expect anyone to take terribly seriously. It is conceivable that in their mindset it might have made sense to do this and it might not have seemed dishonest to them. One can easily imagine them quoting Plato’s bit in the republic about noble lies and foundational myths to themselves. Obviously that’s not much of an argument they actually thought this way or did it.

          It’s also hard to maintain this as being true of neoplatonism in general seeing as Porphyry condemns the practice…

          • Yes, it does seem that Ehrman is deconstructing a fairly broad spectrum of “received wisdom” about pseudonymity, but he’s showing lots of good evidence of ancient authorities condemning the practice, a dearth of ancient authorities legitimizing the practice, and so far I haven’t seen any major scholarly challenges to him.

          • arcseconds

            Yes, as it turns out he’s already addressed my armchair points about neoplatonists and Pythagoras, I think I’ve gone from ‘damn, he’s got a serious point there’ to ‘yeah, probably he’s right about this, and I’ve been told a bunch of porkies’. The responses James records look a bit like half-hearted attempts to shore up the received wisdom to me (not that I can really rule out the normal academic ‘what-ifs?’, but that’s the way it strikes me at any rate).

            I always think it’s a good idea to follow up on this kind of thing because I’ve been burnt by believing clever individuals and not finding out how they were received by their peers and indeed the wider academy before, so at some point hopefully I’ll go check myself to see what the response has been, but at the moment it’s looking pretty convincing to me.

            It’s interesting that the received wisdom seems to be based on very little, and there’s apparently always been fairly strong evidence against it…

  • arcseconds

    I like the reference to ‘On the Supposed Right to Lie’ 🙂

    I am wondering where Plato’s dialogues fit in. He not only attributes all sorts of things to other philosophers, sophists and other figures, but he also makes up quotes from Homer, and the legend of Atlantis (in detail, if not the general idea) is likely his, and he gives it a fictional provenance.

    I suppose the question is as to whether the dialogues were understood to be fictional (in terms of the events described, if not the philosophical content) by the intended audience, but some of this has definitely been taken quite seriously by some people, so at minimum Plato’s an unintentional forger.

  • Marcus Maher

    Thanks for posting these, James. I’ve enjoyed reading through them. I have a somewhat general question on psuedepigraphy and I can’t quite tease out a sense of what the answer may be from the above descirption. Does Ehrman and others think in the Jewish and Christian traditions that pseudepigraphy was generally/always an attempt to deceive as to the authorship? I’m thinking of texts like the Enochic literature or the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs? It seems “Jude” believed portions of 1 Enoch to be by Enoch, but I’m wondering if scholars think this was generally the case for literature that appeared many many centuries after the purported individual supposedly lived. Was the author Jude a little unusual in taking authorship claims literally?

    • Sorry for taking so long to reply. Ehrman acknowledges that there are categories such as historical fiction which involve fabrication but not necessarily intent to deceive. But works like 1 Enoch he would view as fabricating about the past in the hope of being believed. I am not sure the evidence allows us to determine how widely held in ancient times the views were that 1 Enoch is a forgery or authentic. But Ehrman seems to be correct that those were the options most considered – it is truthful or it is a lie. I can’t think of any ancient author who said, in essence, that 1 Enoch is a fitting tribute to Enoch though not by Enoch himself.

      • Marcus Maher

        Thanks James, that’s helpful. I’ll pick up Ehrman’s book one of these days.