Over the last decade (or more), Bart Ehrman has released a significant number of popular-level books challenging the integrity of the Bible. It was Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet in 1999, Lost Christianities and Lost Scriptures in 2003, Misquoting Jesus in 2005, God’s Problem in 2007, and Jesus, Interrupted in 2009. Although each of these books attacks the trustworthiness of the Bible from a slightly different angle, the overall message (not to mention the style and tone) is remarkably similar. Indeed, it is often difficult to tell where one book ends and another begins. But just in case the reading public has not yet received the message, Ehrman has given us another dose in his latest volume, Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. The focus this time around is now upon the authors of the NT writings and whether those authors are really who they claim to be. In short, the book is on the issue of pseudonymity (or, as Ehrman prefers, pseudepigraphy). According to the introduction, this popular volume distills a forthcoming academic work on the same topic.
Ehrman begins this new volume in the same place he begins many of the other volumes above: with his own personal testimony about his days as an evangelical at Moody and Wheaton and how he finally came to see the truth when he arrived at Princeton. In fact, he not only begins the book this way but repeatedly dips into this same story again and again throughout the volume. Of course, there is nothing inappropriate about sharing one’s personal spiritual journey (although when evangelicals give their personal testimonies, they are typically not seen as relevant to the issue at hand). However, in the hands of Ehrman, the personal stories, sadly, take on a sharp, condescending tone. The reader gets the impression that such stories are less about being open and genuine and more about ridiculing what he sees as the intellectual and cultural absurdities of his former evangelical life. Unfortunately, this creates an antagonistic edge to the volume and runs the risk of alienating those readers who do not already agree with Ehrman from the outset.
While Forged is divided into eight chapters, it really affirms three main theses:
1. Forgery was a widespread phenomenon among early Christian literature (and in antiquity in general).
2. Contrary to popular scholarly opinions, early Christians did not look favorably on books forged in the name of another author but considered them outright lies to be rejected.
3. A number of the books of the NT were forged (or contain false attributions, fabrications, or falsifications).
As for the first two theses, there is little to disagree with in this volume. Ehrman has done an excellent job laying forth the complexities of early Christian literature and the prevalence of documents forged in the name of apostles (and others). Indeed, there were many such documents—from the Gospel of Peter to the book of 3rd Corinthians—that were simply not written by whom they claim. Particularly refreshing are Ehrman’s arguments in chapter four that early Christians would not have considered forgery to be an acceptable literary practice (as so many modern scholars continue to maintain). It is fashionable today to suggest a “middle way” where the pseudonymity of some NT books is affirmed and the canonicity of those books is also affirmed. However, Ehrman is absolutely correct that early Christians simply did not see it this way. To them, forgery was a lie, plain and simple. This sort of work on pseudonymity is long overdue, and I look forward (at least in this area) to Ehrman’s forthcoming academic monograph on the subject.
However, when it comes to the third thesis—that the NT itself contains forged books—Ehrman’s arguments prove much less persuasive. Although Ehrman offers a variety of specific reasons why he thinks certain books are pseudepigraphal (the details of which we cannot enter into here), they can be divided into three major categories.
First, he argues that certain books could not have been written by their purported authors because those authors would not have been able to read or write. In particular, he claims that both 1 and 2 Peter must be pseudonymous because “Peter was an illiterate peasant” (p. 75). However, Ehrman vastly overplays what little we know about literacy in ancient Palestine. Although literacy rates are thought to have been generally low (around 10% according to W. V. Harris, Ancient Literacy [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989]), a number of scholars have argued that many Palestinian Jews would have been bilingual, speaking both Aramaic and Greek (see J. A. Fitzmyer, “The Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D.,” CBQ 32 (1970): 501–31; A. Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus [New York: New York University Press, 2000]; S. E. Porter, “Did Jesus Ever Teach in Greek?” TynBul 44 (1993): 199–235). There is no reason to think that Peter could not, over his many years, have developed a high degree of proficiency in both languages. Even if he was not able to write Greek, this would not have prevented him from being orally articulate in the language (all he would have needed was an amanuensis to write it down for him). And the use of ἀγράμματοι in Acts 4:13 does not mean that the disciples were “illiterate” as Ehrman contends, but stands in obvious contrast to the formal rabbinic training of the γραμματεῖς described in Acts 4:5. Thus, Acts 4:13 proves the opposite of Ehrman’s point—it shows that disciples were considered impressively learned despite the fact that they had not received formal rabbinic instruction. Ehrman’s remarkable level of assurance about Peter’s literary abilities, and his willingness to overturn the stated authorship of the book on these grounds, are simply not commensurate with what we know for sure about the situation in first century Palestine. More caution with the historical evidence is in order here.
Second, Ehrman offers some of the standard stylistic arguments to prove his case that a number of Paul’s letters are actually forgeries, particularly the Pastoral Epistles. Of course, Ehrman recognizes the limitations and subjectivity of such stylistic arguments: “Everyone, after all, uses different words on different occasions, and most of us have a much richer stock of vocabulary than shows up in any given letter or set of letters we write” (p. 98). Thus, he appeals to additional factors that, to him at least, are even more compelling. One example is the fact that the author of the Pastoral Epistles uses the word “faith” in a different way than the rest of Paul’s letters—the former uses it to describe the doctrinal content of Christianity and the latter uses it describe the act of belief. However, it is unclear to the reader why a single author is unable to use the same word in two different ways. We do that sort of thing all the time even in our modern speech. Indeed, Paul himself uses words in different ways throughout his writings; e.g., νόμος and σάρξ are often used in different ways by Paul even throughout the same book.
Third, Ehrman appeals to supposed theological and doctrinal disagreements between books as evidence that they could not be written by the same author. At this point, some of the same weaknesses apparent in Jesus, Interrupted surface again. While Ehrman is an expert in textual criticism, it is clear that he is not as comfortable in the areas of biblical exegesis and systematic theology. For instance, Ehrman observes that Eph 2:5–6 teaches, “Even when we were dead through our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (p. 111). Incredibly, on the basis of this verse, Ehrman concludes, “Here believers have experienced a spiritual resurrection . . . precisely the view that Paul argued against in his letter to the Corinthians!” (p. 111, emphasis his). This surface-level exegesis, however, does not do justice to the complexities of Paul’s thought. The context of Eph 2:5–6 is not dealing with the resurrection at all, but with spiritual conversion. The fact that this passage uses the root word ζωοποιέω (“to make alive”) does not necessarily mean it is referring to the resurrection because Paul uses this same term elsewhere to refer to conversion, namely in 2 Cor 3:6 and Gal 3:21 (both undisputed Pauline letters!). Neither does describing believers as already seated with Christ in the heavenly places demonstrate that Ephesians teaches a non-bodily resurrection. Rather, such language is just another instance of Paul’s already-but-not-yet theological paradigm. In Paul’s mind, our present conversion is a down payment that guarantees our future place in heaven with Christ—so much so that he is able to speak of it as if it were, in some sense, already here. Beyond all of this, are we really to think that early Christians would have widely affirmed the canonicity of Ephesians if it so plainly denied the bodily resurrection, one of the most cherished beliefs in early Christianity? Ehrman would have us believe that all early Christians (not to mention later Christians) were just too blind to notice such a thing until modern scholars have come along to point it out for them.
While appealing to these three lines of evidence, Ehrman also leaves certain aspects of pseudepigraphy unaddressed. For instance, he never addresses (in any substantive detail) how early Christians might have distinguished between true apostolic books and false ones. As he discusses various forgeries in early Christianity, he presents the evidence as if all these books are on an equal playing field. But are we really to think, for instance, that the fourth-century Gospel of Nicodemus (and the other “Pilate Gospels”) really presented a formidable literary challenge to early Christians? Ehrman fails to assign any significance to the fact that all known apocryphal works in the names of apostles are second century or later (and many were much later). Surely, the predominant lateness of forged works would have played some role in helping early Christians distinguish them from authentic ones. But Ehrman is basically silent on this matter. Moreover, Ehrman never addresses the literary abilities of the early church fathers to analyze ancient texts and spot forgeries. He mentions them only negatively, saying that they lacked “the sophisticated methods of analysis that we have today” (p. 33). In contrast, Robert M. Grant argues that a number of early church fathers—Papias, Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and others—were astute “literary critics” who carefully analyzed the literary merits and historical origins of canonical and non-canonical books (“Literary Criticism and the New Testament Canon,” JSNT 16 : 24–44). As a result, they took the task of distinguishing between canonical and apocryphal books very seriously, giving us greater confidence in their final conclusions. Again, Ehrman seems unconcerned to delve into any historical matters that might lessen the persuasiveness of his thesis.
In the final analysis, Forged is a book with a mix of positives and negatives. Ehrman’s helpful overview of the various kinds of early Christian forgeries and his excellent treatment of early Christian views of pseudepigraphy are bright spots in this volume. However, Ehrman’s level of confidence that the NT definitely contains forgeries is not commensurate with the arguments he puts forth to prove that thesis. In this regard, he regularly goes beyond what the evidence can sustain. For this reason the book, like many of his others, comes across as more autobiographical than academic; more polemical than historical. Ehrman still seems to be chasing the ghosts of his evangelical past. One wonders how many more books he will need to write before they go away.