In the last two to three centuries, the traditional origin stories behind Christianity’s sacred texts have begun to dissolve more and more as biblical scholars have abandoned dogma in favor of objective analysis and critical thinking. It is now widely accepted among New Testament scholars that only seven of the thirteen documents attributed to Paul in the Bible were actually written by Paul. With all four gospels being anonymous, never specifying their author, it is also contested that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not really write the gospels named for them.
With Forged, we are given a glimpse into some of the problems with the orthodox view on authorship of the Christian Bible. Texts from inside and outside the canon are considered as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman asks the crucial question of what constitutes forgery, how this issue was seen in antiquity, and what the guilty parties might have thought of their actions. Perhaps most interesting of all is the exploration of the various motives these writers seem to have had for forging documents in the names of others. “[The Bible] contains what almost anyone today would call lies. That is what this book is about.”1
Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He received his Ph.D and Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied under the eminent scholar Bruce Metzger. Ehrman is the author of more than 20 books, including the New York Times bestsellers Misquoting Jesus (2005), God’s Problem (2008), and Jesus, Interrupted (2009).
I. What is Forgery?
First and foremost, Ehrman endeavors to define forgery using a few examples from history. “My definition of a forgery,” he states, “is a writing that claims to be written by someone (a known figure) who did not in fact write it” (p. 24). As examples, we are given The Hitler Diaries, the Acts of Paul, and even a couple brief notes on canonical books like 2 Thessalonians and Revelation. Writings produced under false names are called pseudonymous writings, the author explains.
Why would a writer claim to be someone they were not? Today most forgeries are produced for monetary gain or the delight of deceiving others, but this was not necessarily the case in the ancient world. According to Ehrman, the most important motivation for forging a document in antiquity was to receive a hearing for one’s views (p. 31). A nobody would stand a far less greater chance of their ideas gaining any attention than someone of popularity or authority. We see this practice a lot throughout the first four centuries of the Christian era.
Using someone else’s name does not imply malicious intent, however. The suggestion that early Christians forged documents may be seen as an accusation of deceitful character, but as Ehrman points out, there were just as many different views on the issue of lying as there are today. The third century Greek author Heliodorus argued that, “A lie is good when it benefits the one who speaks it without doing harm to the one who hears it” (p. 41). Many of us believe that there are circumstances where lying is acceptable, such as comforting a dying friend. Perhaps some of these forgers of antiquity had no ill will, then, but were merely vying for their voices to be heard.
II. 1 and 2 Peter
Chapters two and three cover forgeries written in the names of Peter and Paul. In Forged, Ehrman devotes a lot of text to noncanonical forgeries like the Acts of Peter, the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Paul, 3 Corinthians, and so on. Interesting as these writings are, this review will concern itself more with the canonical forgeries Ehrman discusses, since few, if any, people living today seem to regard these extrabiblical texts as authentic. Even so, their inclusion is an asset to Ehrman’s case in that it illustrates similarities between noncanonical works widely accepted as forgeries and the canonical works that conservative scholars tend to deny being forgeries. For example, this is handy in countering the objection based on the warning against forgery in 2 Thessalonians 2:2, since noncanonical forgeries like the Apostolic Constitutions used the same technique to try and put off doubt about the authenticity of the text.
With regard to the two letters of Peter we find in the New Testament, Ehrman raises several challenges to their authorship. Tradition has argued that 1 Peter describes persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero, yet the document doesn’t seem to have much in the way of “official” persecution that it discusses. It would also be odd to encourage obedience to governing authority (1 Peter 2:13-15) during the time of Nero. The persecution of the author rather appears to come from former friends and neighbors who find Christianity a strange and alien religion (4:1-5). “Peter” advises his readers to be kind to outsiders (2:12), to be devoted in their roles as husband, wife, or slave (2:18-3:7), and so forth. But perhaps the strongest argument I feel Ehrman makes against 1 Peter is the problem with referring to Rome as Babylon (5:13). Babylon was the great enemy of Israel, and Rome did not earn this association among Christians (it is very prevalent in the book of Revelation, written c. 90 CE) until the Jewish temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Peter was martyred in 64 CE, though, according to tradition, which suggests that 1 Peter is a later forgery.
2 Peter reads like a polemic against various heretics of the author’s time, and a good portion of it seems to be taken from the book of Jude (p. 69). The second coming is interpreted as a much later event (3:8) to argue against scoffers who doubted the return of Christ. Yet Peter died only ~30 years after Jesus supposedly died, hardly enough time for serious doubts to arise, when the gospels taught that Christ would return “within this generation”, before the disciples would “taste death” (Mark 13:30, 9:1). References to Paul’s letters and “Scriptures” also hint at 2 Peter being a forgery (p. 70).
One last thing Ehrman covers that casts suspicion on the Petrine letters is the likelihood of the real Peter being illiterate. As Acts 4:13 states, Peter and John were “unlettered,” and this is no surprise, since the gospels report that Peter was a fisherman from the rural village of Capernaum, not the kind of person who probably had the wealth or connections to learn writing. While some have suggested that he may have used a scribe, Ehrman claims that we do not find any instance of a scribe writing a letter for someone and attaching that person’s name to it, yet the practice of writing pseudonymous works is well known and documented (p. 77).
III. The Writings of Paul
What about Paul? Why do scholars believe some of the letters attributed to him are authentic? The argument from illiteracy cannot be used with Paul, because there is reason to believe that Paul was wealthy and also had connections that allowed him to gain an audience with the Roman leadership (Philippians 4:11-13, Acts 25). Thus, it is not hard to believe that Paul knew how to write, and the seven epistles that scholars consider authentic show a uniformity of diction and style that points to one author behind them all. Because of this, we have good evidence that the other six New Testament texts attributed to Paul were not actually written by him.
1 and 2 Timothy and the book of Titus – known collectively as the pastoral epistles – are also thought to be the work of one author, but someone who was not Paul. They all relate problems that reflect 2nd century Gnosticism more than anything from Paul’s time (p. 95-96). Ehrman cites a study by A.N. Harrison, which reports that 1/3 of the 848 different words used in the pastoral epistles do not occur in the other Pauline writings, and 2/3 of that 1/3 are words commonly used by 2nd century Christian authors (p. 98). Differences in the use of words like “faith” and “works” are additionally noted, as well as the presence of leadership positions addressed by the author of the pastoral epistles. Paul’s churches were more like small group meetings than the hierarchy and leadership based institutions we see today, which came into existence during the 2nd century.
2 Thessalonians, like 2 Peter, is a reinterpretation of the second coming. While many of the early accounts of the second coming mention it arriving very soon, the audience to which 2 Thessalonians is written has started to question this. Not only does this apparently point to a later date of writing after Paul’s time, but it’s fairly strange considering that 1 Thessalonians is one of those texts to stress the impending return of Christ. The end will come “like a thief in the night,” it says, and just when people think all is well, “destruction will come on them suddenly” (1 Thess. 5:2-3). Why would Paul discourage his readers from something he had already taught them in an earlier letter? It looks more plausible that 2 Thessalonians is a forgery from a later period, written to correct the growing fears about the second coming.
Ephesians is likely not by Paul, due to its tendency of long and complex sentences (p. 110), and some of the teachings seem at odds with the undisputed epistles too. Ehrman notes how the author of Ephesians claims that he was carried away by the “passions of our flesh, doing the will of the flesh and senses,” and this would be puzzling for Paul to admit, since he elsewhere describes himself as having been “blameless” under the “righteousness of the law” (Philip. 3:4). For Colossians, we get another glimpse of a study on writing style, with special attention to the use of conjunctions (p. 113).
IV. Making Sense of Forgeries
When one says that the Bible contains forgeries, the response from believers will usually not be friendly. It is treated as if you are saying that the Bible was written by pathological liars, con-men, or other persons of dubious moral character. But this is an unfair assumption. Without being able to personally ask the authors what went through their heads, we don’t have much of a basis to presume their innermost feelings on the matter. Yet we justify lies all the time. We don’t generally believe we’ve done wrong when we embellish the truth in order to help another. The New Testament authors may well have known they weren’t who they were pretending to be, but they rationalized the deceit as in the service of a greater good. Although fundamentalists will not find this a comfortable thought, it is not one they can strongly dispute.
On the other hand, as Ehrman makes frequent mention of, there are liberal scholars who attempt to whitewash the problem of biblical forgery. Pseudonymity was common in the ancient world, they state, and it was an accepted practice, not really seen as lying. While it is true that pseudonymous writings were very common, there were many from antiquity who vibrantly denounced forgeries. The Greek words pseuda (false, lie) and notha (illegitimate, bastard) were used for these sorts of texts, which clearly have a negative connotation. Ehrman does a commendable job of cutting through the objection that philosophical schools commonly attributed students’ writings to their teacher, as well as other vacuous assertions intended to sugarcoat biblical forgery.
The presence of pseudonymous texts in the Christian Bible does not mean the authors were lying scum out to deceive everyone, but what they did was certainly not seen as an innocent practice in the ancient world either. Ehrman also tackles the possibility of secretarial involvement in the books of the New Testament. Perhaps Peter used a secretary to pen his letters for him? This is not likely, though, given that Peter would have been unfamiliar with Greek rhetorical and compositional techniques, and dictating it in Aramaic and having it translated would not explain the intricacies of Greek presentation in the text, not to mention that the New Testament authors all appear to presuppose knowledge of the Greek Old Testament, or Septuagint. There only seems to be religious preference behind assuming the involvement of secretaries in the books believed to be forged.
Ehrman frames the dilemma in an apt question: “Which is more probable – a scenario that does not have any known analogy… or a scenario that has lots and lots of analogies, since it happened all the time? Forgeries happened all the time” (p. 139). He goes on to drive this point home in the next two chapters by covering forgeries written under specific agendas – anti-pagan, anti-Gnostic, anti-Jewish, and so on. It is not far-fetched at all to consent that the New Testament authors could have written under similar biases that motivated them to place such importance on their cause that they would claim to be someone they were not in order to propagate and protect their message.
V. A Worthy Read
In the final two chapters, some discussion is given on the gospels (the anonymity of which was respected by the earliest church fathers – p. 225), as well as a few more noncanonical texts. Ehrman elaborates on the differences between fabrications, false attributions, falsifications, and plagiarism, wrapping up with a look at more recent forgeries and deception, such as The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ and the Death Sentence Pilate allegedly signed for Jesus to be crucified.
Some readers may be a little disappointed to find that Forged does not have more to say about the canonical books of the New Testament, and that it almost entirely ignores the Old Testament. Those who have read Ehrman’s past books on extrabiblical writings, such as Lost Scriptures, will already be familiar with much of the material discussed in this new book. But Forged is still a good read and a very upstanding critique on the issue of forgery in antiquity. Even Christians will find a lot to enjoy here, though they may disagree with the contentions regarding the New Testament texts, and those who are relatively new to Ehrman’s bibliography and the study of scripture in general will discover a great deal of interest in the book, I believe. I don’t know of any other book that gives this level of focus to forgery in the early Christian era, and I will be intrigued to see what more Ehrman has to offer in the forthcoming scholarly version he promises.
1. Ehrman, B. (2011) Forged: Writing in the Name of God, p. 5. HarperCollins: New York.