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Foundations of the Christian Faith

April 16, 2011

I’ve titled this post “Foundations of the Christian Faith” to introduce one particular aspect of what Christianity, as generally expressed through most of its history, has been built upon–the documents that make up the New Testament (NT).

Of course, it wasn’t called this while the documents were being written, nor did the authors even know that their works were destined to be considered “Scripture.” Perhaps some of them thought or hoped so…. They definitely sought to have them considered authoritative to their immediate or perhaps a broader audience (most were written to a single faith community or several in a particular region).  But it took about three centuries, through a lot of often-bitter contention (as seen in the NT itself), competition, and such, for there to be a politically-prompted general settlement on which out of scores of early Christian gospels, letters, etc. would be “canonized” into a collection called the New Testament.

What I will do here is mainly introduce the subject of the authorship, sources and “purity” of the texts handed down to us in the NT, and particularly the aspect of which books may be forgeries or falsely attributed to someone as author (an apostle or someone close to one, to carry his authority).

Did the term “forgery” seem strange or out of place at all, as I just used it? It is the contention of Bart Ehrman, in his latest book, Forged: Writing in the name of God, that scholars of the NT and theologians, along with church leaders and laity, have avoided this frank and suitable term in considerations of NT authorship.  I agree.

I also confess that I was, myself, slightly unsettled seeing his book title and reading the first few pages.  I realized that I was not used to applying that term to the process of the writing and seeking for authoritative acknowledgment of the questionable-authorship books of the NT (well over half of the 27, according to the vast majority of NT scholarship, and still a good many per the most conservative/traditionalists, in that often no authorship is even claimed within the document.)  I also realized he was making a valid and important point.

Let me digress briefly, as a sort of introduction to a longer review of Ehrman’s book that I intend to post in the next few days.  I don’t know who all has so far done reviews of Forged.  If not available yet, I’m sure there will be some by reviewers more trained and/or specialized in NT studies than I am.  But I feel I should give some relevant “resume” facts for my upcoming review: I have a lot of both formal (5 years in 2 post-grad seminaries) and informal theological training, including some in Greek and NT exegesis many years ago, but have not pursued that specialization professionally.  I’ve studied textual criticism and, more recently, a lot on NT backgrounds and authorship questions.  So I’m more familiar with the field than most lay people and even most pastors, I think I can safely say.  (They are often studious, but with little time to devote to these areas, and would concur that seminary has so much to cover that details of biblical scholarship can’t be pursued as much as some might think.)  One reason I site all this is to show I have some basis on which to evaluate the scholarship of Ehrman in Forged, and his conclusions.

But I rush to add that he has carefully written this book, like most of his earlier ones, for a lay audience.  It is interesting reading for anyone interested in not only the NT or Christian faith, but also history or literature, especially of the ancient world.  And it is not highly technical though well documented with end notes.  Incidentally, he mentions that he has simultaneously been working on a scholarly book (for NT and related scholars) on the same subject, with more detail and references, which I believe he said was due out within the year.

Now, for readers who may not get back to this blog for my full review, let me give a few highlights.  First, if you have had any questions about who wrote parts or all of the NT (as we all should have, if caring at all about religious authority, whether as a believer or unbeliever) or where its authority comes from, this book is a must-read.   It will not answer all the questions, of course.  But I know of no other readable book (or any, for that matter) which covers the issues surrounding forgery, false attribution of writings, falsifications within NT books, etc., as honestly, sensibly and yet respectfully as this book.  So rush out (or online) and buy it…. Read it by the time you come back to find my review of it.  I promise I will stretch the limits of what people will typically read on a blog post, and make it substantive.  This book is important, not just for the specifics on who may have forged what, when, and for what purposes, but also because it rightly points out that this whole subject has been far too long avoided by even questioning Christians who are seeking a faith of real integrity and impact on their lives and the world.

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