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Review of “Forged: Writing in the Name of God”

April 21, 2011

The popular author, biblical scholar and university professor, Bart Ehrman has recently released a new book with the provocative title, Forged.  This, the key word in the full title, might not seem provocative in itself.  The subtitle–the context–makes the difference, if you’ve not heard it yet: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. 

Provocative because most people, Christian and non-Christian alike, do not think of books of the Bible as being forged.  At the same time, they may be at least vaguely aware that some books have only been attributed to certain authors via relatively early tradition rather than statements in the books themselves.  Or perhaps they are aware that there are claims among the vast majority of scholars in some cases, that certain books with stated authors (some of Paul’s, both of Peter’s, e.g.) are almost certainly of later authorship.  At best these books represent the known views of the claimed author (Paul particularly) to some degree.  But they tend to introduce additional concepts beyond the otherwise stated views of the authority figure.

If indeed a later follower of an apostle wrote in the name of his mentor, after his death or apart from his knowledge, this raises one of the many questions Ehrman deals with in depth in the book: Does this constitute forgery? Or does it reflect a common and widely accepted practice of ancient writing–and therefore something that shouldn’t concern us much?

It is Ehrman’s contention that it definitely should concern Christians who believe in the truthfulness of the Bible, for the primary reason that many of the books of the Bible (particularly the New Testament [NT], which is his main focus) do meet the criteria of forgeries, both modern and ancient. Additionally, he builds an evidence-based case for the claim that peoples of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean looked at forgeries and false authorial claims in books about the same way we do–as definitely not o.k.  They felt deceived as we do, although it seems there were more forgeries then than now.  (It was easier to pass things off with false claims or misleading impressions in the days before investigative journalism, printing presses, copyrights and other modern checks on veracity.)  One might say that forgeries were more tempting to commit then because it was harder to detect them.  And if a forger got away with it (some were caught in the act and punished at least socially) there was a lot to be gained, especially in terms of  influence for one’s agenda, one’s view of “The Truth.”  Not surprising that some of the zealously religious would try to take advantage of this.  The evidence has gradually become very clear over the last 200 years particularly, Ehrman well illustrates, that they sometimes succeeded, even in terms of “authoritative” scriptures.

Ehrman sets the stage properly and powerfully in the introduction by sharing his insider view of the preeminence of truth in the largest Christian tradition in America — Evangelicalism and its cousin, Fundamentalism.  The major points of the book are tied to misconceptions and denials that are rampant in these and other Christian traditions.  First he shares, partly from his own experience as a young Evangelical at Moody Bible Institute and then at Wheaton College, how a commitment to truth and its pursuit is at the very heart of this brand of faith, and of its views of the Bible, salvation, etc.  Nothing is taken more seriously.  However, this pursuit is not extended to some of the places one might expect.  For example, it would only seem consistent, as well as critical, to seek clear validation for authorship claims that are tied to divine authority.  Traditional Christian beliefs are build on very early concepts of apostolic authority for literally all the NT, but without genuine validation, or generally even a serious attempt toward it.

Now, Ehrman also notes that sometimes the Evangelical commitment to the pursuit of truth does send people digging into questions of biblical consistency, authority, historical accuracy (vs. fabrication or error) deeply enough that it ultimately leads them to different views of the Bible or various core points of theology.  This was the case for him, as he shares about briefly, and happens to be for me as well.  Most of this, about the foundation of Christianity revolving heavily around truth claims and continuing so in its predominant forms today, Ehrman covers in the introduction (NOT to be skipped!).

The key question raised is this: “Is there congruency and validation of this core value in terms of the production and content of many of the books of the NT, which themselves set up concepts of authority for Christian faith and timeless truth?” Incidentally, nowhere does Ehrman argue that the presence of forgeries and other forms of deception in the Bible means that nothing in it can be viewed as true in the broader sense of valid and useful spiritual, moral, ethical principles.  Although he is frank and perhaps could be called confrontive, he does not come across to me as pushing an anti-religious agenda or atheism.  He merely loves the truth to be known and respected, leaving it to others to deal with the religious ramifications.

So how well does Ehrman make his case? Does he back up the claim of forgeries in the NT? What about many of its authors, and those of the “Old Testament” as well (which he touches only peripherally), not being who most people think they are? I believe he makes his case more than adequately.  It is a deeply and carefully researched book, building on his many prior years of scholarship.  He notes his deeper aim has been to produce a “scholarly monograph” which is yet to come, and which “will be much more thoroughly documented and technically argued” (p.11).  This version is purposely aimed at a mainly lay audience.  Still, careful scholarship and argumentation is evident, and his documentation is substantial.

I am not from the “guild” of professional NT scholars but my formal education and ongoing research is significant in this area and I was pleased that I learned further details about early Christian documents (particularly those outside the NT canon, some later deemed heretical as well as forged) and important things about the literary situation of the first few centuries of Christianity.  Ehrman takes pains to cite the more interesting examples, so that this potentially dry subject never becomes so.  I also learned a lot about ancient practices of forgery, authorial claims, etc.  I was particularly pleased that Ehrman’s careful digging has provided me greater clarity on a key point: that there is virtually no precedent in ancient literature for students or later followers of a teacher writing under the teacher’s name and it being considered typical, acceptable practice.   Thus, this oft-cited misconception (I’d encountered it often myself, validating what Ehrman claims) is actually a rationalization or a lazy avoidance-of-the-real-issue technique.  This vital misconception has been passed along through generations of scholars (and pastors, etc.) without anyone, apparently, going back to the original pertinent period documents and to see what the truth really is.

I will not try to summarize all the issues that Professor Ehrman covers–there are a lot, and all are tied to his central issue of deception in the creation and content of the founding documents of Christianity.  The adjunct concern is equally important: how churchmen and Christian scholars have been, from the time of the NT itself until now, complicitous in the process, either actively or passively (purposely looking the other way, leaning on bogus excuses, etc.).  But it is important to at least mention most of Ehrman’s subjects.

He deals with subtle differences between false (or highly questionable) attributions of authorship for anonymous works (like all the Gospels and Acts), with falsifications within books of the NT, with other types of lies or errors.  In the latter category is a good summary of both scribal errors and intentional insertions or modification of texts between the earliest copies of text that we have and later ones that sometimes became the standard, “authorized” versions to this day or until the critical scholarship of the 19th and 20th century.  (To be thorough, it should be said that there are not a lot of such known instances of real substance, but a few of them are of importance, such as the later-added 12-verse ending of the book of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery in John.)

When dealing with cases which he calls clear forgery, Ehrman must deal with some of the issues within NT scholarship on determining dating and authorship of books.  To support the claim of the vast majority of current NT scholars that someone well after Paul’s death wrote I and II Timothy and Titus (for example), these scholars must show good reasons to hold to such a position.  For many centuries Paul’s authorship of them and 3 to 4 others currently questioned, was not questioned, at least by many.   At the same time, other books were questioned as to authorship or authority from times even before they were eventually accepted broadly and became part of the NT canon.  Many of these interesting authorship and canonization issues are covered by the book, so that it is a good overview for such aspects of biblical scholarship for lay people, although impossible to cover in detail given the limited scope of Forged. 

Ehrman also gives brief summaries of many forged non-canonical works from the NT era and just beyond it, and a few from modern times as well.  Some of these were never considered authoritative in terms of Scripture but help give a flavor of the literary situation and the role of story, rumor, and written literature in the early stages of Christianity’s formation.   Among other things, they help demonstrate, along with most of the NT books themselves, how much in-fighting and competition existed among varying Christian groups having often-acrimonious disagreements and disputes–major battles over who had “The Truth” or who properly represented what Jesus and his apostles had meant and handed down.   Get the book and read it!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. David Blacklock permalink
    May 8, 2011 9:20 pm

    About Ehrman – He backs up everything he says from original documents that are in different ancient languages. That’s so much different than the usual writings that are filled with theology and may totally ignore the whole picture. I could never wade through all those sources and I’m glad Ehrman does those things – then writes so clearly for us. These usual writings, by the way, fill up maybe a hundred slots in the usual bookstore for every one book that approaches the Bible critically. > > I have read and reviewed many of Ehrman’s books: following is my review of “Forged:”

    No Free Pass Just Because It’s the Bible

    Ehrman applies mainstream methods of historical critique to the Bible – not giving it any of the theological exemptions that some biblical scholars allow. I’m particularly attracted to his books because I too was trained from an early age to seek the truth through evidence above all else. I too went through an early adult stage of religiosity, although mine did not extend past age 21. In this book Ehrman applies his considerable teaching skills to the study of forgery in early Christianity and its close allies – lies, deceptions, false attributions, fabrications, falsifications, and pseudoepigraphal writings. During the process he thoroughly debunks the commonly stated opinion of some scholars that these techniques were not considered wrong at that time in antiquity – again with clear and convincing evidence. Why do these scholars state these things? Because they haven’t read the evidence or perhaps they just prefer to look other way.

    As stated by other reviewers, Ehrman uses repetition as a teaching tool. This is a tried and true teaching method that I don’t mind a bit. Most of his chapters will not be new to those well-read on the subject – but it will be eye-opening to those who aren’t. Early Christianity took centuries to form a concensus, generating hundreds of documents attesting different things: that there was only one God – no, there were three, and they were equal – no, they weren’t…the world was made by a good and great god – no, the OT God was a cruel God and the NT had a different God – no, the world came because of a cosmic disaster, a giant mistake…Jesus was completely flesh – no, completely spirit – no, he was both…he became God at conception – at his baptism – no, at the crucifixion…Paul taught eternal life comes through faith alone – no, he also stressed works…he was a true apostle – no, he misunderstood the story of Jesus…Peter and Paul agreed on everything – no they didn’t…etc. Whether a book survived the politics and made it into the canon of the Bible or not, Ehrman says, “the vast majority of these apostolic books were in fact forged.”

    Although Ehrman’s primary focus is forgeries from the first two or three centuries, he provides data on others, including:

    * “Diaries of Hitler” – a forgery from 1984. Forger Kajua had learned to “imitate Hitler’s handwriting, had read authoritative biographies of the Fuhrer to get his facts straight, and had painstakingly produced the accounts over a three-year period in the early 1980s. To make the pages look old and worn, he blotted them with tea and repeatedly slapped them on the table. And he fooled the experts, long enough, at least, to be paid $4.8 million for his efforts.”

    * “The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ” – a fabrication from 1894 about Jesus’s travels in Tibet as a young man, “published as a factually historical account and was widely believed as providing the key to the questions that Christians had long asked about the lost years of Jesus.”

    In short, this is an exciting book that is hard to put down. Although it’s impossible to get to the absolute truth, Ehrman’s methods of presenting the evidence from sources that are as original as possible is as close as we’re going to get and I like his style.

    David Blacklock

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