on 26 April 2011
Bart Ehrman is a biblical scholar with a knack for shaping a wealth of learning into a form that's accessible to the lay reader. In this fascinating book, he concentrates on the part forgery played in the early church, arriving at a startling conclusion: from the first to the twenty-first centuries, "Christians intent on establishing what was right to believe did so by telling lies, in an attempt to deceive their readers into agreeing that they were the ones who spoke the truth". In short, throughout history, Christians "have seen fit to fabricate, falsify, and forge documents" in the name of their religion.
Ehrman acknowledges that this will sound odd to many, believers and non-believers alike. After all, this is a religion with a reputation for possessing not just the truth, but the Truth. In contrast with other ancient religions (more interested in proper practices than whether or not their beliefs were true), the "Christian religion came to be firmly rooted in truth claims, which were eventually embedded in highly ritualized formulations, such as the Nicene Creed" and "Christians from the very beginning needed to appeal to authorities for what they believed". If Jesus said it, if Paul said it, if James said it, that was enough to settle the matter in hand. If you wanted your views to carry more weight, put them in a document and attach the name of an established authority (producing books in the name of Peter, for example, "was a virtual cottage industry in the early church"). In other words, forgery (pseudepigraphal writing "in which an author knowingly claims to be someone else") was far from unusual, and we know of over a hundred writings "from the first four centuries that were claimed by one Christian author or another to have been forged by fellow Christians".
Ehrman's own personal journey is one few true believers make. At Moody Bible Institute, he began his evangelical studies with a firm belief in the objective truth of Christianity. Eventually, however, he realized that the discrepancies in the Bible could not be objectively reconciled, that the Bible contained errors, and also "what almost anyone today would call lies".
He begins this book with an overview of authorship in the ancient world, emphasizing the fact that the moral norms surrounding pseudepigraphy were the same then as now: forgeries were condemned whenever they were discovered. This is important, since some scholars argue, for example, that "the people who forged the New Testament letters of, say, Peter and Paul had no 'intention to deceive' and did not 'not in fact' deceive anyone". So, how come "everyone (for many, many centuries) was in fact deceived"? "For seventeen hundred years, everyone who read these letters thought that Peter and Paul wrote them." It is salutary to see how intellectual integrity can be compromised by religious belief. Certain scholars will leap through hoops to avoid calling a spade a spade, imagining without any evidence that pseudepigraphy was practiced "as an act of humility". Ehrman suggests "that scholars have latched onto this idea because it gives them a way of talking about what happened in the literary tradition of early Christianity without saying that early Christian authors were guilty of forgery".
Despite this reluctance, it is clear that there are forgeries in both the Old and the New Testaments. For example, the Pauline writings Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus were all forged in his name by supporters with a particular theological axe to grind. "These pseudonymous authors obviously felt that Paul's authority could prove persuasive in the context of the various controversies and struggles the Christian community was encountering." Then, as now, many of the most bitter disputes were within Christian communities. One reason Paul wrote to the Corinthians was that their church was in a mess - there "were divisions and episodes of infighting, some members were taking others to civil court, the worship services were chaos, and there were harsh disagreements over major ethical issues" - and they needed pulling into line.
For good measure, letters from Paul to Seneca were also forged. These "fulfilled an apologetic role in showing that, far from being a backwater religion of lower-class peasants, Christianity from the outset was a highly respectable philosophical tradition". So highly respected that the "greatest Roman philosopher of the first century revered the apostle Paul and praised his uncanny insights".
One of the "tricks" used by ancient forgers to assure readers that their own writings were authentic was to warn against writings that were not authentic. "Readers naturally assume that the author is not doing precisely what he condemns." Perhaps more striking is that the author of Ephesians also tells his readers to fasten "the belt of truth" around their waist. "Truth was important for this writer... How ironic, then, that the author has deceived his readers about his own identity. The book was written pseudonymously in the name of Paul by someone who knew full well that he was not Paul. Falsely claiming to be an impeccable Christian authority, this advocate for truth produced a pseudepigraphon..."
In all these battles, the full armour of God included weapons of deceit. Forgery was used "to fend off the attacks of Jews and pagans and to assault the views of other Christians who had alternative, aberrant understandings of the faith". Other weapons included falsification of the text and wholesale fabrication. Scribes not only altered what they were copying, but occasionally added new material. The story of the woman taken in adultery is one such example. The non-canonical Gospel of Peter is a fabrication - a "made-up story that tries to pass itself off as historical" - as well as a forgery.
If Christianity were as defunct as the worship of Zeus, this kind of research might be of limited interest. That Christians are not only still around but continue to profess both an interest in the truth and in moral virtue make this knowledge vitally important. Christians will no doubt find it uncomfortable, as Ehrman did, to face up to the fact that the Bible contains lies. The hope is, like Ehrman, they will respect reason, evidence, objectivity and truth more than deception.
on 13 July 2015
"Forged" is a summary of what many leading academic scholars have been saying for centuries, especially since the rise of Modern Theology. The author's view is neither new nor extreme. Having done a degree in Theology during the mid 80's it came as no surprise regarding the author's stance that half of the 27 books in our New Testament are forgeries, written by someone pretending to be a famous apostle in order to promote their theological agenda over the views of others.
The author makes it clear that this is a watered down, user-friendly version of some of the research papers that he regularly submits about Christianity in antiquity, especially the transmission of Christian texts. I would have liked to have seen more of the technical details that Prof Erdman uses in his academic submissions.
Bart Erhman begins by describing his own personal crisis of faith between his firm evangelical faith as a born again believer in the inerrancy of scripture on the one hand, and his intellectual honesty as a scholar on the other. It is this honesty that I greatly admire, partly because I shared a similar journey. The author has spent over three decades studying texts in their original Greek language, and in this latest book, painstakingly provides his own personal research, and that of other scholars, around the subject of forgery in antiquity.
Bart Erhman does repeat some of the research themes from his earlier works, but this is not a bad thing since it shows how the canon, texts, their transmission and their corruption are all inter-related and go hand-in-hand. Another plus of this overlapping of topics between B D Erhman's books is that you don't need to buy all of the author's books to capture the whole essence of his persuasive arguments. I read this book alongside Lost Christianities, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Whose Word is it?, as well as works by other scholars like Bruce Metzger.
Bart D Erhman sets out various definitions of Forgery and provides several differentiations, but has the guts to call "a spade a spade", because the act of lying about who your really are by deliberately writing as someone else like a famous apostle, when you know you are not that person is 'Forgery' and deception. This is the ancient equivalent of 'Identity Theft', because that is effectively what a forger does when they try to deceive the recipient of the epistle into believing that they reading a letter, containing authoritative instructions for Christian living, from a famous apostle. The Author chastises Evangelical scholars who prefer the polite window dressing term "pseudopigraphy" instead of 'forgery' to play down the significance of a New Testament writer trying to pass themselves off as a famous apostle. Bart Erhman notes that Evangelical scholars are quite happy to call non-canonical books written by authors pretending to be famous apostles as 'forgeries', and yet, when the same evidence of deceptively writing as a famous apostle is identified in a canonical book the evangelical hardly ever calls these 'forgeries', instead preferring the less negatively critical term 'pseudopigraphy' (writing inscribed with a lie) because it doesn't sound as serious or criminal as the word 'forgery', even though that is exactly what deceptively writing as someone else is ... a 'forgery'
Bart Erhman also challenges the Evangelical scholars who claim that forgery was perfectly acceptable during the New Testament period, by demonstrating that the ancients regarded forgeries as "Nothos" a word that means "illegitimate/bastard", since forgeries were condemned in antiquity just as they are today. This book cites the infamous Hitler Diaries as a modern day example of a forgery, along with various examples of forgeries in antiquity where writers pretended to be someone else, usually famous, even Galen, to suit their own agendas.
This book collates and summarises the strong, and in many cases irrefutable, evidence of how we know for certain that about half of our New Testament texts, usually epistles, were written by forgers. That is, authors deliberately lied by pretending to be a famous apostle in the hope of gaining serious credibility to promote their own beliefs and practices over those from rival Christian communities. It will no doubt shock many Evangelical believers that the letters allegedly from Peter, James, John and Jude could never have been written by the disciples Peter, James John, or Jude. Instead these are later church forgeries, written long after the Apostles had died, by someone who wanted the reader to think that the particular flavour of 'Christianity' promoted in the letter came with full approval from the highest apostolic authority.
Prof Bart Erhman illustrates the tricks used by New Testament forgers in the classic case of 2 Thessalonians being a forgery of 1 Thessalonians. The logic is simple. 1 Thessalonians warns believers to be ready as the end is imminent and coming suddenly without any warning "like a thief in the night", however 2 Thessalonians contradicts this. 2 Thessalonians warns the believers not accept forged letters in their name claiming that the end will be sudden because they have always taught that the end is actually a long way off because several key events must occur first. So one of the letters to the Thessalonian believers is a forgery. It is as simple as that. When the style, theology and known idiosyncrasies from genuine Pauline texts are analysed, most scholars agree that 2 Thessalonians is a forgery that used 1 Thessalonians as the template.
Indeed Bart Erhman demonstrates that 6 of the 13 letters bearing Paul's name are forgeries, with the strongest evidence against the pastoral letters of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus. The other Pauline letters that are disputed are the letters to the Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians. These are known in academic circles as Deutero-Pauline literature to indicate that there are serious doubts about their authenticity, based on their theological content, writing styles and high usage of words that do not appear in the 7 letters that are undisputedly written by Paul. The author also considers some forgeries that the church rejected, like epistles from Pilate or gnostic gospels that even the most two-faced Evangelic scholars are happy to call 'forgeries' instead of 'pseudopigraphy'.
The author touches on motives for why writers would deliberately pretend to be a famous apostle to create a forgery, when we know for certain that Peter, James and John were illiterate and certainly could not have mastered the eloquent Greek we read in letters bearing their names. Bart Erhman mentions the irony that the church lied to justify their flavour of "true" Christian belief, and to counter rival opinions.
These forgeries managed to successfully deceive many of the early church fathers reading them centuries after they were written. Some of the books were initially regarded as unauthentic or doubtful by some church fathers, yet still managed to con their way into the later Christian Canon and further mislead Christendom for well over fifteen hundred years. Likewise some books like the Shepherd of Hermas of the Epistle of Barnabas were once regarded as scripture by some church fathers and yet later failed to be accepted into the Canon.
Most Christians, especially Evangelicals, will correctly regard this book as a serious challenge to established Christian beliefs and doctrines, particularly any belief regarding the authority of the bible as the true and inerrant word of God. This seriously undermines the credibility, honesty and integrity of the church that accepted these texts written by liars, because it proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the 'holy scriptures' are not divinely inspired at all, but are the product of the minds of men, some of whom were keen to go to any length, even lie about who they were, just to promote their own ideas about what Christians ought to believe and do.
Prof Bart D Erhman's book 'Forged!' comes at a time when we are witnessing the beginnings of dialectic shift of church moving away from the current 'megachurch' or temple model of organised orders of service, "Priests and Laity", "The man at the front and the congregation/audience", back to the grass roots of House Church, female-leadership-friendly, all-member ministry. There has been a remarkable growth in the Oikos (home church) movement, as many churches on the fringes of mainstream Christianity begin to question the established church, by exploring their true origins for themselves and try to understand how their sacred text has actually been hijacked by orthodox fraudsters.
The more honest Christian reader will be only too aware of the immense impact that these evidence backed claims of forgeries will have upon cherished Christian beliefs, doctrines and practices. If the pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus are forgeries, as most scholars concur, then the ramifications are of seismic proportions for Episcopalians, Anglicans, Catholics who have been doing church 'wrong' and have been conned by the writings of liars for centuries. Their entire hierarchy, church organisation (bishops, presbyters, deacons and elders), belief that women should not be permitted to teach or speak in church, are based on lies written by con men out for their own theological gain.
Watch out for Evangelical Christian apologists writing a critique of this book and attempting to play down the significance of forgery without offering much evidence to refute not just Bart Erhman, but the majority of New Testament scholars. The implications that forgeries have infiltrated Christian beliefs and influenced core Christian doctrines can no longer be ignored by the church. How many Christian doctrines and church practices are based on the words of a liar? How many times have the words of a forged New Testament text been quoted as a proof text to support a doctrine?
This book left me wondering what flavours of mainstream Christianity we would see today if there had been no forgeries? I doubt that we would have today's elitist, misogynistic, hierarchical, male-dominated, materialistic Christianity, governed by a professional, clergy elite as the dominant flavour.