May 19, 2011 at 7:51 PM ET
A biblical scholar has raised a holy fuss by declaring that more than a third of the books of the New Testament were "forged" — that is, written by scribes other than the apostles to which they've been ascribed.
By itself, the suggestion that nearly half of Paul's epistles and both of Peter's were not written by Peter or Paul is not all that surprising. Most scriptural scholars, even those who are true believers, acknowledge that's the likeliest explanation for the New Testament's disagreements in narrative and anomalies in writing style.
But Bart Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, goes further by asserting that such ghost-writing — or, as Greekophiles put it, "pseudepigraphy" — would be unacceptable if it were brought to light in ancient times. In fact, the writers of such works would be "roundly condemned for lying and trying to deceive their leaders," Ehrman says.
"In antiquity, people called this lying," Ehrman told me today. "That was the most common term used to discuss it."
Ehrman lays out his case for Biblical-era fraud and forgery in a recently published book, titled "Forged." The book has sparked a counter-wave of critiques from other scholars who take Ehrman to task not so much for what he's saying, but for the way he's saying it.
"Those who are looking for an excuse to call the early Christians liars and deceivers are delighted with this book," Ben Witherington, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, wrote in the first of a series of blog posts about "Forged."
Even Witherington, an evangelical, doesn't contest the claim that anonymous writers were behind many of the words attributed to the big-name New Testament authors. But he says that's the way scripture evolved back in the early Christian era — and even in pre-Christian times. For example, most scholars don't assume that the Song of Solomon was actually written by King Solomon.
The Catholic News Service's Agostino Bono makes a similar point: "Even if a specific letter was not done by Peter or Paul, it could well have been written by someone drawing from the oral tradition passed down by one or the other," he writes.
In response, Ehrman points to the scores of books that were thrown out of the New Testament by early church fathers precisely because they were judged to be forged. He also argues against the idea that later scribes were merely writing down the words that were passed along by the apostles. The writing style for the suspect scriptures is too much like Greek rhetoric and not enough like the sayings of first-century Jews, he said.
To bolster his case, Ehrman also refers to other books from antiquity, written by authors claiming to be the second-century Roman physician Galen, or the Greek dramatist Sophocles. Such books were roundly criticized in ancient times as "illegitimate children."
So which books of the New Testament are suspect? Ehrman calls out three of the gospels (Matthew, Mark and John), six of Paul's 13 epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians) and both of Peter's epistles.
The debate isn't purely academic: Ehrman says one of the motives for producing pseudepigraphic scriptures was to control the dialogue over early church practices. For example, if you thought women were getting too uppity, you could cite 1 Timothy 12, where Paul is quoted as saying, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." Or 1 Corinthians 14:34, where women are told to "remain silent in the churches."
"It turns out that these warnings about women having to be silent are in books that are forged in Paul's name," Ehrman said. (The passage in 1 Corinthians is thought to have been added to the original, which most scholars believe was actually written by Paul.)
Ehrman isn't surprised by the strong response his book has received, particularly from the Christian rank-and-file. "For somebody who has faith in the Bible, I can see why it might be threatening," he said. "But just because it's threatening doesn't mean it's not true."
As for Ehrman's own religious faith, that was gone a long time ago.
"I'm not a Christian anymore, but it's not because of this kind of thing," he told me. "I got to a point where I could no longer believe that there's a good and powerful God in charge of the world, given all the pain and misery that's in it. ... I don't think that the God of the Bible exists. I don't know whether there's a greater force in the universe, so I call myself an agnostic, because I don't know. And I don't think anybody else knows it, either."
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