May 26, 2011
Barth Ehrman: Forgeries in the Bible!
Sometimes a topic gets to me and I can’t do anything else until I’ve written about it. Case in point: Barth Ehrman’s latest shocking book, Forged.
Following his m.o., Ehrman is very provocative and oversteps the actual data just enough to shock, but not far enough to be easily dismissed. Here’s a sample of his rhetoric from a recent piece in the Huffington Post:
Apart from the most rabid fundamentalists among us, nearly everyone admits that the Bible might contain errors — a faulty creation story here, a historical mistake there, a contradiction or two in some other place. But is it possible that the problem is worse than that — that the Bible actually contains lies?
Ehrman is not easily dismissed because in his books he does tend to work a reasonable and even innovative idea that has some scholarly merit. In the case of Forged, the big idea is related to pseudepigraphy. There are many ancient Christian and Jewish writings that were attributed to famous Biblical figures. For example, Adam, Enoch, Ezra and most of the apostles have had books written in their names which were pretty clearly not written by them. The term pseudepigrapha is applied to these books and it essentially means “not really written by the purported author.”
Most of us who have studied Biblical literature have been taught that pseudepigraphy (the practice of writing in another person’s name) was an accepted practice in the ancient world and that therefore we are not to take writings such as The Book of Enoch or the Acts of Philip as attempts to deceive people, but as kind of literary convention. In this new book Ehrman claims that this notion baseless; that in fact, people in the ancient world were not at all amenable to this sort of thing and did not obfuscate what was happening with vague terms like “pseudepigrapha,” but labeled these writings quite clearly as pseudoi, which is to say “lies”, or “forgeries”.
This is a fair point. It is the kind of question that occupies the minds of students of ancient texts. Further, when I think back on my own education I have to admit that the notion that pseudepigrapha was an accepted practice in the ancient world was oft stated but never to my recollection demonstrated. I suspect there is more basis for a positive view of pseudepigrapha than Ehrman implies and I wouldn’t be surprised if several well researched counter claims came out in the coming years. But I think that Ehrman has put his finger on an assumption that can be questioned, and that is what scholarly work is all about.
But is this really that big of a deal? There were books in the ancient world written in the names of biblical characters. They were lies, forgeries, they were crafted to deceive, etc. How does this challenge the credibility of the Bible, which always seems to be Ehrman’s underlying agenda? Well, the discussion of pseudepigraphy has usually been carried out in the area of non-biblical literature, but Bart wants to take it to the Bible and when he does that, the sparks really start to fly.
The question of the authorship of the books of the New Testament is always fodder for scholarly discussion. The debates are by now hundreds of years old and it is no surprise that Ehrman takes the most radical position possible here. Any NT book who’s authorship has been called into question is now for him a pseudoi, lies, gross attempts to deceive. So much so that he can meditate on the irony that authors who purportedly value truth, such as the one who penned Ephesians, would resort to lies in order to teach it. Thankfully the gospels, which lack authorial attribution, escape this assessment. Ehrman pays special attention to the pastoral epistles, 2 Thessalonians and 2 Peter, books which to him clearly bear the marks of forgery.
A couple evaluative remarks
First, let’s keep the force of the argument in perspective. Ehrman’s point about pseudepigrapha being “lies!” only impacts the New Testament if it is indeed true that its books were not written by their purported authors. But this is not a new discussion. It has been going on for generations and it is not as if the traditional view is only defended by a handful of ”ignorant fundamentalists,” as Ehrman makes it sound. Many fully accredited scholars with PhD’s from the best institutions in the world think that the biblical books were indeed written by the people who claim to have written them. As Ben Whitherington points out, Ehrman takes considerable liberties in his generalizations about what “most scholars” think in this area (See Ben’s post for a point by point discussion of the claims about authorship made in Forged chapter 3). There is a sort of rhetorical trick at work here where your main point is to present one controversial argument (in this case, that pseudepigrapha was not viewed positively), so you can throw in another set of controversial claims without fully defending them because that is not your focus. And yet the impact of Ehrman’s main argument depends wholly on his claims about biblical authorship. Aside from that, it’s really only of academic interest. Literally.
Second, Ehrman’s argument is unlikely to make much headway among the people who most care about this topic. The major defect in his argumentation is that only a small number of Christians think of the books of the NT are pseudepigraphal and nevertheless respect them. Further, that is not the group of Christians that Bart Ehrman has declared war against. His “target audience” (and I mean that with the full literal force) is the “fundamentalists” and they are not likely to consider for very long the idea that the Biblical authors are not the ones the Bible itself claims. The practical implication of this is that most of his rhetoric will benefit outsiders, not believers. I’m not sure that that group really cares that much about the topic, aside from watching a National Geographic special about it, so long as it has lot’s of intriguing music and camera shots.