Writing in the Name of God -- Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are
- by Bart D. Ehrman
Copyright, HarperCollins 2011
320 pages, hardback
Review by Jim Walker
Bart Ehrman holds the position of a Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During his younger years, he became a born-again fundamentalist Christian and a student of the Bible. Fortunately he had an interest in the truth and the more he studied the Bible the more he realized that the truth started to take him where he did not want to go. Eventually he came to realize that the Bible not only contains untruths and mistakes, but also lies. His biblical studies moved him to announce himself to the world as an agnostic. (Not surprisingly, the Bible has turned many a theist into an agnostic or an atheist). However, this book does not address agnosticism or atheism but rather the truths about the historical Bible. Ehrman has written extensively on issues of the New Testament and early Christianity, including over twenty books, including three New York Times bestsellers.
Ehrman gives reasons for writing this book: "This book that I'm writing now--what is its purpose? In fact, there are multiple purposes. I want to inform my readers about an important ancient literary phenomenon. I want to correct mistakes that other scholars have made in discussing that phenomenon. I want readers to think more deeply about the role of lies and deception in the history of the Christian religion. I want to show the irony in the fact that lies and deception have historically been used to establish the 'truth.' I want my readers to see that there may be forgeries in the New Testament. I want to tell interesting stories about intriguing and relatively unknown writings from antiquity. I want to entertain my readers." After reading the book I think he has brilliantly established all of his reasons for writing the book.
Although Christian apologists have excused the Biblical forgeries by claiming that they don't represent real forgeries and that the early Christians didn't think of them as deceptive lies, Ehrman demonstrates that even in ancient Christendom, they did not approve of forgery and wrote extensively against it. Instead of the word "forgery" the apologists use the word "pseudepigraphy" (which sounds scholarly and above board). However, a pseudepigraph, by definition, means a falsely attributed work, or text. In other words: forgery. There simply exists no escape: people who write in another person's name practices the art of deception and lying, and the Bible contains numerous deceptions and lies.
In the first chapter Ehrman lays out historical uses and motivations for forgeries in the Ancient World, including pagan and early Christian forgeries, outside and inside the Bible. The next two chapters describes the forgeries in the name of Peter and Paul, of which over half of all the New Testament epistles represent forgeries or fabrications.
Interestingly, Ehrman does not think that fabricated writings written anonymously constitute forgery. For example, the anonymous writings of Acts of Peter, which tells stories of Peter's astounding feats and miracle workings, or the Proto-Gospel of James, popular among Christians throughout the Middle Ages, do not represent forgery in the eyes of Ehrman. Ehrman uses a very narrow meaning of forgery to describe a writing claiming itself written by a famous person other than the actual author. A person who writes a fabricated book but does not include any authorship, does not represent forgery to Ehrman. The broad meaning of forgery, however, simply means the process of making, adapting, or imitating objects, statistics, or documents with the intent to deceive. In other words, any counterfeit document, regardless of its anonymity or its claimed wrongful authorship, describes a forgery.
Revealingly, all of the New Testament gospels got written anonymously (the titles, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, got added much later). Moreover, there occurs many altered words, sentences, interpolations, and outright fabrications. So if we include all the fabrications along with the forgeries in the Bible then, according to the broad meaning, we have to conclude that most of the Bible represents forged documents. Regardless of what you want to call it, the majority, if not all, of the Bible describes deceptive writings!
In the last chapter Ehrman makes a remarkable statement:
"He [Jesus] certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on clear and certain evidence." Certain evidence? What? Do we have here an example of a fabrication or an inserted forgery?
The first part of that statement (despite its appeal to authority, represents a fallacy even if true), does not hold. Robert M. Price, Earl Doherty, and Richard Carrier represent at least three competent scholars who doubt the historical existence of Jesus. And although the argument to authority here does not meet the formal definition in the way scholars use, it, it, nevertheless, represents a type of appeal to authority that proves unnecessary. For example, if for some reason all the competent scholars he refers to suddenly died, so would their beliefs, and Ehrman would have no competent scholars to point to. But the evidence would remain and nothing about the truth value of its nature would change. Future historians might have doubts about the historicity of Jesus based on the same evidence. As Max Planck once wrote about scientists: "A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."
The second part of Ehrman's statement, "based on clear and certain evidence," points to no sources, footnotes, or bibliographical notes. Although I have not read all of Ehrman's books, searching the internet, I cannot find any information where he provides clear and certain evidence for a historical Jesus. This seems rather odd because the only real source for claims of a historical Jesus comes from the Bible and Ehrman gives speeches around the country claiming that "The Bible is not reliable." How can the Bible represent "clear and certain" evidence if the reliability of the Bible comes into question? The only other possible sources must come from outside Christianity and I see no good evidence there either (all of it hearsay). Even Ehrman claims that no one has 1st century Roman records whatsoever that even mention Jesus's name. So what does he mean by clear and certain evidence?
Despite this brief odd claim of a historical Jesus, I highly recommend this book. He wrote it for non-specialists in a clear easy to read style. I find it refreshing that a highly acclaimed Biblical scholar has broken ranks with other scholars and has finally admitted what others would not: The Bible contains forgeries.
A few quotes from the book:
Most of the apostles were illiterate and could not in fact write (discussed further in Chapter 2). They could not have left an authoritative writing if their souls depended on it.
None of the Gospels tells us the name of its author. Only later did Christians call them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and later scribes then added these names to the book titles. Also anonymous are the book of Acts and the letters known as 1, 2, and 3 John.
It is certainly true that people in general, not just professional historians, made up a lot of stories about historical figures. In Christian circles this can be seen for nearly every historical figure of importance we know of: Jesus, Paul, Peter, and other members of the apostolic band.
Some what notoriously the Jewish people (this is only in Matthew) cry out, "His blood be upon us and our children" (27:25). In other words, for Matthew, the Jewish people are willing to accept the responsibility and consequences of Jesus' death and to pass the responsibility on to their descendants. This verse, of course, came to be used for horrible acts of Christian anti-Semitism down though the Middle Ages, and even today.
And so, as time goes on, within the Christian tradition Pilate becomes increasingly innocent in the death of Jesus, and the Jewish people and their leaders become increasingly guilty.
Producing books in the name of Peter was a virtual cottage industry in the early church.
In fact, for the entire first century CE (the time of Jesus and Simon Peter), we know for certain of only two authors in Palestine who produced literary works (i.e., educated compositions other than tax documents, land deeds, or marriage certificates, etc.): the Jewish historian Josephus and a man named Justus of Tiberius.
In short, Peter's town was a backwoods Jewish village made up of hand-to-mouth laborers who did not have an education. Everyone spoke Aramaic. . . . Peter was an illiterate peasant.
According to Acts 4:13, both Peter and his companion John, also a fisherman, were agrammatoi, a Greek word that literally means "unlettered," that is, "illiterate."
Peter could not have dictated this letter in Greek to a secretary any more than he could have written it in Greek.
You might think that someone of Paul's stature would have been a unifying influence on the early church. As it turns out, nothing could be farther from the truth.
What most of the millions of people who believe that Jesus is coming back soon, in our lifetime, don't realize is that there have always been Christians who thought this about their own lifetimes. This was a prominent view among conservative Christians in the early twentieth century, in the late nineteenth century, in the eighteenth century--in fact, in just about every century. The one thing that all those who have ever thought this have had in common is that every one of them has been demonstrability and irrefutably wrong.
Human books from the ancient world sometimes contained forgeries, writings that claim to be authored by someone who did not write them. This is certainly true of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament.
Whereas there are a couple of forgeries in the Old Testament, there are numerous instances in the New Testament.
I think it is a bit strange that when some scholars refer to books with false authorial claims outside the New Testament, they have no qualms calling them "forgeries," but when they refer to such books within the New Testament, they call them "pseudepigrapha."
In the New Testament, Jesus is reputed to have said, "I did not come to bring peace on earth, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34). Truer words were never spoken. Many Christians in the modern age think of their religion as peace loving, as well it often has been and should be. But anyone with any grasp of history at all knows also just how violent Christians have been over the ages, sponsoring oppression, injustice, wars, crusades, pogroms, inquisitions, holocausts--all in the name of their faith.
They were at odds with Jews, who considered their views to be an aberrant and upstart perversion of the ancestral traditions of Israel. They were at odds with pagan peoples and governments, who considered them a secretive an unauthorized religion that posed a danger to the state. And they were most vehemently and virulently at odds with each other, as different Christian teachers and groups argued that they and they alone had a corner on the truth and other Christian teachers and groups that flat-out misunderstood the truths that Christ had proclaimed during his time on earth.
In the Coptic church Pilate was eventually canonized as a Christian saint.
It is widely thought that from its early days Christianity was an illegal religion, that Christians could not confess their faith openly for fear of governmental persecution, and that as a result they had to go into hiding, for example, in the Roman catacombs. As it turns out, none of that is true.
So once more we have one of the great ironies of the early Christian religion: some of its leading spokespersons appear to have had no qualms about lying in order to promote the faith, to practice deception in order to establish the truth.
Many Christian readers over the years have failed to see the significance of Paul's constant attacks on false teachers. One thing that these attacks show, beyond dispute, is that virtually everywhere Paul went, even within his own churches, he and his views were under steady assault by Christians who thought and believed differently.
And Paul was not the only apostle under fire. In every early Christian community believers attacked other believers for their false beliefs.
If the followers of Jesus represented the single, unified truth of God, why was it that the Christian church was not single and unified? In fact, it was anything but that, not just in the days of Paul, but throughout the entire first four centuries.
So we have a range of Pauline writings that he did not in fact write: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 3 Corinthians, letters to Seneca, and no doubt numerous other letters that have not survived from the early church.
James was known throughout the history of the early church to have been firmly committed to his Jewish roots and heritage, even as a follower of Jesus. According to the New Testament he was not a disciple of Jesus during his lifetime (see John 7:5).
One of the most fascinating features of early Christianity is that so many different Christian teachers and Christian groups were saying so many contrary things. It is not just that they said different things. They often said just the opposite things.
What is perhaps most interesting of all, the vast majority of these apostolic books were in fact forged. 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.
Just within the pages of the New Testament, nine of the books--fully one-third of the writings--were produced by authors who did not reveal their names.
It does not appear, however, that any of these books was written by an eyewitness to the life of Jesus or by companions of his two great apostles.
The authors of these books never speak in the first person (the First Gospel never says, "One day, Jesus and I want to Jerusalem . . ."). They never claim to be personally connected with any of the events they narrate or the persons about whom they tell their stories. The books are thoroughly, ineluctably, and invariably anonymous.
There never was a census under Caesar Augustus that compelled Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem just before Jesus was born; there never was a star that mysteriously guided wise men form the East to Jesus; Herod the Great never did slaughter all the baby boys in Bethlehem; Jesus and his family never did spend several years in Egypt.
All of the early Christian writings were, necessarily, susceptible to the vicissitudes of copying. We don't have any original copies of any books of the New Testament or of any other early Christian book. What we have are copies that have been made from copies of the copies of the copies. In most instances our earliest complete copies are from centuries after the originals.
We do not need to speculate that Christian scribes altered the texts they copied. You can take any book of early Christianity and compare the surviving copies, whether it is a book from the New Testament, say, one of the Gospels or Paul's letters, or a book from outside the New Testament. . . The copies will all differ, often in lots of minor insignificant ways and sometimes in big ways.
One of the striking and, to many people, surprising facts about the first century is that we don't have any Roman records, of any kind, that attest to the existence of Jesus. We have no birth certificate, no references to his words or deeds, no accounts of his trial, no description of his death--no reference to him whatsoever in any way, shape, or form. Jesus's name is not even mentioned in any Roman source of the first century.
Introduction: Facing the Truth
1. A World of Deceptions and Forgeries
2. Forgeries in the Name of Peter
3. Forgeries in the Name of Paul
4. Alternatives to Lies and Deceptions
5. Forgeries in Conflicts with Jews and Pagans
6. Forgeries in Conflicts with False Teachers
7. False Attributions, Fabrications and Falsifications: Phenomena Related to Forgery
8. Forgeries, Lies, Deceptions, and the Writings of the New Testament
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