Saturday, February 23, 2013

Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are by Bart D. Ehrman

(Book Review)

Why I Read This Book
          I’ve mentioned Bart Ehrman several times on this - blog - over - the - years, but I had never actually read any of his books.  I decided now was a good time to remedy that.
            (My reading list is always dominated by whatever phase I’m going through at the moment, and recently I’ve been on a Biblical studies kick, so I decided reading Bart Ehrman was long overdue.)

            Bart Ehrman is most famous for Jesus Interrupted and Misquoting Jesus, but this book caught my eye first.  (Sidenote—although it may actually have been a mistake to start with one of Bart Ehrman’s later books, because I discovered he sometimes assumes you’ve already read his previous books. More on this below.)

            I had known about the issue of forgery in the New Testament ever since I was a freshman at Calvin College way back in 1996.       In religion 101, our professor told us that several of the letters in the Bible claiming to be from Paul weren’t actually written by Paul, but by someone else pretending to be Paul.  Ditto for the letters claiming to be from Peter.  And in fact most of the books in the New Testament were not actually written by their traditional authors.

            If I had heard this from an atheist, I would have been skeptical.  But this was coming from a religion professor at a conservative Christian college.  If he thought there was good evidence for this, I would take his word for it.

            And so, I’m somewhat ashamed to say, for years afterwards I never really looked into this for myself.  I went around believing that Paul had not written 1&2 Timothy without bothering to find out exactly why scholars believed Paul had not written 1&2 Timothy.
            In the past few months, I’ve picked up a bit more knowledge on this topic.  Dale Martin talks about some of the reasons scholars doubt the traditional authorship of the New Testament books in his New Testament lectures, and Robin Lane Fox broaches the subject in The Unauthorized Version.  But I thought there was still more to learn on the subject, and when I saw Bart Ehrman had published a whole book devoted to the question of New Testament authorship, I decided to buy it.

The Issue
          I’ll lay out the issues first before saying what I liked and didn’t like about the book.
            This book was just recently published in 2011, but the issue is old news.  (As I said above, my religion professors at a conservative Christian university were teaching it back in 1996, and it’s been common knowledge among Bible scholars for about a century now.)  The reason Bart Ehrman is so controversial is not because he is coming up with radical new ideas, but because he is writing books that introduce the general public to what has become the consensus of Biblical scholarship long ago.

            Basically, almost none of the books in the New Testament are written by the people you thought they were written by. Instead most of the New Testament books are under false names.
            False names fall into two categories.  Some books were first written anonymously, and then only later were assigned names by Church tradition (Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John).
            Much more duplicitously, other books were written by people blatantly claiming to be someone they were not.
            1&2 Peter claim to be written by Peter, but they were not.
            And the letters of James and Jude claim to be written by James and Jude, but they were not.
            As for Paul, scholars doubt the authenticity of 6 out of his 13 letters in the New Testament. 
            (A point Bart Ehrman glosses over slightly is that some of the Pauline letters are more controversial than others.  Virtually all scholars agree that Paul did not write 1&2 Timothy and Titus, but there is considerably less consensus about Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians.  Ehrman however treats all 6 of these letters as forgeries.  He acknowledges in passing that there is some disagreement about the latter 3, but I think he could have been clearer on that point.)
            This much is generally acknowledged even by Christian scholars.  The debate is about what this means.
            My religion professor at Calvin College told us that we shouldn’t think of this as lying in the modern sense of the word, because it was more of a literary tradition than it was deception.  It was a common literary tradition for Christians to write down their theological treatises under the name of a famous apostle and not considered intellectually dishonest at the time.
            For this reason, my Christian professors would never have used the word “forged” to describe 1&2 Timothy.

            Bart Ehrman is of course fully aware of the strong negative connotations the word “forged” carries, but he uses it so deliberately.  He spends whole chapters (chapters 1 and 4) arguing that this was not accepted practice in the ancient world and that whenever the ancients were aware of someone writing under someone else’s name, they strongly condemned the practice.

            At the heart of all this is obviously a theological issue which Bart Ehrman raises, but wisely does not attempt to answer.  If we know that the Bible contains lies, can it also be God’s true word?
            If we know that the author of 1&2 Timothy is being untruthful in his opening verses, when he claims to be Paul, how do we know he is being truthful in any of the subsequent verses when he lays out his theology?

            Every individual Christian must answer this question for themselves.  My Calvin professors, for example, believed that most of the New Testament was under false names, and it did not affect their faith.
            For me, however, this knowledge was one of the many things that helped to push me from Christianity to agnosticism over the years, because it made me feel like I couldn’t trust the Bible to be honest about itself.  And if I couldn’t trust the Bible on the small things, how could I trust it on the big things?

The Things I Didn’t Like About this Book
            I’ve got some positive things to say, but I’ll get the negative things out of my system first.

            My biggest complaint is that the content of the book doesn’t always match what is promised on the cover.
            Presumably anyone who picks up this book does so because they are interested in the forged books that are in the Bible.  The front cover seems to promise this content, the back cover promises this content, and even the title of the book (Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are) explicitly indicates this to be focus of the book.

            Once you start reading the book, however, you find that Bart Ehrman is just as concerned with non-canonical Christian writings as he is with the canonical New Testament.  In fact I think he spends more time talking about the non-canonical writings.

            I understand of course that non-canonical forgeries in the early Christian world are tangentially related concerns.  Bart Ehrman wants to show that it’s well established that forgery existed in the early church, and that early Christians had many motives for doing so (usually resulting from their doctrinal disputes with each other).
            At the very least, everyone agrees that there was some level of forgery going on in the early church.  Everyone now, whether fundamentalist Christian, progressive Christian, atheist, or agnostic agrees that Peter didn’t actually write the Gospel of Peter, the non-canonical epistle of Peter, and the Apocalypse of Peter.  (Although as Bart Ehrman relates, back in the days of the early Church this was not always so clear cut.  Some congregations used the Gospel of Peter as authoritative, and the Apocalypse of Peter was almost included in the New Testament.)
            So then, everyone should have to admit that if forged writings under the names of the apostles were so common, then there is at least the possibility that some of these forged documents might have found their way into the New Testament.

            But even accepting this is connected to his subject, Ehrman goes into way too much detail on this.  At times the book almost feels more like an introduction to non-canonical Christian writings instead of a book about the Bible. 
            It may well be that there were much more forgeries in the early Christian world than those that made it into the New Testament, but one subject is inherently more interesting than the other.  If you grew up with a Christian background, and you were trained to view the Bible as authoritative, then you are a lot more emotionally and intellectually invested in knowing why the canonical New Testament books are under false names.  The non-canonical books could have been easily summarized in a few sentences.
            For example, I would have been perfectly happy if Bart Ehrman had simply told me that besides 1&2 Peter there were many other early non-canonical Christian documents forged in the name of Peter.  I didn’t need a detailed description of what each one was about.  Also Ehrman could have simply said that there were many Christian forgeries written by the Gnostics, and many written by other Christians against the Gnostics. I did not need to follow him for 10 pages while he listed all the Gnostic and anti-Gnostic forgeries.
            After a while, Bart Ehrman’s insistence on going through every forged book in the early Christian community can start to feel like filler—as if he didn’t have enough material on the canonical Bible to fill up a whole book.

            Part of the issue is matching the reader’s expectations to the book.  The ideal reader for this book is not just interested in the Bible, but interested in all of early Christian literature.  That person would enjoy this book much more than I did.
            Also ideally the publisher should have marketed this book in such a way that it could find its ideal reader, instead of what they actually did, which was to market this book as about the Bible.

            However, after wading through lots of pages describing all the non-canonical forgeries in the early church, we finally get to the meat of the matter.  How exactly do scholars know that 1&2 Peter weren’t written by Peter, and that 1&2 Timothy weren’t written by Paul?
            Ehrman does a good job of summarizing the major issues here, but I was disappointed that these sections weren’t as long as they could have been.
            Right of the bat, Ehrman announces that he’s not going to get into the nitty gritty details.  An incredible amount of scholarship has been devoted to the pastoral letters [1&2 Timothy, Titus] just in the past 30 years….Much of it is tedious to normal human beings, but fascinating to those of us who are abnormal scholars.  I can’t summarize it all here.  Instead I simply give a few reasons for thinking that all three letters were written by the same person, and that this person was not Paul” (p. 96-97)  At the end of this section, Ehrman concludes: There are plenty more reasons, but the arguments can get a bit dull after a while” (p. 114).
            On the one hand, I do appreciate that Ehrman is worried about boring his reader, and that this is a good concern for any author to have.  But at the same time it’s frustrating to buy a book on forged letters in the New Testament, and then to find out that only about 50 pages out of 265 are actually dedicated to explaining how scholars know these letters are forged. 
            Given how well Bart Ehrman is capable of writing, I think he could have gone into more detail without boring his readers if he had wanted to put in the effort.  But even assuming this section would have gotten slightly boring, at the end of the day I would have preferred to suck it up and be bored and then get the information that was the whole reason for me buying this book in the first place.
            And even more frustratingly, when Ehrman gets around to talking about why the Gospels were not really written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, he refuses to go into detail because he’s already written about it in a previous book.  I argue this case in my book Jesus, Interrupted… and probably don’t need to give all the arguments and information yet again here.” (p. 288).

            Look, I don’t care if Ehrman has already covered this in some other book.  I paid good money for this book.  And the reader has a right to expect that a book picked off the shelves will at the very least cover what it sets out to cover without referring them to other books.
            I realize that there are people out there who’ve read Bart Ehrman’s previous books, and he’s worried about repeating himself, but the result is that new readers like me are getting short changed.  Plus, I think Bart Ehrman could have pleased both sets of readers by expanding on some of his previous arguments as he integrated them into his new book.
            (Falsely attributed books are technically a different category than forged books, but the book’s title Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are led me to believe that Bart Ehrman would be covering both categories, and certainly for the general reader interested in the topic of who really wrote the Bible, both categories are of equal interest, so it would be a quibble to insist too much on the distinction.)
            As a result, I walked away from this book disappointed that I had learned very little new about the topics I was interested in.  (To say I learned nothing new would be an exaggeration, but ultimately I only really picked up a few pages worth of new information on what I was truly interested in. And I waded through several pages on non-canonical apocryphal Christian texts that I wasn’t particularly interested in.) 

          So, you’re reading along, and at the end of the sentence you come to a small number indicating that there is an endnote in the back of the book.  What do you do?  Do you flip to the back of the book to see if the author has more to say on the subject?  Or do you assume this is just going to be a standard boring works cited reference endnote?
            If you’re like me, you get anal about it because you worry you might be missing some important information if you don’t follow the endnote.  And so you can’t really enjoy the book because you’re constantly flipping to the back to check if the endnote was important or not.
            About half of Bart Ehrman’s endnotes are just references to works cited, and half of them are further expanding on the point he’s making in the main text.
            I wish the publisher would have made the latter ones footnotes at the bottom of the page, instead of regulating them away to the back of the book.  The endnotes could just have been used for the standard works cited. 
            (Actually this complaint is true of a lot of books, but I’m complaining about it now because this is the book I’m reading at the moment.)

Things I Liked
          Despite all my above complaints, on the whole I enjoyed this book.  Bart Ehrman is a talented writer, and he writes very readable prose.  And whatever else you can say about this book, it was a very quick, painless, and easy read. 
            Although I wish his sections on the canonical New Testament had been a proportionally larger section of this book, when Bart Ehrman does get around to writing about the forged books in the New Testament, he does an excellent job of it.  He lays out the major issues very clearly, and walks the reader through everything in a nice clear succinct way. 
            And he just writes well.

            I definitely hope to read more Bart Ehrman in the future.  (Although probably not in the near future, because I’m currently out in Southeast Asia where these books are not readily available.  But at some point in the future I think I will definitely return for more Bart Ehrman.)

Connections with Other Books I’ve Read

            It turns out I was right to be suspicious.  This is not Ehrman’s view at all, as he states very clearly in this book: “It is sometimes said by people who have not read the concluding chapter of Mark’s Gospel closely enough that it “lacks a resurrection narrative.” Strictly speaking, that is not true. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is certainly raised from the dead.  The women go to the tomb three days after he was buried in order to give his body a proper burial, but the body is not there.  Instead, there is a man in the tomb who informs them that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  Mark, therefore, believes that Jesus was physically raised from the dead, and he tells his readers as much.” (Erhman p. 242-243).
            Now, granted, this particular Erhman book was published after Hitchens’ book, but unless Erhman has radically changed his views, I’m going to take this as proof that Hitchens bungled the reference to Ehrman.  (Hitchens never exactly says where in Ehrman’s writings he got this from.)
            (I’m beginning to think I was way too kind to Hitchens in my initial review of his book.  The more I read, the more I’m discovering just how poorly researched his book actually was.)

*  In my review of The Unauthorized Version, I suggested some reasons why the “we passages” in the book of Acts may not mean necessarily mean that the author of Acts was a travelling companion of Paul.

            Bart Erhman, it turns out, does not think much of these alternative explanations.  To quote from Ehrman on the subject:
            Scholars have come up with four major possible explanations for these “we passages.”  Three of the four explanations simply don’t seem to work.  The traditional explanation is that the author really was Paul’s companion. That view is problematic though, since the author makes so many mistakes about Paul’s life and teaching that he doesn’t seem to be a close companion. Other scholars have maintained that the author, whoever he was, had access to a companion of Paul’s travel itinerary and inserted it in a few places, creating the odd use of “we” on occasion (since that was how the itinerary was worded). This is an attractive option, but it does not explain why the writing style and vocabulary of the “we passages” is virtually the same as the rest of Acts. If the itinerary came from a different author, you would expect the style to be different.  Other scholars have argued that the author is using an age-old technique of describing travel narratives—especially those involving sea journeys—in the first person.  But still other scholars have pointed out that there are lots of sea-travel narratives written in the first person. so this does not seem to explain these passages. (p. 286)

            So, I perhaps should admit I was wrong in my earlier post.  How does Ehrman then explain the “we-passages”?
            The fourth explanation is the one that seems to me to have the fewest problems: the author has edited these sections of Acts to make his readers assume that he was actually with Paul for these parts of the story, even though he was not. This would explain why the “we” sections begin and end so abruptly: it was just a stylistic device used by the author to insert himself into the story in a few places. (p. 286-287)

Other Notes

* Dale Martin, whose Yale lecture podcasts I enjoyed,  is one of the people acknowledged by Bart Ehrman for reading the manuscript in its final stages and offering his comments.

* My hometown of Grand Rapids comes up in the endnotes.  Although this is not surprising given how many books on the Bible are published in Grand Rapids.

Link of the Day

The Paranoia of the Superrich and Superpowerful

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