The past decade has seen anti-Christian books scale the peak of bestseller lists ranging everywhere from the New York Times to Amazon.com. It includes everything from the work of new atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens to new age gurus like Eckhart Tolle. Even in a culture where Christianity has been the dominant faith of millions for over two centuries, it would appear that there is a ready market for works aggressively promoting alternatives to Christianity.
One of the most curious success stories is that of Bart Ehrman. A professor at the highly respected University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ehrman took many people by surprise when his book, Misquoting Jesus, rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. No one could have ever predicted that a book about textual criticism would have been so popular. After writing several bestselling books, appearing on talk shows, and receiving invitations to speak all across the United States, he could nearly be called an academic celebrity.
Ehrman’s style is popular-level and easy to read. It is also highly critical of the Bible. Those who have followed Ehrman’s career will note that he has grown increasingly strident in his criticism over time. In Misquoting Jesus he argues that the New Testament’s authors were guilty of inserting errors, often by mistake. In Jesus, Interrupted he muses that Christian scholars and ministers are somewhat dishonest about the “problem texts” of the Bible. Now he says that the New Testament authors were not just mistaken—they were liars.
In Forged: Writing in the Name of God, Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, Ehrman contends that a number of New Testament books were forgeries created by others who had no connection to Jesus. His goal is to expose the alleged deception practiced by the early church, or at least those who wrote these supposedly fraudulent texts. Some of Ehrman’s assertions include: (1) Peter was illiterate and could not have written 1 and 2 Peter, (2) six of Paul’s epistles are forgeries, and (3) 1 Timothy is a forgery that has been used to oppress women. Throughout the book he claims repeatedly that he holds the same view to which the majority of scholars subscribe, although he rarely cites any authors who agree with him.
PSEUDEPIGRAPHY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT
In Forged, Ehrman discusses the subject of pseudepigraphy—the writing of books under false names—in the first few centuries of the early church. Although he has addressed the issue in previous books, this is his most extended discussion of the topic. According to Ehrman, there were two different types of pseudepigraphical books included in the New Testament. First, some books were supposedly published anonymously but later had authors’ names attached, such as the Gospels (although this could not have been possible, since the early church was virtually unanimous on their authorship. If they had been published anonymously, there would be no end to the debate). Second, some were forged in the names of other authors, usually biblical figures of considerable significance. This practice abounded in the early centuries of the church. Examples include the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, as well as numerous other gospels, apocalypses, and epistles. The second category is where Ehrman places six of Paul’s epistles.
Determining the authorship of any particular work is an oft-debated topic among scholars, given the fact that an author’s language may be influenced by a number of factors. While some scholars were incredibly skeptical of the Pauline authorship of several of the apostles’ letters a half century ago, scholarship has undergone some level of self-correction. Concerning Ehrman’s assertions that the majority of scholars deny the Pauline authorship of nearly half of Paul’s epistles, professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and St. Andrews University, Ben Witherington III states:
In fact the majority of English speaking commentators and specialists on documents such as 2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians think these documents also should be attributed to Paul, whatever scribes he may have used to produce them. I ought to know. I have researched and written commentaries on all these books. How many commentaries on books of the New Testament has Bart researched and written? None. Not one. And he should not be taken as a reliable guide on what the majority of commenting scholars think about these matters (2011).
In the case of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, as Witherington notes, scholars are becoming less dogmatic about the non-Pauline authorship of these letters. Donald Guthrie surveyed the Pauline authorship of these letters—as well as the difficulties in denying it—and concluded: “There has yet to be a satisfactory explanation of the composition of the Pastorals from the point of view of pseudonymous authorship” (Guthrie 1990, p. 62). Little has changed since Guthrie wrote those words. Ehrman does nothing to add to the discussion, doing little more than restating the same kinds of arguments that Guthrie and others since have found to be both tired and unsatisfactory.
NO DISCUSSION PERMITTED HERE
One of Ehrman’s constant problems is his refusal to admit that opposing opinions could be true. Rather than engaging in the kind of diplomatic language that is common among scholars, he dogmatically asserts his view as correct. There is virtually no interaction with opposing views. On the rare occasion when he might mention another viewpoint, it is dismissed quickly. He illustrates this approach in Jesus, Interrupted when he says that some of his conservative “students refuse to listen—it is almost as if they cover their ears and hum loudly so they don’t have to hear anything that might cause them to doubt their cherished beliefs about the Bible” (2009, p. 14). It does not appear to occur to him that his students may be intelligent in their own right and have investigated the issue for themselves. Apparently, conservative believers aren’t the only ones who allegedly engage in this practice. Those who write books critical of the Bible appear to be equally guilty.
Witherington has long been critical of Ehrman’s refusal to interact with scholars with whom he disagrees. This is especially true in the case of scholarly treatments of who scribes were and how they went about practicing their craft. Forged includes a discussion of the production of ancient documents, but Witherington notes that Ehrman seems to have given little thought to the role and duties of scribes in the ancient world. In other words, he is concerned with texts, but not with how they were produced or by whom. He explains:
I need to say from the outset and on first glance that there appears to be a rather large lacunae in the argument of this book, namely the failure to do this study after having studied in depth ancient scribal practices and the roles of scribes in producing ancient documents in ancient Israel. For example, I see no interaction whatsoever in this book with the landmark study of Karel Van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, in which it is demonstrated at length that scribes played a huge role in collecting, editing, and producing ancient documents, and that it was indeed a regular practice to name a scroll after either the originator of the tradition, or the first or a major contributor to the tradition (2011, italics and underline in orig.).
As in nearly all of his other popular-level books, Ehrman explains some of the things he considers to be contradictions. But the manner in which Ehrman describes these difficulties leaves the reader with the impression that in the last 2,000 years of biblical studies no one has ever thought through the difficult texts of the New Testament. To be sure, some of these problems are challenging (though none is without an adequate answer), but Ehrman leaves the impression that the only people who believe these supposed contradictions can be solved are those with a pre-commitment to biblical inerrancy. It is yet another example of Ehrman’s failure to interact with other viewpoints. Critics can accept the supposed reality of contradictions all too quickly, and Ehrman proves himself no exception. In an interview on the “Kirkus Reviews” Web site, Ehrman says:
The only people who take offense so far as I can tell are those for whom this kind of historical scholarship is blasphemy. My response to such people is that they need to look not only at the results of scholarship [as I lay them out in my books] but also at the evidence that makes these results convincing to scholars of all sorts of persuasions, Christian and non-Christian alike. The evidence that supports my claims in Forged is extremely compelling to most people who examine it (Pike, 2011, emp. in orig.).
As always, Ehrman presents his findings as the “result of scholarship,” implying that real scholarship—whoever or whatever that might be—agrees with him. In reality, numerous scholars disagree with him—not to mention the fact that the majority of his conclusions are simply false, regardless of the opinions of scholars. He consistently claims that his view is that of the majority, although he provides no defense of this assertion, nor does he point to other scholars who share his views. Instead, he engages in the curious habit of referring back to his own work rather than that of the mass of unnamed experts who allegedly agree with him.
In an article on the Huffington Post’s Web site, Ehrman insists:
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?
Most people wouldn’t put it that way, since the Bible is, after all, sacred Scripture for millions on our planet. But good Christian scholars of the Bible, including the top Protestant and Catholic scholars of America, will tell you that the Bible is full of lies, even if they refuse to use the term. And here is the truth: Many of the books of the New Testament were written by people who lied about their identity, claiming to be a famous apostle—Peter, Paul or James—knowing full well they were someone else. In modern parlance, that is a lie, and a book written by someone who lies about his identity is a forgery (2011b).
Why is this alleged consensus of scholarship not forthcoming about the “truth” of these lies, mistakes, and contradictions? According to Ehrman, many scholars are ministers and professors who have to serve the needs of their clientele (see Ehrman, 2009, pp. 13-14). Ministers don’t want to be honest because either it conflicts with their personal faith, or they fear being fired by their elderships. Professors really do know the truth, Ehrman claims, but they cannot be honest about it, because they largely teach in colleges, seminaries, and divinity schools. They cannot denigrate the very texts they are teaching to Christian students without suffering repercussions from their constituency. Simply put, Ehrman implies Christian scholars are dishonest, if not duplicitous, and have engineered a conspiracy to keep the populace from learning the “truth.” Conspiracy theories like this have no place in any serious discussion of these issues.
THE CRITICS AREN'T ALWAYS CORRECT
On-line reviews of Ehrman’s work seem to fall into one of two main categories: (1) New Testament scholars who have critiqued Ehrman’s work and point out his tendency to sensationalize the issues, make unsubstantiated assertions, and downplay or ignore evidence that does not agree with his position, and (2) skeptics with an obvious lack of biblical knowledge who lament that the “fundamentalists” are too mired in their faith positions to take Ehrman seriously. That the latter group demonstrates little discernable awareness of the former is somewhat ironic.
In an interview on Salon.com, Gary Kamiya begins with the words, “Bart Ehrman’s career is testament to the fact that no one can slice and dice a belief system more surgically than someone who grew up inside it” (2009). Even so, those on the outside with little knowledge of the subject often make critical errors in their assessment of the situation. Like many other reviewers, Mr. Kamiya seems to be unfamiliar with the literature produced by scholars that answers Ehrman’s claims, points out his errors, and calls attention to the deficiencies in his work.
Though he is respected in academia for his work in textual criticism, Ehrman consistently proves he is no theologian. He continues to trot out some very strange arguments, such as the idea that the New Testament teaches women can only be saved by having children (2011a, pp. 94,100,103; see also 2006, p. 237). There is no question that 1 Timothy 2:15 is a difficult verse (Miller, 2005), but to think that Paul is actually saying that women can only be saved by bearing children borders on, if not crosses over into, the ridiculous. For Paul, salvation is not works-based (Ephesians 2:9). Surely Ehrman knows better than this, since he repeatedly touts his training at conservative denominational schools like Moody Bible College and Wheaton College. If he was as serious a student as he claims in his books, then he should know that this interpretation is both unbiblical and unsustainable.
Ehrman gives the impression that he is like other critics of the Bible who are interested in criticism rather than truth. While he claims to be a “happy agnostic” and repeatedly affirms that he is not a Christian, it seems that he has retained all the passion and zeal of an evangelist, if not an apologist. Indeed, a few have gone even farther and called him a “reverse fundamentalist.” This is not too far off the mark, as his tone over the course of the last couple of decades seems to have gotten much more combative. His earlier books had a softer approach, discussing the issue of unintentional “mistakes” and “errors” in the Bible. Forged straightforwardly and repeatedly labels the biblical authors as liars. One wonders if he has not taken a few steps down the same path as the new atheists, whose book sales are roughly proportionate to the amount of vitriol they contain. For example, as of July 2007, Richard Dawkins’ caustic The God Delusion vastly outperformed Daniel Dennett’s softer Breaking the Spell, selling 500,000 copies to Dennett’s paltry 64,000 at a rate of 9:1. If this is any indicator, then Ehrman’s new book should do well. This also brings up questions concerning Ehrman’s motivation for increasing public awareness about the “truth” of the Bible. In earlier works like Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted he presents himself as a simple informer seeking greater levels of biblical awareness for the general public. Now he seems to be a crusader, or worse, a profiteer.
Ehrman is a highly entertaining storyteller. He has a vast knowledge of extrabiblical works full of fanciful miracle stories. He clearly believes that the Bible is not too different than these outrageous books, but his skill in pointing out their absurdities makes his own position more difficult to maintain. It is apparent that extrabiblical books were not inspired. Recounting their preposterous fictions only highlights their differences from the New Testament. The biblical authors did not include material featuring talking crosses, levitating virgins, bizarre miracles, and divine mischief. They concerned themselves with reporting historical facts. The uninspired authors seemed much more interested in telling weird stories.
Ehrman promises much but delivers little. Like his other published works, Forged makes grand claims supported with surprisingly little evidence, shows almost no interaction with other viewpoints, and, perhaps most importantly, continues to trot out the same tired arguments even though they have been answered by New Testament scholars in sources ranging from published books and articles to blogs and Web sites on the Internet. One of the strong points of Ehrman’s work is that he is a fine storyteller. For a respected academic, it is too bad that he has sullied his own reputation by offering materials that look less like the truth and more like tall tales.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2006), Peter, Paul, and Mary: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Ehrman, Bart D. (2009), Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperOne).
Ehrman, Bart D. (2011a), Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (New York: HarperOne).
Ehrman, Bart D. (2011b), “Who Wrote the Bible and Why it Matters,” March 25, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/the-bible-telling-lies-to_b_840301.html.
Guthrie, Donald (1990), The Pastoral Epistles (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
Kamiya, Gary (2009), “Jesus is Just Alright With Him,” April 3, http://www.salon.com/news/environment/atoms_eden/2009/04/03/jesus_interrupted.
Miller, Dave (2005), “Female Leadership and the Church,” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/article/1407.
Pike, William E. (2011), “‘Forged’: Bart Ehrman on the Bible’s True Authors,” March 23, http://www.kirkusreviews.com/blog/question-and-answer/forged-bart-ehrman-bibles-true-authors/.
Witherington, Ben (2011), “Forged—Bart Ehrman’s New Salvo—The Introduction,” March 30, http://www.patheos.com/community/bibleandculture/2011/03/30/forged-bart-ehrmans-new-salvo-the-introduction/.