Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

Bart D. Ehrman, the New York Times bestselling author of Jesus, Interrupted and God’s Problem reveals which books in the Bible’s New Testament were not passed down by Jesus’s disciples, but were instead forged by other hands—and why this centuries-hidden scandal is far more significant than many scholars are willing to admit. A controversial work of historical reporting in the tradition of Elaine Pagels, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan, Ehrman’s Forged delivers a stunning explication of one of the most substantial—yet least discussed—problems confronting the world of biblical scholarship.

Book Description

It is often said, even by critical scholars who should know better, that “writing in the name of another” was widely accepted in antiquity. But New York Timesbestselling author Bart D. Ehrman dares to call it what it was: literary forgery, a practice that was as scandalous then as it is today. In Forged, Ehrman’s fresh and original research takes readers back to the ancient world, where forgeries were used as weapons by unknown authors to fend off attacks to their faith and establish their church. So, if many of the books in the Bible were not in fact written by Jesus’s inner circle—but by writers living decades later, with differing agendas in rival communities—what does that do to the authority of Scripture?

Ehrman investigates ancient sources to:

  • Reveal which New Testament books were outright forgeries.
  • Explain how widely forgery was practiced by early Christian writers—and how strongly it was condemned in the ancient world as fraudulent and illicit.
  • Expose the deception in the history of the Christian religion.

Ehrman’s fascinating story of fraud and deceit is essential reading for anyone interested in the truth about the Bible and the dubious origins of Christianity’s sacred texts.

Review & Commentary

2 thoughts on “Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

  1. Review

    Forged, the first word in the title of the popular author Bart Ehrman’s recently released book, might not be a provocative word in itself.  The context, as reflected in the subtitle, makes the difference: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. 

    The word is provocative because most people, Christian and non-Christian alike, do not think of books of the Bible as being forged.  At the same time, they may be at least vaguely aware that some books have only been attributed to certain authors via relatively early tradition rather than statements in the books themselves.  Or perhaps they are aware that there are claims among the vast majority of scholars in some cases, that certain books with stated authors (some of Paul’s, both of Peter’s, e.g.) are almost certainly of later authorship.  At best these books represent the known views of the claimed author (Paul particularly) to some degree.  But they tend to introduce additional concepts beyond the otherwise stated views of the authority figure.

    If indeed a later follower of an apostle wrote in the name of his mentor, after his death or apart from his knowledge, this raises one of the many questions Ehrman deals with in depth in the book: Does this constitute forgery? Or does it reflect a common and widely accepted practice of ancient writing–and therefore something that shouldn’t concern us much?

    It is Ehrman’s contention that it definitely should concern Christians who believe in the truthfulness of the Bible, for the primary reason that many of the books of the Bible (particularly the New Testament [NT], which is his main focus) do meet the criteria of forgeries, both modern and ancient. Additionally, he builds an evidence-based case for the claim that peoples of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean looked at forgeries and false authorial claims in books about the same way we do–as definitely not o.k.  They felt deceived as we do, although it seems there were more forgeries then than now.  One might say that forgeries were more tempting to commit then because it was harder to detect them.  And if a forger got away with it (some were caught in the act and punished at least socially) there was a lot to be gained, especially in terms of  influence for one’s agenda, one’s view of “The Truth.”  Not surprising that some of the zealously religious would try to take advantage of this.  The evidence has gradually become very clear over the last 200 years particularly, Ehrman well illustrates, that they sometimes succeeded, even in terms of “authoritative” scriptures.

    Ehrman sets the stage properly and powerfully in the introduction by sharing his insider view of the preeminence of truth in the largest Christian tradition in America — Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.  The major points of the book are tied to misconceptions and denials that are rampant in these and other Christian traditions.  First he shares, partly from his own experience as a young Evangelical at Moody Bible Institute and then at Wheaton College, how a commitment to truth and its pursuit is at the very heart of this brand of faith, and of its views of the Bible, salvation, etc.  Nothing is taken more seriously.  However, this pursuit is not extended to some of the places one would certainly expect such as clear validation for authorship claims that are tied to divine authority.  Traditional Christian beliefs are build on very early concepts of apostolic authority for literally all the NT, but without genuine validation, or generally even a serious attempt toward it.   

    Now, Ehrman also notes that sometimes the Evangelical commitment to the pursuit of truth does send people digging into questions of biblical consistency, authority, historical accuracy (vs. fabrication or error) deeply enough that it ultimately leads them to different views of the Bible or various core points of theology.  This was the case for him, as he shares about briefly, and happens to be for me as well.  Most of this, about the foundation of Christianity revolving heavily around truth claims and continuing so in its predominant forms today, Ehrman covers in the introduction (NOT to be skipped!).

    The key question raised is this: “Is there congruency and validation of the core value of truth in terms of the production and content of many of the books of the NT, which themselves set up concepts of authority for Christian faith and timeless truth?” Incidentally, nowhere does Ehrman argue that the presence of forgeries and other forms of deception in the Bible means that nothing in it can be viewed as true in the broader sense of valid and useful spiritual, moral, ethical principles. 

    So how well does Ehrman make his case? Does he back up the claim of forgeries in the NT? What about many of its authors, and those of the “Old Testament” as well (which he touches only peripherally), not being who most people think they are? I believe he makes his case more than adequately. 

    Forged is a deeply and carefully researched book, building on Ehrman’s many prior years of scholarship.  He notes his deeper aim has been to produce a “scholarly monograph” which is yet to come.  This version is purposely aimed at a mainly lay audience.  Still his documentation is substantial and points are well argued.

    My formal education and ongoing research is significant in this area and I was pleased that I learned further details about early Christian documents (particularly those outside the NT canon, some later deemed heretical as well as forged) and important things about the literary situation of the first few centuries of Christianity.  Ehrman takes pains to cite the more interesting examples, so that this potentially dry subject never becomes so.  I also learned a lot about ancient practices of forgery, authorial claims, etc.  I was particularly pleased that Ehrman’s careful digging has provided me greater clarity on a key point: that there is virtually no precedent in ancient literature for students or later followers of a teacher writing under the teacher’s name and it being considered typical, acceptable practice.   Thus, this oft-cited misconception is actually a rationalization or a lazy avoidance-of-the-real-issue technique.  Yet it has been passed along through generations of scholars (and pastors, etc.) without anyone apparently going back to the original pertinent period documents and to see what the truth really is.

    I will not try to summarize all the issues that Professor Ehrman covers–there are a lot, and all are tied to his central issue of deception in the creation and content of the founding documents of Christianity.  The adjunct concern is equally important: how churchmen and Christian scholars have been, from the time of the NT itself until now, complicit in the process, either actively or passively (purposely looking the other way, leaning on bogus excuses, etc.).  But it is important to at least mention some of Ehrman’s subjects. 

    – Subtle differences between false (or highly questionable) attributions of authorship for anonymous works (like all the Gospels and Acts) 

    – Falsifications within books of the NT

    –Other types of lies or errors. 

    In the last category is a good summary of both scribal errors and intentional insertions or modification of texts between the earliest copies of text that we have and later ones that sometimes became the standard, “authorized” versions to this day or until the critical scholarship of the 19th and 20th century.  

    When dealing with cases which he calls clear forgery, Ehrman must deal with some of the issues within NT scholarship on determining dating and authorship of books.  To support the claim of the vast majority of current NT scholars that someone well after Paul’s death wrote I and II Timothy and Titus (for example), these scholars must show good reasons to hold to such a position.  For many centuries Paul’s authorship of them and 3 to 4 others currently questioned, was not questioned, at least by many.   At the same time, other books were questioned as to authorship or authority from times even before they were eventually accepted broadly and became part of the NT canon.  Many of these interesting authorship and canonization issues are covered by the book, so that it is a good overview for such aspects of biblical scholarship for lay people, although impossible to cover in detail given the limited scope of Forged. 

    Ehrman also gives brief summaries of many forged non-canonical works from the NT era and just beyond it, and a few from modern times as well.  Some of these were never considered authoritative in terms of Scripture but help give a flavor of the literary situation and the role of story, rumor, and written literature in the early stages of Christianity’s formation.   Among other things, they help demonstrate, along with most of the NT books themselves, how much in-fighting and competition existed among varying Christian groups having often-acrimonious disagreements and disputes–major battles over who had “The Truth” or who properly represented what Jesus and his apostles had meant and handed down.   Get the book and read it!

  2. Review

    Book Review: Ehrman, Bart D., Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors are not who we think they are. New York: HarperOne, Harper Collins Publishers, 2011; ISBN 978-0-06-201261-6; 307 pp.

    Bart D. Ehrman is the author of over twenty books relating to literature and texts in the first century CE and its adjacent centuries but a rather cheeky suggestion has been raised that Ehrman has written one book over twenty times! I disagree. My recent browsing of most of his books in a large theological library revealed a wide-ranging and variegated array of subject matter, with only minor repetitions. No doubt this diversity and depth of research is of great value in his role as James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in USA.

    Princeton Theological Seminary

    There is one aspect of the author’s life which he likes to repeat and this is his early intellectual path from a faith-based, fundamentalistic approach towards Christianity and the Bible, which was promoted during his studies at the Moody Bible Institute to a more free-thinking, scientific, humanistic and academic attitude, which he developed during his linguistic and exegetical studies at Wheaton College and at Princeton Theological Seminary (p.4). This led to his view that “the Bible was a very human book” (p.5).

    During the past five years, the author has been exploring in depth and in breadth the biblical issue of textual forgeries and of the many false claims being made about early texts, their authors and their meaning. This theme is logically developed in this popular edition, which is devoid of footnotes and is very reader-friendly. However, the author is also preparing a more scholarly and academically-documented publication for those seeking greater depth and wider references in relation to literary forgery. Such an academic approach will be appreciated by those who see the present need to begin any exploration of religion from within humanity’s world-view and scientifically-sound principles relating to our experience of reality in our 21st century. This will not satisfy the apologists in their defence of traditional and often supernatural, miraculous and first-century-based beliefs about the origins, validity and veracity of texts and about its ancient world-view. The author has anticipated such opposition to his approach by including his response to such traditional apologetic.

    Deception and Fabrication

    The book’s contents indicate the author’s deep concern for both the exploration of theory in relation to the issues of truth, deception, fabrication and falsification in the production of forgeries and for plenty of examples of such forgeries and deceptions. In fact, he is able to fill his lengthy book mainly with apologetical and antagonistic Christian forgeries relating to the Apostles Peter and Paul, to the much-maligned Jews, to the critical Pagans and to the names of biblical authors provided in Bibles as the composers of the Epistles and the Gospels in the New Testament, including mainly Paul, Peter, James, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

    This outline of the book’s contents and this subjective selection of highlights should not be a substitute for reading this important book but an invitation to explore the scholarly, challenging and for many, the frustrating ideas on each of this book’s 307 pages.

    Ehrman informs us that the Greco-Roman world in the first century was home to pagan religions which stressed “proper practices” in their own religion, along with acceptance of the religions of others. This contrasted with the exclusivistic attitude of Christianity, which claimed to have the right practices, a unique deity and the correct beliefs (p.7).

    The author’s theoretical thinking includes making distinctions between some important concepts relevant to the authorial forgery. [1] An “ortho-nymous” or “rightly named” text indicates that it has been named correctly, so that the listed author is the actual author. [2] A “homo-nymous” or “same named” text is one that has been written by someone who just happens to have the same name as someone else, a good example being the popular masculine name “John” with the surname “Smith”. [3] An “anon-ymous” or “having no name” text has no listed author, since nobody identified themselves as the author. This applies to about one third of the books in the New Testament, including the Synoptic Gospels. [4] A “pseud-onymous” or “falsely named” text has an assumed author but it can appear either under the name of someone other than the author or under another name adopted by an author. This latter case is not a problem because it usually involves the use by an author such as citizen “Samuel Clemens” of a chosen “pen name” such as “Mark Twain” (pp.22-25).

    Pseudo-epigraphic Texts

    However, there are two “pseudo-nymous” practices which do create problems. [5] A “pseud-epigraphy” or “written under a false name” and falsely ascribed text may have no listed author, so a later generation of readers may fill in the gap in authorial knowledge and falsely ascribe to it an earlier important person as its author, as has happened to the canonical four Gospels. At least Bible readers have handy labels for the Gospels, such as Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, even if as Gospel authors, they are false. [6] In contrast, “pseud-epigraphy” can also involve writing under a false assumption of a name and persona of another person who did not write the text. Ehrman sees this practice as fitting into his definition of forgery, which is “a writing that claims to be written by someone (a known figure) who did not in fact write it” (p.24).

    Motivation behind forgery can include the gaining of money or fame, the polemical ridiculing of somebody or of an institution, an apologetical defence of a group or cause or the criminal urge to create damage in society. The famous Letter of Aristeas, which was supportive of the translation of the Septuagint into Greek, is a good example of telling lies in the promotion of Jewish apologetics (p.28). However, Ehrman indicates that in general, forgery in the context of the first-century Greco-Roman world was viewed as deception and lies, and was widely condemned (p.36).

    The Gospel of Peter

    The Apostle Peter attracted both fictitious stories about him and his family and forged writings in his name. These include his resurrection of a tuna fish (p.51) and the description of the resurrection of Jesus in The Gospel of Peter, discovered in a grave near Akhmim in Upper Egypt in 1886 (p.54). One feature of this Gospel is the malicious anti-Jewish polemics depicted. An Epistle of Peter emerged, which was based on the Pseudo-Clementines and which featured Peter’s dispute with Simon Magus and the Apocalypse of Peter gave Peter’s blessing to a description of the fate of the soul after death (p.64). Ehrman also offers his views on the pseudo-epigraphical authorial status of the biblical epistles of 1 and 2 Peter and on the issue of Gentiles in Galilee, as researched by Mark Chancey. We are informed that the Galilean Gentiles were mainly in Sepphoris and Tiberias (p.73).
    The Apostle Paul after his death had his name associated with such forgeries as the Acts of Paul, 3 Corinthians, which related stories about Simon Magus and Cleobius, the Pastoral Epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, which outlined pastoral duties, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians, which dealt with false teachers (pp.81-112).

    Ehrman acknowledges that his depiction of textual forgery has been viewed in other ways by some people, so his chapter 4 on alternative thinking includes a view of inspired or revealed authorship involving the co-authorship of Christianity’s Holy Spirit. A Secretary may also have been involved, who helped to write, correct and possibly deliver a text. There may also be beliefs and practices connected to a previous person of authority which are recalled and re-actualised in the spirit of that earlier person with authority or charisma (p.125).

    The Sibylline Oracles

    Persons outside of Christianity were often at the receiving end of vicious Christian polemics. The Jews were held to be totally responsible for the death of Jesus in The Gospel of Peter and other texts to emerge included the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Pilate Gospels and letters between Pilate and Herod. The followers of the popular or pagan cults were also maligned and the famous pagan Sibylline Oracles were taken and Christianized by the Catholic Christians (p.173).

    Ehrman’s last three chapters explore such Christian issues as the presence of false teachers, support for and opposition to Paul, the fraudulent use of the Twelve Apostles and the additional ancient and modern legendary material.

    Colossians addresses the issue of angel worship and Paul was criticised in the writings known as the Epistle of Peter, the Pseudo-Clementines and of James. On the other hand, Paul was supported by 1 and 2 Peter and the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.

    The Gnostics promoted their ideas in such texts as The Books of Seth, The Gospel of Philip, the Book of Thomas the Contender and The Apocalypse of Peter (pp.209-212).

    The Memoirs of the Apostles

    The Gospels were at first known as the “Memoirs of the Apostles” but were later given their present labels (p.223). Ehrman draws attention to the legendary stories about Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus created birds from clay models and in the Christmas stories told in Matthew and Luke. He then refers to Nicolas Notovitch, a Russian war correspondent, who wrote in his book The Unknown Life of Jesus that Jesus spent some of his life in Tibet (p.252).

    Ehrman’s theme of “forged” and “forgery” is a very well-supported and documented thread of fabrication, deception and lies running through this book. He is also pleased that he can claim the support of Saint Augustine, who declared that “lying in all its forms was bad” (p.263)

    As a popular edition, this book has no bibliography. This will no doubt be included in the scholarly edition. However, it has helpful end-notes and references to most sources which can be further researched and it has a useful index to subjects, persons, places, groups and events which are included in the book.

    Ehrman the Iconoclast

    Ehrman has been labelled an “iconoclast” by those who dislike his critical re-evaluation of Christian and Jewish texts but this continuing reformation and reformulation of religion is the necessary task of each new age. Each new generation needs to re-examine honestly and truthfully its religions and its mostly ancient religious texts by describing or articulating their contents, evaluating or assessing the status, historicity and validity of these contents, applying them to situations in life and appropriating them personally for each individual’s spiritual journey from womb to tomb. An adopted sense-based, sound science needs to be balanced with a soul-sustaining spirituality. Ehrman has at least made a good start to this scientific and spiritual quest with, on the one hand, his iconoclastic treatment of the West’s first-century biblical texts but on the other hand, his honesty towards the Bible in bringing or dragging it into our present 21st century and critically assessing its contents. An appreciation of such honesty on the part of Bart D. Ehrman is certainly most appropriate.

    John Noack, February, 2012.

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