Bart Ehrman: Liars Wrote Parts of the Bible

Bart Ehrman has a new book out and it’s got a rather attention grabbing title: ‘Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are’ (HarperOne 2011). And in a recent piece for HuffPo, Ehrman is rather blunt and non-Orwellian in his designation of certain New Testament authors. He calls them liars:

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.

Bart Ehrman elaborates on 2 Peter as a specific example:

Whoever wrote the New Testament book of 2 Peter claimed to be Peter. But scholars everywhere — except for our friends among the fundamentalists — will tell you that there is no way on God’s green earth that Peter wrote the book. Someone else wrote it claiming to be Peter. Scholars may also tell you that it was an acceptable practice in the ancient world for someone to write a book in the name of someone else. But that is where they are wrong. If you look at what ancient people actually said about the practice, you’ll see that they invariably called it lying and condemned it as a deceitful practice, even in Christian circles. 2 Peter was finally accepted into the New Testament because the church fathers, centuries later, were convinced that Peter wrote it. But he didn’t. Someone else did. And that someone else lied about his identity.

Ehrman also brings up, in his article, the Taliban-like misogynist who wrote, in the name of the apostle Paul, 1 Timothy:

Whoever wrote the book of 1 Timothy claimed to be Paul. But he was lying about that — he was someone else living after Paul had died. In his book, the author of 1 Timothy used Paul’s name and authority to address a problem that he saw in the church. Women were speaking out, exercising authority and teaching men. That had to stop. The author told women to be silent and submissive, and reminded his readers about what happened the first time a woman was allowed to exercise authority over a man, in that little incident in the garden of Eden. No, the author argued, if women wanted to be saved, they were to have babies (1 Tim. 2:11-15).

I suppose the author of 1 Timothy believed that his ends justified his means: women speaking in public meetings and exercising authority over men were greater sins within the church than the forgery he had decided to distribute among it. He probably also presumed that Jesus was coming back soon in any event, and that the little harm he caused would prove, in the broad scheme of things, trivial.

And, in any case, he could always repent afterward. 

But you never know where your deeds may ultimately lead. It’s unlikely he anticipated that his forged epistle would be brought into a collection of books deemed by later generations to be, not just authoritative, but infallible, and so ring down through centuries, through millenia, oppressing the lives of millions—perhaps even billions—of women over the course of history.

Contingency is a funny thing. Except when it isn’t.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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17 Responses to Bart Ehrman: Liars Wrote Parts of the Bible

  1. TomH says:

    Bart’s book is certainly controversial. I’ll check it out from the library along with Pseudonymity, the New Testament, and Deception: An Inquiry into Intention and Reception.

    I have doubts about Bart’s thesis a priori based on my understanding of Christian culture. Christians will argue about miniscule differences in theology. A cursory reading of the NT books shows that that was the case just as much in ancient times. Hence, it is simply inconceivable that some new book would simply be accepted into the early church without any waves being made. I haven’t seen any evidence of these waves.

    For a comparison, look at new “revelations” like the Koran, the Book of Mormon, or the writings of Ellen G. White. Those haven’t been accepted by most Christians, but are limited in acceptance to a relatively small group.

    The Koran is a special case, its acceptance being much wider than the other two. However, it also has a special distinction due to its martial proselitizing character. Islam, intellectually, is quite weak in persuasive power. We must wonder whether it would be nearly so widespread without the early jihads.

    • And yet, the events of Mohammed’s life are far better understood and verifiable than anything in the Bible. I guess that is a boon and a bane, since we also know that he was a pedophile.

    • santitafarella says:

      Tom,

      Apples and oranges. The Book of Mormon and the writing of Ellen G. White came from print cultures. The New Testament was written at a time when communication in general—and verification of authoriship in particular—would have been dicey in all instances. Geography, language, time, fraud, prejudice, insularity, poor education: these all would have been gnawing entropically against exact knowledge concerning books and letters.

      Recall Revelation’s warning verse, toward its conclusion, against adding or taking away from what is written in its pages: this fright mask verse was obviously designed to ward off fraud in copying the text, and so it must have been recognized as a common problem in the ancient world.

      As for jihad backing the Quran’s spread, this was also true of Christianity. Ever heard of “In this sign conquer”? Christianity took hold as a world religion—and achieved its central doctrine, Trinitarianism—precisely because the Emperor of Rome, Constantine, converted and made Christianity the official religion of the empire, forcibly banishing paganism, Arianism, and other “heresies”. Please recall that it was Constantine calling bishops to meet and settle on an established and uniform doctrinal statement, pressuring them to a conclusion that Constantine could then extend politically (favoring Orthodox bishops over Arians throughout the empire, etc), that proved decisive for Trinitarianism.

      I think you seriously underestimate the role that force played in the early success of Orthodox Christianity in the world.

      —Santi

      • TomH says:

        How does a print culture make any difference in verification when it comes to golden tablets?

        I see no reason to think that verification in a non-print culture is any less accessible than in a print culture. The only difference is the economical advantage of printing, as far as I can see. What role did authority play in the acceptance of texts? Why were so many ancient Christian or pseudo-Christian texts not considered to be inspired? Those were from non-print cultures.

        Here’s my understanding of things. Frauds were commonly discovered in the ancient world. The main problem that fraud caused in copying was the cost to correct the fraud. It’s not that hard to compare texts, which the buyer would inevitably do, as it was his due diligence. If the copy was inexact, but retained the meaning of the original, minor errors would be allowed, due to the cost of correction.

        Whether force played a role in the early success of Christianity is irrelevant to anything I wrote.

        Christianity was widespread long before Constantine, in any case, so Constantine didn’t materially increase its geographic reach. Certainly, Christianity survived a major threat to its existence from Diocletian, so it wasn’t reliant upon force for its existence. Many of us argue that Constantine was a detriment to Christianity as regards its practices, but that’s beside the point.

        Rome had had a long history of govt. meddling in religion. Pagans had been at it a long time before Constantine, so it’s unsurprising that Constantine would take a hand in it. Constantine was afraid that religious strife might lead to civil unrest, as it had in the past.

        Trinitarianism was long established before Constantine, though Arianism was an influential minority teaching, due to its Alexandrian support. In any case, none of this goes to disputed books, which is the point of your post.

        Let’s consider the possibility that 2nd Peter made its entry in the second century. Who would have done so? One bishop? A cabal of homoi bishops? All the homoi bishops? All of these would have supported the inclusion of an obvious forgery in the canon in order to support their theological position? And where are the objections from Arian bishops to 2nd Peter? Why isn’t any objection to 2nd Peter found in the literature? Even Origen, an Arianite, only mentions doubts by Arians about 2nd Peter very casually, as if they aren’t to be taken seriously. Nothing in the early Christian literature supports the notion of 2nd Peter being a 2nd century novelty.

      • Longtooth says:

        My understanding is that Constantine went only so far as to make Christianity an accepted religion within the empire. The status of only religion and the subsequent purging of all others didn’t come until the reign of Theodosius, some fifty years after the counsel of Nicaea. Undoubtedly Constantine was instrumental in ensuring Christianity’s eventual theocratic power and reach. Still, it’s debatable whether his interest in Christianity was ever anything but strategic. He was after all a pagan with affection for at least some other gods. From the onset of his reign, Constantine’s agenda was unification of the empire under a single emperor, that being himself. Christianity gained status via Constantine’s wars of unification. When an emperor came to power it was customary for their favorite gods and their associated temples to receive special favor. At the time of Constantine, something like one in three legionnaires were evidently either nominally Christian or included Christ in their personal pantheon. This amounted to a powerful resource, which Constantine exploited to perfection. His alleged vision “with this sign you will conquer” supplied the right stuff to rally these troops to battle. Well, it was customary to consult the gods before battle and visions were pretty much expected. So was it the result of a real vision or just good military politics? I suspect the latter more than the former. In any case, Constantine’s victory bought reward for the Christians, the status of official acceptability within the empire. As to Constantine’s alleged conversion, the most common account was not until his deathbed. Maybe so, but maybe not so. In my mind at least, there is a question about who first intended a complete monotheism within the empire, Constatine or Theodosius?

      • santitafarella says:

        Longtooth,

        Whether Constantine was politically motivated (which is certain) or religiously motivated (which is probable), the reality is this: without Constantine the trinitarians would not likely have won the day and the pagans would not have been so thoroughly routed and stamped out. Orthodox Christianity, as we know it, finds its origin in a combination of faith combined with political force (exactly like Islam).

        With regard to trinitarianism, it was not argument that won the day, it was the force of an emperor.

        —Santi

  2. Pingback: Christians Who Lie to Advance a Higher Cause: Phyllis Schlafly Employed “Stranger Care” But Didn’t Talk about It | Prometheus Unbound

  3. concerned christian says:

    Santi.
    Here you go again, if you are looking for “oppressing the lives of millions—perhaps even billions—of women over the course of history” you don’t need look far; that’s Islam in a nutshell. Not only billions of women but billions of men too. But as usual it’s safer to attack Christians than the followers of the “religion of peace.” BTW imagine what would happen to professor Ehrman if instead of saying “Many of the books of the New Testament were written by people who lied” he said that whoever wrote the Koran was a lier.

    • Are you saying that Christianity has not oppressed millions of women over the course of history? If you disagree, then you should try reading some history.

      That does not excuse the actions of Islam, which are even worse. But one does not excuse or force the neglect of another. And since we live in the western world, where Chrsitians dominate, calling out the problems with Christianity is a way to continue to force secularism.

      • concerned christian says:

        Over the course of history every community, every religion, every nation committed a lot of bad things. So before we judge Christianity for what was done by its followers over the last 2000 years, we need to compare that with what other religions or social movements have done over the same period. The only conclusion is that while nobody is perfect, some are more imperfect than others!
        As for St Paul; while he talked about women being quite in the Church, he also said “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.” (1 Cor 7:3) Can you find similar instruction in any other religion?
        Finally, concerning the question of the authenticity of the various books of the new testament, as mentioned by TomH, this question was discussed since the first century. You will gain more insight to that issue by reading the respected work of Professor Goodspeed http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/spcl/goodspeed.html
        than wasting your money and/or time on Professor Ehrman diatribe. Sadly I believe some so called “Bible Scholars” are following what I call the PETA model. While you can’t catch people attention by showing them pictures of slaughtered cows, you surely can get their attention by showing them pictures of naked people. Similarly not too many people will buy a book titled “The Formation of the The New Testament”, that’s Goodspeed title, but you hope that a title like “Forged: Writing in the Name of God” can get you some bucks and a lot of media exposure.

      • So, you find Ehrman a waste of money, but Goodspeed, who agrees with you, you find valid. The questions on authorship have been being asked since Augustine .. and we have not unearthed any new evidence to prove authorship since his time. Goodspeed has no more evidence or proof of authorship than Ehrman. Both work from highly educated assumptions – the work of one is no more valid than the work of another. You are simply cherry picking the one you DESIRE to believe. Which is exactly my problem with the bible, there is no proof of authorship or of content. Yet you use it to claim knowledge of the ultimate question.

        Remember, in your comparison of Islam to Christianity, that Islam is about 700 years younger than Christianity. Take a look at the horrific actions of Christianity 700 years ago and it is hard to call it superior to Islam.

        I do not know Islamic scripture well enough to find some equivalent verse concerning husband and wife. I also have zero desire to defend Islam – their prophet was a pedophile. But there is no debating the misogynist nature of Christianity either, it is indisputable.

      • One last thing, why is it you think that Ehrman titles and targets his books only to get money, but that those who publish works crying the authenticity of the bible do not do likewise? There are FAR more believers than non-believers. If Ehrman were simply looking for $$, he would do better to target his books to the Christian community.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Concerned,

    I agree that Ehrman, were he living in a Muslim-majority country, could not safely say the same of the Quran.

    The reason I brought the subject up in the first place is simply that Ehrman has a new book out, he’s a highly respected biblical scholar, I’ve read his other books, and what he wrote is true. I cannot be encyclopedic at my little bar of a blog. (Thanks for that metaphor, by the way.)

    —Santi

  5. concerned christian says:

    Santi,
    Thanks for remembering that old exchange, in fact I was planning to conclude my posting by saying that if you don’t like my rambling, just ignore it, and sooner or later that drunkard will leave the Bar, but I thought that few will know what I am talking about.

  6. concerned christian says:

    Jared,
    I just noticed your comments today, but let me clarify my position; if you are looking for just the facts about the New Testament, you will get more concise and unbiased information from the work of Goodspeed who simply look at the way Christians came to agree on what to be considered as their Holy Book. He presented his facts in an academic form and produced a well written and a clear discussion of the subject. Modern Bible Scholars are more into representing their own opinions than discussing facts. It is not limited to Bible History, it is actually impacting many academic studies. There are many reasons for these trends:
    1. Academically, you get better recognition for squaring the circle than for reinventing the wheel. So you focus on controversial subjects and if they were already discussed you bring up even a more outrageous point of view to get recognized among your peers.
    2. Lowering scholarship standards which are now more receptive to less rigorous studies based on opinions than facts. Such techniques would not have been accepted in previous generations, just look at the various ethnic and gender departments and what kind of work they accept as academic research.
    3. Media seeking and supporting unorthodox opinions, especially if they challenge accepted Christian teachings, such as Jesus Seminar. This created a market for some Bible Scholars such as Bart Ehrman who challenge the Canonical books and Elaine Pagels who promote Gnostic writings over traditional Christian books. In this regard, it definitely helps if you are a good writer so you make your books accessible to average readers.
    4. On that issue you said “If Ehrman were simply looking for $$, he would do better to target his books to the Christian community.” but you forgot that while there is a bigger market in the Christian community, there are much more books representing the traditional point of view competing for this larger market. In that regard Professor Ehrman is filling the needs of those who in previous generations had bought books by authors such as Bishops Pike and Robinson.

  7. Cliff Wonderalt says:

    I think defending ones own point of view is the issue here. Every writer wants his opinion and view to be accepted or at least considered when writing it. As could have been the case in books like the Bible or the Koran or any other book that points to a religion. Typically, one would be correct in assuming writers, as a profession, are obviously writing for money. I wouldn’t be a defense attorney and write reports in contradiction to defending clients, but rather, would write them supporting clients to make sure I could feed myself and family. The issue still comes down to validity. Humanity is quite fallible in it’s interpretation of all issues, including religion. I’m all for supporting what you think is right, but someone brought the use of force involved in belief. Although I do agree that as a society, either past or present, force of belief can be or become an issue, in my opinion, which is flawed and infant at best, use of force has always been an issue although sects have risen up to defy these uses of force and those people have been honored or at the very least held in high esteem for their sacrifices of rebellion against a common belief system. Is the Bible valid? Some argue yes, some argue no. It really only matters to the individual who is ultimately responsible for creating his belief system and ideology. No one can be “forced” to have a belief unless they allow themselves to be a more than leading a horse to water and forcing it to drink. Humanity is flawed and capable of creating lies that have the look and feel of truth but it up to the individual to come up with own thoughts about the issue at hand. Someone mentioned the issue of marriage as Paul instructed men to love their wives, etc… but I’m sure every religious book on earth has addressed the issue of marriage as it is a prevalent institution that needs guidance. As I said, in my infantile knowledge of some of these issues, it all boils down to what you, as an individual, want to believe, follow and adhere to. Does mankind, in general, lie? Of course they do, and some even go on record with written pieces to project those lies. Do I have the right to believe or disbelieve it? Yes I do. As Plato suggested, one man does not and cannot be the holder of all truth and because of this opinion, we can be assured that we must come up with facts that resonate with our own minds and souls what is true for us. We can use these religious writings and books on religion as guides to shape our beliefs and should follow our own “hearts”, so to speak, when coming to a determination of what is right and what is wrong. The Greeks had many off the wall myths that they believed were true in some respects, but believing in them is up to the individual which is why men like Plato and Socrates were held in high regard by the commoners and yet held in disdain by men in authority. Eventually these men were put to death because of their beliefs and ideologies. What I find fascinating is not one word was written by Plato and yet books were written on his behalf as if it were him writing. I.e. the symposium. Could it be this truly was an acceptable practice; writing a book in proxy of another? It very well could be the reason someone would stand in the place of the apostle Paul, as if it were him, and write on his behalf if the person writing spent so much time with the man he knew him in thought and principle. As I stated, I have infantile knowledge and am only writing on this thread because I found it interesting as I have been questioning the validity of any religious writing. The older I get, the more questions I have regarding issues, not only of religious writings, but of all things we as a society have been taught to regard as truth and non-truth.
    Thanks for reading 🙂

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