A Review of Forged by Bart D. Ehrman
By Walter C. Uhler
“The Bible is a book that has been read more and examined less than any book that ever existed”
– Thomas Paine
Ehrman commenced his studies at a fundamentalist Bible college, Moody Bible Institute, before completing his undergraduate education at Wheaton College. While at Wheaton, Ehrman did what every serious student of the New Testament must do; he studied Greek. As he explained in Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, “I took Greek, so that I could read the New Testament in its original language.” [p. 4]
After graduating from Wheaton, Ehrman went to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied under one of the world’s great experts on the Greek New Testament, the late Bruce Metzger. Among Metzger’s many scholarly contributions is his indispensible book, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, which identifies the three classes of sources available for ascertaining the text of the New Testament: Greek manuscripts, ancient translations into other languages and quotations from the New Testament made by early ecclesiastical writers, such as Augustine, Eusebius, Tertullian and Marcion. [p. 36-89]
Readers of that book would learn, for example, that the oldest known portion of a New Testament is a few verses from John that were written during the first half of the second century — or approximately a full century after the crucifixion of Jesus.
Readers also would learn that the two oldest surviving complete New Testaments are the codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus. Sinaiticus is a fourth-century Greek Bible discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century that not only contains the complete New Testament, but also The Shepard of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, books that were considered to be part of the New Testament for several centuries. Vaticanus also is a fourth-century Greek Bible that has been housed in the Vatican Library at least since 1475.
Because approximately 5,000 Greek manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament have been identified, textual criticism became a necessity. As Professor Metzger put it, “The necessity of applying textual criticism to the books of the New Testament arises from two circumstances: (a) none of the original documents is extant, and (b) the existing copies differ from one another.”
(These are facts to keep in mind whenever some biblical literalist, presumably incapable of reading Greek, tells you that the New Testament is inerrant.)
Having studied under Metzger and reading all he could, Ehrman not only abandoned his early belief that the Bible was inerrant, he also was compelled to conclude: “the Bible not only contains untruths or accidental mistakes. It also contains what almost anyone today would call lies.” [p. 5] As he asserts in Forged, “Throughout this book it will become quite clear from the ancient writings themselves that even though forgery was widely practiced, it was also widely condemned and treated as a form of lying.” [p. 36].
Given that 84 percent of Americans believe the Bible to be a holy book, one would think that such people would be concerned to learn that many of the New Testament books are forgeries. Yet, whenever I have brought New Testament forgeries, mistakes or contradictions to the attention of a Bible-believing Christian, he or she invariably falls back to the excuse: “Well, it’s simply a matter of faith, isn’t it?”
Upon hearing this excuse, I always respond: “No, if it were simply a matter of faith, I could assert that my cell phone is my savior, and so could you. You obviously believe that your faith in Jesus Christ is superior to my faith in my cell phone because it is based on nearly two-thousand years of tradition that was legitimized by the stories told in the New Testament.” Protestants are even more focused on that book, because — ever since Martin Luther – they’ve been told, Sola scriptura, (by scripture alone).
What’s worse is the sad fact that few Christians even comprehend the disturbing paradox: Had Jesus returned as quickly as he predicted, nobody would need a New Testament.
Remember the biblical passages that suggest Jesus’ imminent return? “Verily I say unto you, that there be some of them that stand here which shall not taste death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come to power.” (Mark 9:1)
Or, how about Paul’s expectation that he and some of the Thessalonians will be alive when the apocalypse occurs. Remember how he contrasts “those who have died” with “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord?” (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17) [The New Testament, Bart D. Ehrman, p.314]
Obviously, either Jesus or Mark got it wrong — and so did Paul. According to Professor Ehrman, Paul “appears to have no idea that his words would be discussed after his death, let alone read and studied some nineteen centuries later.” [Ibid]
Nevertheless, “as hopes of Christ’s imminent return began to fade in the later first century,” Christians began to realize that they must create structures which might last at least for a generation or more amid a world of non-believers. [Diarmaid MacCullough, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, p. 118]
Structures? Yes, Christians attempted to create a universal faith based upon: (1) an agreed list of authoritative sacred texts, (2) the formation of creeds and (3) the establishment of an authoritative ministry (bishop, priest and deacon) [Ibid, p. 127-137]
Thus, as Ehrman notes, “Christians from the very beginning needed to appeal to authorities for what they believed.” [Forged, p.7] “The ultimate authority was God, of course. But the majority of Christians came to think that God did not speak the truth about what to believe directly to individuals. If he did, there would be enormous problems, as some would claim divine authority for what they taught and others would claim divine authority for the completely opposite teaching. Thus most Christians did not stress personal revelation to living individuals.” [Ibid]
Yet, it was precisely the need to establish authority that prompted Christians to forge parts of the New Testament books, as well as entire books of the New Testament, by falsely claiming that they were written, for example, by Peter, Paul or Mark.
Consider, for example, the fact that neither of the two oldest complete New Testaments (codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus) contains the last twelve verses that we find in Mark today. According to Professor Metzger, “Since Mark was not responsible for the composition of the last twelve verses of the generally current form of his Gospel, and since they undoubtedly had been attached to the Gospel before the Church recognized the fourfold Gospels as canonical, it follows that the New Testament contains not four but five evangelic accounts of events subsequent to the Resurrection of Christ.” [p. 229]
Professor Ehrman is less diplomatic. He simply notes: “Whoever added the final twelve verses of Mark did not do so by a mere slip of the pen.” [p. 250] Somebody forged them so they would pass as being written by Mark.
Ehrman doubts that the letters of 1 Peter and 2 Peter were actually written by Peter. Through the examination of word usage that didn’t gain currency until after Peter’s death in 64 CE — such as the word “Babylon” which was a code word for Rome that came into use near the end of the first century; scholars have come to believe that the letters are forgeries. Moreover, “there are excellent grounds for thinking that Peter could not write.” [p. 70]
Now consider the thirteen letters in the New Testament that claim to have been written by Paul. According to Ehrman, “Virtually all scholars agree that seven of the Pauline letters are authentic: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.” Six, probably, are forgeries: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians. (Readers who are interested in the evidence used to categorize them as forgeries should turn to pages 95-114 of Forged.)
Thus, readers might now find it ironic that 2 Timothy 3:16 claims, “All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” After all, 2 Timothy, as noted above, is one of the Pauline letters now thought to have been forged.
Equally ironic, and more amusing, is the use of forged New Testament scripture by the leading proponent of Christian Economics, Gary North. As reported recently in the New York Times, Mr. North not only believes that “the Bible is opposed to organized labor, and especially to organized public employees,” he also believes that no form of government assistance “will escape the ethical limits” of the Apostle Paul’s dictum, in 2 Thessalonians, that “if any would not work, neither should he eat.” Being an evangelical Christian, the poor soul doesn’t even suspect that 2 Thessalonians is a forgery.
Unwittingly, Mr. North and all Christians who take the New Testament at face value commit a disastrous procedural mistake. They establish their Bible-based moral code of right and wrong before ascertaining the true and the false in that Bible. “Effective virtue, as Socrates pointed out long ago, is knowledge; and a code of right and wrong must await upon a perception of the true and the false.” [Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public, p. 20]
Now that Professor Bart Ehrman’s Forged has demonstrated, “from the first century to the twentieth century, people who have called themselves Christian have seen fit to fabricate, falsify, and forge documents, in most instances in order to authorize views that they wanted others to accept,” today’s Christians have no excuse for their procedural confusion.