Forgeries in the New Testament

I really liked Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, which is about the various versions of Christianity in the first centuries after Jesus.  It seems I never blogged about it, but it’s a real eye-opener.  What we now take as Christianity used to be just one faction, and of course that’s the one that won, and got to select the canon. 

I just read his Forged, which is about forgeries in NT times, Christian and not, and whether any of them made it into the NT.  In short: yes, almost certainly.  In fact there’s little that scholars are willing to assign to the apostolic period at all… mostly about six of Paul’s letters.

Probably the most useful service Ehrman does is to dispose of an out– the idea that it was acceptable to attribute your work to someone else.  He shows that whenever the subject was discussed, by both Christians and pagans, forgery was condemned, and when someone was caught they were punished. 

Not that this will have much of an impact on evangelicalism.  We know a lot more about the milieu of early Christianity than before, but scholarly doubts about the NT go back a couple hundred years… indeed, modern fundamentalism was largely born in furious reaction against the “higher criticism”.  Evangelicals are going to continue to paper over the contradictions and to date the NT books far earlier than other scholars.

Unfortunately, Ehrman’s book is a bit thin.  It reads as if it’s been dumbed down– perhaps an editor told him to write for high school students.  And more importantly, the argumentation is not deep enough.  To establish that such-and-such a book is a forgery, he’ll point to a few contradictions or anachronisms and imply that he has a bunch more up his sleeve; but the result is that there’s only a page or two of discussion of any one book. 

E.g., many of the NT books claim an author who’s been traditionally identified with an apostle.  When there’s so much we don’t know about the early church, I think it’s just not provable who the author claims to be.  E.g. James says almost nothing about himself beyond his name, and we know that it was a fairly common name (unlike, say, “Peter” at that time).  Ehrman suggests that this means he expected his listeners to know who he was.  Sure; but then he says “There seems to be little doubt, then, that he is claiming to be the most famous James of all, Jesus’s brother.”  But that’s nonsense.  It’s not like we have an org chart listing all the Jameses of the time, or the postmarks on the letter.  There could be any number of church leaders named James, and any number of reasons the original recipients would know which one was meant… including unrecoverable data such as who handed them the letter. 

Ehrman also makes a good deal of contradictions… e.g. in the undeniably Pauline letters, Paul says it’s better not to marry, but the author of Timothy pretty much demands that church leaders marry.  And for that matter, Paul’s early letters seem to envision a sort of anarchic organization without clear leaders– services where anyone in the congregation might teach or prophesy or pray.

I find these particular examples reasonable, but not everything he points out.  Things change over time– it’s generally accepted that Paul’s teaching career spread over 20 to 30 years.  It’s certainly possible that his views or preoccupations, or the nature of Christian churches, changed over that time.

Likewise there are some serious discrepancies between Paul’s own accounts and those of Acts.  If you’re committed to inerrancy these are serious problems, but they’re not that overwhelming if you expect normal human behavior.  Actual historical documents contradict too, especially when it comes to reports of divisions and quarrels.  E.g. did Peter support the Judaizers (as in Galatians 2) or oppose them (as in Acts 11)?  Why not both? 

On the other hand, there are a lot of noncanonical books, and most of them are very clearly falsely attributed to the apostles.  It’s hard to finish the book without thinking that this whole attribution problem was a hell of a mess in a pre-printing society.  This is probably one reason science didn’t take off in such an environment… getting reliable information was a huge hassle in almost any area.