The title of UNC religious studies professor Bart D. Ehrman's latest book to upend conventional wisdom about the Bible is a bit of splashy misdirection.
Ehrman does spend ample time arguing that books such as Peter and some of the Pauline letters could not have been written by their alleged authors. But many of these claims find widespread support among New Testament scholars across the ideological spectrum. Ehrman reiterates them to set the stage for the genuine controversy: whether or not the modern concept of "forgery," with its implication of deceit, is applicable to the ancient practice of pseudonymous writing. On this point, the author and Christian apologists are sharply divided.
In general, scholars have preferred to use the softer term "pseudepigraphy" for the practice of writing under a false name, and they have numerous theories as to why this is not deceitful—or why writings that appear to be pseudepigraphical are actually not. According to Ehrman, the two most popular arguments are that it was common for a pupil to sign his teacher's name to a document, and that sometimes documents were dictated to secretaries who had a collaborative role in the composition. The first claim would explain why it was not deceitful for someone to ascribe a letter to Paul—ancient readers would have known that it wasn't necessarily by Paul, but continued in his tradition. The second claim accounts for contradictions in language, style and even philosophy.
Ehrman's frequent use of the harder term has the defiant ring of a gauntlet being thrown down. He provides lots of evidence from period documents that the practice of pseudepigraphy was frowned upon in the ancient world and that readers were deceived by it. He finds plenty of references to forgeries in ancient sources, which use stigmatizing terms for them like "false books" and "bastards." He discovers records of people being punished severely for forgeries. And, most damningly, he presents the scanty evidence upon which his opponents rest their claims. Much hangs on a mistranslated comment about Porphyry and his students. Of course, those of us who haven't studied ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts are ill equipped to adjudge Ehrman's claims, but he makes a compelling case.
Ehrman argues that in early Christianity, forgeries were produced to refine, refute or mutate theological points under a false veneer of authority. They were circulated to combat misperceptions about the rituals of the new religion and to belittle or sanctify competing sects of it, such as Gnosticism and Docetism. They were produced in the names of Seneca, Pilate, Herod, even Jesus himself. They include some remarkable stories, such as a firsthand account of the resurrection featuring a giant Jesus and a talking cross. Quite a few remain in the modern Bible, and for intellectually serious Christians, this is where historical truth gets tangled with a subtle theological question about the Bible's infallibility.
The Old Testament Jewish God was concerned with esoteric laws, and the pagan gods were happy as long as the sacrificial blood kept flowing. But the New Testament God cared about faith above all—or so it was decided in the long process of biblical canonization. One of the tenets is that the Bible is a vessel of perfect truth. But if some of the text is forged, and forgery is lying in the way we understand it today, then how can the truth come from lies? Ehrman seems to think it can, provided we approach our sources with a skepticism that sits uncomfortably next to faith.
Ehrman argues that invented stories can convey useful abstract truths, citing George Washington and the cherry tree. But it's dangerous when we don't recognize the stories as allegorical or pedagogical, especially when they prop up prejudices against women and gays, even in our modern legislature. As the Christian church became more entrenched, for instance, rewritings of history that demonized Jews flourished. Even in the Bible, you can perceive a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the Synoptic Gospels.
Ehrman makes his case as an apostate, not an atheist. He was a born-again teen whose hunger for spiritual truth shaded into a historical one. Careful to separate the real Paul from the apocryphal version, and deliberately forged books from accidental misattributions, Ehrman isn't gleefully savaging the Bible—he's asking questions from an informed vantage. His tone gets sarcastic sometimes, but usually it's when he's attacking fishy scholarship. His opponents will not be swayed—you can already visit ehrmanproject.com for a dissenting view—but you never get the sense that the author is anti-religion. He's anti-lies: not just the ones told under false apostolic signatures 2,000 years ago, but the ones we tell ourselves today to prop up whatever we already want to believe.