Review: Forged, Bart Ehrman

Note: I am not a scholar of the New Testament or early Christianity. Nor am I in any way invested in the “truth” of the Gospel. This review is written from the perspective of an interested amateur.

Ehrman, in Forged, argues that the Gospels, among other New Testament and ancient Christian texts, are forgeries. Simply put, the Gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; nor were certain of the epistles attributed to Paul really authored by the apostle. Rather, these texts were written by other Christians using the names of their more famous counterparts in order to “prove” the “truth” of their historical or theological beliefs.

Forged, Bart Ehrman

Forged, Bart Ehrman

I don’t take issue with Ehrman’s claims; I think it unlikely that the Gospels were written by the disciples/apostles (I am not an expert with the terminology) to whom they’re attributed. Jesus’ earliest followers, after all, were socioeconomically similar to himself: Illiterate Jewish peasants. They lacked the knowledge necessary to produce sophisticated texts in Greek. (Ehrman notes that the Gospels themselves were at first anonymous, but attributes that to the fact that the authors were known to the communities for which they were writing. Thus, when other names were falsely attributed to the Gospels, it was for the purpose of deception: To lend further authority to the viewpoints espoused by them.)

What is problematic for me is Ehrman’s methodology. Ehrman’s argument is based almost exclusively on textual analysis. (As are most works in the social sciences and humanities.) That in and of itself is not a problem. When Ehrman points out that a text couldn’t have been written by an author because that author was almost certainly dead by the time it was written, I accept that. Likewise with the argument regarding the illiteracy of their supposed authors. I have trouble accepting Ehrman’s other arguments: Evidence that texts are forged is to be found in their style and viewpoints.

I have no knowledge of Greek, but I am leery of his use of “style” of evidence of forgery. Certainly in can be done. But arguing that a particular book is a forgery because it doesn’t match the style of other books known to be by an author (e.g., Paul), or part of a book, a few verses, for instance, are forged because they don’t match the style of the rest of the book, is more difficult for me to accept. People are inconsistent. Styles change. An author writing one text now and another ten years from now might appear to be a different author. Or, as Ehrman himself notes, scribes sometimes altered texts. Is it not possible that the copies of the texts we have are so altered? That they added bits and pieces and their own flourishes to the texts with which they worked?

Ehrman repeatedly states that forgery was frowned upon in the ancient world. He bases that on the statements of elite ancient authors. Presumably they spoke so vociferously against forging because it happened all the time. Who did most of the writing? Scribes. Is it possible, then, that the people doing the copying had a different view of their interaction with the text? What was the intellectual and moral world of the scribe? It is impossible to know.

Ehrman cites a study that concluded one of Paul’s epistles was forged based on a word-for-word statistical comparison of all of the letters known to be by Paul. The conclusion: So many words are different in this one letter that it almost certainly wasn’t written by the apostle. I find this an intriguing method, and the findings are compelling. (More compelling, to me, than readers saying styles don’t match.) But what is the degree of difference among texts by other known authors? Have similar studies been done on Cicero or other ancients for whom we have a sizable corpus of written work? Such a task should be easy enough with the help of a computer. If no similar studies have been done, then we are taking this argument out of context, and without that context, how can we be confident in it?

Ehrman likewise cites the inconsistency of theological viewpoints in certain of Paul’s letters in order to demonstrate that they are inauthentic. This makes a certain sort of sense: Surely a leader in the community wouldn’t express contradictory beliefs. Except that they do. All the time. It’s called politics. And surely Paul must have been a politician (to and among his particular constituency) as he was a spiritual leader. Even putting aside Paul’s need to minister to a fractious polity, we must admit that people are by nature inconsistent; they frequently contradict themselves, sometimes baldly. And beliefs develop and evolve over time. This must have been so among early Christianity, which was not yet an established intellectual and religious tradition.

Ehrman is either unaware of or indifferent to such concerns. (Or, as a scholar, realizes that my objections are so silly that they needn’t be addressed.) His style is so ardent that other possibilities are immediately dismissed when raised. That, and his need to limit the scope of his argument for the sake of brevity, reduce the effectiveness of Forged, which reads more like an article or essay stretched to the length of a book.

(Note: I wrote this review on April 6, 2012, and originally posted it on LibraryThing and Goodreads. Its cross-posting here is part of an effort to consolidate all of my reviews in one place.)


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