Review: Bart Ehrman’s new book “Forged”

“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).

A reverence for the book of Proverbs and a disdain for weak argumentation have built in me a penchant for the primary sources. I want to hear the best arguments against Christianity. I want to know what the most skilled objectors are saying. So when an editor at HarperOne invited me to review an advance copy of Bart Ehrman’s forthcoming book Forged, I gladly obliged.

Ehrman, who teaches Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, has become one of the most dominant academic voices against the integrity and reliability of Scripture. He is an engaging writer, a formidable debater, and a well-credentialed academic, having cut his textual teeth under venerable Greek scholar Bruce Metzger.  His dissent is troubling for evangelicals in light of his background: he became a Christian in high school and was educated at Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. He then turned away from orthodoxy while studying at Princeton Seminary. In his own words, “I came to realize that the Bible not only contains untruths or accidental mistakes. It also contains… lies.”

Such is the boldness with which Ehrman makes his case – at least on the surface. Forged purports to be a groundbreaking work based on “five years studying forgery in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.” But despite the rhetoric, the book’s substantive arguments are simply recycled and repackaged from the annals of text-critical scholarship. There is nothing new here.

In one sense, this is good news for faithful, Bible-believing Christians. It means that Ehrman’s claims have been wisely and suitably answered before. But in another sense, it’s bad news: this book will certainly dupe those who are easily swayed by erudite rhetoric. Its release will unleash a predictable media frenzy; expect to see Ehrman waxing eloquent on NPR and buttressing Jon Stewart’s smug skepticism on the Daily Show. If you’re a religious studies student at UNO or Creighton, you can expect your professors to be quoting Ehrman for years to come.

Forged begins from an uncontroversial premise: in the centuries after Jesus, forgery was a common problem. Many spurious documents in this period claimed some connection to Christianity. Some were put forth as lost books of the Bible (i.e. “3rd Corinthians”) while others professed to be written by apostles (i.e. “The Gospel of Thomas”). The early church fathers knew of these falsified writings and devoted considerable effort to debunking them. Likewise, modern historians, theologians, and archaeologists all agree that these documents are not what they purport to be. Ehrman helpfully introduces his readers to many of these works, and those interested in ancient texts may find his explanations illuminating and helpful. But the mere existence of such forgeries will not be newsworthy to most students of history.

And Ehrman doesn’t necessarily expect it to be. He is headed toward a more provocative assertion: that some of the New Testament documents themselves are forgeries. His argument proceeds roughly as follows:

  • Forgery was common in the first four centuries after Christ
  • Forged documents often claimed to be written by someone well-known: for instance, Peter, Paul, James, or Thomas
  • Since we know there are forgeries outside the Bible which claim to be written by Peter and Paul but are not, perhaps the books in the Bible that claim to be written by Peter and Paul are also forgeries

Textual criticism is an interesting science. When performed by reverent canonical scholars, it is a crucial discipline for ensuring that we have the best and most reliable manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. But when performed by scholars steeped in Enlightenment skepticism, it can turn the text into putty for the scholar to mold into almost any shape he can conceive. Here’s an analogy: a handwriting expert studying a letter you wrote to your mom might be able to discern where you ran out of ink and changed pens. A Freudian psychiatrist studying the same letter would undoubtedly “discover” evidence of secret fetishes you never knew you had.

An evangelical scholar, observing the differences in style between the Greek text of the Gospel of John and the Greek text of Revelation, might conclude that John – like most skilled and thoughtful writers – varied his style and form to match his occasion and subject. But as a “critical scholar” – one who starts from a position of modernistic, rationalistic skepticism – Ehrman looks at the same evidence and concludes that Revelation is a forgery. Does that explanation make sense of the facts? Sure it does. Is it the only explanation – or even the most probable one? Hardly. It’s simply the one that agrees with Ehrman’s presuppositions.

And this is where Ehrman’s scholarship disappoints. Rather than acknowledging his assumptions, he smuggles them in unannounced. He would have us believe that the tidal wave of modernist criticism has finally capsized the helpless dinghy of Christianity. I can hear the college freshman now: “But isn’t it true that most of the New Testament documents are forged? Wait… it’s not? You mean there are scores of scholars who are convinced these documents are reliable? That’s not what they told me in Religion class.”

Even Ehrman seems to hedge his bets. Rather than making confident assertions, he settles for provocative suggestion: “There are very good grounds for thinking that Peter did not actually write 1 Peter.” “Paul probably did not write 2 Thessalonians.” “There are excellent reasons for thinking that James was not written by the brother of Jesus, but was forged in his name.” There are also excellent reasons for thinking that Barak Obama’s birth certificate was forged. But that doesn’t make it true.

At its core, Ehrman’s book merely recycles the same arguments liberals have been making since Schleiermacher. “Critical scholars” for almost two centuries have asserted that only seven of the thirteen Pauline letters in the New Testament are authentic. Ehrman trumpets this as though it’s news: the other six letters are – gasp – forgeries! But apart from the provocative labeling, there’s no new thesis here. The underlying questions about the style, grammar, and authorship of the New Testament are answered credibly and thoughtfully by evangelical scholars in just about any semi-technical Bible commentary. But those unschooled in the debate – or unwilling to do some basic primary-source research – will likely swoon under the influence of Ehrman’s elixir.

It’s hard to recommend Forged except as an example of shrewd rhetorical maneuvering. Those interested in learning more about Gnostic sects, spurious “lost gospels,” and pseudo-Christian writings will find Ehrman a learned and talented guide. Pastors or serious students who can swim in the deep water of textual criticism might find it worthwhile to read this book for research, debate, and discussion. But at the end of the day, Forged falls flat. Ehrman’s primary genius seems to be furthering the illusion that the Emperor of Enlightenment Modernism still has clothes on.

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