Bart Ehrman is an intelligent scholar with a knack for explaining complex textual issues at the popular level. He has written multiple best-selling books on textual criticism and what we can really know about the biblical text and its transmission. However, Ehrman frequently overstates his case and misleads his readers. He makes grandiose claims, leading readers to believe he is introducing truths that church leaders have fought to silence. Yet his assertions are often standard material for first-year seminary students, and in many cases, are included in the notes of study Bibles. In his book Forged, Ehrman unveils a tantalizing “secret”—many of the New Testament books were not penned by the individuals generally assigned to them. This review will provide a cursory review of Forged, critique Ehrman’s methodology, and expose his many exaggerated conclusions.
Keywords: authority of scripture, Bible, book review, truth, Tim Chaffey
“Virtually half the New Testament was written by impostors taking on the names of apostles like Paul.”1 This statement was made in an article on the CNN website discussing a book written by Bart Ehrman, entitled Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. The book’s dust jacket announces that the author will “reveal which New Testament books were outright forgeries . . . [and] expose the deception in the history of the Christian religion.” Early in the work, he wrote, “Eventually I came to realize that the Bible not only contains untruths or accidental mistakes. It also contains what almost anyone today would call lies. That is what this book is about.”2
Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is an intelligent communicator in both speech and in writing. Evidence of this can be seen in his appearances on CNN and The History Channel, as well as in the fact that he has written several best-selling books on a subject that bores most people: the textual criticism of the New Testament.
Those who seek to attack the Bible often cite Ehrman’s work. Not only is he an excellent writer and story-teller, but he was raised in a Christian home and earned a diploma from Moody Bible Institute and a B.A. from Wheaton College before earning a M. Div. and PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. Ehrman’s journey from evangelicalism to outright agnosticism is well-documented in his books and is often touted by critics who view Christians as ignorant. There are some strengths to Ehrman’s latest book. His discussion of the numerous forgeries in the second through fourth centuries AD, and how the practice of forgery was considered unacceptable by early Christians, provides a strong case against many liberal theologians who claim forgery was perfectly acceptable in the early church. Also, his writings often raise challenges that force us to study God’s Word in more detail.
Liberal theologians have long argued against the conservative views of biblical authorship, but Ehrman has become one of the most vocal and lucid promoters of the liberal views. Although space does not allow for a full refutation of every one of his claims, this article will address a few of his major complaints against the traditionally accepted authorship of biblical books, and it will demonstrate that believers can have confidence that the books were not forgeries.
This first objection to be discussed is his contention that most of the men traditionally believed to have written the New Testament were illiterate. He wrote, “Most of the apostles were illiterate and could not in fact write. . . . They could not have left an authoritative writing if their souls depended on it.”3 Expanding this point in the second chapter, he argued that Peter could not have written the two letters ascribed to him since he was just a fisherman from “a backwoods Jewish village made up of hand-to-mouth laborers who did not have an education.”4 He even quotes Acts 4:13 as proof that Peter was illiterate, because Peter and John are described as uneducated, which, Ehrman claims, means they were “illiterate.”5
How can one possibly overcome these arguments against Peter’s authorship of the two books that bear his name? Actually, it is quite simple. Let’s take on Ehrman’s claims in reverse order. First, Acts 4:13 states, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.” Notice that the point of this passage is that the members of the Sanhedrin were amazed that Peter and John could have addressed them with such boldness. Obviously, Peter and John were able to speak in a manner that impressed this group of educated men. This point alone refutes Ehrman’s claims. Also, the word translated as “uneducated” can mean “illiterate” as Ehrman states in his book, but primarily refers to someone who is “unlettered,” meaning that they lacked formal education. The Greek word here is ἀγράμματοί (agrammatoi). One Greek lexicon’s entry on this word states:
[It pertains] to one who has not acquired a formal education (referring primarily to formal training). . . . Some persons have assumed that ἀγράμματοί in Ac 4:13 means “illiterate” in the sense of not being able to read or write, but this is highly unlikely in view of the almost universal literacy in NT times, and especially as the result of extensive synagogue schools. Evidently, ἀγράμματοί in Acts 4:13 refers to a lack of formal rabbinic training.6
So in Acts 4:13, this term more than likely conveys the idea that Peter and John were not educated in the same fashion as the members of the Sanhedrin. Also, unless the members of the Sanhedrin had asked Peter and John to read or write something during their hearing, how would these leaders know if the disciples were literate or not?
Second, it is true that Peter and John were fishermen and not scholars. However, fishermen would need to be able to read and write with some degree of proficiency in order to conduct business.
Finally, even if Peter and John were illiterate, there is nothing that would have prevented them from using scribes to record their words. In the first century AD scribes were commonly commissioned by rich, poor, and middle-class citizens. If Peter and John used scribes, would that mean that they were not the authors of the books attributed to them? I suppose in a very technical sense they would not have “written” these letters, but this is hardly newsworthy. We know that Paul, who was definitely literate, sometimes used scribes to pen his letters much like a CEO may dictate a letter to a secretary who writes or types the words.7 No one would deny that the CEO is the author of the letter. In a similar fashion, the apostles could have used scribes to write their words.
The third chapter of Forged is entitled “Forgeries in the Name of Paul.” Many Christians are unaware that a number of second, third, and fourth century AD writings have been discovered that claim to have been written by an apostle. Some of these were written to honor a hero of the faith in a similar way to some of the popular historical fictions in modern times.8 The Acts of Paul fits into this category. This work describes some of Paul’s missionary travels, embellishes actual accounts, and makes up entire stories about him. Other pseudepigrapha9 were intentionally deceptive in nature, such as the works known as 3 Corinthians and the Letters of Paul and Seneca. They used the name of an authoritative figure so that their teachings would be seen as coming from an apostle or other leading figure. In some cases the writers may have been well-intentioned in their desire to refute false teaching.
Critical scholars are not in complete agreement over which books Paul actually wrote, but the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) are often rejected as authentically Pauline. In fact, these were some of the first books attacked by the critics. In 1807, Friedrich Schleiermacher, known as the father of modern liberalism,10 wrote a letter in which he claimed 1 Timothy must have been penned in the second century AD, because some of the language seemed to be an effort to refute Gnosticism, a heresy that flourished in the second century. Other scholars expanded on this idea and rejected the other Pastorals for the following reasons: the vocabulary used in these books is quite distinct from his other letters, the books do not contain Paul’s typical theological themes, they don’t seem to fit the chronology of Paul’s activities in Acts, and the view of church governance is too advanced for the first century.
These claims are perfect examples of making mountains out of molehills. Not only was the testimony of the early church unanimous in its support of Pauline authorship, but these objections are vastly overstated and easily addressed. First and Second Timothy and Titus were written to individual believers who were close personal friends of Paul and largely consist of personal instructions to these men on how they should oversee the respective assemblies they were leading. Paul’s other letters (except Philemon) were written to entire congregations and were not as intensely personal. So, of course the writing style and vocabulary would vary, just as you would use different words if you wrote two letters: one to a close personal friend and the other to your church with the intention of having it read before everyone. Furthermore, it is implausible to think that Paul’s vocabulary did not grow through the years during his numerous travels.
This also explains why Paul did not include some of the great theological themes—he was writing to people who were already familiar with his teaching and was instructing them on matters pertaining to church life and polity. To claim that elders (overseers or bishops) and deacons were not part of the early church is to ignore the fact that Paul and Barnabas “had appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23) during their second missionary journey (prior to AD 50). Also, Philippians was written around AD 61 and was addressed to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops [elders] and deacons” (Philippians 1:1).
The notion that the letters do not fit the chronology of Acts is also overstated. Many people assume Paul’s imprisonment at the end of the book of Acts was just prior to his death. However, there is strong support for the idea that Paul was eventually released from this detainment and then traveled for a couple more years before being arrested again and executed. Paul wrote the Pastorals during these travels and his final imprisonment. Clement of Rome (c. AD 95) wrote that Paul preached to the extreme limit of the west (Spain), which is where Paul had hoped to go (Romans 15:24, 28). The Roman commander (Acts 22:29), Governor Festus (Acts 25:25), and King Agrippa ( Acts 26:31) all declared that Paul had not done anything deserving death. He would have been released if he had not appealed to Caesar, so why would Paul anticipate execution during this imprisonment? In fact, 1 Timothy 3:14 shows that Paul anticipated being able to visit Timothy in Ephesus. This was written after his release from prison. Yet 2 Timothy 4:6–13 shows Paul fully expecting his impending execution and pleading with Timothy to visit him.
To find out more about the authorship of the various New Testament books, pick up a book on New Testament introduction written by someone who actually accepts the Bible as the Word of God.
Is it true that the author of 1 Timothy wrote against Gnosticism? If so, doesn’t that prove a second century date? Not at all. Gnosticism was a heretical sect known for its seeking of hidden knowledge. If Paul did write directly against this group, he would have almost certainly named them. Nevertheless, he did occasionally write against some religious activities done by certain groups in the first century that were adopted by the Gnostics. For example, the author of the Pastorals wrote against asceticism in 1 Timothy 4:1–5 and the denial of the bodily resurrection (2 Timothy 2:18). However, Paul spoke out against asceticism in Colossians 2:20–23 and the denial of a bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:42–43, a book which even critical scholars accept as being written by Paul.
Space does not allow for a full treatment of Ehrman’s denials of Paul’s other letters, but many of the same types of charges are made. To find out more about the authorship of the various New Testament books, pick up a book on New Testament introduction written by someone who actually accepts the Bible as the Word of God or consult the introductory notes to each book in a good study Bible.11
Bart Ehrman often alludes to “scholars,” “some scholars,” or “current scholarship” and gives the impression that his conclusions are backed up by the latest and greatest research. While he provides a reasonable amount of endnotes, most of these do not deal with his conclusions, which are usually vastly overstated. Instead, the notes provide documentation for quotations and many of them point the reader to works by Ehrman and other critical scholars. Rarely does he acknowledge the vast amount of scholarship from the conservative perspective, which sufficiently handles the objections raised by the liberal scholars. As such, Ehrman regularly leads his readers to believe that every scholar, or at least the vast majority of them, is in agreement with his line of thinking.12
While his book focuses on the New Testament, Ehrman made some bold assertions concerning the authorship of Daniel in an effort to show forgeries exist in the Old Testament.
Human books from the ancient world sometimes contained forgeries, writings that claim to be authored by someone who did not write them. This is certainly true of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. The book of Daniel claims to be written, in part, by the prophet Daniel during the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century bce. But there is no way it was written then. Scholars for over a hundred years have shown clear and compelling reasons for thinking that it was written four hundred years later, in the second century bce, by someone falsely claiming to be Daniel.13
The key word in this paragraph is “compelling.” To whom are these arguments that allegedly prove a late authorship of Daniel compelling? Primarily to the liberal critic who already rejects the existence of a God who can foretell the future.14 The hypocrisy of critics is on full display when attacking the book of Daniel. They accuse the author of being a terrible historian for calling Belshazzar the king of Babylon (Daniel 5:1) when Nabonidus was the actual king. Yet Nabonidus ruled as a co-regent with his son Belshazzar, whom he left in charge when he retired to the Oasis of Tema in the Arabian Desert. Consider that Belshazzar offered Daniel the third highest position in the kingdom if he could read and interpret the writing on the wall (Daniel 5:1). If this was a second century forgery, then how would the forger know that Belshazzar could only offer Daniel the third highest rank in the kingdom since he himself was second in the kingdom? Under Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel had been made second in command and the same is true with Joseph under Pharaoh. The author of Daniel had firsthand knowledge that Belshazzar could not offer Daniel the second position.
At the same time, the critics claim Daniel 11 could not have been written before the events described because more than 100 precise details are spelled out exactly as they occurred. Here’s the dilemma for the critic: if Daniel was such a terrible historian and forger, then how did he accurately record more than 100 details in succession in Daniel 11? Yet this accuracy is one of the major reasons the critics attempt to re-date the book to the second century—they don’t believe prophecy is possible. But if Daniel was indeed written in the sixth century BC, as Jewish and Christian scholars have believed for centuries, then God revealed specific future events to Daniel long before they occurred.
For more than a century, biblical scholars have refuted every critical argument against Daniel. I happen to find these solutions to be far more compelling than the anti-supernatural complaints of the critics. This highlights the nature of the battle. Since I believe the Bible is the Word of God and that God is capable of revealing the future, then I can accept Daniel as written and believe it was composed in the sixth century BC. But as an agnostic, Ehrman does not accept the supernatural and must explain the evidence in a way that fits his worldview, so he ignores the arguments that are contrary to his position rather than dealing with them.15 The Bible testifies to Daniel’s life and ministry as prophet in Babylon during the sixth century BC. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Daniel who was also taken captive to Babylon. He mentioned Daniel as a godly man and compared him to Noah and Job ( Ezekiel 14:14, 20). Later, he said of the king of Tyre, “Behold, you are wiser than Daniel! There is no secret that can be hidden from you!” (Ezekiel 28:3).16 Jesus called Daniel a prophet in Matthew 24:15 and alluded to at least three passages from the book.17
The fact that Jesus called Daniel a prophet and referred to a prophecy contained in the book settles the matter. Daniel was a prophet and his book is not a forgery. No watertight arguments have been raised against the traditional view, and the majority of the complaints are based on the anti-supernatural bias of the critics. Despite the fact that the author of Daniel had inside knowledge of the workings of both the Babylonian and Medo-Persian Empire and was acknowledged by his contemporary Ezekiel as a godly and wise man, Ehrman confidently proclaimed that “there is no way it was written” during Daniel’s day.18
There are two major forms of textual criticism: lower and higher. Lower criticism deals with examining the available manuscripts and fragments to determine the original wording of the text. This is a legitimate scientific pursuit and the results of this research can be found in most study Bibles. Take a close look at certain textual notes and you will see statements acknowledging the variant readings. Two of the most prominent differences are found in John 7:53–8:11 (the woman caught in adultery) and Mark 16:9–20 (post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus and the Ascension). Some of the manuscripts considered by many scholars to be more reliable do not include these passages and many study Bibles highlight this fact. You may also notice much shorter notes throughout the text explaining that certain manuscripts use a different wording or do not include a particular verse.19 Higher criticism focuses on trying to discover the who, what, when, where, and why of the text’s composition. Within this field there is both positive and negative criticism. The positive higher critic accepts the biblical accounts as reliable and allows for the supernatural, while recognizing the difficulties involved in such an approach. A basic example of this can be found in Deuteronomy 34. Until the rise of negative higher criticism in the nineteenth century, it was generally accepted that Moses wrote or compiled the first five books of the Bible. However, the final chapter of the Pentateuch mentions the death and burial of Moses. The easiest solution is that Joshua penned this chapter, just as someone after Joshua must have written about his death in Joshua 24. But Deuteronomy 34:10 seems to imply that a fair amount of time had passed, possibly several generations, from the death of Moses until this statement was written. The doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy do not negate the possibility of a later editor adding these sections under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Essentially, the positive critic assumes the Bible is innocent until proven guilty.
Contrary to this approach is the negative higher critic. Bart Ehrman would rightly be classified in this category. Negative criticism can be broken down into the various methods utilized by the critic: historical, source, form, tradition, and redaction.20 The negative critic holds an anti-supernatural bias; therefore, any passage which bears a hallmark of supernaturalism (God, angels, prophecies, miracles, etc.) is assumed to be false, even though it may rightly reflect the views of the writer. From this approach, the Bible is guilty until proven innocent.
One of the weaknesses in Ehrman’s writings is his tendency to make bombastic claims in overstating his conclusions, especially in the area of textual criticism. With his uncanny ability to communicate complex issues at the average level, Ehrman frequently deals with data that any first-year seminary student should know and treats this data as though he is revealing shocking new insights that completely demolish the evangelical understanding of Scripture. These tantalizing claims are often well-received as they tap into the growing anti-Christian sentiment of our culture. Ehrman tickles the “ears” of his readers as he gives them what they want to “hear.”
For example, he wrote, “At just about every point where it is possible to check what Acts says about Paul with what Paul says about himself in his authentic letters, there are discrepancies.” 21 As demonstrated in the discussion on the Pastoral Epistles, this charge is easily answered when one considers that Paul was released from the house arrest he was under at the end of Acts. Remember, had he not appealed to Caesar, he would have already been set free. Following this release, Paul made another missionary journey not recorded in Acts, but the details can be pieced together from Paul’s later letters.
In the midst of his discussion on Acts, Ehrman wrote, “Scholars usually date Acts to around 85 ce or so, over two decades after Paul’s death.”22 This is another vast overstatement. It’s true that the negative critics often date Acts to this time, but a large number of biblical scholars completely disagree and date the writing of Acts to AD 60–62, prior to Paul’s release from his first Roman imprisonment since the book ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome. If it wasn’t composed until about 25 years later, then why doesn’t the author tell us about the deaths of Paul, Peter, and James the half-brother of Jesus? They were the three dominant figures in the early church, and the author of Acts (Luke) didn’t hesitate to discuss the deaths of Stephen and James the son of Zebedee. Also, why wouldn’t the author who focused on the history of the early church mention the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in AD 70?
The irrationality of the critic is on full display here. The main reason for dating Acts to c. AD 85 is because they know it is the “sequel” to the Gospel of Luke, but the critical scholar refuses to accept the traditional date of Luke (c. AD 60) since that would place it too close to the actual events it describes. The critics have attempted to push the writing of the Gospels to the end of the first century or later due to their rejection of the supernatural. That is, they know that if the Gospels were written within twenty to thirty years after the Lord’s ministry, then not enough time could have passed for the miracle accounts to be considered myth and legend. Instead, they would be reports that could have been confirmed or denied by eyewitnesses, which is exactly what they are (see 1 Corinthians 15:6 where Paul calls attention to the fact that many of the more than 500 witnesses of the Resurrected Savior were still alive). So the critics’ worldview requires a late date for the authorship of Luke because of their bias against miracles. Consequently, Acts must have been written around AD 85.
To fully critique the claims made by Bart Ehrman in Forged would require an entire book, but this article has shown that he has vastly overstated his case. By making bombastic claims, Ehrman may convince the uninformed reader, but Christians who take seriously their duty to study the Bible should not flinch. The Bible has withstood the relentless attacks of the critics and skeptics. The fact that these critics continue to rehash faulty arguments and known falsehoods, and that they marginalize scholars who believe the Bible shows that they are more interested in attacking Scripture than they are in arriving at the truth. Over sixty years ago, H.F. Hahn summarized his survey of the negative critics, which is even more pertinent today:
This review of activity in the field of Old Testament criticism during the last quarter-century has revealed a chaos of conflicting trends, ending in contradictory results, which create an impression of ineffectiveness in this type of research. The conclusion seems unavoidable that the higher criticism has long since passed the age of constructive achievement.23
If higher criticism had long passed the age of constructive achievement in 1954, we can be sure that it is far beyond any constructive achievement in our day. Yet liberal critics will continue to attack the Word of God because that has been Satan’s modus operandi since the Garden. It has been an effective technique in our culture, and our only reliable response must start by taking a firm stand on the Word of God from its very first verse.