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Half of New Testament forged, Bible scholar says
May 13th, 2011
11:47 AM ET

Half of New Testament forged, Bible scholar says

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - A frail man sits in chains inside a dank, cold prison cell. He has escaped death before but now realizes that his execution is drawing near.

“I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come,” the man –the Apostle Paul - says in the Bible's 2 Timothy. “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”

The passage is one of the most dramatic scenes in the New Testament. Paul, the most prolific New Testament author, is saying goodbye from a Roman prison cell before being beheaded. His goodbye veers from loneliness to defiance and, finally, to joy.

There’s one just one problem - Paul didn’t write those words. In fact, virtually half the New Testament was written by impostors taking on the names of apostles like Paul. At least according to Bart D. Ehrman, a renowned biblical scholar, who makes the charges in his new book “Forged.

“There were a lot of people in the ancient world who thought that lying could serve a greater good,” says Ehrman, an expert on ancient biblical manuscripts.In “Forged,” Ehrman claims that:

* At least 11 of the 27 New Testament books are forgeries.

* The New Testament books attributed to Jesus’ disciples could not have been written by them because they were illiterate.

* Many of the New Testament’s forgeries were manufactured by early Christian leaders trying to settle theological feuds.

Were Jesus’ disciples ‘illiterate peasants?'

Ehrman’s book, like many of his previous ones, is already generating backlash. Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar, has written a lengthy online critique of “Forged.”

Witherington calls Ehrman’s book “Gullible Travels, for it reveals over and over again the willingness of people to believe even outrageous things.”

All of the New Testament books, with the exception of 2 Peter, can be traced back to a very small group of literate Christians, some of whom were eyewitnesses to the lives of Jesus and Paul, Witherington says.

“Forged” also underestimates the considerable role scribes played in transcribing documents during the earliest days of Christianity, Witherington  says.

Even if Paul didn’t write the second book of Timothy, he would have dictated it to a scribe for posterity, he says.

“When you have a trusted colleague or co-worker who knows the mind of Paul, there was no problem in antiquity with that trusted co-worker hearing Paul’s last testimony in prison,” he says. “This is not forgery. This is the last will and testament of someone who is dying.”

Ehrman doesn’t confine his critique to Paul’s letters. He challenges the authenticity of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. He says that none were written by Jesus' disciplies, citing two reasons.

He says none of the earliest gospels revealed the names of its authors, and that their current names were later added by scribes.

Ehrman also says that two of Jesus’ original disciples, John and Peter, could not have written the books attributed to them in the New Testament because they were illiterate.

“According to Acts 4:13, both Peter and his companion John, also a fisherman, were agrammatoi, a Greek word that literally means ‘unlettered,’ that is, ‘illiterate,’ ’’ he writes.

Will the real Paul stand up?

Ehrman reserves most of his scrutiny for the writings of Paul, which make up the bulk of the New Testament. He says that only about half of the New Testament letters attributed to Paul - 7 of 13 - were actually written by him.

Paul's remaining books are forgeries, Ehrman says. His proof: inconsistencies in the language, choice of words and blatant contradiction in doctrine.

For example, Ehrman says the book of Ephesians doesn’t conform to Paul’s distinctive Greek writing style. He says Paul wrote in short, pointed sentences while Ephesians is full of long Greek sentences (the opening sentence of thanksgiving in Ephesians unfurls a sentence that winds through 12 verses, he says).

“There’s nothing wrong with extremely long sentences in Greek; it just isn’t the way Paul wrote. It’s like Mark Twain and William Faulkner; they both wrote correctly, but you would never mistake the one for the other,” Ehrman writes.

The scholar also points to a famous passage in 1 Corinthians in which Paul is recorded as saying that women should be “silent” in churches and that “if they wish to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home.”

Only three chapters earlier, in the same book, Paul is urging women who pray and prophesy in church to cover their heads with veils, Ehrman says: “If they were allowed to speak in chapter 11, how could they be told not to speak in chapter 14?”

Why people forged

Forgers often did their work because they were trying to settle early church disputes, Ehrman says. The early church was embroiled in conflict - people argued over the treatment of women,  leadership and relations between masters and slaves, he says.

“There was competition among different groups of Christians about what to believe and each of these groups wanted to  have authority to back up their views,” he says. “If you were a nobody, you wouldn’t sign your own name to your treatise. You would sign Peter or John.”

So people claiming to be Peter and John - and all sorts of people who claimed to know Jesus - went into publishing overdrive. Ehrman estimates that there were about 100 forgeries created in the name of Jesus’ inner-circle during the first four centuries of the church.

Witherington concedes that fabrications and forgeries floated around the earliest Christian communities.

But he doesn’t accept the notion that Peter, for example, could not have been literate because he was a fisherman.

“Fisherman had to do business. Guess what? That involves writing, contracts and signed documents,” he said in an interview.

Witherington says people will gravitate toward Ehrman’s work because the media loves sensationalism.

“We live in a Jesus-haunted culture that’s biblically illiterate,” he says. “Almost anything can pass for historical information… A book liked ‘Forged’ can unsettle people who have no third or fourth opinions to draw upon.”

Ehrman, of course, has another point of view.

“Forged” will help people accept something that it took him a long time to accept, says the author, a former fundamentalist who is now an agnostic.

The New Testament wasn’t written by the finger of God, he says - it has human fingerprints all over its pages.

“I’m not saying people should throw it out or it’s not theologically fruitful,” Ehrman says. “I’m saying that by realizing it contains so many forgeries, it shows that it’s a very human book, down to the fact that some authors lied about who they were.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Books • Christianity • Culture wars • Faith

soundoff (2,204 Responses)
  1. Cooper

    The Bible is open for interpretation for individual souls to create their own authentic relationship with God. Forcing an individuals personal understanding and interpretation is illogical. You are responsible for your own growth and progress and leaving it up for another's soul, who is capable of error, to change your life, is weak in mind and soul. I'm not a Christian or part of any organized religion that would hold me back from my spiritual growth. I do believe in the Bible and many other spiritual books but I do not allow their dogmatic organized religion deter me from the truth in which was created my man that has only one belief system and claims everyone else is wrong proven by disputes of arguements and death. Do not be a follower allowing yourself to be misguided. God gave you the intellect and spiritual capacity to understand the Holy writings for yourself. The question is, how lazy are you, how many distractions you have created for yourself and how many excuses can you come up with before it's too late.

    May 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  2. Christopher H Lee

    Witherington calls Ehrman’s book “Gullible Travels, for it reveals over and over again the willingness of people to believe even outrageous things.”

    Er, um, like most of the bible, for instance?

    May 23, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  3. Alienative

    What an idiot!

    May 23, 2011 at 3:13 am |
  4. myview

    I can't think of a single thing on this earth that man has not messed with. check your history on where the King James version of the bible came from...I believed they picked and chose which chapters to put in that they thought were important. Left out many. And the monks that were promised payment never recieved anything.

    May 22, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  5. OneAtheistUnderGod

    Is'nt it all forged. "the rapture" came and gone without anything happening,

    but on 2nd thought maybe God just took the fish with him cause I got

    skunked all day today at the lake

    May 22, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  6. h2i

    "for it reveals over and over again the willingness of people to believe even outrageous things...” he might as well have been referring to the bible itself...

    May 22, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  7. Shawna

    Why are people worrying about forgery in the bible. Christianity's a false religion anyway....

    May 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Guy

      3 things
      first, if its fake why are you on the belief blog?
      second, if its fake why do you give a care?
      And third, do you have solid undeniable proof that christianity is wrong?
      I dont think so...Have a blessed day 😉

      May 22, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • NOT MY CHAIR

      guy: 1) if something doesn't exist how can we prove it doesn't exist? if it doesn't exist there is no proof, the lack of proof of existence is proof enough. its like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster we can say that they don't exist because their is no proof they are real no matter how much people want to believe they are.
      2) it matters because religions are controlling the minds of simple people... which could be a good thing for people like you.
      3) i am the almighty zoltar from mars and have been sent with a message to tell you that god is not real... prove that i am not

      May 23, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Christopher H Lee

      Unlike which other religion? They are all created by people who see visions and then get used as a means to make a few rich and powerful by manipulating the masses. Sadly, people are still too afraid to stand on their own two feet to see beyond the hype.

      May 23, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  8. Mike

    The value of religion is to lift man up spiritually, to teach him the difference between right and wrong and how to live a good life. In that sense, all mainstream religions are doing the same thing. The details of doctrine, like if there was this guy who said he was the Son of God, etc, the're not that important. Really. Just look at things on a macro level. It doesn't matter to me whether or not Jesus Christ was actually the Son of God (it's pretty unlikely). The important thing is that the stuff in the Bible and Gospels and other holy books teach us how to live a good life and keep us from killing each other and destroying the world as we know it. That's the value of religion.

    May 22, 2011 at 12:57 am |
    • NOT MY CHAIR

      i am sorry but it is said that you need a book that tells you how to be a good person. the books are about control and conforming to social standards for the promise of immortality in the after life.

      May 23, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • phatkhat

      "The value of religion is ... to teach him the difference between right and wrong and how to live a good life."

      You can be good without God. 🙂

      "The important thing is that the stuff in the Bible and Gospels and other holy books teach us how to live a good life and keep us from killing each other and destroying the world as we know it. That's the value of religion."

      Then religion isn't of much use, because as far as I can see, it doesn't keep us from killing each other – Holy Wars, anyone? MOST wars have religion as a major component. And it certainly doesn't keep us from destroying the world – unless you practice a Pagan Earth religion. The whole idea of man subduing the Earth, as put forth in Genesis, has led to adherents of Western Religions distancing themselves from Nature.

      May 23, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  9. Thinkman

    And the other half is TOTALLY BORING! If I have to read another who begat who, I'm going to pray to GE and read small appliance owner's manuals- at least that is practical as my toaster oven's been on the fritz since my last Communion.

    May 21, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • Billy Graham (yes, my real name!)

      I found the pace to be plodding, the plot to be full of dead-end tangents, and the character development weak in places. They need to turn it over to some A-list Hollywood screenwriters to tighten it up a bit. Then hand it of to James Cameron – Jesus in 3D would be AWESOME!

      May 21, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  10. Beverly Kurtin, Ph.D.

    I forgot to mention in a previous comment that the gospels could not have been written by the people who had been with Jesus because the first books were written about 70 years after Jesus died. The apostles were probably around Jesus' age; 30 years. If the first books were written 70 years later, they would have been 90 to 100 years old! People didn't live that long then. How did they know what Jesus said? They didn't have recording methods, they didn't have shorthand, how could they possibly remember 70 years after the fact what Jesus said? Answer: They couldn't.
    How many of YOU can remember EXACTLY what someone said to you 70 years ago (provided you're over 70). Oh yes, God dictated the words directly to the writers? Yeah, of course, any other fairy tales you'd like me to believe?
    Most of what is in the so called New Testament (I believe the original testament is still in force) has to say can be found in the books Christians call the Old Testament. Those would be easy to copy because just about everything that Jesus said came from the Tenach–the Torah, Prophets and Writings. Even HE said that the Laws were still in force and never said anything about a new thing coming along. He said quite clearly what the Jewish prayer of the Shema says: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is ONE. Not two or three but ONE.
    It is astounding to me that people can read what Jesus said and then try to pin every evil thing on his own people, the Jews. Jesus was born, raised, lived and died as a law abiding Jew. Go look it up yourself: Jesus was an orthodox Essene.
    Shalom to all.

    May 21, 2011 at 4:15 am |
    • kerusso alethes

      A time for writing:
      Lucanus aka Luke the biographer and part time traveling companion of Paulos aka Paul wrote that Paul spent 2 years under house arrest in Rome. Apparently Luke was not around when Paul met his fate.

      Prior to writing Acts Luke also wrote his own version of the gospel probably as a brief for Paul at his 1st trial in Rome around AD 62. Obviously both volumes were written before Ad 70.

      There are also 13 volumes in the New Testament that have been attributed to Paul and since we know that he died around 65 AD. He too must have penned his words long before his own demise.

      Then we come to Matthew, and John; men who claimed to have personally accompanied and heard the words and teaching of Jesus who said, But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. John 14:25

      The word that was translated as "remembrance" really means "gently reminded." When the writers of Matthew and John (whomever) started to put pen to parchment they had the Holy Ghost to remind them of Jesus exact words.

      Mark was obviously a disciple of John the Baptist since the 1st six chapters are mostly about John the Baptist. See my comments in the chapter, “They (Mark and Luke) Misunderstood.”

      As far as the term “Christianity” is concerned it is really an oxymoron. Jesus established an invisible congregation.
      Real disciples of Jesus do not wear crosses or religious pendants nor do they pray in public. Those are the Visible Church, the hypocrites and counterfeits.

      Jesus was not a political threat to the Romans as evidenced by the words of Pilate, “I find no fault in him”. So why was he crucified on a Roman stake? The answer is financial. Jesus came to teach us how to live with each other and he was doing such a good job of turning people around that 1,000's of people were leaving the synagogues on a daily basis, threatening the livelihood and paychecks as it were of the priesthood so they had to find a way to stop him.

      Granted the Romans were the instrument of Jesus death because only a Roman prefect could order it, but it was only at the behest of the High Priest and the Sanhedrin that Pilate acquiesced.

      kerusso alethes

      May 21, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Mike

      Finally someone knoes tht Jesus (May Allah honour him and grant him peace) worshiped the one god. he himself was a jew who was sent to the children of Israel. now i still wonder how a ghost and jesus became gods lol. Everyone knoes the bible has been messed around with by human beings.

      May 22, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • Jim

      Your basic premise is off, whether you have a PHD or not. Even Bart doesn't make the claim that the first books were written 70 years after Jesus' days on Earth. Because your basic premises are wrong, your results (which equal opinion only) are also wrong my friend.

      As to these supposed forgeries, Ehrman makes much speculation based on not what is the actual evidence but based on presuppositions and interpreting the evidence with those basic presuppositions. The first thing they teach you when beginning the hermeneutical journey is that you must remove all the prejudices and presuppositions that you have (to the best of your ability) and to let the evidence guide your decisions.

      Bart is an entertaining man (very engaging) but his scholarship leaves much to be desired. He knows (and quite willingly tells people) that the vast majority of people have almost no nowledge of the subject matter (biblical studies) and he exploits that ignorance. His long-winded but weak defense of Morton Smith and the almost certain forgery of the "Secret Mark" Gospel demonstrates his lack of scholarship and dependence of his presuppositions quite clearly.

      May 23, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  11. sandiegomike

    When contemplating the phenomenon of Christianity's evolution from a man with some transformational ideas to a well-organized religion one could do worse than to read Gore Vidal's novel, Messiah. As parables go, it's pretty good.

    May 21, 2011 at 2:21 am |
  12. Beverly Kurtin

    I am a Jew and have NEVER, EVER "asked for forgiveness" for anything that some Christians still think Jews did to their Jesus. We were never called the BETTER people; we have our good, bad and in between people. Jews are not saints, nor do we strive to be saints. My biggest problem with Christianity is that they simply cannot get it through their heads that the Romans crucified Jesus if, indeed, he ever existed.

    Want to know what Jews believe? Go to http://www.whatjewsbelieve.org and find out for yourself.

    Jews do not think they have a leg up on the world to come; any person who keeps the seven Noahide Laws has just as much a right to the world to come as anyone else. We do not believe we're going to be the only people there like many Christian groups say.

    What I've always wondered about is how in the world the apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John could have written what is attributed to them when they would have been between 90 and 100 years old. Since the first gospels weren't written until about 70 years after the death of Jesus...HOW COULD ANYONE KNOW WORD-FOR-WORD what Jesus said? Did they have tape recorders, CD burners or even shorthand to write down what Jesus had to say?

    Judaism does not believe in hell, nor do we believe in a devil. We do believe in The Satan who MUST obey God as to what he can and cannot do. I have heard Christians tell other Christians that what they thought was God's will was really Satan. Does that mean that Christians believe in a weak itty-bitty scared deity and a STRONG, ALL POWERFUL SATAN? Yeah, that's exactly what I think they believe in...but they don't realize it.

    I have absolutely nothing against Christians, nor do I think that Christians should convert to Judaism unless that is what they WANT to do. But Judaism is not a "fire escape" religion. And let's face it, evangelical Christians become Christians only to avoid a make believe burning hell. Don't know what the Noahide Laws are? Go to http://www.aish.com, click on the Wallcam (the Western Wall that people used to call the Wailing Wall), then over to the right side you will see "For Non-Jews."

    BTW, this is being written on 5/21/11 and guess what? THE SUPPOSED RAPTURE THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO START TODAY IS NOT HAPPENING. For those who were gullible enough to really believe it was going to happen, try reading your "New" Testament. Jesus said that nobody knows when it will happen, not even the son, but only God knows.

    May 21, 2011 at 1:32 am |
  13. J Z

    Blah Blah let's just focus on the infallible vicar of Christ The pope Aka the abomination who believes he has a direct line with God and he is the only one who can speak with him wait I though that was Jesus. Listen here show me the books you took out of the bible.

    May 21, 2011 at 1:29 am |
  14. Happyfrenchman

    I have said something similar for years. I never considered it a forgery as much as a lie.Paul especially was (to me) a huge fraud. Now, if it is true that he has just been misrepresented (which I could believe much easier than what he is actually purported to have written) I could accept this. christianity is truly a fraud, as is any other religion. It's adherents never fail to get nasty when you point this out, calling you all kinds of names( in between prayers for forgiveness I imagine).

    May 20, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  15. lara

    Philip Yancey discussed this brilliantly in his books, particularly in The Jesus I Never Knew and Rumors of Another World.

    May 20, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  16. David

    "Witherington calls Ehrman’s book “Gullible Travels, for it reveals over and over again the willingness of people to believe even outrageous things.” He should talk! HE's the one that believes the fairy tales that make up the Bible.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • MikeB

      Perhaps when the Holy Spirit touched the disciples, it gave them the ability to read and write...It could happen.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  17. Chris

    I am so glad that the 'expert', Ehrman, finally gave us his enlightened opinion on this ... it is almost miraculous that he was actually there – 2 thousand years ago to witness these forgeries.

    Cannot wait until your next great discovery!

    May 20, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  18. Loren

    Witherington's response to the premise of Ehrman's book is more believable than the use of the word "forgery" by Ehrman, which is only used for sensationalistic purposes. The likely truth is a mixture of both in that a good portion of the New Testament was transcriptions of oral statements or oral history, and portions were written by others in the name of the persons to whom it is attributed. One need only read A.N. Wilson's "Paul" to understand how removed Paul's writings are removed from what the leaders of the early church believed and to understand the struggle between the narrow vision of the church held by the family of Jesus and that of Paul.

    The fact of the matter to me is that the words attributed to Jesus are really all that matters in the New Testament and anything else is much like the writings in the Old Testament after Genesis, a gloss. What makes the testament of Jesus Christ so compelling is its ultimate simplicity and how lives lived by those principles can realize the promise of God.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  19. Hospital Chaplain

    "Forgery" is a loaded word, and does not adequately describe what the authors of these Deutero-Pauline letters were trying to achieve. 1st Timothy was not written with the purpose of fooling early Christians regarding its authorship. Rather, in ancient times, it was common for writers to attribute and/or associate particular writings with prominent authors. Instead of "forgery," the word "pseudograph" is better. These are books written in the spirit, these pseudographical authors believe, of the original teacher. Bart Ehrman knows this... as do most seminary educated clergy. The breathlessness of Ehrman's writing around these long known facts around Pauline authorship is a little overstated. Try reading Dominic Crossan instead.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  20. Karen

    Personally I think it speaks volumes that so many in the Judeo/Christian/Muslim tradition. Believe so fervently that there is one true word of God written down in a book. Most other religions openly acknowledge that many of their fables are fables. They are collected wisdom of the ages which have value whether the events they are based on are true or not. Believing that ancient stories; collected over thousands of years by hundreds of people; passed down through word of mouth; transcribed and translated over and over are the absolute, literal, truth takes a denial of rational thought to the ext ream.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Karen, you are missing the vital fact, which we Christians understand and therefore we have something that no other religion has. We have the Holy Spirit of God who makes His written world the LIVING WORD. That's what the world does not understand. The world is dead toward God, and can not understand the power and reality of the LIVING GOD!

      May 21, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
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