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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. Laughin Jude

    These claims are neither new nor at all controversial. Any Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology student going to a worthwhile school will have learned about the pseudonymous authorship of the better part of the bible in his or her freshman classes. For example, Mark, the eldest of the gospels, was probably written around 50 years after Jesus is supposed to have died. The same principle can be seen at work in the OT–for example, the first five books are traditionally attributed to Moses, except of course that Moses dies during the tale they tell.

    But that wasn't seen as forgery back then. We're talking an era before modern, scientific ideas about the importance of attempting to maintain truthfulness and objectivity in reporting history and communicating who the source of that reporting is. Publishing anonymous works under famous figures' names was incredibly common in the ancient world.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Jason

      "We're talking an era before modern, scientific ideas about the importance of attempting to maintain truthfulness and objectivity in reporting history and communicating who the source of that reporting is."

      I don't know about that part. Works like Pliny's Natural History, or Polybius' histories were eminently concerned with sources. Same goes for someone like Philo.

      I think it is worth bearing in mind that the word Author and Authority are related (in English as well as in Latin).

      May 13, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  2. Rocco P

    I have read some of Bart Ehrman's claims and even seen some of his debates in the past making many of the same statements in his new book. It's my view that Ehrman is a wanna-be theologian in the mold of liberal German theologian, Rudolf Bultmann, whose aim was to "demythologize" (German:"Entmytholizierung") the gospels. I've lived in Germany for over 30 years and have had a number of debates with liberal, Bible critical theologians/professors - and I can tell you that Bart Ehrman is about 20 years behind the times when it comes to liberal theological theory. He still espouses theories and explanations which have long been thrown on the scrap heap by liberal theologians who developed these very theories here in Germany. That's why Ehrman is not taken seriously at all in Europe - his major fan base are Americans, who are pretty ignorant of developments in the historical-critical field - and Muslim apologetists, who love to use his baseless criticism to bash Christianity.
    Ehrman's claims that many of the gospels/epistles in the N.T. are forgeries and were composed at a much later time (in German theological terminology, this is called the "Pseudipegraphen") have take a huge hit with the newest discoveries of ancient manuscripts and the historically correct details recorded in the New Testament writings. Many of even the staunchest liberal theologians now admit that these works must have been written by contempories of Jesus and the apostles.
    These facts, among other things, have caused some top-notch, REAL liberal theologians (not wanna-bees like Ehrman) to change course and now recognize the Bible as a reliable, trustworthy revelation from God. One prime example is Prof. Dr. Eta Linnemann, who was once a darling among Bible-critical theologians and seen as the most promising heir of Rudolf Bultmann before reversing course and then writing books to refute her previous best-sellers.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Kerry

      Revelation from God? Proving that these books were written during Jesus' lifetime has nothing to do with proving that they are divinely inspired.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  3. DP

    I'm sure he'll get plenty of guest spots on the "History" Channel's "Bible" shows. They always have a seat for people who promote this agenda.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Stevie7

      You mean the agenda of searching for truth – not just some truth that you read in a book somewhere?

      May 13, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  4. Steve Wilkinson

    The sad thing is that Bart actually knows better. What's the word I'm looking for?.... oh, disingenuous.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Jason

      Great sales gimmick though! I guess he learned from the Da Vinci Code... get enough Christians on edge and everyone else will show up to see what all the fuss is about.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  5. BrewtownPsych

    I personally love "the bible has never been proven false". lol ... neither has the book i wrote about magic teapots and monsters made of pasta!". seriously, critical thinking much.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  6. John

    Faith is the substance of things unseen that you believe not to be true. Hard isn't it? Erhman has lost his faith in God and has placed his faith in himself. And now he hopes to go to Hollywood and make a few more dollars, silver dollars I wonder?

    May 13, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  7. Wil

    "“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."

    Gee, he doesn't have an axe to grind at all!

    May 13, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Stevie7

      He read it for what its worth. Instead of blindly following what he was taught, he thought for himself. Independent thought really isn't such a bad thing

      May 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  8. Tingle007

    Idiot author didn't even read the books he is criticizing
    http://bible.cc/romans/16-22.htm
    Romans was written down by Tertius, dictated to him by Paul.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Blake Hanson

      Excellent comment!

      May 13, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  9. CW

    @ to all those that commented on n page 4,

    You can make your not so funny remarks all you want. One day unless you change and follow God you'll be the one that will be wrong.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Almighty Zebra-Zeus

      Glad to know that god is letting you do his judgement for him. Why do you feel the need to point this out. It seems so third-grade in a "I'm going to heaven and you're not, so na na na na na" kind of a way.

      I thought pride was a sin. What do I know.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  10. delano j sheffield

    If none of it is true, and essentially it sounds like the skeptic has resolved that there is nothing else after this life. Then why waste your entire life attempting to refute the bible? And so adamantly at that. You could devote more attention to things less eternal to refute. It seems as though if the refutation of Christianity is so definitive then the opposition would move on to more important things.

    http://www.holdtotruth.com

    May 13, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Anthony

      Folklore and fary tales. The reason you can not refute the bible is because it's fundemental followers are convinced that it is the only authoritive source of truth. They declare it the one and final word on the subject. Where do you go from there? Mass dilusion and group-think.

      Don't confuse them with the facts, if the facts aren't in the (good)book.

      Check out http://www.godisimaginary.com

      May 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  11. Steve

    Nothing new here. Scholars routinely identify the 7 seven "authentic" letters of Paul, plus "disputed" letters, and the pastoral letters, which many scholars call "inauthentic". Many scholars refer to John as "The Fourth Gospel", rather than the "Gospel According to John", because they are so sure that John the Apostle didn't write it. What is different about Ehrman's approach is that he seems to feel that he can reach across 2000 years and identify motives of writers. He seems to "know" that the differences were attributable to liars, rather than different scribes or disciples of the apostles. It is one thing to identify differences that should be explained. It is another thing to attach moral judgments to the actions of unknown people in a culture 2000 years and 6000 miles removed from 21st century Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Unfortunately, actual scholarship doesn't sell as well in popular books as sensationalism.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Kerry

      Agreed. Although I don't like his approach, the author does serve the purpose of getting people to ask questions and explore the origin of their beliefs. It seems that too many people blindly follow their faith, trusting completely in what religious leaders (not scholars) have told them.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  12. Erik

    This "scholar" doesn't even address Pseudepigraphy, a common practice in antiquity where apprentices would attribute their work to a "master." They weren't "forging", they were writing just like anyone in that time would write. It is no less reflective of common Christian thought and belief, and from the faith perspective, it is no less inspirational.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  13. Jerry

    It is amazing how many people are eager to accept the theory's of one man as a fact when he has no proof and do not want to accept the as true the one book that has been put to the test countless times over thousands of years but has never been proven wrong. As far as Jesus or some of his disciples being illiterate you should talk to a few Jewish people. Reading is so important to them it is part of being declared an adult. I think the school needs a new teacher if he misses these important facts. As far as the style being different Paul had very bad eyesight and the use of a scribe will result in slight differences in style as the scribe interprets the spoken word.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Kerry

      I wouldn't say that it's just one man's theory. There have been many books published on the subject but most people haven't read them. Much evidence has been presented to refute the historical accuracy of the Bible as well as missing information. You should do a little research on it. You might find it interesting.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Drew

      EVOLUTION.. lol... Kerry, Theory is a Theory until a proven fact.. but yet Evolution which has never been proven has been accepted in schools and everywhere else as fact. Crazy.. what is wrong with people. Think for yourselves..

      May 13, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • blake

      Never been proven wrong, how ignorant can you be. The Great Flood, creation story are fabrications. Not to mention the countless contradictions, such as who arrived at Jesus' empty tomb and what they discovered. Just because you are too blind to see the truth doesn't make what you believe true.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Stevie7

      @Drew – gravity is a theory. But I bet when you fall, you don't trip up. Electromagnetism is a theory, but it seems as if your computer is working just fine. I would kindly suggest you brush up on your knowledge of the scientific method. The intricacies and nuances of evolution may need refining, but the basic underpinnings (like gravity) are a reality.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Kerry

      Drew – How has the divinity of the Bible been proven? Just because there is no way to prove it doesn't mean that it defaults to being true. Even if it was written by Jesus' contemporaries, it doesn't mean that it has any bearing on answering our questions of origin and afterlife.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Drew,
      Don't how you jumped to Evolution, but in science a theory is not just a guess, it is a well-substantiated explaination of how the world works. As for proof, science doesn't really deal in proofs, that's mathematics. Also, many would describe evolution as a fact since speciation has been observed, e.g. Richard Lenski's e. coli experiment among others. And, finally, the reason evolution is taught in school is that there is overwhelming evidence that has and is, in fact, occuring. Evidence such as:
      Fossils like Ambulocetus, Tiktaalik, Archeopteryx, etc.,
      biochemistry like cytochrome-c protein,
      biogeography like marsupials in Australia, and
      genetics like Human Chromosome-2 and Endogenous Retroviruses (ERV).

      May 13, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  14. Tingle007

    Dictated not hand written. Several of the letters of the apostles were dictated including the last letters of Paul as he went blind in his old age. It happens all the time. You have a scribe it happens.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  15. anobody

    I guess the author does not understand the concept of free-will.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Jason

      No, the author understands free will perfectly. What the author does not understand is the Sovereignty of God. A sovereign God does not make mistakes, you either believe that all scripture is "God-breathed" (inspired) or you don't. End of story. Those that believe are not bothered by this, and those that don't believe don't really care and this further asserts their beliefs.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  16. Jason

    Well yes, this is hardly news or shocking my Oxford Annotated version of the Bible says as much, or my Norton Critical edition of The Writings of Paul, or even Wikipedia... It was rather common for members of a school of thought to write in the name of great figures. This was hardly understood as forgery at the time. Works were circulated in the name of Plato and Aristotle that had no relationship to them. The same can be said for old testament books like Daniel and substantial sections of Isiah. This is old news which Ehrman is trying to turn into controversy so he can sell more books (his typical MO). Ehrman used to be an excellent scholar, now he just resorts to cheap gimmicks.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Jason

      Also Ehrman is trying to pull a fast one on us. Peter and John couldn't have written the books attached to them, they were illiterate. How do you know they were agrammatoi? Well Luke told me in his book... Really Bart?

      May 13, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Kerry

      This may be old news on scholarly circles but the average Christian has not been exposed to this information. It is not commonly shared with "the masses" so to speak.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  17. Tmac

    He's a tare. (Matthew 13) According to Jesus tares are the sons of the wicked one. Ouch...

    May 13, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  18. Eddie

    Turn to the Qura'n. It is the only holy book that is still untouched and preserved the way it was revealed on prophet Muhammed(PBUH).

    May 13, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Tingle007

      it was written by scribes AFTER his death he was illiterate as well.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Magic

      Yeah, yeah, yeah - the Mormons say the same thing about Joseph Smith's book of "revelations". Scientologists claim that L. Ron Hubbard was supernaturally inspired too. Get real, please.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Nonimus

      And didn't the first Caliph compile the Koran from multiple scribe primarily because there were disputes about what was included and what was not. I think he had everything else banned and burned, but not certain of that.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • whereisspring

      Illiterate??? Logically speaking, if he had a teacher besides God, then it will be a cause of conflict. A designed approach by God. Besides in Islam, it is emphasized to become educated no matter how far you need to travel so how can the prophet himself be illitrate??? Anyhow, the teachings of Islam are very good, but the followers can certainly be questionable.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Rocco P

      See, as I wrote below - one of Bart Ehrman's most avid fan base are Muslims trying to bash Christianity. One correction Nonimus - it was the third Caliph of Sunni Islam (Uthman) who re-worked the Qur'an - and then burned the original copies to get rid of all the incriminating evidence of the changes. This is admitted by Islamic sources - the Hadithe, by al Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.
      Isn't that strange that the Muslim world is all up in arms (and very dangerous) because that obscure preacher, Terry Jones, burned a copy of the Qur'an, while their own Caliph had the originals burned!!!
      In contrast, ancient discoveries of Bible manuscripts are not burned or destroyed (like Dead sea/Qumram scrolls /Bodemer Papyrus / Codex Alexandrias /Codex Sinaticus, etc) and why? because people who base their faith on the Bible have nothing to conceal.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  19. Christo

    The irony of this statement is PRICELESS:

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

    May 13, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Robyn

      THANK YOU! I thought the same exact thing.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Ben Peeler

      Amen Cristo. People believe in a talking snake, A zombie who is is own father, and a loving creator who loves to kill people, [read old testament].

      May 13, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  20. Jon

    1 Corinthians 14 says women should be silent in church. 1 Corinthians 11 says women should cover their head when they pray – it says nothing about women talking or not talking in church....I see no contridiction...did this guy even read the Bible before he took it to task?

    May 13, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "prays or prophesies"
      I guessing the author is assuming that prophesies normally involve speaking.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Almighty Zebra-Zeus

      I send out my prophesies via text. Maybe that's what the bible is referring to.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Steve

      I guarantee you that Bart Ehrman has read the Bible many many times, and read it in Greek. He is a graduate of Wheaton College, but has certainly changed his mind. I have met him and he is a very intelligent and thoughtful man. (However, if you want to know what I think of his thesis, read below.)

      May 13, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Robert Stephens

      Agreed. AS a contract archaeologist I was amazed at how much this guy either omitted or missed. Odd, this.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • whereisspring

      hmmmm sounds like what Islam preaches

      May 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Holly

      I am not sure what you're understanding of the term silent means, but when I tell my class to be silent, it means to stop talking!.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
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