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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. Andrew

    When one buys a lawn mower, they are given an instructional manual. Do you really think that our God, who loves us so much, would not have given us the same? Faith in Christ cannot be seperated from the scriptures. If you choose to believe in Christ, but deny the scriptures then you are writing your own gospel. Effectively making you your own God. And isn't that the core problem? Christian faith cannot be seperated from the scriptures. To do so it to deny God, and be your own God.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Just ignore those bits in the manual about bloody sacri-fice, flat earth, and all that. Well, just don't tell anyone. OK? We christians need to hide our dirty laundry.

      Amen.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Joe

      Hey heavensent, where in the bible mention flat earth? and did you mean bloody human sacrifice? or animal sacrifice? aLso, have you read the bible cover to cover when you make such statements?

      May 13, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • crucified

      i think heavensent was being sacastic... but in isaiah it say from the corners of the earth but the literal translation is from the extremes of the earth meaning directions opposite eachother as far as possible...which I might add is a fullfilment of prophecy that isreal would become a nation in 1948..also, just before that it says that God sits on the circle of the earth..atheist bring up as if the earth is 2 deminisional..when actually the literal translation is orb.. which is more accurate than round.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  2. nestor morales

    It’s so sad to see that “well intentioned” people like this gentlemen that is supposed to be scholar throw so little evidence supporting his “new discovery”
    Every body knows that not all the apostles were illiterate, but they weren’t scholars like Paul. They probably didn’t’ go to college but John & James for example came from a fishermen well to do family. If you had a boat in those days is like if you would probably have a small fortune today. They owned a House in Jerusalem. So most like, they had access to influence and education.
    It’s well known that many of the letters were actually written by Paul’s helpers. He doesn’t even hide this “revelation”. It’s like to say Mein Kapf is a forgery because Rudolph Hess did the hard work. Common A little sense here please?
    This is the case of another person thirsty of money and glory trying to hung from the confusion and ignorance of the weak.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      nestor morales thinks that Mr. Ehrman is "supposed to be scholar"... Does Mr. Morales know what a "scholar" is?

      He also says that the apostles "probably didn’t’ go to college"... I wonder if they didn't do well on their S.A.T.s or couldn't afford the tuition... BTW: to which colleges did they apply?

      He also says that "It’s well known that many of the letters were actually written by Paul’s helpers"... Is it well known? How does he know this?

      Lastly, he says that Mr. Ehrman is "thirsty of money and glory trying to hung from the confusion and ignorance of the weak." I'd say that the ignorant one here is Mr. Morales...

      May 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  3. Joe

    As a bible scholar, Erhman sure knows how to take things out of context.
    in 1 Cor 11, it doesn't mention anything about being in church, which just states women can also speak to God through prayer. in 1 Cor 14, the word 'silent' is not about forbidding to pray in church but it is related to the various decision makings in church affairs. There, I'm not a bible scholar but that's my argument just from the texts right out of the Bible.
    Maybe CNN's article didn't convey Erhman's point effectively but just from the article, that point hardly makes any evidence for forgery.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  4. Muggle1992

    I took a New Testament course at a Nazarene University, and the professor said almost everything that Ehrman is saying.

    It seems that this information is controversial only in some circles, but not new or even surprising to people who have studied these things in any depth.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  5. Rick

    I Corinthians 2:14 "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually appraised"

    You must be born again, born of the Spirit, of God before you can enter or see the Kingdom of God. John 1:13; John 3:3-6

    II Peter 3:15,16
    15" and regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you,

    16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction."

    May 13, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  6. CGRIMM

    Since God is all powerful and gave the apostles the ability to perform miracles in His and Jesus Christ's name, wouldn't ha have also given the apostles of Jesus Christ the ability to write, so that his word could live on past the apostles death?

    May 13, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Hey that's asking too much of our god. He's not all powerful or all-knowing, you know. Give him a break. He's earned it after all that hard work pushing rock for that tsunami.

      Amen.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • Joe

      Hey Heavensent, if you want to be sarcastic about other peoples' faith, at least give an effort to learn more about the religion. your comments are very offensive and seem inconsiderate and ignorant to a Christian who loves God. so please cut it out.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  7. Steven

    Why do people go to such great lengths and spend all of their days/lives trying to disprove our creators existence?
    Organized religion has ruined our inherited faith and personal joy GOD intended us to have. I don't blame athiests one
    bit for not believing in GOD. Too many contradictions in the bible. There is no need to go to church to find GOD, there is no need to read the new testament to find GOD. Those are only mans words twisted into what man wants us to be. Just trust and believe in the almighty creator, he is all that matters.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      How do you know there's only one, if any?

      May 13, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  8. seaghda

    Speaking of illiterate, it was Mr. Ehrman who claimed they would have been illiterate not Mr. Witherington.

    Mr Witherington, however, is incorrect in one thing. They would not have to know how to read to conduct their business. Many business were run very successfully without the contracts we know of today. It was not uncommon for a man to be completely illiterate yet very successful at his business, especially in times where bartering was often more important than the almighty coin.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  9. Pete H

    This guy's got it wrong (no surprise). The Bible is a book written by humans with GOD's fingerprints all over it. As Jesus pointed out, some will believe. Others just won't get it!

    Of course, the same people who don't acknowledge God and believe the Bible is fiction are also the ones that are convinced that certain dinosaurs hunted in groups and that Nostradamus foretold the future just because the Nat Geo Channel says so in digitally created splendor.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      I forget... in what part of the bible did god discuss dinosaurs?

      May 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  10. crucified

    the authority given to the book testafies to its early acceptance before the temple destruction which makes it highly unlike to be a forgery..for the early churches would not have accepted its authority.. also, there is a plain consistancy in Pauls writings through the different books which does not add to multiple authors..

    May 13, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  11. joe smith

    Seriously, MEN, way to go! With two relatively simple stories, we have managed to oppress an entire gender for more than 2 millenia. Eve...Pandora....ring any bells? MEN RULE!!!! 😉

    May 13, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  12. Michael

    Don't expect people to accept this. Many theists don't use logic.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • crucified

      actually it is the other way around... according to quatum physics, you are in an imaginary world that transends a greater reality. therefore the applied sciences are the foolish ones.. measuring things that are imaginary..quatum physics is mathmatically proven therefore my freind you exist in a reality created for you by a creator of a much deeper reality just because you say it does not exist does not make the facts go away.. and if you choose to rebel you recieve no reward only you frail fake existance that you are banking on.. the spiritual realm is truth. God is your Judge.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  13. Another Eric

    This is nothing new, as the article implies. This is the kind of thing most biblical scholars have realized for decades.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Jeff

      Wait, most biblical scholars would agree with this book? I hardly think so. I do not know of one who would, and I know many.
      Now while it is true that Paul did very little of his own writing, he had scribes write for him (as the Bible states). Furthermore, there are many forgeries out there, but the early church never accepted them...they used disernment and rejected these forgeries.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  14. Greg s

    Bunk, The Bible has been under attack for a Thousand years, It has stood the test of time and a thousand scholars who think they know more then God. If you don't believe in God its just a Book If you Believe in Our Lord then you Believe he has the power to insure his Book is written Correctly.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      I love the way you put that Greg. Nice job!

      May 13, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • muhrvis

      A lot of literature has stood the test of time. Just because the Bible has the power to inspire does not mean it is literally true.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Mike

      Funny, that's what Islamic fundamentalists say too.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      But when they ask you to explain all the obvious errors in the bible, run away! run away! run away!

      Amen.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • CM

      The Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid have stood the test of time as well. Nobody worships Zeus because of that though.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Timetraveler

      "Written correctly"? Which parts? It can't possibly all be true because large parts of it contradict other large parts of it. I'm willing to bet your life that you haven't even read the bible, like most bible freaks.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • Joe

      Heavensent, there are mountain of books that explain the 'errors' in the bible. I have a feeling that you haven't sought out any of them yourself. Have you?

      May 13, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  15. capnmike

    Except for a few historical factoids, the entire bible is a pack of lies, supernatural baloney, and made-up tales anyway...The sad thing is that so many millions of poor brainwashed people believe this nonsense, and will continue to believe it even when it is proven false. They have been taught this malarkey since childhood, it is part of their "reality", and they won't give it up and learn to think for themselves. Religion, ALL of it, is a human invention that has turned into an enormous SCAM!

    May 13, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Pete H

      Sorry Capn, but those who know God know better. You can't steal their hope. You can't steal their joy. I often wonder what people like you do for either...

      May 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • Will

      I'm sorry. I didn't realize it had been "proven" false. Just like you are apparently under the impression that it has. The funny thing about science is that its proven about half the Bible is true just as its proven that a lot of what we've taken for granted about the past is false. The first true step in intelligence is realizing that we really don't "KNOW" anything.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • moral atheiist

      Thumbs up Captain!

      May 13, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Jeff

      Not even worth a comment. My experience as a missionary & pastor would outweigh your non-experience in the supernatural, and leave your head spinning.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • o rly?

      capnmike ... it's just as plausible that your view point is just as much brainwashing as any religious discourse...

      May 13, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  16. CheckUrFacts

    To those who say they 'know' God exists. If you know God exists, you no longer have faith, you instead have knowledge. You are therefore a gnostic and not a true believer. To have faith in God you must have some doubt or uncertainty or else there is no need to "have faith." So, in demanding that you are correct and that everyone else is wrong, you are putting yourself in the position of being a all-knowing supreme being. And based on the logic and spelling errors, I'm pretty sure that's not the case.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Rick

      Now... there is a paragraph of mindless drivel... I'm not sure that I've read anything this stupid outside of Doctor Seuss

      May 13, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • BoomBoom

      Makes perfect sense to me Rick.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • Joe

      I don't disagree with your point. Although, there are some who actually had personal spiritual experience with God that makes one so sure he actually 'met' God and believe God must exist. with all the semantics aside, I think if someone says he knows God exists, i would say they have 'strong' faith in God.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  17. airic

    Ben Witherington is clueless...he is to much of a believer; a believer in false gods...

    May 13, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  18. whatchu talkin about willis?

    "Bart D. Ehrman, a renowned biblical scholar..."

    For those of us aware of Bart, that's like saying "Todd Bridges, a renowned broadway actor..."

    May 13, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Chrissypoo

      Always about hating the black people .

      May 13, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Jeff

      I fully agree with your statement! All scholars, that are world renown would fully disagree with his work. Here is another revisionist trying to make a name for himself...kinda reminds me of Rebecca Black's song, "Friday".
      This guy has no real credibility.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • Brandon

      Actually, other scholars that he debates consider him a renowned scholar, at the same time they disagree with him. Cute joke, though...also known as 'poisoning the well'. A nice little trick for trying to persuade people from listening to things you don't like, and forming their own opinions. You should go into politics.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • Dante

      Seriously, this article gives waaaay to much space to the detractor. In fact, I don't know a single Biblical scholar that actually things the apostles or any direct witness wrote those texts.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Dante

      Seriously, this article gives waaaay to much space to the detractor. In fact, I don't know a single Biblical scholar that actually thinks the apostles or any direct witness wrote those texts.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  19. חֲנוֹךְ

    Can anyone say "agenda".

    May 13, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  20. Eric

    Sorry to say, Mr. Ben Witherington, but you are gonna die, too!!! And if you're not "illiterate" like you assume that these inspired men of God were, then you are doomed to HELL!!! I hope you are mentally capable and "literate" enough to read this post. You have a great day, and perhaps God will bring you nearest to death, and you'll beg HIM to SAVE YOU!!!

    May 13, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • חֲנוֹךְ

      I disagree with this mans conclusion, but your post only fuels the atheist hatred. It is not your place to judge this souls final destination.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • CheckUrFacts

      Wow! You are a great example of why so many people think religion is one of the biggest causes of violence in our world. Either that or you are just an evil little troll. Maybe even both!

      May 13, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • AndyB

      Witherington is the one defending Paul. Ehrman is the author of "Forged".

      May 13, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • capnmike

      There isn't any "hell", and there isn't any "god"...Wake up and ditch the brainwashing.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Debbie

      You are exactly the kind of Christian that makes us atheists believe you're all demented. Some more than others.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      How is it brainwashing when people make their own choice to be a Christian?

      May 13, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • muhrvis

      Such spiritual pride. You have the gall to put words in the mouth of God and condemn someone to hell for having a different view than yours. You are using the Lord's name in vain.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Nick

      Hey Eric, I find it ironic that this article focuses on illiteracy and you failed to even understand the basics of the article. Like the fact that "Mr. Ben Witherington" didn't write "Forged", Bart D. Ehrman did you moron. It seems your wonderful God didn't see fit to give you a brain since you told the man who is actually the one who is defending Christians to go to Hell. Tell me that isn't priceless irony. I hope I didn't lose you.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Timetraveler

      Spoken like a true closed minded bone-headed zealot who will not be inconvenienced by facts. You too will die, and when you do, so will your delusions of a heaven and white robes and playing harps on a cloud and whatever bulls#%t you believe in. You will decay into worm food and dirt. That's it, and that's all.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Literate Atheist

      @greg s: "know more THAN God" and "ENSURE His"
      @Eric: Read carefully: Ehrman is the one suggesting forgeries and illiteracy.

      Clearly it requires little provocation to make a Christian defensive and hostile. When was the last time you saw an atheist become defensive?

      May 13, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • turnagainoutlaw

      How very Christian of you...

      May 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • Joe

      capnmike, just ask yourself, "what if I'm wrong and there really IS God?" don't just dismiss the question. think about for a couple of minutes for your sake. you can draw the same conclusion as before or you might seek to find better answers than 'brainwash'. either way it's not a waste of two minutes of your life.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Brandon

      Bart Ehrman is the person who wrote Forged and disputes some of the New Testament authorship; Ben Witherington is the one quoted as defending the BIble's supposed accuracy. At least get the name right when you react like a child and tell someone they're gonna 'BURN IN HELL!' because they challenged your obviously stable faith.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • Debbie2

      I agree with the other Debbie!

      May 13, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • Andrew

      Joe, WHICH god? Zeus? The FSM? Allah? Shiva? Amaterasu? What if none of those are correct, and there is a god who punishes people who believe in god without sufficient evidence? I always find the question "what if you're wrong" a very silly thing to ask, as it seems to be proposing a false dichotomy. "My god or no god", there's the third option, "an infinite number of different equally unverifiable gods".

      May 13, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Loki

      Alright, you people believe in story books written in crayon. While anybody can find value in anything, it's disturbing how people such as yourselves can't keep your business to yourselves. If there's a hell, it's probably were you live with your wIfe, you should really shove that draconian beast in the oven and rejoice for youve done the work of god.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.