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. Mark

    Would CNN have had the guts to post this article had it been about the Quran being forged? My guess is going to be no.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • pho non

      Not hard to find CNN articles critical of Islam, so your post looks like just attempt of deflection of criticism. Using CNN search box finds lots of negative story about Islam.

      CNN might not be perfect journalism but seems to not lack guts.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • Mark

      @pho non: Please cite a CNN article is that is directly equivalent to this one.

      May 13, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Sid

      He's not claiming direct equivalence, just something critical. Here's one of at least 20 articles I find right away using cnn search that could reasonably taken as critical of Islam in some form:


      Surely that isn't hard for you to do yourself. You do have to type "Islam", hit the enter key, and read a bit, though.

      May 13, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  2. TechnoPeasant

    Forged? Oh reee-ally.
    Do tell!
    Yes, forged and censored.
    Someone had to came up filler to replace all the books that werent included because someone else disagreed with them.
    Think of all the time people have spent memorizing this fiction over the ages.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • airwx

      Are you aware that every book you say was excluded is available for you to read and judge for yourself? Most of them are even on the internet for free.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  3. Jeff

    So the basis of the argument is that a disciple could not have written a book in the Bible b/c that same book...which the author believes apparently contains nothing but made up stuff b/c it was forged...says the disciples were illiterate. OK...

    May 13, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  4. BrianInMesa

    Never believed the bible was the word of god. 12 years in a catholic school. Look around it is all a lie to control and extract money. Too bad! Kind of wish it was all true.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • Just Larry

      It's interesting though. There either IS or there ISN'T a GOD. There is no 3rd OPTION!
      The universe hints at intelligent design (organization requires an Organizer). If there isn't a God, we all may as well just live in trees and just throw feces at each other for we have no universal purpose. IF there IS, however a GOD, I think it's in humanity's best interest to try an know more about that GOD and gain knowledge as to what his intent for us is.
      For my own personal preference, I believe in the Judaic-Christian God. It's the one that rings true in my soul.

      May 17, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  5. hal

    The bible is allegory. There is only one group which wants to cling to the "literal", they want a "holy deed" for some Mediterranean front property. IMO

    May 13, 2011 at 6:20 pm |


    May 13, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • Tohrm

      You are a liar or insane with "faith". Your yelling doesn't help much, either. You close your eyes and cover your ears and yell as loudly as you can...
      ...and yes that is what you are obviously doing here. Go find a rock to live under.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  7. GiveMeABreak

    Kill da wabbit! Kill da wabbit! Kill da wabbit!!!!

    I have that stuck in my head right now...

    ...I dunno, but somehow I feel it's relevant to this discussion.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Tohrm

      With my spear and magic helmet!

      May 13, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • GiveMeABreak

      Heh, magic helmet...

      Maybe that's it. There's as much validity to reading the Bible and proclaiming the existence of God as fact as there is watching a Loony Toons cartoon and proclaiming magic helmets exists...

      Why not...

      May 13, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  8. Ryan

    This isn't really new information. Biblical scholars are pretty much in agreement on the 7 or so books of Paul. I'm a little annoyed that CNN is setting this story up like B.E. came up with this idea. He's not really widely regarded among legit Biblical scholars, more of an attention seeker than most (or all) serious academics.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Tohrm

      Ryan, serious academics, I mean REALLY serious ones, do not believe the Bible to be anything more than a fake book written by fakers, frauds, charlatans, and con-artists.
      There are no books or letters or gospels in the Bible that can be pointed to as an honest and accurate docu-ment.
      Nothing but lies fill the Bible. Make up your own stuff and see just how easy it is. Oh, wait, you are doing that already. Sorry.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  9. altocleff

    We already knew this. It's just new packaging.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  10. DmanPhx

    I bet he doesn't even realize how ironic his statement is: Witherington calls Ehrman’s book “Gullible Travels, for it reveals over and over again the willingness of people to believe even outrageous things.” I guess parting the Red Sea is like so toooootally believable. I close with this quote "Religion accepts absurdities as a community that only a psychopath could believe on his own."

    May 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Tohrm

      That's a great quote, DmanPhx. Where is it from?

      May 13, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris

      May 13, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  11. cary lacayo

    John 14 : 6 – Jesus said, "I am the truth, the way and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." A New Testament writing that says it all...One day every human being will bow and everyone will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!!! Jesus died for us, He paid the price on the cross for our sins...We all have sinned, we deserved punishment for our sins, but Jesus Christ died so that we could live forever. Believe it or not, it is the truth that we will have to own up to one day...

    All this is in the New Testament which seems to be in question according to this so called scholar. You owe it to yourself to use your brain and find out if it's truth or not. What do you have to lose? It's easy just to say it's false and anyone can simply do that, but why not just look further into it...

    May 13, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      "so called scholar" ???

      And exactly what's your academic background? How many books have you written and what universities use them as course material?

      May 13, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • ChristianC

      In answer to "PraiseTheLard": and what makes you think that an academic background, writing books and attending Godless universities is the path to spiritual knowledge?. You who pretend to see clearly, have you no eyes to observe? You who claim all knowledge, have you no mind with which to think?

      Paul, writing in the book of Romans, states: "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against the irreligious and perverse spirit of men who, in their perversity of theirs, hinder the truth. In fact, whatever can be known about God is clear to them; he himself made it so. Since the creation of the world, invisible realities, God's eternal power and divinity, have become visible, **recognized through the things He has made**".

      You strike me as the type of person who, should he be flying to Mars and there discovering a perfectly preserved Boeing 747, would postulate that it all happened by an accident of evolution and that no intelligent being could ever have designed such an object. I think that the so-called universities you seem to be so proud of are more interested in showing the whole world that they are all-knowing – in fact, that they themselves are the god of this earth.

      Anyone unable or unwilling to contemplate the extreme complexity of design inherent in the human body, for example, and therefore the proof of a Designer, is either blind or exhibiting such bad faith as to be laughable to the nth degree.

      May 13, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  12. Anglican

    Ehrman is a bitter, angry guy. He now attacks what he once believed.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  13. Gotta Getthere

    I really have no problem at all with the writers not being Paul et al. My real problem is with it being attributed directly to G_d's…uh, lips. The irrefutable indisputable direct and exact word of G_d has been used as a club against any and all who disagree with the church (and by that them and those in power over society). There is nothing wrong with the bible being the work of inspired and devout people (yeah, I know, men), who prayed and considered all they thought they knew. You can rethink the words of men, consider new information, grow as a civilization. The whole thing doesn't have to be a throwback to a culture we would (and do) collectively refuse to be today.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  14. frank

    Did somebody have to keister papyrus scrolls in and out of Roman prison cells for the world to have some of these gospels?? Ouch!

    May 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • airwx

      Actually, it was common for prisoners to be on "house arrest" if they were non-violent, so there was no problem with a scribe coming or going. The only difference was with the writing of Revelation, where the writings had to be inspected for anti-Roman context. That is why Revelation seems so mysterious... it was written in a code that Jewish people could easily understand and that a Roman would see as jibberish.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  15. mark

    couldnt it have been dictated. Just because someone cannot read or write doesnt mean they didnt contribute.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  16. Stephen Daugherty

    Well, here's what I was taught. First, The Gospels were almost certainly written by people later than the apostles. Second, it was common practice for letters to be dictated to servants or slaves who would then write it down. Third, it was acceptable practice for the students of a great teacher to write in their teacher's name. Fourth, many of the Pauline Letters were evidently written by others, in that fashion. It's only if you rely upon old traditions that demand that everything that has a person's name on it was written by just that person that you end up losing any sleep over this. This is a non-story, it's long been thought that the bible's authorship was complex.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  17. Anthony Lie

    Google the world 'canonization'. There were dozens of bible scholars, with prayers and discernment, try to distinguish which one is from the real disciples which one is not. And Mr. Ehrman is only one person. Life on this earth is only once, find the 'truth' people. "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." -John 14:6

    May 13, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  18. Wilbur

    Wonder of wonders CNN takes another pot shot at Christianity. No big deal but it makes you wonder if CNN would ever publish an article claiming the Quran was forged or Muhammad was a mad man? CNN never would because the response would be violence and death. Truly telling is it not? LOL cowards we are afraid to critique Islam because of the violence it breeds least they well 'gasp' become violent!!!

    May 13, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • Lenny Pincus

      It's always interesting that fundamentalists play the victim card when anything approaching a rational thought about the Bible is discussed. Rather than address the massive inconsistencies in the Good Book, fundies cry that everybody's out to get them. Most Catholics however were taught the historical realities of the Bible and its origins, so articles like these barely raise an eyebrow.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • Wilbur

      Lenny Pincus,

      So I am a fundamentalist for pointing out the blatant hypocrisy that any religion but Islam is fair game for critique. Did you miss the part of "no big deal" that was in post? I identify as a Christian but I am also pro choice and pro gay marriage. Both of the aforementioned clearly mark me quite clearly as not a fundamentalist. However ask yourself what fundamentalist Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, or Sikh has killed because their holy book was burned, religion critiqued strongly, or felt their religion was blasphemed? Only one religions adherent's, Islam, reacts with cowardly violence to perceived slights which you and I would consider honest critique. I have no issue with the article and welcome any kind of open debate. My simple point is the fact that no one in the MSM would dare air an article that said "Half of the Quran forged!" This self censorship/pandering is at such an epic levels we even now go to great pains to not even offend the Muslims trying to kill us(case in point being pandering to Islamic sensibilities over BIn Ladens "Islamic burial" rights.) Truly mind blowing!

      May 13, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  19. Al

    To borrow from Stephen King's short story, "It is the tale, not he who tells it" that is important. If it speaks to you, listen. If not, go in peace.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Tohrm

      Anyone who quotes Stephen King to make a point about anything other than zombies is probably not too well-read.
      King is a hack who can't hardly write a clear paragraph, much less a book. Why bother with his words?

      May 13, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • AvoidGlassHouses

      Tohrm, it's interesting taht you think Steven King is a hack but also that he can easily write a clear paragraph. Or perhaps you don't know what a double negative is.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  20. Eric

    What part of this is new? As a cradle Catholic, I was never taught that the gospels were written by apostles; I was taught that their final written form didn't appear until a few centuries after Jesus' death. Similarly, the "Letter to the Hebrews" used to be "Paul's Letter to the Hebrews" until scholarly research cast sufficient doubt on its origin that the Church no longer attributes it to Paul. That apparently didn't make its ideas less important. After all the years of study that went into that, no one noticed a similar problem with the other letters until this guy suddenly claims 10 more were forged? And arguing that literacy is a requisite for sending a letter demonstrates how deep the digital mindset has been entrenched. Even a couple decades ago, most people of influence dictated many of their letters, and I expect a prominent disciple could do the same. This sounds like some sensationalist claims in order to get prominence and royalties in an otherwise modest field.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • Brandan

      Lol, that was the same question I was wondering. According to what i've been reading, the first Gospel to be written was Mark and even that one didn't show up till about 70-85 years after the death of Christ.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
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