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. Brandon

    Only a fool says that there is no God. Jesus is either THE TRUTH or THE BIGGEST LIE. You decide; but, you better be right!

    May 13, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • sassypants

      Amen Brandon! These are just satan's minions out doing their thing! They will not enter the kingdom so they try to prevent others from entering it too! They will be in for a RUDE awakening on judgement day.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Kevin

      its the biggest lie until i can be shown to be at all factual, which to date it ahs not.

      to believe something otherwise is delusional.

      May 13, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • pho non

      Brandon, many times your error appear here previously. "you had better be right" of your post means really you need to pick the right god of thousands of choices, or else maybe worse trouble than not believe at all. This basically fallacy is known as Pascal's Wager. You can find it easy by online search. Worth for you to try that e.g. on google.

      May 13, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  2. Steve A.

    interesting dialog; but ,for myself, i'd rather go as a Believer than an Infadel- God's grace already has saved me.

    explain THAT!...

    May 13, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Kevin

      easy, you have a delusion that your imaginary friend has saved you after he pushed you in.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  3. David

    Wow! Once again I find myself so enlightened by reading tripe from the masses....

    May 13, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  4. gremlin

    This is not a new concept. Most people that have studied religious texts at all know that most people that are attributed as authors probably did not write them. How could Moses have written a book of the Bible in which he describes his own death? Most of Jewish and Christian traditions were oral in nature until various councils decided which books would be recognized as authentic. Many of the apostles were illiterate and the official copies of their books were probably not written by them. It is still very likely that the stories were handed down from the original apostles. It doesn't change the position of those with faith or those of us without it. The message is the same and so is the spirit. Most people of faith don't need proof to believe. That's the definition of faith.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  5. Wayne TNPanMan

    Erhmans is not a credible Bible Scholar - he is an atheist with an agenda. All these so-called "Bible Experts" are usually Progressive/Emergent scholars who NEVER RESEARCH THE APOSTOLIC OR CHURCH FATHERS (CHURCH HISTORY) and make suppositions when we know there is credible evidence of the authencity of the New Testament. Its time that those of us who love the Bible (which is God's revealed Word). I am SICK and TIRED of hearing all this CRAP from these erroneous scholars (Ehrmans, Crosson, Borg, and all their Progressive liberal crap).

    May 13, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Tohrm

      You call them erroneous but have absolutely NO PROOF of any errors on their part.
      In fact, you have NO PROOF that your god even exists.
      And you also have NO PROOF that your Bible is the "inerrant" word of anyone, much less your "god".
      Contradictions cannot be hidden here. Why would your god purposely sow confusion and insanity?
      Either your god is Satan secretly printing Bibles or you are insane with your beliefs that do not match up with reality.
      Real is real, your Bible is full of lies. Forgery or not, it is all made-up stuff. Don't like it? Ask your god to fix things, fool.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • sassypants

      Amen Wayne!!!!

      May 13, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • gremlin

      You don't know that they are wrong. It makes no sense that poor fishermen in 4 b.c – 50 a. d. or so were literate. It is very likely the apostles did not write their books. But they likely told the stories. There is a great deal of evidence that most of the books of the Bible were written long after the times described. It's very likely that they were oral traditions handed down. There have been many copies of similar versions of the stories that have been discovered. But only the versions in the Bible have been deemed the "official versions." But it doesn't affect your faith. The spirit is the same. I don't know why you have to have such venom for people that have a natural curiosity.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • P

      If you're so sure that he's not credible, than what are you so upset about?

      May 14, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  6. Sy2502

    It's very telling to me how ignorant Christians are about their own "sacred book". There actually are people who think the Bible was a big fat book with blank pages passed down through the ages, with each person writing a bit of it, until they got to the last page, "The End". What we call "Bible" is a cherry picked subset of the countless writings and letters and manuscripts that circulated at the time. And on what criteria were they picked? If a writing supported the doctrine championed by the "hot shot" of the day, then of course it was picked. Because, just like there wasn't just one book of scriptures, there wasn't one flavor of Christian doctrine either. Elders and preachers quarreled constantly and tried to advance their ideas over those of others. And just like history is written by the winners, what was chosen as "the Bible" was whatever was favored by the winning side of the theological debate.
    If Christians had the intellectual chops to objectively examine the history of their faith, and the history of their "holy book", they would get a heck of a surprise. The author of the book is a perfect example: he started studying theology to strengthen his faith... and now he's an atheist!

    May 13, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • David, CA

      Amen to that (pardon the pun)

      May 13, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • Jess

      An athiest is a very different group than an agnostic that the author now states himself to be. You shouldn't mix them up.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • airwx

      You raise a valid point. Christians should study all the books in and rejected from, the printed bible. They should study the history of the region and consider the writings of all the peoples in that region at that time. While not easy to do outside of a seminary, it can be done. The conclusions reached by those of us I know who have done this are very different from the author's. But then we are all responsible for our own conclusions.

      May 13, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  7. Diana

    What is with all this Christian hate?! I never see these self appointed "scholars" picking on other religions- (not that that would be right anyway...) They only pick on Christianity.... that's just hypocritical, discriminatory, and wrong. We don't sit around debunking your ideas or philosophies- we've got better things to do. As a Christian I feel discriminated against with all this Christian hate going on.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • David, CA

      nice try to play the victim, but the scholar isn't "hating" anything, he's revealing an opinion that many books of the new testament are forged. If you think that's hate, you need your head examined. It's called educational.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • pho non

      To be fair, criticism of Christianity in open is 100's years overdue. And you can find much of CNN critical of e.g. islam by just use CNN search box, so your comment not really justified, by easy to find example.

      Search tool very powerful to test your claim.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  8. Joey Y

    "for it reveals over and over again the willingness of people to believe even outrageous things" – sounds a lot like the Bible, and the willingness of people to selectively believe parts of it, unless they need to be forced into an expanation of overwhelming science or they need some kind of medical care.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  9. styve

    There are plenty of great scholars that flatly disagree with Ehrman. He greatly overstates his case. He argued that Mark 1:41 was a forgery because the text says Jesus became angry and Ehrman doesn't think God would get angry because God is love. I don't know how he knows God is love apart from the Bible or that love doesn't co-exist with anger (sounds co-dependant to me) or how he can decide from his comfortable armchair what apostles who gave their lives for Christ should have written about HIm. Try comparing the variant readings of the New Testament with any other books which have survived from antiquity. Throw out the New Testament and kiss the rest of the antiquities goodbye.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • sassypants

      Actually, the definition of Love in the Bible says that it is slow to anger.. not that it does not get angry. God is patient but he does have a righteous anger.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  10. Jeff

    Dude, just say I don't believe the Bible b/c I don't believe in God. Don't use the Bible...which you don't believe contains any truth...to prove a point you are making. (ex. The Bible says the disciple can't write therefore they cannot write the Bible. If Matthew or whatever was written hundreds of years after Matthew lived, how did that dude or girl know Matthew was illiterate? Why would he or she put that note in the book of Matthew if he was trying to make a forgery?)

    May 13, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Tohrm

      Jeff, if you don't like having the truth tossed your way, feel free to ask your god to fix this. What? He won't? Why not?

      May 13, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • P

      Yes, and Harry Potter had a scar on his forehead. Now how in the world could JK Rowling had known that Harry had that scar had she not seen him herself?!!!!

      May 13, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  11. Ed

    This brings up interesting questions, that any Christian interested in the fundamental beliefs and teachings of Jesus and the first Christians should ask. The only way to do this is to strip away thousands of years of human history a task that cannot be done by reading the Bible alone.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  12. Wayne Fox

    The Jesus Seminar composed of mainline Christian Scholars thinks that about 85% of the New Testament is forged.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • airwx

      The Jesus Seminar has been dumped by mainline thinking... many of its members have left because of the actions of certain leaders of the group. One of the problems with the Seminar arose when the "group" voted by colored marbles instead of taking responsibility for their individual votes. When scholars debate it is customary for a majority and minority opinion to be printed so that the work of the scholars can be seen and given proper pe-er review.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  13. Diana

    What is with all this Christian hate?! I never see these self appointed "scholars" picking on other religions- (not that that would be right anyway...) They only pick on Christianity.... that's just hypocritical, discriminatory, and wrong. We don't sit around debunking your ideas or philosophies- we've got better things to do. As a Christian I feel discriminated against with all this Christian hate going on. Its just wrong.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • pho non

      just not true. Use CNN search box and you find much critical of other major religion.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • David, CA

      I guess you've never head of "The Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie to name just one. Amazing how christians persecute so many others of different faith and then whine like children and constantly try to play the victim.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Atheist Ben

      Personally, I make fun of ALL religions. Including [but not limited to] Islam, Judaism, Scientology [thats an easy one] Mormonism, Hinduism, and Republicanism.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • ChicagoAnthro

      they don't always pick on christianity – that is a statistical improbability. Its just all you hear about at church. That does not count as 'always'. I can assure you that not all scholars are looking at only christianity, let alone religion! If so we would only need one university for everyone.

      May 13, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
  14. Chris

    "Forged" is the wrong term. Back in the day when an author wrote something the name he put on his work was the name of the person who IDEAS he wrote down. Remember this was in the days before the printing press so the person with the pen in hand was not important, he may have just been finally writing stories that were passed down for ages. Most of the bible, old and new testament is like that, very old stories at the time of their writhing. To a person back then a scribe who claimed authorship would have been a "forgery"

    May 13, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  15. David, CA

    Forged and then compiled and "edited" by the RCC, but christian's still blindly think it is verbatim from God's lips to their superior ears. Yes snakes do talk, yes apples are evil, yes Noah had two of every animal on earth on his yacht, yes Jesus is a zombie.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • the guy

      ha! that's hilarious! made my day!
      "....a zombie" ha!

      May 13, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  16. R Harris

    There are many 'experts' and 'scholars' who purport that Islam is a fraud. Why don't we ever – just once – hear about them on CNN? Why is it always Christianity??

    May 13, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • pho non

      try CNN search box, no problem to find criticism on Islam from there. You can't deflect so easily.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  17. keylargo

    Problem is, many people are of the opinion its all true instead of just the good fiction that it is.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • R Harris

      And you know, as a fact, that it is fiction because...?

      May 13, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • pho non

      Not that good fiction. LOTR and Harry Potter stories are wayyyy better.


      May 13, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • Kevin

      R Harris, easy. talking snakes, walking on water, water to win, the very mention of an all powerful god (a paradoxial creature at the least)

      basic common sense tells you it's fiction.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  18. Trevor Gerdes

    I think that it's wrong to give a lot of publicity to a new book just because it makes controversial claims. Maybe the author makes some good points, but it's not like only Christian "fake scholars" think that the New Testament is historically valid. Even secular scholars would agree that the New Testament has outstanding evidence and very early manuscripts, really as good as it gets from a textual critic's standpoint for the first century.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • David, CA

      I don't see how it's controversial- in fact all the points brought up are logical, excellent, and well thought out. Sure it will get a lot of people's panties in a knot, but no one ever accused a christian of logical, reasonable thought.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • ChicagoAnthro

      I love all the 'fake scholar' or 'scientist' comments – why everything in quotes? How do you feel about 'rational christian' or 'compassionate conservative'? Do you think everyone that works to educate themselves are somehow fake or stupid? Why is that? Maybe because so many just regurgitate what their pastor or their friends say...and if anyone says anything different, they are fake because you don't have the capacity to have a rational discussion. How about telling us your argument for your position instead of kindergarten comebacks, because 'you are stupid' and 'nu uh' are not helping your cause.

      May 13, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  19. Alonzo R

    The ignorance of this "learned man" is depper than the one he claims for Peter and John. It is clear from the passage he sites to support his position of their illiteracy, that it was the opinion of the religious leaders that they were illiterate, because they had not trained with an approved rabbi. These leaders seemed to consider "the people" as illiterate, not because they couldnt read or write, but because they had no formal education. Much like today with some "doctors of theology"

    May 13, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • David, CA

      Explain then the hundreds and hundreds of inconsistencies and conflicting accounts in the bible. Sounds like he's right on the money.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • A to z


      May 13, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Tohrm

      Excellent point, David!

      May 13, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  20. Chris

    All Religions Need To Die For Mankind To Thrive!

    May 13, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • Ron

      Not really Chris. There are many religions that DO NOT seek to control people or every part of their lives.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • Tohrm

      Actually, I would say that people need to fight against their natural gullibility. Only a simple-minded child accepts what others say without thinking about it. Or a gullible fool. I have been both at times. It is so easy to believe because most people have not encountered much need to be skeptical or cynical in their lives.
      They find it easy to believe politicians, also. Religion is just a symptom and not the cause of simple-mindedness.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Kevin

      Actually Tohrm, Religion is a MAJOR cause of being simple minded, it teaches you to NOT think about think and explain things you do not understand by saying god did it. its much much more then a symptom.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Ned

      Wrong, all mankind needs to die for God to thrive.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Woodrow

      @Kevin – yeah, it's much more intelligent to believe order came from chaos unassisted and we're nothing more than lucky mud.

      Question: If this is it, and you're not worth anything more than the ant crawling on the ground (who is also lucky mud according to you), what does it matter? Why bother arguing the point. I understand Christians, Muslims, etc. being outspoken – they genuinely believe you will be lost without God and don't want to see that happen. There's a consequence in their eyes to not following Christ or Allah. I've never understood rabid Athiests though. If there's nothing there as you say, who cares? There's no consequence for anything you do or say, and there isn't for me either. What's the point in arguing it?

      May 13, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • pho non

      Woodrow, very good reason to argue against religion and claims of religious is that policy decisions are being made based on faith in old supersti-tion instead of reason. Surprising you don't understand this. Same question appear here often.

      May 13, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • Woodrow

      @pho non – you just garbled it more. As an Athiest, why do you care? If you're nothing but a slug and there's no meaning to life beyond perpetuating it, then what's the point? Someone off's you – so what. No difference from a hunter bagging a deer. And you're concerned with government policy... Why? The whole thing is for nothing anyway, right, so I'm wondering why the protest. Agnostics I get – they don't believe in any one thing – they say they don't know and whatever happens happens. Atheists on the other hand are very anti-God – almost a complex regarding the topic. I don't get the rabid protest when you say everyone's just lucky mud. If that's the case, and an Atheist believes it, why the protest to any of it – anything related to life. You're applying a value to life that contradicts Atheism. If you're no different than a mouse that you kill with a trap, why would something as silly as the 2nd amendment bother you?

      May 14, 2011 at 1:00 am |
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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.