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. marcia

    I would bet that in time we will find out that the entire bible was forged! An awful lot of it seems to come from a lot of other ancient texts!

    May 17, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  2. Doug

    It is amazing how he puts the Bible down as a forge,when he even states that many times scribes your used even today author use help in writting books but it is still the author,s words.The Bible saids there will be false prophets ,peole who will try to put down the word of God but with 2011 years still not done.Plus what about Luke a doctor educated writes the same history as all the others but from his view of events.Please look at all things carefully before stating riht or wrong.I read these articals to keep myself up to date on todays thinking and look into the word for it,s true or falseness I give you your 15min. of fame

    May 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  3. Jordan

    What a bunch of crap.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  4. forgiven

    I assume you think the world will end on May 21 too right? My heart goes out to you.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  5. Randall Roy

    If half the energy used to disprove our faith were invested in improving the plight of the human race how glorious would the world we live in be? Is someone so threatened by something I believe they have to write entire books trying to disprove it? Faith is the belief in things unseen and my faith will not be shaken.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  6. Who is the bigger fool?

    The lay person who accepts the bible for what it claims to be; the man who spends a lifetime to become a scholar and expert in something he thinks is a forgery and lie; or the person who buys his worthless book?

    "professing themselves to be wise, they became as FOOLS"

    May 17, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  7. Rich

    In reference to the article’s author siting Paul’s second letter to Timothy as a possible forgery: It is doubtful that Paul himself was illiterate since he was originally a learned Pharisee, but on top of that he says that “Luke is with me”. Luke was Greek physician who most certainly was not illiterate (and also the author of Luke and Acts of the Apostles). If (as is unlikely) Paul was illiterate he could have dictated the letter to Luke. This article is not particularly compelling.

    The reality of it all comes down to your personal relationship with God and your faith as a Christian. There have always been those who cast doubt on the Truth – just look at the ancient authors of the apocryphal “Gospels” of Judas, or Mary Magdalene, or Thomas. No matter how much doubt is thrown – the Truth endures.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  8. Jim

    Please don't continue to give Erhman your money. This guy is like the TV evangelist who scams the people with his message. Erhman knows there is nothing much new under the sun when it comes to biblical scholarship. He simply re-works a theoretical premises, gives his book an outrageous name and then suckers the passionate anti-Christian into further re-working his poorly researched and equally poorly constructed bias. It's all a money making scam for Erhman and I encourage people to keep their money in their pocket.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Aaron

      Right...and it's Ehrman who is biased. All you do is show your own bias. By the way, Ehrman doesn't need to try to become famous. He already is among scholars. I have studied many books written by him, including his textbook on the New Testament which is the foremost in the nation. Ehrman is often spoken of in religious studies courses. You on the other hand, ARE a nobody.

      May 17, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Jim

      Aaron, I have read Mr. Erhman as well. That is why I know who he is. He is famous amongst liberal scholars and is infamous amonst conservative ones. My point is simple. Mr. Erhman has a profound and deep seated bias. He is hyperbolic and exagerates his claims apparently for the purpose of selling books. Regardless of the reason, I can no longer recommend him or his work.

      May 17, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Jim

      ... and Aaron, if you would like true scholarship regarding New Testament studies, I recommend Raymond Brown.

      May 17, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  9. Georgann

    How to become famous is all this is.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • pinball29

      You must be Andy Warhol, risen from the dead. Now IM writing a bible.

      May 17, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  10. MJ

    It is called FAITH people, and if the Word is inspired by God do we really think literacy matters. If our God created everything, I would think he could write the word through an illiterate man. Thank goodness I am not the final Judge, we will all at some point stand before Him.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  11. RustyHanes

    Hey everyone here who posted a comment: we're all so intelegent aren't we? well, we're all going to croak one day ain't we? then we'll find out the truth, unless you don't believe there's something after this "life" here in this increasingly obsurd and evil world. Keep having your intelectual discussions. Keep blasting the Bible and Jesus., idiots have been doing that all throughout history. Some people get it, most don't.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  12. Bert

    I don't think you'd have to be literate at all to be a fisherman in those times, I don't think it was more involved than catching fish and selling them, but even when you would have to sign contracts that is an irrelevant point because plenty of illiterate people throughout history have signed contracts, maybe that is all they can write or maybe it is just a squiggly line but if ever fisherman or tradesmen 2000 years ago had to be literate then we would have a much better grasp of history and Beowulf and the Odyssey wouldn't be the only assigned reading children have from "ancient" time.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  13. mark

    Luke was a physician. Paul was highly educated. This clown has no proof.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  14. doofus

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

    Oh the irony!

    May 17, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  15. Dave Minnich

    Here we go again – it is a busy and eternal industry calling the bible fake, forged, made-up, etc.. Ehrman's book is just the latest rehashing of these tired old claims that have long been proven false. Of course, when we live in an era where everyone is an instant expert and everything becomes a conspiracy of lies, you can make a lot of money selling books such as this. However, you will learn nothing new and little that is truthful in this book.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Aaron

      False, Ehrman is one of the foremost scholars on the new testament. I should know, I studied religion in college. His textbook on the new testament is probably the most widely used and accepted in the country. What he says about the new testament is not new though. Most scholars of the bible have claimed that the disciples and apostles wrote very few of the actual words that one will find in the new testament. This is nothing new. Even an episcopal priest that I know agrees. This doesn't mean it changes the message of the bible (as Ehrman says), it just means that the bible is a book like any other.

      May 17, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Alice

      Dave how can you say 'long proven false'? NOTHING is able to be proven about the bible. It is just 'proven' to you because a different scholar said something closer to what you already and/or what you want to believe.

      May 17, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • spence

      so what makes you an expert? Sounds like this man is a respected scholar. Everyone also walks around with crosshairs aimed and ready to judge in an anything in an instant. You can't believe everything you read/hear but finding the truth is more difficult than reading a short news article my friend. The bible has been used throughout history to fuel holy wars, death, and persecution against those who deferred from it. The way the media influences the masses today is not so different. Ignorance might be bliss but happiness comes only from selflessness.

      May 17, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  16. Vis8

    For more details on how Christians manipulated the world to satisfy their whims, read the Da Vinci Code (if you haven't yet) – even though it is a novel, the facts are real and well-researched.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Jim

      ... you're kidding, right?

      May 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  17. Alex

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

    While I don't necessarily support either view, I found the quote above somewhat ironic.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Dan

      I was thinking the same thing...

      May 17, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  18. JonnyJC

    Let him that think he is knowledgeable know this first, he knows nothing. Pointless arguments will not benefit anyone.
    To the religious and the atheists, the scientist and the sceptics we are all are believers; some believe there is God, with passion. some believe there is no God, with equal passion, no one really understand anytuing- we are not even close!. To believe otherwise is utter stupidity. We need to look inside and make the most of the life that we have.
    It will help us all to realize that we are punching beyond our weight and that in the end what matters is that we are here now and soon we will be no more...

    May 17, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Evrim Baykal

      Well said.

      May 17, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      JonnyJC, What you described is a sad condition to be in. Do you really think that if f there was a God, creator of all that exists, and whose creation we are, would just let us go stumbling in darkness, never to reveal Himself to us?
      Yes, indeed, He did reveal Himself in Person of His Son, Jesus Christ. And, yet so many have not recognized Him!

      May 17, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
  19. JonnyJC

    Let him that think he is knowledgeable know this first, he knows nothing. Pointless arguments will not benefit anyone.
    To the religious and the atheists, the scientist and the atheist all are believers; some believe there is God, with passion. soem believe there is no God, with equal passion, no one really understand anytuing- we are not even close!. To believe otherwise is utter stupidity. We need to look inside and make the most of the life that we have.
    It will help us all to realize that we are punching beyond our weight and that in the end what matters is that we are here now and soon we will be no more...

    May 17, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  20. Dave

    I love it when I read the responses about how perfect the word of God is, and how no matter how many times it gets translated, the original meaning is preserved. No, no it's not. Any text, translated through various languages will have mistakes. Heck, the original bibles were transcribed by hand and have mistakes from one version to the next. Beyond that, early scholars changed the text as they copied it to suit themselves. The forgeries that this man is speaking of may just be personal touches added through the years. Going one step further, MAN is still influencing the bible. You talk about the perfect translations, well, I dare you to get a copy of the earliest English King James bible and compare it to today's most recent version. You'll see literally thousands of changes. How can a perfect translation continue to change even without further translation. It's been transcribed to English hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, yet it keeps changing. Different versions support different church's views, different political views, different sociological views.
    The bible is a collection of fictional stories, written by many men, that may or may not be based on some actual events that happened many years before the stories were written. Then over hundreds of years, new stories were added, old stories were removed, all by the choice of man, not God. Meanings were lost in translation, or purposely removed to serve the purpose of man.
    The bible is a corrupt book written and manipulated by corrupt people. And the sad part is the biggest supporters, and those that use it to further their own beliefs tend to be those that understand it the least, or have read only the parts that serve them.
    I don't for a minute argue the validity of the overall concept of the bible. Love thy neighbor, don't kill, don't steal. It's a great moral compass for those that can't decide for themselves right from wrong, but it's no more factual than Aesop's fables, and provides the same general message.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Alice


      May 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Jim

      I was with ya til the last paragraph. We can't assign the corruptions in the translations, a purely academic term, to the human beings who authored or translated the texts with such blanket negative connotations. Aesop never intended to transcribe actual events, only moral lessons. The Bible and many of its historical claims are verifiable, just as many of its claims are not. Hence it is nothing like Aesop's fables.

      May 17, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Jim

      It's also interesting to note that no one really knows who wrote these fables. The assignment of Aesop is itself pure legend. Yet we treat these works with great veneration because of their overall contribution to human understanding. To bad we can't just do the same with the Bible.

      May 17, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
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