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. Maria

    No whimpering here. Just a solid faith that I know the Bible is true and all atheist can do is snarl like dogs.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  2. backroads775

    Nothing so arouses and enrages human beings as to have their cherished beliefs questioned. Live and let live seems impossible for fervent believers. The idea that there is only one right way to live a meaningful, upright life is the keystone in all this disputatious, and often violent, difference of opinion. Will we ever grow up? Will we ever be secure enough to allow others to believe as they wish? Will we ever stop trying to propagandize other people? I doubt it. We are hard wired to make mischief, and in matters of faith, we are awash in bad behavior. One wonders: What would Christ have said, about the things said and done in his name, down through the centuries?

    May 18, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Scott

      Actually, He already did – he said many will claim righteous deeds in his name, and he would say depart from me you evil doers, I never knew you.

      May 25, 2011 at 5:46 am |
  3. Sabrina

    That "scholar" is precisely the reason why one needs to view the Bible with the eyes of faith and also in the context of the Sacred Tradition of the Church rather than a private interpretation and attempting to use secular scholastic/intellectual means. Some 'interpretations" such as that authors do nothing but forward false teachings and heresies, and damage the faith of people. Look, we all know the books of the Bible (it's not one large book you know) and other holy books in the Apocrypha were written by humans, but INSPIRED by God. So as far as this Orthodox Christian is concerned, the book Forged is fit for one thing only...but I don't have a bird or a dog, unfortunately.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  4. Brian

    If this is true I think it basically illustrates the limitations of religion. I believe there is God, and each religion is a different path of becoming spiritually centered/aligned with His will. Even if the books were forged it still doesn't mean divine inspiration wasn't involved.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Sabrina

      Amen, Brian! One can't limit the power of God to a set of books.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Sally

      That is so correct, Brian! How arrogant of humans to presume to know the mind/will of God. If you look at all of the major religions there is ONE common thread- the Golden Rule. Follow that and you can't go wrong IMO.

      May 24, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  5. Olen Jones

    The conclusion of John Godfrey Saxe's poem, "The Blind Men and the Elephant
    So oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween,
    Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean,
    And prate about an Elephant not one of them has seen!

    May 18, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  6. batboy

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

    Yeah, like the bible! Wake up people – there is no god, no santa, no easter bunny, no imaginary sky god – just reality. Try it, it hurts, it's scary, but then you have to live your life day to day without worrying about heaven or hell.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  7. Bill

    The only pages of the Bible that aren't true are the first through the last pages.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  8. Coriolana

    This is not news to anyone who has studied the Bible as literature on a collegiate or post-graduate level.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  9. henry

    New testament is about Jews being the promised people and fighting for and winning over their country. There is no reports on non-jewish people. I guess its all BS.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  10. Erin

    If God can use His Holy Spirit to make a barren woman pregnant (Sarah), and cause a virgin to concieve (Mary), then He can empower an illiterate fisherman to speak, read, write, and understand, any language on the planet. The notion of the apostles being illiterate-even if true-does NOT 'prove' the books they allegedly wrote are forgeries. God works in mysterious ways, and uses the small, weak, seemingly unable, things/people to accomplish his will.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Paul

      Nice circular logic there. We know the bible is true because the bible tells of many amazing things!

      May 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  11. William Glick

    The old Testament is based on the Vedas from India

    May 18, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  12. No god

    I don’t want to know there is a god.

    It’s easier to convince myself to believe there is no god, and this article helps me. I find it more convenient to believe there is no god.

    A lunatic Mathematician friend of mine insists there is a god. He insists he found god through Mathematics, through the language of science, as a logical conclusion to some nonsense he found. He became a jesusnut. He goes around blabbering about finite minds lacking the capacity to grasp infinite concepts without exposure to his so called bible knowledge. Give me a break!

    Whatever. I am not a Mathematician. I don’t understand his nonsense about set theory or infinite sets, or having no beginning or no end. It just seems like nonsense.

    I’d rather try to convince myself to believe there is no god. It’s just easier, not so complicated.

    If there is no god, then my life and my actions are inconsequential. Our so called western way of life is nothing more than a bunch of ideas from the bible used as so called laws, and I don’t want to be a part of this in any way, much less be governed by a bunch of lunatic nonsense. Why can I not be god?

    As a thinker who struggles with this, I find that coming to an understanding that there could be a god requires deep, analytical and rigorous thinking, more than I am able or willing to deal with. My mind is not that open. In fact I have trouble reasoning through this. So called ‘faith’ requires an open mind and a willingness to understand certain premises which I find troublesome.

    I’d rather try to convince myself to believe there is no god. The alternative is incomprehensible and worrisome to me, and my mind is not that open.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • NOLYNN

      On Judgement Day god will deal with the likes of you people. Repent while you still have time.God will forgive you. AMEN!!!!!

      May 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Ty

      What are you? Like 12 years old? You need to work on your satire/irony. This is so obvious and contrived. Bleh.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Sally

      Actually, it's much easier to believe in God simply because we are told to. It takes more critical thinking skills to question it (especially under threat of eternal torture) than it does to roll with the status quo. Those who simply believe "because the Bible says we have to have faith" are the ones who lack independent thought.

      May 24, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  13. TI

    no f!cking duh. doesnt take a scholar to notice this is all malarky.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  14. Al

    Look, if you need a god ,pick one . Leave the rest of us alone. Sorry you got brainwashed as a child.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  15. Louis Loizides

    I thought it was well known that the names were attached later. There are tons of gospels and only a few made the bible when Constantine put it together. I highly doubt all of them were accurate literal accounts from the authors whose names were attached to them. It just doesn't make sense when the first couple hundred years of Christian beliefs were passed by word of mouth from household to household.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Jon Shore

      It should be common knowledge but many people still want to believe that the original disciples transcribed the words of Jesus as he said them. This is completely false but many Christians still want to believe it. The earliest gospel, Mark, was written at least 50 years after the death of Jesus.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  16. Maria Tober

    at least folks are beginning to admit that the Bible is a human book....not the word of God.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  17. joseph

    "Wow," said Cyril. "That's amazing." "So what explanation do you have for defending intelligent design, because based on what you've told me so far, I don't have to ask if you believe in it."
    Grandpa answered, "I don't see how anyone can doubt that there is an intelligent design throughout the universe. We praise the works of DaVinci, Rembrandt, Picasso, Romeare Bearden, Monet and other artists as genius and masterful works of art. Yet even at their best the works of these masters are pale two-dimensional imitations of the beauty found in nature. Did anyone craft a Mona Lisa or a Rodin by random chance? No, they were seen and conceived in the mind and brought forth into the light for the rest of the world to see and reproduce replicas."
    "Grandpa you make everything sound so logical. I bet you could use logic to prove God."
    "On the contrary Cyril, you cannot use the limited tools of human reasoning and/or logic to prove God. Just as God is beyond our limited conception of time, God is also beyond our limited reasoning powers. The atheist uses reason and logic to say that God cannot be proved or defined. Well you can define an ocean, but the words defining the ocean are not that ocean or its waves and tides. They do not define its depth nor its breadth. In fact, oceanographers will tell you that they only know a little about our oceans; they are still exploring the major oceans of the world, and they are still finding new things. Even if you jump in an ocean you do not know everything about it. This is the way of life in so many fields of study: mathematics, science, economics, physics, medicine, psychology, etc. People are still exploring and finding new things. Those who seek God are still exploring and finding new things about God."
    "But Grandpa, how do you explore God?"
    Grandpa answered, "In the same way that you explore love, beauty, art, music or a starlit sky - with your eyes, ears, mind and heart open to the infinite possibilities of inspiration, growth, exaltation, awe and wonder. And . . ."

    May 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Laura

      I would say that your Grandpa is wise and amazing.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Rogue Scr1be

      But all of this flowery language and wonderfull imagery rests on the quicksand that there is a such thing as a supreme being that actually exists and cares about what is going on. Evidence on our little rock tends to suggest that we are on oour own.
      We are basically infants in the Smithsonian. The artist seems long gone or utterly disinterested.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • chris

      Did Grandpa die and come back to tell you he was correct?

      May 18, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  18. Jim Bob

    What part of "agrammatoi" does Witherington not understand? The point is, is the Bible an effective instruction manual for sainthood, or not?

    May 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  19. Garry Grube

    Since it hasn't been mentioned, here is a link to an audio lecture by Dr. Ehrman at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco this last Spring.


    Bart Ehrman: Ph.D., Author, Forged and Jesus, Interrupted (3/21/11)
    Friday, April 01, 2011 1:40 PM

    Bart Ehrman
    Ph.D., Author, Forged and Jesus, Interrupted
    Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus, Grace Cathedral – Moderator

    Ehrman takes you on a journey to the ancient world and the forgery battles that have raged through the centuries. Ehrman contends that the New Testament is riddled with contradictions about the life of Jesus and his significance. He has provided compelling evidence that early Christianity was a collection of competing schools of thought and that the central doctrines we know today were the inventions of theologians living several centuries after Christ. Ehrman is a distinguished and prominent religious scholar, and has also appeared on NPR, "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

    Please enjoy. Everything takes a grain of salt to get down.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Rogue Scr1be

      I read Jesus , Interuppted and it basically made too much sense to disregard. This all smelled funny when I was in Catholic school at 10 years old.

      Seriously? I really hope there is no God. This does not seem like the work of a supreme being I want to meet. Imagine if your friend raised dogs. Whenever the dog messes up the friend is inconsistient is disclipline. Sometimes he beats the dog immedieatly, other times he ignores it. Other times he wakes the dog up with a bucket of cold water only to feed it a gourmet meal. He makes the dog beg him for things; regardless of how much the dog pleads he goes along with his original plan. Whether the plan helps or hurts the dog he sticks to it...then blames the dog for being harmed by his plans.

      On second thought...maybe there is a god. That certainly would explain the human race...

      May 18, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  20. joseph

    Forgery is too harsh a term.

    You have a number of traditions going on in ancient times that have been rendered obsolete by the printing press and the internet. First, history and literature were passed down orally for years before it was recorded. A secular example of this is the Illiad and the Odyssey. The story is credited to Homer even though he was a blind illiterate poet. Yet, he apparently told one of the best versions of it that people remembered or agreed upon. Second, you have the tradition in both the East and the West of famous people having scribes or secretaries write down their sayings. For example Jeremiah's books of the Bible being transcribed by Baruch or Socrates' saying made known by Plato. Some scholars believe the Tao te Ching is the product of a collaboration of more than one author sort of like Psalms. Hence, multiple writers agreed upon a school of thought and credited their leader or teacher with the writing as a way of paying respect. This would never happen in today's ego driven world. Third, in some of the ancient learning systems it was either considered a matter of secrecy or bad form to claim authorship of knowledge and consequently you have situations like Pythagoras studying mathematics in Egypt for 20 years and then making known several proofs and theorems on geometry. This is not to diminish the accomplishments of either the Egyptians or the scholarship of Pythagoras. Thankfully the knowledge was made known to the rest of the world.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Pam Mills

      John Milton dictated all 12 books of Paradise Lost to his daughters. If you read his sonnet "On His Blindness," he explains that one must "wait" for divine intervention to accomplish the task one is called to complete. I think Mark was Peter's scribe, but John's Gospel is too personal not to have been written by him. Jesus revealed Himself to these two men in a special way. If Christ could walk on the water, he could certainly make it possible for these men to write. Matthew was a tax collector, so surely he could write.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Shandooga

      Thank you for that sobering, rational and balanced perspective. If not for the comments, many web "news" reports would not be worth reading at all...

      May 18, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
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