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. AL in West Palm Beach

    Tell me something new.
    Most of the books from the bible were chosen by men drinking wine, voted upon like they do in congress today. The bible is NOT a fax from God.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  2. Atheist4289324


    Outrageous things, like a Magic Beard Man who lives in the sky?

    May 13, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Ben Peeler

      You Heretic!! Its the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  3. What

    The Bible is still the Bible regardless of who created the God within its pages.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  4. Tim

    The one argument I give to believers is that God asked Abraham to kill his first born son. (Some Christians at this point dont even know who Abraham was or have to think about it) But in the Ten Commandments it explictly says Thou Shalt Not Kill. So does God play word games? Does God play games? The only answer is, if you're thinking clearly that is, there is NO GOD!! I also like George Carlin's bit "On Religion." That should be required reading in first grade. ha ha.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Vick

      Interesting point. If you look a bit deeper though, you will find different words; "Kill" is different than "Murder." Commandments translates much better as "Thou shalt not murder."
      If you understand the Bibles primary point you will understand the necessity of a Sacrifice. A big one. Abraham's encounter with his son and God was a picture or type foreshadowing Christ's Sacrifice.
      Not sure what you mean by "Word Games." If I understand the Bible correctly I find that God doesn't play "word games." But man does and I Satan does.
      Perhaps you don't believe in Satan. Just one final word, the Bible calls him the master deceiver?!

      May 13, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Know What

      1. As the story goes, Abraham lived way long before Moses got the 10 Commandments.

      2. Apparently, "God" is not required to abide by those Commandments - Kill, Murder, Death... at will.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • i wonder

      "Satan. Just one final word, the Bible calls him the master deceiver."

      Yep... MASTER deceiver - devious enough and good enough at it to have been behind all of these supernatural Bible stories.... about 5,000 years and counting of nastiness and fighting caused by that book.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • burns

      Thanks for re-wording things for God. Doesn't that make you a false prophet?

      May 14, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  5. Jason

    I love his attempt to use intertexuality to establish forgery. Peter couldn't have written a book, he was illiterate. How do I know? Well Luke told me! It is just plain delicious.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  6. Nick

    did anyone else laugh out loud reading this line:

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

    the "irony" is palpable

    May 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • CheckUrFacts

      I almost laughed, then I remembered these people get to vote. Very scary.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  7. Craig in Ireland

    It amazes me how all the media (CNN, National Geographic, etc), LOVES to insert an article about doubting the Bible and attacking the Bible, KNOWING that it will garner readers and responses and MORE money from their advertisers! Shame on the advertisxers who take advantage of these blatent lies that have been disproven over and over for decades now! Erhman is a liar and should be held accountable for promoting his tripe and realise that all of his arguments have been made dozens of times before and disproven so it is HE who is the forger!!! All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, proven by prophecy, and is still life changing!

    May 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • CheckUrFacts

      Relax! Maybe you should read that life changing book again.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • juskishi

      so it is HE who is the forger!!! All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, proven by prophecy, and is still life changing!

      – so you know for sure that it was written by God's inspiration with no proof other than the bible saying so yet question anyone who thinks it's not real? that makes a ton of sense. proven by prophecy? whose prophecy? oh, the same people telling you it's true.

      "I'm God."
      "Says who?"
      "Says me and since I'm God it must be true."
      "Oh, ok. How much should I donate to your church?"

      May 13, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Tempo

      That could make him a liar...or a blasphemer...but not a forger. Truth/lies have nothing to do with forgery. Forgery is about providence of an item.

      An object or work, like the Bible, cannot self authenticate itself nor would a rational person accept the sole authentication of a product by the person (or church) selling it.

      I agree that the Bible can still be life changing regardless of whom it was written by. That's possibly the only accurate thing you've said.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Last child 61

      Most of your post is drivel...but where is the writing of the bible – in parts first, than its compilation a few centuries later part of any prophecy...?? Care to point out that passage where the Bible is prophecized...?

      May 13, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  8. HenryMiller

    It's been known for a long time that much of the Christian bible is, to put it in the kindest possible terms, Fourth Century myth and propaganda.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  9. Ben Peeler

    You can debate the Bible, the Torah, the Qu'ran, and the Bagavad Gita all you want. I will still worship the one true supernatural being. The Flying Spaghetti Monster. All Hail the Holy Pasta!

    May 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Tim

      FOOD FIGHT !!

      May 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  10. Sakeena

    Thankn God youll never see an article like this regarding the Quran

    May 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Jason

      Well, there is really no reason to doubt that Muhammad actually wrote it.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • burns

      The qu'ran just gets flamed! hahaha. The torrah no one will complain about for some reason.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  11. Jon

    I'm sure Mr. Ehrman's book went through some sort of editing process..and in so doing words were changed, maybe even whole sentances or paragraphs. So I guess his book should also be considered a forgery. It says on the cover it was all written by him, no?

    May 13, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Tempo

      Don't be obtuse. There's a clear and substantial difference between a work being edited by others and not having been written by the supposed author at all.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • mark

      the article isnt about variation and mutation of an original text by the ascribed author its about text not written by them at all. and both sides agree that in there were christian forgeries floating around in the first 4 centuries. i guess the only debatable part then is if those got into the bible when the roman emperor commissioned it.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • CheckUrFacts

      The Bible says it's a sin to lie, correct? I guess that doesn't include lying to oneself thought...

      May 13, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  12. MS

    Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day;
    Give him a religion, and he'll starve to death while praying for a fish

    May 13, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • monkeybutt18


      May 13, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • juskishi

      LOL....that's great!

      May 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Ben Peeler

      YES, YES, YRS

      May 13, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Vick

      Interesting saying.
      If your referencing the Bible as religion (It's diametrically different from all other religions (True Christianity), it says somewhere, "If a man will not work, let him not eat." (It does make specific references and provisions for those who cannot work). It (The Bible) also has a bit to say about work, productivity, laziness, money, etc.
      Making "fun" or religion is the favorite pastime of lots of folks these days. Go ahead, Mock, Make "fun of" all you want; have a blast....Keep in mind that there will be a "FINAL TEST" and you will have lots of time to do some serious thinkin'-

      May 13, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  13. TiredODaCrap

    Hilarious...He's a "scholar". A man who makes a living off of reading what others have witten – not by doing or experiencing for himself. I assume that he will now have to agree that the entirety of his knowledge is "forged". If his accusations are true, is he hypocritial enough to believe that the Bible would be the only written works to have had this happened.
    Just because he chooses not believe, does not make his "findings" centuries later correct.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Last child 61

      Uh, Ehrman speaks Greek and Latin and some Hebrew, as well as a few other languages...

      And had yout premise been correct, what difference would he be than most Xtians...who pick up a foreign language dictionary and claim to know the Greek, Latin, etc and than claim to be authorities.? He'd be the same..!

      May 13, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  14. Ryan

    people that claim to know everything about the bible or know more than "the masse" of people are all trash trying to make a name for themselves in the world. show me hard evidence the aforementioned apostles were illiterate, as in, manuscript or a stone tablet saying "john was illiterate." not "we as scholars assume that they were or discern from a few sources that they were". get real. if you're going to attack a religion whether it's Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc.etc. don't base your argument by proclaiming you have "years of study" but show the hard evidence.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Ned Racine

      Yeah – we all know what sticklers you religious types are for insisting on hard evidence.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • CheckUrFacts

      You are sooo right! This moron uses the Bible as evidence and we all know that's not "hard" evidence. (Maybe you should read the article...)

      “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.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Patrick

      So, let me get this straight, you are prepared to believe the bible for no other reason than it is the bible. No hard facts to support it, little in history to back it up, yet you still demand "hard evidence" from people who make statements against it. Do you not see a glaring contradiction here?

      May 13, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  15. chris

    what about the Holy Spirt?? remember the gifts speaking and so on ?? maybe they also recieved the gift of being literate

    May 13, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • ScottK

      That upper room must have been more like the ship deck in the Matrix where everyone is laid out getting uploads on how to read and write.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • airwx

      @ Chris...The only disciples who may have been poorly educated ( not illiterate) were the fishermen. I doubt even they were as dumb as most people would think...Let's look at the archeaology... Small fishing villages along a large lake....centrally located city within walking distance of the lake that had a food processing facility located along a busy road....sounds like a commercial for a current day company (think logistics) dummies don't build commerce.....

      May 13, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Last child 61

      The "authors mention getting the tongues-thingy, but fail to mention they also were gifted with literacy...?

      come on try harder...but think things thru first...

      May 13, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  16. borisjimbo

    As I've said time and again, there is no such thing as "the" Bible, there are only different versions.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  17. Curiousity

    I'm just wondering why the argument in the comments even exists. If you believe it's fake you still believe it is and nothing will change that. If you believe it's real you still believe that and your opinion won't change either. Amiright?!

    May 13, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • yup


      May 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • ScottK

      Well, on the first count you are correct, on the second, not always. Many people, much like the author, were once hard line fundementalists but have become agnostic when they have done more research. You are born an atheist, schooled into a theist, grow up and do your own research and become agnostic which allows you to see organized religion in HD so you can see all it's pimples, flaws and smeared coverup, get disenchanted with religion altogether and eventually give up on fairy tales and admit that as nice as it is to dream about and hope for, the only way to really live is to work hard, love your family and being good to others, all the rest is just fluff.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • burns

      As long as someone forces their own head into teh sand on any topic their opinion cannot change. Btw, their is nothing beyond our capacity to explain, it just takes time. God never taught us about oil, nuclear power, or space travel. Also if a higher power WERE to exist, it's probably messing with us and hates us. Who knows, god might just be waiting for our population to get big enough for his/her/its terrible designs. Mass Centipeding on judgement day?

      May 13, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  18. SG

    I love this quote:

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

    Soooo.... believing in the bible in the FIRST PLACE is NOT "willingness of people to believe even outrageous things."?

    So sad

    May 13, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  19. OLLiE

    It was me. I wrote it.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Mustang95

      Are you getting royalties? If not, I would change attorneys!

      May 13, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  20. AvgJoe

    OK, anobody mentioned free-will. I can think of several aspects of belief that organized religions impose on their congregations that impeded free-will. NOne of which is truly described in the religious texts but are merely interpretations of said texts.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
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