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. Philosopher1111

    This man is confusing forgery and pseudopigrapha, there is a difference, particularly in the context of ancient literature. I suppose forgery is a more controversial term however, and sells more books. Take this article with a grain of salt please.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Philosopher1111 wrote: "Take this article with a grain of salt please."

      Sure... please take the bible with several grains of salt...

      May 13, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  2. I AM

    we are here...we are you bothers and sisters from the starts. We encourage you to think with your hearts and find all knowledge about the creator of all that is, and who you are, within. You bible and other great books have been corrupted from the very beginning, and were meant to be tools of control and mental slavery. Many of the teachings that were brought forth by many christed beings, but who words were polluted and revised with dark intentions and fear. The being we term Supreme Creator, is all LOVE. Love creates. Therefore all of creation is conceived in/of LOVE. It is no other way. Do not trust completely in holy books, gurus, priests, religions, for they are tools are deception, ignorance, and darkness. Have u ever wondered why nothing in your "holy books" can ever be proven beyond doubt, yet it is held up as factual and of god? What about those peoples who have never heard of these books, and yet have a spiritual base?

    May 13, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  3. Joe

    So If I'm writing my own biography and send a draft to a publisher who edit the heck out of my version (but maintains the overall context), who wrote the book? was it forged? Did the publisher claim to be me? Did Paul actually wrote word by word or did someone dictate his word and paraphrase it? don't know for sure in my opinion. calling it a forgery though without having that information is a little too much.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  4. grrrr

    Ehrman is a forger

    May 13, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  5. Jason Storey

    Why do Muslims ignore the fact that their religious leader spread his "Gospel" through conquest and blood at the end of a sword?

    May 13, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  6. Karon

    First of all Paul clearly states he had scribes do the writing and everyone who knows anything about Paul knows he had terrible eyesight and they didn't have lazar surgury or even glasses back then and Paul clearly has the scibe write stuff and say he has a scibe doing the writing so its no secret about it because it states it in the scriptures. Now regarding the alledged contradiction... If you take it out of context you can FORCE a contradiction when there is not one! Check it for yourself how this guy is taking it out of context about women speaking in churches!!! 1st the topic is foreign languages(different tongues) 2nd– Are women speaking(those languages permitted)in churches AND put in context Paul makes them think about that(2 scriptures below)... WHAT???? Came the Word of God to you? And came the Word of God to you only???(His way of making them think about saying such a ridiculas thing-put in context please!)1Cor 14-especially put in context verses 34-36! Paul put it THAT way to make them think about that concept reasonably because of course the Word of God(Jesus-John 1:1) come to women just like he comes to men!

    May 13, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • nice

      thank you

      May 13, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • airwx

      We must consider the layout of the worship service at that time....women were not seated with their husbands, but were separated. To ask a question they would have to shout across the room... thus the silence concept. Yet there is no prohibition on women being educated, learned or otherwise.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Brandan

      Actually, historical research indicates Paul was very fond of Women, and that Women were often leaders in the early "church structure" of the roman empire. Look at the letter of Philemon. That was a small house church that a women was the leader. The letter that is attributed to Paul telling women to be quiet in the church was not one of the Authentic Letters of Paul (ones that can be a hundred percent certian that he composed.)

      May 13, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  7. Andrew

    More than half methinks.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  8. Joe

    how many articles about the authenticity of the Bible did CNN put out? Well, you gotta sell things that people will be interested in buying I guess. It's all about ratings right?

    May 13, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  9. Peter Hay

    I have been studying the Bible for 42 years and have a doctorate from a major N. American university in Biblical criticism that requires competence in the original languages, textual criticism and a full range of relevant disciplines. As a Christian it is with some reluctance I have to declare that Mr. Ehrman is a complete idiot.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Not4Me

      That's not very christian of you.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      God bless you! You are awesome.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • LibertyBell

      right on, brother in Christ. Time will tell who is in the book of life.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      @Not4me....Peter Hay does not have a plank in his eye, so it is okay for him to judge the fruit of someone else. He is saying that Ehrman is not very intelligent on what he is talking about and that his fruit is bad.

      If you don't understand the plank analogy, look it up in scripture. I believe it is in Matthew. Talks about taking the plank out of your own eye before you take the spliter out of someone elses.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Andrew

      What do you say of the Doc-mentary Hypothesis? Is your problem specifically with what Ehrman himself is claiming, or do you reject any and all claims regarding the bible not being authentic?

      May 13, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  10. Bo

    Witherington calls Ehrman’s book “Gullible Travels, for it reveals over and over again the willingness of people to believe even outrageous things.” Seriously that is too funny – we are talking about a person who believe the written history of a guy being killed 2000 years ago.. what part of that is not outrageous.. (not even looking at judging others by such sketchy assumptions.)

    May 13, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • ififififififififif

      so funny you are the 502nd person to point this out LOL

      May 13, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  11. chris

    this whole new book is based of a lame thought and a misread IMO......If you read the Bible the moment the Holy Spirt comes upon Paul and the others , the Spirt transformed them from simple fishermen and so forth into literate super "fishers of men" ... to not understand this is to miss the whole story ...Duh...

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

      right on, brother in Christ.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • janelane

      of course. any rational argument can always be deflected using magic as an explanation. there can be no discussion with you people when you don't live in reality and explain away your lives with fairy tales.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  12. ififififififififif

    hi, my name is if

    May 13, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  13. Not4Me

    I firmly believe religion is a crutch for the downtrodden and a tool of control for the powerful. I respect faithful and religious persons of all types, but also believe if there was an all knowing being or omnipotent or god , he/she would frown upon even 1 person being injured/killed in his/her name, let alone the atrocities we "humans" have done to one another on this tiny rock for who knows how many centuries in the name of said god. I used to believe in the power of humanity over the power of a god, now I have no idea what to believe in other than this next beer. Do we really need to blindly follow some holy scripture to understand how we should treat one another? I thought compassion and kindness were inherently passed down and instilled in us by our parents and fellow humans, not something we need to go to a building with a holy symbol mounted on it once a week to learn.

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

      @ Not4Me Humans are the reason we hurt each other. God does frown when we murder each other. We were made frail for a reason; to learn how to be strong in spite of our weakness. There is a need for a common set of morals. To think that people who deliberately hurt each other can agree on what is moral is illogical. But whatever you do, don't give up beer....it was a gift to us a long time ago.....

      May 13, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  14. Jason Storey

    It does not matter if the Bible or any other Holy book is true or not. The Universe is so vast, and so perfectly designed down to the smallest atom that something had to have a hand in its design. I highly doubt there is a guy with a white beard up in the clouds, but there IS something out there beyond any human's capability to explain.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • janelane

      actually, the universe is incredibly imperfect. human are so frail that we die from bugs that can only be seen by microscope. if someone did design all this, then they're frikkin stupid.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  15. Steve

    Witherington is an idiot, you don't need to be literate to sign a contract or do business....look at Pro Sports and you see that's not the case, and it's 2,000 years later. I'd say he's grasping at straws here.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  16. Brandan

    Why is this News? Scholars have been researching this for the last 50 years or more.

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

      Really? Would you mind providing some citations? I've heard of things like this for the Old Testament, the "Doc-mentary Hypothesis", but was unaware there was much literature on the new testament on the matter. (I wouldn't be surprised, but I'd like some sources)

      May 13, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Brandan

      Sure, there are alot of sources you can check out. A good one for the formation of the Synoptic Gospels would be Steve Patterson, former professor of Eden Seminary (school I recently graduated from) and his book God of Jesus: The histoical Jesus and the search for Meaning. It talks about the formation of the Gospels and the Q source and special Luken Source. The New Interpretive Bible and also the Interpretation series is a collection of commentaries that talk about historical criticisms of the text, inlcuding the authentic letters of Paul. Anything from John Dominic Crossan, especially his Introduction to the New Testament is good. I have some others at home that speak speak specifically to the Authentic Letters of Paul versus others who wrote under his name. Shoot me an email sometime if you need others.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  17. joe smith

    Witherington calls Ehrman’s book “Gullible Travels, for it reveals over and over again the willingness of people to believe even outrageous things.” Outrageous things like a man, returning from the dead, and his followers symbolically eating his flesh and drinking his blood? Those the types of outrageous things only the gullible will fall for?

    May 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  18. Moonaman1986

    Read the holy Quran and you'll know exactly what God wants from you...

    May 13, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  19. Walid

    Woe be to those who DARE say or print that the Quran is NOT the literal living and breathing Word of Allah and Mohammed, His Holy Prophet. The Quran IS the literal AND final word of Allah.

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

      Just like Voldemort's last words are immortalised in Harry Potter. Doesn't make them any more real.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • stephen douglas

      Riiiight...The revalations that were given to a man who rode on a flying horse to the place where Allah told him to build a mosque. A murdering cut throat who was originally driven from his home town because of his radical views. This man who put together an army that went back and converted, i.e., terrorized, all the people to into becoming Muslims.

      The actual words of Allah were given to this thug?

      What a load of claptrap.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Tim Pearce

      At the current time the Quran is the source of all evil. – well to be precise, the Quran isn't, the believers are

      Allah smells and has bad teeth

      May 13, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  20. GiveMeABreak

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

    Like the Bible?

    May 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • joe smith

      Great Minds.... 😉

      May 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • ififififififififif

      i think this is repeat comment number 500

      May 13, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • GiveMeABreak

      I assume you're right, and I'm sorry for not back reading 8 pages of comments.

      Did you actually count each time it was used? At least it's kinda cool I'm #500, I should get a cookie.

      Anyhow, if it's a popular comment, it's safe to proclaim "Critique Fail!"

      May 13, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Joe

      have you read the Bible cover to cover?

      May 13, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • GiveMeABreak

      "have you read the Bible cover to cover?"

      Why do Christians always use this as a retort? Does reading fiction somehow turn it into non-fiction?

      I'll fight fire with fire anyhow though...

      Have you read cover to cover the holy book of any religion other than the Bible?

      May 13, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Andrew

      Joe, would reading Harry Potter make it any more real? "If you've never read it, you can't say it's not true"? Asserting fact, saying what is true or not, requires first and foremost independent verifiable evidence. No book can serve as the evidence for its own veracity. They can, as in the case of textbooks, refer to evidence collected, as any good non-fiction book should do; so if you have a physics textbook talking about relativity it should reference the Michelson-Morley experiment, but the evidence isn't the textbook, it is the experiment. You can say "the bible refers to evidence" if you really want, but you then need to provide said evidence. That seems to be the harder step for most religious individuals.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Tim Pearce

      Perfect response!

      To criticise gullible believers does seem a self defeating argument.

      It's interesting that the arguments in return such as "fishermen need contracts" are equally arbitrary. Many non litterate societies still manage to trade.

      The one thing I would say – and I don't mean this as criticism but praise – Ehrman does rather state the obvious.

      Anybody who claims the whole bible is fact is a fool. Some parts of it may be close to historical accuracy, but these are in the minority.

      For the record I'm a strongly atheistic biblical scholar.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39
About this blog

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.