The James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina Chapel Hill, Dr. Bart Ehrman, is the most recognized

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The James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina Chapel Hill, Dr. Bart Ehrman, is the most recognized evangelical-turned-agnostic in the world today. He has written more than twenty books, though in recent years he has focused on popular writing more than academic. This is a strategy that will eventually backfire. His most recent iteration is yet another provocative trade-book hostile to the Christian faith. His most popular previous books have attacked the reliability of the New Testament (NT) manuscripts as witnesses to the original text (Misquoting Jesus), the historicity of the NT (Jesus, Interrupted), and the problem of theodicy—how there can be a good God with so much evil in the world (God’s Problem). Forged takes head-on the authorship of many of the books of the NT, arguing that the ancient church got it wrong on most of them.

The book has eight chapters that, at first glance, look like discrete units. This gives the impression, reinforced by the subtitle to the work, that Forged marshals hundreds of pages of evidence that the writings of the NT are forgeries. But there is extensive overlap between chapters 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8. Furthermore, most of Forged is about books other than the NT: forgeries in early Christianity written both by the orthodox and heretics, other Greco-Roman forgeries, even modern forgeries. To the undiscerning reader, Ehrman’s relentless revelations about ancient forgeries will seem like rock-solid arguments—by their sheer volume—for NT forgeries. But surprisingly there is comparatively little on the NT itself.

Ehrman’s argument that there are forgeries in the NT is threefold: First, the ancient church, as with the rest of the Greco-Roman world, always rejected pseudepigraphical writings (or forgeries) whenever they were detected as such. Second, sophisticated computer-generated statistical tools have demonstrated that Paul, for example, did not write the Pastoral letters—1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. (Actually, Ehrman provides other arguments, but this one caught my eye since his claims regarding statistics were more than I had heard before.) Third, there is no evidence that the secretaries (technically known as amanuenses) for any ancient letters—including the NT letters—had any role other than to copy down what the author dictated. They did not do any significant editing, nor were they coauthors or composers of these documents.

This threefold argument—if true—would have devastating ramifications for the Christian faith. If Ehrman is right, we would need to toss out several books of the NT: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, James, Jude, and 1–2 Peter. That’s ten letters assigned to the flames, since, according to Ehrman, the real authors of these letters deceived their readers into thinking that they were someone else. A brief examination of Ehrman’s arguments and evidence is therefore in order.

Ancient Forgeries

What Ehrman has to say about forgeries in the ancient world and in early ‘Christian’ circles—he gratuitously includes Gnostics and other heretics under the rubric Christian—from the second century on is quite accurate and very informative. This is an excellent primer on why ancient forgeries were produced, what forgeries were produced, what their contents are, and how we know that they are forgeries (though this last item has a rather lean discussion overall). Most of the book is actually about such non-NT forgeries. He very carefully defines a variety of categories—forgeries, fabrications, falsifications, pseudonymy, pseudepigraphy, false attributions, etc. Ehrman has been working for years on a scholarly tome on forgeries; Forged is a kind of first fruits of this scholarship and here he demonstrates a well-thought out organization of the data and what appears to be an enviable command of much of the literature.

Along these lines, Ehrman makes important distinctions between the anonymous books of the NT—the Gospels, Acts, Hebrews, and 1–3 John—and those that claim some authorship. This distinction is important: Although the traditionally assigned authorship of the Gospels, for example, has ancient and unequivocal testimony, it is not part of the original text. All the Gospels were originally anonymous. Thus, for those who hold the Bible in high regard, there is still room for debate over the authorship of these books.

What the subtitle of the book claims, however, is related only to the Bible: forgeries abound in the Bible (specifically the NT). This, of course, is where the interest and the battle-lines are drawn. But surprisingly, Ehrman sides with evangelicals against most liberal theologians for one very important point—indeed, for his main thesis—that the ancient Greco-Roman world, including the ancient church, decidedly rejected any documents written in someone else’s name. This view has been held by evangelicals for a long, long time. Moderate and liberal scholars have rejected it, finding at best paltry evidence to support their claims that the ancient church embraced benign forgeries. In his important work, The Making of the New Testament Documents (Leiden: Brill, 1999), evangelical NT scholar E. Earle Ellis discusses the possibility of benign forgeries, or “‘Innocent’ Apostolic Pseudepigrapha.” He concludes (324):

“In the patristic church apostolic pseudepigrapha, when discovered, were excluded from the church’s canon. This applied whether or not the pseudepigrapha were orthodox or heretical.

The hypothesis of innocent apostolic pseudepigrapha appears to be designed to defend the canonicity of certain New Testament writings that are, at the same time, regarded as pseudepigrapha. It is a modern invention that has no evident basis in the attitude or writings of the apostolic and patristic church…”

In this regard, Ehrman has aligned himself with the historic evangelical position, though he never acknowledges this. Significantly, his argument against liberal scholarship on this point is that the evidence doesn’t support their view, even though their position would be what Ehrman often refers to as the consensus of critical scholars. That phrase is loaded: it essentially means the consensus of those people who normally agree with Ehrman on various issues regarding Scripture (hence critical). Rather conveniently, it ignores the great body of scholars who would disagree with him and with other liberal scholars—namely, evangelical as well as many Catholic and Orthodox scholars. Indeed, if one were to poll all NT professors, there would be no consensus over the authorship of the Pastoral letters, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, or Colossians (though for all of these letters, when all three confessions of the Christian faith are considered, most biblical scholars would probably see them as authentic; see Ben Witherington’s discussion on this here and here). And for the non-Pauline letters, the only NT book that would achieve anything close to a consensus against apostolic authorship would be 2 Peter. Even here, there are many notable exceptions. By reducing the pool to what Ehrman euphemistically calls critical scholars (as though evangelicals cannot be critical), he is able to shape public opinion by systematic misinformation.

Interestingly, where appeal to the consensus suits his purposes, sometimes that is his only argument. But when it goes against his views, he brings in evidence—evidence that evangelicals have long embraced.

Ehrman’s fundamental thesis, then, is refreshing in that it devours a sacred cow of liberal scholarship and puts the issue of the authorship of NT letters on an evidential basis. Finally, here is one liberal scholar with whom evangelicals can find common ground: If these books are not written by their purported authors, then they are intentionally deceptive and the early church was wrong to accept them. This focuses the debate on the data rather than sidestepping it with banal, worn-out diatribe about the canonicity of pseudepigrapha. As T. L. Wilder has argued (Pseudonymity, the New Testament, and Deception: An Inquiry into Intention and Reception [Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004] 254-55), if it is true that some NT books are forgeries, such books must be expunged from sacred Scripture.

Ehrman puts himself at risk at this very point; he has to back up his assertions with other arguments that certain NT writings are forgeries. Major gaps in his presentation, however, are seen: Nowhere, for example, does he discuss the patristic testimony about the authorship of the thirteen letters by Paul. Routinely, biblical scholars wrestle with internal evidence (indications within the disputed NT letters) and external evidence (patristic testimony). And it is here that the evidence is overwhelmingly in support of apostolic authorship: the unequivocal testimony of these ancient authors—some reaching back to the late first century—is that Paul wrote all thirteen NT letters that bear his name, Peter wrote 1 Peter, and John wrote 1 John. As for the rest, there is some doubt raised about authorship from time to time—particularly over 2 Peter—a fact that shows that the ancients were not duped dolts but engaged in reason and research on the matter.

The massive amount of forgeries written in the apostles’ names that Ehrman produces demonstrates that the early church looked at the matter cautiously, since none of these forgeries—or, in Ehrman’s view, only a few of these forgeries—made it into the canon. Ehrman never mentions the fact that the ancient church sifted the documents, even though the evidence is clear. Further, he never mentions that the overwhelming majority of orthodox writings throughout church history were not forgeries, while the same cannot be said for heretical writings. Nor does he mention that it is the orthodox who unmasked the forgeries of both the orthodox and heretics; as far as I am aware there is zero evidence of any heretical group admitting forgery for any of their own writings—in spite of the fact that heretical works allegedly by Thomas, Mary, Philip, Peter, and many other of Jesus’ disciples have been found.

Part 2: Statistics on Writing Styles

So, how does Ehrman attempt to prove forgery in the NT? He uses the traditional arguments that have been debated for centuries: differences in style, conceptual/theological differences, and historical discrepancies from known facts. Arguments on both sides have been made, and continue to be made, in the scholarly literature. There is a ready answer to arguments that the authors of the NT are not those claimed; see, for example, the NT introductions by Carson and Moo; Guthrie; and Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles.

Ehrman however ratchets up the discussion with statistical analysis. After discussing only a part of the data (word usage) that makes up an author’s style, Ehrman concludes: “In almost every study done [in the last ninety years], it is clear that the word usage of the Pastorals is different from that in Paul’s other letters” (98). The documentation at this point cites but one author, Armin Baum, who argues, contra Ehrman, that Paul wrote the Pastorals! Further, Ehrman fails to mention the most recent sophisticated computer-assisted researches by Anthony Kenny, A Stylometric Study of the New Testament (NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), and K. J. Neumann, The Authenticity of the Pauline Epistles in the Light of Stylostatistical Analysis (Atlanta: Scholars, 1990). Kenny’s research concludes that, according to computer analysis, only 1 and 2 Timothy of the Pastorals are Pauline, while Titus is not. Yet no scholar, as far as I know, makes this claim on other grounds: the Pastorals are virtually always seen as a unit, written by the same author, whether Paul or someone else (though sometimes 2 Timothy, not Titus, is viewed as written by a different author than 1 Timothy and Titus). And Neumann, in spite of expecting quite different results, notes somberly that “The hopes did not materialize that the greater labor connected with several syntactic-category indices might produce some very significant criteria. … there is more variability within authors than anticipated” (205). In one test, 2 Thessalonians and 1 Peter both lined up with Paul’s writing style perfectly; in another, Revelation, chapters 2 and 3 were considered Pauline! No wonder Neumann concludes, “Christian authors, especially Paul, are not distinguished by the indices chosen” (213). Surely, these are not the modern sophisticated statistical studies that Ehrman is thinking of, but neither does he mention any in support of his views.

A standard evangelical approach to dealing with the stylistic differences of, say, Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals from the rest of Paul’s letters, is to argue that the penman or secretary of these letters may have had a larger role than merely copying down via dictation what Paul said. Ehrman, however, argues (135):

Did the secretaries contribute to the contents of [Paul’s] letters? … Despite what scholars often claim, all of the evidence we have suggests that the answer is no. The same evidence applies to the authors of 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and in fact to all the other early Christian writers.

Ehrman interacts in this section with but one author who makes the claim of heavy secretarial involvement, E. Randolph Richards, whose doctoral dissertation was published in 1991 as The Secretary in the Letters of Paul (Tübingen: Mohr). In spite of denying that Richards has produced any evidence along these lines, his discussion of secretary as editor, coauthor, and even composer is collectively replete with primary documentation (43–56). Richards’ evidence for the secretary as coauthor is the weakest. Yet in his section on the secretary as composer—a role which is significantly greater than coauthor—Richards offers irrefutable evidence. He notes that, when Cicero was imprisoned, he asked his friend Atticus to compose letters on his behalf (noted on p. 50 in Richards’ monograph):

I should like you to write in my name to Basilius and to anyone else you like, even to Servilius, and say whatever you think fit. (Cicero, Atticus 11.5)

If they look for [my missing] signature or handwriting, say that I have avoided them because of the guards. (Cicero, Atticus, 11.2.4)

Now if Cicero could authorize a trusted secretary to compose letters in his own name—letters that he himself never even saw—then surely the lesser deed of editing or coauthoring must also have occurred. Ehrman camps on the latter without acknowledging the former.


And it is significant that in 2 Thessalonians 3.17 Paul says, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, which is how I write in every letter.” We can infer such a note by Paul in Romans (see 16.22), Galatians (6.11), and elsewhere. In other words, Paul apparently never authorized a secretary to compose a letter in his name that he did not see, but he did employ secretaries as editors and virtual coauthors. That he would write something at the end of all his letters would be proof that the letter was genuine, and it would indicate that Paul had authorized its contents. It should also not go unnoticed (though Ehrman never mentions this) that the only letters disputed on linguistic bases in the Pauline corpus are those that were written toward the end of his life (Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals; 2 Thessalonians is disputed on other grounds)—after Paul had spent years with some companions who could be trusted to flesh out his thoughts on paper.



Ehrman offers many other arguments that cannot be addressed in a short review. I must conclude with a final observation. The fact that Bart Ehrman has put forth a trade-book rather than a scholarly monograph on ancient pseudepigrapha allows him the luxury of not having to deal with counter-evidence or peer review. Nowhere does he cite E. Earle Ellis, D. A. Carson, Leon Morris, Douglas Moo, Donald Guthrie (except for one note on an article, ignoring his massive work on NT introduction), Andreas Köstenberger, L. S. Kellum, Charles Quarles, Richard Longenecker, Anthony Kenny, Martin Hengel, Alan Millard, K. J. Neumann, David Dungan, T. L. Wilder, Harold W. Hoehner, or countless other scholars whose research disputes his conclusions. To the unsuspecting layperson, Forged looks like a death knell to the NT canon. To those who labor in the discipline of NT studies, it looks like yet another sensationalist book from Ehrman that is heavy on rhetoric and light on facts.

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