I can’t believe it was just over 10 years ago that I discovered Bart Ehrman. Probably like most non-academics, my first introduction into Ehrman’s stuff was his 2003 book Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. I must have enjoyed it because after that, I went on to read just about everything by Ehrman I could get my hands on including Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer and Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Over the last 10 years I’ve seen his style evolve. Perhaps starting with God’s Problem, Ehrman’s approach has become more methodical, like he’s trying to make a powerful and convincing argument to a reasonably intelligent, yet nevertheless nonacademic – and at the same time skeptical – audience. Therefore, I’ve admired his ability to take sophisticated and scholarly material and make it accessible and interesting to the rest of us.
Back in 2011, I’d read that Ehrman had written yet another book. As one might guess from the title, Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are is Ehrman’s assertion that a surprising number of the books comprising the New Testament were not written by their purported authors. Of course, this assertion isn’t anything new or radical because most modern biblical scholars (not counting the more conservative ones) have been saying this for years. But I wanted to read Forged because I wanted to see how Ehrman approached the subject matter. Therefore, I made a mental note or two to read Ehrman’s book, should I ever come across a copy at the public library or second-hand book store. But then like so many other promising books I quickly forgot about it.
Funny thing is when you spend so many lazy weekends prowling the shelves at the public library you come across all kinds of things, including books you’d forgotten that you once wanted to read. So when I spotted Forged, I thought to myself now’s a better time as any to finally read it. I grabbed Forged and added it to the small clutch of library books under my arm.
Just like with God’s Problem and Did Jesus Exist, Ehrman once again takes a methodical approach in making his claims, and in doing so, makes a compelling and easy to understand case that many of those New Testament books were not written by those we’ve always attributed them to. According to Ehrman, these disputed books break down into roughly two categories.
The first ones are books that judging by our earliest manuscripts were never explicitly attributed to an author. Even though they’re anonymous, the early Christians eventually associated them with authors in order to grant the books greater legitimacy. This list of books includes not just all four Gospels but also Acts and John’s three Epistles.
The second group of disputed New Testament books are those that have been attributed to an apostle or disciple, but in reality were not written by one of those venerable figures. This includes a number of Paul’s Epistles including Colossians and Ephesians. Included too are Epistles from James, Jude and Peter’s Second Epistle. According to Ehrman, these books were written years later by individuals within the early church who wanted to promote their particular religious agendas. By writing under the name of, say Paul or Peter they could grant authority to their writings and their words would be taken as scripture to be followed.
On top of this, in Forged Ehrman makes two additional claims that traditionalists will understandably dislike. One, in the Roman Empire literacy was restricted to minuscule minority. Chances are that a small group of Jewish fisherman and peasants could not only read and write Hebrew but also be fluent enough in Greek to compose sophisticated religious epistles and detailed histories are pretty slim. Therefore, it’s hard to believe men like Peter, John, Matthew and James wrote the stuff traditionally attributed to them. Second of all many conservative traditionalists say these misattributions should not disturb us because it was commonly accepted in the ancient world for one to “forge” his/her name to a document, as long as what was written still reflected the purported author’s ideas. However, according Ehrman a more careful examination of history shows otherwise. Forgery has always been forgery and it’s always been looked down on as being wrong.
I enjoyed Forged. With it, Ehrman continues to evolve as a writer and in all likelihood gain a wider audience. It is for this new audience of skeptical but nevertheless curious and engaged group of readers that I enthusiastically recommend his book Forged.