Is the New Testament forged?
Jerry NewcombeMarch 28, 2011The scholar is the iconoclastic Dr. Bart Ehrman, who teaches religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.The book is called Forged: Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. Ehrman said on a radio broadcast that about 75 percent of the New Testament documents are supposedly forged. They’re frauds.Dr. Sam Lamerson is a conservative New Testament scholar who teaches at Knox Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale. (By way of full disclosure, I earned a theology degree there). He heard Ehrman on a radio broadcast say words to this effect: “I want to be the scholar that uses the F-word about the Bible. I want people to know that these books were forged.”“Forged” is a strong word. Several of the New Testament books claim no authorship at all. Church tradition has attributed them to various writers, but the biblical text itself does not claim authorship for these particular books. For instance, none of the four Gospels (of which tradition names the writers as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) actually have the names of the authors at the beginning of their documents.But if a document is anonymous, how could it be a forgery?Dr. Mike Licona, a rising star in New Testament scholarship, has been reading an advanced copy of Forged. He told me that the most prolific biographer of antiquity is widely held to be Plutarch (as in Plutarch’s Lives), yet of all the 50 or so existing manuscripts we have of Plutarch, none of them are signed.Were they forgeries? By Ehrman’s definition, it would seem so. But no serious scholar holds that view.Dr. Licona, who has debated Ehrman twice, told me, “What we’re seeing from Ehrman [in Forged] is not new information. It may be new to many readers who aren’t used to looking at the academic stuff, but it’s not at all new.”Ehrman goes on to assert that many New Testament books that do claim authorship within the text, such as Ephesians, Colossians, and the letters of Peter and James, are not written by the claimed authors. It should be noted that this is not based on manuscript evidence. It’s based largely on the style of the text, and there are many conservative scholars who are not convinced by these arguments. Thus, Ehrman is stating liberal opinion as fact.Ironically, Ehrman even states in his own book, “Virtually all of the problems with what I’ve been calling forgeries can be solved if secretaries were heavily involved in the compositions of the early Christian writings.” [p. 134]But that’s exactly what happened.Conservative scholars note that many of Paul’s writings begin with his name…and that of a co-author, such as Timothy, Silas, or Sosthenes.Dr. Lamerson, who interestingly worked his way through seminary by doing magic tricks, knows sleight of hand when he sees it (or in this case, hears it). He said, “Of course, being forged is very different from having a secretary or having someone help you with the text or not knowing who wrote the text because their name simply isn’t included.”Ehrman likes to tout that he’s a former evangelical, who went to Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. Ehrman then went on to Princeton Seminary where he began to have some doubts about his faith. That faith finally shattered when he was teaching at Rutgers University. Now, he’s an agnostic.So why are Bart Ehrman and other liberal scholars even concerning themselves with this stuff if they don’t believe it?Amazingly, Jesus made a warning that fits here (if the Gospel of Matthew is to be believed-and, no, it wasn’t forged; it just isn’t signed). He admonished those who “shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.” He said, “You yourselves won’t go in, but you prevent others from going in.”I’m concerned that many people will hear Bart Ehrman and think that he speaks for all the scholars. He does not.Many people might miss the Gospel because they take Ehrman’s word as Gospel. It is not.It is liberal opinion repackaged well for a mass audience.For anyone needing a scholarly rebuttal to Bart Ehrman’s 2011 book, feel free to read Terry L. Wilder’s excellent article called “Pseudonymity and the New Testament,” which appears in a 2001 book, Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues. (Indeed, his arguments aren’t new.)Dr. Paul Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and a first rate scholar of the New Testament and its history, told me, “Both [Ehrman] and his publisher [HarperOne] are guilty of cheap sensationalism with little or no regard for the truth.”Ehrman’s book went on sale on March 22, 2011. Just in time for Easter, he, his publisher, and the lackeys in the media who go for all the anti-faith iconoclasm get another chance to try and cash in. What a friend we have in Jesus.
Thanks to Herman A. Middleton for dropping me an e-mail and letting me know about these posts and the upcoming book by Fr. Alexis Trader. Please take a look:
If you’d like to learn more about Fr. Alexis’s book, you can read excerpts here:
Now, we come to the meat of it. As this will be the first time either of us has directly responded to the other person’s statements, if sparks are going to fly, this is where they will start. But, it is my intention to keep this discussion civil, as I am sure it is David’s as well. So, dear readers, if at any point I seem to be angry or otherwise upset by something David says, please do your best to give me the benefit of the doubt that this essay is not conveying my tone properly.
Also, I’m definitely behind schedule getting this written. In spite of having, in theory, plenty of time to get it done, it is difficult to justify working on it when work, schoolwork, and family life are demanding my time, as well. So, I haven’t had a chance to talk to David about this, and I will just go ahead and take this one liberty, under the assumption that he will feel free to take it, as well: Namely, I will be, from time to time, quoting his remarks directly, but I will not count his quoted remarks—or this preamble—toward my total word count.
Skierkowa’s First Rebuttal
David’s position statement (apart from his thanking me, to which I say that he is quite welcome,) begins with this paragraph:
Although I am defending the negative position in this debate, I want to begin, oddly enough, by answering a qualified “yes” to the question at hand; I think that an atheistic worldview can in fact support a consistent morality. The nature of that morality, however, must be of an entirely different content and style from anything that most of us would recognize as “morality.”
Well, it would be unkind of me, at this point, to insist that he officially concede the debate before it has properly begun. However, it would be unkind to myself and to our readers to allow the goalposts to be so drastically moved without comment. So, I will say that I don’t perceive his opening remarks to have established the negative position he chose to defend, and I will invite David, if he feels it would be appropriate, to concede the point while continuing the discussion on a more narrowly defined topic. At any rate, he certainly did make a number of statements to which I take exception, and I am perfectly willing to rebut those statements.
This statement, in particular, is problematic. Used properly, the term “morality” has several coherent definitions to which either of us could appeal in making our case. If either of us felt the other was misusing the word, or defining it too narrowly or too broadly, we could appeal to the work of philosophers and scientists in redressing this grievance. But by switching from morality to “anything that most of us would recognize as ‘morality,’” he has veiled the term in ontological subjectivity. While he does go on to provide a few particulars, this reworking seeks to free him to say, in response to any cogent point I might make but which he does not like, “Well, yes, that’s well and good, but it’s not the ‘morality’ that ‘most of us’ recognize…”
Do I mean to say that he intends to do this? No, I don’t. In fact, I very much doubt that any such malfeasance even occurred to him. But such a thing can be done unintentionally, and at any rate it is undisciplined to undermine the definitions of words, especially ones so central to the topic under discussion.
We might summarize the bulk of pre-Christian morality by saying that the overarching ethic was “might makes right.” What we would call “cruelty” and “brutality” were, for most ancient peoples, accepted and even lauded aspects of life.
I don’t think that’s the least bit true. The Greeks, who could not reasonably be included as part of “the Jews,” made a rich exploration of morality, from the Good Life, to Normative Ethics, to Virtue Ethics, from a mostly secular perspective. It is impressive, to both Christians and Atheists, the extent to which Greek moral philosophers (including pre-Socratics) were able to separate their syllogisms from the claims of the Paganism that surrounded them. Rather than a purely Judeo-Christian society, we Westerners live in a post-Enlightenment society, and the Enlightenment was a revival of these Greek ideas. Of course many Judeo-Christian ideas are preserved in synergy with the Classical, but they cannot claim solitary patronage to our modern ethics.
David’s assertion also ignores the Jains, who were much less secular than the Greeks, but who were equally non-Jewish and who preached an absolutely utter non-violence—extended even to animals such as insects—nine centuries before Christ. It ignores Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and countless others. Even had he listed these as exceptions, this sort of sweeping generalization of the “Barbarian” cultures offends the sensibilities of the serious anthropologist.
Let us confine ourselves, for simplicity’s sake, to the single example of infanticide. Infanticide, the discarding and/or killing of unwanted infants, was a common practice in nearly all ancient cultures. … They regarded human life, all human life, as sacred.
This is superficially true, although it is an argument ad populum. Either of us could find easily some aspect of modern morality which historically vindicates our argument. In my case, I might choose slavery. However, the statement has enough truth in it that we should examine it further. Particularly in the case of the Jews, they were somewhat conspicuous in their low rates of infanticide. It would be a cheap and dirty trick for me to point out the numerous points in scripture in which God commands the slaughter of foreign infants, particularly males, after the conquest of one or another “enemy” city-state, or in some cases commits the slaughter Himself. It would be a dirty trick, because any descendant of Jewish culture may take comfort in the fact that anthropologists do not consider any of those stories to be true. However, it seems strange that their text should be so at odds with its own teachings, particularly in a discussion like this, which connects morality directly to religion.
Furthermore, Christians have inherited this tradition only imperfectly. As recently as our own Colonial past, numerous Puritan communities established “Stubborn Child Laws,” which allowed parents to put their children to death. Farther back, early Church fathers wrote in opposition to the practice of “exposing” infants, largely on the grounds that such children often grew up to become prostitutes. It would not be fair to criticize them merely for having conservative sexual taboos, but as a rationale for protecting children, this is a far cry from the high-minded respect for human life to which we attribute such things today.
Lastly, as to our modern culture, I will defer to Dr. Larry Milner, writing for the Society for the Prevention of Infanticide:
The major difference between the nature of infanticide in the twentieth century, when compared to the rest of recorded history, however, is due to the impact of one modern medical advancement: the widespread availability of safe, and legal, means of abortion. The ability to easily terminate a pregnancy, and thereby eliminate an unwanted child before it is born, has had a profound effect on the prevalence of infanticide.
It would seem, then, that we have the convenience of being appalled by infanticide today. As a father, especially, I am horrified by stories of tragedy befalling children, but as a man of my own time, it is impossible to say how my feelings would have been changed by life in primitive culture.
It’s a credit to Russell that he turns away from Nietzsche in horror, but his statements here are possibly the most pathetic, un-philosophical statements I’ve ever heard a philosopher speak. “Not in an appeal to the facts,” he says, “but in an appeal to the emotions.” Would he or any atheist accept this argument from the lips of a Christian? Should this really be taken seriously as an argument? All of the atheistic jargon about rationality and scientific progress fall out of the window as soon as one is confronted with the bare naked reality of the moral implications of an atheistic worldview.
There are two issues with David’s reasoning, here.
Apparently, appealing to emotions is okay for Christians, but not for Atheists, as if religious belief and emotional composition were a package deal. Human moral development, as I discussed in my introduction, is consistent precisely because of our emotional constitution. If no one had any emotions, there would be no such thing as morality, because nothing you do could possibly make anyone happy, or sad, or angry, or content, or anything else. In what universe would it make sense to say that I must ignore this reality, simply because I don’t believe in gods?
Secondly, it is hypocritical to accuse Russell, but not Nietzsche, of appealing to emotion. The latter’s misanthropic hate is in no way more reasonable or rational than the former’s humanistic love. In fact, all normative ethical systems involve a synergy of objective and subjective. The attempt is made to discover an objective system for disposition among things (and persons) of subjective value. In mathematical terms, an analogy might be that the objective is the formula; the subjective is the variable. Say that David comes to my home, hot-wires my car, and drives away with it. Normative ethical systems attempt to establish a more-or-less objective set of rules for establishing how ethical or unethical that action is, but nearly all such systems allow for variability, based on David’s reasons for taking the car on the one hand, and my feelings about his taking it on the other. I do not say (nor do I think) that Morality is subjective, but it depends upon value, and value is subjectively assigned.
Much of the rest of David’s position statement is predicated on his assumption that ideas like social justice and morality are conspicuously Judeo-Christian, which I feel I refuted earlier in pointing out the numerous ethical systems which arose independently of that tradition, particularly those such as the Greek, which are part of the “Western DNA,” so to speak. There are, though, a couple of points I want to quickly address before I run out of words.
What would an atheistic world look like? What a world without all of these achievements, all the product of the Judeo-Christian tradition, look like? Would it look even remotely the same? Absolutely not. As was already mentioned, a purely rational, purely scientific worldview couldn’t possibly produce a morality that was even remotely similar to that which Christianity has produced. Scientifically, not all human beings are equal, not all are of inherent worth and value. Rationally, there’s no reason not to kill or abandon an unwanted infant, especially one that would be a great burden on his or her parents. Just as in the ancient pagan world, the logical, scientific thing to do is to throw out the diseased, the disabled, and the sick. I think we can all agree that the logical, scientific, atheistic world is a terrifying place in which, to use Thomas Hobbes’s famous words describing the state of nature, life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”
Why do theists insist on conflating descriptive Darwinian Evolution with a proscriptive ethos? This vision of an Atheistic society is about as fair as my submitting Atwood’s Gilead as an example of a “Christian” society, while asserting that our own is the Atheistic one. Even Spock’s Hollywood strawman version of logic (to be knocked down by the humanist doctor, Bones) valued social justice. Apparently, David believes that Atheists are allowed no value but “logic.” When did I give up empathy? Why would I not feel the primal, visceral love for my children that you feel? Did the Bible give you your emotions?
I am a human. Love, empathy, compassion, reciprocity; these are all a part of what that means.
It is my opponent’s burden to demonstrate how an atheist, or anyone who renounces the Judeo-Christian God and tradition, can continue espousing and practicing Judeo-Christian morality and still possess an internally self-consistent
I cannot help but be a bit annoyed at this attempt to tell me my burden, especially considering that this whole line of reasoning started with the “qualified yes” David gives in his opening paragraph. David proposed this topic to me after all. I would not presume to accuse him of deliberately giving me a bait-and-switch, but after reading his concluding paragraph, I could do with a bit of reassurance on the fact.
Apart from this though, there is a reason that it is problematic to tell one’s opponent what his burden is, and that is because it presumes that you accurately understand your opponent’s perspective in the first place. In my case, let me assure you that David does not. For one thing, I have not “renounced” the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even its God, anymore than I have “renounced” Mickey Mouse or the Bene Gesserit witches of Dune. For another, everything from my Christian upbringing that I have counted as good, and kept, was also said before Christ, and also by non-Jews.
Do you believe, David, that with great power comes great responsibility? If so, then why have you renounced Spiderman?
A fascinating short passage from Tertullian’s “Treatise on the Soul” (chapter 43) in which he likens the sleep of Adam to the death of Christ. For its short length, it is filled with amazing depth and beauty in its symbolism and imagery:
As Adam was a figure of Christ, Adam’s sleep shadowed out the death of Christ, who was to sleep a mortal slumber, that from the wound inflicted on His side might, in like manner (as Eve was formed), be typified the Church, the true mother of the living.
There was a time when I appreciated his work even in those moments when I disagreed with him. After recently reading his entry on the The Gospel of Judas, in which he contradicts himself several times and draws (suitably anti-Christian) conclusions which in no way follow from the facts he previously stated, and now this article, I don’t think I’ll be picking up his new book.
Ancient Hebrew Poetry has a good post on why Ehrman is lying about lying.
The canon was not offîcially fixed for the Roman Catholic Church until the Council of Trent (1546). The Eastern Orthodox Church does not recognize Trent or any synod beyond the Seventh Ecumenical Council as “ecumenical” in character, that is, possessing the highest degree of authority. For the Orthodox East, it can be said that the canon still has not achieved that level of established status which Trent created for the Catholic Church since the issue has never been resolved by an Ecumenical Council. However, for all practical purposes it is inconceivable that today any Orthodox Christian would seriously question or challenge the New Testament canon. Hence, the Orthodox canon has been settled in a de facto manner, nonetheless in classic Orthodox style: by consensus over time.
Presbytera Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou, “Andrew of Caesarea and the Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation,” pg. 39 (fn 129)