Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Forged" by Bart D. Ehrman

(cover image from

Forged: Writing in the Name of God - Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (2011) by Bart D. Ehrman is, in many ways, a followup to his previous book, Misquoting Jesus. As I noted in my review of that book, early Christian beliefs were even more diverse than they are today, and all of them were backed up by their own gospels and other 'holy' texts.

The Catholic Church suppressed competing views when it gained the power to do so, and for a thousand years or so, it was even more eager to burn books than to burn people, so most of those competing documents don't survive. (Ironically, we mostly know about the others because of Catholic documents written in opposition - documents which sometimes quote what they found objectionable.)

But Christians back then were all over the place in their beliefs, and they all were justified in their beliefs by documents which assured them of what Jesus and the apostles said, did, and believed. Those documents just contradicted the documents of other sects - including the sect which eventually became mainstream Christianity.

In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman noted the lack of original manuscripts of New Testament documents and the variations in the manuscripts we do have, which were copies of copies of copies of copies. As I said in my earlier post, he noted that there are more variations in New Testament manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. And he pointed out examples of both accidental and deliberate changes to the texts.

Forged focuses on... religious forgeries - deliberate attempts to pass off a work as written earlier and by another author. Why? Well, unlike forgeries today, money wasn't the usual motive. Usually, it seems to have been a way to promote a person's own religious beliefs by pretending that someone in the past who was recognized in Christianity as being authoritative - Jesus, the apostles, Paul - thought the same way.

Forged starts out by contrasting Christianity with paganism, the most widespread form of religious belief back then:
As strange as this may seem to us today, ancient religions didn't require you to believe one thing or another. Religion was all about the proper practices: sacrifices to the gods, for example, and set prayers. Moreover, because religion was not particularly concerned with what you believed about the gods and because all of these religions allowed, even encouraged, the worship of many gods, there was very little sense that if one of the religions was right, the others were wrong.

In Christianity, however, it mattered what you believed. Christians claimed to know the Truth. If you didn't believe exactly as they did, you were simply wrong.

But Christians themselves were all over the place when it came to what they believed. It wasn't just that Jews and pagans disagreed with them, but that they didn't even agree among themselves:
But the hottest early Christian debates were with other Christians, as they argued over the right things to believe and the right ways to live. These internal Christian debates were often filled with vitriol and hatred. Christians called one another nasty names, said ugly things about one another, and pulled out all stops to make their Christian opponents look reprehensible and stupid, denying, in many instances, that the opponents even had the right to call themselves Christian. Anyone perceived as a false teacher was subject to verbal lashing; outsiders to the faith - pagans and Jews - were treated with kid gloves by comparison. ...

This was a problem for a religion that claimed to stand for "the" truth. If the followers of Jesus represented the single, unified truth of God, why was it that the Christian church was not single and unified? In fact, it was anything but that, not just in the days of Paul, but throughout the entire first four centuries. Just in the second and third centuries, for example, we know of powerful and influential Christian teachers like Marcion who maintained that there is not just one God, but two Gods. Some Gnostics said there were 30 divine beings, or 365. These Christians claimed that they were right, and that everyone else was wrong. Had one of these other groups won the debates, the world would be a very different place today. ...

Early Christians were nothing if not radically diverse. Yet all of these Christian groups claimed not only to be right, but also to be uniquely right - their view, and their view alone, represented the one and only divine truth. As a corollary, they each claimed that their view of the truth was the view taught by Jesus himself and through him to the apostles. And all of these groups had books to prove it, books allegedly written by apostles that supported their points of view. [my emphasis]

Fascinating, isn't it? It's amazing what centuries of burning 'heretical' texts - and burning heretics, too - can do. When one particular group of Christians gained the power to suppress the others, it did - and very thoroughly. But if a different group had gained power, we might easily have a vastly different idea of Christianity today.

And the current New Testament? Those books likely wouldn't even exist, having been burned as heresies a millennia ago. The texts which survived would be those of the surviving sect, whichever one that ended up being. Maybe they could have been Gnostics, for example:
There were a large number of Gnostic groups with a mind-boggling array of different teachings and beliefs. ...

So the material world we live in is not a good place; it is a place of imprisonment. The God of the Jews is not the ultimate divinity, but is inferior, ignorant, and possibly even malicious. The goal of salvation is not to be put into a right relationship with the creator God, but to escape his clutches. Salvation does not come when this fallen creation is returned to its original pristine state (a return to the Garden of Eden); it comes by escaping the material world. The end of time will not bring a salvation of the flesh; it will bring a deliverance from the flesh. ...

Because Gnostics who taught such views denigrated the material world and the God who created it, they were seen as a serious threat by other Christians...

So what does all this have to do with the title of the book? Well, all of these groups - including what is now considered mainstream Christianity - produced documents to back up their own positions, and many Christians were not averse to lying in order to advance their own particular religious beliefs.

Some of this was covered in Ehrman's previous book, Misquoting Jesus. That story in the Gospel of John about the adulterous woman (just the woman, naturally) brought to Jesus for judgment? You remember that famous line: "Let the one without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her"? Too bad that story isn't actually true, isn't it?

I mean, it's certainly questionable whether anything in the Gospel of John is true, but that particular story was not originally a part of the New Testament. It was added centuries later.

And the Gospel of Mark, the first of the New Testament gospels to be written?
The man at the tomb instructs the women to go to the disciples and tell them that Jesus will go before them to Galilee and that they are to meet him there. But instead of telling the disciples, "the women fled from the tomb . . . and they did not say anything to anyone, for they were afraid" (16:8). And that's where the Gospel ends.

That's a great ending, isn't it? For fiction, I mean. If you were writing fiction, you might very well end there. It makes a great story. But if you're imagining that this is history, that this was real, then this kind of ending poses a huge problem for you. If the women didn't tell anyone, then how does the author - how does anyone - know this happened?

So later Christians simply added to the story, making up a different ending which would back up their own beliefs. (Note that this later addition includes those famous words, supposedly by Jesus, about speaking in tongues and snake-handling. That was all a deliberate fake.)

That's lying, but is it forgery? Well, it is if the author thought that Mark actually wrote the rest of the gospel - and if he expected that other people would accept the later addition as being written by him, too. But this kind of thing is not the main focus of Forged.

Neither is the fact that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John weren't actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Those aren't 'forgeries,' because the authors never identified themselves. They were all written anonymously.

Centuries later, Christian leaders imagined that they'd been written by people with first-hand knowledge of what they were writing about - or else it was just hard to teach that anonymous documents were authoritative about anything - so they labeled them as we know them today. It wasn't true, but these weren't exactly 'forgeries.'

But there were tons of other documents which were forgeries. There were documents produced by Christians in every sect in which the author deliberately pretended to be someone else - someone writing much earlier, someone whom his fellow Christians would accept as an authority.

Ehrman points out a number of these which ended up in the New Testament of today's Christians: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 and 2 Peter, etc.  He notes that, of the 13 New Testament books supposedly written by Paul, at least six are later forgeries.

Acts, too, could be considered a forgery. It was apparently written by the same person who wrote Luke, but although he never claims to be Luke, he does claim to have been a person who was an eyewitness to those events, even though he was writing much too late for that.

Of course, there are Old Testament books which could be considered forgeries, too. And there were tons of other forgeries which never made it into the Bible, for one reason or another. (Obviously, the forgeries of other sects were destroyed, not because they were forgeries, necessarily, but because they contradicted the Catholic Church.)

Some of the neatest stories Ehrman relates were apparently widely believed by Christians of the Dark Ages, even though they weren't actually part of the Bible. But as opposed to those 'heretical' documents which were rooted out and destroyed, these were widely distributed - and as fact, not fiction.

Here are some brief excerpts as examples:
Surely Jesus's mother was no ordinary person! And in this story, Mary is anything but ordinary. Her own birth is miraculous. ... As a young child, Mary is inordinately special. Devoted to God from birth, she is taken by her parents to the holy Jewish Temple as a three-year-old and is raised there by the priests, who do not need even to feed her, since she receives her daily food from the hand of an angel.

Among the more interesting accounts of this narrative are the miracles Jesus performs when the Holy Family flees to Egypt after his birth. We learn, for example, that en route they stop to rest outside a cave. To the terror of Joseph and Mary, out of the cave come a troop of dragons. The two-year-old Jesus, however, is not the least bit afraid. He waddles and stands before the fearsome beasts. When they see who he is, they bow down in worship before him. The author tells us that this fulfilled the predictions of Scripture: "Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet in Psalms, who said, 'Praise the Lord from the earth, O dragons and all the places of the abyss,'" a reference to the Greek version of Psalm 148:7.

If Jesus was the miracle-working Son of God as an adult, what was he like as a child? The Infancy Gospel contains stories about Jesus between the ages of five and twelve. ...

Another child who is playing beside Jesus takes a branch and scatters the water he has carefully gathered together. This angers the young Jesus, who tells the boy, "You unrighteous, irreverent idiot! What did the pools of water do to harm you? See, now you also will be withered like a tree, and you will never bear leaves or root or fruit." The child immediately withers on the spot.

In the next story, Jesus is said to be walking through his village when another child runs up to him and accidentally bumps him on the shoulder. Jesus is irritated and says to the boy, "You'll go no farther on your way." And the child falls down dead.

OK, I just thought those were neat. But people did believe them. More importantly, people believed the forgeries - both those which ended up in the Bible and those which did not - when they agreed with what they already thought.

And people wrote those forgeries - attributing their own words to Jesus, to the apostles, to supposed eyewitnesses who lived in earlier times - in order to promote their own particular religious views. After all, if you really believed in your faith, was it such a sin to pretend to be someone else in order to convince others to believe as you did?

A skeptic, like me, would ask how they knew that their beliefs were true, since they didn't have any evidence of that? Well, they had faith, right? So they simply manufactured 'evidence' which would help convince others.

The obvious question is... how far back did this practice go? We don't have any of the original manuscripts from Christianity, or even any of the earliest copies. We have no idea how the later copies which do exist correspond to the originals.

But even if we did have the originals, we'd still have no idea if they were true or not. The earliest to be written don't even claim to be eyewitness testimony (though many later writings falsely claim so). Even the earliest gospel wasn't written until long afterwards, and as I noted above, it actually read like fiction until someone centuries later changed the ending.

Anyway, like Misquoting Jesus before it, Forged is a fascinating book that's both entertaining and thought-provoking. This isn't the sort of thing you'll hear in church! I never heard it, certainly. But even if you're already a nonbeliever, it might surprise you.

I'll close with another excerpt from the book:
In sum, there were numerous ways to lie in and through literature in antiquity, and some Christians took advantage of the full panoply in their efforts to promote their view of the faith. It may seem odd to modern readers, or even counterintuitive, that a religion that built its reputation on possessing the truth had members who attempted to disseminate their understanding of the truth through deceptive means. But it is precisely what happened. The use of deception to promote the truth may well be considered one of the most unsettling ironies of the Christian tradition.

Note: My other book reviews - mostly of fiction, admittedly - can be found here.


Jim Harris said...

I knew you'd like Bart D. Ehrman. He's a great historian. Since you are getting into the New Testament research, you might also like The Five Gospels by The Jesus Seminar. It's an interesting approach to trying to figure what Jesus might have said, and might not have. With so many writers in the New Testament kitchen, it's hard to know if anything in the Bible can truly be attributed to Jesus.

Ehrman has other interesting books, including his newer ones, Did Jesus Exist?, and How Jesus Became God. Even though I'm not religious, I find the origins of Christianity fascinating, especially the development of orthodoxy out of so many competing and so called heretical ideas.

WCG said...

I agree, Jim. I'm tempted to get Ehrman's book, Did Jesus Exist?, and pair it with Robert M. Price's Deconstructing Jesus, which comes to the exact opposite conclusion.

I haven't read anything by Price, but his podcasts are very entertaining. Oddly enough, he's a right-winger politically, though he doesn't believe that Jesus was a historical figure at all.

With doctorates in Theology and New Testament, he really knows his Bible. (Like Ehrman, he got into this field because of his religious faith, only to discover that he'd been misled.)

But I don't know. I still have a lot of the Bible to read, after all. :)

Jim Harris said...

Yeah, you've got a long way till you get to the new testament. I once considered reviewing the Bible like you are, but decided it was way too much work. I'm glad you're doing it though.