Forged in the Name of God: Bart Ehrman and the Issue of Pseudepigrapha in the New Testament
Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published over a dozen books for academic publishers and university presses, and his work has been translated into over two-dozen languages. His book Misquoting Jesus took many by surprise when it raced to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Few could have predicted that a book on New Testament textual criticism would be so popular. Ehrman writes in a popular-level and engaging style. He has an ability to take a complicated subject and make it digestible for a popular audience.
While Ehrman’s style is both informative and easy to read, longtime readers have seen his tone grow increasingly strident in his criticism of the Bible over time. In previous works, Ehrman argued that the biblical authors were often guilty of introducing errors into the texts they copied, perhaps by mistake. In Jesus, Interrupted, he went further and argued that scholars—many of them ministers—know about the textual problems of the New Testament, but withhold this information from their students and congregants for personal reasons. In Forged: Writing in the Name of God, Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, he states flatly that the authors of much of the New Testament were not simply mistaken, but were liars who fooled their audiences deliberately.
Forged discusses the subject of pseudepigraphy—the writing of books under false names—in the first few centuries after the death of Christ. Ehrman claims that as much as 75 percent of the New Testament falls into this category. He claims some of these books, like the canonical Gospels, were published anonymously and had the author’s names attached at a later date. The ones with which he takes issue are those scholars believe to be forgeries. This category would include a wide range of compositions, such as the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, in addition to other gospels, epistles, and apocalypses written in the second century and beyond. Ehrman places six of the Pauline epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, and Titus) in this category along with other New Testament Epistles, including James, Jude, and the letters of Peter.
What's In a Name?
Forgeries in the ancient world were much more common than many people may realize. Authors in the ancient world had numerous reasons for composing a forgery: for profit, to exact revenge, or to give an air of legitimacy to an unorthodox viewpoint. Regardless of the reason, they appeared with considerable frequency.
How do we know what the apostles wrote, and how do we distinguish the work of the apostles from that of forgers? Literary analysis aimed at determining authorship has focused on several criteria, including three that Ehrman uses in his book: vocabulary, style, and content. But determining the authorship of any given work is a difficult matter. Language is subject to many factors, not least among which are the identity of the recipients and the nature of the subject matter. Unfortunately, determining the authorship of a particular book also depends on the preconceptions of the scholar engaging in the investigation.
If we look at the vocabulary of Ephesians as a test case, Ehrman identifies 116 words not found elsewhere in Paul’s writings. He believes the difference in vocabulary points to a different author, but judgments about authorship based on word counts are uncertain at best. Carson and Moo point out some of the difficulties involved: “Statisticians object to the brevity of the Epistles and to the lack of statistical controls. And even where there are observable differences, the statistics themselves cannot tell us why the differences exist. Is it because of different authors, or because of different topics, or because these epistles were written to individuals with certain challenges and not to churches with quite a difference set of challenges, or because of different amanuenses [scribes]?”
Writing to different audiences about distinctly different concerns will produce differences in vocabulary. Ehrman gives little space to the consideration that vocabulary as evidence of authorship is problematic because such a comparison needs a proper writing sample. Statistician Udny Yule indicates that trustworthy results would necessitate a sample of roughly 10,000 words. None of Paul’s letters meets this criterion, with his longest epistle (Romans) being over 7,000 words. 1 Corinthians is roughly 6800 words, with 2 Corinthians coming in third with about 4400. With Paul’s letter to the Ephesians at a length of 2400 or so words, the issue of using vocabulary to determine authorship becomes difficult indeed.
Comparing the scholarly view of the Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Galatians helps to illustrate the difficulties involved in determining the Pauline authorship of the two letters. Harold Hoehner’s comparison of the two books is helpful in this case. The overwhelming majority of New Testament scholarship considers Galatians to be genuinely Pauline. Yet when comparing the vocabularies of the two letters, it becomes less clear why Galatians should be accepted and Ephesians rejected. Ehrman says that the high number of unique words not found elsewhere in Paul’s writings is a mark against Pauline authorship of Ephesians. Citing a study by Robert Morgenthaler, Hoehner states Ephesians has 41 words are not found elsewhere in the New Testament, with 84 terms not found elsewhere in Paul’s writings. But Galatians has similar numbers, yet its authenticity is nearly undisputed. Both letters are of similar length, with Galatians having 35 words not found elsewhere in the New Testament and 90 words not found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus. Hoehner concludes, “the unique vocabulary in both Ephesians and Galatians are almost identical even though Galatians is about 10 percent shorter, yet would this demonstrate that Paul did not write Galatians? Most agree that it does not.”
Ehrman spends some time on style, arguing that the sentences of Ephesians are long and complex, while those in Paul’s undisputed works are shorter. Again, Hoehner’s comparison is helpful. He notes that linguistic peculiarities of Galatians are not mirrored elsewhere in the Pauline corpus, yet the scholarly consensus is that the letter is authentically Pauline. He adds, “the short incisive language and abrupt statements of Galatians are missing from other Pauline letters. Should one then conclude that Galatians is not from Paul? Few, if any, would agree.” If the lengthier sentences of Ephesians discount Pauline authorship, why do not the shorter sentences of Galatians do the same? Detecting forgeries is more complicated than Ehrman is willing to admit.
Ehrman does spend some time on the content of the letters as a means of determining authorship, although his interpretations are problematic at best. Despite touting his theological training at schools like Moody Bible College and Wheaton College, he often misinterprets the text. For instance, one of his criticisms of the authorship of Ephesians is that Paul—or the author claiming to be Paul—admits to committing unrighteousness acts before coming to Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10), yet the apostle himself contradicts that statement by claiming that he was “blameless” regarding the law (Philippians 3:4). Ehrman seems to have overlooked the fact that only a few verses later Paul dismisses his legalistic righteousness as “rubbish” along with the other things that belonged to his former life as a Pharisee (Philippians 3:8-9). He also ignores the fact that blamelessness (perhaps best thought of as being free of habitual sin) is not the same thing as sinlessness (cf. Job 1:1, 8). Ehrman makes similar errors concerning supposed misogynistic statements in the Pastorals (1 Timothy 2:11-15).
The View of the Early Church
Because the early church valued the authenticity of the books it considered inspired, rejection of pseudepigraphical materials appears quite early in church history. Michael Kruger points out four instances of the church’s concern for authenticity. First, in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 the apostle Paul warns his readers concerning false correspondence alleged to have come from him or his associates. Second, Tertullian (c. A.D. 160-c. A.D. 225) removed a presbyter from his position for passing off the work The Acts of Paul and Thecla in Paul’s name, saying that the work “wrongly go[es] under Paul’s name.” Third, Serapion bishop of Antioch (d. A.D. 211) wrote a refutation of the Gospel of Peter, stating that after discovering its potentially heretical nature, he disavowed it because it was falsely attributed to the apostle. Kruger’s final example is that of the epistles to the Laodiceans and Alexandrines purportedly written by Paul. Understanding them as spurious letters, the church rejected them as forgeries.
The attitude of the early church toward writings known to have been pseudepigraphal seems to demonstrate a connection with earlier statements made by the apostle Paul. While Ehrman and others view his warning in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 as the clever work of a forger attempting to throw investigators off his trail, Paul issues a similar warning in Galatians 1:6-9 concerning the purity of the apostolic message. A similar concern seems to be echoed in Revelation 22:18-19.
The witness of the early church is important, despite Ehrman’s dismissal of it. The Pauline epistles in the New Testament were accepted by the church as authentic. Elsewhere, Ehrman denies that Ephesians and 1 Peter are authentic, yet both are quoted with approval by Clement of Alexandria (in Stromata, books 4 and 6, respectively). Ehrman also denies that Mark wrote the Gospel attributed to him, but Papias indicates Mark recorded the words of Peter in his composition (in Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica 3.39.15), as does Justin Martyr (Dialogues 106.3). These authors lived within a century to a century and a half of the completion of Mark’s gospel. It can be argued they were in a better position to determine its authorship. Contrary to the modern caricature of believers as naïve rubes, the early church was filled with careful thinkers who valued apostolic genuineness.
A Few More Problems
Ehrman’s work demonstrates a few problems of considerable significance. The overall tone and usage of the term forgery seems to be employed with sensationalism in mind. Otherwise, there would be little point in taking pains to ensure that the reader understands, as Ehrman puts it, that pseudepigraphical means forged, and that forgery equals deception.
Second, Ehrman’s interaction with scholarship is severely limited and one-sided. He often states that his conclusions mirror the “scholarly consensus,” but the difficulty lies in determining who qualifies as a scholar. He often inveighs against “fundamentalists” who believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. His view is that the scholarship of those who do not hold the view the Bible with some degree of suspicion are themselves suspect. He leaves the impression that “critical scholarship” is analytical and investigative, and that those believing in inerrancy are not.
Third, he paints those who disagree with him as being driven by agenda. In numerous interviews, he has expressed the belief that virtually the only ones who disagree with him are fundamentalists committed to biblical inerrancy. Like many other agnostic and unbelieving writers, Ehrman portrays these believers as uncritical and under-informed. In his book Jesus, Interrupted, he says that some of his conservative “students refuse to listen—it is almost as if they cover their ears and hum loudly so they don’t have to hear anything that might cause them to doubt their cherished beliefs about the Bible.” He does not appear to consider the possibility that his students may have reached informed opinions of their own concerning the issues he raises. He also suggests that many people are unaware of the subjects about which he writes because many scholars are ministers and professors who feel pressure to serve the needs of their clientele. He muses whether ministers avoid discussing this topic because it either conflicts with their personal faith or because they fear being fired by their elderships. He implies that believers are disingenuous, and perhaps even duplicitous.
The issue of forging ancient documents is not a new discussion in biblical studies. Indeed, much of Ehrman’s subject material may be unfamiliar to popular audiences, but has been debated in the ivory tower for decades. Scholars have questioned the authorship of various books in the Bible for hundreds of years. Ehrman provides a treatment of the practice of forging ancient documents that is well-written and, in some ways, helpful for understanding the practice. But where the New Testament is concerned, his work is plagued by the absence of interaction with conservative scholarship and the tendency to stretch beyond what the evidence supports.
 D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005) 558.
 G. Udny Yule, The Statistical Study of Literary Vocabulary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944), 281.
 See Forged, 108-111.
 Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 24.
 Hoehner, Ephesians, 28.
 Not everyone agrees with Ehrman’s conclusions, including those who have followed his path into agnosticism, like Sir Anthony Kenny, a former Roman Catholic priest and Oxford professor of philosophy. Kenny argues that Paul could have written all of the letters attributed to him, with the possible exception (in his view) of Titus (see A Stylometric Study of the New Testament, published by Clarendon Press ).
 Michael J. Kruger, “The Authenticity of 2 Peter, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42.4 (1999): 645-671.
 Tertullian, On Baptism 17.
 Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 6.12.2.
 Note particularly his discussion in the first chapter.
 Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 14.
 Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 13-14.