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Nearly half of the New Testament is a forgery, according to a world-renowned Bible scholar whose new book fingering the forgers is making evangelical Christians as mad as — well, hell.
"Bart Ehrman has waged war on Christianity for years. This is just his latest salvo," snaps a FreeRepublic commenter. "Bart himself is a forgery. More of his usual tragic, groundless, infantile, bigoted narcissism enslaved to the father of lies, mammon … a willful subtle prevaricator … a disgusting, arrogant hack. God have mercy on his benighted soul," rages another at the Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth blog.
Ehrman is used to it. The University of North Carolina religious studies professor stoked evangelical ire with his previous bestsellers The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed and Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. He’s doing it again with Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (HarperOne, 2011).
"When Bart D. Ehrman and all his so called ‘scholar’ friends are long gone, Jesus Christ will still be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to whom EVERY KNEE will one day bow. Friends — repent," pleads a Daily Mail commenter.
Ehrman knows where they’re coming from. He used to be one of them.
As an undergrad at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute in the mid-1970s, Ehrman was "an extremely zealous, rigorous, pious (self-righteous)" evangelical who followed the school’s draconian rules — no smoking, drinking, card-playing, dancing, movies, or beards — because Bible verses seemed to support them. Unlike most college students, unlike nearly all young Americans, Moody students didn’t question authority.
When you take the Bible literally, you don’t subvert dominant paradigms.
Such bullet-proof belief "was comforting," Ehrman says now, "because we thought we had a corner on the truth and that we were right and everybody else was wrong. And these were eternal truths, so they were going to bring us eternal life and everybody else was going to hell. It’s very comforting to think you’re always right."
Studying for his PhD a few years later at Princeton Theological Seminary, poring over each part of the New Testament in its original Koine Greek, the born-again young scholar remained "passionate about my studies and the truth that I could find." But what he found instead were errors. Contradictions. Self-defeating arguments. Historical inaccuracies. And worse.
"The New Testament (not to mention the Old Testament, where the problems are even more severe) was chock full of discrepancies. … I wrestled with these problems, I prayed about them. … Eventually I came to realize that the Bible not only contains untruths or accidental mistakes. It also contains what almost anyone today would call lies."
Lies. Not just fact-twisting fabrications but the composition of entire books by obscure authors who claimed to be the Apostles Peter and Paul and other spiritual celebrities but weren’t.
According to Ehrman, individuals falsely claiming to be Paul wrote Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and the Epistles to Timothy and Titus. Equally bogus, Ehrman charges, is the premise that the Apostle Peter wrote the Epistles of Peter or anything else in the Bible — or anywhere, ever, because as a poor hick fisherman raised in rural Palestine, Peter was almost certainly illiterate.
Researchers estimate the literacy rate of Roman-era Palestine at only 3 percent. Ehrman surmises that in rural areas, where most residents "would scarcely ever even see a written text," it might have been as low as 1 percent.
"Peter probably didn’t write anything. Paul, on the other hand, was educated. Unlike Peter, he didn’t come from some one-horse town in Galilee." Thus, Ehrman says, seven of the 13 epistles attributed to Paul "were probably written by Paul."
Who wrote the rest? And who’s behind the Bible’s other forgeries, which Ehrman estimates at a whopping 12 of the New Testament’s 27 books? And that doesn’t even include oodles of counterfeit apocrypha. Ehrman says these materials were not merely discovered unsigned way back when and then mistakenly, well-meaningly, attributed to saints:
"The books we are talking about are by authors who lied about their identity in order to deceive their readers into thinking that they were someone they were not. The technical term for this kind of activity is forgery."
Writing painstakingly with reed pens on papyrus scrolls, ancient sneaks signed the fruits of their labor with other men’s names, leading Christendom to base its beliefs and behaviors on these fibs for the next two thousand years. But why?
Not, as motivates modern forgers, for money or fame. Ancient "books" weren’t mass-produced, thus couldn’t become bestsellers. While forgery wasn’t illegal then, it was frowned upon. Forgers, if exposed, faced public shame. Yet some braved that risk as a means of hawking their agendas: doctrine that the devout would devour if declared by Matthew or Luke but dismiss if propounded by a random guy named Flavius.
It’s relatively easy to fool illiterate hordes.
"If people are literate, they can recognize writing styles. But if you can’t read or write and you can only listen to writings read aloud" — which was mainly how Christianity was practiced in its first few centuries — "it’s hard to do the kind of stylistic analysis" that scholars employ when comparing suspected forgeries with their alleged authors’ known works, searching for inconsistencies in grammar, diction and dogma.
While some ancient impostures are deft, in other cases "it’s like you’re reading Mark Twain and then all of a sudden you’re reading T.S. Eliot," Ehrman says.
Forging holy books in an effort to save souls "is in one sense a noble cause, because it’s not for self-aggrandizement, it’s not for advancement, and it’s not for money. It’s because these people had something they thought was worth hearing. It’s just sad that they had to lie about it. And some of these forgeries are really dangerous, which is a good reason to point out that they’re probably forged. Their ramifications are devastating."
For example, the First Epistle to Timothy — attributed to Paul, although Ehrman insists it’s forged — forbids females from becoming pastors or even speaking aloud in church.
"Because of what happened in the Garden of Eden, First Timothy says women are easily deceived, so they should stay silent and submissive and pregnant."
This dictate is still followed today by conservative evangelical congregations who believe that Paul wrote it, "when in fact it was a forger writing under Paul’s name twenty or thirty years later — someone who was tired of hearing women speak up in church."
When Ehrman attended Moody Bible Institute, female students weren’t permitted to take classes in preaching. Those classes were male-only, thanks to First Timothy.
Ehrman’s no longer a born-again. He’s now an agnostic.
"My evangelical faith couldn’t hold up to rational inquiry. I stayed a Christian for many years, but a liberal Christian. The story of Christ was something I wanted to live by. When I became an agnostic fifteen years ago, it wasn’t because of all the scholarship. It was because of the problem of suffering, and the question of how a powerful God could exist in a world like this."
Faked scriptures warning us to speak the truth: Some liars lie for what they say is our own good. Parents assure their children that people are kind. Spouses never confess those one-night stands. Is it sometimes okay to lie? In Forged, Ehrman argues that hearing the truth might be a human right.
"Maybe children have the right to know what parents honestly believe. … Maybe it is better for our elected officials to come clean and tell us the truth, rather than mislead us so as to be authorized to do what they desperately want," he wrote in a passage that he says was inspired by "George Bush and this whole business of the war in Iraq with Colin Powell telling one lie after another."
He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last.
"From the first century to the twenty-first century, people who have called themselves Christians have seen fit to fabricate, falsify, and forge documents, in most instances in order to authorize views they wanted others to accept," Ehrman writes.
If both the Old and New Testaments are full of fibs and forgeries, then what of other so-called holy books?
"People always ask me that question about the Koran," Ehrman says. "Out of concern for my personal safety, I don’t say a thing."
However, he doesn’t hesitate to say: "The Book of Mormon is completely made up."
"Joseph Smith, I assume. Whether he was completely self-deceived or crazy or just a lying bastard, I don’t know. It’s one of those three, probably."
Maybe someday he’ll take that up with Glenn Beck.