“Too many people have lied in the name of Christ for anyone to heed the call” - Crosby Stills and Nash, Cathedral
What if the Bible is not just wrong or full of legends? What if it was also full of lies?
This is the premise of Bart Ehrman’s new book Forged. In a nutshell, he documents the deceptive practices perpetrated by the authors of Christian books within and outside of the New Testament. He also show that the excuses given by biblical scholars to explain away these practices are not particularly convincing. In fact, these practices were widely condemned by ancient writers and even a bishop in the early Christian church who condemned the forging of a letter in the name of Paul’s companion Timothy by a church leader named Salvian. The problem was that these practices were quite prevalent despite the condemnations and many deceptive books made it into the New Testament.
Many of the examples of deceptive practices in the early church involved forgery. Of the thirteen letters that claim to be written by Paul, only seven are considered by scholars to be actually have been written by Paul. The two letters attributed to Peter were not written by the illiterate Galilean fisherman who certainly would not have had the knowledge of Greek language and rhetorical reasoning that the author of the letters had. Add to this the letter claimed to be written by James and another one claimed to be written by Jude, both brothers of Jesus, and you start to understand the enormity of the scandal. Most of the letters in the New Testament that were attributed to early church leaders were not actually written by them despite the fact that the letters claimed otherwise!
Why did these authors lie about the authorship of these letters? While there were many reasons why people forged documents, the most likely reason for Christians was to increase the authority of their letters. If Joe Shmoe decided to write a religious treatise to counter a point of view within the church of which he did not agree (and there was an astounding diversity of opinion within the early Christian church due mainly to the fact that Jesus’ original disciples were illiterate and did not proselytize outside of the Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire that largely rejected Christianity so the original disciples quickly lost control of the Christian message when it found its way into the Gentile world), he could persuade others to adopt his point of view if it appeared that the letter came from a more authoritative early follower of Jesus. This was especially important when fighting polemic battles with “heretics” or at least what one wing of the church thought to be heretics. A little name dropping went a long way in the early Christian church!
Ehrman also argues against excuses used by scholars to explain away the deceptions when they cannot bring themselves to admit that the New Testament is full of lies. These excuses were as follows:
The forger believed that the Holy Spirit was inspiring him to write in the name of a early Christian leader.
The forger was writing in the tradition of an early church leader and therefore would use the leader’s name to show that the letter represented that tradition.
It was common for members of philosophical schools to write in the name of their teachers as a display of humility towards their intellectual heirs. The idea is that the forger was not good enough to claim the ideas in his writings when they actually flowed from what the early church leader said.
Certain letters were written largely by secretaries of the early church leaders so it was not surprising that the style of these letters seemed to differ from other letters actually written by the leaders.
Ehrman points to the lack of evidence for and the implausibility of these excuses. He also points that these excuses were used by many scholars who should have known better.
Erhman also writes about other types of deceptions within the early church. Some Christian books, including the gospels, were misattributed to early church leaders even though they were originally anonymous. Some stories about Jesus within and outside of the New Testament canon were fabricated. Copyists often inserted text within New Testament manuscripts that they were copying, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes deliberately. Finally, the bane of existence for all teachers, plagiarism, sometimes reared its ugly head within the New Testament.
While this is an impressive book, I was a little disappointed in the final couple of pages of the book. When he had an opportunity to take his book to its logical conclusion and question why we should believe in a book that has so many lies, he basically punts the ball. I feel no need to follow in his footsteps.
At the beginning of this article, I quoted from a song by Crosby, Stills and Nash. That line from the song says it all. There are too many lies in the New Testament for us to trust it as an authoritative source of moral teaching. While it is possible that certain passages from the New Testament were written by people whose moral reasoning was sound, Christians as a whole were too willing to use deception to further their causes and that leads to the conclusion that Christianity is morally bankrupt as a religion.