Normally I don’t have to establish these sorts of things, but this book has me worried, so before I get to the book itself I want to assert these things:
- Although writers in my contemporary era write about folks from Indiana and folks who live in Georgia as people with little interest in books and ideas, in fact I read quite well and own a number of books myself.
- Although the vocabulary I use here differs significantly from the vocabulary I had at my command when I was eighteen and will likely reflect views on life that will have changed by the time I’m forty-eight, a thirty-three-year-old named Nathan Gilmour did in fact write this text.
- Although I might inadvertently use metaphors here that are obscure now but might come into more common use fifty years from now (who can predict these things?), I in fact did compose this review.
- I have on more than one occasion written a note to friends at church, family members, and other people in behalf of myself and my wife Mary, and I signed those missives “we” despite the fact that Mary did not directly choose any of the words that I used.
- Although I grew up in Capitalist-friendly Indiana and live in Capitalist-friendly Georgia, my own suspicions of Capitalism are not superadded to my writings by a later era. I promise.
I begin with this dumb little joke (and it is a dumb little joke) to make the point that, although Ehrman promises a scholarly monograph that will carry this little book’s arguments further, this book in itself leaves me wondering whether anything I write will ever pass as “authentic” in the near future, much less if someone discovers it centuries from now. But I forge ahead (to use that word in a slightly older sense than Ehrman’s) nonetheless. For the sake of brevity, this review will focus on those moments where Ehrman asserts the presence of “forgery” (in a more modern sense) in the New Testament canon, noting at this point that discussions of alleged “forgeries” in the New Testament largely end after the first 140 pages, leaving the last 120 to discuss other phenomena. Forged has all the confidence of the Enlightenment-era anthropologist that it’s seeing through all the “tricks” that the “savages” under review use to conceal their savagery, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t consider very often whether or not some of them are indeed tricks. The strangest part of the whole experience, for this reviewer, was the points at which Ehrman insisted upon outrage.
Peter the Illiterate?
Ehrman cites (but does not discuss at length) several studies on first-century Palestine, insisting along the way that the top specialists in ancient history cannot claim with confidence that many Palestinian Jews could understand spoken Koine Greek in which (presumably) government officials would address them, that more than one percent of rural Palestinian Jews could read the same, or that more than a fraction of a percent of Palestinian Jews could write the sort of Greek prose that constitutes 1 and 2 Peter. Therefore, Ehrman asserts, probability points towards an illiterate Peter and thus a Peter who could not have written the epistles attributed to Peter. (He calls this argument evidence of “forgery,” but I’ll return to the question of diachronic linguistics in a bit.) And, to grant his point, to attribute two letters, each with a distinctive Greek style, to a man who sociologically was very unlikely to have the sort of education needed to write them, seems somewhat a strain on normal historical practices.
What Ehrman neglects, of course, is that the New Testament hardly confines itself to normal historical claims. New Testament documents, after all, also claim that Peter walked on the surface of the Sea of Galilee without sinking into it (for a while at least); that Peter could touch lepers and heal them of their diseases; that Peter saw visions of Moses and Elijah on the top of a mountain; that Peter could speak to a multilingual crowd from all over the eastern Mediterranean world and be understood by all of them simultaneously; and that Peter was at the epicenter of more than one major earthquake, just to name a few claims that the New Testament makes on Peter’s behalf. By the end of all that, the claim that he somehow acquired some knowledge of the Septuagint seems like a small-wager proposition by comparison. My point here is not that Ehrman’s conclusion, that somebody other than Simon of Galilee composed the books of 1 and 2 Peter, is untenable intellectually. Instead, I’d argue that entirely neglects on the really outrageous things that the documents of the New Testament claim for Peter, which indicates to me that he’s writing for a reader who, in approaching these documents, already assumes that such things simply cannot and therefore did not happen. But more on the implied reader later.
Ehrman also neglects the real historical conditions that likely surrounded the last months of Saint Peter’s life. Tradition holds that he died a martyr in Nero’s Rome, and Ehrman does not see any need to deny that. What he ignores is that Peter was likely in prison during the months leading up to his execution and that such a prison context would allow (what strikes me as) an alternative plausible scenario for the letters’ composition, namely that Peter might have told some Greek-educated Christians (Paul’s letter to the Romans seems to indicate that they would have been present in Rome by the mid-sixties AD) what to send out to this or that church under his authority, and rather than compose them in the damp and dark of a Roman prison, those messengers might have gone to some place more suited for writing before laying out the documents we know as 1 and 2 Peter. Ehrman seems to maintain that even such an act would have constituted “forgery” (more on that strange word later), since secretarial composition was not an accepted practice. (Only Cicero ever explicitly mentions having a secretary compose a letter for him.) Those things granted, given the likely circumstances (which are speculative, but so are Ehrman’s for the “forged” documents–that’s the nature of ancient history, as far as I can tell), even the Cicero’s exiled-to-his-villa circumstances seem somewhat sanitary compared to Peter’s. In other words, what Ehrman presents as an airtight argument from probability I see as one possibility but not the possibility that most adequately accounts for the historical moment of the real Peter’s life. I’m still inclined to call them the letters of Peter.
Paul the Stalwart?
The sections on the Pauline epistles repeated standard, nineteenth-century arguments against Paul as the author of 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. According to these old arguments, the vocabularies in these so-called “deutero-Pauline” epistles varies significantly enough from the so-called “ortho-Pauline” letters of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon that they must have come from different authors. Furthermore, go these arguments, Paul’s teachings on things like salvation, women’s roles in worship and in the home, the end of the present age, and other theologically heavy topics change enough that the same man couldn’t have written them all. Therefore the “Deutero-Paulines” must be (and I promise I will get to this word later) “forgeries.”
For a genuinely beautiful account of Ephesians as a rival for Galatians as the center of the Pauline corpus, I recommend N.T. Wright’s book Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. But this is not a review of Wright, so to return to the task at hand, Ehrman seems to assume that the change over time that is a commonplace in scholarship on the careers of Plato, Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton, and James Joyce, just to name a few, must not apply to the scholarship of Paul the former Pharisee. If Paul changes the content of his ideas even so much as to add a present ethical dimension to resurrection, where before it had only a salvation-historical aspect (Ehrman locates this difference as knockdown evidence that Ephesians has gotten the vocabulary of 1 Corinthians wrong), Ehrman cries, “Forgery!” I’m more inclined to think that Paul might have had some time to think in all those prison cells, that perhaps a more nuanced and ethically shaded use of the vocabulary is just what I’d expect from a writer who is dealing with a cosmically novel phenomenon in his writing over the course of several years. And given that, in his own words and in the words of Acts, one of the changes that he underwent somewhere in his public career involves a switch from being a sacerdotal bounty hunter, dragging Christians in to the authorities in Jerusalem, to being the most recognized evangelist to the Gentiles across the whole Mediterranean basin, I’m inclined to treat other changes that occur over the course of his career as small wagers as well.
Of course, it’s not necessary to posit existential changes in most cases. As Christian ethicists have been arguing for years, not only Paul’s letters but also the canonical Gospels seem to shift in emphasis based on the contingencies of the recipient communities’ common lives, so Paul is entirely within his rights to call for stable leadership in Timothy’s gathering but a more free-form (but orderly!) gathering for the Christians in Corinth, so the expectation that the entire Pauline corpus is going to be uniform and free from historical contingency is a strange one in its own right. Although we can and should describe possible reasons for those differences, there aren’t too many good reasons to cry “forgery!” without some sense that someone before the German high modernists might have called foul first.
With regards to the stylistic changes, I imagine my own prose 15 years ago and my own prose 15 years hence will likely differ from one another given the strangeness of human existence, but I discussed that, along with the possibility that Paul’s imprisonment might have been a factor, in my section on Peter. As with those documents, I’m still inclined to call the Pauline epistles the letters of Paul.
Never once did I doubt Ehrman’s seriousness about exploring trickery in ancient literature, for Ehrman himself is no mean practitioner of rhetorical sleight of hand. As he alerts readers to the signs that this or that document might be a “forgery,” he neglects to note that the word “forgery” itself has a history that largely begins in the age of the printing press. Although he notes that “forgery” was not a crime in the ancient world as it has become in the last 600 years, and although he does briefly note the terminology that a small sample of ancient authors used when talking about falsely attributed texts, he proceeds to call all sorts of documents “forgeries” throughout the book, no doubt to carry the modern, criminal-law rhetorical weight of the term into his discussions of various Christian documents, most notably (and most faithfully to the book’s subtitle) certain New Testament books. Every time that word appears, even though Ehrman never discusses the distinctively modern sense of the word beyond calling it a “crime,” the reader is reminded, because of the reader’s situation in a print culture, of a class of criminal acts in which a falsely printed and signed document can be used as a means to implicate a victim of a crime or to defraud a victim of money or property. Ehrman never has to paint a picture of some underaged second-century Christian’s using a fake ID marked “Saul of Tarsus” to get into a bar; the word “forgery,” for literate readers of English, already carries the rhetorical freight of a particular sort of crime. In the case of 2 Thessalonians, Ehrman calls it a “forgery” at least six times before ever coming to discuss the book’s contents or to offer an argument that some sort of false attribution is going on, much less to establish the adequacy of the modern-era use of “forgery” to describe that false attribution. He calls second-century Gnostic documents “forgeries” with the same fluency with which he names nineteenth-century bestsellers “forgeries” without ever slowing down to wonder, as a good lawyer might, whether differences in intent, means, and results warrant the use of the same term to name both ranges of phenomena.
What’s more, each of Ehrman’s chapters that ends with a discussion of New Testament material begins with not with the New Testament but with texts that (according to Ehrman’s own dating) come well after the New Testament, only to return to canonical writings at the end of the discussion. The rhetorical effect is to establish an atmosphere of chuckling incredulity in place before the reader gets to the New Testament. In the stories of the later texts, Ehrman often includes a brief narrative about the definitive moment when the world caught the forger. No such story is available for the New Testament texts, but nonetheless, the warm-up act is notable for someone looking at Ehrman’s own rhetorical moves. Not to dwell on such things, Ehrman also tends to pick poorly-worded critiques of his ideas and pick them apart, then provide a glowing attributive phrase and then one footnote for an entire book in moments when an appeal to authority suits his purposes.
Such a range of rhetorical moves is important to a reader like me because part of Ehrman’s own claim is that anachronisms are certain signs that something fishy is going on, and since in the introduction Ehrman claims to be “interested in the truth” (11), I suspected early in the book that something other than journalistic reporting was going on with his incessant insistence on the word “forgery” to name phenomena that occur, by and large, at least a thousand years before that word took on its modern sense. And since the arguments that he does marshal for calling certain documents false attributions (though he never does argue for the particular modern term he uses for them) have their roots in nineteenth-century German high modernism, his rhetorical razzle-dazzle really is the main show in this book. Unfortunately, what Ehrman’s book lacks in new Biblical Studies scholarship it doesn’t really make up for in new means of convincing the unconvinced that Christians are as immoral and gullible as he wants to call us: his transparent misuse of “forgery,” his arrangement of material, and the juxtaposition of personal anecdotes about lying with discussions of old Biblical scholarship are the same old things that I’ve been seeing since The God Delusion. If anything, this is the same sort of atheism-on-the-cheap that someone like Richard Dawkins peddles, only Ehrman’s isn’t as convincing. And that’s saying something.
If every book has its ideal reader, I’m fairly certain I’m not Bart Ehrman’s ideal reader. Forged seems pitched at those folks who have had a semester of Introduction to Religion and want a bit of extra water-cooler ammunition and a few snappy jokes for those encounters with evangelicals at work and at school. Good writers explain certain chains of reasoning to anticipate the objections of certain kinds of writers, and Ehrman obviously lacks the will to make a case that anything but an Enlightenment-style closed material universe is governing the phenomena surrounding the composition and canonization of the New Testament and the failure of other documents to become canon. That’s not a crime, of course: every book can’t be for every reader. Those omissions probably will not bother the sort of reader who reads Dawkins and Ehrman for pleasure, which returns me once more to my sorrowful confession: although I did write this review in 2011, and although as far as I know nobody will see fit to attribute texts to me when I’m dead and gone, the writer who now types with his own fingers finds this book a nice illustrative example of what post-September-11 anti-Christian publishing looks like but not much more.
[N.B. This review is based on an advance copy of the book that I received for review purposes. HarperOne provided the book at no charge to me, and that fact did not, as far as I know, affect my review of the book.]