The fact that some of the texts in the New Testament, including the four gospels themselves, were not written by the authors to whom they are attributed has long been known to scholars though not to many churchgoers. But some of these scholars have claimed that forgery is too strong a term to apply in these cases, saying that such practices were not disapproved of in the ancient world as much as they are today. But Ehrman does not accept this and provides quotations to show that forgery was in fact strongly disapproved of in antiquity.
Attitudes to forgery are discussed in the first chapter, and then Ehrman goes on to discuss specific instances of the practice, starting with forgeries in the name of Peter. A strong prima facie reason for doubting that Peter wrote the material attributed to him is that he was a simple Gallilean fisherman who was almost certainly illiterate. It is conceivable, but highly unlikely, that he learnt to write and studied Greek to the point that he could produce extensive sophisticated prose literature. It could also be supposed that he dictated to a secretary, but there are considerable difficulties with that idea too. The same applies to texts attributed to James, the brother of Jesus.
There are even bigger issues in connection with the writings of Paul. Unlike Peter, he undoubtedly was literate and did know Greek to a high standard. But just because he was such an important figure in the early church there was a temptation to others to use his name to authenticate their own writings, some of which contradicted the views of Paul himself. Of thirteen letters ascribed to Paul, seven are certainly genuine, but the remaining six are unlikely to be authentic.
One motive for forgery was the wish to influence the debate in the early church between those who insisted that converts to Christianity must also follow the Jewish law and others, such as Paul himself. who thought the opposite. The Acts of the Apostles appears to have been written with this in mind.
Forgery in the name of religion has continued down to our own day, and Ehrman discusses this in a final chapter. The most intriguing example for me concerns a text, allegedly discovered by Professor Morton Smith in a monastery near Jerusalem in 1958. This was a handwritten copy of a letter from Clement of Alexandria, who said that Mark had published a second edition of his gospel in which he referred to a relationship between Jesus and a young man he had raised from the dead. Smith interpreted this as a homosexual relationship and argued that it was evidence for other homosexual activities by Jesus. This sounds too ridiculous to be worth discussing, except that Smith was a very eminent Columbia scholar. But the strong suspicion is that the letter was a forgery by Smith himself, although not everyone agrees.
Like Ehrman's other books, this one wears its scholarship lightly and is very readable. Even so, the procession of forgeries becomes rather confusing and a bit monotonous after a time. It would have been a good idea to include some tables listing the different texts discussed, so that one could see at a glance for example, which letters of Paul are thought to be inauthentic.
25 September 2011