Famous for exploring ancient Christianity’s most divisive problems in his more than 20 books, including the bestseller Misquoting Jesus (2005), Bart Ehrman writes for academics as well as the lay reader. A former evangelical Christian who later turned into a respectful skeptic, Ehrman teaches religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and often provides commentary on national outlets like The Daily Show and NPR. His most recent book explores the authorship of early Christian texts, including many books of the Bible. The title, Forged, reflects his thesis that many of these works were falsely attributed to other more famous and more respected writers, and that we need to see such works for what they are—forgeries. Here, Ehrman discusses his latest research with Kirkus.
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What effect do you hope Forged will have?
I very much want the average person, the nonscholar, to see what scholarship can show us about the authorship of the books of the Bible. As it turns out, there are books in the New Testament that were not written by the persons claimed as their authors: Paul himself did not write Ephesians; Peter did not write 1 Peter; James did not write James. There is very good evidence for these claims.
And, contrary to what people often say and hear, this practice of making a false authorial claim—what we typically call “forgery”—was not, was decidedly not, an acceptable practice in the ancient world. The ancients called books with false authorial claims “lies” and “bastards.” They did not approve of the practice because they thought it was deceitful. So it is worth understanding how books like this would have been received by ancient readers.
Do forged materials still have value?
I absolutely think that forged texts can be important—religiously, ethically, philosophically and every other way. The truth claims made in a forged document are no different from truth claims in any other document—they need to be evaluated on the same basis. That is to say, whether an author lied about his own identity or not has no bearing on whether what he said otherwise is true. And historically, of course, some of the most important documents of ancient religion were forged.
What kind of reaction does your work bring about, from Christians and non-Christians alike?
My experience is that most non-Christians and most so-called “liberal” Christians—in fact, most everyone except for fundamentalists and very conservative evangelical Christians—welcome my work with open arms. They are fascinated to learn what scholars have been saying about the New Testament, the historical Jesus and the history of the early church, and they are not offended by the fact that scholars say something different from what you hear in the popular or the religious media.
The only people who take offense so far as I can tell are those for whom this kind of historical scholarship is blasphemy. My response to such people is that they need to look not only at the results of scholarship [as I lay them out in my books] but also at the evidence that makes these results convincing to scholars of all sorts of persuasions, Christian and non-Christian alike. The evidence that supports my claims in Forged is extremely compelling to most people who examine it.
Going out on a limb…what would Jesus say about all of this?
It is very much to be regretted that we have no words of Jesus discussing the phenomenon of ancient forgery. If he was like everyone else who did talk about forgery, he would have strongly condemned the practice. I personally do not think Jesus would have advocated the validity of lies and deceit, especially in his name. The authors of these books may themselves have thought differently and assumed that in some cases it is acceptable to lie, especially when it came to propagating the truth.
Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are
Bart D. Ehrman
HarperOne / March 22, 2011 / 9780062012616 / $26.99