Plenty of Bible scholars have attempted to explain what they know and what they do to a general readership. But only a few of them do it quite as well as Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. His books on the Bible, including such bestsellers as “Misquoting Jesus,” “God’s Problem,” and “Jesus, Interrupted,” are like a cool drink of water — clear and bracing.
The same can be said of his latest book, “Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are” (HarperOne: $26.99). Ehrman explains how Christianity, which is theologically committed to what he calls “truth claims,” has sometimes relied on scriptural texts that were not written by their putative authors. “The Bible contained errors,” he writes of his own early revelation as a young Bible student. “And it if contained errors, it was not completely true.”
It’s significant that Ehrman frankly uses the word “forgery” to describe texts that are often more delicately referred to as “pseudonymous.” He takes his fellow scholars to task for blurring the distinction between these two terms: “It is often said – even by scholars who should know better – that this kind of ‘pseudonymous’ (i.e., ‘falsely named’) writing in the ancient world was not thought to be lying and was not meant to be deceitful,” he writes. “[T]his view is flat-out wrong.”
Ehrman reveals the theological motives that inspired ancient forgers to affix the names of other writers to their own work. An early Christian named Marcion, for example, believed that “the God of the Old Testament was the Jewish God who created this world, chose Israel to be his people, and then gave them his law,” and that the Christian God was a different deity who “sent Jesus into the world…to save people form the wrathful God of the Old Testament.” To persuade his fellow Christians to embrace the unsettling notion of two contesting gods, Marcion and his followers came up with texts that they falsely attributed to Paul. And, for his efforts, he was denounced as a heretic. Not all ancient forgeries, however, were the handiwork of heretics. Indeed, Ehrman shows why six of the so-called “Pauline letters” in the New Testament were probably not written by Paul himself.
Perhaps the most compelling sections of “Forged” for the Jewish reader are focused on the role of Jewish-Christian rivalry in composition of some phony Christian texts. Precisely because Jews in the ancient world did not accept Jesus as the promised messiah, some books were written in the name of authoritative figures “to show the brilliant truth of Christianity and the horrendous errors of the Jews.” Significantly, as Ehrman points out, the authors of some of these forgeries argued that “it was not the Romans, but the Jewish leaders, or event he Jewish people themselves, who were responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion.”
Then, too, Ehrman puts the writings of the Gnostics, whose versions of the Gospels are already well known to modern readers, into a new and illuminating context. For example, the Gospel of Thomas, reputed to be the work of the twin brother of Jesus, is a famous text, but Ehrman explores the Book of Thomas the Contender, a book that is attributed to the same author and conveniently endorses the theology that was embraced by the Gnostic sect and condemned as heretical by Christian orthodoxy. “It is another Gnostic forgery,” writes Ehrman, “produced to oppose the teachings of other Christians…”
Ehrman, as a Christian scholar, is concerned with the Christian scriptures, but he could have made the same case about various books in the Hebrew Bible, too. After all, while Ehrman points out that “Matthew probably did not write Matthew, for example, or John, John,” modern Bible scholars also concede that Moses did not write the Five Books of Moses. But for any reader who cares about the Bible, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, “Forged” is a wholly fascinating book. Above all, because it reveals the fingerprints of flesh-and-blood authors on the pages of holy writ, Ehrman’s latest work is further evidence that “[t]he Bible is a very human book.”