Forgery and counterforgery (book review)

FORGERY AND COUNTERFORGERY:Forgery and counterforgery
The use of literary deceit in early Christian
By Bart Ehrman
Oxford University Press. 628 pages. £27.50
ISBN 978 0 199 928 033

(view original article here)

In many ways, this substantial volume by Ehrman seems to be an expansion of his 2011 book, Forged. In that respect, my review of the latter book largely impacts on this volume.

The substance of what Ehrman states in his 2011 work is reproduced in this book. However, there is one major aspect that needs to be underlined – Ehrman’s contention that forgery was as unacceptable in the ancient world as it is today.

One might rejoin that this should be obvious, but to many scholars it is not. Indeed, in this volume, Ehrman is not only attacking conservative views of the Bible, as is his wont, but also a major liberal tenet that pseudonymity – the use of someone else’s name in authorship of a work – was not an issue in the ancient world.

Of course, conservatives have been saying for a long time that this was essentially an act of identity theft, an unethical deceit. Startlingly, considering his usual attacks on conservative scholarship, Ehrman agrees with this analysis.

Stand in the streams?

Ehrman quotes the usual liberal defence of pseudonymity – that it was not an attempt to deceive, but rather a claim ‘to stand within the authoritative streams of tradition’ (p. 39). That is, the doctrine of the writer is that of the person he claims to be. Of course, this becomes problematic when different works which contradict each other are ascribed to the same author! At any rate, Ehrman asserts – rightly – that the aim in using the name of some person is to claim his authority. What gives the work authority is that it is ascribed to someone like Peter, as with the so-called Apocalypse of Peter (p.42). In this respect, it is no different from someone claiming the identity of a person in order to utilise his authority to empty a bank account!


Apart from the moral criticism of pseudo-nymity, Ehrman also demonstrates that it is unhistorical to suggest that it was acceptable practice in the ancient world. In fact, ‘the ancients were interested in knowing who actually wrote a literary work’ and address the issue ‘with striking frequency’, which Ehrman supports by referring to Herodotus, Aristotle, Pausanias and others. He shows that the early Christians felt the same way, noting objections by Athanasius and Jerome to letters falsely published in their names (pp.82-83). In short, the practice of pseudo-nymity was unacceptable and condemned in the ancient world, as much as it is today. To this, evangelicals can give a hearty amen!

New Testament books forged?

Had Ehrman stopped at this point, evangelicals could probably see his work as a useful contribution to issues of historicity – but he does not. He goes on to list various forgeries, which include Apocryphal works, but also the pastoral epistles, Hebrews, the Johannine epistles, the Petrine epistles, James, Jude, Acts of the Apostles – in fact, most of the New Testament. To address Ehrman’s contention would be beyond the capacity of an article – it would require a book. At any rate, the arguments presented – and their refutation – are nothing new. However, we may consider what he says about Mark and Luke. He regards their gospels as anonymous, and states that their attribution to these two figures is unsurprising – which, frankly, is itself a surprising argument.

Criteria of Embarrassment

In his other writings, Ehrman has referred to the academic Criteria of Embarrassment. When something negative is stated about a central figure, such as David in regard to the Uriah incident, there is no reason to believe that the event was unhistorical – after all, the writer would be more inclined to suppress it. Similarly, with Mark, why would the early church attribute this gospel to someone who was not an apostle, unless he did actually write it, as a result of his association with Peter? Also, consider what we read about him in Acts 13, how he deserted Saul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey and then was the cause of a breach between the two figures. Surely this is another reason against anyone falsely ascribing the work to Mark?

As for Luke, if we apply the same criteria, we might note that he was a Greek, not a Jew – how many first-century Jews would receive a Scripture written by a Gentile? Luke was not an apostle – but no one in the early church ever claimed that anyone but Luke wrote the gospel and Acts attached to his name. Luke freely acknowledges that he was not an eyewitness of Jesus (although he investigated the reports of those who were). Why would anyone want to invent his authorship?

Yet Ehrman obviously does not accept that Mark and Luke wrote the gospels in question. He also spends considerable space into debunking the authenticity of the Acts of the Apostles, sometimes using circular arguments – for example, the attribution of the book to Luke by Irenæus (c.180) is, for Ehrman, proof of the success of the writer’s ‘ploy’ in suggesting that he was an eyewitness of Paul (p.279).

Ehrman attacks the authenticity not only of 2 Peter – a standard liberal position – but also of 1 Peter and of James and Jude, for the common reason that the real figures would have been illiterate peasants, probably speaking only Aramaic, not knowing Greek in any measure. He cites studies suggesting that only three per cent of people in Roman Palestine were literate, but ignores other works arguing against this. More pointedly, he again refers to Acts 4:13 as suggesting that Peter was illiterate: ‘Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated [agrammatoi], and untrained [‘idiōtai] men [literally, ‘common men’] …’ These words do not mean ‘unlearned and ignorant’ (as KJV). To be agrammatoi is to lack scribal training – opposite of grammateus, professional ‘scribe’. An ‘idiōtēs is one outside the group, i.e. of professional scribes and priests – a layman, not a priest.

Ignoring the obvious

He also thinks it unlikely that Peter knew Greek, yet the latter fished on the Sea of Galilee, bordered on the east by Greek-speaking areas. Ehrman suggests the same about James and Jude, yet he ignores the proximity of the Hellenistic city of Sepphoris to Nazareth. Further, when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, how did they communicate to the locals? It is most unlikely that either knew Coptic, but under the Ptolemies, Greek had been the state language and if, as is quite probable, the couple made for the Hellenistic city of Alexandria, with its huge Jewish community, what Greek they spoke would have improved by bounds. Yet Ehrman ignores this.

Ill-equipped Christians

The essential problem with this book, of course, is that Muslim propagandists on the streets and on campuses will study and utilise its arguments. Yet most Christians are ill-equipped to answer them. This became obvious during the Olympics at Stratford in 2012 when they approached Christian evangelists there, challenging them about the identity, history and reliability of the NT authors, and the Christians were unable to answer. The problem is that rarely, if ever, do local churches teach their congregants – especially in Sunday schools and youth fellowships – about these issues, leaving young people in particular defenceless in the face of well-trained, large Islamic Societies at college and Muslim propagandists on the streets. So often such Muslims taunt: ‘You don’t know anything about Mark, Matthew, etc. Did they have good memories? Were they trustworthy? Did they speak Greek?’ In doing so, they can quote Ehrman to support their position.

It behoves local church leaders to remedy this situation by instructing their flocks in biblical historicity, canon and text to meet this challenge, and to show where Ehrman is less than convincing.

Dr Anthony McRoy

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit our website or subscribe to en for regular updates.