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.

Paradoxology (book review)

Why Christianity was never meant to be simple
By Krish Kandiah
Hodder & Stoughton. 308 pages. £13.99
ISBN 978 1 444 745 344

Krish Kandiah’s Paradoxology addresses some of the biggest questions Christians wrestle with – questions such as God’s sovereignty and the human will, God’s transcendence and immanence, divine compassion and judgment, and his victory in defeat at the cross.

Krish argues that the very paradoxes which seem to undermine belief actually lie at the heart of a living faith in an awesome and infinitely majestic God.

In tackling such questions Krish takes the reader through the Bible’s story to meet many of the characters who grapple with similar issues. Chapters include: ‘The Moses Paradox’ – the God who is far away, yet so close; ‘The Joshua Paradox’ – the God who is terrible yet compassionate; ‘The Job Paradox’ – the God who is actively inactive; ‘The Esther Paradox’ – the God who speaks silently; ‘The Jesus Paradox’ – the God who is divinely human; ‘The Judas Paradox’ – the God who determines our free will; and ‘The Cross Paradox’ – the God who wins as he loses. In these chapters and others, with a combination of scholarly care, potent illustration and pastoral application, Krish guides the reader to a place of humble wonder at things too wonderful for us to fully grasp or understand.

This book helpfully steers away from overly neat or glib answers to the sorts of questions people really struggle with. It’s well written, accessible and deserving of a wide audience. My guess is that this might be particularly useful for students initially engaging with these sorts of questions. Cornelius Plantinga has said ‘dogmatic myopia … subvert[s] the richer understandings of life within the gospel’. This book resists such dogmatic myopia and, as such, presents a compelling vision for the deep riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God.

John Tindall,
Monyhull Church, Birmingham

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.

Unapologetic Christianity from Chris Sinkinson: Bible blunders?

How can you possibly trust a book that is full or errors, contradictions and confusion? The simple answer is that you cannot. That is why we have to respond to such dismissive treatments of the Bible.

There has been a popular Islamic tract, ‘101 clear contradictions in the Bible’, doing the rounds recently. An atheist group has produced a poster diagram of 439 contradictions in the Bible. These lists of alleged errors, fired off with the rapidity of an automatic machine gun, can sound impressive. But, on closer inspection, they indicate the weakness of the case against Scripture.

Christians believe the Bible to be free of error because it is the word of God (2 Timothy 3.16; 2 Peter 1.20), just as Jesus affirmed (Matthew 5.18; John 10.35). For a full explanation of Jesus’s view of Scripture, I’d recommend John Wenham’s Christ and the Bible. But it would be a circular argument to use this with a non-Christian. They may simply reply: ‘So you believe the Bible is the reliable word of God because it says it is the reliable word of God? That doesn’t help me, I don’t trust what the Bible says in the first place’. Furthermore, our friends do not have to accept that the Bible is free of all error to recognise its historical value and consider the claims of Christ.

Down to brass tacks

But how do we deal with the objection that the Bible is full of errors? The first helpful reply is to ask what particular example our friend has in mind. Often there is nothing in particular, just a general feeling that the Bible must be in error! We may be reminded of those famous words: ‘My mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with the facts!’

But sometimes our friend will have a specific example. Some are well known (How many times did the cock crow before Peter had denied Jesus? Who got to the empty tomb first?), others are very obscure. Did Ahaziah begin his reign at the age of 22 (2 Kings 8.26) or 42 (2 Chronicles 22.2)? The more obscure the contradiction, the more likely it’s been gleaned second hand from something like the Muslim tract I have already mentioned.

What to do

So, what should we do when we are stumped by such a difficulty? First, consider whether the alleged error is actually there. Check a couple of different translations to see that this is not a simple misreading of the text.

Secondly, ask whether the differences reflect a style of writing, the limited perspective of the author or a different context? The Book of Proverbs cautions, ‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly’ and advises, ‘Answer a fool according to his folly’, all within two verses (Proverbs 26.4-5). Is this a contradiction? Or does it simply reflect the genre of wisdom literature where principles must be applied to different life settings.

Finally, consult a good commentary. Theologians have commented on such alleged difficulties for thousands of years. Rarely will you come across an example that has not already received a lot of attention. In the fourth century, Augustine pointed out that these supposed contradictions arise from one of three sources: either a faulty manuscript, a poor translation or a problem in our own limited understanding.

Elephant in the room

But there is a more obvious point to make about all this attention paid to alleged errors. It is found in the witty essay by C.S. Lewis entitled ‘Fern Seed and Elephants’. Scholars can offer thousands of words describing some fern seed of detail they claim to have discovered in the biblical text. This fern seed is not to be dismissed. But nor should the fern seed distract us from the elephant in the room. The elephant is the fundamental reliability and persuasiveness of the text of the Bible. For every complex verse that is hard to understand, there are hundreds that are simple and uncontroversial. The central message of the Bible is clear, consistent and compelling: ‘The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things’. What about the 101 clear contradictions in the Bible? You might want to see Jay Smith’s ‘101 Cleared Up Contradictions in the Bible’ which you can locate free online.

Chris Sinkinson is pastor of Alderholt Chapel and lectures at Moorlands College. His book on apologetics, Confident Christianity, has recently been released by IVP.

This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057