Wednesday, 16 September 2015

"Forged" and "Forgery and Counterforgery" by Bart Ehrman

This is another couple of books by the leading American Bible scholar Bart Ehrman.  One of them (Forged) is a popular book for a general readership; the other (Forgery and Counterforgery) is a detailed academic monograph.  They deal with the delicate issue of pseudonymous and pseudepigraphical writings in early Christian literature - or, as Ehrman puts it less euphemistically, forgeries.  Previous studies of this phenomenon such as Wolfgang Speyer's 1971 masterpiece Die literarische Faelschung im heidnischen und christlichen Altertum are now dated, and it is good that Ehrman has turned his time and talents to dealing with this underresearched topic.

The early Christians struggled to correctly identify the significance of the revelation of Jesus Christ amidst numerous competing theories - getting this stuff right was a matter of spiritual life or death.  At the same time, the Christian church inherited from Judaism a profound veneration for written scripture.  This combination of circumstances inevitably favoured the creation of pseudonymous texts by writers who wanted to borrow the authority of Jesus' first apostles in order to set the theological record straight.  The result was the arresting fact that most early Christian writings were not written by their claimed authors.  This includes an impressive array of non-biblical writings, which were variously written to advance polemical agendas for and against doceticism, Gnosticism, Ebionism, Marcionism and so on.  Such forgeries range from the Gospels of Peter and Thomas to the Clementine Recognitions and Homilies to 3 Corinthians to the Ascension of Isaiah to the writings of the Pilate Cycle.  What's more, Ehrman is at pains to point out that pseudonymy is also clearly apparent within the New Testament itself.  He considers the style and content of the pseudonymous NT books in some detail, from the intricacies of the various deutero-Pauline letters to the pro-Pauline polemic of 1 and 2 Peter and the anti-Pauline polemic of James.

Even in antiquity, numerous religious texts were subject to debates among Christians on their authenticity - an issue which was connected with the question of whether or not they deserved a place in the scriptural canon.  In a couple of cases, specific forgeries were detected and exposed.  There were the Acts of Paul, which were forged in the 2nd century; their author was discovered and drummed out of the priesthood.  And there were the 5th century Letters of Timothy to the Church; a priest called Salvian wrote a de facto confession that he had forged these texts, to the evident anger of his bishop.  But the disputes went much further than these cases, in which the issue of authenticity was clearly resolved.  At one time or another, the canonical books of Hebrews, 1 and 2 Timothy, James, Jude, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter and Revelation were all subject to doubts over their genuineness.  But the church did not, in the end, cast them out.

Ehrman argues that pseudonymous scriptures cannot be defended by the usual argument - that is, that you were allowed to ascribe a text to a big name if you were one of his disciples or admirers.  This argument has become a kind of received wisdom even among scholars who are not conservative Christians.  But the ancient evidence for it is surprisingly weak.  To the contrary, our sources attest that forgery was seen as a real problem in antiquity.  People were not supposed to write books under other people's names, either in Jewish or in Graeco-Roman culture.  The only potentially convincing exception (which Ehrman does not allow) is the specific genre of Jewish apocalyptic, in which ascribing texts to the likes of Enoch, Abraham and even Adam may have been accepted as a literary convention.  For the most part, however, forgery was perceived as a problematic practice.  Within the New Testament itself, 2 Thessalonians complains about a forged letter which has falsely been ascribed to Paul (2.2).  (There is a clear irony here, as 2 Thessalonians is probably a pseudonymous text.)

Ehrman also rebuts the theory that Paul and the other apostles used secretaries to compose the contents of their letters in their names (and not merely to take dictation).  The Graeco-Roman evidence for this practice is unimpressive, and the theory is difficult to reconcile with the fact that writings ascribed to (say) Paul are often markedly non-Pauline in their theological substance.

On the other hand, Ehrman's arguments will not necessarily trouble a committed believer.  The argument might be made that it is the content of books of scripture that is important, and whether the church has recognised them as reflective of its faith; not who they were actually written by.  But his conclusions are certainly incompatible with a conservative view of biblical inerrancy, and they will rightly trouble believers of a more fundamentalist persuasion.