Someone turned my attention to an article by Bart Ehrman, published in the Huffington Post, titled “Who Wrote the Bible and Why it Matters.” The article is essentialy an argument that the Bible contains lies. Specifically, Ehrman addresses individual books of the Bible which claim to have been written by one person and, in fact, were not.
This is called pseudepigrapha, which means “false writing.” It happens when one author pens a work, yet claims it was written by someone else. Examples are pseudepigrapha are many. The Gospel of Thomas, The Letter of Peter to Paul, The Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene all qualify. There are dozens of these works, both for the Old Testament and the New. Ehrman’s basic argument is nothing new or extraordinary. He claims that many of the New Testament books are pseudepigrapha. The leading contenders for this designation are 2 Peter and six of the letters attributed to Paul, including the pastoral epistles.
Reasons for suspecting these works are various and complex. However, according to Ehrman, the presence of these works in the Bible demonstrates conclusively that the Bible is full of lies. After all, is it not a lie to write something, and then claim that it was written by someone else? What if I wrote this blog post, but under the author designation, said it was written by Bart Ehrman? It would be deceptive and discrediting. It would be more than an error; it would be a lie. According to Ehrman, here is “the truth”:
“Many of the books of the New Testament were written by people who lied about their identity, claiming to be a famous apostle — Peter, Paul or James — knowing full well they were someone else. In modern parlance, that is a lie, and a book written by someone who lies about his identity is a forgery.”
Anyone reading this article would get the impression that Ehrman is telling his readers something that most others are either too ignorant or too scared to reveal. But he is “coming clean” with a truth that virtually all scholars have already admitted.
The article is by no means a scholarly or balanced argument. In fact, I don’t see any arguments at all, just assertions and appeals to the scholarly masses. And anyone who does not come to the same conclusion is pushed aside as biased and uninformed.
Unfortunately, this is all too common when Ehrman’s “scholarship” steamrolls the unsuspecting public. Time and time again he presents himself as the knight in shining armor, finally making the truth known to the otherwise helpless sheep following those radical (or radically ignorant) pastors and teachers within conservative Christianity. After all, this issue is such a slam dunk that anyone who disagrees with Ehrman’s conclusions is, de facto, a “rabid fundamentalist.”
Here are a few of the problems I find in Ehrman’s article:
1. Ehrman does much to disqualify his voice when he starts the article with these words: “Apart from the most rabid fundamentalists among us, nearly everyone admits that the Bible might contain errors.” At this point, what chance does any alternative to Ehrman’s conclusions really have? Although I hate to invoke argumentative fallacies (they are just not classy and are way overused), this is a classic case of “poisoning the well.” It is an attempt to discredit any alternatives by lumping them together with the most unholy of associations. But from the standpoint of any honest observer, this simply reveals the author’s emotionalism and/or timidity. If and when arguments are not present (or not very strong), just poison the well to achieve the same result. However, this only works with those who are not really seeking the truth.
2. Ehrman sees no need to present any sort of argument for his case. It is true – there are many scholars who agree with Ehrman that many New Testament works are pseudepigrapha, and they have good reasons. But these reasons are hardly as compelling as Ehrman assumes. A good case can also be made that each letter is authentic. I suggest picking up a copy of Donald Guthrie’s New Testament Introduction to see the evidence for and against each book in question. One can not easily dismiss Guthrie as a “rabid fundamentalist.” At the very least, you will get a much clearer picture of the issues than Ehrman seeks to give.
3. The implications are overstated. Even if one were to grant that 2 Peter were a pseudepigraph (and while I disagree, I admit it is the best candidate), what does this do? According to Ehrman, it means that the Bible contains lies. But this is not true. It would simply prove that 2 Peter was a lie. It is not scholarly in the least, in this type of argument, to treat the entire canon of Scripture (or just the New Testament) as one book written by one author (as the title of Ehrman’s article, “Who Wrote the Bible and Why It Matters,” does). Ironically, in such cases, skeptics like to attribute a unity to the Bible which they would never grant in any other situation! The truth is that even if 2 Peter and certain Pauline epistles were written by someone else, they alone would be deceptive. The rest of the books would be untouched.
4. The implications are not stated. Let us assume that the letters in question are not authentic. Let us grant Ehrman’s unsupported theses (just because we like the guy). What does this mean? The implications are rather unremarkable. No cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith is affected in the least. All the major doctrines of orthodox Christianity remain intact, finding their support in the authentic books. I am not saying that these letters are of no value, I am simply saying that Ehrman continually fails to mention, in all of his “pastoral revelations” to us poor unsuspecting people, that the message of the Christian faith is largely unaffected.
Unfortunately, I believe Ehrman’s style is much more “rabid” and far more “fundamentalist” than just about anyone else out there these days, believer or non. But, more than that, I would say his imbalanced treatment of this topic is the only “lie” I can see clearly in this article. Ehrman seems to have sold out the respect and contribution that his level of scholarship could demand, Christian or not. He is increasingly trading in his respectability as a scholar for some sort of crusade against Christianity, in which he may be seeking to solve his bitterness toward his own fundamentalist upbringing. He is a far cry from his mentor Bruce Metzger, and more and more resembles the lack of balance, meekness, and poise of so many in the New Atheist camp. I think a comment in the article from an atheist sums this up well:
“I would love to believe this article on its face. I am an Atheist, after all. But I would also love some references and citations for what are obviously some controversial claims. Otherwise it sounds a bit like Christian apologists.”
I suppose these days Bart Ehrman thinks his own musings are enough of a reference to support his claims.