Saturday, April 30, 2011

JI: Introduction to Forgeries

Ehrman spends the first few pages of JI's fourth chapter explaining how we know the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. First he identifies the purported writers: Matthew and John were disciples, Mark was the disciple Peter's secretary, and Luke was Paul's traveling companion. But there are several problems with accepting these people as the authors:
  1. The four books have many contradictions and opposing viewpoints that make far more sense if the authors aren't eyewitnesses.
  2. None of the gospels claim to be eyewitness accounts of the events, and in fact all are written in the third person.
  3. Jesus' followers were illiterate, Aramaic-speaking Galilean peasants. Yet the gospel writers were highly educated Greek-speakers who sometimes display ignorance of the area's geography and customs.
  4. None of the gospels originally had an author's name attached to them; it was only later in early church history that they were attributed to these four people.
A few early church fathers did say that the disciples wrote gospels. But Papias got his information third- or fourth-hand, and "when he can be checked, he appears to be wrong." And Irenaeus had strong motives for attributing the gospels to authoritative people in order to increase their credibility and reinforce his viewpoint.

Next Ehrman provides a brief introduction to ancient forgeries. Remarkably, only 8 of the 27 New Testament books have completely undisputed authorship. He places the 19 whose authorship is disputed into three categories:
  • Misattributed writings: anonymous books with incorrectly identified authors (e.g. the gospels)
  • Homonymous writings: books by someone bearing the same name as a famous person (e.g. the author of James was simply assumed to be James, brother of Jesus)
  • Pseudigraphic writings: books written under a false name—either as a pen name or as a literal forgery
Ehrman argues that forgeries were prevalent in the ancient world, that they intended to deceive, that they often did, and that ancient societies viewed the practice just as seriously as we do today. Then he gives a fascinating list of motivations for forgeries, only a few of which had occurred to me. I'll list the ones relevant to Christian writing here:
  1. To make an enemy look bad: For example, Ehrman suspects that heresy hunter Epiphanus forged a book called The Greater Questions of Mary and claimed it was used by the heretical Phibionites. It contained a story about Jesus performing a sex act, thus casting them in a bad light.
  2. To oppose a certain viewpoint: For example, the forgery 3 Corinthians uses Paul's name to argue against heretical views from the second century.
  3. To make their enemies agree with them: For example, early Christians inserted references to Jesus to make it seem like pagan oracles prophesied his coming.
  4. To express humility or love for an authority figure: Some forgers may have considered their works a mere "extension of what the master himself said." And the author of The Acts of Paul and Thecla claimed he wrote it "out of love for Paul."
  5. To supplement the tradition: For example, in Colossians Paul mentions a letter to Laodicea which was never found, so early Christians forged a couple. And there's little mention of Jesus' childhood in canonical books, so they wrote several stories of their own.
  6. To counter other forgeries: The Acts of Pilate, the Apostolic Constitutions, and the canonical book of 2 Thessalonians are cited as examples.
  7. To provide authority for their own views: Ehrman says this is easily the most common reason for forgeries, especially for small groups who had been branded heretics.
With so many reasons to commit forgery, it's not surprising that a huge number of forged books were written, nor that some managed to make their way into the Bible. Next I'll cover the evidence Ehrman presents to demonstrate that this is the case.

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