Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book Snap: Bart Ehrman's "Forged"

Ehrman’s Forged is a book of the sort that Skeptics drool over, but it won’t be because of substantive argument. Despite the subtitle (“Why the Bible’s Authors are Not Who We Think They Are”), the bulk of the book isn’t even about Biblical documents. Such portions as do concern Biblical documents, I will reserve comment on as part of a supplement for my online page for Trusting the New Testament. Here, I’ll discuss the other chapters.

Chapter 1. This chapter could be summed up in seven words: “People forged things in the ancient world.” Now it is not as though anyone doubted this; Ehrman is laying groundwork, and at least we can say he doesn’t use this (except by implication) to argue, “…therefore, the NT documents are forged too.”

But there are certain disappointments here even so. I have repeatedly noted that critics like Ehrman seldom if ever lay out a structured epistemology for determining the authorship of a document. Forged is no exception. Aside from some general commentary about internal evidence of style and content, Ehrman offers little to nothing of this sort. All right, yes, forgeries existed in the ancient world. So did genuine documents. So if we point out the latter, is Ehrman rebutted? Of course not. A consistent and structured epistemology of authorship is needed, and Ehrman does nothing of substance in that direction.


This chapter also has interesting data on how forgery was performed, but it lacks the same rigor in showing how forgery is discerned from genuineness. For example, Ehrman says much of how one trick of forgers was to add “verisimilitude” to documents – real life details. That’s true, but genuine authors also add such things to documents, so while it may be correct to say such things make a reader less likely to assume a forgery, it also does nothing to show that a document is a forgery. Due caution is needed (which Ehrman fails to provide) that it is not enough to simply posit a “clever forger” to explain away that which would normally be the product of a genuine author.


Otherwise, Ch 1 is generally non-controversial, but it is nowhere near the depth of treatment Glenn Miller offers on the subject (link below). One point I will reserve from 1 is about Paul’s reputed correspondence with Seneca, which Ehrman also discusses in Ch 5.


Chapters 2 through 4 are about the NT and I will reserve comment for elsewhere, as noted.

Chapter 5. Here as well Ehrman discusses the Paul-Seneca correspondence. I was interested in this issue in particular because I had written an E-Block article on these letters in which I said:

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…How do we know that the authors of these "forged" documents intended for them to be taken as genuine? The point is an important one. Long ago I noted that it is hardly the fault of someone like, e.g., Marjorie Holmes if someone picks up Two from Galilee and thinks it is non-fiction. It is not marketed as such, and only ignoring the truth leads to such a conclusion. If that seems a stretch, we may recall that Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code is frequently taken as relating fact in spite of the "fiction" label -- though that Brown often claims to include "fact" in his work is a significant factor as well.

But in terms of ancient documents such as those listed by Humphreys, it remains to ask: What evidence is there that the authors actually intended for their works to be taken as genuine?


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I went on to note that the Paul-Seneca correspondence was little more than the two men complimenting each other back and forth and saying practically nothing of substance. I also noted:


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We don't know why they were written or by whom. We don't even know when they were discovered. This leaves open the question of why they were written.


1. Were they forged by someone intending them to be accepted as genuine?

2. Were they composed as "food for thought" by someone intending to get people to think of how the worldviews of Paul and Seneca would have interacted -- after the manner of Steve Allen's old show Meeting of Minds?

3. Were they composed as some sort of theoretical exercise by a literary student?
4. Were they meant as a fictional "what if" scenario, like a Harry Turtledove novel?

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I could find nothing to support any one of these notions, and Ehrman does not do so either. He points out that some accepted them as genuine; but also admits that some regarded them as forgeries, and as I also noted, concerning the former sort of people:


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…this places a burden on the reader which needs to be settled on the shoulders of the author. Marjorie Holmes, again, is not responsible for someone taking her fiction to be non-fiction. So likewise, simply because people accepted the PAS as genuine does not mean it was intended to be taken that way.

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Ehrman also argues, in Ch 5, that there was a motive for the forgery, to show that Paul was respected by one of the great minds of the Roman world. But as I said of that reasoning:

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…it is a non sequitur to drive from the argument of motive to the specific nature of the action performed. It is just as well argued that the author of the correspondence composed the letters as fiction to make the point, "this is what Seneca would have thought of Paul had they corresponded." What is needed, still, is direct evidence of intent. This argument does not provide evidence for intent; it assumes that intent.
It is questionable even so just how clear the supposed motive of "promoting Paul" is in the letters. It is true that Seneca is portrayed as polite to Paul, and often highly complimentary -- as for example, in Letter 1, where he says:

These thoughts, I take it, are not uttered by you but through you, but surely sometimes both by you and through you: for such is the greatness of them and they are instinct (warm) with such nobility, that I think whole generations (ages) of men could hardly suffice for the instilling and perfecting of them. I desire your good health, brother.


But then again, Paul is hardly standoffish to Seneca either, as for example in letter 2:

I beg, therefore, that you will not think yourself neglected, when I am respecting the dignity of your person. Now in that you somewhere write that you are pleased with my letter (or, write that you are pleased with part of my letter) I think myself happy in the good opinion of such a man: for you would not say it, you, a critic, a sophist, the teacher of a great prince, and indeed of all -unless you spoke truth.

The correspondence may as well be argued to have been written by a Christian admirer of Seneca who hoped that it would help Seneca's image with Christians if he had been endorsed by Paul. While it would be fair to say that Seneca praises Paul more than vice versa, he also manages to give Paul advice a couple of times on composition, and sends him a "book on elegance of expression," apparently to help him become a better letter-writer. Thus in letter 13:


Much in every part of your works is enclosed in allegory and enigma, and therefore the great force that is given you of matter and talent should be beautified, I do not say with elegance of words, but with a certain care. Nor should you fear what I remember you have often said; that many who affect such things vitiate the thought and emasculate the strength of the matter. But I wish you would yield to me and humour the genius of Latin, and give beauty to your noble words, that the great gift that has been granted you may be worthily treated by you.


This would be a polite way of saying, "Paul, your writing isn't that good" -- and that doesn't fit very well with an idea that the PAS were written just to glorify Paul.


Nevertheless: Most of the correspondence is, as has been noted by some critics, without any substance. The entirely of letter 4, for example, from Paul to Seneca, is nothing but this:


Whenever I hear your letters read, I think of you as present, and imagine nothing else but that you are always with us. As soon, then, as you begin to come, we shall see each other at close quarters. I desire your good health.


Reading most of the material puts to mind the episode of Leave It To Beaver in which Theodore started his own diary, and for nearly every day, his entries consisted of nothing but, "Woke up. Went to school. Ate dinner. Went to bed."


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For this reason, it is hard to see how Paul (or Seneca, for that matter) would get any credit out of polite, pointless epistles like the PAS. Ehrman’s thesis for motivation is simply without basis – unless he wants to argue for a “clever forger” who purposely didn’t do a good job, in order to make sure no one would suspect he was trying to do what he didn’t actually end up doing.

Otherwise, Ch. 5 is about other non-Biblical forgeries and Ehrman’s suspicions about their motives.

Chapter 6 contains some about non-Biblical forgeries, and some about alleged Biblical ones, which as noted I will address in a supplement to TNT. Chapter 7 is about what Ehrman considers to be mistakes in attribution as opposed to forgeries, and again, much of this will be addressed in the TNT supplement. It will be enough to say here, however, that Ehrman offers nothing like a detailed, sustained interaction with pro and con arguments with respect to authenticity. Admittedly this may well be because Forged is intended as a popular work.
I will reserve specific discussions again for the TNT supplement, but would like to note what I consider to be another instance of Ehrman’s continued dishonesty in not telling the whole story.

He once again raises the matter of the “anti-woman” passage in 1 Cor. 14:34-5, as well as that in 1 Timothy. However, he yet again shows no awareness of quite respectable answers to these passages (link below). It is hard to believe that he does not know about them at all.

On the other hand, it is quite interesting to see Ehrman taking the Jesus Seminar to task rather harshly.


Chapter 8 goes out in left field a bit, subjectwise: It is about modern forgeries and hoaxes. As such it is not something we will address, though it is interesting to see Ehrman taking a backhanded swipe at Christ-mythers. On the other hand, he does improperly raise as an issue (among other things) that we have no record of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, without qualifying that by pointing out that we have no official Roman records of an trial of any person before any Roman provincial official.

Those are some highlights – as noted, we’ll be adding comments to the TNT hub page on specific treatments of NT books (link below).



Mike Licona's review -- note in particular his comments on how Ehrman handles the hypothesis of secretaries.

Glenn Miller on pseudox

Glenn Miller on 1 Cor. 14

TNT hub page







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