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5 Stars Out Of 5
Worth serious consideration
May 24, 2012
I want to write this review for two reasons. First, this book changed my life: I was a first-year student at university when I read this book. It made me switch my major from philosophy to religious studies for my second year. Second, the other review that is currently available by Mr. Leon Bloder, does injustice to this book.
Thus I hope to give the potential reader here a more accurate picture of this book by clarifying what I think Bloder misunderstands. Let me begin by quoting Bloder:
"According to Ehrman there are two types of pseudepigraphy in the New Testament: writing that was published anonymously with no author's name attached that was wrongly attributed to a well-known person, and writing that was written by an author who actually claimed to be someone else."
This is misleading: an anonymously-written text is not the same as pseudepigraphically-written text. The first declares no author, the second is a bit more complicated. Ehrman explicitly distinguishes these terms in chapter 1 pp. 22-24. The reason why the second is more complicated is because authors sometimes use pen names such as "George Eliot", which technically is pseudepigraphical because it is not telling the truth about one's own name, but this does not involve trying to deceive the reader into thinking that the text is by a currently well-known actual person, such as Bill Gates or Paul or Peter. This deceptive / trying to trick the reader into thinking the text is Paul's words is what Ehrman calls "Forgery" (p. 24).
Moving on, Bloder wrote:
"From the outset, Ehrman reveals that it is often difficult for scholars to approach this topic without bringing their own subjectivity into the discussion. Ehrman relates his own journey as an example."
While Ehrman does give a concise summary of his own personal journey, Bloder's summary gives the impression that Ehrman is a self-defined relativist whose conclusions are just as subjective as the conservative scholar's conclusions. This is in fact again the opposite of what Ehrman actually conveys. From p.2 through p. 5, Ehrman explains how his religiously motivated search for objective truth led him away from his own religion. Consider Ehrman's own statement:
"One of the ironies of modern religion is that the absolute commitment to truth in some forms of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity [...] have led many faithful souls to follow the truth wherever it leads - and where it leads is often away from evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity." (p.3)
I find it hard to understand Bloder's reading of these first few pages. If anything, the fact that Ehrman accepted evidence *against* his prior commitment should be taken as a sign of honesty rather than just someone who has "baggage". This is not to say that Ehrman is completely objective, but surely being born and raised conservative and growing up to be a conservative scholar is a better illustration of subjectivity than growing up and renouncing what one has held to be true his whole life.
Further, Bloder writes: "More conservative scholars, he admits, would almost assuredly disagree with his conclusions[...]".
This claim is again very problematic for a number of reasons. First, which conclusions? That Paul wrote the pastoral epistles? The overwhelming majority of scholars agree that those were not written by Paul. Other letters, like Colossians and Ephesians, are more disputed. I worry that readers of Bloder's review might think "Oh well the distribution is 50/50". It's not 50/50, it depends on the question. Second, if two evangelical scholars disagreed with something Ehrman wrote, Bloder could claim "Some scholars disagree". Reviews by necessity have to smooth things out for a concise read, but the rhetoric used here is way too slanted in one obvious direction: that Ehrman's opinions can easily be contested.
Bloder continues: "Forged is a fascinating read. One of the purposes of the book, according to Ehrman, is to entertain and presumably engage the reader."
This is borderline condescending and I think again misses the point. I get the impression that Bloder was reading these pages thinking "well besides the official canonical texts, some Christians at the time were having fun writing fiction". This misses the point because the very question at heart is which texts were being deemed authoritative and why. The Gospel of John could easily have not made the cut, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas could have. Understanding the history of these debates is key to understanding how Christianity came to be formed the way it was formed.
If then one realizes that authentic authorship was a requirement for canonization, one understands that the non-canonized texts are just as important as the ones that got canonized, because forged texts in BOTH categories would have used the same techniques to look authentic. Thus as Ehrman writes: "The crucial question is this: Is it possible that any of the early Christian forgeries made it into the New Testament" (p.9). As for Ehrman's intent and purpose: It [this book] is, instead, intended for you, the general reader, who on some level is, like me, interested in the truth". This is far from Ehrman trying to "entertain" as Bloder put it.
I agree with Bloder however on his point that Ehrman does not always take the time to present a case for the other side of a particular issue. This though, again, should be qualified. For instance he raises two claims: that people in the Greco-Roman world did not have our understanding of "History" and that forgery in the ancient world was deemed acceptable. He then explains why both these views are false, citing ancient sources in both instances (pp.47-48; 131-133).
Lastly, Bloder writes:
"Further, Ehrman spends a great deal of time relating why he believes certain books of the New Testament were forged and the possible motivations for the forgeries. On the other hand, he does not offer any ideas as to the implications of his assertions."
Bloder acknowledges that Ehrman does spend some time on the implications of this, but I find it an odd criticism of a book that is meant to answer the question "Is there forgery in the New Testament?" (As Ehrman actually does state) for not answering what the implications are. Furthermore, it would actually be impossible to give an answer that would satisfy Bloder's question, precisely because there are so many strands of Christianity that for any answer Ehrman would give, a believer could reply "well that's not true for me because I don't see it that way". For some Christians it might matter if Paul wrote the pastorals, for some it might not. So how is it fair to criticize an author for not having answered a question which he never meant to answer and could not even possibly answer?
I have just completed my second year in university, in religious studies. I should say that from an undergraduate academic perspective, this book has been tremendously helpful because the kind of thing Ehrman explains in this book is not unlike the introductory-level courses on the Pauline letters, which, by the way, are in agreement with many of the things Ehrman explains in this book.
Bart Ehrman's latest book, Forged is bound to garner some attention---both negative and positive, depending upon the reader's theological bent, I am sure. It should be said, first and foremost that this is not a theological work. It is an historical study by one of the most preeminent and prolific New Testament scholars in the field of Biblical studies.
Forged is, by Ehrman's own admission, a more easily accessible version of a larger scholarly work on the subject of pseudepigrahpy (which literally means "written under a false name") in the New Testament. According to Ehrman there are two types of pseudepigraphy in the New Testament: writing that was published anonymously with no author's name attached that was wrongly attributed to a well-known person, and writing that was written by an author who actually claimed to be someone else. Rather than using what he refers to as a somewhat sanitized term, Ehrman doesn't refer to the latter as pseudepigraphy, preferring to call it forgery.
From the outset, Ehrman reveals that it is often difficult for scholars to approach this topic without bringing their own subjectivity into the discussion. Ehrman relates his own journey as an example. He tells how he began his Christian experience as a conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical, who studied at Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. When he arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman was confronted with the inconsistencies of his fundamentalist upbringing and the ensuing transformation that occurred shook his former beliefs to their very core. It is with this "baggage" in hand that Ehrman approaches what he believes to be the necessary task of historically reporting the possible problems with the New Testament canon. More conservative scholars, he admits, would almost assuredly disagree with his conclusions, and he does his best to address the disagreements with arguments of his own.
Forged is a fascinating read. One of the purposes of the book, according to Ehrman, is to entertain and presumably engage the reader. He accomplishes this quite well, particularly when he discusses the history and content of many of the lesser known Christian writings that didn't make it into the New Testament. And while Ehrman isn't exactly breaking new ground (scholars throughout the centuries have made these kinds of claims), he does bring the argument into the 21st century by naming it and laying out a compelling (regardless if you agree with his conclusions) argument.
Despite his compelling arguments and engaging presentation, I do have some qualms about Ehrman's assertions---I have my own "baggage," you see. It is difficult for scholars to agree upon the authorship of many of the books in the New Testament. Both "liberal" and "conservative" scholars will admit this. However, while Ehrman presents a good argument to support his ideas, he does not seem to acknowledge the possibility that opposite notions could be true. For example, Ehrman briefly demonstrates the marked differences between Colossians, which is a "disputed" book, and other letters of Paul that are not in dispute and were clearly written by the Apostle. Ehrman dismisses the theory that some of the authors of the New Testament might have used secretaries, who could have used their own phrases, and sentence structure to compose a letter that was "dictated" to them.
Further, Ehrman spends a great deal of time relating why he believes certain books of the New Testament were forged and the possible motivations for the forgeries. On the other hand, he does not offer any ideas as to the implications of his assertions. Instead, he offers a short treatise on the importance of truth-telling in the last few paragraphs of the book. What I would have liked to see, since Ehrman was making such controversial claims, is how he believed this affected the Christian faith, if at all. While I am not afraid of tackling tough issues regarding Scripture, I'm not a huge fan of deconstruction for deconstruction's sake. Especially when what is being deconstructed is the very holy script upon which my faith and life is guided.
Having said that, I would recommend Forged to serious Biblical scholars, pastors, teachers or anyone who takes discipleship seriously and isn't afraid to be challenged.
Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher