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Probe Ministries > Theology and Philosophy > Bible > Who Wrote the New Testament?


Who Wrote the New Testament? Print E-mail

Written by David Graieg

Bart Ehrman

What if eighteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were not written by the people who have traditionally been credited with their authorship?{1} Just such a claim is made by Bart Ehrman’s book Forged: Writing in the Name of God in which he argues that the Bible’s authors are not who we think they are.

Download the Podcast Dr. Ehrman is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His work has been featured in Time, and he has appeared on NBC's Dateline, The History Channel, National Geographic, and other top media outlets.{2} Ehrman has authored over twenty books, including three New York Times bestsellers: Jesus Interrupted, God's Problem, and Misquoting Jesus, which argues that the New Testament manuscripts are unreliable and, hence, the text of the Bible is inaccurate. Ehrman’s works are having a huge impact on the way that people perceive Christianity both here in the U.S. and abroad. Believers need to be ready to give an answer to Dr. Ehrman’s claims.

Ehrman grew up in a liberal Episcopal church, but says that in high school a Youth for Christ leader took advantage of the loneliness that every teen experiences and led Ehrman to be born again.{3} Ehrman attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College where his studies in New Testament textual criticism began to fuel doubt concerning the importance of variants in the manuscripts. Ehrman went on to pursue doctoral work at Princeton University, and, partly due to an issue concerning who the high priest was in the second chapter of Mark, Ehrman went down the path of agnosticism.

Ehrman’s new book, Forged, contains eight chapters that include considerable overlap, and much of the space is devoted to forgeries outside the Bible. This makes the book’s subtitle, “Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are,” a little misleading. Also, there’s not much new here. These concerns are covered in most recent textbooks on the New Testament.{4} Ehrman sees himself as making the public aware of what scholars have known for years.

As for the claim of Forged, Ehrman argues that Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, James, Jude, and 1–2 Peter are not written by those whose names are traditionally attached to them. It follows that if these books are written by liars and are deceptive in nature, and God Himself does not lie, the Church must have been mistaken in thinking these books were inspired by God. It would also follow that these books should be removed from the canon of the Bible. However, as we shall see, there’s good reason to think that these books are not forgeries.

Determining Authorship

To begin, we will look into the important question of how scholars determine the author of a book written thousands of years ago.

There are two main lines of evidence that scholars use to determine the likely author of a book. The first is internal evidence, the most obvious being a claim to authorship in the document itself. There might also be hints in the document about when and where it was written, which may or may not match what we know of the life of the author, or might just seem out of place. For instance, if someone wrote that he visited Dallas, Texas in July and adds that it froze overnight, this scenario is not impossible but is very unlikely. Thus, we would have good reason to question other claims in the text.

If we have two letters that are supposed to have been written by the same author, we can compare their styles for confirmation. Do the documents share a similar vocabulary? Do they use the same figures of speech and cultural expressions? Do they both use specific words or ideas in the same way or are they fairly distinct? If one of the documents uses a large number of unique words that are not used in the other, it may put in question mutual authorship.

Another important variable is the intended audience of a document since that can have a significant impact on its style and vocabulary. For instance, a medical doctor might write a work-related letter to a fellow oncologist and on the same day send a personal email to her husband. Ten years later, that same doctor writes a letter to her friend about a personal hobby. In all three cases, it’s the same person writing, but there would be three distinct styles and vocabularies in each letter. Determining authorship can be a very complicated matter when considering both objective and subjective elements.

There’s also external evidence to consider, information gathered from outside the letter itself. Eyewitness accounts can affirm a document’s authorship. For instance, Grandma might have a letter that says, “Happy Valentine’s Day, from your secret admirer.” Grandma insists that she received this letter from Grandpa fifty years ago when they were still dating. Although there is nothing in the letter that identifies Grandpa as its author, we have the external testimony of a reliable witness. Such evidence is not certain, as Grandma might be a bit of a romantic who after all these years forgot who it was really from, but it is more probable than not that she is correct.

What Is at Stake?

What if Ehrman’s main contention is right, that seven of Paul’s books, as well as James, Jude, and 1–2 Peter, are not written by who we traditionally have attributed them to? Not that I think Ehrman is right, but let us grant that he is. Is Christianity now false? Not at all. Ehrman concedes that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon were written by Paul and that Revelation was written by someone named John. Even with these few books, the heart of the Christian faith is maintained. Ehrman even includes the earliest account of the death and resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. So while I do not think Ehrman is right in even one accusation of New Testament forgery, it is worth keeping all of this in proper perspective: Christ still saves and we still need to trust him.

So what evidence does Dr. Ehrman use to establish his claim of forgery? Let’s consider his strongest case, that of 1 and 2 Peter. Ehrman’s main argument is that Peter could not have written either of these books because he was a simple fisherman from Galilee and would surely have been illiterate.{5} He points to Acts 4:13 which says that when Peter and John were brought before the Jewish high priest, it was realized that they “were unschooled, ordinary men.” From this Ehrman assumes that they were illiterate.

There is one major problem with this line of argument. Ehrman considers the book of Acts to be a forgery. So by Ehrman’s own standard, Acts is unlikely to be reliable. That aside, it’s more likely that Acts 4:13 is not indicating that Peter and John are illiterate, but that the Jewish leaders were comparing their training in the best schools of the day to the two men who lacked a rabbinic education.

Luke describes Peter’s family’s fishing business as having several boats along with the necessary nets and men to operate them. The business was located in Capernaum, only a few miles from the large Greek cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris. As a successful merchant, Peter likely had some knowledge of the Greek language as well as basic literacy. Even if we allow the shaky assumption that Peter might have been illiterate, it doesn’t necessarily follow that 1 and 2 Peter are forgeries. It’s likely that Peter may have used a secretary to write down his words, a common practice in the first century.

Dr. Ehrman has failed to make his case that 1 and 2 Peter are forgeries. We still have good reason to trust these books as they guide us in defense of the faith and encourage us to endure sufferings for righteousness' sake.

Paul’s Letters

Ehrman argues that Paul could not be the author of Ephesians because the letter contains some unusually long sentences, and the book “has an inordinate number of words that don't otherwise occur in Paul's writings.”{6} Ehrman notes that Ephesians has fifty percent more unique words than found in Philippians which he says is about the same length.

It’s true that Ephesians does have long sentences, but this is a bit subjective. There are long sentences in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Colossians and Titus, which Ehrman accepts as Pauline. His comparison with Philippians is also a bit unfair. Ephesians is thirty-three percent longer than Philippians and should be expected to have a greater number of unique words. In fact, Galatians has even more unique words than Ephesians but again is accepted as Pauline by Ehrman. Further, Ephesians is a circular letter that was meant for a broader audience. It’s reasonable to expect that it would address different topics from Paul’s other letters and have more unique words.

Another point made by Dr. Ehrman is that Ephesians uses the words “saved” and “raised” mostly in the present tense while other Pauline letters refer to them as future events.{7} But is this really the case? In Romans, Paul talks of the believer as already saved being dead to sin and alive to Christ, and in Galatians Paul declares that “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Ehrman’s case against Ephesians is less than conclusive.

According to Ehrman, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus should be removed because the letters contain unique expressions not found in Paul’s other works. Phrases such as “promise of life” and “with a pure conscience” are unique to these books.{8} Ehrman also argues that these pastoral letters replace an emphasis on the imminent return of Christ with information on the organizational structure of the church.

Paul does use unique vocabulary in his books to Timothy and Titus, but these letters are to individual friends and most of Paul’s other letters are to community groups. Stylistic variation would be expected because of the different audiences. Other scholars point out that Ehrman exaggerates his case regarding the information about church structure. He seems to ignore the fact that there is information on church leadership and organization in Romans, Galatians, and especially in 1 Corinthians, letters accepted as Pauline by Ehrman.

In summary, it can be said that Dr. Ehrman often overstates his case and is somewhat selective in his examples.

Presuppositions

To wrap up this article, I will look at some general problems in the way that Dr. Ehrman builds his case that many of the NT books are forgeries.

As with everyone, Dr. Ehrman interprets the world through a set of presuppositions. For instance, he has come to the conclusion that Jesus was merely an apocalyptic prophet.{9} Ehrman’s Jesus proclaims that God is going to reveal himself in history and overthrow evil as represented by the Roman Empire. Ehrman discounts the role that the resurrection played in both confirming Jesus’ claims to divinity and establishing Christianity itself. The result of constructing Jesus in this untraditional manner causes him to view passages that speak of the resurrection as inauthentic and probably later fabrications.

Another weakness in Forged is that Ehrman doesn’t seriously consider the role that secretaries (or an amanuensis) could have played in the writing of the New Testament.{10} Ehrman himself admits that “Virtually all of the problems with what I’ve been calling forgeries can be solved if secretaries were heavily involved in the composition of the early Christian writings.”{11} Other scholars have argued that secretaries did play a significant role in the formation of the NT.{12} Ehrman assumes either no secretaries were involved, or if they were, they had no impact on the wording of the texts. Such a conclusion is at odds with modern scholarship on the subject. Dr. Ehrman either needs to interact more with this scholarship, or at worst he should take an agnostic position on the authorship of the NT books.

This is important because we know that secretaries were involved in helping Paul write his letters. Tertius inserts a greeting in Romans 16:22 as the one who “wrote down this letter.” In 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philemon, Paul makes a point of telling his readers that he had written the letters with his own hand, acknowledging that other letters were written down for him. It is also recognized that others may have contributed to Paul’s writings or at least had an impact on the style of some sections of his letters. For instance, Sosthenes, Silas, and Timothy are recognized contributors in the introductions of Paul’s letters to the churches at Corinth, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica.

Dr. Ehrman raises important questions regarding the text of the New Testament, but his accusations of forgery seem somewhat subjective. He has not given us good enough reason to abandon the authenticity of the New Testament writings nor their message of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.

Notes

1. This article is a slightly adapted version of the program that aired on the Probe radio program. A more detailed version is also available on our Web site with the title "A Review of Forged by Ehrman."
2. Bart D. Ehrman. www.bartdehrman.com (accessed November 6, 2011).
3. Gary M. Burge, "The Lapsed Evangelical Critic," Christianity Today, June 1, 2006, vol. 50, no. 6. (accessed November 6, 2011).
4. D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005); Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction. 4th ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1990).
5. Bart D. Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 2011), 70-77.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., 97.
9. Ehrman lays out his view on this in: Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophets of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). For an evaluation of the different views on Jesus see: James K. Beilby, and Paul R. Eddy, The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
10. Ehrman, Forged, 133-139.
11. Ibid., 134.
12. E. Randolph Richards, The Secretary in the Letters of Paul (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991).

© 2012 Probe Ministries


About the Author

David Graieg served as an intern with Probe in 2011-12. He received his B.Eng from the University of Western Australia and a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary. David and his wife have one daughter and currently reside in Singapore.

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