Sunday, 27 March 2011

Bad Boy Bart

It's interesting to see the apologetics that gush forth when someone like Bart Ehrman publicises the pseudepigraphy of much of the New Testament, as in his latest book, Forged. Ehrman is never one to mince his words.
[G]ood Christian scholars of the Bible, including the top Protestant and Catholic scholars of America, will tell you that the Bible is full of lies, even if they refuse to use the term. And 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.
Now that's not exactly tactful, nor is it particularly charitable to the childlike sensibilities of those many people who have built their faith on the sands of fundamentalism. The relevant question, however, is: is Ehrman correct.

But, hang on, pseudepigraphy was OK back then, right?
Whoever wrote the New Testament book of 2 Peter claimed to be Peter. But scholars everywhere -- except for our friends among the fundamentalists -- will tell you that there is no way on God's green earth that Peter wrote the book. Someone else wrote it claiming to be Peter. Scholars may also tell you that it was an acceptable practice in the ancient world for someone to write a book in the name of someone else. But that is where they are wrong. If you look at what ancient people actually said about the practice, you'll see that they invariably called it lying and condemned it as a deceitful practice.
Now, I confess that I'm looking forward to Ehrman's discussion of this point. If he's correct - that writing as if you were someone else with the intention of being mistaken as that person was regarded as deceitful - then there's little else we can do than call those compositions fraudulent.

But naturally the defenders of the faith are already girding their loins and pounding their word processors. John Hobbins, responding to Ehrman, accuses him of "reverse fundamentalism."

I'm not sure what that means. Hobbins apparently wants a more nuanced method of judging the merits of pseudonymous literature. Good luck, I say, but be sure to apply the same generous standard to other works without fear or favour. 1 Enoch, for instance. 4 Maccabees, 3 Corinthians, the Shepherd of Hermas. Indeed, why not the Book of Mormon? A spot of name calling (reverse fundamentalist!) is, however, not a persuasive argument in itself.

Hobbins wants to draw a comparison to the attribution of various fables to Aesop. The logic of that evades me. If you tell your kids that the rhyme you've just recited comes from Mother Goose, that seems to be of an entirely different order to a religious authority figure informing the laity that Paul wrote 2 Timothy, that it's inspired, possibly inerrant, and you'd better study it on your knees.

And let's be honest for a moment, isn't that exactly what many of these "authorities" do? And not just the fundamentalists. The notes at the back of my copy of the ESV (which touts itself as a scholarly translation) clearly attribute the book to Paul ("This was the final letter written by Paul (A.D. 64-68) as he awaited execution in a Roman jail.")

A pseudonymous letter supported by a lying commentary. Shouldn't Hobbins be assailing the ESV editors instead of Ehrman?

Ehrman writes:
Why are there no women priests in the Catholic Church? Why are women not allowed to preach in conservative evangelical churches? Why are there churches today that do not allow women even to speak? In no small measure it is because Paul allegedly taught that women had to be silent, submissive and pregnant. Except that the person who taught this was not Paul, but someone lying about his identity so that his readers would think he was Paul.
That's a fair point if 1 Timothy is, as everyone knows, Deutero-Pauline, i.e. a pious forgery. John Hobbins' response:
Ehrman’s argument depends on the specious assumption that the historical Paul was a feminist ante litteram who pushed against a society in which women were not expected to intervene in some public circumstances and could intervene in others; were expected to defer to their husbands in matters the culture thought of as male responsibilities; and were expected to bear children if they were able. Then a disciple of Paul’s came along and turned Paul on his head.
No, Ehrman's argument - at least that part of it in his column - is not dependent on any such thing. These verses have undeniably been used to relegate women to second-class status in the church, yet Hobbins' unjustified expansion of that fact is setting up a straw man by attributing to Ehrman a position which he does not argue.

Isn't it time to approach this issue honestly, minus wishful thinking, confessionalist posturing and apologetic obfuscation?


  1. Well said, "Here, Here"!
    Question: are your clips from the book made using an e-book reader?

  2. No, they're from the linked article.

  3. Ahhhh, you gave a link, right after talking about his book without telling me it is going to his Huffington post article.

    Got it.

    Thanks for the post -- I enjoyed your points.

  4. How would we know, seriously, that the 7 "authentic" letters of Paul are actually authentic anything other than a collection of letters that showed up circa 130 AD? Where were those letters before then? Did Marcion find them or did he write them himself?

    Authentic Paul is supposed to be early but there are certain indications that they were written after the first Jewish war (I Thess. 2:15-16, for example) where "the wrath has come upon them to the uttermost".

    The letters of Paul could have been written as propaganda to prove that the christian church was earlier than the second century.

    Not that they were but that they could have been and we wouldn't even know it.

    In I Cor. 15, "Paul" tells of Jesus being seen of the apostles and above 500 brethren after his resurrection - what resurrection? If the resurrection of Jesus is a lie, then "Paul" is clearly lying about those witnesses.

    That indicates that the Corinthian church could not have checked out Paul's story about all those witnesses. Which indicates that this was written long after a possibility of checking out that story.

  5. There is a good article in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion a few years ago by A. J. Droge on Josiah's lawbook (and other forged books). Droge wonders aloud that Religious Studies really does needs a category of "Fraud" as religions often base themselves on misrepresentations.

  6. Absolutely not!

    Without wishful thinking, confessionalist posturing and apologetic obfuscation, where would we be, do pray tell?

  7. Corky, is it reasonable to assume that an inability to fact-check a claim indicates a displacement in time? Distance and means can be adequate barriers to verification for the vast majority of people.

    And let's face it, even the availability of disproof will have no affect on enough of a minority that the movement will survive until all firsthand evidence is no longer accessible. There is even literature suggesting that such information can result in the redoubling of proselytizing efforts.

  8. "There is even literature suggesting that such information can result in the redoubling of proselytizing efforts."

    The Bible covers that, too, Scott.