Dr. Bart Ehrman is a New Testament scholar who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A liberal scholar, he claims once to have had faith in the inerrant truth of the Bible as a Christian before he examined the evidence and became an agnostic. For a long time, I knew about him but ignored his works. I had seen his books on sale while browsing at the local bookstore, but I had never had any inclination to read them. “Just another person who makes bad arguments against the truths in the Bible”, I thought to myself, “Why bother?”
While going through atheist videos on YouTube recently, I decided to watch a few videos in which he presents his views. Though I had no high expectation as to the quality of his arguments, I thought watching a few fifteen minute videos might be worthwhile. Despite my extremely low expectations, the quality of the arguments disappointed me. What passes for scholarship in some fields is nothing less than astonishing to me. I thought I might go over some of my initial reactions to the views presented in his videos. I outlined my objections to the first video that I watched in a previous essay called Bart Ehrman and Religion Soup. In this essay I am going to briefly discuss some arguments that he makes in support of his book Forged.
But are there any forgeries inside the New Testament? My contention in this new book that I have just written Forged is that there are books of this sort in the New Testament, books that claim to be written by Apostles that were not written by those Apostles. . .
Maybe 10% of the population could read. Far fewer than that 10% could write and by write I mean actually copy out letters. Fewer than that could compose and fewer than that could compose something that was very elegant . . .
Now it is theoretically possible that after the resurrection Peter decided to go back to school and he took some evening classes and as his foreign language requirement he took Greek and then he got pretty good at it and then he decided he would take some composition classes . . .
Now a number of you are saying maybe he dictated it and a scribe wrote it down . . . One of the things I try to show in my book is that it didn’t work that way in the ancient world. This idea that you could have secretaries write books for you, there is no basis for it in the evidence that survives from antiquity at all . . .
So Dr. Ehrman’s contention that 1 Peter and 2 Peter are forged rests on two primary pillars. The first is that Peter could not have composed either of the works because Peter had neither the skill to write nor compose. The second is that Peter could not have dictated the letters because that was not done at the time. Notice that his thesis requires both of these points to be true because if either is false his case collapses. Let us examine the evidence.
The Primary Evidence
To me, the most salient fact in this discussion is the extra-ordinary amount of manuscript evidence we have from the early church. We have thousands of fragments of writing from the early church period. This is more than we have for any ancient author, more than we have from any other religion. Why is this important? Because, given this evidence, the one thing we can know about the early church is that they were writers and they could write. How else can you explain the thousands of pieces of New Testament manuscript that have survived from the early church if there were not tens of thousands of manuscripts that did not survive?
Now the fact that the early church had a clear tradition of exchanging written correspondence means two things. First, it means that Peter would have had access to people who were capable of writing. Second it means that Peter would have had the motivation necessary to learn how to write. How else could he have obeyed the Lord’s command to “feed my sheep” and teach others what he had learned while walking with Jesus? Since the members of the churches Peter would become responsible for were found in widely separated areas, literacy would have been a primary requirement of this new calling since written correspondence would have been the only way to communicate with these different groups. A man given the responsibility that Peter had been given would have had a powerful motivation for learning to write and he would have had the opportunity to bring that desire to fruition.
Now against this rather obvious argument, all Dr. Ehrman has is mockery. He says that Peter could have “gone back to school” and “taken night courses” where he would have taken Greek as a “foreign language requirement”. Since when does mocking an idea pass for serious scholarship? Greek may seem esoteric to modern students, but it was the lingua franca of the ancient Mediterranean world. Peter may have grown up in rural areas where knowing Greek was unnecessary, but Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan center where Jews from all over the Mediterranean gathered for the various religious festivals and sacrifices. A man in a position of leadership in a burgeoning, multi-cultural organization such as the church described in the Book of Acts would have had plenty of opportunity and motivation to learn Greek over the twenty plus years that were available to him. Not only that, but the “skill of composing” discussed by Dr. Ehrman is just another aspect of being a good communicator, something we know that Peter had because he gave a sermon in the Book of Acts that brought 3000 people into the early church.
Forging a Letter from an Illiterate
Let us say that you had a friend Dave who is widely known to be illiterate and I came to you with what I claimed was a letter of introduction from him in his own hand. What would your response be? “This is a letter from your illiterate friend Dave written in his own hand”, I say to you. “A letter from my illiterate friend Dave?”, you say, “I have doubts as to its authenticity” Does it really make sense to forge a letter from someone who is known to be illiterate?
At the very beginning of his talk, Dr. Ehrman says that it was a “widespread” practice to forge books and letters that were supposedly written by Peter. He then goes on to claim that as a fishermen in rural Palestine, Peter had a very low chance of actually being literate. If this were true, then how do we explain the forgeries? Why go through the trouble of writing something in the name of someone who was known to be an uneducated fishermen who could not read or write? If you were going to forge a letter or a book from an Apostle, wouldn’t you choose one who you knew was in the practice of writing books and letters? “Hey, I heard a letter that was supposedly from this guy Paul being read at a church a while back. I think my ideas might gain more acceptance if they were written down in his name.” Dr. Ehrman claims that the practice of forging works by Peter was “widespread” and this is, in and of itself, powerful evidence of the fact that Peter could write.
The Impossibility of Dictation
Dr. Ehrman also dismisses the idea that the letters could have been dictated. He says that there is no evidence that secretaries would write “books” for you in the evidence that survives from the ancient world. Has he read 1 Peter and 2 Peter? These books are not War and Peace, they are a few pages long and would really qualify more as letters if you were examining the question skeptically. Is there any basis for the idea that a secretary could write a letter from another person in the evidence that survives from the ancient world?
I did a quick search and found a link on the practices of the Roman Senate. Evidently, it was common for the senate to write letters and send them to the provincial governors after a piece of legislation or clarification of imperial policy had been decided upon. This makes sense as any government would have found it necessary to record laws and judicial decisions and, because necessity is the mother of invention, court scribes would have been used in this capacity once written language had itself been discovered. This does not prove that secretaries often wrote letters for other people in the ancient world, but it is clearly an exaggeration to say that no basis for the possibility survives in the evidence from antiquity.
I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord. (Romans 16:22)
Far more damaging to the simplistic arguments of Dr. Ehrman is this verse from the sixteenth chapter of Romans. Here is a verse in the New Testament where someone claims to be taking dictation from the Apostle Paul. How does Dr. Ehrman get out of this one? I have no doubt that he has some song and dance about how this was a later edition from a time after the practice of dictation had been invented by some unknown person, but please. How hard is it really to come up with the idea of dictation if one person wants to write a letter but cannot and the other person knows how but has nothing to say?
Whenever I read New Testament criticism, I find an extra-ordinary reliance on arguments made from “stylistic differences” such as those pointed out by Dr. Ehrman in the linked video. While it is understandable to attempt to use this kind of criteria to say things about the authorship of certain works when that evidence is literally all you have to go on, I have never found conclusions based on such evidence to be particularly compelling. Having done some writing myself, I have consciously used a number of different styles in that writing. I have written in the third person, I have written in an archaic style, I have written works for publication and I have dashed off quick emails when I was in a hurry. What would happen if we analyzed these works for “stylistic differences”? Would we not expect that analysis to indicate independent authorship? The limitations of these techniques brought up by this question makes any conclusion based on them extremely questionable from my perspective.
Dr. Ehrman asserts that 1st Peter was written in an extremely elegant Greek style while 2nd Peter was written in a much different style. To me, this progression makes enormous sense if Peter learned to write after the resurrection and continued writing for a number of years. When he first takes up the pen, writing is an extremely laborious process and the only topics that he bothers to write about are things about which he has done an enormous amount of thinking and which he believes are worth taking a long time to write. As writing becomes familiar to him, he increasingly dashes off his thoughts and sends them off without that much fanfare.
As a person who has both written long scholarly works and also presented conclusions from those works before live audiences, allow me to observe that it is only the strongest arguments from your written material that make it into a live presentation. Because of the time constraints involved, any sensible scholar given the opportunity to speak on a topic pares down what he presents to a live audience so as to make the strongest possible case in the shortest amount of time. If you interest the audience with the highlights, then they might investigate further by reading the written work. This means that only the highlights from a book make it into live presentations. Unless Dr. Ehrman is an exception to this rule and presents his weakest arguments to his live audiences, we have in this essay dealt with the strongest arguments he has made in his book Forged. What can we conclude from this?
Now I have to be honest here and tell you that I wouldn’t invest five dollars on the basis of the kind of arguments that Dr. Ehrman presents in the linked video. Assuming that the kind of arguments he has published in his book were the kind of arguments that caused him to lose his faith, we can conclude one of two things. Either Dr. Ehrman made one of the most important decisions of his life on the basis of extremely weak evidence or he doesn’t believe that his decision to believe in God was very important. If the former is true, then his credibility is gone because, as we have demonstrated, the evidence is unpersuasive at best. If the latter is true, then his credibility is gone because if he didn’t think it was important then that is another way of saying he didn’t take it seriously. Either way, Dr. Ehrman has no credibility on this topic and his arguments are not worth taking seriously.