Category Archives: Canon

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I wanted to do this for a while. I had some time today. One day I’ll get a good camera and give this thing some real production value.


Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

forged.pngEhrman, Bart D.

Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

Uncorrected Proof1

New York: HarperOne, 2011. Pp. viii + 291. Paper. $25.99.

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With thanks to HarperOne for this review copy!

If one wanted to forge a document in order to make people think it was written by Bart Ehrman what might he or she do? Well, first of all, the forger would claim to be Bart D. Ehrman. This goes without saying. Secondly, if the forger wanted to mimic one of Ehrman’s popular volumes he or she would certainly give it a provocative/sensational title. Ehrman’s past popular works have been called things like, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why; God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer; Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). More than likely the forger would begin with a personal testimony about their teenage conversion to Evangelicalism and their subsequent studies at Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Princeton Theological Seminary where they would begin their retreat from Evangelicalism (see Misquoting Jesus, 1-15; Jesus Interrupted, v-viii; God’s Problem, 1-3).

Perhaps they’d even choose a topic that Ehrman has written about and simply beef it up a little bit and jazz up the rhetoric while maintaining a strong stylistic resemblance to Ehrman’s earlier works. They might even choose a topic like forgery and discuss ways that forgers try to throw people off the trail in order to throw the unsuspecting reader off their trail! And they’d naturally publish their fabrication with one of HarperCollins’ many divisions. But what would motivate such deception? Money? Definitely. Ehrman has made a killing with three New York Times best-selling books aimed at general audiences. Forging a book and attributing it to Ehrman could definitely generate some cash. How about influence? Yup. Ehrman is a legitimate scholar, and when he speaks, people listen. Can’t get your own ideas a fair hearing? Pass them off as Ehrman’s.

So let’s see how this might work out in practice. Someone claiming to be Bart D. Ehrman ✓ publishes a book with HarperOne ✓ sensationally titled Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are ✓, which begins with a personal testimony about Ehrman’s Evangelical conversion in high school and his subsequent studies at Moody, Wheaton, and Princeton (1-5) ✓ and proceeds to elaborate on the topic of forgery, which Ehrman has written about previously in a number of books (Lost Christianities, chapters 1-4, 11; Lost Scriptures, 1-4; and Jesus Interrupted, chapter 4) ✓. Said book is getting plenty of press and is almost guaranteed to make a lot of money for the author. It seems that all of the items on our checklist have been checked off; what we have here is the perfect recipe for a good forgery!

But all levity aside, Ehrman has popped out another book on a well-worn scholarly issue at a “layperson’s level” with promises of a future “detailed scholarly monograph that deals with the matter at length.” (10) For now we’ll have to content ourselves with Ehrman’s distillation of modern (i.e., 19th century to present) historical-critical scholarship. The opening chapter introduces us to Ehrman’s major claims, i.e., pseudepigrapha is forgery; forgery is lying; forgery/lying was frowned upon in the ancient world; the Bible (especially the NT) is full of forgeries. We’re also equipped with some definitions (orthonymous = rightly named; homonymous = same named; anonymous = having no name; pseudonymous = falsely named), the most important being Ehrman’s definition of forgery, which is “a writing that claims to be written by someone (a known figure) who did not in fact write it.” (24)

Chapters two and three take up the standard arguments2 for the Petrine letters and the so-called deutero-Pauline letters as forgeries while also informing the reader about works both written about them and works written in their names that have been traditionally considered forgeries (e.g., The Gospel of Peter or 3 Corinthians). The fourth chapter challenges the idea that writing in someone else’s name was an acceptable practice in antiquity by noting a dearth of evidence supporting such proposals, which take their shape in three major arguments: “Pseudepigraphy in the Spirit” (writing in another’s name under supposed divine inspiration); “Reactualizing the Tradition” (representing a school of thought under the name of its founder); “Philosophical Schools” (signing one’s teacher’s name to their writing). Ehrman also dispenses with the notion that secretaries could be responsible for the variations in style, language, and theology.

Chapters five and six take up the use of (both canonical and non-canonical3) forgeries, which Ehrman labels “weapons of deceit” (145), in conflict with various groups (Jews & Pagans and false teachers respectively). Christians and their Jewish, Pagan, Gnostic, and even fellow Christian opponents employed forgeries (i.e., they lied) in order to prove themselves right and their opposition wrong. Chapter seven discusses various other forms of literary misinformation such as false attributions, which are technically pseudepigrapha, but not forgeries since there is no intention to deceive; fabrications, which are made up stories about important figures (e.g., the Acts of Peter; the Proto-Gospel of James; or the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) disseminated by anonymous authors; falsifications, which involves adding or omitting material to something that was already written; and finally, plagiarism, which, as we all know, is passing off someone else’s work as one’s own. The final chapter turns to modern forgeries about Jesus before pondering if and when it might be acceptable to lie. Twenty-four pages of endnotes complete this volume.4

As already noted, Ehrman hasn’t said anything that hasn’t been said before, in fact, he’s said plenty of it himself (!); he’s just popularized it for the New York Times best-seller audience this time around. Admittedly, the people most likely to pick up this book haven’t spent much time in NT studies, and probably even less time in studying non-canonical literature, so they’re likely to be very impressed with the subject matter. But anyone who has read a decent NT introduction (e.g., Ehrman’s own The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings) or standard commentaries should be somewhat familiar with the issues of authorship for the NT writings. And if you’ve spent any time studying the formation of the Biblical canon then you’ve more than likely encountered some material on non-canonical literature.

Where Ehrman separates himself from the pack is in his certitude. To rework a line from Alexander Pope’s famous poem “An Essay on Criticism,” only Ehrman rushes in where most scholars fear to tread. Ehrman isn’t nearly as cautious as he should be when making claims about forgeries and intentional deceit. Ehrman repeatedly states things as certain when the vast majority of scholars, conservative and liberal alike, remain agnostic.5 There may be some very good reasons to believe that Peter did not write 1 Peter or 2 Peter (although in truth, if 2 Peter is pseudonymous it actually argues in favor for 1 Peter’s authenticity) but they’re not conclusive. Even the best guess is still guesswork, and sans some major new discovery, readers of the Bible will just have to content themselves with not knowing for sure who wrote all of the books they revere. I’d also note that Ehrman is inconsistently certain. At times he uses terms such as “probably,” “think,” “possible,” and other words of the like. I have much more respect for this kind of language.

I have no interest in debunking Ehrman—a thousand apologists have written books on this subject in attempts to disprove these exact types of arguments—but I do want to warn potential readers that there isn’t much that’s special or unique about this book. In fact, if you’ve read Ehrman’s other popular books, you’ve read this one under different covers. Forged is little more than a rehash of things he’s said elsewhere, only this time he decided to bloviate a bit more wax a little more eloquent. I do have some questions about the overall purpose of this book though, e.g., what’s the point? If Ehrman makes an airtight case for forgery in the NT and non-canonical literature then what are we supposed to actually do with that information? Should those of us who hold the NT as an authoritative text suddenly reject its authority?

I’m also curious about how/why a self-professed agnostic would write so much about honesty and deception as if those concepts actually have concrete meaning to a non-theist. In other words, Ehrman can talk about truth and lies all he wants, but I’m left wondering why he cares or how he grounds any kind of belief in such concepts without grounding them in God. It seems that he has to borrow from a worldview that is not his own in order for the issues he raises to even begin to be considered problematic. Ironic? Perhaps. Inconsistent? Definitely. Worth a read? Only if you’ve never read anything like this before, but even then, make sure you get the opposing viewpoint, which Ehrman doesn’t really present in its fullness.

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1 Page numbers refer to the uncorrected proof of this book and may vary from the published hardcover edition.

2 So we’re told that Peter was illiterate and that even if he could read and write the letters attributed to him were written after his death because they contain ideas that rely on the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and also that 2 Peter borrows from Jude, so he couldn’t have possibly written them. Paul, on the other hand, never used certain terms and phrases that appear in the Pastoral letters and some of the ideas and concepts in the Pastorals are at odds with the genuine letters, so he couldn’t have authored those. His audience is also different. In the genuine letters he writes to entire congregations of gifted believers while in the Pastorals he writes to leaders. 2 Thessalonians has a different eschatology than 1 Thessalonians and tries a little too hard to convince its audience that it was written by Paul while Ephesians and Colossians both have different writing styles and differ theologically from the authentic letters.

3 The forgeries of focus in chapter five are all non-canonical: The Gospel of Peter; The Gospel of Nicodemus; and the “Pilate Gospels” in opposition to the Jews, as well as Sibylline Oracles, which unknown Christian writers had taken over from earlier Jewish authors and inserted their own prophecies into them, in opposition to Pagans. The forgeries under discussion in chapter six include canonical forgeries (Colossians; Jude) in opposition to unknown opponents, as well as a mixture of non-canonical (Epistle of Peter; Pseudo-Clementine Writings) and canonical (James) forgeries in opposition to Paul. In addition to this, Ehrman once again discusses 1 Peter and 2 Peter as forgeries written in support of Paul. Gnostic forgeries (Coptic Apocalypse of Peter; Book of Thomas the Contender) and anti-Gnostic forgeries (3 Corinthians; Epistula Apostolorum).

4 The copy in my possession contains no indices. These will undoubtedly be included in the published hardcover version.

5 For example: “…I’m interested in books that claim to be written by Peter but in fact were forged in his name…” (49) “Whoever wrote 2 Peter, it was not Simon Peter.” (68) “Was Peter in Josephus’s or Justus’s class? No, not even close.” (73) “Peter was an illiterate peasant. […] I should point out that the book of 1 Peter is written by a highly literate, highly educated, Greek-speaking Christian who is intimately familiar with the Jewish Scriptures in their Greek translation, the Septuagint. This is not Peter.” (75) “Peter could not have dictated this letter in Greek to a secretary any more than he could have written it in Greek.” (76, cf. 139) “It’s just that those terms were not terms used by Paul.” (98) “He did all this by pretending to be Paul.” (103) “For one thing, the writing style is not Paul’s.” (110) “The Book of Daniel claims to be written, in part, by the prophet Daniel during the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C.E. But there’s no way it was written then.” (117) “We’re not sure who wrote Isaiah 40-55, other than to say that, first, it was not Isaiah of Jerusalem…” (127) “These letters were not produced by secretaries. They were produced by later Christian authors claiming to be Paul.” (139) “Whoever wrote 1 Timothy knew full well that he wasn’t really the apostle Paul. He made that part up.” (232) “There never was a census under Caesar Augustus that compelled Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem just before Jesus was born; there never was a star in the that mysteriously guided wise men from the East to Jesus; Herod the Great never did slaughter all the baby boys in Bethlehem; Jesus and his family never did spend several years in Egypt.” (239) “The authors who called themselves Peter, Paul, John, James, Philip, Thomas, or—pick your name!—knew full well they were not these people. They lied about it in order to deceive their readers into thinking they were authority figures.” (262) (All emphasis mine)


A High View of Scripture?: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon

HVS.jpgAllert, Craig D.

A High View of Scripture?: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon

Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Pp. 203. Paper. $18.99.

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With thanks to Baker Academic for this review copy!

Craig D. Allert is associate professor and chair of religious studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia.  A High View of Scripture? (hereafter HVS?) is the third volume in the Evangelical Ressourcement series which is a series that sees the value in patristic thought and seeks to integrate it into twenty-first century ministry.  In HVS? Allert provides the non-specialist with a competent introduction to the formation of the NT canon as well as some food for thought concerning what may or may not be their understanding of the role that Scripture played in the early church.

In the first chapter Allert focuses on (mainly North American) evangelicalism and its view of the Bible through traditional lenses.  Evangelical thought is heavily indebted to its battle against nineteenth century theological liberalism, and as such, tends to focus on the final form of the Bible and not on its formation.  Allert’s book is one that seeks to help the evangelical reader appreciate the process that brought them their Bible, a process that should be taken into account if one genuinely wants to claim a ‘high’ view of Scripture.

The second chapter addresses the basics of the formation of the NT canon laying out three principle theories: (1) The NT was a spontaneous occurrence, (2) The NT was formed in the second century, and (3) The NT was formed in the fourth century.  Theory 1 is extremely problematic and doesn’t accord with what we know from the patristic testimony.  Theories 2 and 3 are taken up later in chapters 4 & 5 respectively.  Allert also does well to define some key terms and lay out the criteria of canonicity (i.e., apostolicity, orthodoxy, and catholicity).

In the third chapter Allert sets the formation of the NT into its proper context, that is, within the community of faith.  Too often, the church’s role in producing, collecting, and defining what would come to be known as the Bible, is overlooked in evangelical bibliology.  To summarize Allert’s main point in this chapter, with a caricature of my own (not one that Allert uses); many evangelicals treat the Bible as if it fell from heaven like premium calfskin manna.  But when one recognizes that the Bible is the church’s book then they’ll be dispelled of such notions and realize the avenue that God took in providing us with his special revelation.

In the fourth chapter Allert shows convincingly that there was no closed NT canon in the second century and that such an understanding of a canon of Scripture wouldn’t surface until the fourth century, and even then we don’t have what evangelicals generally think of as the closed NT canon.  The argument that certain early writers referred to documents that later became part of the NT canon as ‘Scripture’ does nothing for the argument that they were considered canonical at that time.  Nor will it do to argue based on the believed inspiration of a writing since many writings were considered inspired (and others were also called Scripture) that never made it into the NT canon.  In short, Allert is urging against anachronism.

The fifth chapter examines the fourth century lists of Biblical books in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History and Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter.  In Eusebius we find a list divided by accepted writings, disputed writings, and rejected writings.  Certain books that would later be accepted were still disputed in the fourth century (e.g., 2Peter or Jude) and appeared alongside writings that would never make it into the canon, so this shows that the NT canon was still quite fluid, but we do see an authoritative list of books like none that appeared before it.  Athanasius’ Festal Letter on the other hand lists all 27 books that appear in our NT and labels them as canonical.  The same list pops up in Carthage just thirty years later, but neither list settled the issue once and for all as can be seen by the disputed status of Hebrews and Revelation on other lists of fourth century writers.

The final chapter turns to the issues of inspiration and inerrancy.  Allert rightly notes that at best we can only affirm that Scripture is inspired but past that we don’t know much at all.  Even here we have to be careful not to assume that the standard proof-texts for inspiration have ‘the Bible’ in view or any kind of closed canon because, of course, such things did not exist yet.  Inerrancy becomes relative because in the mind of many evangelicals it’s the logical conclusion of inspiration, that is, if the Bible is the product of God, and God cannot err, then the Bible cannot err.  But this calls into question exactly what we mean by terms like truth and error and has to account for matters of interpretative methodology, and when it’s all said and done, if we can’t say much about inspiration then we can’t say much about inerrancy.  As noted earlier, just because a document was thought to be inspired or was considered Scripture didn’t make it canonical nor would many evangelicals think these writings inerrant.

Craig Allert has given us in HVS? a book that’s both attentive and sensitive to history.  He eschews anachronism at every turn and offers a number of correctives for modern evangelicals who read their current beliefs into the church fathers, and for this, he is to be commended.  One of the most profound insights of this book is that early Christians didn’t place the authority of books that would later be canonized in their alleged canonical status or even their inspiration, but rather in their preservation of the teachings of Jesus and the apostolic testimony.  This is a major point that many modern evangelicals would do well to remember.  This work could benefit from a bit more qualification when talking about evangelicals.  For example, Allert regularly refers to evangelicals generally, when it would be better to say ‘many’ or ‘some,’ or qualify the statements with something like, ‘the evangelical authors I’ve read…’ or ‘the evangelicals I’ve spoken to…’

The final chapter also seems a bit disjointed.  The latter half of it recounts the expulsion of Robert Gundry from the Evangelical Theological Society in 1983 over his commentary on Matthew.  The majority of the ETS felt that he was denying inerrancy based upon their preconceptions about what inerrancy was when in reality Gundry was faithful to the doctrine as defined by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in that he interpreted the text not based on what he thought it should mean, but rather based on what Matthew intended it to mean by employing midrash.  While the recounting of these events was fascinating in its own right it lacked cohesion with the first half of the chapter on inspiration and didn’t fit the overall flow of the book.  These criticisms aside, HVS? is a challenging book that will force readers to think about their views on tradition and Scripture, and hopefully cause them to appreciate the former as much as they might appreciate the latter.


That Which is Perfect: Decker on 1Cor. 13:10

Rod Decker was good enough to post a research paper he wrote in 1994 entitled: “A History of Interpretation of “That Which Is Perfect” (1 Cor 13:10) with Special Attention to the Origin of the ‘Canon View’.”  As a Charismatic I’ve debated this verse with cessationists more times than I can count so I’m especially interested to see what Dr. Decker had to say on the subject.  If such things interest you be sure to check it out.


Canonical Coincidence

This morning John C. Poirier (who really needs to start blogging!) said the following in some comments to another post:

Scripture’s authority properly derives from the fact that it preserves the apostles’ testimony, and *not* from any sort of inspirationist or revelational aspect. […] This is what scholars (e.g., Koester) mean when they refer to the second-century Church fathers affirm the authority of the OT prophets as *persons* rather than as *books*.

I just read the following:

James Barr has observed that in the Old Testament “the writers do not reckon with a written ‘scripture’ as a totally dominant, known and acknowledged factor and force in the life of Israel.” He goes on to argue that even the prophets who say, “Thus says the Lord,” are not speaking on the basis of an already existing text. Almost nothing in the Old Testament suggests that there were sacred scriptures to turn to when guidance was needed. Neither David, Solomon, nor Hezekiah had any focus or emphasis on any sacred books current and normative in the life of Israel. Rather, as Barr has observed, the Old Testament individuals related to God more through persons (priests, prophets) and institutions (tabernacle, temple) than through sacred writings.1


1 Lee Martin McDonald, The Canon Debate (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 9. Bold mine.

Create Your Own Canon

Pretend that you have the authority to decide what books are canonical and what books are not.  What would your canon look like?  What would you add and what would you take away?  I’d take away 1-2 Chronicles and Philemon and add all of Igantius’ epistles, Athanasius’ De Incarnatione Verbi and Larry Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ.


Commencing with Canon

Today officially marks the beginning of my planned year-long study of the canon of Scripture.  The plan for Janurary is to read one chapter (= essay) every day from The Canon Debate (eds. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002).  At present I am half-way through the first chapter which is the introduction and hope to work through chapter 2 “The Notion and Definition of Canon” by Eugene Ulrich before day’s end.


Scripture and Tradition

Kevin Edgecomb’s recent post has me thinking of Scripture and Tradition.  Kevin said:

Tradition encompasses the living faith of the Church, past and present and future. It is the sum of its very life. The Bible, written by members of that Church, the Holy Prophets of the Old Testament Church and the Holy Apostles of the New Testament Church, is an expression in time and space of that Faith. […] There would be no Bible without Tradition, as Tradition is precisely what it is a part of.

There is a Protestant tendency to set up this false dichotomy between Scripture and Tradition where Scripture maintains the place of prominence.  This is the heart of Sola Scriptura (which does not do away with Tradition but rather subjects it to Scripture).  But I have to (even as a Protestant!) agree with Kevin here; there would be no Bible without Tradition, indeed, it is a part of the Tradition!  It almost seems improper to speak of one without the other or one over and against the other.  We can state it like this: while not all birds and ducks, all ducks are birds.  In the same way, while not all Tradition is Scripture, all Scripture is Tradition. 

This seems to be a very biblical point when we look at 1Corinthians 11:2 and 2Thessalonians 2:15.  Paul tells the Corinthians to “maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you” (NRSV)  Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians gives us insight into the mechanism through which he passed these traditions on, i.e., “either by word of mouth or by letter.”  (NRSV)  That the authority of this Tradition was later recognized and canonized (another part of tradition I might add) only goes to show that Scripture and Tradition are inseparable. 


Next Year’s Study: Canon

I’ve purposed to take all of next year and really get into the study of the canon of Scripture.  I’ve read a couple of books on the subject, but it time to read more than a couple.  So the reading list for the next year will include (because these are the books I own) but is not limited to the following:

I know that I’m going to have to get my hands on Metzger’s book on the canon, but if you can think of any other reading to add to this list, feel free to suggest it in a comment.  Thanks.


Chat Room Chatter & Blundering Blather

Every once in a blue I’ll wander into a chat room just to see what’s going on.  Well earlier I wandered into a Christian chat room and one person said that they had spent many months studying the issue of the canon of Scripture.  I asked what their studies yielded and they said:

Jews removed seven books from the Bible because they were too Christian; Protestants removed them because they were too Catholic.

That’s a quote people!  Someone actually said that!  I asked what sources they utilized and the answer was some web links, and two books: Catholicism for Dummies (gee, ya think?) by John Trigilio & Ken Brighenti and A Concise History of the Catholic Church by Thomas Bokenkotter.  When I offered to recommend a couple of books that dealt specifically with the issue of the canon of Scripture I was met with the sound of crickets chirping.  No response, not yes, not no, just silence.  Oh well. :-|