Posted By MSH on February 17, 2011
Well, Bart Ehrman is at it again. Not content with his all-or-nothing illogic concerning the transmission of the text (and so the concepts) of the New Testament, professor Ehrman is once again coming to a Barnes and Noble near you (and maybe a Fantasy Channel … er, History Channel … special or two). Here’s an excerpt from the link:
“Scholars have long resisted using the term “forgery” to characterize Biblical writings made under false authorship, on the grounds that such concepts as forgery, plagiarism and intellectual property are modern legal constructs and don’t apply to the ancients. But UNC-Chapel Hill religion professor Bart Ehrman – a nemesis of conservative Evangelical Christianity who repudiated his faith in his 20s – makes the forgery accusation without reservation in a new book of that name.”
I have to hand it to Ehrman. I’m serious. What conservative biblical scholar puts half the effort into bringing New Testament scholarship to the public? As many readers will know, I’m a believer that scholarship is supposed to serve the public interest. But the reality is that few scholars want to flick any academic crumbs at the masses. Ehrman deserves admiration for that much. He makes a real effort to communicate important content to the non-specialist audience. While many evangelical scholars have bought into the notion — promoted by evangelicalism — that the average church-goer can’t abide serious content, Bart’s out there doing his darnedest to get unchurched people interested in the New Testament. And he succeeds. Too bad what he tells them is so often laced with non-sequiturs and either-or fallacies.
What Bart’s focusing on this time is the academic dispute over the authorship of certain books in the New Testament. This is related to the issue of “pseudonymity” – the ancient literary practice of composing a letter or other work in the name of a well-known figure (or substituting that person’s name for the title and hence authorial origin). The book of 1 Enoch is a good example (no, Enoch didn’t write it). In this new work, Ehrman distills the arguments against the traditional authorship attribution of certain New Testament books and then presents his readers with his usual either-or fallacy: only a knuckle-dragging fundamentalist wouldn’t take my side, the side of real scholars; that is the only choice.
Another Bart-Sequitur is born. And needs to be slapped on its butt.
Actually, Ehrman’s new book is good news and bad news. The good news is that none of what he’s going to say hasn’t been said before. Doubts as to the authorship of certain New Testament books is nothing new. New Testament scholars of all persuasions have been writing about pseudonymity and authorship problems for a very long time. The bad news is that most lay people within the “Bible believing” church will never have heard of any of this before. It will be totally new to them, for example, that there are “disputed Pauline epistles,” or that a majority of New Testament scholars don’t believe 1-2 Peter were written by Peter. Bart knows that. Sure, you can accuse him at this point of just wanting to make more money, but I doubt that’s what’s driving him. It’s at least partly about his belief that he’s disabusing people of false beliefs. But I also think he’s doing it as someone who’s been wounded by the faith. It’s working out some rage. Hey, if I believed what he thinks most evangelicals believe about God and evil (and they just might), I’d be angry with God, too. But I digress.
Regardless of what’s driving him, the theologically conservative assemblage of biblical scholars owes it to the average person in the pew to bring to light the full discussion on this issue. That is, rather than let Bart frame the issue and highlight the data points that will propel some unwarranted conclusions, people ought to be shown other ways the issue can be framed and approached that don’t result in forgery charges.
The Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus) are among the disputed Paulines. The effort to deny Pauline authorship of these epistles began with the work of P. N. Harrison. Many scholars hostile to Pauline authorship still reference his work as having proven the case against Paul. (To understand the basics of Harrison’s work, click here — and note how Harrison’s statistical analyses have now been shown to be unreliable). My friend and Logos colleague Rick Brannan writes a blog devoted to the Pastoral Epistles, and so he’s been down this track before. Rick informed me that Harrison’s work denying Pauline authorship had been thoroughly addressed by Donal Guthrie in a 44-page monograph. It’s available online in PDF here.
More recently, Ben Witheringon has a well-reasoned section on pseudeonymity, wherein he defends the traditional authorship attribution of the disputed New Testament books. You can find that defense in Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, Volume 1: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1-2 Timothy and 1-3 John (Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians Set). Thanks goes to Rick Brannan for that reference as well.
Far more brief are Witherington’s comments on his blog (emphasis mine):
“Bart and I furthermore disagree on the issue of pseudonymity in the canon. It is one thing to say there are anonymous documents in the NT, which there are. Hebrews would be a good example. It is another thing to say that there are pseudonymous documents in the NT, forgeries. I and many other critical scholars think this is not so, but Bart is right that many scholars think otherwise. My point is simply this— there is a healthy debate about that issue amongst scholars. It is not a “well assured result of the historical critical method” on analyzing the NT.”
Other disputed Paulines include Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and (if you think Paul wrote it in the first place) Hebrews. (The links for each of those books — except Hebrews, which lacks any author attribution in its text — leads to a lengthy PDF file discussing the issues and defending Pauline authorship).