Another Bart-Sequitur

Posted By 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.

Rick added that the Bulletin of Biblical Research had a roundtable discussion in an issue of the journal back in the 1990s. Some of those are online as PDF as well (here, here, and 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).

To round things out, here’s some reading for 1 Peter and 2 Peter, whose authorship is disputed among scholars.

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35 Responses to “Another Bart-Sequitur”

  1. As someone who has also been “wounded by the faith” I can at least appreciate the chip that Ehrman has on his shoulder.

    I was raised in a tradition that every word in the scriptures was God breathed and _factually_ true. Read it as literally as possible. That kind of thing.

    It is hard, really hard, to come up with a new paradigm when such a big part of your life (infancy through high school) was formed under this fundamentalistic point of view.

    So, I appreciate that you can appreciate Ehrman’s “issues” that lead to attack mentality he seems to have formed.

    It is a shame that so many knowledgeable writers strive so hard to “be right” instead of presenting information in a balanced format.

    • MSH says:

      when I look at someone like Ehrman I can’t help thinking that the Church really is part of the problem. It really irks me to know that so much of evangelicalism (and that’s a nearly useless word) has no time for careful thinking (it’s impractical or boring) and no appreciation for why it matters.

  2. Brian says:

    Misery loves company. Bart Ehrman is miserable in his agnosticism so he is trying to get as many people to join him in his misery.

  3. blop2008 says:

    Oh la la. Forged by Bart Ehrman.–Why-Bibles-Authors/dp/0062012614/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1297986808&sr=8-1

    Now I smell some NT scholars who will come out rebutting the book or presenting a more conservative view point, as we might evidently anticipate, but who will they be?

  4. Cognus says:

    Criticism such as Ehrman brings forth does not rattle my faith; just the opposite.
    As illustrated by the other scholars Michael cites, there is nothing new here – not one thing. Examine the points, understand the flipside of the argument, and move on in faith.

    When one backs away and looks at the whole of New Testament writings, its pretty clear that therein is no concerted effort to “trick” people into Christianity. If those ‘authors’, scribes, copyists, couriers, editors and redactors, pseudo and otherwise, were trying to concoct some seamless sales pitch about the person and work and nature of Jesus and aftermath thereof, they sure did a lousy job of it! Instead what we have is the lovely tapestry of a lot of people moved by the same Spirit, struggling to tell what revelation they had or heard of, in language the people of the day could begin to grasp.

  5. Janina says:

    The real danger is not whether Ehrman is right or wrong – most people will not even bother with that – the danger is contained in his “scholarly credentials”. People will take that as proof positive of his position.
    Yes, evangelical and/or denominational Christianity is to be blamed. Most of them lack doctrinal honesty, worry about admitting their errors and “loosing” credibility. They create “religious clubs” and threaten to excommunicate any one questioning their reasoning.
    The Bible, either OT or NT is not the problem – interpretation is.
    I can understand people’s disillusion with religion. Biblical theology is very seldom applied. (Jesus Christ Himself was the most irreligious person that has ever lived).
    Once, at a hospital, I was required to fill out a form – under religion I put “Christian”. The registering nurse was quite cross with me – “are you a Catholic, Baptist, JW, Anglican, etc..?” Hope you see the point. After all – “is God divided…?”
    We must follow Christ not a man – then we will not be “wounded by faith”.

    In my opinion Ehrman still has doubts in his mind, so he’s trying desperately to “prove” he’s right.
    It’s like the issue with evolution. Once you decide it’s true, you forever look to prove it (even though no proof exists).
    Mike makes a good point – the whole issue will have both effects – good and bad. It will spur some people to dig deeper and strengthen their faith, and give some people an excuse not to bother with faith any longer (easy way out).
    Attacking God’s Word is nothing new. LOGOS incarnate was viciously attacked, and yet He did not defend Himself (for then). God’s word will stand. One day Bart Ehrman will find himself on the wrong side of the debate. Luke 13:3, 5 – “…unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish” (tongue in cheek).

  6. Beau says:

    I have read Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus, Interrupted”. They consist of well-documented, logically organized, clearly researched arguments. As you note yourselves, Ehrman is introducing nothing new. These are scholarly positions that have been around for years. Ehrman makes this point as well.

    The only difference between you and Ehrman, is that, in your case, your scholarship seems to be biased by your belief in God. Like the creationist who refuses to credit any science that ages the earth more that 10,000 years, you seem to deride any scholarship that might refute the supernatural inerrancy of scripture.

    That’s the only way I can understand your derision of Ehrman. If you want to suggest alternative scholarship, go right ahead. But throwing out insults?

    I don’t think Ehrman is the one with the chip on his shoulder.

    • MSH says:

      you’re right – my scholarship is biased by my belief in God. Thank goodness that Ehrman’s scholarship isn’t biased by his disbelief in God! Whew!

      Let’s think about the silliness of your objection for a moment. Are you *really* suggesting that anything Bart Ehrman says has solved the riddle of how everything came from nothing? I hope you know that Big Bang cosmology *requires* an external cause that is distinct from the thing brought into existence by it (i.e., matter). This is why so many physicists do believe in God. But they just need to read Bart’s book about the transmission of some manuscripts through the latter half of the second millennium to get their cosmological questions answered — right? Of course!

      I’ve seen some atrocious category confusions over the years, writing on the web and reading stuff like this, but this is one of the most egregious I’ve ever seen. It is a grand non-sequitur all its own. The existence of God is hardly tied to, or dependent on, or derived from, the field of textual criticism. Holy cow.

      The chip is still there. It would take something a LOT more coherent than this to move it.

  7. Beau says:

    No. I never once suggested that Bart Ehrman has disproved God.

    Have you read Mr. Ehrman’s books? Though he is, himself, an agnostic, he doesn’t use textual analysis to disprove God. That’s not the point of his “Misquoting Jesus” or “Jesus, Interrupted” texts at all. In fact, he states rather explicitly that he doesn’t intend for these books to prove or disprove the existence of God. (He does make an “existence” argument in a book called “God’s Problem”, but this is not a textual analysis book; it’s an examination of philosophy).

    My point is not that Ehrman’s books prove or disprove the existence of God. My point is that your belief in God, seems to prejudice your opinion of Ehrman’s work (and you don’t even seem to be very familiar with his work).

    Textual historians call into question the valid authorship and transcription errors of ancient texts constantly, as a matter of course. I seriously doubt you would be so offended by a scholar who questions the authorship or transcription authenticity of Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, or Herodotus. The only reason that could warrant the offense you take in Ehrman’s work is your belief in the inerrancy of the bible.

    I’m didn’t tie “the existence of God” to Ehrman’s work. I’m tied it to your emotional opinion. No category confusion there!

    It is you who betray category confusion by treating Ehrman’s historical textual analysis in a different light than you would treat the historical textual analysis of any ancient text.

    • MSH says:

      my “prejudice” is based on the fact that I’m not a newbie to textual criticism and know very well that the data can be parsed a variety of ways. There is nothing self evident in what Ehrman does that compels his conclusions. The fact that other textual critics who are his friends (namely, Michale Holmes) don’t agree with his conclusions *should* tell you something. Bart concludes what he concludes based on the presuppositions he brings to the data, not on the basis of the data themselves. He imagines himself able to get into the minds of the scribes (for which he’d have to be omniscient). A belief in God on my part says nothing about what scribes do or don’t do. I’m not a fundamentalist (you must be new to the blog) so I can easily make real-world distinctions like this. But that is Bart’s problem. There is only black and white; no other way of parsing the data (i.e., no other presuppositions) are permissible or coherent. It’s his poor logic that I find irritating.

  8. Beau says:

    Grammar correction:

    “I didn’t tie ‘the existence of God’ to Ehrman’s work. I tied it to your emotional opinion.”

    My apologies.

  9. Beau says:

    And since you brought it up, three problems with your Big Bang theory.

    1 – If you’re going to apply science to the existence of God, you have to be consistent. If you can “scientifically” ask that the universe have a cause, then science can ask that God have a cause. What caused God?

    2 – There’s nothing rational about positing God as the answer to every unanswered question. You can use the same logic to say, “Fairies caused the Big Bang”, or “Ganesha caused the Big Bang”, or “Buddha caused the Big Bang,” or “Harry Potter caused the Big Bang”. That’s the lovely thing about the supernatural/magic. You can define it anyway you like. It never has to answer to reason.

    3 – Your “so many physicists” who believe in God aren’t anywhere near a majority of physicists, as several surveys have shown.

  10. Beau says:

    Scientists who do not believe in God don’t have to have a reason to disbelieve, any more than they need a reason to disbelieve in any particular kind of magic. Scientists don’t use the Big Bang as a “proof” against God (only creationists try use the Big Bang as a “proof”).

    There are many different theoretical possibilities that cosmologists explore to understand the moment of the Big Bang or the moment before the Big Bang. Inherent in all these explanations is the understanding that the singularity of the Big Bang was a singularity of all dimensions, including time; and without time, cause has no meaning.

    In any case, scientists have no qualms with saying, “there’s a lot we don’t know about the moment of the Big Bang, but we’re working on it.” It is in the nature of science to explain the unknown. For example, some of latest planets that have been discovered are large, Jupiter-sized planets orbiting as close to their star as our Mercury. Scientists have not yet figured out how such enormous gas giants came to be orbiting so close to a star, but they are working on a physical theory. You won’t see a cosmologist saying, “well, we can’t figure out the physics of these new planets, so I guess the only conclusion is that they move by magic. At last, proof that magic exists!”

    The Big Bang is no different.

    • MSH says:

      you are really under-read in this area (the religion and science one). There’s nothing here that hasn’t been addressed ad nauseum by people like Polkinghorne. YOu just have to read more on the specific intersection with religion. These are feckless arguments. I can direct you to sources, but I’m not going to repeat their content in the comments section.

  11. Beau says:

    Say MSH

    I realize in retrospect that I’ve gotten WAY off-topic. I won’t be offended if you decide only to post my first reply, the one that starts “No. I never once suggested that Bart Ehrman has disproved God.”

    I do respect that a blog moderator has to steer the conversations toward the topic at hand – sorry to have abused your hospitality.

  12. Beau says:

    I’m actually quite well read on these topics including the sources you mention and many others. So I think that we’re probably too entrenched in our positions to continue.

    Merriam Webster


    a : the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces
    b : magic rites or incantations

    a : an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source
    b : something that seems to cast a spell : enchantment

    • MSH says:

      the last place to go for philosophical discussion on this issue is Webster’s Dictionary. A dictionary by definition “glosses” things — it doesn’t provide discussion or contextualized nuancing at all.

  13. Beau says:

    The reason that the article is titled “Scientists are still keeping the faith”, is that even though only 39.3 percent of all scientists survey report a belief in God, the authors still think that percentage is surprisingly high.

  14. Beau says:

    In retrospect, I see now that you have provided me (inadvertently) with an excellent case in point.

    In an earlier comment I had suggested that your reading of Ehrman’s work was biased by your belief system. Firmly held beliefs can often cause us to make assumptions about the validity and authenticity of other writers. The sense that someone agrees or disagrees with our core values can lead us to celebrate or demonize them (as the case may be) before we’ve really grasped what they have to say, and before we’ve given them a fair reading.

    The title of the Nature article that you referenced, “Scientists are Still Keeping the Faith”, may have misled you into thinking that the statistics in the article favored scientists who believe in God. So when you skimmed the article to find support for you belief system, you easily misread the data to mean the opposite of what it said.

    In fact, even a cursory reading of the full article shows clearly that belief in God was the minority position in each grouping of the survey.

    You began this blog by providing an “excerpt” about Ehrman’s new book “Forged – Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are”. I could not find your citation, so let me provide it for you. Your quotation comes from an article by John Muraski in the Charlotte observer:

    If you are not one to be led by bias and assumptions, one might ask why you didn’t provide an excerpt from the book itself.

    Well, today is March 16 and the book is not released until March 22. In all likelihood, you haven’t read it.

    • MSH says:

      this is real simple: show me (and everyone else) how textual criticism relates to the question of God’s existence. If it did, and if it was that simple, that’s where the debate would focus. Someone who assigns no credibility to the New Testament can still believe in God (can we say “orthodox Jews”). I can’t see why it’s so difficult to see that what Ehrman is doing and this question have no relationship. If you aren’t going to address that, I’m going to ignore further comments. If the NT had never been written belief in God would still be alive and well.

      Another issue is why textual critics think Ehrman’s conclusions aren’t warranted. But you’ve evaded that issue in favor of this unconnected one.

      • Beau says:

        Dr. Heiser,

        If you choose not to post any further comments, I understand. It is your blog. I agree that we should get away from our cosmological argument tangent. So let me address your question directly and sincerely.

        You say “show me … how textual criticism relates to the question of God’s existence.” Then later, “I can’t see why it’s so difficult to see that what Ehrman is doing and this question have no relationship.”

        As you say, “this is real simple.” I agree with you!

        In an earlier comment I said “I never once suggested that Bart Ehrman has disproved God,” and later added, ” In fact, he [Ehrman] states rather explicitly that he doesn’t intend for these books to prove or disprove the existence of God.” (God’s Problem does deal with existence, but it’s not a book based on textual criticism.) So the short answer is that I never suggested that (in your words) “textual criticism relates to the question of God’s existence.” That is not my criticism of this post (and never was).

  15. Beau says:

    I did suggest that your belief in God affected the way you evaluated Ehrman’s work; but, recognizing that I am, perhaps, making unfair assumptions about you, let me put my criticism another way.

    I think you berate and dismiss Ehrman as a scholar unfairly. I know Christian scholars personally (some who also have PhD’s in fields of biblical scholarship) who read Ehrman and respect his scholarship. They may point out why they disagree with some of Ehrman’s conclusions, but they also take his arguments seriously and fairly, even pointing out salient discussions that Ehrman has raised. One Christian professor I know (speaking to his class) complemented Ehrman for making it very clear, in both “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus, Interrupted”, that his conclusions do not impinge on the existence or nonexistence of God. You don’t have to tell Ehrman that textual criticism does not relate to the existence of God. He says it himself!

    • MSH says:

      I’m not going after Bart for arguments he doesn’t make; just for ones he does (poorly in logical terms). But I do believe his atheism is influencing him.

  16. Beau says:

    Your own arguments about Ehrman are generalizations at best. You say that his books are “so often laced with non-sequiturs and either-or fallacies” without ever addressing why you think any of his points are “fallacies”. You do offer links to opposing scholarship, which is quite fair.

    But you say to me “Another issue is why textual critics think Ehrman’s conclusions aren’t warranted,” I believe you are stating a half-truth. It would be more truthful to say that some textual critics think Ehrman’s conclusions aren’t warranted, while others agree with him. In fact, all the opposing scholars to whom you link seem to be evangelical Christians (e.g. the Institute for Biblical Research). So perhaps the real issue is why evangelical Christian textual critics think Ehrman’s conclusions aren’t warranted.

  17. Beau says:

    I just think you should be fair; which brings me to the most important criticism I have of your post. The main point of your post is to decry Ehrman’s new book “Forged”. But the book has not been released yet, and unless you are a journalist with an advance copy, you probably haven’t read it.

    You accused me of evading the issue (though you have prejudiced the issue by implying that all textual critics disagree with Ehrman). So my simple question for you, which is completely relevant to this post, and which you are evading:

    Did you read Ehrman’s new book, “Forged”, before you wrote this post criticizing it?

  18. Beau says:

    OK – and, really, do you think it’s fair to remove all the comments you made about cosmology, so that no one can see what I was arguing against?

    And be honest! You deleted a comment in which you completely misquoted an article from the journal Nature – made it say the opposite of what it was saying. Granted, it was a small point, but can’t you admit even a little mistake? Especially, when submitted the article with such arrogance. I believe your words were something to the effect of “the journal Nature. I presume you are aware of it, since it is the leading science journal in the world.”

    How fair is it to address your critics by silently deleting your mistakes?

    • MSH says:

      just email me (you already have, prior to this post approval and response, accusing me of dishonesty). I’m not dishonest – technologically inept on occasion, yes.

  19. Beau says:

    I also can’t help but notice that you say (referring to the magic definition I quoted), “the last place to go for philosophical discussion on this issue is Webster’s Dictionary”, then deleted your own comment in which you told me to look up the definition of “magic”!

    Is this honest?

    I understand that, as a blog moderator, you are completely free to ignore comments or refuse to post comments; but when you do choose to engage a discussion – you should keep it honest.

  20. […] 21, 2011 I’ve posted on Bart Ehrman and his work several times before on this blog (e.g., here and here). My contention with Bart is that he’s a fundamentalist — someone who is […]

  21. […] of where New Testament apathy toward pseudonymity provides some helpful context. Recall that back in February I posted about this issue — the fact that many books in the ancient world are named after people who didn’t write […]

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