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How Many Books in the New Testament Were Forged?

In response to the lecture on ancient practices of pseudepigraphy (writing in the name of a famous person when, alas, you are actually someone else), I received this important question, getting to the very basics – the heart and soul of the issue for students of early Christianity.

 

QUESTION:

Dr Ehrman I know you have published and spoken on the topic, but would you mind sharing which NT books are pseudepigraphal?

 

RESPONSE

Yes indeed, one of the reasons I’m so interested in this topic is that the use of pseudepigraphy, what today we would call “forgery,” was so much more widespread in antiquity than today, probably because there were far fewer people who were literate in the first place and so far fewer experts who could uncover a forgery; and those who could, of course, didn’t have our modern methods of analysis and technologies of data retrieval.

It was very common in the Christian world as well.  Before answering the question directly at the end of this post, let me just say something about how widespread the practice was in Christianity from outside the New Testament.  Here is how I introduce the matter in my scholarly book Forgery and Counterforgery.  The paragraphs are accessible to the non-expert, but I do need to define a couple of terms, to go along with “pseudonymous” (= written under a false name):  “anonymous” means written without any name, i.e. the author never says who he is; “orthonymous” means written under the “right” name, that is, the author claims to be who he really is (as I’m doing now); “homonymous” means written under the “same” name, that is, someone writes something in his/her own name but it happens also to be the name of a famous person and so is mistakenly thought to be by that one (so when someone named Stephen King writes a book under the name…Stephen King).  It’s not the author’s fault: it just happens to be his name.  The term subapostolic times just means “just after the time of the apostles”

Here’s how I open my book (afterward I’ll apply the nomenclature to the New Testament):

******************************************************************

Arguably the most distinctive feature of the early Christian literature is the degree to which it was forged.   Even though the early Christians were devoted to the truth– or so their writings consistently claimed – and even though “authoritative” literature played a virtually unparalleled role in their individual and communal lives, the orthonymous output of the early Christians was remarkably, even astonishingly, meager.  From the period of the New Testament, from which some thirty writings survive intact or in part, only…

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From the period of the New Testament, from which some thirty writings survive intact or in part, only eight go under the name of their actual author, and seven of these derive from the pen of one man.   To express the matter differently, only two authors named themselves correctly in the surviving literature of the first Christian century.  All other Christian writings are either anonymous, falsely ascribed (based on an original anonymity or homonymity), or forged.

Matters begin to change with the second Christian century, even though orthonymity continues to be the exception rather than the rule.  It is worth considering, for example, what Pre-Enlightenment scholars accepted as the writings of apostolic and subapostolic times. There were the Homilies and  Recognitions of Clement, now known not to be works of the one who was reputedly the fourth bishop of

Rome, but to be forged in his name.  There were the writings of the early Pauline convert Dionysius the Areopagite, also forged.  There were the letters of Paul himself to and from Seneca, likewise forged.

And there were the thirteen letters of Ignatius of Antioch, six of them forged and the others falsely and severely interpolated.   When we move deeper into the second century and on into the third and fourth, we see a heightened interest in the production of “apostolic” works — Gospels by Peter, Thomas, Philip, all forged; Paul’s letters to the Alexandrians and Laodiceans, forged; Jesus’ correspondence with Abgar, forged; Apocalypses of Peter and Paul, forged.  We can move backwards into writings forged in the names of the greats from antiquity, Isaiah or the Sybil, or forward into the writings forged in the names of orthodox church fathers – Basil, Augustine, Jerome.  The list goes a very long way.

*******************************************************

And so, now, to return to the question.  How many books in the NT are pseudepigraphic, that is, “forged.”    Different scholars will have different opinions, of course.  Conservative evangelicals will say that none of them is.  That’s one end of the spectrum.  I’m very near the other end.  Here is my breakdown:

Anonymous Writings (books whose authors never tell us who they were and we still don’t know who they were):  Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts (though see below), Hebrews (though see below), 1, 2, 3 John (though see below).

Homonymous Writing (book written by the same name as a famous person): Revelation of John (written by someone named John, but almost certainly not “that” John, the disciple of Jesus, John the Son of Zebedee).  I used to think the book of James fit into this category, but now I think the author really wants his readers to think he is *that* James, the brother of Jesus.

Forged Writings (authors intentionally/knowingly claiming to be someone other than who they really are):  Acts (this is my view: the author is anonymous but he implicitly claims to be one of Paul’s actual traveling companions, which I think cannot be true); Letters falsely claiming to be by Paul: 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus; then also Hebrews (I’m not so sure about this, but a good case has been made by other scholars that the author is hinting that he is Paul, when he definitely was not); James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1 John (again, the author doesn’t claim to be John, but he does claim to be an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, which cannot be right); Jude.

Orthonymous Writings (books written by the person who claims to be the author): seven of Paul’s letters:  Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon.

 

 

And so the grand totals (in terms of numbers) come out like this (depending on which way you go with the ones on the margins).  Out of 27 books in the New Testament.

Anonymous writings:  6-9.   (All of these have been “falsely ascribed” – that is, thought by later readers/editors to be written by people who in fact did not write them: e.g., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)

Homonymous writings: 1

Forged writitings:  10-13

Orthonymous writings: 7

I have to admit, it’s a sobering total.

 


How Did We Get *These* 27 Books in the New Testament?
My Lecture in Quebec: Did Ancient Authors Try To Deceive Their Readers?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Ficino  September 20, 2019

    “Acts (this is my view: the author is anonymous but he implicitly claims to be one of Paul’s actual traveling companions, which I think cannot be true)”

    Dr. Ehrman, do you have a view on the probable date of composition of Acts?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2019

      Late 80s. It’s highly controversial. A lot of scholars today are putting it much later, to around 120 CE or so.

      5
    • Avatar
      Scott  September 20, 2019

      Hear, hear! Dr. Ehrman, I would love a post on how the author of Acts “implies” that he is Paul’s companion and why that is not likely the case.

      1
      • Bart
        Bart  September 22, 2019

        I posted on this on the blog — but maybe it was many years ago. I’ll repost! Thanks,

        2
  2. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  September 20, 2019

    Thank you for making this concise list. We can safely ignore the fundamentalist opinions because in no sense of the word are they scholars– or even honest, for that matter. Willfully ignorant, to be generous? I generated a PDF and printed this. Handy reference. In fact, I need to do that with a lot of your blog posts– nice supplemental material to go with your books!

    10
  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  September 20, 2019

    Do you think the Revelation of John would have made it into the Bible if it hadn’t been written by “John”?

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2019

      Nope!

      6
      • Avatar
        quadell  September 24, 2019

        Then, in my view, we’re rather lucky that ancient readers were confused! Otherwise, this fascinating work would probably have been lost.

        In a related way, the author of 1 Peter might have inadvertently done us a favor by writing in the name of Jesus’s most famous disciple. His views would have been lost, and our knowledge of 1st-century Christianity would be poorer. (In fact, I wish more ancient readers had been convinced that Thomas had written the Gospel of Thomas; if they had, we would presumably have more and earlier copies of the work, and we might be able to say more about what earlier versions of the sayings actually said.)

  4. Avatar
    doug  September 20, 2019

    One reason I like your writings is that I think you do your best to reach your conclusions honestly. I find it frustrating to read something where the author has apparently started with their conclusion and then worked backward to try to justify it.

    6
  5. Avatar
    rivercrowman  September 20, 2019

    Great post! Let me slip in an off-topic question. John’s Gospel specifically mentions Caiaphas as the leader of chief priests of the Jerusalem temple. Have you found historical non-Biblical evidence that such a man existed by that name? … Thanks very much!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2019

      Yes, they actually discovered his burial box with his name on it some years ago.

      4
  6. Avatar
    Brand3000  September 20, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you think that since Acts was written late and from an unknown author, that the account of Paul’s experience of the resurrected Jesus was embellished for effect, and that Paul probably experienced something more straightfoward, sober, and ‘down to earth?’

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2019

      More or less, yes. (He certainly didn’t *think* of it as down to earth, though)

      4
  7. Avatar
    spock  September 20, 2019

    “Acts (this is my view: the author is anonymous but he implicitly claims to be one of Paul’s actual traveling companions, which I think cannot be true)”

    I don’t know what I think about the authorship of Acts yet, so I am curious: Why do you think it is unlikely that the author of Acts was a travelling companion of Paul?

  8. Avatar
    Orhan Aşkın  September 20, 2019

    Dr.Ehrman If I am remembering correctly you said before that author of Book of Acts and Luke are the same . But you said Acts forged. How can both at the same time be true?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2019

      Because Luke doesn’t claim to be written by Paul’s traveling companion. It’s anonymous. The only reason for thinking its author was Paul’s traveling comapnion is because a *different* book writtenby the same fellow survives, and it *does* make an authorial claim. But the Gospel of Luke itself does not.

      2
  9. Avatar
    Matt2239  September 21, 2019

    In the ancient world where so much forgery took place, to have the majority of the New Testament correctly attributed might be itself a miracle. And imagine the fortitude of character it required to ascribe the four gospels to no one. A faith that for thousands of years has never tried to say who wrote its core books is one with a solid tradition of integrity.

  10. Avatar
    bradseggie  September 21, 2019

    Perhaps the better question: how many of them are legit? Which ones are real?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2019

      I’m afraid I don’t know what you meant by “legit” or “real.” On the latter term, they are all real. That is, they really do exist.

      4
  11. Avatar
    RAhmed  September 21, 2019

    I didn’t realize so much of what we have from Ignatius is forged. In the translation that you did of his letters for Loeb Classical Library, did you only translate the 6 non-forged letters?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2019

      Seven. And yes, just those, with an introduction that explains why.

      2
  12. Avatar
    Zak1010  September 21, 2019

    Dr Ehrman.

    Given the categorization of these books, how would or what would you look for in any book to deem it true. To be more clear, if two books are not necessarily more or less reliable than the other.
    What evidence or criteria would you look for in order to deem a book true or at least more true than the other?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2019

      I”m not sure what you mean by “true.” Do you mean “truly written by the alleged author”? Or “what it says about the world and life is true”? On the former, you look at issues connected with writing style, vocabulary, ideas, and possible anachronisms (among other things).

      1
      • Avatar
        Zak1010  September 23, 2019

        What about the latter?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 24, 2019

          I would say that has no relation to the question of whether the author really was who he said he was.

          1
  13. Avatar
    tadmania  September 22, 2019

    Though the notion encroaches upon territory Dr Ehrman has marked out pretty clearly, this information tilts me toward the idea that, while most of the NT is of dubious or false provenance, the entirety of it is mythical. This includes its central character.

    I understand the limits of the available materials. It just rattles my chain that so substantial and expansive a charade could proceed from a few words mouthed by an itinerant lower class Jew over a period of three years.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2019

      Yeah, I don’t see it that way at all. If I write a historical account of the WWII and claim to be Dwight Eisenhower, my claim would be false but my account might still be accurate. There’s no relation between the two.

      4
  14. Avatar
    tadmania  September 22, 2019

    So…. where is the line of demarcation here? Why do we believe Paul knew the physical brothers of Jesus, when he is the same man who claimed to have his authority bestowed upon him by a fit of revelation? Where is the nexus between the apparent existence of Pilate and the idea that he had Jesus crucified? I keep reading about the reative pseudopygraphy (sp?) of entire sections, but not much about international forgeries of otherwise genuine writers.

    Paul may not have been lying, but he sure seems to have been subject to deficits of sanity and/or integrity.

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2019

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. About one out of eight people in America have a vision of a deceased loved one, and really think they saw the person. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t trust them when they say that they once met my cousin Sally.

      4
      • Avatar
        tadmania  September 23, 2019

        True. But, that 12.5% crowd isn’t trying to start a new religion. Paul definitely had an agenda, centered more or less around his own authority. He claims exclusivities of insight, even over that of Peter. It is as though Paul saw aspects of Christianity that suited his purposes nicely. The cosmic Christ he espouses is known not to exist (if reason and every lucid experience people have ever had guides us) but he revealed his gentile mission to Paul personally. As far as I know, the Jesus of the synoptic gospels never saw himself as anything but a Jewish messiah.

        Paul wrote letter after letter to churches far and wide, telling them the right way to act and think. He scuffled with Peter over Jewish law. Paul saw himself as the primary agent of Christianity. Given his ambition and insistence on excessive supernatural revelation, I don’t know why we take anything Paul writes so serious as to use it to prove the existence of a physical human Jesus. Paul doesn’t write of Jesus’ birth, ministry, trial, burial, etc. Unless I am missing something important, he seems not to have known about Jesus as a mortal man.

        3
        • Bart
          Bart  September 24, 2019

          Paul wasn’t trying to start a new religion either. He saw himself as having come to understand what Judaism really was and was meant to be.

          6
          • Avatar
            tadmania  September 24, 2019

            hmmmmm. Judaism 2.0 may have been the program, but the NT innovations of grace, the expressed apocalypticism, and the ‘sufficiency of Christ crucified’ Paul espoused made for a new structure of both belief and practice that stood apart from traditional Judaism more than enough to cause a schism or two. Whatever we call it, Paul saw himself as the head honcho on earth for a new school of thought/faith/practice. That must have motivated his writings. How could it not?

            3
  15. Avatar
    tadmania  September 23, 2019

    That is perhaps, until he saw the need to bolster his revelation claims by adding encounters with those who supposedly walked with the human Jesus during his ministry. These relationships seem decidedly negligible to Paul, however. He got all his info from scripture and reverie.

    1
    • Avatar
      RICHWEN90  September 25, 2019

      For whatever it may be worth, I think you are making excellent points. Christianity as we have it seems to be a Pauline invention– I think a number of people have made a good case for that.

      • Bart
        Bart  September 27, 2019

        I argue against that view in my book Triumph of Christianity. One good piece of evidence that Paul didn’t invent Christianity is that he was persecuting Christians before he became one. He may have significantly helped it along, but I don’t think he came up with it.

        1
        • Avatar
          RICHWEN90  September 27, 2019

          I’d better learn to use words more precisely! Let’s take it as a given that Christianity existed in some form or forms prior to Paul’s conversion experience, whatever that was exactly. Paul left an indelible stamp. Paul took what was given,
          and added so much of his own interpretation, his own personality, that one can justly speak of a pre-Pauline
          Christianity and a post-Pauline Christianity. Trying this again– whatever Christianity was before Paul, it was certainly
          not that after Paul. But no, Paul did not INVENT Christianity, but his influence was profound in SHAPING
          Christianity. That was what I was trying to say. Whew! I think I can begin to appreciate what it takes to be a true
          scholar! It ain’t easy!

          • Bart
            Bart  September 29, 2019

            Yup. Paul does indeed seem to have had a huge impact. But my view is that his BIGGEST contribution by far wsa the realization that gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to be followers of Jesus. Hugely important.

            1
  16. Avatar
    Cousiza2  September 24, 2019

    Thanks for treating the question, very insightful. How is it that the Gospels continue to be incorrectly attributed – how do proponents defend this?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2019

      They defend it by saying they are *correctly* attributed!

      3
      • Avatar
        Duke12  September 26, 2019

        In Orthodox Christian circles the claim is that the correct authorship was preserved in the oral tradition that preceded the written Gospels. Orthodox claim that Protestant scholars focus too much on the manuscripts and too dismissively discount the oral. Is there much scholarship on this?

        • Avatar
          Duke12  September 26, 2019

          Hmmm, I think a better way to phrase this might be: The Orthodox believe the names of the authors were preserved in the oral traditions that were concurrent with and immediately post-dated the writing of the Gospels.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 27, 2019

          Yes, indeed, lots and lots of scholarship on oral traditions, in general and about the authorship of the Gospels. I deal with all of that at length in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

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