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.
The forgers who wrote a half-dozen epistles and the Book of Acts, along with scores of other documents that never made it into the New Testament, acted with deliberate forethought, knowing exactly what they were doing, Ehrman contends. That makes the Bible a very dishonest book in Ehrman's estimation - rife not only with mistakes and untruths, but with deceptions and lies.
"The authors intended to deceive their readers, and their readers were all too easily deceived," Ehrman writes. "The use of deception to promote the truth may well be considered one of the most unsettling ironies of the early Christian tradition."
After quoting a number of classical authorities to show the ancients disapproved of forgery - "even forgers condemned forgery" - Ehrman cites examples of the practice as it was used to advance the cause of the Christians and their opponents alike.
In the first several centuries after Jesus' ministry, the followers of the Nazarene engaged in fierce theological polemics with Jews, Gnostics, pagans and other Christians. They resorted to forgery, fabrication and character assassination to disparage their adversaries and bolster their own ranks, Ehrman writes.
Forgery, or writing under a false name, ultimately helped early Christians consolidate their fractured movement into a coherent theology. These letters, essays and treatises helped gloss over internal conflicts to discredit foes, to justify admitting non-Jews and to expand across the globe.
Most of these forgeries were not included in the New Testament and it's not hard to see why. Church fathers were wary of accounts steeped in magic and superstition, such as a text now known as Pseudo-Matthew that includes fantastical tales of dragons paying obeisance to a 2-year-old Jesus.
Many scholars accept the prevalence of false authorship as a fact of life in ancient times, but they tend to view the phenomenon on a par with the role of speechwriters or ghostwriters today.
Ehrman's beef is not so much with ancient forgers but with present-day believers who uncritically accept Biblical writings as genuine and consider it a sacrilege to question the Bible's authenticity. "Forged" is just the latest bombshell Ehrman has lobbed at his former co-religionists. He writes from the perspective of history's suppressed and silenced - that is, the heretics - in such titles as "Misquoting Jesus," "Lost Christianities," "Lost Scriptures" and "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture."
Orthodox Christianity owes an incalculable debt to the prolific work of forgers. Six of Paul's 13 epistles - Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus - are believed by scholars to have been written by someone other than Paul. In other books of the New Testament - such as Mark, John and 1 Corinthians - scribes added key passages decades or centuries after the fact.
After Christianity sought to ally itself with the Roman Empire, forged gospels and epistles were created to absolve the Romans of murdering Jesus and to place the blame for deicide on the Jews. In the Pilate Gospel and others, for example, the Pilate repents for his role in the crucifixion and converts to Christianity.
Such accounts abounded with chilling anti-Semitic stereotypes of malevolent Jews as Christ-killers. They were in circulation for centuries and thrived much longer as an oral tradition, feeding into the mainstream of European thought well until modern times.
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