Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: Forged by Bart Ehrman

On my travels I read Forged: Writing in the Name of God, why the Bible's Authors are not who we think they are, by Bart Ehrman.   According to the reviews on amazon, none of the information in it is new, but it was new to me.  I knew in a general sense that the Bible had been codified hundreds of years after Christ's death, and that there was controversy over what to put in, but I didn't realize the extent of the bogus material floating around during the first few centuries.

As the title suggests, some of the Bible was not written by the people credited with it.  Not all, but some:  the gospels, Timothy 1&2, Peter 1&2, Corinthians 3, Acts, and the Apocalypse.  The basis for discrediting author attribution is mainly the mention of events too recent to be known to the supposed authors, and theological points that contradict Paul but are in line with later theology.

One big point is the anti-semitism of second century Christians, with the result that successive versions of the crucifixion story put more blame on the Jews and less on Pontius Pilate.  Another is the expectation of Christ's imminent return by the early believers, and of course later believers having to rework the theology of the second coming in light of Christ's failure to fulfill his prophesy of returning before his followers have died out.

Some of the most virulent anti-women stuff is in the two Timothy letters, so I was glad to see them discredited even though I don't have any plans to become a preacher.  I want to like Christ and his followers, even if I don't believe any of the supernatural stuff in the fairy tale.  Bart Ehrman redeems them quite a lot in this book.

The writing is a bit repetitive, especially in his frequent insistance that forgery was neither common nor condoned during the period the Bible was being written.  I got the impression that there's some great war going on in scholarship and he believed if he shouted often enough his side might win.  But... if you were to pick up the book and read a single chapter, it would make sense to you because some of the repetition sets the stage for his look at individual cases.

Chapter Four should really have been Chapter One, since he refers to it so often in the earlier chapters.  This is the chapter in which he debunks the alternative theories one by one: no, an ignorant Aramaic-speaking fisherman couldn't have dictated the gospel in perfect academic Greek style, no, scribes wouldn't have been able to make up stuff with the author's content yet in their own style, no, it wasn't common practice for followers of a teacher to use the teacher's name for their own work, etc.

Ehrman is a scholar who has read and studied the earliest texts in the original languages.  Apparently there are quite a few people who dedicate their lives to such study, and they argue amongst themselves quite a bit without the rest of us ever knowing who they are or what they argue about.  This book gives us a glimpse of that world and also the results of years of close study of Biblical and even non-Biblical texts.  Despite being a member of the ivory tower, Ehrman is able to write about his life's work in everyday language and he organized the book in such a way that a person could keep it on their bookshelf for future reference.

I recommend it with the caveat that a straight through cover-to-cover read could be a bit tedious and repetitive.  If you have an interest in how the Bible came to be and what it's really made of, you'll overlook the flaws and find this book fascinating, as I did.


shreddakj said...

Forged has been sitting on my bookshelf since it came out, shameful I know.. I should really get around to reading it.

Eric Haas said...

If you found Erhman’s book interesting, I would recommend The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Robert M. Price, and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man by Earl Doherty.

Infidel753 said...

It sounds like there's not much that's new here from an academic standpoint. Most people with actual knowledge have known for a long time that the documents making up the New Testament were written considerably later than traditionally believed, and not by the parties traditionally believed.

This information has not penetrated very far into the mass public mind, however -- it sometimes takes a long time for such advances in understanding to spread beyond academia. It sounds like this book is meant to help remedy that.

Human Ape said...

If you have an interest in how the Bible came to be and what it's really made of, you'll overlook the flaws and find this book fascinating, as I did.

The Christian holy book is too boring for me to care about, but I'm glad there are some people who take the time to understand the development of an ancient book that is responsible for millions of deaths and the brainwashing that has lasted for centuries and might never end.

I noticed you took a vacation from your blog (in Paris, wow). I quit my blog ten days ago. I hope I have enough common sense to never go back to it. It was an interesting experience but it's addicting and I think it's fair to say it's a waste of time.