Ehrman Chapter 7 and 8 False Attribution and the Book as a Whole

Darrell L. Bock's picture

I come to the final two chapters. I treat them together since the concluding chapter is but a summary of the whole work, looking at less debated modern forgeries.

Ehrman speaks of false attribution as people attributing a work to an author that it did not possess. Such attributions were made to increase the stature of a book it otherwise would not have. For example right at the chapter’s start, Ehrman doubts 1 Clement was written by Clement. I have not disagreed with Ehrman on the discussions of non-biblical books up to now. I think that the claim that Clement authored 1 Clement is likely. In this case, Ehrman presents no real evidence to doubt this identification. Here I cite Kirsopp Lake’s Introduction in his The Apostolic Fathers to this letter: “The actual name of the writer is not mentioned in the letter itself: indeed, it clearly claims to be not the letter of a single person but of a church. Tradition, however, has always ascribed it to Clement, who was, according to the early episcopal lists, the third or fourth bishop of Rome during the last decades of the first century. There is no reason for rejecting this tradition, for though it is not supported by any corroborative evidence in its favour there is nothing whatever against it.” (vol. 1, p. 3-7 discusses the letter). The ascription fits the tone and setting of the letter and its internal themes. The naming of Clement seems to be fairly early in the letter’s history. The tradition here is likely to have known something.

Of course, the gospels do not name their own authors. The traditional attributions here come to us from external evidence. Ehrman writes as if the early church was oblivious to the sources of its information about the more officially collected and circulated gospels. This seems most unlikely with these works’ apostolic roots and the importance of this kind of material as the apostles were dying off the scene. In contrast to Ehrman’s claim that the names of real authors not attached to the work were soon lost leaving later people to fill in the blank, Martin Hengel has argued that these ascriptions are quite early and were expressed in a specific Greek idiom that cannot be later than the end of the first century, if not earlier. This he treats in his work, Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ehrman’s suggestion that a named gospel somehow undercuts its credibility as only one person’s story is a simple guess at an explanation. If this was the case, then why was there an effort to name the author later? I suspect the reason these works were left anonymous was that the gospel was seen as reflective of the church’s oral traditions about Jesus with him as the key to its story. Justin Martyr’s description of them as “apostolic memoirs” has this flavor by suggesting that the recollections are more collective than that of a single person. But my take is a guess as Ehrman’s is. His other analogy that OT histories are also anonymous may be more on the mark.

Ehrman believes all the gospels’ attributions are wrong, I covered Luke and Acts in the last chapter. Let me address Mark as an example from this chapter since Ehrman gives it some detailed attention.

MARK: Ehrman has more confidence in his own judgment 2000 years down the road than he does that Papias knows anything as one with potential knowledge about the church’s tradition at the turn of the first to second century. His evidence, “As for Mark, there is nothing about our Mark that would make you think it was Peter’s version of the story” (p. 227). He simply says “Mark” is a collection of oral tradition. This treatment shows the distain for which the external evidence that often accompanies discussion of authorship about the gospels. But let’s ask ourselves, if one can pick names out of a hat to give stature to a work (as is the claim in the alternative model), would one pick Mark? The example of Mark’s gospel is very illustrative of what we have going on. Mark’s name is the only one ever tied to this gospel. There is no indication of any struggle to identify who wrote it. More than that, Mark being tied to Peter is noted as a result of Papias’ early remarks and has survived up to Eusebius. Lists of gospels also name Mark (Anti-Marcionite Canon), as do figures like Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian. These figures do not come from the same region showing the tradition here is widespread.

So let us ask what commends Mark as the author based on what we know about him. Mark failed to complete the first missionary journey according to Acts. He also caused a split between Barnabas and Paul later in that book. That is what we know about him. It is not an illustrious resume. It is not a feature that says to us, pick this guy to enhance the reputation of an anonymous work that needs a life. But there is more, remember the tradition says Mark worked with Peter. If it was so easy to give false authorship to a book to enhance its reputation, then why did the church not call Mark simply the Gospel of Peter? There is nothing in Ehrman’s scenario about how this supposedly worked that would stop such a move. Yet nowhere is that move made, despite the tradition arguing that Mark knew Peter and Peter knew about this gospel. I think this shows two things: (1) the tradition on our gospels was careful about authorship attribution and (2) Mark is tied to authorship because something the tradition knew said he was connected to this work. His name, with his reputation, would not have appeared here otherwise. Nothing we know about Mark makes him any more a candidate to enhance the reputation of a gospel more than dozens of other early church figures who could have credibly been connected to Peter. Again, Ehrman’s claim about false attribution to Mark upon further review is shown to have important problems.

1, 2 and 3 JOHN: Ehrman treats these letters so briefly that it is basically a claim that Ehrman makes. He argues in one sentence that a different context disqualifies the attribution (giving no detail, p. 229). Now how he can make such a judgment, especially for the personal letters of 2 and 3 John which are so very short, is pretty amazing. Another scenario is more likely. The only way such very short letters could have made it into the collection eventually (and these letters were not immediately recognized) would be for confidence to develop they must have come from John. That is the only reason to preserve them given their brevity. 1 John connects to the emphasis on love we also see in the fourth gospel. So what one does with John, one is likely to do with authorship of 1 John.

From here, Ehrman moves to treat other works of false ascription. In this list appears the Epistle to Barnabas. The attribution of that work is very much in doubt as Ehrman notes.

He is correct to note the number of made up stories in the legends we get in the Gospel of Peter or the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Proto-Gospel of James, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. On the readings of these texts there is universal agreement. It is here that Ehrman uses a kind of guilt by association to lump in the infancy materials in the gospels. He merely mentions this and does not go into detail, so I will not either in response.

Ehrman uses the backdrop of falsehood to go back over ground he has covered elsewhere. So he raises the text of woman caught in adultery from John 7:53–8:11, Mark’s long ending in Mark 16:9-20, and 1 Corinthians 14:34-36. These three texts are examples of pieces added to canonical pieces. Each of these passages has its own story.

MARK 16: Mark 16 is an example of a likely later addition that mostly pulls together things we know from the endings of the other gospels. This I have discussed in detail in a book that looks at this issue entitled Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: Four Views, (edited by David Allan Black for Broadman and Holman). The fact we have a variety of endings for Mark helps to make one suspect this was added later by a scribe (although it also appears to have been a very early addition by someone who did not like the short ending of Mark). So I think Ehrman is correct here, although the addition simply moves extant Jesus material into another gospel surveying what Jesus did into another locale. This is not quite the same thing as making up events and trying to deceive people about events that are claimed to have taken place.

JOHN 8: This also is a tradition that now has a location it likely did not originally possess. I discuss this text in detail in my Jesus according to Scripture. I see this tradition as authentic (as do many scholars), but that was inserted into John 7-8 later, breaking up the scene about the feast of lights John originally had together. As such, it is a true event but simply one given a new location.

1 CORINTHIANS 14: I believe Ehrman has misread this text leading him to see it as a later addition. What Ehrman reads as a comprehensive call to silence for women, I read as being about judging prophecy alone. This text is exceptional in the way it gets dismissed by scholars in that it is argued it is a later inserted text when no manuscript of 1 Corinthians omits it. Ehrman cites Gordon Fee’s view of this text, who does see it as a later addition to the letter and not from Paul. I once asked Gordon Fee if he had any other text he treated like this one, where there is no manuscript evidence for an omission and yet he argues it is an inserted text. He told me at that time that this is the one place he makes that argument. This makes me think people wish to remove this text because its content about silence is so difficult, not because the evidence to do so is really there.

Plagiarism comes up next. Here Ehrman simply ponders if 2 Peter is guilty of this in copying Jude or whether the gospels’ use of the church tradition as they repeat the same Jesus stories is an example of this. He does not say this, but certainly leaves that impression. But come on. Here we are stretching our case to make things look as bad as we can, ignoring that what these works do is pass on teaching of the church that was not seen as private property but as what the community believed. If any section shows the bias inherent in much of Ehrman’s work, it is this short section. That discussion ends chapter 7.

The final chapter is not anywhere near so controversial. It is a clear and crisp run through some modern attempts to present recent work as ancient. So we have the Unknown Life of Jesus, The Crucifixion of Jesus By an Eye-Witness, The Death Sentence of Jesus, The Long-Lost Second Book of Acts, The Confession of Pontius Pilate, The Gospel of the Holy Twelve, The Passover Plot, and the Secret Gospel of Mark. Only with the last one does Ehrman indicate uncertainty about its pseudo character. These works are well summarized and shown to be what they are—false. With this, Ehrman repeats his core claim that lying took place to enhance the status of a work and present the case for ideas people believed were true. As he has shown, forgeries were done in many places and in many works.

However, what is crucial to note is that the case is weakest where it is the most important, in the canonical books. Here Ehrman has “framed” the biblical materials. He sets up the biblical materials for a fall by saying look how often this was done later and by many both orthodox and not so orthodox, so it was a common practice. To get here in the canonical books, Ehrman dismisses external tradition, contradicts his own arguments about imminent expectation and the church’s self understanding about being in the last days, minimizes the influence of hymnic or traditional materials in these sources as well as any role for a secretary, constructs a portrait of conflict and diversity in the early church that the early sources do not support, and ignores evidence of the church having more structure early to set up supposed contradictions between biblical authors. This list of problematic factors is so long and Ehrman makes these moves so effortlessly that it is easy to see why an unsuspecting reader might think Ehrman has made a good case. My hope is that this review in multiple installments has caused one to pause and see that the case for forgery in the Bible is not at all as likely as Ehrman has contended. Contrary to Ehrman’s opinion, case, and hyped book cover, it is quite likely that after all the Bible’s authors actually are who we think they are. 

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