Ehrman Chapter 2- Forgeries and the Name of Peter: Apples, Oranges, and Scripture

Darrell L. Bock's picture

Forged has a lot of useful information on many extra-biblical books that circulated among the wide range of Christian communities in the second century AD and beyond. So when Ehrman summarizes works like the Gospel of Peter or Peter's Epistle to Titus, he nicely encapsulates what these works are about.

The issue in part is whether it is right to juxtapose these kinds of texts that worked on the fringes of the Christian movement with the practices tied to texts that ended up in Scripture.

An impression Ehrman creates by the structure of his book is to suggest that the practices of these groups linked to the new Christian movement were the same. The argument is that such pseudonymous acts were common in the ancient world and among the various, competing groups that operated in a divided early Christian context. He is arguing that the contest for credibility meant apostles were regularly appealed to for support of the competing ideas. A question is whether this lumping together of apples and oranges is actually a reflection of there being no difference on how the various sides contended for what they taught. Did such practices inject themselves into their claims about the actual authority that stood behind certain writings and teachings?

An exception to the fringe argument is the Apocalypse of Peter, which many in the early centuries took as canonical for a time. This is a work that finally did not make it into the canon, probably because of some hesitation about the genre of apocalyptic with the Revelation of John already slightly more established, not to mention uncertainty about whether the apocalypse tied to Peter really went back to him. One must recall that there is no detailed report in the biblical gospel tradition of a private resurrection appearance to Peter. That one took place is named in 1 Cor. 15:5 and in Luke 24:34, but there is no unit dedicated to telling us about this in detail (a striking fact about the tradition tied to the four gospels, given the claim of many skeptical critics about how the church made up such scenes to give credibility to the event. If that was so easy for the church to do, it is amazing we do not have such a report about an appearance to Peter or to James in the tradition that was passed on. I think this shows how carefully and conservatively this tradition was managed).

To orient ourselves to the discussion in terms of the New Testament, it would be good to note which books name an author and so could be used to deceive an audience about the source of authority. First, none of the gospels names an author. The same is true of Acts. On the other hand, all of the epistles attributed to Paul in the NT (13 in all) refer to him by name in the epistle in question.  In every case, the name comes at the opening of the letter. Hebrews does not name an author. (Ehrman's claim in chapter 1 that the naming of Timothy in Hebrews 13:23 is designed to make the letter look Pauline is a thin thread on which to hang a hypothesis. Timothy knew many people in the church besides Paul. If a writer wanted to make Hebrews look Pauline, he likely would have imitated Paul's style of naming himself as the author at the start.) The name James appears with that letter, but with no other information about him. Peter, an apostle, is named to open 1 Peter. Simeon Peter, apostle and servant, opens 2 Peter. No name appears with 1 John. The elder introduces 2 and 3 John. Jude, a servant and brother of James, opens Jude.  A John is noted as author of Revelation in Revelation 1:4. This means we have only 18 books that mention an author by name (plus 2 by a title if we can ascertain to whom it referred). Only these 18 to 20 books could qualify as candidates for making a false claim about authorship.

As noted, Ehrman covers several things well. He notes how the Gospel of Peter went from being used to rejected once the bishop Serapion came to recognize it did not go back to Peter. (In other words as soon as the authorship was judged to be false, it was rejected, a very important point to note about how some in the church leadership saw such texts and what the tradition should do with them.)

The only caveat in this section is that Ehrman may make too much of what he calls a growing anti-Semitism and retraction of blame against the Romans as we move through the gospels (pp. 55-57). This is a popular claim among critics today but it ignores two important elements in this discussion. First is that what we have in all these works is part of a polemics in an internal dispute among Jews. There is no anti-Semitism in view, unless we wish to call rebukes and challenges of the Old Testament prophets against Israel examples of anti-Semitism. What we see is a reaction to rejection of Jesus by those loyal to him, some of it quite emotional and direct, in portraying what was a large enough dispute to have gotten Jesus crucified as a result of pressure in part from the Jewish leadership (Something a Jewish historian of the period, Josephus, also notes in Antiquities 18.63-64). Second, Luke does not exonerate the Romans as much as Ehrman argues. Yes, Pilate is hesitant to execute Jesus and proclaims him innocent several times in Luke 23, but Luke also has the community charge Pilate with being part of the opposition conspiracy in Acts 4:24-27, showing he is far from being portrayed as innocent in the event or having been merely duped or pressured to react. For Luke, Pilate shares responsibility for the action.

Ehrman also does nicely in treating the supposed Epistle of Peter to Titus, as well as The Apocalypse of Peter and The Acts of Peter (as well as the Pseudo-Clementines). These works are forgeries and Ehrman is right to point to them as examples of the phenomena when Peter (or Clement) is named.

So what of 1 Peter and 2 Peter? First, it should be noted that in New Testament studies, the case for 2 Peter not being written by Peter is more commonly made than for 1 Peter. The debate on the authorship of 1 Peter evenly divides on the question (i.e., it is discussed which view is the majority view). It is hard to tell this by how Ehrman handles the topic of 1 Peter (and he usually loves to point out such points when it argues in his favor as it probably does not in the case of 1 Peter). Ehrman is right to say that most New Testament critics do not accept 2 Peter as being by Peter.

Let's take his discussion one book at a time.

1 PETER: Ehrman correctly claims that the book highlights suffering and a suffering of a sort that is not so much official as simply present. The arguments against 1 Peter (pp. 66-68) include (1) the seeming error in the author's claiming that Peter witnessed Jesus' suffering, something Ehrman implies Peter did not do, (2) the use of Babylon as a code word for Rome is said to be a post AD 70 usage, and (3) claims about Peter's lack of literacy.

This last argument is one he makes for both epistles, so I shall save it for last. What are we to make of arguments 1 and 2? The first argument fails because it defines the suffering of Jesus too narrowly as the crucifixion only. In fact, we do not know whether or not Peter watched the events of the crucifixion from afar, as did the Galilean women. But we are told, unlike others, that he did not flee when Jesus was arrested but saw the arrest and followed him to his Jewish examination to watch from a distance (even though with the timidity of denying him three times). This detail about the denials shows this story is not likely to have been made up, as it is an embarrassment for Peter. So Peter did witness some of the suffering and mocking of Jesus, even if he did not go on to watch the crucifixion, a point we actually do not know one way or the other. So much for argument 1.

What of argument 2? This also is not as persuasive as it might look. There was biblical precedent for naming the world power by a code word (see Daniel and the way he pictures the kingdoms in an eschatologically directed vision), as well as being a cultural precedent. Someone did this, when one did not want others to know who was being rebuked. Rome was a world empire committed to polytheism, an offense to any Jew. One does not need the destruction of Jerusalem to evoke this idea. The Dead Sea Community did similar things with the term kittim. A look at the Pesher to Habakkuk shows this practice in a community that did not survive the fall of Jerusalem. As for the respect for government the epistle shows, Christians as a socially powerless minority had to be careful how they engaged Rome. Codewords and respect side by side reflects the kind of hybridity post-colonial studies has shown often are a part of a pressured minority community. So this argument also has problems and is not as transparent as Ehrman suggests.

2 PETER: This work is directed against false teachers and its tone Ehrman calls "vituperative" (p. 69). It is a strong rebuke and warning about not following the wrong doctrine. In an amazingly crisp discussion, Ehrman gives three reasons beyond the generic claim about illiteracy, against Petrine authorship: (1) he uses the book of Jude, (2) the issue of delay of a return for Jesus fits a later not an earlier setting, and (3) the presence of an authoritative collection of Pauline letters as equal to the Old Testament in authority also belongs to a later period (in part, since Paul did not claim to write Scripture, see pp. 68-70).

Now arguments tied to the dating of Jude in part are similar to the second argument Ehrman uses here. This is a supposed later topic of concern for the church. But is that really true? 1 Thessalonians, which most scholars accept as from Paul and early [in the 50's], shows a church nervous about issues of the return and whether it has happened already or is delayed, as well as urging believers to hold on faithfully until he comes. So we see the church was on edge about the return in the pre-AD 70 period. My point is that one cannot use the return issue as an indication of when a work was written. So claims are weak that date Jude or 2 Peter on this basis and then link the issue of the universally recognized overlap of Jude and 2 Peter to that argument.

In addition, the tradition about how Mark and Peter are linked together in terms of the second gospel may be relevant here. Peter's preaching is said to inform Mark's gospel, even though the church never called Mark's gospel the Gospel of Peter. If this association is correct, then we see that Peter is content to link his ministry to the name and work of others, so that his use of Jude (if Jude was first), also is not a problem, since they were in agreement about what needed to be taught about the topic. So the key arguments Ehrman makes for inauthenticity tied to the issue of Jesus' return are not strong either.

What about the Pauline letters? It is anyone's guess how long it took for such letters to gain an authoritative role or collection status in the church, early or late. However, we do know certain things. Paul insisted on his apostolic authority from the moment he wrote such letters (just look at the tone of Galatians and the direct claims in 2 Corinthians, letters all agree go back to Paul and are early). Yes, Paul did not say "I am writing Scripture," but he also said that disagreeing with him about the gospel was grounds for being subject to an anathema. Not only that, but even if an angel proclaimed another gospel, that was to be rejected. That sounds like one confident he is proclaiming the word of God. One need not have the exact wording to have the concept. We also know these letters circulated among the churches, and very early (Galatians is either in the late 40's or early 50's). So, at least for those churches that accepted Paul, these letters would have borne much authority from the start. (One suspects that Ehrman's acceptance of the Baur/Bauer hypothesis of a fight between Paul and Peter is fueling his point here. That hypothesis is also strained severely by how Paul portrays the events in Galatians and an eventual acceptance of James and Peter of the gospel Paul preached. Both that letter and the tradition that Peter and Paul both worked in Rome suggest less division and difference than Ehrman assumes to be present).

This leaves us with the Petrine illiteracy argument that covers both books. What are we to make of it? Here the key appeal is to a well known study by Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, that literacy was not that widespread in the first century in the area of the Galilee (i.e., not widespread at all, being far less than 10%; Ehrman claims around 1% [p. 73], but how he comes to such a number is not clear to me). Ehrman is selective in how he appeals to this study.

It is important to know that what Hezser is discussing is a level of literacy that can write technical pieces like philosophical treatises or rabbinic level works, making Judaism a religion of the book. It is crucial to appreciate that this is completely different from writing (or dictating a letter) in a predominantly oral culture. She is much more open earlier in her study to merchants and trades people knowing some Greek, especially if it is part of an political-administrative role, often tied to commerce, or other tasks tied to a religious context (see her work, pp. 94, 243, 276-87). She contends a rudimentary knowledge of Greek for many, if not most, such people and also notes a category of semi-literate. She also notes how much letter writing involved scribes who were literate (pp. 476-96, esp p. 243). Her numbers for full literacy are 3-5%. She distinguishes between what one knows about a language, what one can do orally, and what one can do in terms of reading and writing.

Ehrman challenges whether Peter (a backwoods illiterate peasant, see p. 75) would have known Greek, but the real question may be how much Greek he knew and what he might be able to communicate by it. 

Now again we seem to ignore certain things we know about the culture and Peter. Apparently Peter was literate enough to lead and help launch a religious movement that spanned continents by his death. This means he must have been a solid oral communicator at the least, making him potentially capable of expressing himself in letters. Some of this communication took place outside the land in a diaspora context where Greek would have been important. In an oral culture, he need only be able to dictate in order to compose his letters. Ehrman's argument seems trapped in a literary model of communication, not the predominantly oral world of the first century. I make this point to observe, even if Ehrman is right about literacy and Peter, a point I am about to challenge, his conclusion about what Peter is capable of does not follow in an oral context.

So was Peter illiterate and can we know he did not know Greek? These claims can also be challenged in light of Peter's role as a merchant tradesman and what may be happening with education in the first century among Jews. Evidence does exist of extensive commerce and knowledge of Greek in Tiberias and Sepphoris, both of which are located close to Capernaum and Nazareth respectively. In fact, these larger Sea of Galilee communities are seen as so important that John Dominic Crossan, hardly a conservative interpreter of Scripture, argues that Jesus would have almost certainly practiced carpentry in Sepphoris and engaged in a kind of international trade and exchange of ideas. All of this assumes some level of linguistic and cultural engagement.

Literacy and education were a concern to Jews in the first century. This has been argued in a series of articles by Marsitella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein. One entitled "From Farmers to Merchants: Voluntary Conversions and Diaspora; A Human Capital Interpretation of Jewish History," Centre for Economic Policy Research Discussion Paper 6006. discusses Jewish practice from 200 BC into the Post-Islamic period. The other paper is similar. It is entitlted "Jewish Occupational Selection: Education, Restrictions, or Minorities," The Journal of Economic History 65 (2005): 922-48. In the second article, they discuss the situation of education in Judaism before 70 CE starting on p. 932.

The authors note how Simeon ben Shetah in the first century BCE and Joshua ben Gamla in the first century CE promoted education starting for boys from the age of six and seven. The decree is noted in the Talmud. It is not clear why one would fabricate this kind of a detail in the Talmud and tie it to this period. Josephus confirms something like this, noting the importance of children's education in Against Apion 1. section 12 and 2. section 19. Here is Against Apion 1.12.60, "Our principle care of all is this, to educate our children well; and we think it to be the most necessary business of our whole life to observe the laws that have been given us, and to keep those rules of piety that have been delivered down to us." Here is 2.19.78, where he discusses how well people know the law, "for our people, if anybody do but ask any one of them about our laws, he will more readily tell them all than he will tell his own name, and this in consequence of our having learned them immediately as soon as ever we became sensible of anything, and of our having them, as it were engraven on our souls. Our transgressors of them are but few; and it is impossible, when any do offend, to escape punishment." A final text is 2.25.204. It reads that the law "orders that they [children] be taught to read (kai grammata paideuein ekeleusen), and shall learn both the laws and deeds of their forefathers."

Of course, one can claim that Josephus exaggerates here for polemical purposes, but the value and stress he is giving to education indicates it is a Jewish cultural concern even if he gives hyperbole to how well people know the law. Sociologists tell us that ethnic identity among minorities leads them to pursue careful passing on of ethnic traditions to preserve their way of life (This is precisely what Josephus's citations suggest, as does the emotion one sees in a text like 1 Maccabees chapters 1-2). What we also see in the archeology of Galilee is more concern with following Jewish practice and legal awareness than one had thought previous to those finds. This assumes a more literate culture, at least at an oral level.

What about Greek? Here the article I note is by Bernard Spolsky and is called "Triglossia and Literacy in Jewish Palestine of the first century." International Journal of the Sociology of Language 42 (1983): 95-109. Martin Hengel's Judaism and Hellenism made the point about the spread of Greek and Greek culture among Jews. We have Greek papyri at Qumran. Greek was banned from being taught either in 116 CE (after the war with Quietus) or after 70 CE, but that assumes it was being taught before then (See m Sotah 9.14, some manuscripts refer to Titus here, others Quietus). We know it functioned in places like Caesarea and Beth Shean. The use of the LXX also shows its influence. Most funerary inscriptions we have are in Greek. I do not want to exaggerate here. Greek would not have been a lingua franca for many, but merchants would have learned it at a basic level and the fact Peter travels into Gentile areas to minister orally suggests some facility with the language unless we insist he traveled with an interpreter! 

The explanation for this concern is that the debate among Jewish groups about the faith promoted a move toward more literacy. The article explicitly challenges the conclusions of Hezser in making the point (see "Jewish Occupational Selection," p. 933).

Now everything I have raised up to this point excludes the presence of any amanuensis (or secretary) who might have helped Peter stylize his oral Greek, if he needed such help. That factor may or may not be in play here. My point is simply that everything about the scope of Peter's ministry outside of the land of Israel points to someone with exposure to and some facility in Greek, which was the language of the diaspora. 

This has been a long entry, but in such a discussion details matter. All of this suggests that the case against Petrine authorship Ehrman makes is not strong for 1 and 2 Peter. One can "forge" a case for authorship ascriptions in the New Testament being authentic for these two books (or at least show that the case against the ascription has some important holes).


You've made some great observations in this section of your review. I think one of Ehrman's most prominent flaws in this book is that he's much too confident in his assertions. This is a perfect example. He can say things like:

“Whoever wrote 2 Peter, it was not Simon Peter.” (68)

“Was Peter in Josephus’s or Justus’s class? No, not even close.” (73)

“Peter was an illiterate peasant. […] I should point out that the book of 1 Peter is written  by a highly literate, highly educated, Greek-speaking Christian who is intimately familiar  with the Jewish Scriptures in their Greek translation, the Septuagint. This is not Peter.”  (75)

“Peter could not have dictated this letter in Greek to a secretary any more than he could have written it in Greek.” (76, cf. 139)

To the unsuspecting reader this all sounds very cut and dry. Peter couldn't have written the letters that bear his name; case closed. But you've done well to cast doubt on such confident assertions. Thanks for that.

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