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Ehrman Chapter 6 On Forgeries and False Teachers

This chapter takes on dealing with false teaching. Again Ehrman roams from his topic by dealing with supposed false attribution, a topic he also will treat in the next chapter in more detail. This allows him to discuss the book of Acts, as well as the idea that Christianity was very diverse in the first century. There is much to cover in these claims. This is a long post.

This chapter takes on dealing with false teaching. Again Ehrman roams from his topic by dealing with supposed false attribution, a topic he also will treat in the next chapter in more detail. This allows him to discuss the book of Acts, as well as the idea that Christianity was very diverse in the first century. There is much to cover in these claims. This is a long post.

Many of these issues I have already treated in some detail in two books I was involved in, The Missing Gospels and Dethroning Jesus. They show the weakness of the alternative Christianities views in terms of how they portray Peter and James at odds with Paul. The model argues that they were further apart than they were. The model Ehrman uses for forgery also clouds our discussion by arguing that anyone who used Christian imagery or took on the name of the Christ was a Christian in the sense that they had a serious claims to connect to Jesus and the apostles. Thus we have an originally diverse Christianity. Now it is one thing to say the Christ was appealed to by a diverse array of people with a diverse array of views in the first century. That clearly did exist from early on, as the early epistles do show. However, it is another thing to imply that all these views had good enough roots be being able to claim a solid connection to Jesus. These two factors in the Ehrman model skew the reading of the history. The claims that history is written by the winners sometimes ignores the fact that sometimes the winners won for good reason.

What this kind of reading of early Christian history ignores most of all is how Paul in Galatians says he had core agreement with the pillars of the faith about his gospel. Yes, there was initially disagreement and confrontation over practice. Yes, the Jewish believing community and the Hellenistic one had distinct emphases (as the book of Acts shows), but the core commitment to grace and the gospel was shared. One of the questions never treated in the alternative view is that if these two schools were rivals and so far apart in the earliest era, then how and why did they ever come together down the road and how was that as accepted as it became? In other words, the Hegalian thesis-antithesis-synthesis model applied to this discussion has to cope with a lack of credibility, if the initial division was as great as it is often portrayed to be. There is not explained mechanism for how this later reconciliation was achieved. It is hidden in the murky waters of our understanding of second century Christianity and no clear path for how we get to this unity is ever really supplied. In other words, we have a critique of the traditional model without really supplying an explanation for how we got to a more unified set of texts that were accepted by many by the end of the second century. Was it a kind of theological spontaneous combustion that all of a sudden allowed the ingredients to come together side by side?  It seems, if the alternative model were true, that each side would have made its own sacred text and not allowed the supposed diversity of texts to come together as in fact they did. The fact these works are grouped together suggests the grouping was not forced (as Ehrman’s model would seem to require) but a rather more natural combination emerged because these texts were associated with each other as allies early on.

So, on the one hand we have a claim by Ehrman that each of these groups in a “radically diverse” early Christianity claimed to be uniquely right and contended strongly for their take on things (pp. 182-83), and yet the two major groups in that contention ended up having their works collected and passed on together in the church by the late second century. Anyone who managed to bring it together on the more combative model of the early history had to have had a great deal of authority to pull this off and we do not have any such dominating figures in the early second century that we know of (and that is when it would have had to have taken place). A more natural way to see this collection taking place is to recognize these emphases were not as distinct, diverse and combative as is often portrayed. (By the way, Ehrman never tells us how we get to peace between these Petrine and Pauline groups as the New Testament is assembled).

So much for preliminaries, what about the details? Ehrman begins with his take on Colossians and Jude as falsely attributed books dealing with false teaching we cannot entirely specify. We already argued the case for false ascription in Colossians is weak. On the point about being able to specify the teaching being challenged in the book, he is correct. There are many theories about the kind of syncretistic practices we see raised in Colossians. It urges some form of practice that suggests an elitist Christianity. This false teaching involves a call to some form of asceticism, whether that is rooted primarily in a mystic like Judaism or in Hellenism or a combination is what gets debated. The letter is so short and the remarks about the view being challenged are so brief that it is hard to pin down exactly what is going on other than Jesus alone is not enough as it is for the author of Colossians.

JUDE: Ehrman argues Jude is not written by the brother of Jesus as claimed. He says the letter is written in a later period when churches are well established and false teachers have infiltrated the church. This is an interesting claim when Ehrman has just said that Paul was dealing with false teaching at every turn. Which is it? Is false teaching and diverse expression present with Paul or is it late? If it is with Paul, then how can this scenario be used to date a book as late? What appears to be key here for Ehrman is an appeal to apostles. But this role also is not as “late” a development as Ehrman implies. It ignores the fact that Jesus’ selection of the twelve is authentic for most Jesus scholars (see this defense by Scot McKnight in an artivcle on Jesus’ choice of the Twelve in a volume I edited Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus). The argument also assumes Ehrman’s model for how Paul was viewed with suspicion and not highly regarded by more Jewish believers like Peter and James, a point we have just challenged as overdrawn. So arguing in a kind of historical circle is reappearing here. His claim that the letter of Jude’s sense of living in the last days also contradicts a position Ehmran himself has argued, namely, that the church thought Jesus could come at anytime, so that they saw themselves living in the last days from the earliest period. So this argument is decidedly weak as well.

This is one of the last biblical books Ehrman discusses as a forgery (only James, 1, 2 and 3 John are left). None of the biblical books he treats as such up to now have been shown to be what he claims.

As Ehrman works through the extra-biblical forgeries written in opposition to Paul, he returns to ground where more agreement exists across the theological spectrum. Other than the way he describes the situation between Paul and Peter as having no evidence of ever having been reconciled (“It is not at all clear that they ever reconciled over the issue”, p. 189), most of what is said here is widely accepted. The Pseudo-Clementines are transparently false, since Clement was an associate of Paul in Rome (where Paul was highly regarded) and would not have challenged him as these texts do.

JAMES: Ehrman next takes up James as written against Paul, a view that is not so uncommon among New Testament scholars. This reading also appeals to the model where Peter-James-Matthew are aligned as being against Paul and to some degree Luke. Two issues are key here: (1) the so called challenge to Paul and (2) the issue of authorship. A one sided presentation of Paul (even the supposed authentic Paul of Ehrman short list of Pauline letters) is what makes these two writers look as opposed to each other as Ehrman presents. Here the role of works and faith appear as diametrically opposed to each other in the two writers. But the very Paul under supposed challenge could write about works and judgment and its connection in Romans 2:6-11. Paul is affirming something here about where things end up after faith at the end. In Romans 2 Paul affirms that a product is tied to the faith and judgment Paul espouses. Something similar shows up in Galatians 5, where the fruit of the Spirit is a product that emerges out of faith. So we need not even appeal to a even more obvious and similar text like Ephesians 2:8-10 (especially verse 10 coming as it does after vv 8-9). If that text is also Pauline, as I would contend, then any tension between Paul and James completely evaporates, if we read these texts carefully for what they are each doing. Taking Ephesians 2 out of the discussion, what Romans 2 and Galatians 5 show alone is that Paul is quite capable of speaking of works as a product of genuine faith. This is the point James is making in James 2:14-26. Part of what gets readers into trouble in comparing these authors is that they lose sight of the different perspectives of each author as they discuss justification. Often when Paul treats justification he is asking what about justification when one enters into it at the start, but James is asking something else. James asks what does justification look like when one looks back at it from after its inception. The different temporal angles impact the answer and point being made by each writer. But we also have these other Pauline texts (Romans 2 and Galatians 5, and probably Ephesians 2) that show Paul can speak more like James as well (So much for anyone affirming a great distance between the two) What James is contending against involves an exaggeration of Paul’s view that says faith alone (an disingenuous, non-responsive faith) is all that one needs. For James (and for Paul) there is a real faith whose trust and belief engage and respond to God in contrast to a mere claim of faith that is not real and does not respond to God (like the inadequate belief which the demons have in James 2:19).

What about authorship? To get here Ehrman has to argue that Ephesians is not only not really written by Paul but that letter’s author has changed him in a later setting because of the argument tying works and faith, one which James also fits. We are back getting dizzy in our circle again, having lost sight of texts like Romans 2 and Galatians 5 in the process. Ehrman’s claim that good works is not the works of the law puts too much distance between caring for the poor and the strong Jewish tradition of alms which saw caring for the poor as one of the great works of faith. Jesus even mentioned alms in his very Jewish Sermon on the Mount. In the end, Ehrman makes an appeal to the most decisive factor being a lack of Greek literacy for James (p. 198, he calls it “the real clincher”). He claims this even though James spent decades in a very literate, multi-lingual Jerusalem. That city involved a context where theological contention and ideas were central to leading the new community there. More than that, James was surely surrounded by those who interacted with Hellenistic believers who also lived there. When it comes to what early Christians were capable of, Ehrman almost gives the impression of being omniscient.

1 PETER again: From James, Ehrman turns attention to forgeries in support of Paul. Here he places 1 Peter, a book we have already covered. Here the suggestion that Peter only ministered to Jews represents a very nearsighted reading of Peter’s call to the Jews. As Peter ministered in the diaspora, he would have encountered both Jews and Greeks. The communities he wrote to and interacted with would have been mixed. When Ehrman sees 1 Peter as mirroring Paul’s theology, I suspect there is an important reason Ehrman wants to say the 1 Peter is not from Peter. That is because if 1 Peter is Petrine, then his entire historical construct of conflict with Paul collapses. Now we would have not only Acts that argues Peter and Paul got along, but also Peter himself (not to mention Galatians)! For Ehrman, that cannot be, so 1 Peter cannot be from Peter.

2 PETER again: Here he repeats earlier arguments. 2 Peter evidences delay (and that is a late theme). 2 Peter has too high a regard for Paul seeing his letters as Scripture. These arguments were treated in the earlier post on Peter’s writings.

ACTS: Ehrman here take on the portrait of Paul in Acts, another place where the Baur-Bauer shadow on early Christian diversity has impacted scholarly discussion. Ehrman argues that the Paul of Acts is not the Paul of his letters and that the itinerary of Paul in Acts does not match with that of his letters. These are old and famous issues. Details are complex here (too long for this post). One can pick up either my commentary on Acts or those by F. F. Bruce, I. Howard Marshall or Ben Witherington to see these issues handled in detail in ways that undercut Ehrman’s arguments.

The issue here is not forgery, since the author of this book never names himself, but of false attribution by the church. But let’s think about that claim for a moment. Ehrman argues that it is only natural Luke would have been deduced as the author of this book as a Gentile associated with Paul through the “we sections”(Acts 16:12-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1–28:16). But remember that there is no claim the author of Acts is a Gentile, that is a deduction made from its contents as Ehrman recognizes and uses as a way to narrow the open field of possibilities (p 207). Also remember that the Ehrman model of falsely ascribed authorship argues you give a name to a word to enhance a work’s status which it does not inherently have when no one knows who the author is. So here is my point. If you could pick an author out of the hat and it can be anyone with an association to Paul (and not mentioned as a separate person in a we section unit), then would one have selected Luke? Given all of these candidates, how is the external tradition so unified Luke is the guy? That Luke is the only obvious option is very unlikely as others with greater reputations were there to give the work the supposed needed status. Epaphras and Epaphroditus come to mind. What about Pricilla or Aquila? Tertius is another candidate. My point is that if Luke were not known as the author of this work, all we would know about him is that he was a doctor named in letter that Ehrman says does not even go back to Paul! So how was he tied to the third gospel and Acts to begin with? Luke does not have a reputation on which to hang this supposed authority. (And if Colossians is Pauline, all we know is that he traveled with him at this one point. Still not much to sell the credibility of a gospel or Acts on). My point is that Luke’s reputation outside of an ascription to these two volumes is so small that the only way attaching his name to this work could work is if the tradition about the authorship knew something credible about the authorship. Add to this the doubt Ehmran places on whether the “we sections” really tell us anything about the author because they give an impression of presence (pp. 208-09), then we end up really with nothing to go on to posit an author named Luke.

ON THE “WE SECTIONS”: In fact, if the reason we have the “we sections” was to convince people about a real presence at events that really did not exist, then why did the “we” person show up at such insignificant points? If that were the point, then it would seem he would have appeared at some of the key events. Take your pick: Pentecost, the Jerusalem Council or at one of the several speech points. He is at none of them. His presence would have enhanced the impression the author knew what was said, done, or preached. (And remember on the model one can do this with no pangs of conscience because the point is to give an impression of authenticity where it is needed and does not exist without it). Now some argue that the motif is tied to travel and so shows up there, especially at sea journeys, but one cannot have this both ways. Either these are inserted for an apologetic point (and eyewitnesses can be inserted anywhere if that is the goal and truth is irrelevant) or it reflects a real source of some kind tied to these events. I think the latter makes more sense given the insignificant settings in which the references appear.

From this discussion, Ehrman takes up early Christian Gnostic and anti-Gnostic sources from the second century and beyond. His summary of Gnosticism is well done. One other point should be made here. Gnostic claims about the creation could not reflect the earliest Christian movement that came out of a Judaism that embraced the Hebrew Scripture because the Gnostic view of God and the material world differed from the teaching of those sacred texts. What Gnosticism saw as corrupt and not created by God, Judaism and the earliest Christianity saw as created by God and initially good. So such Gnostic texts are suspect as being genuinely Christian from the start. These views also differ on the expectation of resurrection as having a material dimension as the Hebrew Scripture and most of Jewish Second Temple tradition taught. This very feature is what the Apocalypse of Peter and Thomas the Contender shows. That would not have gone back to the earliest period tied to the apostles’ belief in resurrection as 1 Corinthians 15 shows. The counter works of 3 Corinthians and Epistula Apostelorum shows the rebuttal coming from a more orthodox position, in works that were forgeries. So again we do see here some works defending a more orthodox position whose origin involved promoting a deception. On these texts, Ehrman is right.

We see much of what we have seen in the book as a whole in this chapter. Ehrman has shown that there are cases of forgery, both among opponents and supporters of what became orthodoxy. But not all the claimed cases are as strong, nor are some of them persuasive. To make the case for the biblical works placed in this category, Ehrman argues for models of Christian activity both in writing and in the age of certain theological positions that cannot be sustained (or at least are severely in doubt as to how clearly they can establish the view Ehrman is defending in reference to those biblical books). In other words, the treatment is a mixed bag with important holes in the argument when it comes to works like Colossians, 1 and 2 Peter, James, Jude, and Acts. 

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