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Agnostic Scholar Bart Ehrman on 'Who Wrote the Bible and Why It Matters'

Controversial Author Answers Questions About His View on Biblical Authorship

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By Nicola Menzie , Christian Post Reporter
June 3, 2013|6:40 pm

CP: The tone of your article gives the impression that the authors of these pseudepigraphical texts might have had ill intentions. You also avoid speculating on the identities of these authors, whether they might have been friends or followers of the apostles themselves.

Ehrman: I deal with that in my books. What is almost certainly the case is that these writers were living after the authors were dead, and they didn't know them. The reason they're using their names is so that they can get people to read their books. The idea is, if you were a complete nobody, but you've got a view that you think was really important and you're going to write a letter, then you sign it "Peter" because somebody will read Peter's book. But if your name is Aristides they'll never read your book because they've never heard of you.

CP: So how did some books make it into the canon and others did not (such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter)?

Ehrman: I don't think that in the third or fourth centuries – two, three hundred years after these books were written – I don't think anybody really knew who wrote them. They had no way of knowing who wrote them. Since they didn't have the ability to analyze these things with the modern methods we have today, they based their judgments about who wrote what on whether the theology agreed with the teachings of the church. For Peter, for example, we have a Gospel of Peter that didn't make it in. We have a letter of Peter to James that didn't make it in. We have three apocalypses of Peter that didn't make it in. The reason these books didn't make it in is because the theology they embraced was not one that the church fathers appreciated or agreed with. The books of 1and 2 Peter did embrace a theology that the church fathers agreed with, and so they said, "These are really written by Peter, and these others are not." It wasn't on the basis of a literary analysis. It was on a basis of which theology accorded better with what the church fathers wanted to say.

CP: So you're saying the selections of the biblical canon were more political than anything, or at last a major factor?

Ehrman: I would say political was a major aspect of it, and the politics were being driven by theology. You want a canon of Scripture that supports your theological perspectives. That's why other Christian communities had other canons of Scriptures. There were some churches that used the Gospel of Peter and thought that was Scripture. Other churches said, "No, not the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of John."

CP: So you reject the idea of Scripture being God-inspired and believe that these are very much human authors writing from their own thoughts?

Ehrman: Well, I'm not a believer so I don't think God could have inspired anything because I don't think God exists. I can't stress this enough, and people don't seem to hear it when I do stress it. These views I'm laying out in this book are common views among scholars, even scholars who teach New Testament in seminaries and divinity schools. They do tend to be reluctant to call these things lies and forgeries but they do call them pseudepigrapha. The vast majority of scholars, even the ones who teach in mainline seminaries and divinity schools, agree that Peter did not write 2 Peter or that Paul did not write 1 Timothy, but they still hold to the idea that these are books of Scripture. It's possible to have a theology that accepts the historical findings that these books are not written by the people that are claimed as their authors and still accept them as Scripture.

CP: You shared before that you grew up in a Christian household and went through a period of struggling with your faith. Of course, you are no longer struggling, so how would you describe where you are now?

Ehrman: I am an agnostic. This kind of scholarship, when I first confronted it as a seminarian at Princeton Theological Seminary, I reacted against it the way a lot of people reading The Huffington Post have reacted. I simply didn't accept what scholars were saying, until I started digging deeper and deeper and deeper into the evidence. Then, I finally, reluctantly, started getting convinced that Paul, for example, didn't write 1 Timothy. That ended up making me turn away from my evangelical form of Christianity, and for a large number of years I was a liberal Christian. I accepted what the findings of historical scholarship were, but I continued to be a believer in a kind of a liberal sense.

The reason I ended up becoming an agnostic is unrelated to this kind of scholarship. I became an agnostic because of my wrestling of why there's evil and suffering in the world and how there could be a God who's in control of this world if there's so much pain and misery in it. I finally just got to a point where I didn't believe it any more.

CP: You studied in your earlier years with Bruce Metzger…

Ehrman: In my later years. I was Bruce Metzger's final student.

CP: Was Metzger a traditional evangelical?

Ehrman: He wasn't an evangelical. He was very conservative and had a high view of Scripture. It's funny, you know, because people say, "Look, Your teacher remained faithful, why don't you?" They fail to point out that Metzger's own teachers did not agree with him. So why didn't he agree with them? That kind of argument doesn't go very far with me because students and teachers normally don't agree with each other, so there's nothing unusual in my taking a view that's different from him. I should say that even Bruce Metzger thought that Peter did not write 2 Peter.

CP: There are many scholars who agree that there are letters attributed to Paul that just don't appear to have been written by Paul at all. But what about 2 Peter, is it generally accepted among scholars that someone other than the apostle wrote that letter, or is that view contested in the academic community?

Ehrman: It's not contested very much. The only people that contest it are really conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. Virtually everybody else agrees that whoever wrote 2 Peter, it wasn't Peter. There's more consensus on that than probably any book of the New Testament.

 

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