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

Leading New Testament scholar and bestselling author Dr. Bart D. Ehrman's dated article, titled "Who Wrote The Bible and Why It Matters," has been eliciting fresh responses from online readers due to his assertion that most scholars, "apart from the most rabid fundamentalists," admit that the Bible is "full of lies."

(Photo: Facebook/Bart D. Ehrman/UNC-CH)New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman is seen in this public Facebook profile photo.

Ehrman shared with The Christian Post on Monday that he has been also receiving new emails about the controversial 2011 Huffington Post article, which deals with pseudepigraphal authorship of some of the letters in the New Testament.

Ehrman, 57, is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he has served as the director of graduate studies and chair of the Department of Religious Studies. He has authored and edited more than two dozen books and is no stranger to criticism of his work, which focuses extensively on textual criticism of the New Testament and the historical Jesus.

The Princeton Theological Seminary alumni has sparred with fellow New Testament textual critic Daniel B. Wallace over authorship and reliability of the Bible, and was mentioned by name in a comment from evangelical Christian minister John Piper in a video clip titled "unbiblical biblical scholarship."

"Who Wrote The Bible and Why It Matters," in circulation again over the weekend, attracted thousands of comments and raised many questions when it was first published, and one Christian theologian reading the article for the first time suggested over the weekend that Ehrman "is progressively trading in his respect for some sort of crusade against Christianity" … and "is a far cry from his mentor Bruce Metzger," under whom Ehrman studied while at seminary.

In his discussion with CP, Ehrman answered a few questions raised by his article, the subject of which is also covered in his most recent book, Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They. He also comments on comparisons made of him and Metzger, a greatly admired and influential New Testament textual critic, as well as what contributed to his personal rejection of Christianity (after growing up as an evangelical and previously serving in ministry).

Below is a transcript of Ehrman's discussion with CP. It has been edited for clarity.

CP: In The Huffington Post article you write that the Bible "actually contains lies" as opposed to using the "antiseptic term" pseudepigrapha. Why is it important to you to use "lies" as opposed to the term we most commonly hear in critical discussions, that is "pseudepigrapha?" What's your point in drawing a distinction between the two terms?

Ehrman: The thing is, pseudepigrapha is not a common term. Probably in the grocery line you don't hear the word pseudepigrapha, so in fact it's not a word we ever use. I don't prefer the word "lies." What I prefer is the word "forgeries." A forgery is when somebody writes a book claiming to be somebody else. I've written two books about this. What I write in my books is that that's exactly what happens with some of the books of the New Testament. Some of the letters of Paul, for example, are written by somebody who was claiming to be Paul, even though he wasn't Paul. In the ancient world they would have called that a forgery. Actually, in the ancient world they would have called it a lie. The ancient Greek word they used for that is "pseudēs," which means a lie. The other Greek word they use for it actually is the word "nothos," which means bastard. So ancient people talking about that phenomenon that we call forgery, called them lies and bastards. So I just think it's truer to the ancient sources to call them what they are. If we want to use the word "pseudepigrapha," which is okay with me, then we should tell people what it means, which is that it means a writing that is inscribed with a lie.

CP: Can you briefly share some examples of evidence you can point readers to that would help them evaluate your claims?

Ehrman: In a short little article in The Huffington Post, I don't really have space to mount an argument for this. I'm just saying what scholars have long said. In my books is where I mount the arguments. For example, on the Letter to the Ephesians, which I say Paul probably did not write, this is a common view among scholars, this is what I was taught when I was training to be a minister. This is just what scholars say. The reason they say it is because there is overwhelming evidence for it. In my book, I spend page after page after page showing what the evidence is. So, the first thing I would say is, if people genuinely want to know the evidence, they should just read the book.

With a letter like Ephesians or Colossians, there are a number of arguments. One is that the writing style of these books is very different from the writing style of the books that virtually everybody agrees that Paul wrote. So it's somewhat like reading the difference between George Elliott and Mark Twain. If you read enough George Elliot, you're pretty sure you're not reading Mark Twain. The difference between Ephesians and the other Pauline letters is that kind of difference. A second piece of evidence is that the theology that's embraced in books like Ephesians and Colossians is not only different from Paul's theology; in some places it contradicts Paul's theology. In my book I show this at length. I show where the exact contradictions are. Those are two kinds of arguments that scholars have adduced for a long time.

CP: You write that the Bible is "full of lies." Are you implying then that since some letters in the Bible are forgeries, then the entire canon is suspect?

Ehrman: Suspect in what way?

CP: That the other purported authors may not necessarily be who they are, or what they're writing shouldn't be accepted or taken at face value.

Ehrman: I would consider those to be two different questions. With respect to the first question, I think every author from the ancient world has to be questioned – is this really the person who is claiming to be writing it, or is it somebody else? One of the things I do in my books is that I show that this isn't unique to the New Testament. The New Testament is just part of a whole range of ancient literature, a lot of which actually is forged, as scholars have long known. This happens in pagan circles, in Greek and Roman sources, in Jewish sources, there are a lot of forgeries from the ancient world that have been detected.

The second issue that you raised about whether you should throw them out of the canon or not, is not an issue that I really deal with because I think that's a theological judgment rather than an historical judgment. I'm trying to do the historical work of knowing who these authors really were. If somebody decides that you cannot have forgeries in the New Testament, then they should probably rethink what should be in the New Testament, but that isn't my view.

Related to that, my view is that even if an author lies about his identity, that doesn't mean that what he has to say otherwise is untrue. In other words, somebody could write a book claiming to be Barack Obama – someone other than Barack Obama could write a book claiming to be Barack Obama and spell out views that are exactly what Barack Obama actually thought. So the fact that he's lying about his identity doesn't mean that the content of what he says is wrong. That's true with Plato. Somebody could write a book claiming to be Plato, even though he wasn't Plato, and still be true to Plato. Or, somebody could claim to be Paul, write the Book of Ephesians and even though the book is different from what Paul would say, you could still argue that what it says is true – what it says about God, or about the church or about Christ or about anything else. I'm not talking about whether the books themselves are false. I'm talking about whether the author is lying about his identify.

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.