Attacks on the reliability of the NT have moved in recent years from focussing on the question of historical reliability to the question of how the NT documents were written, handled and included in what was to become ‘Scripture.’ This is because of the continuing discovery of earlier and diverse manuscripts, and the related discipline of textual criticism.
Last month, Ehrman’s latest work Forged was published, claiming that the majority of books in the NT were actually written by people other than the ones later attributed to them. Renowned scholar Ben Witherington has written a detailed eight-part critique of Ehrman’s book; links to all parts can be found here at the last one and I include the links at the bottom of the page here. They are really worth reading if you have the time, since they offer a great education in the facts of early Christian writing, and assumptions in the wider first-century world. But I cite his conclusion as a useful guide to the issues:
In my estimation this is Bart’s best book so far, and if does nothing else than keep devout Christians honest about the truth, than it has served a useful purpose. It raises a lot of uncomfortable questions, and it does a pretty good job of questioning whether pseudonymity was an ancient literary convention, particularly when it comes to document like letters. I have shown along the way the problems with Bart’s case when it comes to various NT documents, and here is the short list of some of these problems already mentioned:
1) Bart’s overall historical analysis of the first four centuries of Christianity does not adequately take into account the unique features of the first century A.D. nor the important roles that apostles, eyewitnesses and their co-workers played in the formation of the Christian movement and its source documents. All of the NT documents, with the possible exception of 2 Peter, can be traced back internally or indirectly or directly to a very small group of literate Christians, some of them of some considerable status.
2) Bart grossly underestimates and seems ignorant of the vast number of roles scribes played in the ANE, in second temple Judaism, and probably in early Christianity, including composing documents for other persons. He needs to go back and read Scribal Culture and do a rethink about the range of possibilities with the use of scribes.
3) Many of the supposed historical and literary problems Bart thinks he finds in the NT are ephemeral or in some case just not what he thinks they are. Bart has a good critical mind and he tends to problematize things too much, in order to pursue a particular line of argument. This is tendentious, to say the least, and it leads to over-reading weak evidence and making global claims that the evidence does not at all support (e.g. ‘almost all scholars think…..’ and fill in the blank)
4) Bart does not adequately come to grips with the phenomena of ancient fiction of various sorts. Some of the documents he is examining could be said to fall into this category, but he wants to disallow it. Sometimes he seems to think that just because some gullible people believed something was a true history when it was a fiction, it must have had the intent to deceive. This is not at all necessarily so.
5) Bart seems to think he can play mind-reader when it comes to some of the writers of early Christian literature. The proper question to ask is— How in the world do you know these documents were created as deliberate forgeries or falsifications, or fabrications when the author does not suggest this in the document, and we can’t interview him now? Most of the time this conclusion is based on mirror-reading of the documents themselves looking for telltale signs of deceit sometimes more successfully than others.
6) This book could easily be called Gullible Travels for it reveals over and over again the willingness of people to believe even outrageous things at times. It reveals as well the deep desire in the human heart to trust someone or something about ultimate Truth. Human gullibility however widespread in both antiquity and modernity however does not prove something about the intentions of the writers of this or that document.
7) There is in fact some evidence in early Jewish literature, as pointed out by Richard Bauckham, that some kinds of literature, particularly apocalyptic did seem to have had pseudonymous authorship as a part of the literary convention. It is a different story with pseudepigrapha and here I think Bart is on basically target. As Bauckham says, when it comes to a false attribution in a letter, it necessarily must involve both a false attribution of authorship and of audience (i.e. it must be a later and different audience) for the conceit and deceit to work. See the long discussion in my Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians Vol. One, Introduction.
8) Time and again Bart fails to take into account major factors that count against his argument. Let’s take the argument about Greek style for a minute. Nowhere in this book does he really acknowledge that what we have in most of the so-called letters in the NT are actually discourses, rhetorical discourses set in the framework of epistolary features since they were sent at a distance. These discourses are oral texts, and they follow the rules of such rhetorical texts and their structures and furthermore, the copying of these texts by scribes follows procedures already well known from the practices of someone like Tiro with Cicero. Yes indeed, scribes did write down speeches, and notes on speeches, and then reframed them in more eloquent prose. You cannot for example conclude Paul didn’t write Ephesians on style grounds, just because it uses Asiatic style rhetoric and epideictic rhetoric at that. It follows those conventions. Of this sort of thing, Bart says nothing.
9) The arguments about Jesus, James, Peter being peasants will not fly. They were Jews taught to read the Scriptures, and every bit of actual evidence (not arguments from silence or what must have been the case in bucolic Galilee) suggests they had at least basic literacy. Peter is called unlettered in Acts 4, not illiterate. And in any case, there were scribes aplenty to make up with the deficiencies one had in one’s own literacy and those scribes could turn a sows ear of a speech into a silk purse. If we are going to talk about forgery and falsification seriously, it will have to deal almost exclusively with flat contradictions of substance between documents, not the willow of the wisp of analysis of Greek style. A good writer in Greek altered his style to suit the type of rhetoric and the occasion. Christianity had some of these scribes as converts, say a Tertius who helped Paul.
10) In this book Bart ‘over-eggs the pudding’ rather too often, as the Brits would say. Had he restrained himself, he would have had a stronger and more plausible case. But by trying to rule something completely out of bounds or impossible, he appears too strident, too tendentious, and stepping on toes liberal, conservative, and others. It’s not good rhetoric when you alienate most of your more learned audience. The danger with this book is people will see some of its extreme rhetoric and fail to take seriously that there is a lot in this book worth considering, and many things that Bart gets right. It is not simply a skree but sometime it sounds that way.
11) I do not recommend people to read this book who are not already well familiar with the evidence and other points of view, as it is liable to damage a young Christian’s faith not because it easily discredits Christianity but precisely because the naïve reader has no evidence with which to meaningfully critique the book and see it has severe problems. For those of you well grounded, even you must read the book critically and carefully and compare other view points in detail.
12) As for the average lay person wanting to know the truth about early Christianity, this is not the book to start with, since it is as likely to mislead and discourage you as help you get at the truth. About one thing Bart and I definitely agree—the truth will set you free. But as Pilate says, you need to know how to ask ‘What is truth?’ and is what Bart Ehrman says about it actually the Gospel truth? My answer is sometimes yes (when he talks about Christian pseudepigrapha from the second to fourth century) but mostly no (when he talks about the NT and the period when it was written).