Academic journal article Cithara

Shrinking the New Testament Canon: A Review of Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics

Academic journal article Cithara

Shrinking the New Testament Canon: A Review of Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics

Article excerpt

Shrinking the New Testament Canon: A Review of Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics. By Bart D. Ehrman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 622. $38.48.

John Mulryan: An Overview of Ehrman's Achievement

Before launching into an analysis of this complex, exciting book (covering Christian forgeries of the first four centuries CE), four questions need to be addressed. First, what is forgery? Second, how extensive was the practice in early Christian writings? Third, what are the implications of the numerous instances of forged texts in the New Testament? Fourth, what was the attitude toward forgery (as defined by Erhman) in the ancient world (both secular and Christian)?

First, for Ehrman, forgery relates to both authorship and content: in the ancient world, "the person of the author provided the authority for the account; at the same time the contents of the account established the identity of the author" (86). In most cases, the forged text is polemical in its approach to the authentic text (4). In all instances, there is the intent to deceive, to lie about the identity of the author, the content of the text, or both. Second, the practice of forgery was shockingly widespread: "Among the earliest surviving writings of the Christians-those that make up the New Testament-nearly half are forged" (529). Third, if Ehrman is correct, there are serious implications for the integrity of the sacred texts. As the number of authenticated texts diminishes, so does the authority of the New Testament itself. Fourth, according to Ehrman, plagiarism and other forms of literary deceit were attacked and punished in the ancient world (52), just as they are in the current era. Writing is incredibly hard work, and writers rightfully resent others taking the credit for their efforts, or misrepresenting them. The Roman poet Martial remarks ironically on finding his own poems in the collections of other poets. Early in my career someone appropriated and distorted some of my own scholarship, but a friend comforted me by pointing out that "you haven't arrived as a scholar until you have been misquoted."

Although Ehrman writes with admirable lucidity and grace, fitting for a best-selling author and scholar, his book is not entirely user-friendly. Much of his vocabulary is drawn from arcane Greek and German phrases that are unfamiliar to both common reader and scholar alike. Of course he aims for exactitude and precision in his use of Greek, but the heavy teutonic investment in vocabulary is necessitated by his attempt to synthesize all of the German scholarship on the subject of forgery, much of it now available for the first time in English, or indeed in any other language.

The forgeries discussed by Erhman also treat an interesting if alarming practice: counterforgery. "Sometimes a forgery is used precisely to counter the views set forth in another work that is itself a forgery" (151). Thus the forger attempts to pre-empt discovery by focusing on an earlier forgery. His exposure of the forgery is the writer's attempt to divert attention from his own literary deceit. Some scholars assert the authenticity of texts termed forgeries by Ehrman through the employment of the "secretary hypothesis," the claim "that early Christian authors used secretaries who altered the writing style and contributed to the contents of a writing" (218). Ehrman dismisses the claim as without merit: "there is a good reason that commentators who propose the hypothesis so rarely cite any evidence to support it. The ancient evidence is very thin, to the point of being nonexistent" (218).

One of the problems of attribution that Ehrman focuses upon is the inability of Peter and other apostles to compose texts in Greek, in some cases elegant Greek that went beyond their assumed linguistic competence. As Ehrman reminds us, Peter himself was probably illiterate, and if he had been literate, it would have been in Hebrew, not in Greek. …

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