Forgery in the Bible?
A pithy meme making the rounds states, “When God put a call on your life, he factored in your stupidity.” I take great personal comfort in this idea. The foibles, flaws, and sins of a believer who has submitted to God are not enough to overcome His sovereign plans for their life. The more I learn about the early Church and how our writings became canon, the more I believe the same concept can be applied corporately.
McDonald asks, “If the author of the Pastoral Epistles simply wanted apostolic sanction for his views on organization and discipline in the church, and therefore attached Paul’s name to his own writings, what conclusion(s) should we draw about the Pastorals?”1Indeed, how should Christians today view the possibility that pseudepigraphical texts were included in the New Testament? My approach to this issue begins with the belief that all truth comes from God and true statements are true, no matter who makes them. Thus, while accurately identifying the biblical authors is not unimportant, our acceptance of the OT and NT texts as Scripture is not ultimately dependent on their human authors but rather on the ultimate Author.
Indeed, to dismiss ancient NT writings solely based on pseudepigraphy risks the genetic fallacy of logic in which a proposition is dismissed based on its origins rather than its merits. We see this tendency in Ehrman, who assigns nefarious motives to any potentially pseudepigraphic NT text. He labels it “forgery” and states, “The authors of forgery in almost every known instance meant to deceive their readers and the vast majority of times they appear to have succeeded.”2 Contra Ehrman, scholars like Charlesworth credibly posit the potential of various less nefarious motivations in pseudepigraphic works, including works containing the actual thoughts of the named author and/or written in honor of them. Indeed, in his discussion of 3 Corinthians, Webster notes that even non-canonical texts may have been written with noble intentions.
Most scholars of the twentieth century, sharing a similar regard for the teachings of the text, would describe it as a forgery coming out of the burgeoning orthodoxy of the second-century church against a particular heresy of the day. As such, it is harmless— problematic in its deception, though pardonable, or even noble, in its quest.3
In the legitimate process of investigating ancient pseudepigraphic texts, Ehrman tends toward casting doubt (if not aspersions) out of a personal bias. MacDonald, who, like me, holds an opposing personal bias, concludes, “The deciding factors in the acceptance of ancient writings likely had more to do with their orthodoxy and use among the churches, even if beliefs about the authorship of documents was not unimportant.”4
This raises the question of motivation. What would one stand to gain by producing a written work attributed to someone else? As an unknown author intentionally crediting someone else for their work, the motivation wouldn’t be personal fame or fortune. Any credit or criticism would be ascribed to the named author. It seems that the motivation would likely be related to the final produced work and the influence the anonymous author hoped it would have. That could be negative influence, such as attempting to cast aspersions in the name of someone else, or a positive influence, such as hoping to secure and promote the beliefs of a community using the clout of a known name.
In either case, the proof is in the pudding. What is the impact of the final product? In the case of the potentially pseudepigraphical NT books, we have text that (a.) harmonizes quite well with the other NT books of known authorship. (b.) presents a Christocentric theology in line with the rest of the biblical witness, and (c.) has ultimately served to promote the Christian faith tradition.
This issue certainly requires us to step into the haze and messiness of human history and attempt to understand the creation of a divine set of documents penned by fallible, biased, and, in some cases, unknown men. Can a sovereign God work within such disordered circumstances to create divinely inspired, life-giving Scripture? Of course. However, there is a clear and present danger of oversimplification for scholars who are called to love God not just with our hearts and strength but also with our minds. There is a tendency to sweep away all the questions and doubts by way of an appeal to faith. However, we cannot divorce the faith we hold—indeed, our very understanding of God—from the Scriptures in which He has been revealed to us. The logic, at some point, begins to feel circular. (It bears noting that “circular” logic, despite being perhaps uncomfortably grounded, does not necessarily imply error.) Thus, it is not surprising that, somewhere along their journey toward knowledge, scholars like Ehrman have lost their faith.
Pseudepigraphy is an issue with a great deal of fallout. The Roman Catholic Church rankles the feathers of Protestants by asserting that its decrees have as much authority as Scripture. However, even we Protestants who hold up the Bible as our ultimate authority over man-made decrees have to admit that our canon was the product of man-made decrees. Ehrman notes,
If being right mattered, then accepting the right teachings mattered. But how was one to know the right teachings when there were so many alternative views available, not just within the Christian movement, but competing with it from the outside? Authorities were needed. Authorities who could speak the truth from God. And so there developed the notion of apostolic succession.5
MacDonald posits that one important standard of authority was orthodoxy. “If a particular writing cohered theologically with the kerygma of the larger Christian community, and if it was useful in the life of churches, that writing was more likely to find acceptance.”6
In the end, I am comfortable with the idea that in the same way God imposed order onto chaos in Genesis 1, He likewise brought order to the scattered, chaotic, human-generated texts of antiquity to provide His Church with a body of writings to guide them. However, I cannot claim to have arrived at this position solely based on historical, human evidence. Faith is required.
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. (Hebrews 11:1–3, NIV)
1 Lee Martin McDonald, “Pseudonymous Writings and the New Testament,” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts, ed. Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 374.
2 Ehrman, Bart D.. Forgery and Counterforgery : The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2012, 533.
3 Caleb Webster,“Trapped in a Forgerer’s Rhetoric: 3 Corinthians, Pseudepigraphy, and the Legacy of Ancient Polemics,” Non-Canonical Religious Texts in Early Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Lee Martin McDonald, and James H. Charlesworth (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2014, 153
4 McDonald, 376.
5 Ehrman, 531.
6 McDonald, 376.