On Bart Ehrman's "Forged"

In his book Forged, Bart Ehrman offers the thesis that the bulk of the books of the NT are either forgeries or wrongly attributed to someone other than who authored them. Since this has bearing on what is contained in TNT, we will evaluate his arguments for those books he disputes, and make specific comparisons to what we offer in TNT: If he uses an argument that we have replied to in TNT, we will simply note this. I will also add to this critique as needed; as I type this, Mike Licona has an excellent summary critique, and Ben Witherington is composing a longer one.

Unfortunately, Ehrman makes no effort to provide a systematic epistemology of authorship, and his arguments for inauthenticity are shallow. We will consider his arguments in order of New Testament books, and links are found below as we compose the material. We will not concern ourselves with his charges concerning extra-canonical material. One thing we may note to start, though, since it affects many of his arguments: Ehrman rejects many books as inauthentic based on an assumption that there was some sort of failure in Christian eschatology in the first century (eg, Jesus didn’t return as predicted). As a preterist I consider such objections to be void.

The Gospels

Ehrman does not regard the Gospels as forgeries. He believes they were anonymous and that the names were mistakenly added later. Even so his case is a short-shrift to the evidence. External testimony from authors like Papias is merely waved away as “rumors” and with other poor arguments – and very few of them.


Ehrman denies that Papias could be referring to Matthew as we have it, for reasons we discuss in TNT.

Mark It is also denied that Papias refers to the Mark we know, because “there is nothing about our Mark that would make you think it was Peter’s version of the story…” This is an astounding statement, for as I noted in TNT:

Mark's Gospel is constructed around Peter more than any other Gospel. Throughout Mark, Peter is given top billing. He is the first of the disciples to be mentioned; he is portrayed as being in Jesus' inner circle, and there are many instances where Peter is the only individual to stand over and against Jesus.

In terms of proportion, Peter in mentioned more times per page in Mark than in Matthew or Luke. He is also the most “true to life” character in the Gospel other than Jesus.

There are also many personal touches reflecting Peter, including the frequent and incidental mention of his house (5 times in Mark); phrases such as “Simon and his companions” (1:36) and Andrew being identified as Simon's brother (1:16); and the direct address to Simon by Jesus (14:37). Many third-person verses, if shifted to first- or second-person, would fit right in the mouth of Peter. (1:29, 5:1, 5:38, 6:53-4, 8:22, 10:32, 11:1, 14:18, etc.). And of course, 1 Peter 5:13 indicates that Mark was at least at some time a companion of Peter.


Luke’s authorship is rejected upon the basis of lack of evidence in the NT, even as external attestation from the likes of Irenaeus is dismissed without explanation. Appeal is also made to alleged discrepancies between Acts and Pauls’ letters (link below) and an alleged late date for Acts (not argued, just asserted as being the view of “scholars”).

And amazingly, that is virtually all Ehrman has to offer on this subject related to authorship! Various other canards are used unrelated to authorship directly, but this is all he has that relates directly to the questions of authorship.

After this, we move on to the epistles.


Ehrman spends all of 2 pages on the authenticity of Ephesians, and much of what he offers is covered in TNT. Beyond that he finds some very strained contradictions between Ephesians and the rest of Paul’s letters:


Ehrman adds nothing new, using essentially some of the same points as he did with Colossians.

2 Thessalonians

Nearly all of Ehrman’s case for forgery here turns on the premise of a failed eschatology. Otherwise:

I think it fitting to close with this warning from Witherington:

Here is where I say ‘caveat emptor’—let the buyer beware when Bart begins to make sweeping claims like “Second Thessalonians… is itself widely thought by scholars not to be by Paul” (p. 19). I called Bart on this very point when we were debating at New Orleans Baptist Seminary last month. I pointed out, that if one does the head count of what commentators say about 2 Thessalonians, in fact the majority of commentators, even if one restricts one’s self to so-called critical commentators, still believe Paul is responsible for 2 Thessalonians.

Bart’s rebuttal was that he was not counting conservative or orthodox commentators. My response to the response was that in fact he was ruling out the majority of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, not to mention some Jewish scholars at this point. In other words, his ‘canon’ of critical scholars is small, a distinct minority of the total number of NT scholars around the world, with whom he has chosen to agree. My point here is, don’t believe such claims as ‘widely believed’ or ‘the majority of good scholars think’ without first doing the math. In fact, Bart’s math does not add up. Thus while it is true that often forgers throw people off their trail by warning about forgery in their own forged documents, in fact, there were plenty of genuine warnings of this sort by authors like Galen, who were really upset with people writing documents in their own name. Galen even published a list of his authentic writings to make clear what was a forgery. As it turn out, many ancients were very concerned about the dangers of forgery, and Paul was one of them.

The Pastoral Letters. Before addressing authorship issues, Ehrman feels the needs to make much of the alleged “anti-woman” sentiments of 1 Timothy 2:11-15. As in prior books he fails to consider other alternatives, particularly that this was a response to a proto-Gnostic heresy that considered women superior to men and thought that childbearing was sinful. (Link below.) He also uses this passage as a reason to think Paul is teaching a different view of salvation!

Ehrman alludes briefly to older arguments for inauthenticity based on the Pastorals’ supposed reaction to Gnosticism, which was thought to be a much later phenomenon. We did not address this argument in TNT because it is no longer held by scholars, who are aware that early forms of the same ideas existed in the first century as well. Ehrman does not indicate that he agrees with this argument, but nor does he says he does not, which is rather dishonest to say the least. Today it has been proposed that the heresy is similar to something known among the ascetic Essenes, and that the “endless myths and genealogies” relate not to Gnostic beliefs, but to a synthesis of Jewish and Christian ideas. Ehrmna, however, does not explain what he thinks the heresy was.

When it comes to current scholarship, Ehrman briefly discusses first whether the Pastorals were all written by the same person before hauling out the standard arguments concerning vocabulary which we answer in TNT. He does admit that “probably not too much stock” should be placed in such arguments, but then proceeds to insist that we should anyway, because of certain types of word usage. The one example he gives is one we answered in TNT:

Confusion over “faith” - personal, or loyalty to a church tradition? Throughout the Pastorals, Paul refers to “the faith” in the sense of a creed or a tradition, which is said to contradict Paul's usual way of referring to faith only in a personal way. However, Paul refers to “the faith” in a creedal way in other places (Rom. 4:12, 4:16; 1 Cor. 16:13, 2 Cor. 13:5, Gal. 1:23; 3:23, 6:10; Phil. 1:25, 27; Col. 2:7). It was therefore not a foreign usage to him; he simply uses it that way more often in the Pastorals, as we would expect if he were writing to church leaders whose job it was to safeguard creeds and traditions - and considering that he was near the end of his life, this would not be surprising.

Further, other examples he gives of “ideas and concepts” reputedly foreign to Paul. One of these, regarding “works of the law,” we address in TNT. Otherwise:

Ehrman then turns to a form of the standard “church administration” objection, which we address in TNT. His further comments on this are also rooted in a presumption of a dispensational eschatology. Finally, he briefly rejects the point that the Pastorals containing personal information (like 4:13), positing instead a “clever forger” thesis. Of this I said in TNT:

…while the personal details are not absolute proof of authenticity, the weight of the evidence from them points towards authenticity, and the burden of proof is on those who would suggest otherwise.

One major point Ehrman does not deal with here is the thesis that the Pastorals were a product of Luke’s hand at the behest of Paul. This is especially dishonest inasmuch as Ehrman refers to the work of Jerome Quinn, one of the leading advocates of this view (which I accept), in his notes. However, Ehrman would probably say that it is covered by his material on the use of scribes, a point to which we devote a special sub-article (link below).


Much of Ehrman’s space here is devoted to the idea that James contradicts Paul (see link below), which he actually ends up saying is not the case, interestingly enough. His arguments for the book not being by James occupy comparatively little space and hinge mainly on the assumption that James is responding to Ephesians (based on his misunderstanding of that book). He also notes that there is no reference to keeping of the law in James (handled in TNT) as well as (again) an appeal to James’ alleged likely illiteracy (which again, makes any ancient work also suspect).

1 and 2 Peter

We will address 1 and 2 Peter together as Ehrman makes a composite of his own case on both.

Ehrman’s first objection to Peter’s authorship of this book is not addressed in TNT, because it is based on the assumption that when Peter refers to “Babylon,” he means Rome. I happen to think, as a preterist, that he means Jerusalem. However, it is absurd even so to think as Ehrman does that Peter could NOT be referring to Rome as “Babylon” before 70 AD. Rome was a seat of Gentile wickedness and perversion, by Jewish standards; it was the great enemy that held the Jews in a form of exile in their own homeland. For Ehrman to think it could not be referred to as “Babylon” reflects a rather distinct lack of imagination on his part.

He rejects the scribal option for reasons noted in the section below. As we note, while 1 Peter 5:12 does not directly indicate Silvanus as scribe, it also does not exclude him. It also does not by any means require that Peter be fluent in Greek, as is claimed; Ehrman is again showing a distinct lack of imagination, as he cannot seem to imagine that scribes could do anything but transcribe verbatim what others said, without so much as a thought of improving or polishing the contents of the dictation. But we will say more of this when we address his material on scribes.

Later, Ehrman also hypothesizes a motive for forgery (to support Paul), but this motive just as readily could be applied to the real Peter.

For 2 Peter, Ehrman’s main objection is (again!) rooted in an assumption that the NT teaches what became a failed eschatology; under my preterist views, this is a non-starter. Ehrman also alludes to the standard argument that 2 Peter copied from Jude, and the reference to Paul’s letters in 3:16, and both of these are addressed in TNT. Finally, he also offers an extensive commentary to the effect that Peter was illiterate. But his objections hardly overcome the option of Peter learning to read and write under the care of a Christian community that would venerate and respect him and wish for him to be an effective communicator. He only briefly considers this option, but regards it as “imaginative”. Really? What is imaginative about people learning to read and write? At the same time, most of the barriers Ehrman imagines – memorizing the Septuagint, and mastering Greek, are no barriers at all to 1 Peter being composed by a scribe (though see sub-article below on this), and no barrier to 2 Peter being composed by an aged Peter: He would have learned Greek orally long before that, and memorized the LXX orally. He would also not need mastery of Greek for 2 Peter; the Greek of 2 Peter is quite bad. Nor would be need adult education “classes” – just a caring church community with literate people in it, and a desire to learn to communicate the Gospel. He would not need to divert himself from other concern as Ehrman suggests rather lamely.

Later, Ehrman also adds (as with 1 Peter) the motive of supporting Paul as an argument.


Ehrman offers one argument for inauthenticity, and mainly a discussion of why someone would be motivated to forge this epistle. His single argument – aside from the probability of Jude being illiterate and untrained (which would also give us as much reason to doubt that any ancient author could have written anything) was attended to in TNT thusly:

That Jude says he wants to “remind” his readers of Jesus’ words as spoken by the Apostles (v. 17) indicates a writer who “looks back to the past.” This is quite true, but why this needs to mean “so far past that it cannot be Jude the brother of Jesus” is not explained. Jude’s admonition is no different than those delivered by teachers of his day who wanted students to memorize their lessons, and does not require that the Apostles be deceased, only that they be the ones who made the authoritative delivery of the words. It is only the delivery of the teaching that is in the past, not necessarily the Apostles. In addition, v. 18 says that it is the Apostles that told Jude’s readers these things, which indicates that the Apostles are still alive, or at least recently were. (Naturally, there were at least 12 people, perhaps more, with the designation “apostles,” so that there was a broad “window” within which Jude’s comment would not be anachronistic.)

On Use of Scribes

Regarding the use of scribes in the NT, Ehrman admits that “[v]irtually all of the problems” he has been positing are solved if this is permitted as an explanation. Unfortunately, he does a rather horrible job of arguing against it.

He notes the thesis of Richards (The Secretary in the Letters of Paul) that secretaries were used in a variety of ways, ranging from dictation to full composition. He denies that there is sufficient evidence for the range Richards gives beyond dictation, but does so on embarrassingly inadequate grounds. As it turns out, Ben Witherington and Mike Licona have done more than enough to answer Ehrman on these points already, so I will just provide what they say and add a few comments.

First of all, as Ben Witherington notes in his critique:

I need to say from the outset and on first glance that there appears to be a rather large lacunae in the argument of this book, namely the failure to do this study after having studied in depth ancient scribal practices and the roles of scribes in producing ancient documents in ancient Israel. For example, I see no interaction whatsoever in this book with the landmark study of Karel Van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, in which it is demonstrated at length that scribes played a huge role in collecting, editing, and producing ancient documents, and that it was indeed a regular practice to name a scroll after either the originator of the tradition, or the first or a major contributor to the tradition, not after the scribe who actually produced the document, often decades or centuries after the tradition had first been formed.

This was neither a deceitful practice nor a blatant attempt at forgery, but rather a normal practice in a culture with a deep reverence for ancient traditions which in a largely illiterate society relied on scribes to be the conservators, copiers, preservers and presenters of the tradition, in written form. Inasmuch as the writers of the NT appear to have been almost entirely Jews or God-fearers deeply steeped not only in the OT but in Jewish ways of handling sacred traditions and sacred texts, it is rather surprising that this book does not spend more time actually examining such things. Perhaps in the scholarly monograph that is to follow this popular level book, this rather colossal oversight will be remedied.

Indeed, as I wrote concerning Van der Toorn’s book on the Ticker:

The one major contribution Van der Toorn offers , for my experience, is in Chapter 2 where he discusses the role and nature of authorship in antiquity. I have frequently told critics that the ancient concept of authorship is more like authority than “so and so wrote this” as it is today, and this is exactly what Van der Toorn says and elaborates upon. Here are some critical points:

“Up until the end of the Middle Ages, readers were more concerned with the authority of books than their authenticity. The author was deemed relevant mainly as a source of authority.”[27]

“In the Ancient Near East, it was uncommon for an author to sign his or her work.” [231] Hence it is no surprise that we have so many “anonymous” OT books (the Samuels, the Kings, etc). Even Babylonian and Assyrian texts named not the author of the text, but either the name of the scribe or the name of the owner of the text.

One point I’d derive from this is one I have used often already: When Moses is said to be the authority behind the Pentateuch, it never means that he personally wrote it. Rather, though he may have authored some of the texts, his main role would be that of an authority who stood behind the text and caused it to be made.

Another concept Van der Toorn introduce is that of honorary authorship. This is a case of a text being ascribed to a patron who ordered the text, as opposed to the scribe who wrote and composed it. Once again, it is in this sense that it ought be argued that Moses, for example, “authored” the Pentateuch. However, critics continue to work with a modern definition of authorship in their criticisms. He also points out that our concept of authorship is tied to notions of authors as individuals; but because in the ancient world, “an individual is indistinguishable from his or her social role and social status,” [46] authorship is itself an expression of role, and that as mouthpiece and crafter of the values of the community the author represents. In that sense, authorship is in a real sense communal .

This is not to say van derToorn agrees that eg, Moses wrote the Pentateuch. He doesn’t; he thinks it was a fictitious attribution. But I have frequently argued with critics that their criticisms assume a modern definition of “authorship” and that is precisely what van der Toorn debunks. He makes an analogy to the modern practice of those who write copy for advertisements – they never “sign” their work. This is one major exception to our modern tendency to take offense when an author is not credited with the creation of a text. But for ancient people, “an author does not invent his text but merely arranges it….” [47]

This is important because Ehrman argues based on alleged lack of evidence. Of course, this is a non-argument anyway, since the only evidence he seems to think counts is the sort of explicit comment about scribal contribution which such letters would lack in the first place!

Now for Licona’s comments, which again I will simply add to.

First, Ehrman asserts that there is no evidence of this being done by anyone outside of the ultra-wealthy. He writes, “Virtually all of [the evidence for the use of a secretary beyond taking dictation] comes from authors who were very, very wealthy and powerful and inordinately well educated” (135-36). Writing a letter in antiquity was a costly enterprise. In the updated and expanded version of Randolph Richards’ doctoral dissertation, he discusses the costs involved. Papyri, labor, and courier fees added up quickly. Of course, Cicero, Seneca and the ultra-wealthy could easily afford the costs. But Paul the missionary would not have been so fortunate. Richards estimates that the cost for penning Paul’s letters ranged from $101 in today’s dollars for Philemon to $2,275 for Romans. And that does not include the expenses involved with a courier.20 Now perhaps you’re thinking, “But Paul tells us he had churches that supported him (Phil 4:10- 18; 2 Cor 11:9). And we know he had co-workers whom he mentioned in his letters. They would naturally have been the couriers and could even have served as his secretaries. So, he wouldn’t have incurred little if any labor costs.” Of course. And what’s to have prevented these coworkers from also providing editorial and compositional services according to their personal abilities? Could the Tertius mentioned in Romans 16:22 have been a professional secretary who had volunteered his services? We will never know. What is clear is the fact that Paul was not a member of the ultra-wealthy does not preclude his use of a secretary for editing and composition.

Indeed, let me add here that Ehrman’s proposal is a massive non sequitur. How in the world can it be argued that wealth somehow governed one’s use and practice of using a secretary? If a wealthy Roman lost a huge chunk of change speculating, did he use secretaries differently?

It is further a non sequitur for Ehrman to point out that Cicero is the only person for whom we have evidence that scribes were used to fully draft letters. He simply raises the bar of evidence to arbitrary heights, demanding that we have something equivalent to Cicero’s own comments in order for the hypothesis to have traction. The very fact that NT writers DID use secretaries, and the fact that they DID have available to them the resources of a wealthier upper class of people, is more than sufficient evidence for a secretary hypothesis to have standing and for the burden to be placed on doubters like Ehrman.

Continuing with Licona:

Second, Ehrman points out that letters in the Greco-Roman world were very short and to the point whereas the NT letters are lengthy treatises that deal with complex issues (136). Ehrman says this is problematic because the disputed letters of the New Testament such as Ephesians and 1 Peter are “lengthy treatises that deal with large and complex issues in the form of a letter” and are “so much more extensive than typical letters . . . in their theological expositions, ethical exhortations, and quotation of and interpretation of Scripture. These New Testament ‘letters’ are really more like essays put in letter form. So evidence that derives from the brief, stereotyped letters typically found in Greek and Roman circles is not necessarily germane to the ‘letters’ of the early Christians” (136, ital. mine). Indeed. And what is true of Ephesians and 1 Peter is even more true of ALL of Paul’s seven undisputed letters with the exception of Philemon. Ehrman has unwittingly eliminated his own argument against the heavy involvement of secretaries! Ephesians and 1 Peter are quite long when compared with the average length of the letters of Cicero and longer than the average length of the letters of Seneca.

The above figures provide some interesting observations. With the exception of Philemon, the average length of the New Testament letters is much longer than the average length of letters written by others of the period. However, notice the length of the undisputed letters of Paul. They are longer than the disputed letters. Yet no one, including Ehrman, questions whether Paul wrote Romans and 1 Corinthians in spite of the fact that those letters are each around 7,000 words! This reveals that Ehrman’s argument concerning letter length is only a paper tiger.

Licona further appeals to the common sense notion that it is usual to ask others to review a text that is important. In this case, it is hard to accept that any Christian text would NOT go under review by more than the “authoring” party and for scribes to be asked to review the contents.


In Ehrman’s third and final argument against the secretary being heavily involved in Paul’s letters he says there’s evidence that brief stereotyped letters like land deeds and sales receipts were created by secretaries. But there is “absolutely no evidence” that such authority was ever provided to a secretary for “composing a long, detailed, finely argued, carefully reasoned, and nuanced letter like 1 Peter or Ephesians” (137). For example, Ehrman contends that 1 Peter was written by a highly educated Greek-speaking Christian who understood how to use Greek rhetorical devices and could cite the Greek Old Testament with flair and nuance. That does not apply to the uneducated, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking fisherman from rural Galilee, and it does not appear to have been produced by a secretary acting on his behalf. (138-39) And it does not seem possible that Peter gave the general gist of what he wanted to say and that a secretary then created the letter for him in his name, since, first, then the secretary rather than Peter would be the real author of the letter, and second, and even more important, we don’t seem to have any analogy for a procedure like this from the ancient world. (139)

But recall that Ehrman himself admits that, given the length of the New Testament letters, the Greco-Roman letters are not necessarily germane. Moreover, some analogy exists related to the liberty the historian could take in recreating speeches. The digital recorder was a long time away from being invented when historians attempted to reproduce speeches in antiquity. The historian was to do his best in recalling the content of the speeches from those who had personally witnessed it. However, according to Lucian, a Greek author from the second century who provides the only surviving treatise on the proper conventions of writing history in that era, historians were instructed to use accurate content. However, it was then that the historian could become orator and display his own elegance of words when communicating the content.

And of course, van den Toorn does provide the needed analogy from the ancient world. Ehrman has failed to unseat the secretary hypothesis on multiple counts.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ehrman’s claim that forgery is a better explanation resorts to again appealing to alleged differences in thought between letters and those who are said to have written them (a bogus claim, as we saw in evaluating those arguments), and in closing to a gross argument from popularity: “Forgeries happened all the time.”

Yes, well – so did genuine works, and more often. But since Ehrman also tells us that forgeries happen “all the time” in the modern world, too, perhaps that would be a good argument for Forged being – forged!


  • Paul: Acts vs Epistles
  • On Timothy and women
  • 1 Cor. 7 and marriage
  • James vs Paul