Bart Ehrman says that I am a Moonie. And a Scientologist.

An interesting post at Paleojudaica here, drawing attention to a review of a new book by a certain Bart Ehrman, who is described as a professor of New Testament textual criticism and apparently writes books trying to prove that the New Testament is complete nonsense.  That would seem like an unusual role for the normal text critic, whose job is to heal the transmission damage of texts to help us read them, not to create barriers between texts and people.  The review is by David Licinicum, and is wittily entitled Lies, Damn lies, and Patristics.

Christian literature in the first few centuries after Christ is similarly littered with homegrown lies, deceptions leaders willfully foisted on the gullible faithful. So argues Bart Ehrman in his impressive and wide-ranging Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics. Although related phenomena come into view at various points, he zeroes in on works bearing a false authorial claim. The number is startling. Ehrman offers each only a brief treatment, and he still needs more than 600 pages.

A google books preview of the work is accessible.  I might review the book, if I can obtain a copy.  In the meantime I have dipped into this, and found a couple of things which seem rather worrying.

On page 1, for instance, I find that Dr Ehrman has redefined the word “forgery” for his own purposes to mean “a literary work with a false authorial claim, that is, a writings whose author falsely claims to be a(nother) well-known person”.  This is not the usual meaning of the word, which has a very loaded meaning: “a lie, swindle, cheat” in modern English.  Anyone reading his book will know that.

Using a loaded term which has been “redefined”, in order to associate a pejorative term with early Christian literature, is a very odd thing to do.  I can’t imagine any scholarly motive for doing that.  If we write a study of some phenomenon, in order to inform, the last thing we want to do is to attach loaded terms to our investigation.

There is more, on the same page.  After making a claim that most first century literature is not by the authors universally attested by every scrap of ancient testimony, he goes on to say that “matters begin to change with the second Christian century” and then lists some forgeries: the ps.Clementine Recognitions, the writings of ps.Dionysius the Areopagite, and the letters of Paul and Seneca.

Yet everybody knows that the Clementine Recognitions, in their current form, are certainly works of the 4th century, so rich in the composition of the novel-like texts condemned in the Decretum Gelasianum; that the unknown author of Dionysius the Areopagite wrote in the times of Maximus Confessor, probably at the end of the 5th century; and that the letters of Paul and Seneca belong to the 4th century also.  The motives of their authors are unknown.  The presumption of guilty intent, involved in using the word “forgery”, is all very well.  But why mis-date these?

But the best is to be found elsewhere.

At the opening of chapter 6 is a further introduction, which heaps up lists of texts whose authors are unknown or clearly mistaken, as if there was an industry of forgery in “early Christian times”.  I was amused to find ps.Tertullian’s Adversus Omnes Haereses in this, a text that became attached to Tertullian’s name during the middle ages through the accident of being transmitted with a bunch of Tertullian’s works.  We have no idea who the author was, but we need not suppose he attached Tertullian’s name to the work, as Ehrman’s readers will infer.

All this will give only one impression to the general reader; which is that the early Christians were forging texts on an industrial scale.  It achieves this, by repeating his earlier accusations against the New Testament, and then mingling rapidly together all sorts of documents, Christian and heretical alike.  He knows very well that the heretics often forged ‘gospels’ in the names of apostles, and that the Christians tell us so (and, when extant, their contents tell us so).  But he prefers to write as if this was a Christian phenomenon.  This is a curious thing to do.

In a thousand years time, when Christianity in the 20-21st century is studied in universities, there can be little doubt that extinct heresies like the Moonies, Scientology, etc, will not be studied independently.  They will form a tiny part of the curriculum of Christian history in the period.

If Bart Ehrman were preserved in a test tube and able to control that curriculum, to judge from chapter 6 of his book, he would instead assert that the Christians, the Moonies, and the Scientologists were all equivalent, and all more or less the same.  He would write in such a way, say about brainwashing, that the ordinary reader would presume that the Christians did it routinely in this century, because the Moonies and Scientologists did and, hey, they’re all the same, and who’s to say who is the “true Christian”.

Which means, apparently, that I am a Moonie.  And a Scientologist.  At the same time.  Whatever is convenient for Dr Ehrman’s argument.

I think everyone has the right to state their own religious position.  And if so, we might like to grant the early Christians the same privilege.

I haven’t ventured further into the book, so I cannot say whether it has any useful scholarly content.  But thus far it seems to be a wretched piece of work.


8 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman says that I am a Moonie. And a Scientologist.

  1. I believe he also tries to revive the whole “historical Jesus” debate again, in an attempt to reverse the overwhelming, and only definitive conclusion that it arrived at: There really was a “Jesus of Nazareth”, he really did teach and gain disciples, he really was crucified, and his followers really did claim that he was resurrected.

    Jesus might well say, “the report of my non-existence was an exaggeration”.

  2. The question is only asked by people who know very well what the answer is, but want to try and create a faux-debate, instead of dealing with the real question: do we live by whatever some journalist writes for the TV; or do we follow Christ.

    OUP have offered me a review copy of the book, so I shall see what he has to say. In principle a study of literary standards for authorship in antiquity might be quite interesting.

  3. I don’t think Ehrman has ever published in peer reviewed journals. Can anyone confirm? He just writes well for a popular audience and is really good at self-promoting. Kind of uses it for therapy: he’s still hung up about his fundamentalist youth. Standard self-centred fare from the self-obsessed. Bit of a yawn really.

  4. That can’t be true, surely? That a man could become a professor at a US university without publishing in peer-reviewed journals?

    As I understand it, the young Ehrman was tricked by an unscrupulous professor, who for homework set him to solve a “bible difficulty” which has perplexed people for centuries. Unable to do so, and exhausted by the effort, the youth suddenly “realised” – as he was meant to do – that this passage of the bible must contain a small mistake. Thinking this a small thing which didn’t affect his main position, and saying so to his friends, he found himself shunned. He then rushed from “there are no mistakes in the bible in my hand” to “the bible must be unreliable”, and le voila! The dishonest professor must have laughed at his naivety and moved on to work on the next one.

    If I got the story straight, it reminds me of how the Chinese used to brainwash American PoW’s in the Korean War. They would keep on and on at them about communist dogma, trying to get them to sign a “confession”, and keeping them up without sleep, until, exhausted, a “compromise” was put before them which, to an exhausted man, sounded innocuous. Then they posted the document and signature on the notice board in the barracks, so that the other PoW’s would see that he had endorsed the communists, and shun him. The combination would then turn him inside out.

    It is a pity that Ehrman hasn’t worked out that he was the victim of trickery. What he should have done, as a kid, was give whatever textbook answer the school taught, and analyse the question another time, when fit and not under pressure. I feel rather sorry for him, actually. Any of us might be deceived by that kind of swindle.

  5. I’ve been on the look-out for a recent bibliography on forgery – this might be useful.

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