Review of “Forged” by Bart D. Ehrman – published 2011

Written by:  Julia Tyack

This article is a review of two amazing publications, both are thrillers full of fascinations and illuminations.

Stephen Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus, A new translation and guide to his essential teachings for believers and unbelievers.  The other book is “Forged” by Bart D. Ehrman

 The Truth Worth Dying for is the Truth Worth Lying for.

It has been said, “Everyone knows that good men do good and bad men do bad but for good men to do bad it takes religion.”

Ehrman’s first chapter outlines many reasons for forgeries, such as; political, money, military, self preservation, and religious. One example of a forgery in antiquity was by Eros the private secretary to Aurelian the Roman emperor.  Eros had incurred the wrath of Aurelian and was to be punished.  He forged a list of names of political leaders whom the emperor supposedly had decided to have executed for treason.  The men on the list rose up and assassinated the emperor.

“If you wanted to narrate a Gospel of Jesus’s most important teachings, but in fact were living a hundred years after Jesus and didn’t have any real access to what Jesus said, you would write down the sayings you found most compelling and claim to be someone who had actually heard Jesus speak, calling your book the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Philip.”  Ehrman says we know this happened because ancient authors actually tell us so.

Ehrman details some fascinating examples of cover up comments to make the reader less suspicious that the writing is a forgery. One of these examples from the first century is in 2 Thessalonians and the Apostolic Constitutions three hundred years later.  The writer tells his readers not to read forgeries.  “Why? In part because it makes the readers less likely to suspect that the book they have is itself a forgery.”

“Forged” is Bart D. Ehrman’s most recent publication and lifts the lid right off, “Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are”. This is a book in which he presents comprehensive research of the ‘New Testament Era.’

Ehrman’s research gives us a picture of a divided hostile early church with multiple factions and fantastic beliefs, all claiming to be the original authentic followers of Jesus.  In the first two hundred years after Jesus, the early church’s beliefs were as diverse as those in Christendom today.  What became the New Testament reflects this dichotomy.  Religious people today will tell you the Bible teaches Hellfire, others say it teaches there is no hell, while others see in its pages only a doctrine of universal love.  Those making these claims are all correct because the New Testament does teach each position.

Ehrman’s concludes that very few of the New Testament authors were who the New Testament books claim they were.  The point is backed up with some impressive research that they were forgeries.  Then he startles his readers by presenting evidence both of the forgery and counter rebuff to deceive the reader of the forger’s identity.  Forgery as well as plagiarism is throughout the New Testament.  “Like forgery, plagiarism is deceptive, because it intends to lead readers astray.  Forgers write their own words and claim they are the words of another, plagiarists take the words of another and claim they are their own” Page 247   Ehrman’s research on antiquity including the New Testament era is strong for his claim that forgery and plagiarism was as discredited and viewed as a criminal act as it is today.

“In sum, there were numerous ways to lie in and through literature in antiquity, and some Christians took advantage of the full panoply in their effort to promote their view of the faith. It may seem odd to modern readers, or even counterintuitive, that a religion that built its reputation on possessing the truth had members who attempted to disseminate their understanding of the truth through deceptive means. But it is precisely what happened. The use of deception to promote the truth may well be considered one of the most unsettling ironies of the early Church.” Page  250

“This does not mean, as is now being claimed with alarming regularity, that Jesus never existed.  He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on clear and certain evidence.” Page 251

Erhman’s research clears the obstacles in ones thinking that allows the real Jesus to shine through the counterfeits.

Another writer who deals with finding the teachings of the Jesus of history is Stephen Mitchell.

Gospel means “Good news.” While the Gospel according to Mark, Matthew, Luke , and John are to a large extent teachings about Jesus, I wanted to compile a Gospel that would be  the teaching of Jesus: what he proclaimed about the presence of God: good news as old as the universe. I found, as Jefferson did, that when the accretions are recognised and stripped off, Jesus surprisingly, vividly appears in all his radiance.  Like the man in Bunyan’s riddle, the more we throw away, the more we have. Or the process of selection can be compared to a diamond cutter giving shape to a magnificent rough stone, until its full, intrinsic brilliance is revealed.  Jefferson, of course, was working without any of the precision tools of modern scholarship, as if trying to shape a diamond with an axe.  But he knew what a diamond looked like.

The scholarship of the past seventy-five years is an indispensable help in distinguishing the authentic Jesus from the inauthentic.  No good scholar, for example, would call the Christmas stories anything but legends, or the accounts of Jesus’ trial anything but polemical fiction.  And even about the sayings of Jesus, scholars show a remarkable degree of consensus.

In selecting passages from the Gospels, I have always taken seriously the strictly scholarly criteria.  But there are no scholarly criteria for spiritual  value.  Ultimately my decisions were based on what Jefferson called “internal evidence”: the evidence provided by the words themselves. The authentic passages are marked by “sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence…, humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners…, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.” As Jesus said, the more we become sons (or daughers) of God , the more we become like God – Generous, compassionate, impartial, serene.  It is easy to recognise these qualities in the authentic sayings.  They are Jesus’ signature.

In his book “The Gospel according to Jesus for believers and unbelievers” in the Forward he quotes Thomas Jefferson writing to John Adam’s 1814.  “The whole history of these books (the Gospels) is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts are genuine.  In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man, and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills”. ”Jefferson was morally shocked to realize that the words of Jesus had been added to, deleted, altered, and otherwise tampered with as the Gospels were put together. ….For all reputable scholars today acknowledge that the official Gospels were compiled in Greek, many decades after Jesus’ death, by men who had never heard his teaching, and that a great deal of what the “Jesus” of the Gospels says originated not in Jesus’ own Aramaic words, which have been lost forever…. In this book I have translated, from Mark, Matthew, Luke and (very sparingly) from John, only those passages that seem to me authentic accounts of sayings of Jesus. … Authentic does not mean that a saying or incident can be proved to originate from the historical Jesus of Nazareth.  There are no such proofs; there are only probabilities. …..Words that can shine into a Muslim’s or a Buddhist’s or a Jew’s heart just as powerfully as a Christian’s.  Whoever spoke these words was one of the great world teachers…..No careful reader of the Gospels can fail to be struck by the difference between the large heartedness of such passages and the bitter, badgering tone of some of the passages added by the early Church. …It is not only the polemical elements in the Gospels, the belief in devils, the flashy miracles, and the resurrection itself that readers like Jefferson, Tolstoy, and Gandhi have felt are unworthy of Jesus, but most of all, the direct antitheses to the authentic teaching that were put into Jesus’ mouth, doctrines and attitudes so offensive that they, “have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust.”

“Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.  (To William Short April 13, 1820)

What is the gospel according to Jesus?  Simply this : that the love we all long for in our innermost heart is already present, beyond longing. …It is more real than the real, more intimate than anything we can see or touch, nearer than breath than heartbeat.  The more deeply we receive it, the more real it becomes.  Like all the great spiritual Masters, Jesus taught one thing only: Presence.  Ultimate reality, the luminous, compassionate intelligence of the universe, is not something else, in some heaven light-years away.  It didn’t manifest itself any more fully to Abraham or Moses than to us, nor will it be any more present to some Messiah at the far end of time.  It is always right here, right now.

Such authors led one to appreciate that  Jesus claimed truth needed no authority but was its own authority or self evident.  Jesus true sayings, can be identified apart from research.  They have a certain spirit about them; a self evident ring of truth; a spirit of total abandonment, exaggerated generosity and an almost fanatical letting go of material things and even life itself.  Jesus also used Aphorisms which are pithy sayings conveying what might be a truth in one situation but in another situation there is an equal and opposite aphorism that might apply.  Then there are Jesus parables or stories which cannot be used for doctrine.

It is a dangerous thing to take an aphorism and turn it into a law as is often done by religious folks.  Scholars have gone to great lengths to isolate the true sayings of Jesus which is a helpful exercise.   However, as Stephen Mitchell points out in his book, there is a far simpler way to know what Jesus said.  Jesus sayings have a self evident ring of truth, a spirit of almost fanatical, generous, abandonment, a discounting of the material world and even life itself.

Ehrhman clearly gives the research documenting false attributions, fabrications, and falsifications and in this makes it clear that no matter what the evidence is, when something is one’s religion, in the majority of cases, the devotees are blinded to all evidence that might be contrary to their religious dogma.  These books of Erhman and Mitchell are well worth reading.  Erhman’s is fascinating in the way it unfolds like a detective novel on ‘Who did It’.  Stephen Mitchell’s thrills the reader with the sayings of the greatest master to ever live and helps one understand something of the Grand New Story of presence, love and ultimate acceptance.