Today, as the next post in the Invictus Pilgrim Book Club series, I continue a discussion of Professor Bart Ehrman’s book, Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, moving on to Chapter 1, which contains an overview of the various types of “forgeries” involved with early Christian writings.
In this chapter, Ehrman lays the groundwork for subsequent chapters that deal with specific authors and books in the New Testament, as the canon eventually emerged from the murky waters of early Christianity. This foundation is laid by discussing what types of “forgeries” existed and what the motivation for such forgeries might be in the Christian context.
For us, I think, all of this leads to the ultimate question: Is the Bible as we know it what we thought it to be? And further, if it is not, what does that mean to Latter-day Saints?
It is generally known among Latter-day Saints that various writings from the early Christian era exist which are not part of the canonical New Testament. What is generally less well-known, however, is that many scholars believe that there exist within such canon books of “scripture” that are forgeries, i.e., that were not written by “apostles” or otherwise by those to whom they are ascribed.
Ehrman points this out in Chapter One:
“A number of the books of the New Testament were disputed already in early Christianity, among the Christian scholars of the second to the fourth centuries, who were arguing over which books should be included in Scripture.
“The most famous instance is the book of Revelation. A third-century Christian scholar of Alexandria, Egypt, named Dionysius, argued that the book was not actually written by Jesus’s disciple John, the son of Zebedee. Dionysius’s argument was compelling and continues to be compelling to scholars today. He maintained that the writing style of the book is so different from that of the Gospel of John that they could not have been written by the same person (modern scholars differ from Dionysius only in thinking that the Gospel too was probably not written by John).”
“Forgery,” writes Ehrman, “was widely practiced in the ancient world, among pagans, Jews and Christians. Forgers, motivated by a range of factors, intended to deceive their readers. Ancient authors who discuss the practice condemned it and considered it a form of lying and deceit.”
One might wonder what the motivation would be for a Christian to forge gospels, epistles or other “scriptural” accounts? Ehrman explains that early Christianity was in many ways similar to modern Christianity in that there were many different factions, or groups, of Christians, each claiming that they had the truth. In order to bolster their own case or discount that of others, people wrote forged documents, claiming that they were written by someone authoritative: “If you were an unknown person, writes Ehrman, “but had something really important to say and wanted people to hear you – not so they could praise you, but so they could learn the truth – one way to make that happen was to pretend you were someone else, a well-known author, a famous figure, an authority.”
“But wait,” you say. “Didn’t Christianity teach that lying was a sin?” Well, therein lies the rub: it depends.
Augustine’s view, writes Ehrman, was that it is “never, ever, under any circumstances permissible to lie … But lots of other Christian thinkers, both before and after Augustine, thought otherwise. Some, such as the important Christian thinker Clement of Alexandria at the end of the second century, as well as his Alexandrian compatriot at the beginning of the third, Origen – arguably the most important theologian of the church before Augustine – agreed with Plata about the ‘medicinal lie’: if a doctor’s lie will impel a patient to take her medicine, it is ethically justified.”
“Forgers,” concludes Ehrman, “had a truth to convey, and they were happy to lie in order to proclaim it.”
Ehrman quite rightly points out there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament of God using deception in order to accomplish His goals. Furthermore, we in the LDS Church are familiar with stories of using deception in order to “bring to pass much righteousness.” The most obvious example in the Book of Mormon is the story of Nephi and his brothers returning to Jerusalem to obtain the brass plates.
Then, of course, the history of the Church, beginning with Joseph Smith, is replete with examples of the use of deception in order to achieve a “higher good.” One is left to inquire whether, in our own day, there are those who “[have] a truth to convey, and they [are] happy to lie in order to proclaim it.”
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