Interview: Bart Ehrman on Forged & Apocryphal Gospels

TODAY, you’ll meet Bart Ehrman, one of the most prominent and controversial Bible scholars in the world today. How can we support such a claim? No, Ehrman hasn’t written as many books as Marcus Borg or John Dominic Crossan, two other “prominent and controversial Bible scholars.” But, Ehrman is only 55 and he’s catching up on his elder colleagues. Ehrman already has hit the trifecta of smart media: He has appeared on NPR, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Plus, Bart Ehrman’s Wikipedia page is roughly the same scope now as Marcus Borg’s and John Dominic Crossan’s. He’s a force in the national conversation about the future of faith—and his books are great for small-group discussion.

(MARCH 2012 UPDATE: Ehrman’s book, Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, is available in paperback from Amazon.)

What is Ehrman’s main theme this year? Turn to Part 1 in this story about Ehrman’s new book “Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are,” and read a brief excerpt from his book.
Plus, Ehrman also has produced a major, scholarly work for Oxford University Press
, “The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations,” which you can order with Amazon’s regular discount.
Now, let’s ask Ehrman to speak for himself …


DAVID: How do you describe your own religious orientation? Your story is well known now: You began as an eager young evangelical with an almost fundamentalist view of the Bible. But as you studied and moved outward through the larger world of serious Bible research, you began to question the assumptions of your youth. You moved from your conservative Christian faith—to what?

BART: I call myself an agnostic. I don’t believe in the God of the Bible. I don’t believe in a God who intervenes in history and answers prayer and is active in the world. But, when it comes to the bigger question: Is there a superior force in the universe? I say: I don’t know and neither does anyone else. I don’t like the term atheist because I’m unable to say whether there is some kind of divine being in the universe. I simply don’t think the traditional Judeo-Christian image of God exists. The reason I take that position is that I think people should have some degree of humility in the face of the universe. For me, humility involves admitting what I don’t know.

DAVID: You live in Durham, North Carolina, and teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. What do you teach?

BART: I teach New Testament and the history of early Christianity both at the undergraduate and the PhD level. Our faculty load here is two courses per semester. Then, I work on research and writing as well.

DAVID: Most readers are going to focus on “Forged”—and that’s the book we recommend for small-group discussion. It’s written for general readers and is sure to spark discussion. But, I’ll bet a good number of lay people also will want your Oxford University Press book as well. It contains a huge collection of other gospels—and fragments of gospels—books that were floating around in the ancient Christian world.

BART: That’s right. We have no way of knowing how many gospels there were back then in the early church. We still find gospels turning up that we didn’t know existed. This new Oxford book’s most important feature is that it has the Greek or the Latin on the left page and our translations on the right-hand page. I worked with Zlatko Plese, who is a brilliant scholar originally from Croatia. He came to Yale in the 1980s and his language abilities are just phenomenal. He’s got several areas of expertise in this field of scholarship. So, he was a brilliant choice to work with on this book for Oxford Press.


DAVID: If people do order the Oxford book, they’ll see the larger context you’re describing in “Forged.” Back in the ancient church, there were all kinds of voices—and entire competing gospels—vying for Christians’ attention. The main truths of Christianity weren’t set in stone in the way that many preachers would have us believe today.

BART: A major emphasis in my scholarship over the last 20 or 30 years has been stressing this diversity of early Christianity. This new collection of gospels now makes it obvious to people today just how diverse Christianity was. All the books in this new Oxford book didn’t make it into the New Testament, but they were circulating back then. People had a lot of gospels from which to choose.

DAVID: A lot of these books that didn’t make the cut for the Bible were forgeries—gospels with titles and authors’ names that simply weren’t true. But then, you also argue that some ancient forgeries did, indeed, make it into the New Testament. When you say that, you’re touching a raw nerve for a lot of Christians. Why do you use such a harsh term: forged?

BART: That word is important. People need to read my whole book, “Forged,” to understand why this word is so essential. I am acting here as a historian, accurately reporting to readers today how this idea of falsely putting someone’s name on a book was regarded in the ancient world. Ancient people looked on this kind of false claim as lying, as deceit, as something wrong.

DAVID: That’s not what was taught in grad schools for many years, right?

BART: Right. For years, students were taught in graduate schools and seminaries that this practice was socially acceptable. But that’s wrong. It wasn’t acceptable. I’ve spent years researching how these issues were regarded in the ancient world. This practice was not widely accepted. In fact, it was maligned and condemned by ancient authors. They even used words to describe this like “nothos,” a Greek term that means “bastard,” and “pseudos,” which is lying. They were using such strong terms to condemn this that the terms amount to calling these forgeries: “lying bastards.” This wasn’t a widely accepted practice, like we’ve been told for so many years.


DAVID: Modern readers certainly are aware of forgeries and falsehoods in books today. We’re doing this interview as the whole spiritual aura around the beloved book, “Three Cups of Tea,” is falling apart.

BART: In my book, I do describe the whole range of motives for producing forgeries. Today profit is the most prominent motive. But that really wasn’t the motive I’m describing in the early Christian world. These forged books were promoted mainly because people wanted their voices to be heard in shaping Christianity—so they would put a famous name on their work. They weren’t doing this to take money to the bank. They wanted to influence Christianity.

DAVID: One of the points you make is that Jesus’ own inner circle couldn’t have produced much of a written record, because they were all but illiterate.

BART: Jesus’ inner circle was probably completely illiterate. Historians’ best estimates of literacy in Roman Palestine put the rate at about 3 percent—so it was very rare to be able to read and write. Jesus’ inner circle wasn’t drawn from that level of society. The people who could read in Roman Palestine were wealthy, they lived in cities, they could afford to go to school, they could afford to have a scroll. Jesus’ closest followers were lower-class peasants and there is no credible evidence that any of his closest followers could read or write. That’s one thing that made Jesus himself so exceptional. It’s usually conceded by historians that Jesus could read. That’s one reason people were amazed by him: How did he learn to read so well?


CECIL B. DEMILLE depicts God, as a blazing fire, forming a fingertip of flame to write the 10 Commandments for Moses.DAVID: In reading your book, I’m surprised that these conclusions still are so shocking to people, today. As a journalist, I’ve reported on Bible controversy for decades. The same week that we publish this interview with you, we’re publishing a pretty fascinating story about Cecil B. DeMille’s attempts in the 1950s to put the Exodus story onto the big screen. His movie was a huge hit, but lots of people argued about DeMille’s claims concerning the Bible!

In fact, Bible controversies go back many centuries—and controversy over the authorship of biblical books goes back more than 100 years. One of the first major Catholic disputes over heresy in the U.S. targeted a scholar teaching at Catholic University of America about 100 years ago. Father Henry Poels was a theology professor at Catholic University who had the courage to teach that Moses didn’t personally write the first five books of the Bible. Poels wound up with the wrath of Pope Pius X coming down on his head. The Vatican wanted to force Poels to sign a document recanting his claim and vowing that he believed Moses wrote those first five books. After all these years, why are we still fighting over what amounts to fairly solid historical research?

BART: One reason is that scholars who study this for a living are among the world’s worst communicators. We might expect them to believe that they should communicate what they have found with the average person interested in the Bible, but in fact most scholars actually look down on the idea of communicating with general readers. So, the scholarship doesn’t reach most people.

Clergy should communicate this. They learn these things in graduate school and seminary, but mostly they don’t communicate this to people in the pews.

DAVID: Beyond that, you’re arguing that there’s actually new research on how bad it was in the ancient world to fake the authorship of a sacred work.

BART: Yes, what is new in this book, “Forged,” is that this wasn’t a practice that everyone accepted and that was somehow encouraged or overlooked. That’s how this was taught in graduate schools for many years. I’m pointing out that writing in someone else’s name really was considered lying, deceitful and a forgery. I’m far from standing alone in saying, for example, that Paul didn’t write a lot of the epistles that claim they’re from Paul. Many other Bible scholars have made this point over the years. But I am arguing that this practice really was forgery and was condemned, if people realized it was happening.

DAVID: There is a major national conversation unfolding, involving other authors published by the same publishing house that produced your new, “Forged.” Writers like Rob Bell, Lisa Miller and others are raising fresh questions about how people today should understand the faith we have inherited. I see your work as part of that national conversation. Is that fair to say?

BART: Yes, I do think this is a remarkable time. There are larger culture wars going on. Lots of viewpoints are being shared. My role in all of this is to bring biblical scholarship to public awareness. I am not trying to attack Christianity. That’s not how I see my work. My view is that history truly matters and I think that it should matter in Christianity, because so much of Christianity is focused on truth. Jesus is the truth. We should speak the truth to one another. We should embrace the truth. That’s what the Christian message says. And, I agree that truth matters. That doesn’t mean truth is an attack Christianity. Knowledge actually can help to strengthen faith.


You can order “Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are,” from Amazon with Amazon’s regular discount on the book.

And, you can order “The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations” also from Amazon.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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