Tuesday, February 15, 2011

By Any Other Name?

It is almost amusing to watch the kerfuffle over Bart Ehrman’s forthcoming book, Forged. From what I can determine from news coverage and the blurb on various websites, Dr. Ehrman is claiming that ancient writers sometimes used the names of persons of authority and wrote things that were not strictly true in order to win points for their theological side of the debates that characterized the first few centuries of the Christian era.

Ehrman’s sin it seems is in calling a spade a spade.

Jim West (who seems continuously on the prowl for his next outrage fix) sets the tone for the reaction on the conservative blogosphere. First the irony; in the very same sentence Doctor Pastor West states that Ehrman “cannot POSSIBLY know what intention was operative in the minds of the writers of those texts” while calling him a “publicity seeking deceiver”. Apparently Dr. West CAN POSSIBLY know what intention was operative in the mind of Dr. Ehrman! Tee Hee!

More to the point, is this criticism valid? Would any of Ehrman’s critics cringe if The Book of Mormon were referred to as a forgery? I doubt it. It would be universally acknowledged that throughout history religious writings were passed off as authentic works of figures from the Bible. A pile of works was rejected from the canon because each was suspected of being “inauthentic” – read “a forgery”. We all know it was going on. So if we can detect in a work some anachronistic element that conveniently counters a later “heretical” claim and have good reason to doubt the attributed authorship of the work then what other conclusion are we supposed to come to other than that it is a forgery perpetrated to further the views of the forger. It may soothe West’s feelings to call it mimicry but the fact is that even Paul was concerned about forgeries. To wit, he writes in 2 Thess 3:17 “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write.” Why would Paul feel the need to authenticate his letters if so-called mimesis was harmless and nothing like that as nasty forgery?

Personally, I applaud Bart Ehrman’s attempts to bring these kinds of issues to the attention of a public who has is still being told that Moses wrote Deuteronomy and Matthew is an eyewitness account. Does he over do it sometimes? Yeah, perhaps. But compared to the twaddle that passes religious instruction these days, I am willing to take a risk.

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