There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament. How many of them were written by people we can identify with any degree of certainty?
That’s the answer given by UNC professor Bart Ehrman in his recent book, Forged. (The books, by the way, are Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon – all letters of Paul). And, while there is some discussion about one or two more, the bulk of modern Biblical scholars agree with Ehrman's list.
As for the other twenty books, Ehrman divides them into two large groups: anonymous works mistakenly attributed to Apostles (Matthew, John, and Paul) or people remembered as apostolic companions (Mark and Luke), and writings, some inside the New Testament (like Ephesians, Colossians, Titus, the two letters to Timothy, the two letters of Peter, Jude, and – in Ehrman's view – Acts, James, and II Thessalonians), and others (the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Pilate, III Corinthians, the letter of Barnabas, or the Gospel of Nicodemus, for example) outside the Bible altogether. For these books Ehrman uses the modern word for writings produced by people pretending to be someone else, in this case someone more authoritative: forgeries.
Ehrman cites a number of ancient Greek and Roman sources to show that ancient people shared our concepts of forgery and plagiarism, and that such writings, when detected, were almost universally regarded as lies, and therefore illegitimate. Nor are such forgeries confined to whole books of the New Testament: the ending of the Gospel of Mark (16:9-20) was added later, as were John 7:53-8:11 (the woman taken in adultery), and I Corinthians 14:34-35 (“Let the women in the churches keep silent”). As Ehrman remarks, “Whoever added the final twelve verses of Mark did not do so by a mere slip of the pen.”
The philosophical and moral dilemma posed by the probability that so many of the New Testament writings are what we now call forgeries is obvious. Ehrman, in fact, ends the book with a (relatively short) discussion of whether lying is ever justified, and he is clearly unsettled by the knowledge that the majority of the books of the New Testament are not what they are purported to be.
As I see it, however, we Quakers may well have an easier time living with the results of modern critical study of the Bible than do many other faith communities. We regard the Biblical writings not as the “last word,” but as the first – the first layer of experience in our spiritual tradition, if you will. We know that such “nuggets of truth” as we are able to mine out of our own lives, and share in spoken ministry during meeting for worship, come from imperfect individuals. This being the case, I, for one, think we can live with the revelation that the Bible is very much a human book, as well as a divine one. Who knows? For some of us, the new perspective may even make it easier to appreciate the Good Book for the masterpiece – or, rather, the collection of masterpieces – it really is.