I hope you enjoyed Part 1, where I tried to show that: (i) there are plenty of clues in the New Testament (NT) that forgery was a known phenomenon in early Christian communities; and (ii) that lying for a higher cause can be seen in the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. Old Testament).
In preparation for this post, I surveyed 175 early Christian texts to see what noteworthy things I could discover and show graphically to you. As said at the top, I am the first person to do this, as far as I am aware! In order of interestingness:
(1) There is very little difference between those Christian writings included in the NT canon and those excluded. 30% of canonical texts make an authentic authorship claim, compared with 23% of non-canonical texts. Anonymity remains pretty constant at 22% vs. 18%. Would you be content to trust an anonymous testimony in court? If not, why would you automatically trust an anonymous document from the ancient world?
(2) Some will disagree with my labelling of 19% of canonical texts as being pseudonymous, though this is purely representing scholarly consensus. After all, I am a well-read layman rather than an expert in textual criticism. To label 49% of NT texts as ‘disputed’ would be unhelpful and untrue if the purpose of the exercise is to consider the views of scholars at reputable academic institutions who publish research in relevant fields. Also, please note that I label more non-canonical texts (42%) as pseudepigrapha than canonical texts. I have included a number of books in ‘disputed’ that I personally do not believe the authorship claims of, e.g. 1 Peter.1 I am not interested in writing my blog posts to reach some end goal such as converting anybody, unlike those evangelical scholars and writers who have pre-commitments to inerrancy.2 A classic example is Timothy Keller.3
(3) In genre terms, rather unsurprisingly, the most trustworthy writings are homilies, with 55% of them being authentic in authorship claims. There are no homilies in the NT, except perhaps Hebrews, though the book is set out as an Epistle, which is the next best genre at giving an authentic authorial claim. Gospels, Apocalypses and Acts are exceedingly poor, with only c. 10% giving authentic claims as to who is writing them. This flies in the face of those claiming that the NT contains good history; good historians identify themselves, both in the modern and ancient worlds. All NT Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are anonymous, though so are half of the 18 Acts we have available to us.
(4) By traditional ascription, you should doubt every book claiming to be written by Jesus!4 By ‘traditional ascription’, I include both those books claiming to be by someone and those books which were attributed early on to someone. The 53 “Apostolic” books should be the most suspect since an overwhelming 72% are regarded as inauthentic by the majority of textual experts. Early followers (e.g. Mary, Luke, John of Patmos) are the next most dubious at 62%. The Apostolic Fathers are largely fine, with 63% being either authentic or anonymous.
(5) Given that people were trying to forge Gospels, Epistles and Apocalypses from people living in the 1st century CE, when most of the NT books were written, it is unsurprising that forgery remains relatively constant (39-50%) across time except the 1st century CE. As discussed above, the tools of modern textual critics (and all sorts of other scholars) were unavailable to ancient Christians, so they went on whether or not they thought the theology in the books was acceptable. Other people’s attestations of the time of writing were considered where available, but there were many who would naturally vouch for the early attestation of a document if it agreed with their own theology.
If you’re interested in how one might determine if an ancient book is a forgery or not, please see footnote 1 below for an outline of the arguments against Petrine authorship of the two NT epistles which bear his name. If you’d like to see the Excel spreadsheet sitting behind these graphs, please see below.
As ever, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my post. Please do comment, subscribe via the button below, like the Facebook page, and/or send me a message! I would be delighted to hear your thoughts, questions, heckling and so forth! If you haven’t read Part 1, I’d recommend it, though I am biased!
- I doubt the authenticity of 1 Peter and 2 Peter on multiple grounds. Firstly, the two epistles are written in highly sophisticated Greek, while Peter was almost certainly illiterate in Hebrew, let alone rhetorical Greek, for his entire life: ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realised that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognised them as companions of Jesus.’ (Acts 4:13) The Greek here literally reads “unlettered”. It would have taken perhaps 10 years to learn to write to the standard of 1 and 2 Peter and would have cost an unimaginable amount of money for a fisherman who hadn’t been fishing for 3 years or more. (It would have cost a decent sum just to pay a scribe for a one-off document.) Furthermore, Peter was designated as the Apostle to ‘the circumcised’, i.e. Jews, not to the Gentiles as Paul was. (Galatians 2:8) Jews (mostly) spoke Hebrew and / or Aramaic, not Greek. The two epistles quote exclusively and frequently from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which is an unlikely source for a Jewish writer or a Jewish audience. As for the ‘scribal hypothesis’, that Peter ordered his scribe Silvanus (a.k.a. Silas) to write the letter for him (1 Peter 5:12), there is no evidence of this in the letters themselves. The Greek term here (ἔγραψα) identifies Silvanus as a ‘courier’ or ‘bearer’, not a ‘scribe’ or ‘translator’. (See the NT commentaries used by conservative biblical websites, e.g. Meyer; Ellicott.) Moreover, 1 and 2 Peter spell their name differently, use very different language and grammar and have very different concerns. The author of 1 Peter shows no signs of having even met Jesus; this is much like the author of the Epistle of James, who only mentions Jesus twice, despite the strongly implicit claim to be James, the (physical) brother of Jesus. I may expound these arguments further in a future post, but already this footnote is too long! ↩
- I take pre-commitment to mean fundamentally ruling out a priori the possibility of the Bible containing any errors or falsehoods. This means I am including the reasonable arguments from conservative inerrantist scholars such as Daniel B. Wallace who snub the easy, philosophically flawed and psychologically self-unaware ‘presuppositionalist’ approach. The major logical fallacies of this approach are ‘begging the question’ and ‘shifting the burden of proof’. ↩
- Keller, Timothy (2008). The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. London: Hodder & Stoughton. His aim: ‘I don’t want to argue why God may exist. I want to demonstrate that you already know that God does exist’ (p. 147). His approach: ‘I take the whole Bible to be reliable not because I can somehow “prove” it all to be factual. I accept it because I believe in Jesus and that was his view of the Bible’ (p. 277, n. 4). (N.B. This is a classic apologetic claim that deserves debunking in a future post. I can’t count how many times I have heard this…) See also: pp. xviii, xix, 10-11, 30, 89, 98, 102-105, 115, 118, 122-123, 125, 128, 133, 139, 141-143, 149, 154, 159, 162, 169, 177, 179, 181, 200, 210, 212, 218, 220, 225, 227, 230-231, 242, 245. (Apologies if I have missed any!) ↩
- The four I know about are: Trimorphic Protennoia, Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Two Books of Jeu and the Apocalypse of Thomas. For example, the opening of the Apocalypse of Thomas reads: ‘Here beginneth the epistle of the Lord unto Thomas.’ (This exemplifies a problem in my classification system; documents occasionally fit under two genres, such as the canonical Epistle to the Hebrews.) ↩