Forgeries in the New Testament


There are books in the Bible that are not written by who we may think they are. Some of the books are written by people who were not actually the people who they claim to have been. These books are called forgeries. Pseudepigrapha being the academic term for this practice. Are there any forgeries in the bible? Yes, there are as a matter of fact. We’ll be looking at a couple of them in the New Testament and I’ll try to explain why it is that they’re called forgeries.

1 & 2 Peter

1 & 2 Peter are almost most certainly not written by the apostle Peter. Why? Because Peter was an illiterate, the New Testament even tells us so.

“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” – Acts 4:13

Unschooled meaning they couldn’t read or write and if they could read, this didn’t automatically mean they could write. Both were separate skills back in the ancient world.
Unlike what some people like to think, illiteracy was widespread in ancient history. Two authoritative studies on the subject, Catherine Hezser – Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine & William V. Harris – Ancient Literacy, prove this point. People who could read and write were usually in the upper crust of society and since Jesus his earliest followers were all Aramaic speaking lower class peasants from rural Galilee, they most probably couldn’t read or write, let alone compose a book in Greek.

So couldn’t Peter have had a secretary or someone who could write these letters for him? It seems plausible, but the answer is no. Here’s what Bart Ehrman says about it:

“Peter could not have dictated this letter in Greek to a secretary anymore than he could have written it in Greek. That would have required him to be perfectly fluent in Greek, and to have had an intimate familiarity with the Jewish Scriptures in Greek. None of that is plausible. Nor can one easily think that he dictated the letter in Aramaic and that the secretary translated it into Greek. The letter does not read like a Greek translation, but as a original Greek composition with Greek rhetorical flourishes. Moreover, the letter presupposes the knowledge of the Greek Old Testament, so the person who composed the letter must have known the Scriptures in Greek”. Bart Ehrman – Forged (page 76)

Also, writing books in the name of Peter was somewhat of a cottage industry back then. There is also the Gospel of Peter and the Apocalyps of Peter, both claim the have been written by the apostle Peter and both are forgeries. So why would someone write a book claiming to be someone who he isn’t? There are various reasons for it and will examen them a little later.

Letters by Paul

There are thirteen letters that claim to be written by Paul in the New Testament but as scholars have long noted, not all of them were actually written by Paul. The following letters are seen as authentic:

– Romans
– 1 & 2 Corinthians
– Galatians
– Philippians
– 1 Thessalonians
– Philemon

The following letters are not written by the apostle Paul:

– 1 & 2 Timothy
– Titus

About the following three there is still some debate, but the overall consensus is that they’re also most probably not written by Paul:

– 2 Thessalonians
– Ephesians
– Collosians

So why do scholars think these letters were not written by Paul? The writing style differs to much and there are theological discrepanties. That the author of, for example, the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) wasn’t Paul is clear on the basis of the letters vocabulary and writing style. According to Ehrman:

“There are 848 differencnt Greek words used in these letters, of which 306 do not occur anywhere else in the letters allegedly written by Paul in the New Testament. This means that over a third of the words are not Pauline. Something like two throws of these non-Pauline words are words used by Christian writers of the second century. That is to say, the vocabulary of these letters appears to be more developed in later times”Jesus Interrupted (p. 130)

It’s not just the statistics, but also the use of words that create suspicion. Paul uses the term “faith” in books such as Romans and Galatians to refer to the trust a person has in Christ to bring about salvation through his death. “Faith” is trust in Christ. The author of the Pastorals also uses the term “faith” But here it is not about a relationship with Christ. Faith now means the body of teaching that makes up Christians religion. See Titus 1:13 for example.

There are also theological differences. For example: in the authentic letters Paul thought that it was not the Jewish law that could bring salvation, but the death and resurrection of Jesus. When Paul refers to “the works” he refers to doing the things that the Jewish law required. In the Pastorals , however, the Jewish law is nog longer even an issue, and the author speaks of works as “good works”, that is, doing good deed for other people. The term occurs this way six times in 1 Timothy alone. The author is concerned to show that by being a morally good person you cannot earn your salvation. This is a completely different idea from Paul’s. Paul was concerned about whether you ket the Jewish law as a means to salvation (one should not), not if you did good deeds for it.

The Book of Acts

The same goes pretty much for the book of Acts. Although not written by Paul, it was probably not written by one of Paul’s travelling companions. Ehrman says:

“Paul’s theology and preaching differ between Acts and the letters. Other differences are in Paul’s attitude towards pagans, his relationship to the Jewish law, his missionary strategy, and this itinerary. At just about every point where is is possible to check what Acts says about Paul with what Paul says about himself in his authentic letters, there are discrepancies. The conclusion is hard to escape that Acts was probably not written by one of Paul’s travelling companions”Forged (p. 208)

The Gospels

The Gospels are not so much forgeries, they’re actually misattributed. Our Gospels in the New Testament are called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John even though they most probably were written anonymously. Why do scholars think that? First of all, the authors never identify themselves in the Gospels. Nowhere does Matthew identify himself in his Gospel, nowhere does Mark identify himself in his Gospel. Writing narratives anonymously wasn’t that strange in the ancient world. Here’s why:

“Another option is that the writers didn’t name themselves because they thought their narratives assumed greater authority if told anonymously. If the Gospel stories were claimed by a particular author , then in some sense they seem to lose their universal appeal and applicability; they are seen as one person’s version of the story, rather than the version the story.Bart Ehrman – Forged (page 223)

Also, the Gospels get quoted early on by some church fathers, but they never get quoted by name. It’s not until Irenaeus, writing somewhere around 180/185 CE, that we have our first reference. That’s roughly 100 years after they were written. So the Gospels never get quoted by name before Irenaeus because they were anonymous, and there probably was no need to name them because people probably used only one Gospel. With the passing of time, more Gospels came into circulation and people had to give them names in order to differentiate between them.

But the biggest reason why the Gospels were most probably not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is because of a reason we have seen before; Jesus his earliest followers were unschooled and illiterate Aramaic speaking peasants from rural Galilee, it’s highly improbable that either one of them could compose a book in highly literate Greek.

Why Forge a Book?

I want to conclude this article with a list of reasons why people would want to forge a book in someone else’s name:

1. To make a profit.
2. To oppose an enemy.
3. To oppose a particular point of view.
4. To defend one’s own tradition as divinely inspired.
5. Out of humility.
6. Out of love for an authority figure.
7. To see if you could get away with it.
8. To supplement the tradition.
9. To counter other forgeries.
10. To provide authority for one’s own views.


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