Laura's Reviews > Forged: Writing in the Name of God

Forged by Bart D. Ehrman
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Jun 26, 11

bookshelves: fanfiction, history, religious-studies, myth
Recommended to Laura by: NPR
Read in June, 2011

When I was young and still trying to be a Christian, something I read mentioned off handedly that at first, the book of Job ended with him abasing himself before God. No restoration, no great grandchildren, no death at 140 full of days. It was the first time it had hit me that this book I’d read and been taught was central to faith, while perhaps inspired in the writing, was edited by human hands. It preyed on me. On the one hand, it made it seem like a wiser text. Bad things do happen to good people; good things happen to bad people; Job without the last few verses suggests, if not a particularly satisfactory explanation, at least a realistic one. On the other hand, it was a serious shock. I’m supposed to make moral and spiritual choices based on a book that was written by just folks?

Bart Erhman doesn’t talk about that, and I don’t know if it’s true. He’s a New Testament scholar and former evangelical Christian who (like me) left the faith over the problem of evil. He’s got a chair in the religious studies department at UNC Chapel Hill, which is awesome. We heard an NPR Fresh Air interview with him about his book, Misquoting Jesus, as we were leaving Salt Lake some years ago and I was riveted. If I’m remembering him correctly, he said that there were as many differences in the historical fragments of texts as there are words in the New Testament. People sat down and picked a canon. While I have no reason to doubt their earnestness, it was hundreds of years after the events and generations of copies later. Whole passages – “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” the whole of Mark after the women flee the tomb (meaning all the stuff about speaking in tongues, handling serpents, and drinking poison) just showed up at some point, years after the first drafts had nothing like that.

This is the third book of his I’ve read, and in many ways, it’s the least satisfying. The other two, Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted, are charming and engaging, told with great affection for the material but with a clear view towards its historical and textual frailties. I suspect, thought I don’t know, that this book is more of a response to his critics than an attempt to communicate his work to a lay audience. He is taking on the idea that we should not be troubled that many (most?) of the books in the New Testament were, in whole or in part, not written by those we credit. Conventional wisdom is that we should not be troubled because it’s just “pseudepigrapha,” and because those selecting and translating the texts were divinely inspired.

Pseudepigrapha is just fancy way of saying forged. As for the divine inspiration . . . well, that is probably why this book was less satisfying. The church I left was mainline protestant. It didn’t seem too hung up on whether or not there was a divine copyeditor approving every word. I can see intellectually how the frequent fundamentalist insistence that the Bible, even in translation, is the word of god has to get irritating for a guy who’s done the work and shown fairly persuasively that no, there’s all sorts of human decisions and demonstrable inaccuracies in this text, even as to authorship.

He takes on and goes a fair way towards persuading me that the old chestnut that the ancient world had a relaxed attitude about forgery and aggressive editing is just a convenient circumlocution. I’m not enough of a historian to feel settled on the matter, but if he’s right on the textual justification for the idea, it’s eye rollingly slim. (Reminded me of something a law prof said once – “If the judge is citing Am. Jur., you know she’s making it up.”)

I am glad I read it. I know now about Thecla baptizing herself in a barrel of man eating seals, which is awesome, and that Paul probably never did tell women to be silent in church in 1 Corinthians, which given that passage was a large part of why I left Christianity, is bemusing. But I liked Misquoting Jesus better.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Trevor You might like God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer - it is a while since I read it now, but I remember being very impressed with it. He talks a lot about Ecclesiastes in it and I still intend, one of these days, to get around to reading through that. All the same, from this review, God's Problem seems to have been almost written for you, I think.

message 2: by Manny (new)

Manny Bad things do happen to good people; good things happen to bad people; Job without the last few verses suggests, if not a particularly satisfactory explanation, at least a realistic one.

If you haven't already seen it, you might want to check out Terrence Mallick's new movie The Tree of Life, which is a sort of imaginative non-literal retelling of Job. I thought it was excellent.

Laura Trevor, thanks! I've eyed that book a few times. the "why do good people suffer" conundrum no longer particularly bothers me now that I've stopped trying to put a omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent god in the center. I'm more or less at peace with the fact that justice exists, or not, only by what we do, not as an expression of something about the universe itself. Manny, you liked it? It got panned by one of my favorite cultural critics, Charles Muduede. . . .

message 4: by Manny (new)

Manny Manny, you liked it? It got panned by one of my favorite cultural critics, Charles Muduede.

Well, I can see that opinions are very divided. I went with two friends - one fell asleep, and the other one thought it had nothing to do with religion. You'll just have to make up your own mind :)

Laura Heh. I tend to like movies with laser battles and wirework. I like spectacle.

message 6: by Manny (new)

Manny Hm... no laser battles, no wirework, but some dinosaurs and a fair amount of CGI. So not completely out of the question, perhaps...

message 7: by Robert (new)

Robert I'd go to see a film where the CGI dinosaurs did wire-fu!

Laura Robert, right there with you!

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