When in Doubt: The New Testament’s Veracity

I have never wrestled with spiritual doubt as strongly as I did this March. Intellectual questioning is healthy. Anxiety is not. Eventually, the fear of finding truth (or what I’d always considered truth) to be a lie paralyzed my intellectual questioning. It started out with a new understanding regarding the compilation of the Hebrew Bible. As my doubts concerning the Old Testament’s textual reliability grew, my eye turned more and more critically to its sequel, the New Testament. Initially, I took the logical track: research.

The university’s database offered many articles regarding the New Testament’s veracity. But my inquiry developed wanderlust. I barely ventured down one track in an article on, say, the number and dates of original manuscripts before a challenge to canonicity or the concept of sola scriptura tugged another way. To curb this inefficiency, I decided to focus on who wrote the New Testament and how it was compiled.

Some scholars claim that the New Testament wasn’t written by the men to whom authorship is credited in the text. Like attempting to respond to a letter with no return address, verifying the historicity of the New Testament without reasonable evidence as to the authors’ identities would undermine the results. Successful identification of the authors won’t answer the overall question is the Bible true? but it would lend the New Testament more trustworthiness.

In the midst of my search, I checked out two books: Forged by Bart Ehrman and The Making of the New Testament Documents by E.E. Ellis, both of which addressed many of my questions but from opposite viewpoints. I read Forged first.

As mentioned, with certain books of the New Testament (or, technically, letters of the New Testament, since that was their original form), scholars disagree that the attributed author is in fact the writer of the text. Were the letters “forged,” as Ehrman asserts? How can we tell? Ehrman provides examples.

Anachronistic colloquialisms are indicators of forgery. Ehrman purports that New Testament texts use colloquialisms that weren’t developed until after the supposed author’s death. In 1 Peter, the author says, “she who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son,” (1 Peter 5:13; ESV). “Babylon” was a powerful kingdom that enslaved the Israelites in ancient times and, after 70 A.D. when the Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem, Christians used the term as a metaphor for Rome. However, if the attributed author Peter indeed died during Nero’s reign as Church tradition reports, he would never have heard the word used this way. So why include it in this passage…unless the author was actually an individual living after 70 A.D. during a time when this was common to Christian terminology?[1]

Furthermore, how could Peter have written the two epistles attributed to him if he was illiterate? Approximately three percent of people in Palestine at that time could read, according to studies by Catherine Hezser.[2] Jonathan Reed, an archaeologist who studied Peter’s hometown of Capernaum, says the area was “‘predominantly illiterate’” with no indications of a school. In fact, there were very few writings in general and none in Greek, the language in which 1 and 2 Peter were written.[3] Did Peter teach himself Greek? Ehrman, on page 75, claims Peter wouldn’t have had time to become literate and learn Greek once he entered ministry (although, how can we know what Peter made time for?). Did he write through a secretary? That wasn’t a common practice.[4] What about Silas/Silvanus who is mentioned in 1 Peter 5:12, “By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you…”?[5] Could he be Peter’s secretary? Due to the preposition used, Ehrman retorts that Silas was probably the carrier of the letter not the one who penned it.[6] Could Peter have dictated it? But the Greek has all the appearance of being by one able to speak and write Greek fluently. Peter would not have been able to dictate in Greek and the writing is too perfect to be a translated dictation.[7]

I shut the book and did not pick it back up for a couple of weeks. Ehrman had me convinced. How could I argue with archaeology’s physical evidence? The notion took root: the Bible is false. Logic submitted to emotions and fear. If the text lied about its authors, what else did it fabricate? “Jesus is Lord,” “God is Love,” the Bible tells me so–but what if the Bible is wrong? My perspective on life, death, and eternity was called into question.

Unlike any former struggles with doubt, this was weighted with guilt. How could I be a prayer leader—set a faithful example, guide others in conversation with God—while being unsure of whether our prayers were to an actual Being, as opposed to empty space? In addition to the existential implications, my family, my friend group, even my daily routine are all affected by this assumption that the Bible is believable and worthy of obedience. In the past, doubts could always be resolved by the question: what does the Bible say about this? But suddenly the source of Truth itself was flawed…suddenly I had nowhere to go for answers. Over the course of a few months, a particular feeling suffocated me whenever I saw my Bible: betrayal.

My roommate brought me out of this emotionally-hyped crisis mode when responding to my vague request for “prayers regarding doubts.” She agreed to pray and then said, “I just want to encourage you that, whatever it is, you’re likely not the first Christian to have had this question.”

I’d been thinking, rather arrogantly I suppose, that my 21 years of living with a Christian heritage should have exposed me to all of the arguments on the Christian side of this debate. If, with my “extensive” background, I couldn’t come up with answers for this, the Bible must be wrong. Eventually, I grew weary of this prideful cowardice. I needed to finish the search. And if I was still convinced by Ehrman’s arguments then I’d have to abandon my faith and face that reality. So back to step one: research.

I chose to focus closely on just one of Ehrman’s epistle criticisms—his examination of Ephesians—in order to more deeply examine his argument. Both Ehrman and Ellis comment in depth on Ephesians. Their arguments for it are also echoed in their defense/refutation of other disputed Pauline letters (namely, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians). Ehrman provides five reasons why Ephesians was written by someone other than Paul.

He draws four contrasts between the concepts found in Ephesians and in Paul’s letters. First, he points out that Paul typically claims to have been a righteous person before meeting Christ. The Ephesians writer, however, admits to having been “‘carried away by the passions of the flesh.”[8] Ehrman sees this as a mistaken fabrication of Paul’s story. However, I think Ehrman incorrectly interprets the concept of “righteousness” here. The act of becoming a Christian always logically required admitting one’s unrighteous condition—something Paul would have had to support in order to be a Christian minister. I believe that the verses Ehrman cites are Paul recounting how he had considered himself to be sinless and a rule-follower before meeting Christ. He’s being ironic, trying to emphasize his own arrogance pre-conversion. This does not demonstrate a self-contradiction implying false authorship.

Ehrman states that in Ephesians salvation is achieved “apart from doing ‘good deeds’” but Paul’s message was always that salvation is “apart from the ‘works of the Law.’’”[9] Ehrman sees this as a departure from Paul’s language and message, proof of forgery. However, since the Law (found in the Torah and the Old Testament) communicates how to live a good life, I counter that these phrases relay the same concept. The main difference is that by using the word “Law” Paul refers to a Jewish perspective; in replacing it, he appeals to a Gentile perspective. Either way the message is maintained (and actually synchronizes well with the purpose of Paul’s irony mentioned above): we can never follow God’s rules closely enough or do enough good things to earn salvation.

In Paul’s letters he uses the future tense of the verb “to save”. Significantly, this represents a key message which, Ehrman claims, Paul repeats adamantly: salvation occurs when we are in heaven; it is something we are yet to receive (e.g. Romans 10:9).10 However, Ehrman notes that the word used for “saved” in Ephesians is past tense (“have been saved”), in direct contradiction to Paul’s typical belief (e.g. Ephesians 2:8). So when is full salvation irrevocably applied to the soul—before or after we are in heaven? I find fault with his argument because some of Ephesians—when read in a strictly literal sense—in fact echoes Ehrman’s terminology. Ephesians 1:13-14, for instance, states: “In [Christ] also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.’”[11] The past tense “have been saved” may refer to the Holy Spirit’s present guarantee for future fulfillment of our salvation. Clearly, parts of Ephesians do support future-centric reception of salvation. I believe Ehrman would interpret this chapter one passage in the same manner as he has Paul’s undisputed epistles. Thus, his argument actually points to the fact that the letters may be in sync on this subject.

The last point is rather convoluted but I will do my best. Ehrman says that in his epistles Paul explains baptism as representing the Christian physically dying like Christ did and resurrecting with a new body in the end times. The Ephesians writer, Ehrman asserts, makes a distinction that the resurrection is something Christians have already experienced. Again, however, I think Ehrman needs to reread the full context of his evidence. He uses Romans 6:1-4 to say that Paul thinks baptism represents physical death and resurrection. However, this passage is answering the question posed in the first verse: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”[12] Paul answers himself:

“By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?…We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing…So also must you consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”13 Romans 6:2, 6a, 11

This implies, I believe, that Paul refers to the baptism as representing spiritual death and resurrection, not physical. So in Romans, Paul is saying that Christians were once spiritually dead in their sins. Now that they believe in Jesus’s sacrifice on their behalf, however, they are currently experiencing the spiritual “newness of life” (Romans 6:4) or appreciation of reality that comes with the hope of salvation. Now, as Ehrman pointed out, Ephesians does state in past tense that God “made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with [Christ] and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:5-6)14. Yes, when read on its own, this implies that Christians received salvation in the past and in the present they are physically located in heaven, seated with Jesus. However, the writer later states that God is currently in heaven, apart from us (Ephesians 6:9).15 Thus, the writer agrees with Paul that heaven is a place we currently are not located but eventually will be. To bring the argument full circle, when applied to the original verse in Ephesians 2:6, then, the writer could also be in agreement that salvation is something we currently do not have but eventually will receive. Why the author chose to put it in past tense and whether this is an accurate interpretation of salvation’s timing, I have no idea. The point is that the epistle, on the whole, speaks in concert with Romans, a text Ehrman believes Paul wrote. It even uses some of the same phrasing, such as the old self versus the new self and being dead in our sin.

Overall, the more I began to analyze Ehrman’s words in the context of the epistle on which he was commenting, the more critical I became of his method of interpretation. Granted, he likely read this in the original Greek. I merely extrapolated from the English translation—one of hundreds of English translations, actually. However, I felt justified in doubting his position based on the repetitive nature of his mistake. He is trying to show that the message and wording of Ephesians contradicts the message and wording of letters we know Paul wrote (e.g. Romans). I don’t think Ehrman achieves that goal.

Ehrman presented a fifth point regarding the language in Ephesians that I, not being a scholar of Ancient Greek, simply could not address. So I turned to my second source, The Making of the New Testament Documents by E.E. Ellis.

Ellis accounts for Paul’s stylistic change in Ephesians by noting a reliance on preformed traditions–that is, concepts, hymns and creeds that were circulating in the early church (not necessarily of Pauline or apostolic origin). Church tradition was never emphasized in my non-denominational, sola scriptura, Protestant background. Lately, though, I have been learning from my Catholic friends the value it holds in general and, certainly, in this debate over authorship. The writers may have incorporated preformed traditions, organizational principles, and early church “Christianese,” if you will, into their text. These references were familiar, thus needing no citations, and recognized by the contemporary readers as not stemming from the writer himself.16 Ellis believes that 54 percent of Ephesians repeats, affirms or reshapes preformed traditions.[17] This would reconcile the switch to a more poetic form. Specifically, Ellis cites Ephesians 2:13-18 as a preformed midrashim (defined below), 3:20 as a doxology, 4:4a,5 as a “hymnic confession,” more hymns at 1:3-14, 2:4-10 and 4:21-24, and household rules found in 5:21-6:9.18 Though these preformed traditions are found throughout Paul’s and other apostles’ letters, Ellis never answers why Paul would rely so heavily on preformed traditions in the contested letters–to such an extent that it instigates questions regarding authorship. Since many of these preformed traditions seem to have been orally transmitted within the church and may have varied based on region, pinpointing the original source is impossible.

Ellis’s analysis of Ephesians 4:21-24 stuck in my mind. The chapter models clear midrashim format, even better than 2:13-18.19 A midrash was originally a rabbinic interpretation of a Jewish text, usually the Torah,20 but the apostles imitated the format in their own letters to interpret passages in relation to Christ. The first seven verses present the theme: gifts and unity. This is worded poetically in what may be a preformed creed: “There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all,” (4:4-6).21 It then quotes the Old Testament text, Psalm 68, which the author intends to interpret. The interpretation takes the form of “vice-and-virtue lists, various exhortations and other traditions” found in chapters four and five.[22]

To me, this breakdown illuminates how seamlessly integrated the traditions could be. If Ellis’s hypothesis stands, I can comprehend the challenge it poses to ascertaining authorship and why scholars might think Ephesians was written by a group or someone other than Paul. None of this proves that Paul wrote the text, but it does defend the possibility against Ehrman’s stylistic argument. It also broadens my understanding of the early church and its formation. It’s pleasant to discover these elements of that culture, which was still so fresh and had such direct connection to Christ through the apostles despite difficulties of ancient communication and education. Ellis provides much more analysis regarding the traditions’ inclusion in the epistles, so, if you’re interested, check out his book.

So if these letters were in fact properly attributed, what was the writing and distribution process? Ellis gives a possible history, which he constructs from the Bible and early church tradition. Here is what he presents.

The transmission of the Bible to the public began with Jesus sending out the twelve and, later, the seventy-two apostles. Jesus relayed specific instructions for how to communicate his message to the people (see Luke 10:1-12, Matthew 10).[23] The apostles would have followed this method, presumably, during their post-Pentecostal missions. He may have here provided other instructions regarding church organization which were not recorded by the Gospel-writers. After the Pentecost, Paul and the Three (James, John and Peter) spread out, initiating their own missions. As the church grew, John and others wrote down letters to share the words of Jesus and their memories and stories of him with those who had never seen him personally. These were the Gospels. The Three and Paul also wrote other letters— the epistles—providing guidelines to organize churches and develop Christian leaders.[24] By separating their accounts of Jesus’s words and deeds from their general instruction and organizational models, the authors display a conscious effort to divide the words of the Savior from man’s prayerful but still very human tradition. The former they considered “a separate and special kind of holy word.”[25] Again, Ellis’s convincing narrative does not necessarily prove that the letters authentically claimed their authorship. However, it helped me comprehend where the writers’ humanness affects the text and whether that impacts the worldview as a whole.

When we say the Bible is “God-inspired,” “God-breathed” or “God’s Word” what do we mean? If it does not contain Jesus’s words, is it God’s Word? Is the New Testament verbatim of God? I thought it was. I hesitated to leave something we call “God’s Word” to the pens of faulty human beings. I preferred to imagine God speaking each and every syllable into the mind of an apostle, on par with imagining the entire text simply descending straight from heaven in its present form. However, this would alter the apostle’s job description to “transcriptionist” or “robot.” It strips the text of the God-given free will and individuality which each apostle used to communicate God’s message.

I still have questions. My research led me to information about the epistles but I wonder about the Gospels even more. Were those writers reliable sources? Is there human tradition involved in what I’ve always considered strictly historical in these four texts? If I knew that to be the case, how would that change my perspective? I won’t lie—it still bothers me. But it no longer terrifies me. I’ve been reminded that there are voices on both sides of this argument. I’ve learned that the Bible may not be entirely verifiable but that does not make it untrue. And in fact, the uncertainty makes investigation all the more necessary and the miracle all the more glorious: that God came down among us little people—who can’t even agree on something as simple as who wrote on a piece of parchment—and that he chose to sacrifice himself and conquer death to be with us. As I continue to search for answers, I remain stunned by this fact, which I still accept as Truth.

 

1Ehrman, Bart D. Forged: Writing in the Name of God: Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. New York, HarperOne, 2012. p. 68

2 Ehrman 72-73

3 Ehrman 74-75

4 Ehrman 76

5 1 Peter 5:12, English Standard Version (ESV)

6 Ehrman 76

7 Ehrman 76

8 Ehrman 110

9 Ehrman 110

10 Ehrman 110-111

11 Ephesians 1:13-14 ESV

12 Romans 6:1 ESV

13 Romans 6:2, 6a, 11 ESV

14 Ephesians 2:5-6 ESV

15 Ephesians 6:9 ESV

16 Ellis, Edward Earle. The Making of the New Testament Documents. Leiden, Brill, 1999. pp. 327-328

17 Ellis 105

18 Ellis 105

19 Ellis 106

20 Waldman, Rabbi Iscah. “What Midrash Teaches About the Rabbis.” My Jewish Learning, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ filling-in-the-gaps/. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

21 Ephesians 4:4-6 ESV

22 Ellis 106-107

23 Ellis 329

24 Ellis 326-327

25 Ellis 47

 

Kelsey Waddill is a Junior from Vienn, Virginia majoring in Writing Seminars and Film and Media Studies. She can catch lizards single-handedly.

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