Peter and the Frauds

I’ve been known to listen to conservative Christian radio ironically, which I guess makes me a hipster or something. I must say that the music on these stations was really quite tedious. I know they say the Devil has all the best tunes, but these people weren’t even trying. The sermons, on the other hand, were often quite fascinating, providing a look into the mindset of people I don’t talk to that much in everyday life. Anyway, my recent reading of Bart Ehrman’s Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene made me think of how one of the pastors actually acknowledged the scholarly argument against the letters of Peter being written by Jesus’ bosom chum, and basically said it was bunk because Jesus could work miracles. The argument is that the letters were likely written after Peter’s time, and that Peter was likely illiterate and almost certainly couldn’t write in Greek. But hey, maybe Jesus gave him the ability to compose letters in a language he didn’t know.

It’s creative, and does fit with the idea of Peter’s speech on Pentecost being automatically translated into different languages, but I can’t help but feel it’s a bit convoluted. After all, if God wanted this letter written in Greek for whatever reason, couldn’t He have just requested the services of someone who already knew the language? And if there was a miracle involved, why don’t the letters mention it? You know, something like, “Jesus is awesome because he taught me a language without my having to study”?

If we’re supposed to follow Jesus due to his miracles, why leave out a pretty big one?

At another time, a preacher (not sure if it was the same one or not) rejected the idea that Isaiah could have had more than one author because Jesus spoke of it as if it did, and modern scholars couldn’t possibly know more than Jesus. Leaving aside for a moment the idea that I think it’s quite possible modern scholars know more than Jesus and assuming that the guy really was omnipotent, who’s to say that the transcriber got it right? After all, Matthew 27 attributes a passage from Zechariah to Jeremiah. This isn’t in the words of Jesus, but it’s still an error.

We know that there are plenty of religious texts in which the author claims to be someone he isn’t. Even the most fervent believer would likely agree with this. There are, for instance, no known churches today that accept the Apocalypse of Peter, which is also attributed to the apostle. That’s not even mentioning all the books traditionally said to have been written by someone in particular even when no author is identified, like Moses and the Torah/Pentateuch. It’s not that difficult to see why someone would use the name of a famous person, whether historical or contemporary, in their own work. It’s because believers are more likely to read and accept something by John the Divine than by John Doe. I do have to wonder about the intentions of pious forgers, however. Unless the guy writing, say, the later additions to Isaiah actually thinks he IS Isaiah or is in touch with the spirit of the prophet (neither of which I would rule out), doesn’t it cast doubt on whether he actually believes what he’s writing? Even if his intentions are good, that really seems like it could backfire. If Biblical canon was inspired by the Holy Spirit, did the Spirit tell him to lie about the authorship? On the other hand, if you believe the whole Bible was actually written by God through human agents, then why does it really matter who those agents are? That does raise the question as to why God just couldn’t write it Himself, like He was supposed to have done with the Ten Commandments.

Maybe God has really bad handwriting. To my mind, whether or not divine inspiration is a real thing, humans are always subject to error. If you accept the theology in the Bible, why does that have to mean accepting every little detail? But then, I’m not religious at all, so why listen to me? Of course, a lot of quite faithful believers have said basically the same thing.

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8 Responses to Peter and the Frauds

  1. Good article. I think Ehrman’s scholarship is based on a lot of guesswork. While there may be reason to suspect Peter as having been illiterate at one point, there’s no actual evidence to say definitively that that was the case. But even if he was, Peter was also part of a progressive community and could have been taught his letters by one of his spiritual brothers and sisters — no miracles required, except the miracle of love (and patience, judging by Peter’s character!)

    I also agree with your last paragraph: humans are subject to error. If God inspired humans to write the history of his people and to provide divine guidance, then he clearly is allowing room for error in minor areas (and this is especially true in the translations). Perhaps, if believers approached the Bible as a guidebook for life, but a necessarily imperfect one, they might just focus more on the big-picture (the message itself) and less on the minutia (which is fine for those who like to dig deep, but shouldn’t be the focus). This is especially true of Christianity where religiosity was eschewed by Christ entirely in favor of “love your neighbor as yourself,” which were not just words, but a lifestyle that he embodied. In nearly every sense, Christ is far more important than the Bible, but, of course, the latter is easier to twist by corrupt preachers and hierarchical institutions.

    • Nathan says:

      Ehrman admits that a lot of what he writes about is speculative out of necessity, but he’s definitely knowledgeable on the subject. Peter is mentioned in Acts as “unlettered,” but this would presumably have been before he wrote the letters, if indeed he did.

  2. Bryan Babel says:

    Or he could have simply dictated the letters to someone who knew both Greek and Aramaic, who translated them and wrote them down for him for his Greek audience. That would leave him still the author, if not the actual “writer” of the letters. As for speaking in tongues (especially the Pentecost incidence), that seems to have been an ‘occasional’ miracle, that is, a special act of divine power to increase faith, not a bestowed super-power one could use for everyday purposes.

    • I hadn’t considered that. That makes a lot of sense, and was not an uncommon practice. This is my issue with scholars like Ehrman. For all their knowledge, they miss crucial points, and I tend to feel that they do so purposely because it doesn’t bolster the thesis they’re trying to prove — in his case, that certain books of the Bible weren’t authored by the people who claimed to have authored them (or who they’re attributed too).

      This happens in scholarly writings all the time, and it’s always a bit of a snare in that the reader doesn’t always recognize that a writer is coming in with a thesis that he’s going to prove no matter what. So, he writes this authoritative sounding work that blatantly ignores all the evidence that goes against his thesis. Having written a book that also postulates a thesis, I get the temptation to do that, but as I find it disingenuous, prideful and a little lazy, I fought against it.

      • Nathan says:

        To be fair, though, it’s usually the people who insist the books WERE written by important Biblical figures who get up in arms about it. Biblical scholars like Ehrman aren’t trying to present The Truth so much as what their research shows. That’s not to say that they can’t get caught up in proving a particular point, but I don’t think it would be as devastating to the academics to be proven wrong as it would be to someone who insists it’s all the infallible Word of God.

      • Probably not to academia as a whole, but to an individual academic who values his prestige and career it might. Ehrman is an author of 25 books, and is not above using sensationalism to sell them, e.g., “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture,” “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails To Answer Our Most Important Question,” “The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot,” “Forgery and Counter-Forgery.”

        These aren’t titles that genuine scholars would use, nor do they represent one whose trying to present the unbiased results of his research. This is Fox News tactics (only presenting the opposite viewpoint); it’s culture-wars nonsense (where he gets to play against both sides); it’s pop-New Testament Studies and part pseudo-scholarship.

        That doesn’t mean that everything Ehrman has said is wrong or should be discounted, but I can’t have respect for someone who claims to be a scholar but is clearly more interesting in selling products. Ehrman knows full well that there is not and never was a lost gospel of Judas Iscariot. It’s absurd to title his book that, no matter how often the media’s used it. He knows that Gnosticism is about as far away from Judeo-Christianity as you can get. He employs falsehood and sensationalism because it sells books. That makes any research of his suspect in my eyes.

        The problem is that those of his ilk (on all sides) get all the attention while less sensationalist, more genuinely scholarly works pass by unnoticed by most.

      • Nathan says:

        Ehrman knows full well that there is not and never was a lost gospel of Judas Iscariot. It’s absurd to title his book that, no matter how often the media’s used it.

        But that’s judging the entire book based on its title, which isn’t really fair. Captain Salt also isn’t in Oz proper at any point in Captain Salt in Oz. And you admit that the media use the title “Gospel of Judas,” so was it really even Ehrman’s idea in the first place? Maybe it was, as I don’t actually know how the name originated. But if it’s a gospel, is largely about Judas, and was lost for a considerable amount of time, why not call it that? Sure, it’s a bit sensationalist, but that’s how books get sold.

        He knows that Gnosticism is about as far away from Judeo-Christianity as you can get.

        If someone holds to a Gnostic philosophy and believes Jesus is the savior, aren’t they a Gnostic Christian? Gnosticism is probably not what Jesus actually taught, but there are a lot of ideas in other branches of Christianity that almost certainly aren’t either. I’ve seen some people claim that Gnosticism is the original form of Christianity, but I don’t recall Ehrman ever doing this. To be fair, though, I’ll admit that I haven’t read his book about the Gospel of Judas (or whatever you want to call it).

      • Those are valid points, and I think if Ehrman did that sort of thing with one or two books, you could say ‘eh, that’s unfortunate, but no big deal’. But it’s a pattern with him, which is why I don’t trust him as a scholar. But, of course, I’m not his target audience.

        It seems every decade or so, a group of men come along with big claims and dogmatic ideas that push this, that and the other thing. It makes a big splash because what they have to say is controversial, and hence, they sell a lot of books. But then they disappear into obscurity when their ideas are found wanting. Then the next group comes along pushing their ideas and making a small fortune by stirring things up.

        It’s healthy and positive and important to raise questions and challenges and look for answers, but it’s just as important to avoid promoting an idea as fact if there’s really scant evidence behind it, or to admit that things are open to interpretation, or that they favor a different perspective than one’s own. This is true in all fields of study. But sadly all fields of study have been taken over by the polar extremes because the media knows that they’ll get more readers/viewers when there’s controversy and people fighting.

        As to Gnosticism, whether Jewish or Christian, it’s different from Judaism and Christianity in its most fundamental ways. When Gnostics added Jesus to the mix, they didn’t bring their religion any closer to Christianity. They just hijacked him a few years before Constantine did. It’s still a very foreign religion based on the idea that physical forms and acts are fundamentally evil (hence why they viewed sex and procreation as inherently evil) because the Demiurge (the Judeo-Christian God) entrapped man’s spirit in the flesh contrary to the wishes of the transcendent god. Gnosticism is akin to the pantheistic mystery religions which spawned it. That it adopted Semitic and Christian figures is typical of the way in which syncretic religions adapt and move through other cultures (it’s why the Roman myths can be traced to Greek and Etruscan myths and why those can be traced to Near Easter myths and so on). Anyone who tries to claim that Gnosticism is the original form of Christianity is either kidding himself or the type who likes to rewrite history to suit his own fantasies.

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