Tuesday, February 5, 2013

First and Second Peter ala Bart Ehrman

As a tree draws its nourishment from the soil, our lives are planted in the soil of Scripture from which we derive nourishment and stability. If the soil is threatened, so too the life that depends on it.

Professor of Religion at NC University, Bart Ehrman, cannot threaten Scripture, but he has written a lot to undermine our confidence in it. In Forged, he argues that many of our New Testament epistles are forgeries, pseudonymously written in the names of various Apostles in order to deceive. He claims that 1 & 2 Peter, both of which claim to have been written by Peter, are later forgeries.

What is his supportive evidence? Ehrman claims that 1 Peter 5:13, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings,” Couldn’t have been written by Peter. Why not? Because “Babylon” as a reference to Rome only came into use at the “end of the first century!” According to Ehrman, Rome came to be hated by the Jews after the beginning of the Jewish revolt, 66 AD. Therefore, they wouldn’t have associated this disparaging term with Rome until after this time, long after Peter had been martyred in Rome, 64 AD.

However, the Jews hated Rome and Christians were persecuted in Rome long before this time! Besides, “Babylon” might have also referred to the fact that the believers were living in exile in Rome as they had in Babylon.

Actually, I am surprised that Ehrman would deny Peter’s authorship based upon this reasoning. In other regards, he has argued that a scribe would change a word or phrase to justify his theological bias. In other words, why wouldn’t Ehrman consider the possibility that “Babylon” wasn’t in the original but was later inserted by a scribe who didn’t like Rome? This would have been an easier case to make than the case that the entire epistle was a forgery. However, his case disparages the Bible to a greater extent, and that sells books and secures more speaking engagements.

Ehrman also argues that the theology and references in 1 Peter are too similar to Paul’s. He argues from this that the early church wanted to present a Peter who agreed with Paul:

  • Peter sounds like Paul…Why would it do that?...There were other Christians who maintained…that Peter and Paul were at each other’s throats and represented different understandings of the gospel. (200)

According to Ehrman, the pseudonymous author of 1 Peter wanted to show the church that Peter and Paul actually shared the identical theology.

Interestingly, we find that the critics damn the Bible when they find a high level of agreement among the various NT books. They charge collusion or forgery. However, when there isn’t a high level of agreement – for example, the Gospel of John compared to the Synoptic Gospels - they charge that the writers had contradictory theologies. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Whatever the evidence, it is construed in a way to damn the Bible. Heads, I win; tails you loose!

Instead, it is more natural to assume that the similarities between Peter and Paul stem from the fact that they were preaching the same Gospel, as Paul (Gal. 2:7), Peter (2 Pet. 3:16), and Acts (9:26-30) all affirm!

Ehrman’s knock-out punch charges that Peter couldn’t have written the two NT epistles because:

  • Peter was an illiterate peasant. This should come as no surprise, really. As it turns out, there is New Testament evidence about Peter’s education level. According to Acts 4:13, both Peter and his companion John, also a fisherman, were agrammatoi, a Greek word that literally means “unlettered,” that is “illiterate.” (75) 
Finally, some hard evidence! But does this verse prove that they were illiterate?

  • When they [the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish court] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled [Ehrman thinks that this word should be translated as “illiterate”], ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

While the Sanhedrin perceptively “realized” that they were “unschooled,” unrefined “ordinary men,” they couldn’t simply “realize” or perceive that they were illiterate. Such a conclusion would require a writing test.

This conclusion is something so patently obvious that no English translation (as far as I could tell) translates this Greek as “illiterate” in this verse! Consequently, Ehrman’s charge is baseless.

Worse than that, Ehrman’s charge of forgery receives no support whatsoever from any of the Church Fathers, who never raised a question about Peter’s authorship of this epistle. They had been in a better position to assess this than Ehrman, 2000 years after the fact. The Fathers were intimately familiar with the ancient languages, the life and movements of Peter, and the trusted messengers who delivered the epistles to the various churches. They also had ways to verify any doubts that might have arisen regarding apostolic authorship – and this was the most critical element for them. In many cases, their martyrs’ blood authenticated their convictions. In contrast, Ehrman’s charge is authenticated by only his imagination and popularity. The prospect of shedding his blood would doubtless cause him to rethink his charges.

Ehrman is even more confident that 2 Peter is a forgery. He believes that it portrays a time that only occurred after Peter’s martyrdom:

  • One of the reasons virtually all scholars agree that Peter did not actually write this letter is that the situation being presupposed appears to be of much later times. When Peter himself died – say, the year 64 under Nero – there was still eager expectation that Jesus would return soon. (70)
Ehrman claims that 2 Peter has already despaired of Christ’s early return (2 Pet. 3:3-9), unlike many other epistles. In contrast, it seems to envision a long wait. However, even Jesus (cir. 30 AD) foresaw a long wait:

  • “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” (Matthew 24:7-9)
Even as early as 30 AD, Jesus had prophesied a long wait, even past the lifetime of His disciples. Why then couldn’t Peter write in the same manner!

Ehrman adds another reason why 2 Peter must have been written after Peter’s death:

  • The author of 2 Peter is writing at a time when there was already a collection of Paul’s letters in circulation, and these letters were being considered on a par with the Old Testament “Scripture” (3:16). This could not have been during Paul’s lifetime [66 AD is usually cited as the year of his martyrdom]. (70)
Why couldn’t this have been written about Paul during his lifetime? All of his 13 letters were immediately received as Scripture by the church. They were read, copied, and passed along to other churches. Paul acknowledged that his epistles were:

  • Accepted…not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. (1 Thes. 2:13)
It must be conceded that there were questions raised by the early church regarding the authorship of 2 Peter, but this didn’t happen until approximately 200 years after the Cross by Origen. Before that, no Church Father, as far as we know, raised a peep. However, early positive attestation for this epistle is not at all weighty. In fact, Wilkinson and Boa have written that:

  • The external testimony for the Petrine authorship of Second Peter is weaker than that for any other New Testament book.
Nevertheless, Ehrman far outdistances his “evidence.”

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