Lies in the Bible? Ehrman and the Intentional Fallacy

Categories: Biblical Studies, Early Christianity, New Testament, Religion & Theology

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Jason Staples Substack

The marketing campaign for Bart Ehrman’s latest popular book (this time on forgery in the Bible) has picked up in earnest, first with a few interviews and now with a piece in the Huffington Post summarizing his thesis that “the Bible actually contains lies.” As usual, Bart isn’t actually saying anything new in this popular-level book but is instead summarizing what lots of scholars have said for many years in service of a more provocative thesis. So there’s really nothing new here—nor would Erhman claim there is.

The plain declaration that these books are “lies” is problematic and overlooks a few other options (Ehrman is aware of this and will address that more clearly in his forthcoming scholarly foray into the subject). For example, Jim Davila has pointed out “the possibility that some of the ancient writers of biblical pseudepigrapha wrote in the names of ancient prophets because they thought themselves to be ‘channeling’ those prophets” in this SBL paper (see his brief comments on Ehrman’s claims here). In addition, it’s not fully established that some of the books that Ehrman highlights were in fact not written by the claimed author, with 2 Thessalonians and Luke-Acts being foremost among those disputed.

So, when Ehrman says, “Most scholars will tell you that whereas seven of the 13 letters that go under Paul’s name are his, the other six are not. Their authors merely claimed to be Paul. In the ancient world, books like that were labeled as pseudoi — lies,” that statement isn’t exactly true, as about half of Pauline scholars think 2 Thessalonians was indeed by Paul (meaning that 100% of scholars would have to think the other five were all pseudepigraphical in order for this statement to be true). But that discussion will be worth having after Ehrman’s forthcoming academic monograph, which will be where he actually makes his scholarly arguments.

What is more interesting to me in this present book is how the subject of forgery really puts Ehrman into an interesting bind, as especially illustrated by the following quote:

The [biblical] authors intended to deceive their readers, and their readers were all too easily deceived. The use of deception to promote the truth may well be considered one of the most unsettling ironies of the early Christian tradition.

A few others have already drawn attention to the problems inherent in this claim:

I don’t think there is any way other than a time machine for Ehrman to know this. How can discover the intent of the author to this degree without going to ask him/her?!How can a modern reader possibly recover that much data from the historical texts that we have available? (“Bart Ehrman Has a Magical Time Machine“)

Here’s the problem, and here’s where Ehrman turns from academic researcher to publicity seeking deceiver: he cannot POSSIBLY know what intention was operative in the minds of the writers of those texts which eventually became the New Testament. To pretend that he does only demonstrates that he is more interested in saying absurd headline grabbing things than that he interested in and engaged in actual academic pursuits. (If Ehrman Really Thinks That, He’s the Deceiver“)

But what actually makes this more problematic is that Ehrman is usually the one to make nearly the same critique as these—Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “Intentional Fallacy” (a part of the so-called “New Criticism“) has long been one of Ehrman’s favorite hobby-horses. That is, Ehrman regularly insists that we have no access to an author’s intent (go here for one example) and can only talk about how a text functions (this is a big point in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture). This makes Ehrman’s more recent foray into forgery—and claims about what the authors were intending when they wrote—potentially problematic for him, at least as formulated in this popular-level book. It’s an example of trying to have the cake and eat it too: either we can assess intentionality with a reasonable level of certainty or we can’t, and Bart has now firmly placed himself on both sides of the equation.

I do think that the “Intentional Fallacy,” while an important corrective against excessive interpretive claims (which may well include Ehrman’s claims in this case), is overused inasmuch as entirely dispensing with our ability to discern an author’s intent is ultimately self-refuting in that it makes communication impossible. As Richard Hays observes:

Often overlooked in the discussion of authorial intention is the fact that W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, in their landmark essay, “The Intentional Fallacy,” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), did not exclude in principle the possibility of gaining information about the author’s intention in all texts. Indeed, they asserted that “practical passages”—as distinguished from “poetry”—”are successful if and only if we correctly infer the intention” (5). Their primary point was that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” (3, emphasis mine). This is a proposal about aesthetics, not a skeptical stricture on historical knowledge. [Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 201 n.90]

Stephen Carlson has likewise argued (here and here) that borrowing the legal concept of a “reasonable reader” provides a way forward in assessing intentionality and meaning in a post “New Criticism” context.

At any rate, I don’t think the scholarly enterprise should be barred from discussing an author’s “intent,” as authors typically write with the intent of communicating a given message. But this is a point on which Ehrman and I have disagreed in the past—and precisely why I find it so interesting that he is now openly using the language of “intent” when discussing early Christian forgeries. I’m curious to see what direction this goes, as Ehrman will not be able to have it both ways—he’ll either have to retreat back to a semi-modernist perspective in which he can make statements about “intent” like those in his most recent book, or he will have to amend these provocative statements that claim he knows the authors’ intentions.

ADDENDUM: John Hobbins has taken the opportunity to address some of the bigger issues at stake, calling Ehrman a “reverse fundamentalist” while pointing to Didymus the Blind’s statements on 2 Peter and expressing exasperation that Ehrman did not address this data. It’s a bit ironic that Hobbins brings Didymus into the discussion, since Ehrman’s dissertation was on Didymus the Blind’s text of the Gospels. I can completely echo Hobbins’ comment:

I am neither a fundamentalist nor a reverse fundamentalist. I am a student of ancient texts who can think of nothing better than to defend said texts from modern mis-interpreters. In my view, fundamentalists and reverse fundamentalists alike are prone to expect the wrong things from the Bible.

Well said, John. Well said.

Tags: 2 Thessalonians, Bart D. Ehrman, Biblical Studies, Brian LePort, Christianity, forgery, Intentional Fallacy, Jim West, New Criticism, New Testament, pseudepegrapha, Richard Hays, Stephen Carlson

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