Mike Licona responds to Bart Ehrman’s new book on gospel authorship

In this post on Bible Gateway, Michael Licona assesses Ehrman’s argument that the letters traditionally ascribed to Paul are not traceable back to Paul. Licona argues that Paul would have had access to other people in the Christian community who would have helped him to craft and write his letters.

Here’s Ehrman’s challenge:

Most, though not all, of the arguments against traditional authorship fall into two categories: style and content. However, if an author employed the use of a secretary to write what he dictated as well as provide varying degrees of editing, this would explain quite well why some of the letters in the New Testament whose authorship is questionable have vocabulary, grammar, some content, and an overall writing style that differs, even significantly, from the undisputed letters. Ehrman recognizes this and writes, “Virtually all of the problems with what I’ve been calling forgeries can be solved if secretaries were heavily involved in the composition of the early Christian writings” (134).Did Paul use a secretary at least occasionally? We may answer with an unequivocal yes. Of Paul’s seven undisputed letters, it is certain that he used a secretary for no less than four.

Ehrman concurs, “There is no doubt that the apostle Paul used a secretary on occasion” (134). But he contends that there’s no evidence that Paul used them for any other services such as editing to correct grammar and improve style, coauthor to contribute to content, or compose the letter with the named author giving his final approval (134-36; cf. 77).

And here’s part of his response:

Writing a letter in antiquity was a costly enterprise. Randolph Richards, who is perhaps today’s leading authority on the use of secretaries in antiquity, discusses the costs involved. Papyri, labor, and courier fees added up quickly. Of course, Cicero, Seneca, and the ultra-wealthy could easily afford the costs. But Paul, the missionary, would not have been so fortunate. Richards estimates that the cost for penning Paul’s letters ranged from $101 in today’s dollars for Philemon to $2,275 for Romans. And these figures do not include the expenses involved with a courier.Now perhaps you’re thinking, “But Paul tells us in his letters he had churches that supported him (Phil. 4:10-18; 2 Cor. 11:9). And we know he had co-workers whom he mentions in his letters (Rom. 16:21; 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; 8:23; Phil. 1:1; 2:25; Col. 1:1; 4:11; 1 Th. 1:1; 2 Th. 1:1; Philem. 1:1, 24. cf. Gal. 1:1). They would naturally have been the couriers and could even have served as his secretaries. So, he would have incurred little to no labor costs.” That much is evident.

And what’s to have prevented these co-workers from also providing editorial and compositional services according to their personal abilities? Could the Tertius mentioned in Romans 16:22 have been a professional secretary who had volunteered his services? We will never know. What is clear is the fact that not being a member of the ultra-wealthy does not preclude Paul’s use of a secretary for editing and composition.

[…]The early Christian church faced many situations and theological debates. In their minds, these matters were often more important than life itself. For example, in 1 Corinthians Paul is answering a situation where some members of the church in Corinth were denying an afterlife. Paul replies that if we are not raised from the dead to enjoy eternal life, Christ was not raised from the dead either. And if Christ was not raised, our Christian faith is worthless and our loved ones who have already died are forever gone. In fact, Paul adds, if there is no future resurrection of the dead and this life is all there is, let’s party hard now because we will all be dead in a relatively short period of time (1 Cor. 15:12-19, 32)!

The letters in the New Testament weren’t written for the mere enjoyment of the exercise and at leisure as many of the letters of Cicero and Atticus had been. Given the importance the early Christian letters had for their authors and recipients, there was a much greater need for using a secretary in order to craft the letters carefully. We know Paul could write, since he signed many of his greetings at the end of his letters. So, why have a secretary to whom he could dictate a letter without also depending upon him for editing services?

Here’s a third reason for holding that Paul would want his secretary to be more involved than simply taking dictation: He flat out states that others were involved in his letter writing. Paul was apparently not very good at public speaking. This conclusion comes from information provided in his undisputed letters. In 2 Corinthians 11:6, Paul admits that he is “untrained in public speaking” (See also 1 Cor. 2:1, 4). In 2 Corinthians 10:10-11, he writes, “it is said, ‘His [i.e., Paul’s] letters are weighty and powerful, but his physical presence is weak, and his public speaking is despicable.’ Such a person should consider this: What we are in the words of our letters when absent, we will be in actions when present.”

Notice carefully how the subject changes from Paul the poor public speaker in the singular to the “we” who write the letters. More than one person is involved in writing Paul’s letters. So, the involvement of the secretary appears to go beyond taking simple dictation.

In summary, Ehrman’s argument fails since Paul may not have incurred any costs for his extensive use of a secretary, the important occasions for writing the letters would have motivated Paul’s extensive use of a secretary, and Paul clearly states that others were involved in the actual writing of the letters.

Now I want to say a few words about a recent experience I had talking to a Jewish atheist about what the Bible says about Jesus.

Talking about the Bible with non-Christians

To be convincing and appealing when discussing the New Testament with non-Christians, you need to be very aware of the fact that non-Christians do not understand theological language and they do not assume that the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God and they do not think that you have done your homework to know who wrote it and whether it was translated correctly from the originals so many years back.

The right way to discuss the Bible is to talk about the New Testament as a book that contains ancient biographies from a variety of authors. You want to list a number of factors that would affect whether individual verses within individual books are reliable. You want to weigh the arguments for and against the conservative view.

Here are some things to consider:

  • when was the passage written?
  • who wrote the passage?
  • is the passage found in multiple sources?
  • does the passage embarrass the author?
  • does the passage praise the author’s enemies?
  • does the passage hinder the evangelistic message of the early church?

I was recently discussing the Harold Camping prophecy with a friend of mine who is an atheist, and I was explaining the passage where Jesus says that no one knows the date of judgment day. I used multiple sources, early sources, and the criterion of embarrassment to show why my friend should not consider Camping to be a disproof of the reliability of the Bible and an embarrassment to Christians.

Here are the passages I used to discredit Camping’s calculations:

Mark 13:32-33:

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.

Matthew 24:36-44:

36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;

39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.

41Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.

43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.

44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Mark is early, and Matthew provides multiple attestation. But this passage also passes the criterion of embarrassment, because it ascribes ignorance to Jesus – something that the early church would not have made up if they were hoping to gain converts by falsely portraying Jesus as the Messiah. Therefore, it is very likely that this passage is authentic, and would be viewed as authentic even by those who are non-Christians. Any passage that undermines the missionary project of the early church by calling Jesus’ identity as the Messiah into question is guaranteed to be historical. And it goes to show the quality of history you find in the New Testament.

It is sometimes useful to contrast good historically reliable passages with passages that are not viewed as historically reliable. In a related post, William lane Craig is asked by John Ankerberg about a passage that most historians do not view as historically reliable. Even if you are an inerrantist like me, you are not obligated to use and defend every verse when you quote the Bible to make arguments about theology or morality or history. Just analyze the passages that you are using the historical criteria, in order to persuade your non-Christian audience that you are not taking the Bible on faith. If one of your passages fails the tests, then don’t use it – find another passage that passes the tests.

Regarding inerrancy, C. Michael Patton of Parchment & Pen blog doesn’t think that you have to believe in inerrancy to become a Christian. I would argue that mature Christians should believe in inerrancy of the original writings, but new Christians don’t have to.

So, to sum up, don’t talk about the Bible the way that Christian pastors do on Sunday mornings with your non-Christian friends. Talk about the Bible like scholars do with your non-Christian friends. Here is a good example of how Christian and non-Christian scholars talk about the Bible in formal academic debates.

3 thoughts on “Mike Licona responds to Bart Ehrman’s new book on gospel authorship”

  1. In review of Paul and his postion, one could safely assume he was a very wealthy man. Here is my take on Paul life from the scriptures.

    Occupation – lawyer (Pharisee)
    Highly Educated – disciplined by Gamaliel the Elder ( most $$$ form of education)
    Wealthy Family – education to become a lawyer cost money and a Roman citizen
    Wealthy – “I count all things to be loss” ( Phil 3:18) – Hence something had to be loss & Acts 24:26 where Felix was hoping for a bribe.
    Employment – Paul worked and was self sufficent 1 Thes 2:9 & 2 Thes 3:8

    In addition, Paul suffered from a eye disease that may have prevented him from writing see Galatians 4:15 & 2 Cor 12:5-9

    In regards to defending the gospel to the secular world,it would appear that Pauls shifted his argument style that he used with Gentiles to behavior and the consequences of it.

    Consider the following from Acts 24:25 ” ….reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” and the result ? “Felix was alarmed …..“Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”

    May I suggest – same behavior when people get convicted :)


  2. I don’t believe Pharisees were lawyers. That would be the “scribes” (an ambiguous group mentioned in the Bible that historians do not fully understand). Paul was trained as a tent-maker by occupation.

    In regards to Mike Licona’s defense of Paul: It seems that the job of an apologist is often to explain how his prior view could be right given new evidence. Essentially, because he believes in innerancy and many of the disputed Pauline letter claim to be written by Paul he must believe they actually were and all he has to do is show how it is possible that they were. The secular historian has no doctrine of innerancy and will therefore do a probabalistic assessment of the text (especially given the knowledge that pseudography was common back then) based on the word choice, syntax, and content. In other words, secular historians seem to think that while it is possible that Paul wrote the disputed letters it is less likely than the odds that those letters are forgeries. Licona’s “this is how it could have happened” approach helps strengthen the faith of believers who already accept inerrancy and shows how inerrancy is possible (at least in regards to Pauline authorship) but I doubt it would convince a secular historian (even one who is not ideologically resistant to Pauline authorship) that the disputed letters are more likely by Paul than by someone else.

    I totally agree with you in regards to your end of the world study. Harold Camping’s crackpot interpretation is a joke even among the most caricatured conservative Christians. His error does not undermine the Christian faith anymore than Newton’s attempts at alchemy undermine gravity.


  3. Interesting post, but too many topics to cover in a brief reply.

    One thing that Ehrmans and other critics seem to miss entirely is the possibility of collaboration within the primitive Christian community. In my reading of the NT, the early Christians were constantly talking it over amongst themselves. They even believed it was Christ who was guiding them in this dialog, if Luke 24:13-35 sets the pattern.

    So, it is highly likely that Paul talked with Matthew, who talked with Luke and Mark etc etc, before these traditions got committed to writing. John might have been out on a limb, but he was still “in” on the conversation and would have contributed to it as an eyewitness. The NT Authors weren’t the only players, there’s the whole group who are regarded as “Apostles”. Paul’s “group” of scribes might have been volunteers who were in on the dialog, and not just mere “professional” dictation-writers, which is evident from their enthusiasm in identifying personally with what Paul is writing (but that’s conjecture).

    One evident example of this “development by dialog” is Philippians 2:5-11. Here, Paul appears to co-opt an early Christian hymn (or poem or credo) into his letter; in other words, he takes something that someone else had written. Where did he get it from? The least forced answer is from the Christian Community into which he had been converted. Given that Philippians could well be the earliest NT text (assuming Paul’s authorship around AD62), the hymn adopted into Phil 2:5-11 would be earliest recorded expression of Christian faith in history.

    Given that Phil 2:5-11 is so staunchly orthodox, perhaps that’s why Ehrmans goes to such great lengths to discredit it as a valid expression of primitive Christianity.


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