Book Review: Lost Christianities by Bart D Ehrman

lost-christianitiesThe early history of Christianity is murky and confusing, even to scholars. Even though Christianity separated itself from many other religions by relying heavily on written texts, many of those documents , documents that would fill in many gaps in the movement’s early history, are missing. The loss of some of these documents is just due to serendipity. Records do, after all, get lost; some texts fall out of use, paper degrades. The untimely disappearance of some of the texts, however, was entirely intentional due to a concentrated effort by the orthodox churches to wipe the record clean of any belief that they deemed heretical. This purging of documents left only hints and faint memories of rival movements in the Christian religion. In Lost Christianities, Bart Ehrman looks at some of the early forms of Christianity that have all but disappeared from existence.

Throughout most of the last two thousand years, most of what we have known about early non-orthodox Christian belief systems have come from their critics, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons being the most vocal with his massive 5 volume attack, Against Heresies, that for centuries contained all that we knew about the Gnostics. In the last century, however, copies of some of the original documents of the Gnostic faith have been discovered, most notably in the Nag Hammadi Library, a treasure trove of scrolls that was stumbled upon by two Egyptian farmers in 1945 that substantially changed our knowledge of the documents that ancient Christians had available to them.

In the first section of the book, Forgeries and Discoveries, Ehrman explores some of the more popular textual finds in the world of Christian archeology and examines their validity. Many of the non-canonical Christian texts that have been found have been deemed forgeries (though, it is important not to be too judgment in the use of the word since, as most scholars agree, there are forgeries in the New Testament we have today). One of the most well known recently discovered Christian documents is the Gospel of Peter, which features a resurrection scene that would seem rather out of place in any Sunday service today; Christ, freshly arisen from the tomb, stands like a giant with his head in the sky and the cross walks behind him speaking to the crowd (perhaps this allegory was meant to be read as astrological?). As wild as it may seem, the Gospel of Peter is a genuine ancient document and, according to the number of ancient copies we have, it appears to have been much more popular than the Gospel of Mark. In another discovered document, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, we learn that the Apostle Paul had a female traveling companion (totally platonic, of course) that assisted him in spreading the word. There is the intriguing case of the Secret Gospel of Mark which implies that Christ is to have taken a homosexual lover. Unfortunately, the authenticity of this work is still a mystery, and forever will be, due to it’s destruction by an over zealous defender of the faith. It may have been an authentic ancient text, or it may have been the most finely executed forgery in Biblical history.

The second section of the book, Heresies and Orthodoxies, provides fascinating descriptions of the major Christian belief systems of antiquity. There were the Gnostics, who taught that the world we know was the creation of an incompetent god and that Jesus was the possessor of secret knowledge that he would pass on only to the spiritually elite. There were the Ebionites, that fully accepted the practices of Judaism, and there were the Marcionites, that fully rejected them, claiming that the Jews were followers of an amoral god. There were movements that believed there was one god, there was one that believed that there were 365 gods. There have always been variations in any religions movement, but the concept of “orthodoxy” seems to have been rather unique to the Christian church. Acceptance of religions variation has allowed Hinduism to grow to the incredible diversity that it holds today. If it had not been for the strict concept of orthodoxy that began with the Roman church, the face of Christianity would be virtually unrecognizable today.

Winners and Losers, the third part of the book, nicely puts all this historical information together and uses it to examine the possible reasons that the orthodox churches survived while their theological competitors eventually died out. Ehrman also give an overview of some of the last century’s most influential philosophers, the Dutch Radicals: H Reimarus, FC Baur, and Walter Bauer. Their revolutionary theories finally broke away from the theological mold and dared to question the reliability of the New Testament. Their works are still providing inspiration for the likes of Robert Price and Earl Doherty, as well as creating major headaches for Christian apologists.

We still don’t know exactly how one sect of the widely diverse 2nd century phenomena known as Christianity survived to become what we know today. What might the face of modern Christianity look like if the beliefs of the Ebionites or the Marcionites took hold, rather the church of Rome? Could these competing variations have ignited belief the way the eventual victors did? Or, if all these belief systems survived, would doubt as to the validity of the Jesus story have begun much earlier than it did? Perhaps variation in beliefs is a key to the death of any religious movement and it was only the dictatorial enforcement of doctrine that has allowed Christianity to survive as long as it has. Examination of these now defunct religions may create more questions than they could possibly answer. In any case, the most important lesson to take away from Ehrman’s Lost Christianities is that the first few centuries of the Christian phenomena was far from the unified movement that fundamentalists claim. There were, in fact, several major branches of Christian thought that caused major conflicts amongst believers. Conflicts that put the theological differences between Christian sects today to shame.

Highly Recommended

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4 Comments on “Book Review: Lost Christianities by Bart D Ehrman”

  1. yunshui Says:

    Good review. I’m a big fan or Ehrman, so I’ll be ordering this today, on your recommendation. Cheers!

  2. Thats an all ’round incredibly written blog!!!

  3. G-fraan Says:

    So interesting! I often wonder if Ehrman ever experienced a personal relationship with Jesus, or if he was just a “church-going” pastor. It’s so crazy to think that he used to be a pastor, and now has chosen such a different life path. I wonder what his life is like internally.

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