on 18 February 2011
Ehrman masterfully demonstrates that there were many flavours of Christianity in the past, most of which did not survive. Most intruiging are the Ebioties, the Jewish Christians, who actually revered Jesus' brother James rather than the Apostle Paul. Although they likely preserved a more accurate teaching about Jesus, this sect died out when the emerging Catholic Church (Ehrman calls them the proto-orthadox) triumphed over all.
The story of how the proto-orthadox won the day is told in a way that is accessible to the layman.
This book is a fascinating study of these alternative christianities and their often weird understanding of Jesus and God. I can recommend it to anyone who has a passing interest in the early history of Christianity.
This is an absolutely fascinating history, from scholarly textual analysis, of doctrinal variations during the first 2 centuries after the death of Jesus, when several sects were in fierce competition to impose on everyone else their interpretation of what he intended to do and establish. In addition to brute politics, it was a highly literary endeavor, with competing narratives and explanations, the texts of which were championed by each group, complete with forgeries to promote their spin, character assassination, etc. At the end of the period, the proto-orthodox (as Ehrman calls them) established the definitive canon, as incorporated in the New Testament. This was a defining moment in Western Civilization, with fundamental repercussions that last until the present day. It is something that every student of history should know and, I believe, a perspective that every Christian should appreciate.
Ehrman strives to reach an extremely difficult balance: while riskng to alienate fundamentalists who believe that the Bible is the word of God and hence perfect and unquestionable, he scrutinizes his subject as if it were a mythology or ideology in the making by men; at no point, however, does he assert anything - in favor or against - about the existence of God, the sanctity of the Bible, or the validity of faith. In my reading, he is completely successful at striking this balance; only advocates of particular sects would disagree. I am somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum, but above all I am a lover of history and the study of civilization. What I have discovered in this book is absolutely fundamental and will determine for many years the direction of my personal search for meaning.
The book is structured rather eccentrically. The first part is all about forgeries, in both antique and modern times, with many anecdotes thrown in about how scholars behave, the recondite pranks they played when perhaps setting forgery traps for their colleagues, and examples of popular beliefs that have since disappeared, such as the forgotten Thecla, an ascetic female follower of Paul. To be honest, while I enjoyed the stories, this section strained the limits of my interest.
But it does go over the principal discoveries by scholars of manuscripts in modern times and what they revealed. Before their discovery, there were very few sources of alternate christianities beyond their orthodox refutations. That being said, the prevalence of forgeries proves that there was no consensus of opinion and that, in the eyes of competing sects, these "heresies" would have to be stamped out. In one section, Ehrman goes into great detail about an anomalous (and now lost) letter that was copied into a rare book found in a monastery near Jerusalem: if forged, the author would have had to know and be able to convincingly reproduce a) the style of Greek script from the period it was copied (mid-19th C) and b) the precise vocabulary that Clement and perhaps his followers would have used in the 3rd C; he concludes that these could be mastered only by the most meticulous scholar, i.e. perhaps the guy who purportedly found it and photographed it in 1958.
The second section offers a far more detailed view of several competing poles around which the various versions of Christianity orbited. There were 1) Ebionites, who argued that those who became Christian essentially had to become Jewish (complete with circumcision, adopting a kosher diet, etc. This was not something that Romans would accept); 2) Marcionites, who "spurned all that was Jewish" and believed that the Old Testament proved the inferiority of the Jewish God, Yahweh, who was wrathful and vengeful rather than forgiving; 3) Gnostics, who believed that secret rites as revealed by Jesus would ensure salvation within a bizarre cosmology that argued that were many, perhaps hundreds, of Gods, including the deformed and flawed one that created horrible conditions on an earth that must be left behind through transcendance; 4) the proto-orthodox, who eventually won out.
The proto-orthodox theology claimed that they were an offshoot of Judaism (hence making it "ancient enough" to carry the prestige so necessary in that era and accepting the Scriptures of the Old Testament), but without the strictures of Jewish law, which made more acceptable for export to Rome and Greece. In addition, and this was key, from their base in Rome they had the benefit of great wealth to spread around, ensuring that the beneficiaries would listen sympathetically to their ideas, but even more importantly, they had a strongly organized administrative apparatus that enabled them to establish a disciplined hierarchy with near-uniformity of message and a tight network, modeled on the Roman Emperors' proto-statist apparatus if I read this correctly. (I would have wanted much more on this and will have to seek it elsewhere.)
The final section elaborates on the theology of the proto-orthodox and their methods of fighting against rival sects. This too is extremely interesting as many ideas from the 4 poles were culled and some were then synthesized into the New Testament, the standard orthodoxy that has survived to this day with far more limited variation when compared to the spectrum of competing beliefs in 2nd and 3rd C. The issues, which no longer seem so obscure to me, sought to answer such questions as: is there one God? Was Jesus both human and divine? How so? What was required for salvation? To what degree should followers renounce the wicked pleasures of the world in favor of asceticism? The clear conclusion is that it was men who chose what to include in the canon and that it could have turned out very differently, which would have significantly influenced all history that had followed and even perhaps died out if a different configuration of canon belief had been exported. Ehrman has a lot of fun speculating on what kind of difference it would have made to subsequent history if one or another of the sects had proven dominant, though catches himself repeatedly and turns to other subjects.
For me, this book was a great intellectual adventure. I know far too little to critique it as a scholar, but it is a world-class popularization. Ehrman never crosses the line of disrespecting the orthodox version, but he makes a good point about the very human origin of the New Testament. Recommended with enthusiasm.
on 26 September 2004
An excellent read presenting the many contentions between fundamentalist sects of the first centuries following Christ's execution, how this has shaped and influenced the present day Christian faith and why the present books form our modern day New Testament.
Thankfully, the theological terminology used is explained as encountered making the book accessible to the large majority of readers. The value of this book is enhanced by the frequent quotations and references to the many "Christian" texts detailed in the companion book "Lost Scriptures".
The companion text, by the same author, is certainly not essential for a general understanding of the material is this book. I would suggest "Lost Scriptures" could be considered for purchase after the complete reading of this book.
I will warn that the author at certain stages reiterates previous conclusions in order to cement further assumption. Repeat reading the same findings of certain early Greek and Roman theologians can become tiresome. Overall the author is to be commended for his generally even-handed approach to the mass of material available. There is a wealth of knowledge obtainable from this work.
Like the famous ice-cream store chain, Christianity offers a wide selection of options. At least one should meet the needs of the discriminating shopper. With so many consumers selecting the standard vanilla or chocolate fare, some of the more esoteric flavours fade from view. Ehrman seeks to bring some of the unusual or even obsolete versions of Christianity back into view. From the "orthodox" perspective , of course, many of these will seem distasteful, even bizarre. As he notes, from the now-available sources, the other "versions" should be granted equal weight with what has become "traditional". Certainly, the other writings on Jesus' teachings are no less plausible than what is currently believed by many.
In relating this captivating account of "lost" Christianities, Ehrman stacks a variety of writings against those he deems "proto-orthodox". The proto-orthodox are those who laid down a foundation later adopted by the Roman Empire as "official". Among the proto-orthodox writings is condemnation of the alternative "Christianities". These include the Gnostics, made more recently famous by the books found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, and the "Gospels" of such figures as Peter, Thecla and a reputed twin brother of Jesus himself. The greatest departure from today's "orthodox" [if anything as diverse as modern Christianity can have such] are the docetists, who deny that Jesus had a corporeal state. As he concedes, the docetists in effect, thereby refute the notion of Jesus dying for the benefit of the rest of us.
Ehrman's running theme is that Christianity, indeed the history of the entire planet, might have taken a drastically different tack had one or more of these Christianities been granted greater impact on what people believed. The issue of "anti-semitism", which initiated Christianity, might have been vastly reduced down one path, or even more horribly intense on another. As the author notes, "Christianity" itself might have devolved into merely another Jewish sect had the voices he presents not been quelled by the victory of the proto-orthodox. He reminds us, also, that even when the proto-orthodox came to dominate, early writers attacking "heretics" were themselves condemned as inadequately focussed on which Christianity was the "correct" one.
The author uses the term "forgery" in a heavy-handed manner, even while acknowledging in theological writings that the term isn't absolute. A "forgery" can be anything from a document intended to deceive to a writer adopting a name as a means of veneration for a particular scholarly position. A plethora of "Peters", "Pauls" and "Johns" must be sorted out over time and place to derive which is the "original". None are, of course, since even the earliest writings known are copies of copies of copies . . . Ehrman is at some pains to show how errors creep in even with the most dedicated scribe doing the work. The passage of time makes things yet more confusing for modern students. With the history and interpretations of nearly four dozen "gospels" covered in this volume, it's clear that Ehrman has undertaken an immense task. This book is a companion volume to his "Lost Scriptures", which provides the foundation for this undertaking.
"Orthodox" Christians [whoever those might be] in the Western world have relied on the "Synoptic Gospels" - although even these are presented in the wrong order - given in the King James Version. How did these, and the remaining books in the New Testament, come to be chosen as the foundation for Roman Christianity? In part, says Ehrman, because of the wide range of beliefs allowed by other Authorities. Gnosticism, which has gained some active adherents - "in California" says Ehrman pointedly - lacked "definition" due to its wide diversity. Part of that diversity was resistance to a hierarchical church structure. Gnosticism, an early form of religious egalitarianism, was suspect in the view of imperial government. Although Athanasius had decreed the present Synoptic Gospels were the "official" texts of Christianity, this declaration wasn't given church sanction for another seventy years.
Ehrman has provided us with one of the most comprehensive views of early Christianity available. It is a strongly researched effort and presented in easy, conversational style. He poses questions any follower of one of the many Christianities should ask themselves. Read it in confidence that your outlook, even if non-theist, will be challenged. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 7 August 2013
This book takes a broad look at the "canon" of the New Testament (i.e. the process whereby books were gradually and then finally established by the 5th Century as the ones to be included therein) and forms a study of the works that were left out and the various early Christian sects that supported them.
His research details an early Christian world of confusion, with the words of the disciples who were with Jesus, and the apostles who preached and wrote about him, being taken and subjectively interpreted by a multitude of contemporary groups. As well as disparate beliefs on how much of their indigenous Jewish heritage, beliefs and practices these new Christians should retain, many groups were also influenced by things like Gnosticism and existing contemporary Greek thinking and philosophy, such as that of the neo-Pythagoreans and the Stoics.
Thus, while we are yet to have "Christians" - a word not yet in use at the time of many of these groups - we are introduced to the Nazareans, Carpocratians, Docetics, Ebionites, Marcosians, Marcionites, Montanists, various types of Gnostics and those with the set of beliefs that the author terms "proto-Orthodoxy" which eventually evolved to become Roman Catholicism.
Many of these groups used the gospels that were available to them, and many of these have either not survived at all, or not survived as part of the modern Christian canon, only being rediscovered with archaeological finds hundreds of years later, such as the Nag Hammadi scrolls.
Many of the Christian sects and groups used the names of Jesus' disciples or the apostles as the author of their texts in order that they might get a wider circulation - technically a forgery - while still being genuine texts of that particular Christian sect. In other cases the author gives examples of clear forgeries - for example the senior churchman who was caught red-handed writing a third book of Corinthians, and was disciplined henceforth.
The sheer variety of beliefs in early Christianity is fascinating, though given the circumstances it's easy to see how a Jewish teacher such as Jesus provides new teachings to his Jewish followers, and after his death there spring up so many groups believing slightly different things about what he meant by his teachings and what his death meant. With only the Old Testament to go by as their holy book there were various opinions on whether Jesus was the Messiah or not, and if so what type; whether his followers were now a new religion that no longer needed to practice circumcision, and could they now eat pork? Was Jesus God as well as his Son? - and all the questions pertaining to the mystery of the concept of Father Son and Holy Spirit, long before a standard concept of the Holy Trinity had been established, and so on.
A very enjoyable read and a fascinating insight into the beliefs of the early Christians before the Church finally decided what should and shouldn't be kept out of the New Testament (various early regional churches had their own canon processes and as a result many ended up with different texts altogether in their New Testaments, ranging from 11 to 22 books); and before the religion became "regulated" into one coherent belief system, the others being subsumed and vanishing into history.
on 25 September 2013
I am 84 and have been an atheist for 70 years. I am confirmed and supported in my anti-religious belief by the many fine works by scholars like Ehrman - one of the most distinguished - which throw light where the darkness of ignorance helped perpetuate false beliefs. This book, like the other magisterial works by Ehrman, requires application and concentration by the reader, which will be amply rewarded.
on 5 June 2008
The "Lost Christianities" of Bart Ehrman is a very neutral description of the Christian history of the first 3 centuries AD. Ehrman has no axe to grind with competing scholars no dogmatic bias, just the open minded attempt to describe the different streams of Christianities before the orthodox were left as winners.
Part 1 of the book is evaluating the different forgeries of Gospels, epistles, revelations and prophecies which were circulating in the ancient Middle East. Gospels of different authors suppressed from the orthodox winners, sometimes only available as fragmented quotations from opponents of the other camp.
Part 2 is describing the 4 different main directions of early Christianity:
- Ebonite's based on the Jewish ancestry, following more the original apostle teachings, using the Gospel of Matthew and consider Jesus as a human teacher not divine `Son of God' but just adopted from God.
- Marcionites breaking completely with the OT and consider the Jewish God YHWH as imperfect creator of the earth and the true God is sending his son only as spirit (docetic) to wrestle control back from YHWH and forgive the sins of humans entrapping them to YHWH by faking a mortal dead of Jesus.
- Gnostics who are looking for the `Jesus within' everybody and consider only the truly knowing and enlighten elite as eternal spirits. They are predominantly in Egypt and were using several Gospel texts many of them found in Nag Hamadi, interpreting these texts as way to knowledge of the divinity inside themselves.
- The fourth group Ehrman calls proto-orthodox who considers Jesus as divine but made of flesh and blood, which caused many discussions even inside the proto-orthodox camp.
Part 3 finally is about the different tactics of the groups who called their opponents heretics and the trend even within the groups was changing over time. What was considered mainstream like Origen for proto-orthodox could be fall into disgrace a century later and forbidden as heretic.
The group of proto-orthodox had the strategic advantage of their stronghold in Rome which yielded power, money and influence. As Ebonite's would require the circumcision of all males and following the kosher food laws they had not much appeal to the Gentiles. The Marcionites missed the long ancient history to convince the wide public about their `truth'. The Gnostics were too elitist to be accepted from the wide masses. So only the proto-orthodox had a chance to end the final battle in their favor.
After all these detailed introductions I expected Ehrman to describe this as preparation of readers for the final battle at Nicaea 325AD and the tactics of the different groups. However the book is just rushing in a few sentences over this crucial Nicaea council and is ending like under time pressure to deliver the book to the publisher.
This exploration of early Christianity is conducted in three parts:
Forgeries & Discoveries, in which four intriguing texts are examined as representative of the wide variety of fabricated narratives in religious history;
Heresies & Orthodoxies, an investigation and comparison of the divergent beliefs of various early Christian movements like the Ebionites, Marcionites, different Gnostic groups and the Proto-Orthodox;
Winners & Losers, that considers the conflicts that unfolded between the above-mentioned movements, focusing on the role of the Proto-Orthodox and how the New Testament came to be accepted in its present form.
The book opens with an alphabetical list of the major Christian Apocrypha under discussion, with dates and contents, under the headings Gospels, Acts, Epistles & Related Literature, and Apocalypses & Related Literature. In the Introduction, the author mentions the diversity within modern Christianity and compares it with the situation in the first three centuries, which was equally, if not more, bewildering.
The Gospel of Peter is discussed in chapter one; this Docetic document was discovered in 1886. The next deals with the Acts of Paul and Thecla plus some other apocryphal acts which were popular in antiquity. It seems Thecla was a popular heroine that inspired the ancient equivalent of Barbra Cartland-type pulp fiction. The Gospel of Thomas is considered in chapter 3, as well as the discovery of the The Nag Hammadi Library, whilst the last chapter of this section tells the story of Morton Smith and the secret "gospel" of Mark, a modern-day mystery.
The fascinating second part opens with a discussion of heresies and orthodoxies on the nature, teachings and significance of Jesus of Nazareth. It is clear that all the various forms and movements, no matter their vast differences, trace their lineage back to him. See the book How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? by Larry Hurtado to understand how early this devotion started and how astonishing it was in the view of the Mother Religion, strict monotheistic second-temple Judaism.
Chapter 5 takes a closer look at the polar opposites in early Christianity; Ebionites and Marcionites. The first were Jewish followers of Jesus who adhered to Torah, believed in one God, considered Jesus to be completely human and distrusted the Apostle Paul. On the other hand, the Marcionites claimed there were two gods, utterly rejected the Old Testament, saw Jesus as completely divine and Paul as the only true apostle.
What is known about the various Gnostic beliefs is discussed in the next chapter under the headings Nag Hammadi Library, Origins & Tenets of Gnosticism as well as some texts like the Gospel of Truth. Ehrman briefly discusses apocalyptical Judaism and Middle Platonism as two roots of Gnosticism. An interesting and sympathetic book on this movement that includes a chapter on Marcion, is Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing by Stephan A Hoeller.
The large tent of the Proto-Orthodox is explored in chapter seven, including its relation to the Jewish and prophetic traditions and the theological developments that led to the Nicene creed. Christian Anti-Semitism was inherent in Marcionism whilst amongst the Proto-Orthodox it appears in the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Melito of Sardis in a virulent form. Our Hands Are Stained with Blood by Michael L Brown and Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism by Dennis Prager provide more info on this phenomenon in early Christianity.
The final part looks at the winners and losers with regard to the nature of the internecine conflicts and the strategies that proved effective in the long struggle for dominance. The winners determined the structure, creeds and canon of Constantine Christianity that triumphed in Europe. Here the author engages with the classical view of orthodoxy and analyses the assaults on orthodoxy by scholars like H Reimarus, FC Baur and Walter Bauer.
The victory was won in a battle of words and Ehrman also provides some examples of Ebionite and Gnostic attacks on Proto-Orthodoxy. Polemical treatises, personal slurs, forgeries and falsifications were used as weapons by all sides. Chapter 10 includes examples of Anti-Adoptionistic (Anti-Ebionite), Anti-Separationist (Anti-Gnostic) and Anti-Docetic (Anti-Marcionite and Anti-Gnostic) alterations to the New Testament text by the Proto-Orthodox.
The penultimate chapter investigates the formation of the New Testament over 300 years whilst the last one ponders the significance of it all, considering with sadness the remnants of what was lost and the question of tolerance and intolerance. The text is enhanced by black and white photographs of illustrated pottery sherds (ostrakons), manuscripts, works of art, places and inscriptions. The book concludes with notes arranged by chapter, a bibliography of seven pages and an index.
There is nothing in Lost Christianities that disturbed or offended me as a believer. Some other books on early Christianity that I have found illuminating include The Authentic Gospel of Jesus by Geza Vermes and Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights from a Hebraic Perspective by David Bivin. As regards a few widely diverse modern strains of Christianity, I recommend the interesting works Serpent-handling believers by Thomas Burton, Yeshua the fullness of Yahweh by Lester McCracken and Kabbalah of Yeshua by Zusha Kalet.
on 28 April 2014
This was a well-written and thoroughly enjoyable review of very early Christianities. The plural is Ehrman's own use: and essential to the theme of the book, in which he describes in great detail the extraordinary divergence of early Christian movements, showing how what is now orthodoxy won out amongst a range of views. Obviously the majority of the sources are those tracts, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian, who condemn the losing forms (now considered “heretical,” but Ehrman's point here is that the weren't heresies in the modern sense because there was no orthodoxy against which to measure themselves) and the Nag Hammadi library, but I was surprised by how much can also be eked out by close (and impartial) reading of the accepted canon.
Best read in conjunction with his Lost Scriptures book which provides readable translations of those now non-canonical books which have been preserved (thus making it the most in accurately named volume imaginable).
on 30 May 2010
While this book will naturally mean more those with a basic knowledge of Christianity, it is certainly not necessary to be an expert to enjoy it.
Both Christian and interested non-believer can find this book stimulating.
The majority of this book is concerned with how the New Testament, and hence Christianity as we know it now, came into being. (As there is a limit to how much can be addressed in one quite short book, the author does not tackle here the separate but of course even more important question of whether Christianity is true).
However, if you believe very strongly that every word in the Bible comes from God and is absolutely reliable, you may not want to read this book. You may find it uncomfortable to be forced to think about the implications of there having once been many competing and contradictory gospels, epistles and apocalypses written in the century or so following Jesus' death, attributed truly or falsely to early saints and church leaders.
A consensus on which of these should be considered scripture, that is, what we now call The New Testament, which were non-scriptural but respectable devotional works and which were heretical forgeries to be suppressed, was only reached around 367 - 400 AD. However, it is fair to say that the four gospels that made it to the modern Bible probably were the earliest and hence more likely to be accurate.
In the process of reaching a consensus on which books to accept as scripture, Christians had to decide whether a divine Jesus could really have been crucified and killed like a human criminal, and if he was, whether this was an embarrassing calamity that Christians had to explain away, or was actually part of God's plan for Man's salvation.
They also had to decide whether Christians had to be circumcised and keep kosher; whether the God of the Old Testament who made this world was an inferior god whom Jesus and his 'Father' had to defeat, or was the very same God who sent (and/or, was) Jesus. For several generations, none of these points were settled. Indeed, strangely, after one and a half thousand years of apparent agreement, some of these points have begun to be questioned again in modern times, although that lies largely outside the scope of this book.
Diverse as the modern variants of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic and other Christianities may seem to us, they are all part of the one strand of Christianity that emerged victorious from these ancient and largely forgotten controversies, to become the official religion of the late Roman Empire.
Some of the other options that were then closed off now seem truly bizarre. E.g. some Gnostics believed that our world was the lowest of 365 creations contained within each other, each ruled by different god, through which our souls had to pass to join the first and best god of all.
Female readers will be relieved that the so called 'Gospel of Thomas' (a list of sayings attributed to Jesus, from which the author gives the quotation below) did not make it into the New Testament!:
'Simon Peter said to them, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."'
However, extreme cases like that put on one side, I speculate that perhaps the record of the scriptural and theological arguments of the time, although they must have seemed vital to some Christians, obscure the extent to which to many, especially the less educated, the distinguishing marks of the new religion were not these kinds of points but the ideals of charity, chastity and humility that were probably found among many (but not everyone, for we are human and fallible) in all of the competing sects.
For those who wish to continue the story, once Christians finally (or apparently finally) reached a consensus on the arguments chronicled in this book, sadly, they went straight on to a new schism between Arians and Athansians over the question of the Trinity, for which there is another interesting book available in paperback from Amazon When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome by Richard E Rubinstein