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5.0 out of 5 stars "Thirty-one flavours" of Christianity?, 27 April 2006
This review is from: Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faith We Never Knew (Hardcover)
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]
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