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Variety is the spice of this and the next life!,
This review is from: Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Paperback)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.