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.