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Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never… (2003)

by Bart D. Ehrman

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1,803238,241 (3.87)23
"In Lost Christianities, Bart D. Ehrman offers a fascinating look at these early forms of Christianity and shows how they came to be suppressed, reformed, or forgotten. All of these groups insisted that they upheld the teachings of Jesus and his apostles, and they all possessed writings that bore out their claims, books reputedly produced by Jesus' own followers. Modern archaeological work has recovered a number of key texts, and as Ehrman shows, these spectacular discoveries reveal religious diversity that says much about the ways in which history gets written by the winners. Ehrman's discussion ranges from considerations of various "lost scriptures" - including forged gospels supposedly written by Simon Peter, Jesus' closest disciple, and Judas Thomas, Jesus' alleged twin brother - to the disparate beliefs of such groups as the Jewish-Christian Ebionites, the anti-Jewish Marcionites, and various "Gnostic" sects. Ehrman examines in depth the battles that raged between "proto-orthodox Christians" - those who eventually compiled the canonical books of the New Testament and standardized Christian belief - and the groups they denounced as heretics and ultimately overcame."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)
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I found this book absolutely fascinating. I was long aware that the canon of the bible that is commonly used today by most Christians (certainly not all) was not settled until around the year 400. And the final judgement was apparently forced upon the feuding bishops by the Roman emperor Theodosius around AD 380-383 in terms of the Nicean Creed (particularly the doctrine of the trinity) and how it was to be interpreted and also what books would be accepted into the official canon of the church.
The issue is that there were actually plenty to choose from. And that is what Bart Ehrman is writing about. He makes the comment that during the first three Christian centuries, the practices and beliefs found amongst people who called themselves Christians were so varied that the differences between Roman Catholics, Primitive Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists paled by comparison.

Ehrman has a remarkable discussion about forgeries that were circulation in the early years of Christianity ...including a number which apparently found their way into the most widely used bible. And, a book written in Paul's name, 2 Thessalonians, warns against a letter, allegedly written by Paul that had disturbed some of its readers. In an interesting twist, scholars today are not sure that 2 Thessalonians was actually written by Paul. So here is an irony: either 2 Thessalonians was written by Paul and someone else was producing forgeries or 2 Thessalonians is a forgery itself, with a warning to be wary of forgeries. A number of books in the current canon are widely regarded by scholars as forgeries. For example the author of 2 Peter claims to be Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus. But scholars are virtually unanimous that it was not written by him. So too the Epistles 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus: They claim to be written by Paul, but appear to have been written long after his death. Why should this matter if the text is in keeping with the "correct" doctrines of the church? Well, I guess the real issue is such texts were relied upon to decide the "correct" doctrines. And, whilst you may accept that if Paul is the author then the doctrine must be correct (and that's a bit rich anyway) ....you might not be so keen to accept the work of some early forger, keen to promote his own view of doctrines.

Then there are the corrections that have crept into the bible. Some scribes appear to have had no compunctions about correcting an error (for example from Mark 1:2 where a citation from the book of Malachi is quoted as coming from Isaiah). And some changes appear to have been inserted by scribes just to emphasise a point. For example the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end at 16:8....with the report that the women fled Jesus's empty tomb in fear. but later manuscripts append an additional 12 verses ...with a remarkable speech from Jesus where he says that those who believe in him will be able to handle poisonous snakes and drink deadly poison etc. Likewise, most scholars think that the story of the woman taken in adultery in the Gospel of John was a story added years after the original was produced. And sometimes scribes found a marginal note scribbled by an earlier scribe and thought it was to be included as part of the text. In fact, there are many ways that errors and variations crept into versions of ancient texts.

There were a huge number of documents in circulation that never made it into the official canon of 27 books in the new testament but had enormous following over the first 300-400 years of the church. For example, the Gospel of Peter was apparently more widely circulated than the gospel of Mark. (More copies of the former have been found in archeological investigations). And one of the motivations in producing an "official" list of acceptable documents was that certain sects took the view that they had an on-going revelation from God (I guess, greatly encouraged by practices such as speaking in tongues and the anointing by the Holy Ghost). Hence they could lay claim to new revelations and new doctrines (just as modern day prophets have done: such as Joseph Smith with his golden tablets and the establishment of the Mormon church). The "Establishment" of course looked askance at this free-ranging development of doctrine and wanted to lock it down to an accepted official form. Hence the refinement of acceptable books of the bible and the doctrines that they supported.

Even here, however, controversy raged. Especially over the doctrine of the trinity. It's probably fair to say that every possible permutation of the trinity enjoyed a following at some time. For example: there was a version where Jesus was "begotten" of God and therefore inferior; there were versions where Jesus was just a man and not part of God. (The Ebionites, and Theodotians). There were versions where Jesus was God but not man (Macionites, some Gnostics). Or two beings, one man and one God (most Gnostics). The proto-orthodoxy (the group that came out on top) opted for none of these. Christ was both god and man ....yet he was acknowledged as one being, not two.
The fine details still had to be worked out: did he have a human soul but a divine spirit ? etc., etc. And the controversies and differing views are testament to the fact that the doctrines are not only mysterious but pretty dodgy and unbelievable. (Certainly the Muslims use the argument against the Christians that they really believe in three gods not one).

It was Augustine, sitting in his Bishopric in Hippo in North Africa that finally settled the canon by throwing his weight behind a list of books compiled by Athanasius (Bishop of Alexandria). Augustine was pretty well connected with the Roman enforcers and once he got the backing of the Roman army things were pretty much settled. (See Augustine: a new biography by James O'Donnell) If you didn't accept the, then, orthodox views, your property (and churches) were seized and you were expelled from the cities. In fact, the treatment was pretty much the reverse of what one might expect from forgiving and tolerant Christians. And it set the pathway for centuries of intolerance and pogroms by the official church. (An interesting aside is that Augustine's mother and Augustine himself belonged to a semi-heretical sect that later was stamped out by Augustine's goons). It was also pretty clear that church doctrines were not really set by Christ himself but by the Bishops who came later ....and more or less made it up themselves as they went along. Augustine, for example was tormented endlessly about the fate of children who had died but had not been baptised...... and could there be such a thing as infant baptism?

Ehrman makes the point that the New Testament is considered by most people throughout the course of its history to be a single book with a unified message that serves as the ultimate basis for this religion's faith and practice.....it's quoted on the floor of the US Senate to justify acts of war and at peace rallies to oppose the use of military force; its authority is cited by both opponents and proponents of the right of a woman to have an abortion,.....by both opponents and proponents of gay rights. It was used to justify slavery and to abolish slavery...etc etc.

But where did this book come from? It came from the victory of the proto-orthodox with the backing of the Roman army. What if another group had won? What if the New Testament contained not Jesus' Sermon on the mount but the Gnostic teachings Jesus delivered to his disciples after his resurrection? What if it contained not the letters of Paul and Peter but the letters of Ptolemy and Barnabas? What if it contained not the gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, but the Gospels of Thomas, Philip, Mary and Nicodemus? Or what if it did not exist at all? Or what of the assumption that the real meaning of a text is not the literal one but the words have secret meanings available only to those who have been given special training or special insights?

In all these situations the outcome for Christianity would be profoundly different to what we have today. If the Marcionate Christians had gained ascendancy people would not be asking do you believe in God but do you believe in the two gods? On the other hand if the Ebionite Christians had gained ascendancy would Christianity remain a sect within Judaism .....would conversion have required circumcision? (This version of Christianity was labouring under a huge handicap!....never likely to take off).

One issue for the early Christians was to establish their antecedents because of the widespread belief that if a religion was new then nothing new could be true. The strategy the Christians adopted to avoid this obstacle was to embrace the Jewish scriptures and claim them as their own and claim that this religion is the fulfilment of all that had been prophesied in the very old Jewish books....and thus award authority to the Old Testament...with all it's contradictions with the New Testament.

I was aware that there were other books in circulation before the canon of the New testament was accepted but Ehrman had made me much more aware of the battle for supremacy of the opposing views and the incredible implications for our history if another side had come out on top in the battle for orthodoxy. And it could easily have happened. The orthodoxies so casually accepted today have emerged from some fairly violent and virulent conflicts and there is little to indicate that the victories were divinely led or inspired. Victory seems to have gone to the most politically adept.

All in all, a stimulating and challenging book. Happy to give it 5 stars. ( )
  booktsunami | Jul 1, 2021 |
Ehrman ably describes the theological issues of early Christianity--should Christians continue to follow Jewish law? should they reject Jewish law as no longer relevant? Was Jesus a human chosen by God for his mission, was he God incarnate only pretending to occupy a real body or was he both man and God? Which writings were genuine expressions of true doctrine, which were scripture for some groups and not for others? Thes might seem to be dry questions of interest only to theologians and historians, but Ehrman points out that our modern world would be quite different if those he terms the proto-orthodox had not prevailed and created the Christianity that we know today. A Christianity that insisted on converts becoming Jews, including circumcision and the observance of Jewish dietary law would have been unlikely to convert a Roman emperor and become the religion of the empire, for example. He doesn't address this particular issue, but anyone familiar with Christian apocalyptic sects would wonder what a Christianity in which the Book of Revelations had been excluded from the canon would be like. ( )
1 vote ritaer | May 1, 2020 |
I can unequivocally recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn about the early history of Christianity and How It Got The Way It Is.

Ehrman writes from the perspective of a historian, not a theologian, so he is not trying to push one particular view as "true" - his intent is to discuss what all these disparate people, who all called themselves Christians, actually believed. What we have nowadays, he makes plain, is the result of a sort of last-man-standing war of attrition.

There's probably something in this for anyone who hasn't already made a reasonably in-depth study of the period, and plenty for anyone who hasn't. I admit that the parade of different groups (Marcionites, Ebionites, etc) makes one feel a bit as though one's head has turned into Euston Station, with all these people milling around, pushing and shoving, but Ehrman's writing style makes this more than tolerable.

Bart Ehrman has the gift of writing in a very engaging way in a subject that might, in other hands, be dry. Reading this, I had the feeling that I was sitting in a warm study with him, with a log fire and probably also crumpets, listening to him chatting about the first four centuries or so of Christianity (yes, while my head felt like Euston Station). This is a book you can curl up with for relaxation, not something you have to tackle with trepidation. ( )
2 vote T_K_Elliott | Mar 12, 2017 |
Ehrman is very good at speaking in plain and understandable language about topics that folks often try and make complex and hard to understand. Folks who want no part of asking hard questions about the modern western orthodoxy will not like this or others of his books. You can see this plainly in the reviews and comments folks leave regarding his books.

However, if you're someone who asks the hard questions and you're willing to evolve and grow your faith as you learn more, then you'll very likely enjoy his books.

In this one, he focuses on the different early forms that Christianity took, prior to the Romanization of the religion when it was melded with official Roman state authority in the 4th century. ( )
1 vote bicyclewriter | Jan 8, 2016 |
One of Ehrman’s best, I think. Thought-provoking and speculative, yet grounded, this book explores alternative early Christianities before “Proto-Orthodox Christianity” won the battle and shoved the rest aside. You’ll read about the Ebionites, the Marcionites, Gnosticism, and the evolving orthodox church. Ehrman puts all on even ground so that each has an equal voice, because recent discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls have proven just how diverse Christian practices really were back in the first and second centuries.

Ehrman doesn’t mince words when he discusses the “forgeries” both in and out of the Bible, so do be aware the topic gets plenty of ink. This does lead to some interesting conversation, though. The Secret Gospel of Mark, the Pastoral letters in Paul’s name, and the Gospel of Thomas come under scrutiny. Small wonder that in the battle for supremacy between the various Christian branches, the claim for apostolic succession played a central role. Quickly in orthodox church tradition, our 27 books of the New Testament are all tied directly to the apostles or companions, while other Christian writings are denounced as inauthentic.

So what are the repercussions of the victory of proto-orthodox Christianity? How has our world been shaped by this? Ehrman feels the significance of this victory can scarcely be overstated. Christianity would surely have no doctrine of Christ as both fully divine and human, and of course no Trinitarian doctrine. But the effects would have been felt far further than Christian debates, and the book’s final chapter left me with much to think about.

Definitely recommended.

Oxford University Press, © 2003, 294 pages

ISBN: 0-19-514183-0 ( )
2 vote DubiousDisciple | Jul 23, 2014 |
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"In Lost Christianities, Bart D. Ehrman offers a fascinating look at these early forms of Christianity and shows how they came to be suppressed, reformed, or forgotten. All of these groups insisted that they upheld the teachings of Jesus and his apostles, and they all possessed writings that bore out their claims, books reputedly produced by Jesus' own followers. Modern archaeological work has recovered a number of key texts, and as Ehrman shows, these spectacular discoveries reveal religious diversity that says much about the ways in which history gets written by the winners. Ehrman's discussion ranges from considerations of various "lost scriptures" - including forged gospels supposedly written by Simon Peter, Jesus' closest disciple, and Judas Thomas, Jesus' alleged twin brother - to the disparate beliefs of such groups as the Jewish-Christian Ebionites, the anti-Jewish Marcionites, and various "Gnostic" sects. Ehrman examines in depth the battles that raged between "proto-orthodox Christians" - those who eventually compiled the canonical books of the New Testament and standardized Christian belief - and the groups they denounced as heretics and ultimately overcame."--BOOK JACKET.

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