Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scriptures and Faiths We Never Knew by Bart D. Ehrman

Christianity is referred to as a “revealed” religion, “the unique and faithful statement of God’s revelation to mankind,” (according to the NIV Compact Dictionary of the Bible) although not all currently existing denominations seem to have received the exact same message. Even ignoring the more extreme divergences such as those of Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals and Branch Davidians, the Catholic and Protestant versions of the Bible have significant differences. Many fundamentalists ignore any passages inconvenient to their xenophobic rants or distort the actual contents; most Protestant denominations disagree over who has the correct interpretation of the word of God — as witnessed by the current debate within the Episcopal church (and beyond) over the ordination of an openly gay bishop.

Then there is the question of the accuracy of the King James Bible — some variation of which is used by most Protestants — both as it came down to him and as it has since some down to us. Some allege his translation to English changed its meanings; he was, after all working from a Latin translation of Greek and further changes were instituted by a fellow named Bowdler (from whose name was derived “bowdlerize”) who found the results still too racy … or should that be “too revealed”? And as author Bart Ehrman points out in his excellent and fascinating book Lost Christianities the earliest copies of the books which did find their way into the New Testament were inexactly copied by scribes who “seem to have been untrained and … unsuited to the tasks …” so even the earliest extant versions are at some variance with the original texts. Those are long lost; the earliest copies we have are from at least a century later and they represent copies of copies of copies of copies.

Further, none of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John were written by those to whom they are attributed (nor were they written during their lifetimes) and so are not eyewitness accounts but only, at best, eventually transcribed oral history and, at worst, forgeries. (Ehrman uses that word to describe both texts that were deliberately fabricated and ascribed to the apostles or other early Christian personalities and anonymous works that came to be credited to them. The gospels are written in the third person by authors who didn’t actually claim to be apostles.) Few books of the New Testament were written before 100 C.E. and so may not have been particularly accurate regarding the life and words of Jesus Christ to begin with.

And if there is disagreement, even animosity, between branches of Christianity today, it pales in comparison with the ideological battles waged in the first four or five centuries after Christ’s birth. Until the books that comprise the New Testament were finally agreed upon, a number of Christian faiths and their teachings vied for acceptance and followers; most of these writings are lost save excerpts in diatribes written against them by those whose views became orthodox.

This proto-orthodox (Ehrman’s term) became the Roman Catholic Church and it attained supremacy in part because it was located in what was then the seat of a far-flung empire. (In perhaps the most revelatory passages of the book, Ehrman points out that Christians were not persecuted initially by Rome because of its religious intolerance but for theirs. Rome was a pantheistic society in which many religions flourished, but it did expect its citizens to revere the state’s chosen gods in addition to their own. This the Christians would not do.) The victory was not an easy one; the Gnostics, particularly, had a healthy following and their “probing the mysteries” approach followed the Judaic model of questioning, discussing and interpreting holy writings, making it attractive to converts from the Jewish faith. (And on the non-Christian front — though this falls outside the parameters of Ehrman’s study — the proto-orthodox also contended with the popularity of the worship of Isis. To lure coverts from that faith, the Virgin Mary came to assume great importance in the Roman church.) The proto-orthodox countered the Gnostics with a belief system that offered answers rather than questions — requiring less work to grasp — and tempered the long-standing traditions of Judaism with less complicated rules. Then, in a tradition that continues to this day, they finished the job with character assassination of their rivals in which no lie or distortion was too outrageous.

One need only compare statements made by certain televangelists about Middle Eastern religions in the aftermath of 9/11 with proto-orthodox allegations of orgies, child sacrifice and cannibalism (charges which, by the way, were also leveled at followers of Isis and are still repeated by such modern Christian writers as Paul Leggett) to conclude that the version of Christianity we know today came into prominence and stayed there by deliberate misrepresentation of other faiths. And then, having won out over their opponents and determining which texts would be canonical, the victors declared the writings of the losers “heretical” and destroyed them. This was followed by a rewriting of history to suggest that there had never been any serious disagreements.

Fortunately they didn’t carry out their destruction of “heretical” texts thoroughly. For one thing, they allowed their own written attacks on the heretics to remain extant and these sometimes included lengthy excerpts from the writings being condemned. They also didn’t appear to have considered that some of the opposition would stash away the banned literature and that it would one day be rediscovered — as was the case with a cache of Gnostic writings referred to as the Nag Hammadi Library unearthed in Egypt in 1945, shortly before the equally momentous discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And finally they could not entirely eliminate references to the conflicts within the writings that became the New Testament, particularly the attacks of Peter and Paul on each other. Peter and the other remaining original apostles were incensed that Paul came along years after the fact and proclaimed he was in possession of the true interpretation of Christianity (James referred to Paul as “the spouter of lies,” according to Colin Wilson). For his part, Paul felt justified in his interpretation because Christ appeared to him in a vision. (Later Christianity would place great emphasis on such divine revelations, even to the point of valuing them more highly than original apostolic sources.)

Ehrman begins the work by examining four texts, three of which, though all but forgotten today by the general populace, were widely known to early Christians. Possibly the oddest is a recounting of the exploits of Thecla, a female disciple of Paul who seems to have been condemned to death in every city she visited only to be saved by divine intervention from being burned at the stake and savaged by wild beasts in the arena. These second century writings have a surprisingly feminist slant — in the arena she is protected by a lioness until the Lord acts and women are the prime movers in her adventures — but they also possess a daffiness that seems more like some Hollywood biblical epic invented by Patrick Dennis for Belle Poitrine. Thecla’s exploits are one of several examples of early Christian writing that Ehrman explains as being concocted as much to entertain as to enlighten.

Then there is the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic document that recounts some 114 quotations of Christ. Some of the maxims appear also in the gospels but often in quite different language. Compare Matthew 7:7-8 with “Jesus said, ‘Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over all’.” The straightforward injunction becomes a mystery for the faithful to unravel. Did the Gnostics add to the original to bring it closer to their own search-for-enlightenment approach –- reminiscent of Sufism — or did the proto-orthodox shorten it for easy digestion?

Most intriguing is the Secret Gospel of Mark; this longer version — for adepts only — contained another episode where Christ raised a man from the dead at the urging of his relatives, converted him to Christianity and (so the wording implies) took him as a lover. The fragments that were discovered in 1958 suggest that there was a sexual aspect to Christ’s ministry (considering that the Bible does not contain one single quote from Christ condemning homosexuality, the idea of a bisexual Jesus is not outside the realm of possibility if one can accept Jesus as sexually active). The letter from Clement of Alexandria that quotes these passages may be a forgery created by the man who claimed its discovery, but the extracts dovetail amazingly well with the Gospel of Mark as we know it, particularly in identifying the otherwise unknown “certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body” (14:51) who remains in Gethsemane with Christ after the apostles have fled.

Ehrman has doubts about the authenticity of this find but suspends final judgment. Other writings he labels forgeries were at the very least not written by the persons to which they are attributed. (And in the case of Thomas, supposedly Jesus’ twin brother, a person who likely did not exist.) Still, all except the Secret Gospel of Mark are known to have had their adherents and Ehrman devotes the second portion of his book to examining these dissimilar forms of Christianity: the Ebionites who insisted on retaining all Jewish laws — including circumcision which must have been a deterrence to adult male converts, the Marcionites who spurned all things Jewish and the fascinating Gnostics who believed the earth was created by a lesser divine being who thought it was God and thus reasoned that the wrathful Old Testament god must be an entirely different being from the loving god of Jesus.

The final section details the lopsided war of words which led to the selection and canonization of some texts and the suppression of others. It seems as though the attacks all came from the proto-orthodox; perhaps any counter-attacks by the “heretics” were even more successfully suppressed than their sacred texts. But that seems implausible, so it must be assumed these heretics didn’t fight back, though they certainly contributed their share of forgeries and alterations in support of their philosophies. Their very lack of response may have contributed to their demise. So much for taking the higher road against Christians.

Ehrman paints an engrossing picture of early Christianity’s diverse and theologically intriguing sects, though it is hardly a flattering portrait of the Christianity which emerged and to this day sees its mission as eradication of all other religions. The methods have graduated to conversion from the slaughter of non-believers.) More importantly, he has done so in a volume free of the kind of turgid academic prose which too often characterizes scholarly works. Lost Christianities may not be an easy read — it is far too densely packed with information for that — but it is a user-friendly one which should appeal to those with some curiosity about the faith that has informed the Western world for the past 2,000 years.