He told them: "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things" (Gospel of Luke 24: 46-48)

Friday, 18 December 2009

A Short Review and Summary on Barth Ehrman’s book: ‘Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew’

Barth Ehrman’s recent book ‘Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew’ is yet another evidence of the recent awakening of historical interest and sympathy toward early Gnosticism, primarily as an alternative to the traditional Christian faith.

In his book Ehrman effectively depicts a confusing matrix of early Christianity that consisted of several factions. Among these significant doctrinal differences emerged, ranging from the belief in one God versus several gods, a fully human Jesus against a fully divine, to a Jesus with mixed natures or persons and a variety of ideas related to his mission.

Ehrman’s book is erudite and insightful; Ehrman most certainly has an overall purpose and also a targeted enemy whose agenda he clearly opposes. Otherwise, Ehrman’s approach is fairly balanced, and without being markedly biased, Ehrman effectively elaborates on the very wide amount of religious diversity and the various scholarly approaches that critically assess these views. As an author however, he also appears elusive in his opinions, almost agnostic, and it must be admitted that this approach makes his writing even more curious and attractive.

The fundamental basis of the book is how Ehrman perceives early Christianity and its sources. Here Ehrman appears truly agnostic but nevertheless positive. He describes carefully the great diversity of early Christianity, comprising the Gnostics, the Marcionites, the Ebionites and what he entitles the proto-orthodox view.

Originally each of these views where considered equally valid.

Ehrman does not appear antagonistic to any of these factions. Rather he seems to value the excitement of such diversity. He perceives the Gnostic teachings as warm, sincere and moral, and apart from considering Herman Reimarus’s presupposition on Jesus, he defends even proto-orthodoxy, including Paul and describes Jesus and Paul as doctrinally united.

What Ehrman deplores however is the initial rise and power of proto-orthodoxy to become exclusively orthodox, which consequently suppressed this religious variety.

The objective of the book therefore seeks to identify the lost embryonic diversity of early Christianity and expose, not necessarily the proto-orthodox view but its leaders and apologists who forcefully established it as the sole criteria of truth.

Ehrman then launches a merciless attack on proto-orthodoxy leadership; four points are significant.

Firstly, he describes their attitude as particularly intolerant and ruthless, and describes their means to establish orthodoxy through ecclesiastical politics, polemics and the creation of nasty rumours to disgrace their opponents.

Secondly, Ehrman points out how this early diversity nevertheless has been vindicated by modern scholarship finally breaking away from orthodox suppression and in return resorting to debunk it.

Here particular references are given to Reimarus (1694-1768) who changed the traditional view of Jesus and Walter Baur (1877-1960) who attacked the historical foundation of proto-orthodoxy.

Thirdly, he attempts to exonerate the Gnostics from these accusations. Ehrman carefully examines Gnostic writings to deduce from them whether the accusations of immorality fit the character portrayed by the writers of proto-orthodoxy.

Fourthly, he assesses the attacks of proto-orthodoxy on the Gnostic doctrine of God and creation in which so much diversity exist that convergence is virtually impossible. Here Ehrman points out that Gnostics did not approach these matters literally but mainly through metaphorical descriptions.

Ehrman however, values some of the orthodox polemics for the sake of knowledge, particularly the ideas of Gnostic origins, which the apologists traced back to the Greek philosophers and which through early Jewish Hellenists were incorporated into a Christian framework. Ehrman points out that the Christian Gnosticism may have its origin in the dissolution of failed apocalyptic prophecy. Many Jews were probably losing their faith in the Old Testament God and considered such a God as evil, hence there had to exist another, greater God, namely the God of Jesus who provides salvation.

The main positive outcome of orthodoxy, according to Ehrman, was the result of unity, one faith, one creed, and one church, which provided the church with a

strong foundation.

Secondary to the objective of the book is Ehrman’s view of Scripture, its preservation and corruption. He makes a great deal out of Scriptural forgeries, both Gnostic and orthodox, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocalypse of Peter and the Acts of Paul; some forgeries even made it into the Christian Canon, such as the Acts of the Apostles, Second Thessalonians and the Pastoral Epistles. Thus he considers the majority of the canonical writings as somehow original, first century compositions, while the Gnostic writings originated in the middle second century and onward.

He does however point out that the New Testament manuscripts were written late and that hundreds of thousands of errors have crept in. These errors are however of minor importance, mainly spelling and grammar error and easily recognisable; furthermore most of the textual transmission can be traced back to its origin effectively. He does however point out that some particular manuscripts do reveal words having been changed to fit a particular doctrine or to argue against a heresy, but these are refuted by the majority manuscripts.

This does not suggest though, that Ehrman is predominantly sympathetic toward orthodoxy versus the contrasting diversity; his assessment so far concerns merely what we are able to assess historically at the present time.

There are some weaknesses in Ehrman’s approach. The picture he presents of first century equality of Christian doctrinal variance and the ambition of one faction to establish its view as the orthodox one, cannot be explicitly confirmed by history. Unfortunately, Ehrman’s main intention seems to be combating the front figures of orthodoxy, which seems to be a driving force of a personal vendetta. It seems that he virtually favours and praises any individual or group that either opposed orthodoxy or became its victim, namely the Gnostics, Ebionites, Marcionites, and even orthodox figures such as Origin and the Theodotians. It appears that conflict with orthodoxy is to Ehrman a sign of personal approval. While criticism is launched on the heretics too, this is not done in the same spirit of aggression; unfortunately, despite his tendency of balance and carefulness, this creates a flavour of bigotry.

While he seems to lean more toward orthodoxy in its historical aspect and strength, he is more attracted to the image of Gnosticism as it portrays a god that fits the modern agnostic view of a purely positive god, who contrasts the Old Testament God, who commits atrocities and deprives women of their equal rights with men.

If this observation is true it suggests that the particular faction he favours in his battle against orthodoxy, retrospectively is based upon modern philosophy, modern situation and its approach to life, and the debate related to God and the problem of evil. If these are driving forth the historical conclusions in the book it is dubious indeed.

One remarkable statement however, that he uses to support his view is his point that virtually every church associated with Paul was affected by some sort of heresy; how is that possible if orthodoxy was originally predominant

To those of us who lean toward the views of orthodoxy and exclusive Christianity

this book is certainly thought-provocative and unless such a person knows this field of study, the book appears seriously challenging altogether, but it is certainly worthwhile to read. One cannot say however, that the book promotes sharp criticism against the traditional Christian faith, but rather against those who represented it. This suggests a strong agnostic notion that nevertheless puts forward a positive attitude toward religion, and while at least appearing sincere about the search for truth, while admitting ignorance it appeals to people, wishing for a very pluralistic alternative to one exclusive view.