I have just finished reading Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew. First of all, it must be said that Ehrman is a talented writer. He is able to take material that is normally of interest only to scholars and package it in away that can reach the interested layperson. This book is a good summary of the various groups that appeared in the early years of the church and of the texts that these groups produced.
However, there are some problems. Rather than just a summary of early church history, the thesis of this book is that there was no original orthodox church with various heretical groups breaking off over time. Rather there were numerous parallel groups that were there from the beginning with what he calls “proto-orthodox” as just one of them. Eventually the proto-orthodox won out, promoted or created their own Scriptures while banning or destroying the competing Scriptures. This agenda really shapes how Ehrman presents the materials.
Some of the problems include the fact that Ehrman gives some pretty early dates for the alternative texts, earlier than what many scholars would be comfortable with. While it is true that it took some time for the New Testament canon to become firm, he overemphasizes the variety. The canonical books that were most often questioned include Hebrews, 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter and Revelation. There were only a few other books that were considered canonical that are no longer included, such as Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas and 1 Clement. There is no evidence that texts such as the Gospel of Peter or the Gospel of Thomas were ever considered and their popularity was likely quite limited. There are also some problems suggesting multiple parallel theological lines coming from Jesus rather than various break offs from the one continuity. The canonical books are by far the earliest Christian texts that we have and the best resource we have to reconstruct the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. We can see a clear continuity between most of the church fathers and these New Testament teachings. There is some variation in emphsasis but in the major themes they are consistent. But when we look to the alternative texts there is a radical change in theology. While the canonical books are steeped in Old Testament quotations, the gnostic books either ignore or are critical of the Old Testament. The gnostics saw at least two gods (sometimes as many 365) and saw the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as being different. The New Testament affirms that the Father of Jesus was the God of the Old Testament. The gnostic writings reject matter as evil and the New Testament affirms the Old Testament idea that creation is good and emphasizes that Jesus’ resurrection was physical. All of the heritical groups denied that Jesus was both God and human (disagreeing among themselves as to which was true), while the New Testament affirms both Jesus’ humanity and divinity.
At one point, Ehrman unwittingly contradicts his thesis of parallel Christianities. He rightfully notes that Jesus and the early Christians were very apocalyptic. This meant that they recognized the problem of evil and that they believed that God was going to act decisively through judgment to redeem this world and bring it back under his reign. As the return of Jesus seemed to be more and more delayed, some people began to question this worldview. Ehrman then states that the gnostics reacted to and rejected these ideas, believing that the answer was to reject this physical world and to seek to escape it. This means that gnosticism is a reaction to the original apocalyptic faith rather than an example of an ongoing parallel Christianity.
Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities is and interesting and informative book that is worth reading. But it must be read with a grain of salt, understanding Ehrman’s agenda. If you are reading this book I would encourage you to follow up with either Darrell Bock’s Missing Gospels or Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus.