Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths we never knew, by Bart Ehrman
Summary by Jeff Stauffer
CRITICAL NOTE: This book summary is provided because we believe Christians need to be aware of the kind of thing that Ehrman is advocating. Shepherd Project Ministries does not agree with or endorse Ehrman’s theories or teaching.
Introduction: Recouping our Losses
In this overview chapter, Ehrman provides some general thoughts to ponder while going through this book, as well as a general direction in which he is heading. As we look across the Christian spectrum today, from Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox to the many flavors of Protestant denominations, we may be amazed as the breadth of belief on topics like church government, the role of sacraments, or other church traditions. However, Ehrman argues that this pales in comparison with the variety of thought about central doctrinal issues in the early church. He asks the question, “Should we speak of Christianity or Christianities?” He tells his readers that the Bible we are familiar with today didn’t exist until the 4th century. Before that time, many questions were debated such as, was Jesus divine? Did God create the world? Is there one God or many? And everyone considered their ancient texts sacred, until “the victorious party rewrote the history of the controversy,” causing many other scriptures to be banned, burned, and forgotten. He postulates how different history could have played out if other ideologies were included, even suggesting Rome could have not become Christian, thus vastly changing western civilization. Ehrman’s methodology is to review many ancient texts, some recently discovered, and discuss their subject matter, influence, and their veracity.
PART ONE: Forgeries and Discoveries
History is full of forgeries, Ehrman begins. Some are meant to deceive the reader from the truth, others to deceive the reader from its truthful authorship. He makes some brief comments about several forgeries, both ancient and modern, and also makes note that even the Bible today contains forgeries in many scholar’s eyes, including 2 Peter and 2 Thessalonians.
Chapter 1: The Ancient Discovery of a Forgery: Serapion and the Gospel of Peter
Ehrman writes about a Syrian man named Serapion. A bishop in the early 3rd century, Serapion discovered local churches reading from a book called the Gospel of Peter. After investigating the material for himself, he noticed a strong docetic ideology. (Docetism was an early church heresy that believed that Jesus only appeared to be human, stemming from the Greek word ‘to appear.’) Writing a pamphlet called, “The So-Called Gospel of Peter,” Serapion laid out his issues with the text and concluded that it is not truly an apostolic letter from Peter himself. Ehrman then concludes this section of the chapter commenting on how no one today thinks this letter was written by Jesus’ disciple, Peter.
A 19th century archaeological dig has discovered fragments from what appears to be the same book. There are numerous passages that lend support to the idea that this is a docetic text. (The Gospel of Peter makes comments such as, “Jesus was silent, as if he had no pain” while on the cross, , or Jesus comment on the cross that “my power has left me.”) The book also has a strong anti-Jewish slant, more so than the New Testament gospels. For example the Gospel of Peter says that King Herod orders Jesus to be crucified, and Pontius Pilate’s role is greatly reduced as well. Ehrman argues that this correlates with heightened tensions with the Jewish populations in the 2nd century, lending support for a forged document that doesn’t match up with the apostle Peter’s timeframe.
While Ehrman doesn’t argue against the claim that this was a forgery, he makes a claim that this and other “apocryphal” writings were just a popular as the Gospel of Mark, for example. He reaches this conclusion by looking at the number of times a particular book is mentioned in other local writings from the time.
Chapter 2: The Ancient Forgery of a Discovery: The Acts of Paul and Thecla
A 2nd century writing called the Acts of Paul included stories of Thecla, a female disciple of the apostle Paul. Ehrman states we know this to be a forgery based on the writings of church father Tertullian in the late 2nd century. The author confessed to falsely writing the tales; his motive was to expand on his love for the writings of Paul. However, the popularity of Thecla blossomed in the early church, according to Ehrman, and she had devotees across Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt.
The story of Thecla is about a woman who leaves her fiancé for a life of chastity and to follow Paul. She resists sexual advances from some prominent citizens and is punished and sent through many trials. Some are like gladiator games, but she is protected by God and eventually rescued. It ends with her obtaining freedom once again and is commanded by Paul to go and preach, mostly a message of resisting sex even within marriage. Ehrman writes that these stories were more than simple entertainment for its readers. They were meant to show a new way of life, to disrupt traditional thinking and to encourage a more ascetic existence. This was received as freeing to women, to not rely on a husband for status or influence. The story’s influence was wide enough for Tertullian to worry about its impact on women’s role in the church.
Ehrman draws on some of the more egalitarian passages from the Epistles of Paul (Gal 3:28, Rom 16:1, 16:7), with the intent to suggest that there was much debate within the early church over women’s roles. The stories of Thecla also provide support for this position and the backlash caused by writers such as Tertullian who outlawed such tales.
Chapter 3: The Discovery of an Ancient Forgery: The Coptic Gospel of Thomas
This chapter introduces us to the remarkable find of ancient documents called the “Nag Hammadi” library from Egypt in 1945. This collection included 12 Gospel accounts never before seen, anthologies of sayings, and even portions of Plato’s Republic. They are believed to be dated from the mid 4th century. They were found on a hillside outside of a nearby ancient monastery, and Ehrman believes they were hidden here around 367 AD. This is the date that a church Father, Athanasius, mentioned the 27 books which make up our modern New Testament, the first such reference to a final compilation. Ehrman wonders if monks were forced to remove all other material from their library, but instead of destroying them, they hid them in a nearby hillside instead.
Included in the Nag Hammadi library is the popular “Gospel of Thomas.” This is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus. Most reflect a Gnostic worldview and Ehrman spends some time quoting many of the sayings to provide a flavor of Gnosticism. To summarize, this was a way of viewing the world where the physical world was “lesser” than the spiritual world, and we needed a way to escape from the physical realm. Jesus didn’t come to Earth so much to be a divine savior, but to be someone who could show us the way through esoteric teachings. One had to try to obtain this secret knowledge to be able to return to a spiritual existence.
Ehrman does not really expand on why he views this to be a forgery, other than to repeat that this was the position of the early church, which decreed it as heretical. These writings were since lost or destroyed until discovered by Bedouins in the 20th century.
Chapter 4: The Forgery of an Ancient Discovery? Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark
This chapter is about a fascinating tale involving a 20th century scholar who claimed to have made an incredible find in an ancient and dusty monastery library. Morton Smith was a history professor at Columbia University, and while on a sabbatical trip to the Mar Saba monastery outside of Jerusalem, he offered to work on cataloguing some of their ancient texts. Flipping through pages of a book written by Ignatius of Antioch, Smith came across some pages with hand-written notes. The text began by saying this was from “the most holy Clement…” (Clement was a famous theologian from around 200 A.D). Smith was unable to take the book with him, but took photographs of the hand-written note.
The letter claims to reference a “more spiritual” version of the Gospel of Mark for advanced readers. Clement makes some direct quotes from the alleged Gospel and they contain what Smith construed to be some homo-erotic passages. Other sections quote from the canonical Gospel of Mark, yet add additional material. Naturally, Clement condemned the writings. The original manuscripts have never been witnessed by anyone other than Smith (which seems to be another story altogether) yet their authenticity seems to have been accepted by many peers in Smith’s field. The handwriting matches up with Greek styles for the time, and the language used is consistent with how Clement reads in other known documents. Yet, without access to the actual parchment, a true test of authenticity cannot be completed. Ehrman summarizes this chapter by pointing out that scholars are split over whether this is a forgery or not. He also suggests that a possible motivation for such a grand deceit would be to simply see if it could be done! Ehrman does not tip his hand to his personal opinion though. He admits that forgery is certainly an option, but is unwilling to go that far himself.
PART TWO: Heresies and Orthodoxies
Ehrman begins this new section by describing Roman culture as a society that embraced a plurality of faiths, as long as they didn’t interfere with Roman rule. Christianity was different in that it was an exclusive faith, one concerned about being right. And each group of believers thought that their views were the correct ones. Ehrman states, “All forms of early Christianity claimed authorization of their views by tracing their lineage back through the apostles of Jesus.”
Chapter 5: At Polar Ends of the Spectrum: Early Christian Ebionites and Marcionites
The early church struggled with how to deal with the Jewish culture fitting into the Christian faith. Ehrman first summarizes some of the issues surrounding the debates over whether Gentiles (non-Jews who became Christians) needed to first become Jews and follow Old Testament law. He contrasts writings of Paul that reflect a “faith only” stance versus the Gospel of Matthew where Ehrman believes Matthew held to a Jewish law requirement.
Next, he presents two groups of people with contrasting views on many issues in the early expansion of the church. Some of these issues involve the role of Judaism in differing ways as well. First, the Ebionites believed in keeping the Jewish law. They thought that Jesus was a human who was adopted by God at an early age, and kept the Jewish law perfectly thus becoming the perfect sacrifice. This is contrasted with the view of Marcionism. Marcion’s followers believed that the God of the Old Testament was distinct from that of the New Testament. The OT God was the creator of the world, yet full of wrath. The NT God was loving and full of grace. They rejected the OT altogether. As for Jesus, he only appeared to be human (a docetist position). Jesus came to save us from the Jewish God of the OT. According to Ehrman, the Marcion movement was deemed to be a significant threat to those in charge, and as such there are many ancient writings that refute this position.
He closes this chapter by asking what would have happened if either of these movements had “won these battles” and become orthodox? Would relations between Christians and Jews have played out differently? Ehrman speculates about differing political and economic views that could have arisen given a different development with Western civilization.
Chapter 6: Christians “In the Know”: The Worlds of Early Christian Gnosticism
Another early offshoot of the Christian tradition deals with Gnosticism. Here Ehrman provides an overview of this position, some of its origins, and samples of some of their writings. Gnosticism was not a widely explored system of thought until the past few centuries when new writings were uncovered, largely in the Nag Hammadi library mentioned earlier.
To summarize, Gnosticism teaches that we are not of this world, and that we are spiritual creatures that need to escape from this physical existence. The physical world is considered inherently evil, not just corrupted by human sin. Jesus was sent as a “diving emissary” who was meant to lead the way on how to escape. This way is through “secret knowledge” (where the Greek word Gnosis comes from) that we need to seek out. Because our bodies (as part of this world) are evil, we need to deny them from indulging in pleasureful activities. Their teachings are somewhat esoteric, and as a result, not everyone can be enlightened to understand them. Only those elite few who could understand the higher meanings of Jesus’ teachings could obtain sufficient knowledge to escape this world.
Ehrman suggests that some of the origins of Gnosticism had its roots in the Jewish belief of God’s judgment of the world and the redemption of his followers. He points to a group of Jewish thinkers from around 200 A.D. that scholars have called “the apocalypticists.” During this time under Syrian rule, they came to believe that God was in battle with the Devil, who was inflicting pain among God’s people. God would eventually rise up to overcome these cosmic forces. Why? Because the Old Testament provided an example of God’s deliverance of the Jews from Egypt during the Exodus.. By the time Jesus came, they expected him to again follow this pattern. . When he leaves the scene and the Jews are left still dealing with the same problems as before, Ehrman posits that they began to radically modify their worldview. Maybe God was not good? Or maybe he is ignorant or not the creator of the world? There must be someone greater above him, more powerful yet more distant, fully other. And so, the idea developed that we didn’t need a redeemer, but a deliverer from this fallen place. So in a sense, Ehrman wonders if Gnosticsm arose from a kind of “failed apocalypticism.”
Ehrman also does mention a more traditional explanation for Gnostic origins. He comments on the striking parallels between a Greek platonic view of the world and its radical dualism, where the spiritual world is good and the physical world a mere shadow of reality.
Again Ehrman finishes this chapter with pondering what would have happened if Gnosticism had “won out” over other ideologies. For example, how would a dominant Gnostic worldview have dealt with poverty or disease, when “the flesh was to be escaped rather than endured?” Or, how would one approach reading an ancient text? Would the default assumption be a highly figurative reading, where only the “elite” of society could truly understand its meaning? Ehrman has his doubts that such a worldview would have been very appealing.
Chapter 7: On the Road to Nicaea: The Broad Swatch of Proto-orthodox Christianity
After reviewing some of the ideas that were found to be outside the boundaries of what orthodox belief looked like, this final chapter in Part two shifts to describing some of the markers of orthodox belief. Ehrman wants to show that even within the approved teachings there was a range of perspectives and shifting boundaries.
- Martyrdom: Ehrman writes about early church leaders who were killed for their beliefs. Ignatius was fed to the beasts in Rome, and Polycarp burned at the stake. A sign of orthodoxy was a willingness to die for your beliefs. This is contrasted with some of the heretical followers that would not take such a stand.
- Apostolic Succession: Ehrman argues for this as a further development of the church. Early letters such as 1 Corinthians are written to the people themselves, but later letters begin to be written to pastors or those in leadership such as Timothy or Titus. Even later still, church leaders are urging local churches to obey those in authority through their bishop’s lineage back to apostles as a means to influence and instruct. The phrase “apostolic succession” became a means to authority.
- Jewish Tradition: There is much debate over whether Christianity is a Jewish offshoot or something completely separate. Ehrman shows how some authors tried to incorporate the Jewish history into their Christian theology while others tried to show the Jews as responsible for Jesus’ death and demanded a clean break.
- Prophetic Tradition: Some church leaders, such as Ignatius, claimed to receive revelation direct from God. The issue of personal revelation became an issue over time: What happens if our revelations conflict? What if prophecies don’t come true? What if they conflict with scripture? Ehrman argues that revelation had to be relegated to a lesser role in order to reign in various groups who claimed authority.
As a general reflection, Ehrman points out that, over time, the boundaries of orthodox belief were debated and refined. He says, “Orthodoxy of one age becomes the heresy of the next.” It’s not just that doctrinal points are being refined as advanced concepts are explored (such as the trinity), but that even the lines of plausible beliefs shift over time.
PART THREE: Winners and Losers
Chapter 8: The Quest for Orthodoxy
Ehrman focuses on three biblical scholars and the effect their research has had on the concept of orthodoxy in the church:
1) H. Reimarus: This 18th century German scholar proposed that Jesus was proclaiming an immediate, physical kingdom on Earth. When Jesus died and his visions did not come to pass, his followers changed the story to say that Jesus instead meant a spiritual kingdom. Ehrman points out that no scholar believes this reconstruction today, but its significance is that he was the first to critically look at the actual life of Jesus. Reimarus also proposed that a certain theological agenda was apparent in the Gospel writers, reflecting a later revisionist writing of history.
2) F.C. Bauer: This 19th century scholar looked at the reliability of the entire New Testament scriptures, focusing on the conflict between Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians. Baur viewed the apostle Paul as the speaker for the Gentiles and Peter as the representative for the Jewish traditions. He saw each NT book as an attempt to push a certain theological understanding to the masses. He believed the book of Acts to be written as a revisionist account of the lives of the apostles, focusing on how they came together in unity to display a “mediating force.” Again Ehrman points out that no one takes his views to be 100% true today, but it does point to a commonly held belief today among scholars that the book of Acts was written with a “theological agenda” in mind and was driven by that as much as historical accuracy. Ehrman provides a list of sample passages that show Paul in conflict with himself, hoping to support a conclusion of disharmony within scripture. (Examples: Did Paul consult with the Apostles before going into the Mission field? Acts 9:26 says yes, Gal 1:17 says no. What about pagans worshiping idols? They are guilty says Rom 1:18-32, Acts 17:22-31 says no.)
3) Walter Bauer: Bauer’s 1934 book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity was, according to Ehrman, arguably the most important work of the 20th century on early Christianity. Bauer’s central thesis was that no single orthodoxy existed among the early church. There were regional influences and a diverse set of views on key issues. Eventually one group dominated and then began to rewrite history in their favor. He believed that the Church of Rome became the most influential due to many factors, including their large population, affluence, and connections with the central Roman government. Ehrman adds that all of Paul’s letters mention combating false doctrines within the churches in one form or another, lending his support for this view of no single orthodoxy.
Ehrman summarizes this point in some of his concluding comments: “[Orthodoxy] was neither a self-evident interpretation nor an original apostolic view. The apostles, for example, did not teach the Nicene Creed or anything like it. Indeed, as far back as we can trace it, Christianity was remarkably varied in its theological expressions.”
Chapter 9: The Arsenal of the Conflicts: Polemical Treatises and Personal Slurs
Here we are provided a summary on some of the “literary battlefields” going on in the early days of the church. Both orthodox and heretical views presented arguments in written form for us to study today. Ehrman provides a summary of some of the main points of attack. He mentions that we have fewer manuscripts from the heretical camps, as they were either lost or destroyed over time. Two are mentioned though: one writing from someone claiming to be Clement, attacking Paul’s anti-Jewish message. This seems to be written to argue an Ebionite theology (a group mentioned earlier.) Secondly, he summarizes some Gnostic writings that didn’t deny the historical Jesus but presented his teachings in a more spiritual way, revealing a deeper insight into his theology. The remainder of the chapter details some examples of how Ehrman viewed orthodox writers attacking their adversaries:
- “Truth precedes error”: Church leaders argue that, if Marcion or Ebion were correct, then what about the Christians before them? Were they all wrong in their thinking? Here, orthodox writers tried to show that the original apostolic writings were corrupted by later heresies that distorted them and their essential truth.
- Apostolic succession: Since the apostles passed on their knowledge through instructing the various church leaders, this gave support for the veracity and correct transmission of orthodox doctrine over time. Church leaders asked if heretical teachers could make the same claim.
- Creeds: Theological creeds were written specifically to counter heretical claims and to remind believers what was acceptable doctrine.
- Interpretation: Church leaders chose figurative or literal interpretations of scripture, depending on which heretical group they were arguing against.
- Personal attacks: Heretics were often accused of being immoral and sexually perverse.
- Unity: Throughout these attacks, Ehrman points to a common theme of stressing unity. It is the church that stresses unity among its body, its traditions handed down from the earliest of days and being connected to Jewish heritage. Conversely, it is the heretics who stir up division and try to create disunity among the church.
Chapter 10: Additional Weapons in the Polemical Arsenal: Forgeries and Falsifications
This chapter begins with some examples of forgeries that provide stories around the infant Jesus, but the main focus is to show that both orthodox as well as heretical groups both attempted to forge entire writings, or alter phrases in accepted writings, in order to lend proof to their theologies. Some specific passages he focuses on include:
Luke 3:22 – Ehrman states that the oldest known texts contain the phrase “You are my beloved Son. Today I have begotten you” instead of the modern wording of “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” He states this change was to combat an adoptionist theology, that Jesus was not divine by nature but by adoption.
Mark 15:34 – Instead of the familiar phrase today of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Ehrman states that some later copies tried to change this to “why have you mocked me?” This was to combat the Gnostic belief of full separation of Jesus from God during the crucifixion.
Heb 2:9 – Another passage that Ehrman says was changed to ward off Gnostic support. While this passage today reads “so that by the grace of God he might taste death…” Ehrman states ancient versions read “so by being apart from God he might taste death” which would have given Gnostics ammunition to believe that “the divine element had left him.”
Luke 22:44 – Eherman states that this verse is not found in the earliest documents. He believes this was added to combat a docetic view of Jesus as only appearing to be man, because Jesus sweating blood would lend support to him being fully human.
He also provides the reader some examples of general spelling and grammatical errors as scribes copied copies of copies (such as Mark 1:2 referencing a quote from Isaiah instead of Malachi, or Mark 2:26 that references 1 Sam 21:1-7, with some texts referring to Abiathar and others to his father Ahimelech.) . Or, a note that was added in a margin by a scribe found its way into later copies as part of the actual text (Ehrman did not cite this example)
Chapter 11: The Invention of Scripture: The Formation of the Proto-orthodox New Testament
Ehrman begins: “It comes as a bit of a shock to most people to realize that the Church has not always had the New Testament. But the Christian Scriptures did not descend from heaven a few years after Jesus died.” With this he begins a brief walk through how the modern New Testament came to be, piecing together bits of evidence from various authors from the first century to the fourth. His conclusion is that the process took centuries and was not unanimous in its decisions. It was a long, drawn-out series of events before the “canon” of scripture was officially closed. Here are some of the highlights:
- As the years went by and apostolic presence waned, there grew a need to replace them with apostolic writings, and to equate these writings with the scripture of the Old Testament.
- Ehrman believes the date for all 27 NT books range from 50 AD (Galatians) to 120 AD (2 Peter).
- The Muratorian Fragment is the earliest fragment that lists the books of the NT. Its date is disputed and ranges anywhere from mid 2nd century to 4th century. It contains 22 of the 27 books recognized today.
- Various church leaders wrote about varying sets of books. Polycarp quotes many gospel passages, but some are unknown or are found in non-canonical books. He also references other scriptures such as the Shepherd of Hermas or 2 Clement that were not included in the NT. Also, Justin Martyr often quoted from the gospels, but never referenced them by name, sometimes weaving different accounts together. He also never quotes the writings of Paul.
- Christian churches in Rhossus accepted the Gospel of Peter as authoritative.
- The authors of the four canonical gospels weren’t given names until mid 2nd century.
- One significant motivator that seemed to propel church leaders to form a canon was to combat heretical views, such as Montanus, who was making prophetic claims.
- A writing from Eusebius, around 300, provides a list of generally agreed upon books. However, he mentions some are disputed (James, Jude, 2 Peter), others are forged (Acts of Paul, Shepherd of Hermas), and others still as heretical (Gospel of Peter or Thomas).
- The Codex Sinaiticus, our oldest complete copy of the entire NT from the 4th century, includes some non-canonical texts as well such as the Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas.
- The oldest complete list of 27 books of the NT as we recognize them today was in a letter from Athanasius in 367.
Through these and other bits of evidence from history, Ehrman argues that amidst the backdrop of non-conformity and differing opinions over what was authoritative and what was not, the “orthodox” position had “triumphed” over all other views and became what most Christians abide by today as God-given. Before this time there was no one orthodox position, and so Ehrman consistently uses the term “proto-orthodox” throughout his book to mean the position held by those in the church that eventually came to be orthodox over time.
Chapter 12: Winners, Losers, and the Question of Tolerance
In this final chapter, Ehrman reflects on the magnitude of these decisions concerning orthodoxy had upon all of western civilization. He points to the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in 312 as the pinnacle of the spread of the Christian faith. Over the next century, Christianity would go from a tiny minority (he estimates 5 to 7% of Romans were Christian) to the major religion of the Roman Empire. What if, Ehrman ponders, other factions of Christian doctrine had “won out” by this point in time? Would we all be Ebionites today, still honoring Jewish law? How would Gnostic thought have affected the doctrine of the Trinity? The splintering of possibilities is endless as to how history could have been different. This is not to say that all debates have ceased. The church has continued to refine and debate the finer points of the Christian faith, and even the heretical movements still have influence upon churches today in varying ways.
His final comments deal with the issue of tolerance. The early Christian movement during the Roman Empire stood out for its exclusivity. While Roman society was generally tolerable to all beliefs, Christianity was the one that rubbed it the wrong way because Christians would not also recognize the Roman gods alongside their own. This exclusivity not only applied when opposing pagans of other religions, but of heretics within its own ranks. Ehrman laments over the loss of countless documents, opinions, and historical opportunities to debate issues, and freely be able to do so without repercussion. In today’s society that prides itself on its level of tolerance, Ehrman grieves over not having more access to its intolerable past.