Evangelical Christians take their stand on the inerrancy of the scriptures that make up the New Testament, yet most probably know little about the origins of these texts or how the books of the New Testament emerged in the early years of the Christian era. Ehrman provides a fascinating account of this largely forotten history and shows how easily the dominant religion of much of the modern world might have been quite different or might not have existed at all.
It will doubtless come as a surprise to many to find that there were groups calling themselves Christian who believed in two Gods, thirty Gods, or 365 Gods. There was also a huge range of disagreement about the nature of Jesus: was he human, divine, or a mixture of the two? Some believed that his death had ensured the salvation of the world, others that it had had nothing to do with the world, and still others that he had not died at all.
A major reason for our ignorance about all this is that the writings of those who held such views were suppressed by the group that ultimately became dominant and bequeathed to us the scriptures we have today. Ehrman refers to these as the proto-orthodox. What knowledge we have of the rival views comes largely from summaries and quotations from their writings in refutations by the proto-orthodox, but there is also valuable material from recent discoveries of lost manuscripts such as those of Nag Hammadi.
Ehrman identifies a pair of polar opposites in early Christianity. The Ebionites emphasized the Jewish roots of the faith and held that to be a Christian required adherence to the Jewish Law. The Marcionites, in contrast, regarded Christianity as an entirely new dispensation. Marcion, the founder of the movement, taught that there were two Gods: the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus. The Old Testament God had created the world and was wrathful and vengeful because he demanded impossibly strict adherence to his Laws. The God of Jesus had never had anything to do with the world until the advent of Jesus; he came to save us from the wrath of the Old Testament God. Jesus was divine and only appeared to be human; he did not have a material body like other people.
A third, and important, strand in early Christianity was provided by the Gnostics. Unfortunately we have rather limited knowledge of their beliefs though light has been shed on them by the Nag Hammadi texts. Gnosticism seems to have been a deeply esoteric teaching, which sought for truth beneath the surface of scripture. I get the impression that Ehrman has a good deal of sympathy for Gnosticism.
For the proto-orthodox, the most important criterion in deciding the validity of a text and its suitability for inclusion in the official canon was the correctness of its theological teaching. If it was incorrect it "obviously" could not be authentic (written by an apostle or at least by a companion of an apostle) and it could not be ancient (it must have been forged recently). In the ancient world, novelty was not considered a merit in an idea; on the contrary, to be true it ought to be ancient. (The novelty of Marcion's teaching was an important demerit in the eyes of many.)
Forgery, in fact, was an important issue in the ancient world. It was indulged in by all sides in the argument and it receives a correspondingly large amount of attention from Ehrman. Although it has not ceased to happen today, in most cases the fraudulent nature of this modern material is pretty obvious. A notable exception is the alleged discovery in 1958 of a letter supposed to have been written by Clement of Alexandria, a prominent theologian, in about 200 CE. The letter purportedly refers to alternative versions of Mark's Gospel, one of which contains rather strange material about Jesus. The discoverer was a highly respected academic called Morton Smith, who claimed to have found it in a Greek Orthodox monastery near Jerusalem. Ehrman discusses this case at some length but he does not commit himself finally on the genuineness of the document.
Most Christians today doubtless think that the emergence of the New Testament as it now exists was the more or less inevitable result of a winnowing out of what was genuine and valuable from a mass of irrelevant or misleading material. Ehrman makes it clear that this is the view of the victors; things could easily have turned out differently. If one of the alternative views had prevailed, he believes, the modern world would be very different from how it is today; whether it would be better or worse is open to conjecture. One of the casualties of the proto-orthodox triumph was tolerance; subsequent Christianity was characterized by an insistence on the vital importance of correct belief and a willingness to persecute anyone who held different ("heretical") views. Ehrman thinks that we have lost much that was of value, though he gives little indication of how his own view of Christianity has been altered by this realization.
See also Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus and Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the Millennium.
20 August 2006